- The Pro-War Movement: Domestic Support for the Vietnam War and the Making of Modern American Conservatism by Sandra Scanlon
Historians often note how domestic politics constricts or otherwise affects a president’s foreign policy. The Vietnam War serves as a prime example of this phenomenon. The United States witnessed perhaps the most vociferous antiwar protests in its history over the country’s involvement in that conflict. Some commentators allege that the antiwar movement seriously eroded the national will to fight the war and either deliberately or inadvertently encouraged North Vietnam to keep fighting. Others believe the societal upheavals were necessary to convince U.S. political elites to withdraw from an unjust and unwinnable war and to usher in a new era of civil rights. Historians and commentators still hotly argue whether the antiwar movement—identified with the left wing of American politics—along with the media’s increasingly adversarial position toward the Johnson and Nixon administrations, undermined the U.S. government’s ability to prosecute the war. Given this debate and the scope of the public turmoil, the antiwar protests in America dominate any discussion of the home front during the Vietnam War.
However, what about the right wing of American political life? In a sweeping assessment of conservative attitudes toward the war, Sandra Scanlon provides a much-needed overview of this long-ignored side of the political spectrum. Starting with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which he praised U.S. involvement in the war as a “noble cause,” Scanlon reconstructs conservative views, traces how they changed over time, and discusses how Reagan’s commentary defined the war for conservatives.
The book’s strength lies in Scanlon’s extensive examination of how conservative gurus’ policy goals regarding Vietnam evolved, dramatically in some cases. She has thoroughly mined available archives, capturing the main voices of conservative political thought, such as William Buckley at The National Review and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. But she has also extensively profiled lesser-known but still important influences such as Young Americans for Freedom and the weekly newspaper Human Events.
As Scanlon shows, at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, conservatives viewed the conflict as a fight against Communism. However, the growth of the antiwar movement, and its questioning of the rationale and morality of American anti-Communism sparked a conservative backlash. Yet that reaction did not translate into support for the Johnson administration. Conservatives challenged President Lyndon [End Page 273] Johnson to change his strategy of “limited war,” seeing it as self-defeating. They instead recommended an onslaught of U.S. air power that would cripple North Vietnam and win the war. Conservatives believed that by trouncing Hanoi the United States would demonstrate that the United States had both the will and the means to defeat wars of national liberation. Losing Vietnam, conservatives thought, would devastate U.S. foreign policy efforts and fuel Soviet and Chinese expansionism.
With the advent of Richard Nixon’s administration, and with popular support for the war ebbing, conservatives began to redefine the basis of the war’s necessity. Conservatives’ rationale changed from the position that the Communist assault against South Vietnam posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, to one of supporting the troops, upholding traditional American values of patriotism, and, by extension, buttressing President Nixon’s policies. This reinforcement of Nixon, mainly driven by grassroots organizations, manifested itself in a major rally to “Support Our Boys” on 20 May 1969, along with counterrallies against the antiwar “Moratorium” rallies in Washington, DC, in November 1969. However, unlike antiwar protests, these conservative demonstrations were rarely reported, a lacuna that reinforced conservatives’ perceptions that the press was backing the antiwar movement.
As the war dragged on, conservative support further declined, reflecting perhaps the general population’s growing disenchantment. Yet conservatives and the vast majority of Americans remained united in one area: sustaining initiatives to ameliorate the terrible humiliations and suffering of U.S...