The Vietnam War was never a constitutionally declared war under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it was a military action Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to initiate with its passing of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Johnson was not the first president, however, to send military personnel to Vietnam. That distinction belongs to Harry Truman, who, in 1950, gave the French-backed South Vietnamese government of Bao Dai $15 million in military aid and also sent the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower, in 1955, directed MAAG to take on training the newly formed Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). By 1960, U. S. military personnel stood at 900. Under President Kennedy, U. S. military personnel had grown to 11,000 by 1962. Five American presidents in all would involve the United States in what has come to be recognized as the Vietnam era, which spans roughly 30 years, from the end of World War II in 1945 to the withdrawal of U.S. presence from Saigon in 1975. For most Americans, however, the Vietnam War began when Johnson ordered American combat forces into Vietnam in 1965, with subsequent troop build-ups over the next three years.
California became one big revolving door during the Vietnam era. Of the many service men and women from all over the country who would serve in Vietnam, they either left to begin their tours of duty from a California military base or returned home through a California military base. According to historian Charles Wollenberg, "By 1965 California was the heartland of America's military/industrial complex, leading the nation in defense contracts and supporting an impressive array of military bases across the state." Additionally, the state's military resources were substantially supported by what Wollenberg saw as "a strong public commitment to military readiness, patriotism, and anti-communist politics … California's most successful politicians during the Vietnam era, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, cut their political eyeteeth on the passionate anti-communism of the post World War II era."
For the United States, California did not so much reflect what was going on all over the country, as it caused what was going on. "The state's experience," observed Wollenberg, "was both a microcosm and a magnification of the national experience." California led the nation in its military/industrial complex, its conservative-based politics, and in its anti-war and counter-cultural activity. By 1965, the state, already rich in a youth culture experienced in civil rights and free speech movement protests, saw the beginnings of the anti-war movement with the Vietnam Day Committee protest. Also in 1965, the Watts Riots broke out in Los Angeles, presaging the outbreak of rioting across the country. One year later, in Northern California, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party, a number of whose members were anti-war Vietnam vets. California led the nation in having the largest anti-war protestors within the military. Soldiers staged protest actions in San Francisco and San Diego on ships bound for Vietnam.
In the early 1970s at war's end California served as an entry point for Vietnamese refugees. Thousands of former Vietnamese government officials and military personnel were invited to settle in the United States. Over the next 15 years, an even larger number of boat people from Vietnam, as well as refugees from Laos and Cambodia, immigrated to the United States. By 1990 California was home to the largest concentrations of Vietnamese outside of Southeast Asia as well as the largest number of Hmong outside of Laos and Thailand.
- Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (11.9.3, 11.9.4)