It was the first generation to grow up not only with television but also on television, its adolescence played out on the nightly news. Cameras caught its long-haired marchers shouting, "Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win!" Caught them blissfully stoned and mud-soaked at Woodstock, bleeding from the thwump of Chicago's nightsticks. Caught them as drug-gutted "flower children" seeking nirvana in Haight-Ashbury flophouses.
Above all, television caught them bleeding and dying in faraway Vietnam -- soldiers as baby-faced as those at campus barricades, as stoned sometimes as the youths at Woodstock, as vulnerable as any adolescents.
Yet combat veterans, who carry memories and scars, are a small segment of that generation of 26 million men and 27 million women. The bulk of its males escaped America's longest, most divisive and most unpopular foreign war through such means as student deferments, letters from doctors, high draft-lottery numbers. Of about 9 million in military service, 3.7 million served in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A much smaller number saw combat.
How did growing up in that time of national turmoil and searing intensity affect members of the Vietnam generation now in their 30s and early 40s? What remains today?
Predictably, there is a welter of conflicting legacies, varying by degrees from self-interest to deep commitment. There are protesters who went to jail and remain activists; and former antiwar students who now feel it was right to support South Vietnam. But for many -- who were never drafted, never had to face the test -- Vietnam has little more impact than a forgotten headline.
Still, quiet legacies of the most flamboyant aspects of the '60s remain. Regardless of ideology, whether they served in the war or sat it out, they feel markedly different. It is taken for granted that people will question the government. Living together outside marriage is commonplace, as are female attorneys and stockbrokers. Activist politicians who came of age during the Vietnam era -- from left to right on the political spectrum -- remain vociferous leaders on such issues as the environment, civil rights, women's issues, foreign policy.
"We don't think you have to wait 20 years. We're much more quick to organize, to demand," Rep. Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.) said. Deferred as a student from service in the '60s, Morrison said, "I didn't want to die in Vietnam, but I didn't want anyone else to, either."
Morrison, 40, said his political activity at the University of Illinois gave him a lasting sense of being able to accomplish change. "Activists gave value to the movement and have not abandoned political activism. The counterculture kids who were getting high then and getting rich today have not changed. It's just different forms of a self-indulgent view of the world," he said.
Above all, there has been power in the unprecedented numbers in this generation. Told that they were "special," they have not forgotten. Ten years after the fall of Saigon, much of that time seems a period piece. Yesteryear's best seller, "The Greening of America," predicted that the new generation would lead America in peace and love and sandals.
Yet the generation was not monolithic then and is not now. Cameras caught the swirl of the antiwar movement, which did exactly what conservatives said it did. It helped force President Lyndon B. Johnson from office and keep his successor, Richard M. Nixon, from waging an escalated war.
But as Todd Gitlin, an early leader of Students for a Democratic Society, said, "The dedicated were always in much smaller number than the media made out because it was all so flamboyant. But a majority, at least on major campuses, did something."
A much larger group went along for the ride. "They did Woodstock, did dope, did a demonstration or two," Gitlin said. "They were just kids doing what was going on -- demonstration and dope. What's going on now is Nautilus and sweatsuits. They were never political in the first place."
Others supported the war. In 1968 survey by the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles found that 22 percent of those on campus considered themselves far-right or conservative -- 2 percent more than today's collegians. Many who approved of the war also coolly avoided the conflict and charted a path to success. Today, they are among the most hawkish leaders.
The antiwar activism of Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) shaped his cautious attitude on intervention in Central America and Lebanon. He sees important political lessons from the Vietnam era: "We learned that anything military has to have the support of the American people. I come from a hawkish state where you'd think people really would look at Central America as a place where we draw the line, but I don't think they're buying the president's rhetoric."
Synar, 34, had a high draft lottery number. Had he not, Synar said, he would have felt obliged to serve even though he opposed the war. After buildings were burned at the University of Oklahoma, student leader Synar successfully "pleaded with the governor not to send in the National Guard. That would have severely raised the level of confrontation." Synar added, "I saw the importance of individual efforts to change things."
Morrison is openly defiant of President Reagan. "I see the United States repeating the same mistakes in Nicaragua as in Vietnam . . . . During Vietnam, there was nothing like the debate we had in terms of Lebanon and El Salvador. Vocal opposition is more accepted, and it's much harder to red-bait."
