Observers of generational conflict say it is natural for younger generations to disparage older ones (and vice-versa), while most social scientists dismiss the idea of distinct “generations” altogether. Nevertheless, many Americans on the younger side are unable to shake the impression there exists a lack of moral integrity among “Baby Boomers” and have struggled to understand why. There has been no shortage of Boomer criticism in recent years, yet this new pejorative fails to identify the forces which could have created such a phenomenon. The cause of such a mass pathology would had to have been an experience so powerful it traumatized everyone in one age range, yet somehow left subsequent generations unscathed. Some have variously suggested it was widespread ingestion of lead, or rock ’n’ roll, or a lack of breastfeeding during the period that caused a sea change in values. What follows is a new hypothesis for why this transformation occurred, and how it specifically affected those born in the years before WW2 up through 1956, and not the Baby Boomer generation per se (regarded as having been born between the years 1946-1964). Indeed, given the forces involved, the label ‘Cold War Generation’ is perhaps a more apt descriptor. But first, one must at least briefly defend the extraordinary premise — that such a generational pathology exists at all — which seems at once both obvious to younger Americans and implausible to those for whose traits it refers.
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Signs of sociopathy
In a book with the understated title, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, author Bruce Gibney meticulously documents generational characteristics that fit the official criteria used by psychiatrists to diagnose sociopathy, or more specifically, Anti-Social Personality Disorder. The book expands on themes mentioned in Paul Begala’s similar essay from the year 2000, “The Worst Generation: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and hate the Boomers.” Of course, the symptoms in the DSM-V cataloged by Gibney are not meant to be applied to whole generations of people, only individuals, but nevertheless a compelling picture emerges that something is off with Boomers, particularly in regards to empathy. Other books condemning the generation include Tailspin by Steven Brill, OK Boomer, Let’s Talk by Jill Filipovic, and Boomers by Helen Andrews. The explanations given for why and how this condition developed are less convincing, not only in Gibney’s book, but in the others as well, and clearing up that mystery is the purpose of this essay.
At the broadest level, the present state of medical care in the United States, representing nearly 20% of GDP, is perhaps the most pressing symptom. Citizens on the older side have voted overwhelmingly against sweeping healthcare reform at a time when there has never been a greater need to provide at least some base level of access to everyone and reduce administrative costs. They have insisted their safety in the pandemic came before the wellbeing of children — quarantined away from outside social contact and denied access to schools — while simultaneously having allowed the infirm among them and elderly with COVID-19 to be forced into deadly long-term care facilities. They have chosen a system riddled with fraud, malpractice, inefficiency, and greed, where even the usual rules protecting consumers have not applied, such as random billing and opaque pricing. Employer-sponsored health care — a dubious concept to begin with — has caused masses of vulnerable citizens to be uninsured, and even those with health plans have had no guarantees of coverage. Of course everyone has been aware of these problems, but the system has remained, to borrow a phrase, the scam that we all live with.
The legal system has regressed just as poorly as healthcare over the last few decades, with its sanctioning of plea bargains, excessive bail, mandatory binding arbitration, civil forfeiture, the Epstein affair, etc. It has become, in short, a chaotic mess, not a legal or justice system at all. Adding to the country’s woes has been an impossible housing market for first-time buyers and an over-priced higher education system enabled by government-sponsored loan traps that now serves as the sole gateway to the middle class. All of these societal failings and more have impacted the lives of children, and on this measure the United States (and UK) was ranked at the bottom of the list, far below the other rich countries studied in Unicef’s Report Card on the lives of children and adolescents.
The deficiencies of these systems have not been as concerning as the universal lack of conscience among the ruling political and administrative class who have maintained them. Due to the ’Bystander Effect’ and the mathematics of majorities, most have been unable to act, but what disappoints is the lack of vocal minorities or individuals among them willing to stand up to these unethical norms and practices. The group of Americans aged 65 and over have failed to act because maintaining the status quo in each of these industries — healthcare, law, housing, and education — has served them well, while simultaneously having lacked the empathy to concern themselves about others, even when the wellbeing of their own children and grandchildren has been at stake.
