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The Legacy of the Vietnam War Continues to Undermine Trust and Confidence in the Federal Government and Other Institutions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
July 21, 2017

I think it non-controversial to say that the low level of public trust in the federal government and other institutions of American society has reached the point of crisis. Wide swaths of the U.S. adult population no longer believe what they are told by government officials, journalists, scientists or doctors. In this trust vacuum, persons with absolutely no real expertise or knowledge have found ways to ingratiate themselves by using social media and the Internet to broadcast completely erroneous claims about public policies, world events and health issues.

It is not a stretch to say that much of American society is regressing backward toward the information context of the 1800s, as if the scientific advances in the 1900s simply never occurred. If you are doubtful about this, consider that public health officials in Texas are concerned the rate of immunization against a range of childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella are falling low enough that “herd immunity” will no longer prevail. The consequence will be epidemics of those illnesses, and many children’s needless deaths, out of completely groundless fears that vaccinations can result in autism. The charlatans who made false claims about that linkage are seen by many as more credible than are the entirety of medical science regarding diseases that were completely and safely vanquished many decades ago.

Pentagon_PapersHow did we get to this terrible place in our society?

One very important part of the answer is the Vietnam War, something I spent years researching in at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The war opened up a credibility gap between the public and the federal government that continues to widen to this day. The short story here is sufficient: by the mid-1970s, it was abundantly clear that elected public officials and career public administrators (such as in the Pentagon) had systematically lied to the public about the reasons for, and the conduct, of a war that took the lives of over 65,000 Americans, with many more suffering from permanent injuries, cost billions of dollars and, in the great scheme of things, barely slowed down the formation of the current communist Vietnam. The Vietnam War shattered many illusions that Americans had about trust in their government.

The war also revealed deep faults in other major institutions including the news media, universities and mainstream religions, all of whom were implicated in the climate of disinformation surrounding Vietnam. It took too long, and required too much protest, for the truth to come out about Vietnam in the form of the Pentagon Papers and related publications.

After Vietnam came other incidents such as Iran-Contra and the 2003 Iraq War that further confirmed the government readily lies to the public. The growing culture of distrust opened the way for investigative reporting that revealed abusive medical experiments the federal government conducted without the knowledge of the test subjects and other examples of how the public trust was systematically abused under the flag of, “the ends justify the means.” The ongoing revelations of a global cover-up of child abuse within the Catholic Church is another vexing example of this same terrible violation of trust by a major institution. You might also recall various scandals involving falsified medical or other scientific research which were not prevented by the voluntary regulatory systems intended to mitigate such fraud.

As it stands, parents and teachers in the U.S. cannot credibly say to the children growing up under their guidance that the government, the pharmaceutical companies, the church, or the universities would never lie, cheat or steal. We have well-documented examples to the contrary.

For government and other important institutions to maintain confidence in their integrity, they must act with integrity. Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult if nearly impossible to fully restore trust over the medium- to longer-term. We need to start with a renewed commitment to the highest standards of verification for any claims made by government or other institutions regarding the hows, whys and whats of their decisions. It may require some form of truth and reconciliation commission that would exchange amnesty from prosecution for a full, open public discussion regarding various disputes over important past occurrences that have contributed to ongoing distrust of government. And it definitely will require consensus across the political, policy and other spheres in our society that lying to the public is inexcusable and must stop.

This is another case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For now, from the perspective of American society in 2017, we clearly see why governments should not lie.


Author: Erik Devereux has worked for 25 years in the public policy and management field. Erik currently is an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and to higher education and teaches applied policy analysis at American University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). Contact Erik at [email protected].

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2 Responses to The Legacy of the Vietnam War Continues to Undermine Trust and Confidence in the Federal Government and Other Institutions

  1. Erik Devereux Reply

    August 3, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    George Will has published an op ed in the Washington Post that concurs with the premise of this column and offers a specific time within the course of the Vietnam War when the trust gap opened. The op ed is available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/when-americans-stopped-trusting-the-government/2017/08/02/8280bad4-76e5-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html.

  2. michael abels Reply

    July 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

    I think the author has identified a major contributing element to the trust deficit that is pulling American society apart. An equally important factor is the anti-government propaganda campaign that has been a major center piece of the American political culture since the 1980s. Vietnam may have been one catalyst that set the stage for our political leadership to see political opportunities they could realize by focusing on discrediting government along with our political institutions.

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