Of all the tropes about the Vietnam War, one stands out far above the rest in American memory: It was the baby boomers’ war. By the spring of 1967, most American soldiers being killed in combat had been born in 1946 or after.
To understand the war, we have to understand what motivated that generation of Americans not only to protest but also to fight, and later to seek some sort of closure. Wars are far easier to initiate than to conclude. And for those who serve, the memories endure long after the fighting stops.
At his inauguration in January 1961, President John Kennedy said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Those born after the boomers may find it quaint to read about a president asking citizens to sacrifice, to “pay any price.” Nonetheless, their parents or grandparents, the baby boomers, will most likely remember a brief shining moment of energized promise and of unfulfilled dreams. It was the echo of that call, just a few years later, that motivated hundreds of thousands of young men to enlist for Vietnam, for the chance to ensure “the success of liberty” — and many others back home, at least at the outset, to support the fighting.