The transition between military and civilian life became increasingly difficult for veterans in the years following World War II.
The United States was involved in three major military conflicts in the period between 1940 and 1970—EWorld War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Over time, the veterans of these conflicts found it increasingly difficult to assimilate back into civilian life. Significantly, this problem occurred not because the nation’s citizens felt less respect for the men and women in military service or less appreciation for their service to the country. Rather, many veterans of the Vietnam War felt disconnected because they had participated in a conflict that fewer Americans agreed with.
The more than 16 million veterans of World War II enjoyed the highest level of American support and had the greatest success in reentering civilian life. Americans saw these veterans as fighting an evil enemy, and since the war took nearly four years and involved nearly 1.1 million casualties, the country treated World War II veterans as heroes. One example of this support was the GI Bill, passed by Congress in 1944 as a way to say “thank-you” to these veterans. Immediately dubbed the “GI Bill of Rights,” this law constituted an important part of the effort to reintegrate military personnel into the civilian economy, since it established a wide array of medical, financial, and educational programs exclusively for veterans. It was also symbolic of the pride, respect, and appreciation the country felt for its servicemen and women.
The veterans of the Korean War, unlike World War II, were part of a broader United Nations military force. Their mission was to prevent the spread of communism from North Korea into South Korea, which failed to provide the glory that defeating the Nazis brought. Additionally, fewer than 6 million men and women were in uniform during the war and total casualties were less than 150,000. The participation of American soldiers did not command as much media attention compared to World War II. Finally, there was less tangible proof that the war was a success, since North Korea remained communist and the final two years of the conflict were mired in a slow peace process during which soldiers continued to die. Called by some “the Forgotten War,” Americans did not give Korean veterans the same enthusiastic reception bestowed upon earlier veterans. Congress did, however, extend the benefits of the GI Bill to include Korean veterans, and, given the growing American economy, these men and women were able to assimilate with relative ease back into civilian life.
Unlike World War II, the Vietnam conflict, the longest military engagement in American history, proved problematical for many of the soldiers involved. An undeclared war, the main objective was to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. More than 8.7 million men and women served in the conflict, but, unlike earlier wars, they were young soldiers with an average age of just 19; by comparison, the average World War II soldier was 26. Also, because the draft deferred college students, many of those who fought in Vietnam came from the working class, and they were disproportionately African American and Latino. The Vietnam War was the most divisive conflict in American history, characterized by massive protests, social division, and contentious debate. Because many Americans did not feel that it was a war the United States should be involved in, the men and women who served in the war were denied the respect earned by combat veterans of previous wars. While they still received many of the same government benefits given to earlier veterans, their assimilation back into civilian life was far more difficult. As many as 40 percent of all Vietnam veterans developed drug dependencies or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Possibly the most revealing symbol of how difficult dealing with this war was for America and its veterans was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D. C. The series of black granite plaques containing the names of more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the conflict finally provided a way for the nation to treat those who made the ultimate sacrifice with respect.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, veterans’ memorials became a common feature of the National Mall in Washington, D. C. Dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial initiated the commemorative tradition while facing controversy over a design that many felt reflected the stigma against the war and its veterans. Created in such proximity to the end of the conflict, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial effectively captured the national divide over the war and its legacy in American life. With planning beginning in 1986 and a dedication in 1995, the Korean War memorial in Washington, D. C., followed more in the heroic tradition of veterans’ monuments. The National World War II Memorial reflected a similar character and, upon its dedication on May 29, 2004, provoked some critics to characterize its style as trite and vainglorious even as supporters praised the design as evocative of the Art Deco architecture of the New Deal era. Such critiques signaled a shift toward favoring commemoration that recognizes the complexity of war, though such representations remained controversial amid fears that they might dishonor veterans’ service.
Further reading: Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War (London: Viking, 1988); Richard Moser, The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996); Gerald F. Linderman, The World within War: America's Combat Experience in World War II (New York: Free Press, 1997).