Below is an excerpt from my book Founding Leadership. In this chapter on Benjamin Franklin, I talk about the difference in how FDR rallied people in WWII and LBJ failed to do so in Vietnam.
Consider this tale of two wars: World War II and Vietnam. Why did one enjoy overwhelming public support while the other divided popular opinion? One could list a thousand reasons, but one difference is obvious. During the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt made sure every American understood the stakes involved in the conflict – that everyone knew this was a life-and-death struggle. Moreover, he took steps to ensure that every citizen was emotionally connected and invested in a successful outcome. More important, he made sure that every American believed he could make a positive difference. There were scrap metal drives and paper drives; people were organized into civil defense forces; food and fuel were rationed. Those who couldn’t serve in the armed forces felt they could contribute to victory on the home front. Everyone was told – and shown – that their contributions mattered. The nation’s emotional focus was directed toward “V for Victory” and Rosie the Riveter.
By contrast, Lyndon Johnson didn’t come close to securing a positive emotional connection for the Vietnam War. Quite the opposite: he succeeded in generating widespread negative emotions about the war – not least because he didn’t clearly spell out America’s war aims. Few people had any idea what victory would look like, how it would benefit them and why they should care (unless they were likely to be drafted). This era also marked a notable shift in how the media viewed the presidency and administration officials – reporters were deceived and bought into it, and when the facts came to light, reporters and editors lost much of their previous respect for officials.
Without clarity and compelling emotional reasons to fight in Vietnam, there was a lack of team spirit on the home front – to put it mildly.
Conversely, the efforts FDR spearheaded on the home front encouraged people to participate in the war effort, regardless of how significant each person’s contribution really was. People really felt as though they were making a difference. They had a stake in the outcome of the conflict, whereas in Vietnam civilians were told to go about their business as if nothing were happening and let the professionals worry about the sacrificing and dying. Civilians, therefore, did not have to “buy in” to whether the war was just or righteous – or even a good idea – because most weren’t called upon to make any contributions or decisions.
To read more, you can purchase a copy of Founding Leadership through this website under the heading “The Book.”