At the individual level, it is striking that even among the bellwether of wealthy parents (i.e., those who can most afford morality) there has been a major transformation of values in respect to the obligation or satisfaction they feel in supporting their families. In a 2011 survey of several hundred adults having at least $3 million in liquid assets, U.S. Trust found that fewer than half thought it was important to leave an inheritance for the next generation. In the words of Sallie Krawcheck, then Bank of America Global Wealth and Investment Management president:
There is an expectation about the wealthy that they have an implicit, sacred responsibility to pass down their fortune to the next generation, and this understanding has shaped expectations about the coming wave of intergenerational wealth transfer. Our research, however, uncovered a distinct generational mindset that reflects changing views about what retirement means and an evolving sense of what one generation owes the next.
Without question, however, the most valuable resource a parent can give is not money, but time, and in this measure it can be seen that parents who were themselves raised in the early post-war era were markedly different from parents of the future. On average, mothers and fathers in 1965 spent 12.7 hours per week caring for their children, whereas in 2011, that number had risen to 20.8 hours per week. More telling is the average father who, in 1965 spent 2.5 hours per week with his kids while his offspring son spent nearly three times that amount with his children in 2011. The amount of time single fathers spent with kids increased a whopping eight times from 1985 to 2011, according to Pew Research. Given that hours in a day are a strictly limited resource, this shift in parental time away from other activities to raising children represents a massive shift in values and behavior, one that is well reflected in anecdotes and observations about “Boomers.”
So what happened?
There were two major stressors on young Americans in the early Cold War period which affected them in practical and psychological ways. These negative effects were multiplied by a toxic combination of America’s overwhelming victory in World War II (a.k.a., ‘The Good War’) with its ignominious defeat in Vietnam.
The first stress that pervaded young people’s lives was the very real threat of atomic annihilation, before relations between the world’s nuclear powers had hardened into the (apparently) stable system of détente that exists today. It is nearly impossible for a young person now to imagine how frightening nuclear weapons were to children and teenagers then, fanned by the unknowns of radiation as it was depicted in countless films and other media, as well as intense training (and propaganda) from a government that nearly everyone trusted.
Scary Times For Kids in the 1950s
The teachers just went through this stuff in some kind of numb trance, because if they said, no… why god! Who could say ‘no’ but a lousy Commie pinko sap…
The second stress was the risk of getting conscripted — and ending up in combat — that was in effect from the beginning of World War II until 1975 when the draft was terminated for good. It was not just the prospect of warfare that was frightening, but fighting at a time when the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield was imminent.
During most of the Korean War, for instance, half of all Americans assumed World War III had already started, whereas only 30% believed the conflict would stop short of a third World War. The Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 did nothing to allay such fears. For Americans who faced possible conscription and its consequences (not just young men, but their parents and partners as well), the draft pervaded every major life decision they faced. Since everyone experienced the same difficult choices, however, and quietly competed against one another, sometimes in shameful ways, few people from the era have felt the need or wanted to acknowledge the draft as a major factor in their lives.
For those born after 1956 or so, the young adult years would be completely different, as the draft program came to a close during 1973-1975 and those about to turn 18 could breathe a sigh of relief. Those who came later had no shared experience of the hard choices and manipulation which earlier generations had been forced to endure. Since protests against the war in Vietnam and the draft dominate the nation’s collective memory now, later generations have not appreciated that conscription, and all the policies and effects surrounding it, existed continuously throughout the post-war era.
People also have difficulty grasping that, up until the late 1960s, the moral authority of the United States government and its military simply could not be questioned by most Americans (aside from its predilection for nuclear weapons), leaving no personal moral space to avoid service with honor and self-respect. Against the righteous backdrop of World War II and subsequent uncovering of the Holocaust and other horrendous war crimes, the U.S. military and system of Selective Service were viewed very favorably by most Americans, and serving the country in some capacity was undeniably the right moral and ethical choice, privately and publicly, for the vast majority of citizens until the war in Vietnam started to founder.
