The ghost of Vietnam cast a shroud over Republican politics last week, but it was not only Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle and the GOP delegates convening in New Orleans who were haunted by it.
Quayle's admission he sought the assistance of an influential family friend in his quest to get into the National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War presented an opportunity for the entire nation to confront again the ambiguities, deceits, anxieties and re-sentments of the ruptured era."The national life is definitely being dogged by the war," said author and editor Stewart Albert, an un-indicted co-conspirator in the celebrated Chicago 7 trial that pitted the government against anti-war demonstrators in 1971.
The Quayle disclosures were a fresh reminder of the power and reach of the calamitous events that shaped a generation's future.
Unlike bell-bottom trousers and long hair, two other emblems of the 1960s, the war and its consequences have not faded away.
"The Vietnam War was never settled," said Todd Gitlin, a University of California, Berkeley, professor and author. "It was amnestied in the old sense of `deliberately forgotten,' and that it comes up again now is the return of the repressed. I'm not at all surprised by it."
In addition, Gitlin and others noted, the Quayle controversy has forced the nation to revisit another question that wrenched society during Vietnam: Who was to fight the war - everyone or just the poor and minorities?
" `What did you do in the war, Daddy?' is going to become a question everybody is going to have to answer for the next 20 years," predicted television commentator and columnist Christopher Matthews, who joined the Peace Corps during Vietnam.
In New Hampshire, Republican Rep. Judd Gregg, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, acknowledged he received a medical deferment in 1969, and it has become a key campaign issue.
Gregg said he was afflicted with three medical problems after graduating from Columbia University in 1969: bad knees, sleepwalking and an allergy. He denied using the influence of his politically prominent family to avoid the draft.
The emotions and conflicts sparked by Quayle's situation raised the specter of a new Vietnam schism in the country in which people again will try to define patriotism in relationship to that war.
But as a litmus test, a man's relationship with his draft board during the war years is not likely to provide satisfying answers.
"Young people were under such enormous stress," said Bruce Martin, a former draft counselor and now program secretary for the Connecticut branch of the American Friends Service Committee. "When you have a 17- or 18-year-old young person they're at a disadvantage because of their age."
Many youths volunteered for service during the era, but millions more feared the draft and explored strategies to avoid it. "From the time you were 17," said Matthews, "every step you took was geared toward dealing with the draft."
Between the Gulf of Tonkin episode in 1966 and the fall of Saigon in 1973, 1.84 million men were drafted, according to the Selective Service. The vast majority of them were inducted into fighting units of the Army and Marines. The United States sent a total of 3.4 million men and women to Southeast Asia during the period; 58,135 Americans died in Vietnam.
Tens of thousands of young men sought service in the National Guard as an alternative to the draft and the likely consequences of active duty during a shooting war. Unlike most of them, Quayle got in, and the resentment was palpable last week among those who served in the war.
"Let's face it, the question is whether a rich kid's family got him into the Guard when other people were getting drafted," said John DeCamp, a Vietnam veteran and Republican delegate from Nebraska. "Some of them, like me, got shot at a lot, and a great many of them just plain got shot and killed."
"As a guardsman, the senator did not share the harrowing experience of war in Vietnam with those of his generation who fought there," said Earl Stock Jr. of Chicago, Veterans of Foreign Wars commander in chief.
"Those responsible for examining the senator's background should have recognized this distinction and realized the senator is neither representative of the Vietnam generation nor does he represent the leadership of the Vietnam generation of veterans."
Others of Quayle's generation sought alternatives in the Peace Corps or Volunteers in Service to America, the VISTA program. Some hastened to father children for a parental deferment from the draft. Graduate schooling suddenly became imperative for those who could qualify and pay for it because it extended the student shelter from induction.
Many men left the country; others concocted bizarre schemes to make themselves unfit to serve. Still others openly defied the law, turned in or destroyed their draft cards, and risked prosecution and jail to avoid service.
Sympathetic family doctors wrote letters to draft boards falsely declaring their patients medically unfit for the military. Some young men called upon influential friends to help them avoid the draft or win favorable assignments if they had to serve.
Whether it was to have been Quayle or some other public person who inevitably would emerge with an unorthodox military or even social background, observers predicted, the public will be asked not only to assess his suitability for office, but to assess their own generation, their own lives.
"People should not be judged too harshly for what they did during the Vietnam war," said Albert. "Nothing that people did should be held against them."