The American South and the Vietnam War

The American South and the Vietnam War

Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie

Joseph A. Fry

University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2015, 456 pages

Book Review published on: April 21, 2017

The American South and the Vietnam War is a straight history of the Vietnam era in the South, a period dating from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s. This is a mostly chronological format but with two thematic chapters, one on southern support of the war and the other on protest in the southern context. Naturally, it begins with a chapter explaining how and why the South became different from other national regions.

The South diverged from the North beginning in colonial times, and from the West when that region came into play after the American Revolution. The West leaned toward the North rather than the South because of economic systems, migration patterns, and points of origin. Thus, the South developed its own unique patterns. The book builds on this standard history to explain why, during the Vietnam era, the South was more reluctant to back expansion into the French war in Vietnam, more loyal to the presidential decisions to involve the United States in the war, later to find the war wrong or wrongly handled, and milder in protest.

The work reminds us that southerners were not only in the South but also in the congressional leadership, the presidency, and the cabinet as secretaries of defense and state. Even William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, had a southern perspective, not surprising given the fact that the military has long had overrepresentation by southerners at all levels, from the cavaliers to the foot soldiers who volunteered disproportionately and who were less likely to have college or marriage exemptions from the draft.

But the southern people, although tending to diverge from those in the other regions, were not a monolith but rather a microcosm of the era in all its complexity. The southern leaders included not just the diehard believers in absolute loyalty to the president but also dissenters such as William Fulbright. Further, opposition was not necessarily antiwar; some expressed disappointment and frustration that the war was not pursued more aggressively.

The South in this work is not just white. Fry accounts for the racial divide, showing how black southerners diverged from white in attitude and participation. As with white southerners, black southerners disagreed among themselves, some opposing the war from the onset while others gradually moving from support to opposition.

Technically, the work is solid history. The author relies on public opinion surveys but fleshes out the polling data with oral history and memoirs of more or less average southerners.

The work takes on a well-developed topic and gives it a new perspective, offering fresh insights to the reader about the ambiguities and nuances of what once seemed black and white, pro and anti. It is excellent history.

Book Review written by: John H. Barnhill, PhD, Houston