The draft didn’t just influence young adults during times of war; the ever-present threat of being called up exerted a steady pressure on men and young people to move towards professions and life choices that would best serve them in case they were to face conscription. From 1948 to 1973, local draft boards made up of unpaid volunteers would continuously judge the young men in their communities and require them to fill out questionnaires about their lives, as well as take physical and mental aptitude exams to test their fitness for the military. It was invasive and insidious. Concerned parents, who understood the stakes of this deadly game, did everything they could to move their children into paths that would keep them alive and safe, including out to the suburbs (if they were white) outside of the blast radius where a nuclear weapon would presumably have been targeted. This drive for safety created the 1950s conformity that resulted in young men and women having little psychological room to make important decisions for themselves.
As time went on, and particularly as the number of available young men outnumbered the need for fresh recruits, the work of the Selective Service went far beyond simply calling up individuals for service. As spelled out in Amy Rutenberg’s 2019 book, Rough Draft: Cold War Military Policy and the Origins of Vietnam-Era Draft Resistance, the director, Lewis B. Hershey, acknowledged that the actual induction of men was merely a byproduct of their greater mission to shape American workforce and lifestyle choices. This “manpower channeling” was designed to push males into valued pursuits through the use of occupational, agricultural, marital, and student deferments that would protect the US from communist influences within the country, in addition to its military men fighting communism abroad. As Hershey put it, the system worked “to make people think they [had] volunteered when they [were] actually being channeled through a process.” (Rough Draft, 97) This process of social engineering worked very well, according to Hershey, who said “The only reason the Nation is not short 40,000 to 50,000 engineers today is because they were deferred in 1951, 1952, and 1953.” In today’s lingo, it would be accurate to call the Selective Service a massive psyop, and like the best psyops, it was not really a secret.
The simple truth was the majority of men throughout World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War period wished to avoid combat, and most men, particularly those with middle class options, preferred to avoid serving in the military altogether. Their predicament was that avoiding military service without good reason raised doubts about their manhood and character, not just to others, but to themselves as well. Available to them, however, were various deferments and exemptions to the draft which provided the necessary justifications to shield them from such criticism and self-doubt, while at the same time never being permanent enough to guarantee a man could stop worrying completely.
For those who chose not to enlist (and even for those who did), all this coercion and manipulation had an effect on the way these young men and those around them came to view notions of duty and service toward one’s family, community, and country. For them, such notions became performative, and the only true moral avenue left was to protect one’s self and survive.
How did deferments affect society?
It is revealing to look at the implicit messages and values behind the most common deferments and see how they eventually led to scourges in society that remain to this day. It is well documented that couples during the period tended to get married and have children sooner than ever before, and yet despite this major shift, not much public discussion has been given to how this experience changed their perception of marriage, family, and parenthood in the decades to come. This is the generation that witnessed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the legalization of birth control, and the admission of women into Ivy League colleges, and yet, these same people would allow wage inequality to continue for 50 years and yield the largest group of high-profile misogynists, sexual harassers, and rapists in modern times. Although the number of women in the traditional workplace has increased significantly, this should not be construed as a sign of greater respect; quite the opposite, it was a profound lack of respect for the importance of parenting that forced women to work — even when they didn’t want to — in order to gain power in relationships, enough money to live, and equal standing in society.