Synar said that "a lot of our generation in politics learned to use the media in the Vietnam war. There is the 20-second timer in the politician's head." He is distressed that politicians distort issues with a "blurb," while others are forced to react, to try to explain substantive nuances.
For a decade, the nation treated veterans as unwanted relics of a war everyone wished to forget, so today's patriotic flag-waving has its ironies. Some men now wring their hands at never serving: They were wimps; they missed some rite of passage. Others profess guilt that less privileged men went in their place.
Distant is the time when a vast network of psychiatrists, doctors, lawyers and the clergy guided young men out of the draft. A 1965-66 survey determined that college graduates comprised only 2 percent of draftees. Men of the generation once regaled each other with stories about evading service. But time and revisionism have blurred the war's intense unpopularity.
"I don't ever mention how I got out," said a 36-year-old stock broker who became draft-exempt with a letter from a psychiatrist. "In the business world, patriotism is in. The view of those a little older and a little younger is that anyone who got out is a coward."
At the other end of the generational spectrum is St. Paul lawyer Bill Tilton, who went to prison after raiding Minnesota draft board files -- a child of the Roman Catholic middle class, a graduate of a military high school. Fewer than half of the 750,000 men who committed draft violations were reported to federal prosecutors, only 25,000 were indicted, fewer than 9,000 were convicted and just 3,250 went to jail.
Tilton, 37, handles many Vietnam veterans' cases, including those dealing with post-traumatic stress. About half his work is pro bono. "I have a lot more in common with guys who were in Vietnam than I do with those who just spent the '60s in the middle," he said.
Like veterans still troubled by combat experiences, some antiwar activists who went to prison are scarred by such horrific experiences as gang rape. But survivors such as Tilton, like many veterans, feel a maturity and strength unknown to those who glided through the '60s. "I have lived a whole lot more," he said.
His Vietnam legacy is to dedicate himself to others. But Tilton added, "Hey, I'm not opposed to making money along with it."
Among a growing number of this generation's leaders who remain aggressive on foreign policy, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Assistant Secretary of State Richard R. Burt both feel, as Burt said, that they "missed something" by avoiding the war.
Burt, 38, had a minor and correctable ailment but was temporarily taken off the 1A, or priority, draft list, then got a high lottery number. Gingrich, 41, founder of the Conservative Opportunity Society and fierce champion of the military, was deferred by marriage and student status. "Given everything I believe in," he said, "a large part of me thinks I should have gone over."
Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch suporter of Reagan's foreign policy, got a medical deferment for a "slight malformation" of his right arm. He said he has trouble bending it but can play tennis.
To symbolize his strong defense posture, one campaign advertisement showed Trible, 37, in an Air Force pilot's flight suit in the open cockpit of a jet fighter, although he never served in the military. He was giving the thumbs-up salute, using the arm that kept him out of service. As for going to war, Trible said, "Asians have no value for life," and added, "I don't think it would have saved the world for me to fight in Vietnam."
Trible and Gingrich disagree with many congressional counterparts their age on foreign policy and defense spending, but find generational compatability on other issues. "We are remarkably pro-environment, an attitude not thought 20 years ago as typically Republican. A fight within our generation is how to do it rather than should you do it."
The Vietnam war, which Gingrich says was "not won or lost on the battlefield but in Congress," claimed 58,000 American lives and left more than 300,000 wounded. The Veterans Administration estimates that 500,000 to 700,000 suffer to some degree from readjustment problems after the horrors of combat and from homecomings in which they were often reviled -- even called baby killers by draft-exempt men their age.
Bobby Muller, once a graceful high school pole vaulter, is confined to a wheelchair, which he moves with ferocity. His spine was severed by a bullet. Named one of Esquire magazine's outstanding young men in 1984, Muller works for Vietnam veterans' causes and is president of the 20,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America, the only Vietnam veterans group accredited by the VA. The group's concerns include Agent Orange, jobs and delayed stress syndrome.
Revisionism and hard-core, hawkish views surface among many veterans, but Muller insists that "the relatively few who bore the brunt, the combat veterans, feel by and large that it was absurd, a tragedy, something they just couldn't justify."
