Question 3: How did official US policy towards Vietnam change between 1950 and 1975? How did American leaders link events in Vietnam to national security interests? How did the American public react to the war in the sixties and early seventies?
Answer: These two questions are so intertwined with one another that combining the two answers is the most efficient way of telling the story. Vietnam was a legacy of Kennedy and a primary reason for the split in American society.
I think one of the biggest reasons for such a change in American's ideas and confidence comes from a major generational gap. The difference between the WWII era citizens ("the greatest generation") and their children ("baby boomers") is dramatic and holds within itself some of the keys to the answer. The answer also lies within sociological and political changes that occurred in and around the 60's.
During WWII, America had devoted itself almost entirely to the war effort. Countless numbers of able-bodied men were in the service in the Pacific and European theaters. Millions of women went to work in the factories and industries that had converted to full time war production. Food and raw materials such as rubber and oil were rationed and sacrificed. It is an easy conclusion to draw that WWII had affected every American. Like the previous generation, this last war was seen as the war to end wars. It was the bloodiest in all of humanity. Millions upon millions were killed. Entire European nations were wiped out. In America, returning troops and civilians though America had fought and won the "good" fight. In the late forties, and entire generation was born into one of the most prosperous times in American history.
This new generation, which would come of age during the 1960's, grew up with a different perspective for America. In such a prosperous time, more people went to college than ever before. People had more time and money to begin analyzing social issues with a greater sense of criticism.
Following the victories of the U.S., Britain, French, and Russian troops, Europe quickly became re-divided. The war torn country of Germany had been subsequently dived into eastern and western hemispheres by the allied powers. Within the center of this division lay Berlin. Russia's communist intentions were becoming clearer to western powers. Stalin had no plans to back down from further conflict. In 1946, Churchill delivered the "Iron Curtain" speech, symbolizing future relations with the communist powers. In 1947, U.S. president Truman established his famous doctrine of containment policy, which outlined in vague terms the west's distain and containment intentions of further communist expansion by Russia. In 1948, Americans witnessed the pressurized showdown in Berlin between western forces and Russian occupiers, which eventually led to the division of Germany, and the construction of the Berlin Wall. Once, the Russians began developing and testing nuclear weapons, and the subsequent development of space flight, Americans placed their lives in the hands of their government to handle this new, Cold War.
The baby boom generation grew up in this environment. They grew up with missile drills and McCarthy's witch-hunt of communists within the government. Communism was something to be feared, and America knew it.
The election of 1960 brought hope to much of America, despite the close margin of victory for the Kennedy camp. JFK himself had been a war hero, and was viewed by Americans as determined to win the cold war. JFK was an attractive man, had a beautiful wife, and a seemingly perfect family....