Single men were nearly always preferred for conscription over other groups, and at times, simply being married was enough to gain an edge in avoiding service — the salient question being whether a wife (or elderly parent) was truly dependent upon her husband. The most controversial draft category was whether married men with dependent children should be expected to serve in the military, and for the most part they were placed at the end of the draft queue. By allowing this deferment category, Congress encouraged men to prove their masculinity by serving as the sole income earner of a nuclear family, and the more dependencies, the better. In this way, we can see that the few men who supported their wives’ professional careers were actually putting their own lives and children at some small risk by doing so. There can be no understanding of male chauvinism and the fight for women’s equality in the period without acknowledging the existence of a longstanding government policy designed to persuade men their patriarchal role in the family as a head of household was necessary for the country’s survival. As Rutenberg described it:
… a man's status as a father symbolized the cultural importance of breadwinning, family guidance, and morality and the pull of this argument was powerful. For many, fatherhood, and by extension "the institution of the home," represented the very "back-bone" of American “civilization.” (Rough Draft, 32)
It was also in a couple’s interest to de-emphasize (to the draft board) the role any extended family played in easing childcare and other family duties. This final dismantling of the extended family in the draft era has been mostly ignored, yet a panoply of social ills and strains has flowed from its decline, as David Brooks has put forth in The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake. It is telling that in all the pages of analysis Brooks provides, as well as those of his detractors, conscription is never mentioned as having been a force behind its deterioration. It seems that, except for the Vietnam era, military conscription has been erased from America’s collective memory.
Then there were the educational deferments, which generally meant that if parents could afford to send their son to college as a full-time student, a deferment could be obtained each year as long as he maintained a good academic standing with the school. After 1965, this started to change when various academic rankings were used to determine which men could be pulled from college, until finally, the draft lottery was enacted in 1969 which got rid of college deferments. During the entire post-war period prior to that, however, college men (and sometimes graduate students) could avoid military service during their time in school if they were careful, while men from poorer and working-class backgrounds had to serve in their place, or be prepared to do so. Given this implicit message — that the lives of college men were more valuable to the country than their lower class counterparts — it is easy to understand why college grads attached great importance to their academic credentials and experiences, to justify to themselves and each other why it was important for them, with their superior brainpower and upbringing, to continue their studies. It was reasoned their education was for the good of the country and their potential to contribute to American society would outweigh whatever meager contribution they might make on the battlefield. No modern study of elitism, classism, or academic culture in America can be complete without acknowledging the role the Selective Service played in enhancing the prestige of a college education.
Occupational deferments, which often went hand-in-hand with educational deferments, encouraged men to pursue jobs and careers considered vital to the nation’s interests, particularly in ways that were thought to give the US a technological or economic advantage over the Soviet Union. The complex rules and occupational guidelines for conscription changed often, in response to whatever the nation’s military manpower needs were at a particular time. Aside from general guidance from the Selective Service, there was no definitive list of protected occupations, and it was left to the members of the local draft board to ultimately decide whether a young man’s profession was important enough to spare him from military duty. These were not only defense-related science and engineering jobs, but farmers, clergymen, and teachers among many others. This resulted in men sometimes leaving well-paying industrial jobs to become farmers or working temporarily in the defense industry (Rough Draft, 35). Adding to the pressure, it was common for employers to withhold job offers from young men they wanted to hire since it was feared they could be drafted.
Fast forward to Vietnam and one finds figures like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Mitt Romney relying first on student deferments, then other classifications to avoid active draft status. Cheney applied for, and received, deferment five times (first as a student and lastly as a father). Clinton’s machinations and eye-opening 1969 letter to his ROTC commander about avoiding the draft are a perfect case study of a young man desperate to avoid the draft with his honor intact.
Giuliani’s job as a law clerk after law school was not enough to convince the draft board his position was “essential” until he appealed their decision by getting his boss (a federal judge actively hearing Selective Service cases at the time!) to write a letter on his behalf. When Trump’s and Biden’s educational deferments ran out, they received deferments a fifth time for minor medical reasons (bone spurs for Trump, asthma for Biden). In Romney’s case, his decision to leave Stanford would have made him eligible for the draft, except that as a Mormon missionary he fell under the deferment category for religious workers. The point here is not whether they acted honorably or not, but to show the degree to which privileged young men were consumed by choices regarding their occupations and the ever-present need to justify those choices to a group of strangers (often male, white, retired veterans) who could make life-or-death decisions on their behalf. Their names also reveal it was the draft avoiders, by and large, who would go on to become the political elite. Whether the actual threat to their persons was great could be debated, but there can be no doubt the fear was real. Few men in their teens and early 20s really knew enough about the world’s conflicts and themselves to place that fear in perspective. They were terrorized, and could not show it without having their masculinity, honor, and patriotism questioned.
