How War Changes America

The best description of the gulf war's impact on American society came from President Bush himself: "We've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." For half a generation, the memory of defeat in Vietnam--and the deep national divisions exposed and fed by that defeat--haunted the United States at home and abroad. A "can't do" spirit seemed to dog the government's efforts. But suddenly, Americans believe again that they can, and should, solve nagging problems at home as competently and resolutely as the U.S. military dealt with Saddam Hussein.

Such bullishness in the immediate aftermath of war is far more characteristic of American history than the Vietnam syndrome was, mainly because the United States usually won its wars. Though Americans like to think of war as an aberration from the peaceful flow of their history, it has in fact played an integral role in the economic and political development of the nation. Military conflicts have created "emergency" conditions in which social and economic arrangements have been reshaped or scrapped. Since Americans cast war aims in moral terms, war challenges them to reconcile those ideals with their own society's performance. Americans often responded to victory by setting ambitious postwar goals for domestic improvement--both to compensate soldiers and civilians for their sacrifices, and to vindicate the rightness of the American cause.

The Civil War ended both slavery and the power of the Southern plantocracy, and vastly strengthened the powers of a Northern-dominated national government. World War II led to unprecedented federal intervention in the economy, brought millions of women into the work force and replaced the Depression with prosperity. These wars also spurred redefinition of democracy and "Americanism." The issues of race and ethnicity loomed especially large. If Americans, black and white, were dying for freedom, what about the reality of discrimination back home? Though it began as a struggle to keep slave states in the Union, the Civil War ended as a crusade to "make men free." Multiethnic combat units in World War II were the crucible in which millions of European immigrants' sons, once seen as "foreigners," became "100 percent Americans." American-born blacks were still kept segregated, but the war did force Americans to face the contradiction between their Jim Crow Army and their war against racist Nazis. It wasn't until Korea that blacks fought and died alongside whites. "It may be no accident that "Brown v. Board of Education' was decided the year after the Korean War ended," says James McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University.

There is another tradition in American history: that of brief, relatively bloodless wars with modest domestic consequences. The Mexican War brought the Southwest into the Union, creating a new battleground between abolitionists and slavery expansionists. But it didn't settle the issue of freedom versus slavery. The Spanish-American War left America in control of a new empire from the Philippines to the Caribbean, and even gave North and South a common cause--thus ending the "Civil War syndrome." The jingoism it stirred, however, was never really channeled into a larger domestic purpose.

The short, sharp gulf war may prove more akin to these wars than grander conflicts like World War II. Real as the sacrifices were for soldiers and their loved ones, most Americans' lives went on as usual. There was no national mobilization, no draft; rather than gear up for war production, the United States used its arms stockpiles from the cold war. Though a fight against a dictator, it was not exactly a "war for democracy." The goal was a vague "new world order."

Domestic problems that vexed the country before the war--race, shaky banks, crime, declining competitiveness, recession--are still with us. While the war did increase confidence that these problems can be solved, it did not point toward a new consensus on "how' to solve them. George Bush hesitates to spend his vast political capital on domestic initiatives, beyond a call to "make this land all that it should be." "FDR made a deal with the liberals to get their support for World War II, and LBJ had a war on poverty to go with Vietnam," says University of Virginia history professor Nelson Lichtenstein. "Today, there is no social deal."

The lofty dream of channeling wartime unity into peacetime reform has, in fact, seldom been fully realized in the past. Radical Reconstruction gave way to Northern acquiescence in Jim Crow. And after World War II, New Dealers' hopes for "economic democracy" were dashed by a Republican Congress. Even relatively modest wartime levels of national unity can prove hard to sustain. With the return of peace, Americans tend to turn inward, in search of what Warren G. Harding offered them after World War I: "normalcy."