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The American South and the Vietnam War examines the impact of southern regionalism on American involvement in Vietnam. Joseph A. Fry convincingly demonstrates that the American South had a particularly strong influence on both foreign policy and the prosecution of the Vietnam War. The book is well researched and provides a nuanced look at the region’s complex and important role in the war.
There were several reasons for the disproportionate influence of the South. Beginning in 1945, the region forged a “political alliance” with the Pentagon, and southern politicians became very supportive of a strong military and defense spending. They also proved very adept at funneling defense appropriations to the South, and many were openly proud of their aggressive pursuit of federal defense dollars. [End Page 116] The region reaped the economic benefits, and by 1970 it received 25 percent of the Department of Defense’s prime contracts.
Throughout much of the war, the South was a one-party region dominated by conservative Democrats, allowing it to appear to speak with one voice politically. By the 1960s, southerners dominated almost all of the defense related congressional committees and chaired both the House and Senate armed services committees. Southern leaders acted as a “self-conscious interest group” and pursued a consistent set of objectives (p. 12). By the Vietnam War era this manifested itself as support for an often-unilateral, aggressive, and virulently anticommunist foreign policy. Based on a combination of fierce anti-communism, partisan politics, loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson, and respect for executive authority in foreign affairs, southern politicians gave Johnson and later Richard Nixon, unwavering support and funding for the war. John Sparkman and Russell Long became fierce defenders of American intervention in Vietnam, for example, and many questioned the patriotism of those opposed to the war, charging they were undermining U.S. chances of winning. Even late in the conflict when the majority of Americans no longer believed that victory was attainable, most southerners still remained supportive and believed that American honor and credibility were at stake if the military lost. Southern political support for Vietnam was far from unanimous, however, and William Fulbright, Albert Gore, and John Sherman Cooper all emerged by 1966 as major critics of the war.
Southern media reflected the hawkish stance of its politicians. Influential southern newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, Montgomery Advertiser, and Atlanta Constitution all endorsed Johnson’s policies. Even more liberal papers such as the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Texas Observer expressed concern over the likelihood of victory but nonetheless initially supported Johnson.
The southern public supported the war more than people in any other region. Many southerners viewed the war from a fundamentalist Christian perspective and framed it as a struggle between Christianity [End Page 117] and “Godless” communism. The majority of southerners also intensely disliked antiwar protesters, and southern students were less likely than their counterparts in other regions to protest. However, there was a viable antiwar movement and many sizable protests, including the 1970 march by twenty thousand University of Texas students to the state capitol building in Austin.
Southerners, such as William Westmoreland, Hal Moore, William Calley, and Hugh Thompson Jr., also played prominent and sometimes controversial roles in the armed forces. They served in the war in disproportionate numbers, reflecting the region’s military tradition, patriotism, and sense of honor but also its depressed economic conditions and lack of opportunity, especially for African Americans. Southerners accounted for 30 percent of the troops that served in Vietnam, 27 percent of the dead, and 28 percent of the Medal of Honor recipients, but the region was home to only 22 percent of the nation’s population. Like every other region, most southerners who served in the war were poor or working class.
The American South and the Vietnam War provides valuable insight into how one region of the United States influenced and dominated American foreign policy and ultimately the decision to go to war in Vietnam...