The American obsession with paid work and defining one’s identity through a job title, particularly for the educated elite, makes more sense after recognizing that for young men in the late 1940s to the early 1970s their job title was literally their lifeline. Their careers had to sound impressive to the draft board in order to maintain their honor and safety, while at the same time providing a powerful justification to rely solely on their wives to perform the work of child-raising. It is little wonder men scorned women in the workplace, particularly in math and science fields, since their presence in roles valued by Cold War planners ostensibly prevented a man from holding the same job as a means to protect and provide for his family.
It is also unsurprising that a relatively large number of American seminarians who became priests and ministers during the draft years did not have the good hearts that service to the church required. According to the Catholic Church, the rate of sexual abuse among its priests peaked in the 1970s, which they blamed on the permissive attitudes of the 1960s, and excused it by noting that such abuse had increased countrywide during the same period (John Jay Study, 28). However, as a profession long exempt from conscription, there can be no doubt many of them had secondary motives for joining the clergy besides the desire to serve in a religious capacity.
The deferments for teachers, as well as the educational credentials needed for college acceptance, transformed American high school education into a militaristic endeavor, particularly in the areas of math and science which were thought essential in the nuclear arena, while also bringing us the much-satirized gym class of the 1950s and the Presidential Fitness Test. These and so many cultural artifacts came out of the pressure which conscription placed on American society, and yet there exists almost no academic or popular conversation about it, beyond simply recognizing that such practices somehow grew out of the Cold War.
The social and psychological effects
Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of the draft was its effect on the intertwined scourge of classism and racism. How is it that the generation of young people who lived through Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the lives and deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; how could they, of all people, turn back the clock on racial equality when it was their turn to come into positions of power? Instead of allowing their children to go to school with black kids, they fought integration in their school districts and moved to whiter neighborhoods. After peaking in 1988, government officials, citizens, and school boards reversed their progress on integration between schools to levels today that were last seen in 1968, while promoting tracking and admissions policies that would increase segregation within public schools as well. Communities across the nation, governed by this same generation of NIMBYs, continue to resist affordable and mixed housing at every turn, and in the 2008 housing crash, the federal government allowed bankers to seize the homes African Americans had purchased under unfair and discriminatory terms, rather than order the mortgages be converted to reasonable fixed rates.
In the brief period during the late 1950s and early 1960s when a prosperous nation had been sharply focussed on reducing poverty and addressing racial inequality, manpower channeling and conscription caused deep lines of division between socioeconomic and racial groups based on their starkly different outcomes under the system. Much has been written about this dynamic, but few have described the impact this had on the inner psychological lives of young people caught up in it. Just as healthy people believe their physical wellbeing was the result of wise lifestyle choices and not sheer luck, men spared the draft reasoned it was intelligence and hard work that got them to college rather than their family’s finances and background. In their minds, those who ended up being drafted because they could not obtain an educational deferment were there because they lacked the study habits and ability to survive in college. Hollow rationales for other types of deferments and exemptions would have been common; anything to persuade themselves they deserved their protected standing at a time when military service was a way for young men to prove their manhood and the nation believed its survival depended on them to fight communism on the battlefield. In a monumental 1988 piece for the LA Times, Draft Dodgers: Staying Behind Now Catches Up, Bob Baker surveyed the myriad ways people beat the draft and how they felt about it.
The people who went to Vietnam and the people who struggled to avoid being sent there both lost their innocence. Vets live with their own set of bad dreams--blood, chaos, burned villages. Draft dodgers have another collection of dark images, but it always comes down to the memory of being hunted by a huge, unforgiving enemy: the government.
