It was widely accepted at the time to be a genuine threat of Communism which led America, at great expense to itself, into the great Third World battleground, and led to the unravelling of the spirit of the post-war age. If South Vietnam were to fall to Communism, the scenario presented was of a domino effect that led all the way to Australia, country after country falling to Communism, the godless collective, the alien idea.
The USA put a lot of boots on the ground of Vietnam, helicopter gunships and heavy bombers in the skies. Another aspect of the fast-changing culture were huge advances in the techniques of media reporting which made the Vietnam War by far the most witnessed and examined war there had been.
Somewhere between 1-3 million Vietnamese and their neighbours died, and over 50,000 young Americans. The real horror of modern warfare, with ordinary people always in the front line, the sickening intensity of the bombing and the use of evil chemicals to poison immense areas of foliage, the helpless misery of victims, was all brought home to domestic audiences. Shocking evidence of atrocities conducted by the good guys was presented. Some grotesque events in this war were documented in detail and some horrendous accounts and photographs were flashed around the world.
What wasn’t fully understood at the time was that, all these years later, there would be a third generation of Vietnamese children suffering the effects of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of Agent Orange dropped to defoliate the jungle in Vietnam.
A lot of dreams about the way the world was, and was going to be, started to fall apart. The feeling that the Western powers really were the noble free world, champions of people everywhere was tarnished. It had been there all along that, despite all the talk of freedom and democracy, that when it came to it, the West would deal with anybody doing anything, and sell any population down the river, as long as it got what it wanted. But the illusion of being the force of good, the right side to be on, was a strong one and it mostly held. But Vietnam put a big rip in this picture.
People came out onto the streets and starting protesting about the Vietnam War in huge numbers, and making very clear and reasoned arguments in a way that mobs weren’t expected to. These were events unimaginable only a few years earlier.
Mark Braund says in The Possibility of Progress:
Vietnam was a watershed in the development of independent human thought, and though a particularly hideous and unjust war was the focus, the conditions giving rise to such articulate opposition were wholly to do with the economic success of the post-war period. Once substantial numbers had less cause to worry about providing for their own families, more people became concerned with the plight of others: those at home and abroad who were excluded from the gains of economic success. The 1960s was not only a time of protest against Vietnam, it also saw the beginnings of campaigns against the arms race, against racial discrimination, against the oppression of homosexuals, and the launch of the modern feminist movement.
Society had changed very quickly in these years, a huge rise in consciousness of the world at large. In this decade, for perhaps the only time in history, people felt they had the power to change the world themselves. There was a spirit abroad, people strongly felt that they were on the highway to a better world. But the wheels were to come off of this world.