However, a Washington Post poll of 800 veterans shows that, while veterans were almost evenly divided about whether entering Vietnam was correct, 88 percent of those who saw heavy combat approved of bombing North Vietnam and 68 percent agreed with the use of napalm.
On discharge, veterans of heavy combat felt in poor health and had the greatest difficulty getting jobs, as well as problems related to money, drinking, loneliness and emotional strain. Although the percentage of veterans with such problems has decreased dramatically, it is higher than for all veterans.
Muller is pessimistic. "If Vietnam had any lasting effect on the minds of people, we could not be at Reagan's place in foreign policy," he said.
During congressional debate on financing Vietnam veteran readjustment counseling centers, Synar recalled, "A lot of older members took for granted that we couldn't do it. Us younger members said, 'We've got to change the policy, and that goes from vet centers to Agent Orange.' "
Muller said, "Without a doubt, members of our generation on the Hill who didn't go are particularly supportive. But ironically, we've now got some Vietnam right-wing veterans up there who are not sympathetic . . . to such issues as delayed-stress syndrome and Agent Orange . They want to pretend everything's perfect."
Yuppies! Young urban professionals. They are easy to satirize because they seem in such profusion (two mottos: "born to buy" and "money is the long hair of the '80s"). But in a generation filled with scientists and social workers, legal-services lawyers and teachers, the cliche is as distorted as '60s "flower children."
Still, in some measure, the phenomenon exists. The ultimate teen-age consumers in the '60s -- in 1964 they were spending $12 billion a year, purchasing 55 percent of soft drinks, 53 percent of movie tickets and 43 percent of records -- are now middle-aged consumers, once again wooed by merchandisers. The cartoon image of a Yuppie Chariot is the BMW.
"Our profile shows driven, independent, achieving people," says Tom McGurn, corporate public relations manager for BMW of North America, who graduated from college in 1969. He says he "was very worried about the draft. I flunked my physical."
McGurn voted for Reagan. "I believe in business," he said. However, like many of the 56 percent in the Vietnam generation who voted for Reagan, McGurn lines up with Democrats on many issues.
He says he "can't buy the communist threat in Central America." When U.S. troops invaded Grenada, "I was a bit offended by that. Older men around here thought it was great." Cutting social programs and building a large defense budget "bothers me."
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the generation supported Reagan in about the same proportion as the rest of society, voting their pocketbooks. However, they gave the president unfavorable reviews on everything from poverty to the chances of reducing nuclear war.
Peter Hart, pollster for former Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale, calls it a "cross-pressured" generation, with a life style closer to Republicans on the economy but closer to Democrats on social and foreign policy attitudes. "It would be a mistake to write the final chapter on this generation on how they voted in 1984," he said.
Lawyer and Vietnam veteran Tom Hagel, 36, teaches law at the University of Dayton. His brother, Chuck, 38, is a thriving entrepreneur. They fought in the same 11-man squad, saved each other three times and sent home five Purple Hearts. Chuck believes that the cause was right but horribly mishandled.
Tom returned fiercely antiwar and is convinced that only a "tiny group truly were concerned."
"I've got friends now who have teen-age children," he said, "and they voted for Reagan although against his Central American policies. They still believe in their hearts that their kids won't go. It's some residual class right."
Would they become concerned if Central America policy were escalated? "Don't hold your breath," Tom said.
The Vietnam generation, perhaps less monolithic than ever, seems most divided about possible future wars. Veterans such as Hagel (who carries shrapnel in his body and nightmares in his mind) and Muller warn young men that they should understand Central America because it could mean their lives. That, they believe, is part of their legacy.
There are others such as James Glassman, executive vice president of U.S. News & World Report, who was at Harvard University and never at risk of going to Vietnam. He wrote antiwar tracts for the Crimson. Now he feels that the war probably should not have been fought, but "we were right to support the South Vietnamese."
He backs U.S. policy on El Salvador. "We should get rid of the rebels and stabilize the regime that is there."
Glassman, "a born capitalist," says that members of his generation "interested in expensive clothes and good food are not so different than any other generation. They came to those values later and with a vengeance. They might have come to it earlier had it not been for Vietnam when it was 'not right' to pursue such normal life expectancies."
However, Glassman echoes many in the generation, saying that most retain a foreign policy awareness shaped during Vietnam.
"The fact that I have become more conservative," he said, "doesn't take away from that awareness."