In ways that are impossible to explain to younger generations, life and death revolved around whether a draft notice came in the mail, whether a sympathetic lawyer and physician could be located, whether one’s eyesight or weight fell below minimum standards, whether an oversight by a draft board clerk had resulted in a procedural error that would suddenly free a young man completely.
Baker revealed how the owner of a New York publishing company justified his self-protective behavior, relying on a timeworn seductive argument that shifted blame to those who were less fortunate in the draft and cemented his view of them going forward:
I think people who don’t understand things and aren’t able to use their own ingenuity invariably wind up in an unfair position, but that’s what life is about.
Draft dodging wasn’t just for middle class men. There were options for poor and working class men to evade the draft as well. Many simply didn’t show up and let themselves be counted — a viable tactic for men eschewing formal employment where such transgressions would eventually be found out. Another strategy was to commit crime (which rose significantly in the 1960s), safe in the knowledge that if caught, an imprisoned young man would be disqualified from serving. Muhammad Ali succinctly put it this way:
Then there were the large number of young men who voluntarily enlisted in the military or reserves in order to gain preferential treatment and control over their stations. As General Hershey wrote in 1959, “for every man inducted some three or four others enlist who would not do so except for the realization that if they do not, they most certainly will be inducted.” They, too, took advantage of whatever privileges they had to secure their safety when volunteering, and were similarly affected by the same social pressures, by either pretending they deserved their good fortune, or desensitizing themselves to the hardships of others. The Air Force was a popular choice among such volunteers, but the Reserves or National Guard were an even better bet. George W. Bush’s decision to enlist with the Texas Air National Guard, where his father’s stature as a congressman helped get him accepted into the unit, was a savvy choice.
The reality was every child, adolescent and young person growing up during the period was bombarded with the constant threat of world war and nuclear annihilation, and every individual and family had an angle for managing conscription. It was a competition where individuals, as well as groups, quietly faced off against each other, playing roles for their local draft board and hardening themselves from the plights of others. This is not to say everyone became psychopaths, but between the rock of nuclear war and the hard place of the draft, a culture of sociopathy took root. Just as the pandemic (or hyper-inflation in 1920s Germany, etc.) has traumatized individuals and led to asocial, hysterical, violent, and fascist behaviors over the course of a mere two years, the specter of warfare and nuclear weapons over the span of twenty years has left its mark on the personalities of those who first grew up with it.
Making matters worse, the young men and women who hurriedly became parents during the period often did so to help them avoid the draft and its consequences. Not all of these children were necessarily unwanted, but many of them were, or at least, born earlier than they otherwise would have been. Such children came to be viewed as props, often neglected or abused during their childhoods, then eventually resented by their parents for the sacrifices and loss of freedom that raising them had required. For many parents (Jack Kerouac, Woody Allen, James Spears, Steve Jobs, Thomas Markle, etc.) rejecting or mistreating their children was a way to express freedom against the control society had over their lives, a dark power they resented which largely came from the government’s influence.
Focussed on the years of the draft lottery (1969 to 1972) after deferments had largely been eliminated, a vast number of first-hand accounts can be found at the Vietnam War Draft Lottery website that echo the moral quandaries mentioned here. Wesley Abney used these stories as the basis for the book, Random Destiny: How the Vietnam War Draft Lottery Shaped a Generation.
What was this sociopathy actually like; how else did it manifest itself? In addition to Bob Baker’s essential collection of vignettes, novelist John Crowley tells the story of how he dodged the draft in Selective Service and offers this candid admission toward the end:
But why was I immune for so long to the pull of service of any kind, service as goal and as personal value? It wasn’t just service to my nation or the world. Teachers — the good ones — serve students. Fathers serve families. Workers retire from businesses with thanks and a 401(k) after a lifetime of service. In none of these realms could I place my future self.
