In the summer of 2000, historian David Levy penned an article which looked back over the previous twenty-five years to the days when the coals of Vietnam still glowed red-hot. Had there arisen since that time a consensus, he wondered, on what the Vietnam War had meant for the United States? Levy suggested that such a consensus had indeed gradually formed.
Those who had supported the war, Levy suggested, were forced to reinterpret their earlier beliefs in the wake of Saigon’s fall. In spite of insisting for more than a decade that were Vietnam to fall to the communists the rest of Asia would soon follow, former Hawks had to confront that fact that the unthinkable had happened — Vietnam was united under communist rule — yet Asia remained secure. The hawks pivoted, proclaiming that American guarantees were still sure and that American strength was untarnished by the experience. From there, Levy argued, it was but a small step towards allowing that the war had been a mistake.
Those who had opposed the war also shifted from their former positions. Levy suggested that one of the most iconic critiques of the war — that it was the result of “naked” imperialism and a cabal of bankers and arms merchants who sought to profit from the bloodshed — had faded. “Nowadays,” Levy suggested, “former critics of the war are much more willing to ascribe American involvement in the war to political ineptitude and political cowardice […] to miscalculation and ignorance of what was involved in fighting a jungle war in Asia rather than to profiteers and militarists.”
The most striking area of rapprochement for Levy, however, was in the way American veterans of the Vietnam War were treated. Immediately after the war, both hawks and doves reviled American soldiers — for different reasons. Hawks were “disgusted by the unsoldierly demeanor and behavior of the fighting men who had returned from Southeast Asia — their gross language, their immoral habits, their bad attitude.” Doves saw G.I.s as devils who meted out death to innocent populations, wielding rifle and flamethrower with equal impunity. Since that time, Levy argued, Americans have begun to see veterans as victims themselves — young men “swept up in the tragedy of an unwinnable and unnecessary war.” Levy concluded:
As time passes and the war recedes into history, more and more Americans — including those who were not yet born at the time of the conflict itself — will be able to give assent to two unifying propositions. It will be the national consensus, first, that the war was a tragic mistake and that our nation would have been a happier one had we never entered it, and, second, that those who fought and died in Vietnam were brave young men who deserve this country’s respect and gratitude.¹
If Americans of differing persuasions have seen their views on the war converge over the past three decades, the war both signified and wrought divergence between Bethel College and her sponsoring denomination, the Baptist General Conference.
In the 1950s, Bethel and the Conference were closely aligned in spirit and purpose. Both existed to fulfill the great commission in some measure, the denomination by building churches and converting souls, and the College by preparing workers for the ministry. The union was not perfect — not in the 1950s and not earlier — but it was strong.
By the end of the 1960s, that tight bond had slackened, both as a direct result of the war and from the forces the conflict unleashed in American society. The Sixties saw Bethel transformed through the early stages of professionalization into a budding Liberal Arts College, freed from its strictly denominational mission. The Sixties gave President Lundquist the opportunity to renegotiate the meaning of the BGC’s pietist heritage, defining more closely the school’s educational mission as it pertained to the evangelical faith. The war also began to reshape relationships between students, faculty, and administration. While the hard-fought battles of the decade resulted in few gains for students, the old default acceptance of in loco parentis was shattered. More broadly, Bethel students moved further and further from the narrow theological and political bounds of the Conference, embracing civil rights and experimenting with anti-war protest and leftist politics to a degree alarming to the BGC. For Bethel, the Sixties were a thrilling time of liberation and growth.
For the Conference, they were almost the exact opposite. While the BGC never espoused the kind of dogmatically rightist ideology of denominations like the Southern Baptists, the ethos of the denomination coming into the decade was decidedly conservative, both theologically and politically. Conference Baptists largely failed to confront the war. Instead, they turned to their chaplaincy to mediate the war to Conference members back home. Cooperating in the venture, chaplains and Standard editors created a narrative of the war which saw only the potential good for the Kingdom, secured by American soldiers. And when that idyllic picture finally was finally shattered by incidents like My Lai, Conference Baptist doubled down on domestic evangelism. For the BGC, the decade was a terrifying and disorienting time of retreat.
— Fletcher Warren
¹ David Levy, “Closure: How the National Discussion of Vietnam Will Eventually be Resolved,” The Long Term View 5(2000): 144-8.