- Historic Sites
The Wounded Generation
The Twenty-seven Million Men of Vietnam
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
COPYRIGHT © 1978 BY LAWRENCE M. BASKIR AND WILLIAM A. STRAUSS
In August, 1974, when President Gerald Ford assumed office, one of his first acts was to appoint a nine-member President Clemency Board to administer, case by case, his program of condition clemency for men convicted of draft offenses and desertion during the Vietnam War. The board’s work took about a year. When it was finished, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame felt that the surprising and “monumental evidence” he and his fellow board members had assembled should be made public, not just as a formal governmental report, but also as a book more readily accessible to the American people. The Ford Foundation provided the needed funds, and two members of the group, Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, have now written Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation , which will be published later this month by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The following article is an excerpt from this important study.
Mr. Baskir was general counsel and chief executive officer of the Clemency Board, and Mr. Strauss was its director of planning and management and the editor of the board“s final report. To protect the privacy of individuals whose stories they cite, the authors report that they have used fictitious names.
When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President on January 20, 1961, the new President told the nation and the world that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” under whose leadership America would “pay any price, hear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” These were brave words, very well received.
This “new generation.” described by Kennedy as “tempered by war. disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” consisted of World War II veterans then in their late thirties and forties. Their “best and brightest” would later steer the nation through a very different, much more controversial war in Vietnam. Yet this time it was not they who had to do the fighting. Fewer than five hundred members of this generation died in Southeast Asia, most from accident, disease, and other causes which had nothing to do with combat. The rest helped pay the taxes to finance this $165-billion venture. It was their children, the baby-boom generation—the product of an enormous jump in the birth rate between 1946 and 1953—who paid the real price of Vietnam.
Fifty-three million Americans came of age during the Vietnam War. Roughly half were women, immune from the draft. Only six thousand women saw military duty in Vietnam, none in combat. But as sisters, girl friends, and wives, millions of draft-age women paid a heavy share of the emotional cost of the war.
For their male counterparts, the war had devastating consequences. Twenty-six million eight hundred thousand men came of draft age between August 4, 1964. when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution marked thenation’s formal entry into the war, and March 28, 1973, when the last American troops left. Fifty-one thousand died in Vietnam—17,000 from gunshot wounds, 7,500 from multiple fragmentation wounds, 6,750 from grenades and mines, 10,500 from other enemy action. 8,000 from “nonhostile” causes, and 850 by suicide. Another 270,000 were wounded, 21,000 of whom were disabled. Roughly 5,000 lost one or more limbs in the war. A half-million were branded as criminals. More than two million served in the war zone. Millions more had their futures shaped by the threat of going to war.
These were the sons of parents reunited after a long but victorious war, parents who, in columnist George Will’s description, “were anxious to turn from the collective task of history-making to the private task of family-making. Like Studebakers and toothpaste, the next batch of children would be ‘new and improved.’” Having themselves faced depression and war, this generation of parents wanted their children to know nothing but peace and prosperity. As William Manchester noted in The Glory and the Dream , their offspring would be “adorable as babies, cute as grade school pupils, and striking as they entered their teens. After high school they would attend the best colleges and uni versities in the country, where their parents would be very, very proud of them.” The children were the Dr. Spock generation, the Sputnik generation, and eventually the Woodstock generation. But above all else, they became the Vietnam generation.
As children and teen-agers, they had grown accustomed to the existence of the draft. Some looked forward to military service as an exciting and potentially valuable experience—a chance to demonstrate their manhood, serve their country, and get some adventure before settling down. Others saw the draft as an unpleasant, but nonetheless tolerable demand on two years of their lives. Many, especially those from well-to-do families, looked upon the draft as something to avoid, an unwelcome interference with their personal plans. But most never thought much about it. Consciously or unconsciously, they put the draft out of their minds; it was something that happened to someone else, never to them.