It was only after reaching his 40s, he wrote, that life presented him with responsibilities that forced him to figure out service to others, and to his credit, a spirit of self-questioning did eventually lead him there. But to people from earlier and later generations, the desire and know-how needed to perform such service — to one’s community, to one’s family, to one’s co-workers, etc. — is something that comes as easy as a fondness for kittens and puppy dogs, a natural product of gratitude and socialization that folks from the Cold War Generation seem to have difficulty grasping.
In the job market, young employees today overwhelmingly seek companies that embrace policies of social responsibility, and are willing to be paid less in order to take such jobs. In stark contrast, business leaders from the Cold War Generation instead seized upon the words of Milton Friedman, who famously opined in 1970 that, in business, social responsibility was a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” whereby:
…there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game…
After America’s monumental triumph in WW2, its ongoing use of selective military conscription, and the inescapable danger of war and nuclear apocalypse, the final catalyst that overwhelmed the generation was the collapse of America’s moral and military authority after Vietnam. The defeat allowed every half-hearted volunteer and draft avoider, especially those before 1965, to convert whatever varying levels of guilt they felt about avoiding combat into an affirmation of their selfish decision to avoid service. Since they realized self-preservation had been the right moral choice after all, and not service to the state, the hypocrisy they had used to survive was validated and transformed into a virtue. The more morally depraved the military was judged to have acted, the better it made them feel.
Did there exist people who grew up with the fears and pressures of the period and nevertheless managed to keep their humanity and empathy intact? Yes. These were people who decided entirely for themselves how they were going to live, who they were going to love, how to work, and when they were going to have children. But they were a small and derided minority.
What about everyone else?
The main objection to this line of reasoning (that an entire generation of people became sociopaths) will be that not everyone was threatened by the draft (women, for starters) and not everyone went out of their way to avoid military service, nor did they all protest the war or rebel against society’s obligations. Thus, surely, not every single individual can be suffering from the same pathology. The reality, however, was that every American who lived through the period went through a psychological wringer, one way or another, just as no one today will escape the long-term consequences of the pandemic even if they do not become sick. Sadly, the trauma wrought by the United States’ conscription policies, in combination with the anxiety caused by the nuclear age on adolescent minds, has been completely obscured by its final chapter, Vietnam, and prevents the deeper wound from being healed.
Although women were not subject to the draft, wives and other family members of draft-age men were deeply involved in planning and coordinating their lives in such a way as to provide the best outcomes for their husbands and families. For example, after new draft rules were created in World War II, some 500,000 women quit their jobs in order to lower their husbands’ chances of getting called up (Rough Draft, 30). Middle-class white women, in particular, did not wish to be left alone to raise children and work outside the home while their husbands were away on military duty. Later on, this acquiescing to their husband’s and family’s needs would cause the loss of empowerment and malaise in women’s lives that Betty Friedan identified in The Feminine Mystique. By the 1960s, many black women were suspicious of the racist and imperialist agenda of the U.S. government, and they, too, did not want to see their black sons and men being used to further those goals. Unfortunately, no one could escape the fact it was local members of the community sitting on a draft board who would decide the men’s fate; in many cases they would have known the wives, judged them and their families, and decided whether they really were dependent and worthy of support.
The men who enlisted voluntarily did not escape the wringer, either. About half of them did so to avoid the draft and improve their chances of survival, using whatever advantages they had to improve their lot at the expense of others. The ones who were drafted were more likely to serve in combat, and for all the soldiers who ended up there, training them to kill the North Vietnamese did not exactly improve their appreciation of racial and cultural diversity. Empathy for others was a quality that could get you killed, and many returned to their families with PTSD. As if they hadn’t lost enough already, the men who served in the military paid a huge price, as did their children, in terms of professional advancement and income. This disparity did not endear veterans to the men who had remained behind under Selective Service policies that helped them achieve better careers, which again, sowed deep division and antipathy across socioeconomic, racial, and political lines.
Cultures rest on a framework of consensus — the unspoken ideas and ways of doing things shared by all members of a group — that sets mainstream norms of behavior. The laws, policies, and dominant culture of any society flows from the values of its largest and most powerful group of members. In America’s case, the dominant group and its elite members today consist almost entirely of variously sociopathic individuals that coped with overwhelming government control in the past by embracing hypocrisy and social Darwinism. Now, lacking empathy and having inherited positions of wealth and influence, they are unable to care for their families and communities in meaningful ways, while a variety of younger people follow along as their influence continues to pervade American culture and politics.
Not only have the lessons of Vietnam remain unlearned, many of the citizens who lived through it wish to have the experience repeated for their grandchildren. This was the generation that lived through the McCarthy hearings and Red Scare of 1950-1954. Every single one of them knew who Eisenhower was, what he did, and what the phrase “military-industrial complex” meant. They lived through the Korean War and some served in it. They witnessed the Bay of Pigs and survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. They understood the terms “containment” and “Domino Theory” as they referred to policies designed to halt the spread of communism. Many of them protested the Vietnam War, watched it on television, and accused its veterans of atrocities. They lived to see the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of free market reforms in economies worldwide. Despite this personal experience of history which demonstrated the United States government’s obsessive, overblown fear of the Soviet Union was a colossal mistake, the media class and survivors of the Cold War were only too ready to create a new Red Scare to convince Americans that Russia was hacking into its electronic voting infrastructure, exfiltrating embarrassing emails, peeing on mattresses, and polluting our social media with diabolical sponsored ads, bots, and fake Pokemon games that would disrupt voters’ minds in an instant, just as they had polluted Americans’ precious bodily fluids in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove (Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb). It is comedy as truth, hypocrisy as virtue, yesterday as today.
Thoughts, questions, and corrections are welcome below. Moderated only for spam.
You do realize that the oldest boomers in 1965 were 18 or 19, right? So the vast majority of parents in 1965 were the generation before.
Oh, absolutely. I explain the discrepancy in the first paragraph:
If you’re talking about the parenting aspect, the difference between my parents (born in the early 1940s) and my spouse & I (born in the mid 60s) could not be any greater.
The fear of The Bomb also explains where heavy metal music came from. Explicitly scary themes – witches and devils – as a way of answering having to live in fear.
Very interesting article. This was completely unknown material for me as I am a (non-white) immigrant to the USA who lacks any family or personal knowledge of these times. I never thought the draft would have this kind of pervasive impact as I wasn’t aware of its scale.
One tiny comment: the white flight from the inner city was clearly due to crime and violence. The Detroit riots, etc. The same reasons immigrants try at all costs to avoid black areas and schools with significant black populations. Simply view worldstar hiphop or any local news show and you’ll see who is responsible for most of the crime. There was a news story from Philadelphia a couple of years ago on how asian students went on strike to protest violence from blacks in classrooms. Immigrants like myself are far less PC about this than Americans.
I am really glad you posted this. Having been born after the 1960s and my parents never speaking about the draft, it never even crossed my mind. The obsession with professional status, strangely intense negative way the US “welcomed” Vietnam vets, and the deep contrast between Generations always bothered me. I think you are onto something connecting nuclear war + selective service + developing adolescent minds.
Any thoughts on today’s youth? Growing up being constantly told the earth is an ecological time bomb + having to deal with the reality of school shootings + government handling of Covid…. Seems like a potent mix and not in a good way.
Thank you, the kind words are much appreciated. I had no idea either what the actual situation was like for kids before Vietnam until I read “Rough Draft” which was a revelation. Then when the pandemic hit and people abandoned their principles out of fear of the virus, it allowed me to see how earlier generations might have been affected by fear as well. Trauma often gets paid forward in strange ways, and the characteristic lack of concern during the pandemic for young people’s wellbeing among the early Cold War Generation (who overwhelmingly called the shots) has now left young people with their own fears and psychological needs to protect themselves in a harsh and uncaring world. It does not bode well but we’ll have to see.