By 1970, the Vietnam conflagration had become the longest war in U.S. history. Nearly 50,000 had already been killed and up to 200,000 wounded. Even though this number paled in comparison to the 100,000 South Vietnamese and more than 500,000 North Vietnamese who had died, many Americans thought the number far too high for the mere defense of a strip of jungle on the other side of the world. Morale had fallen to an all-time low both for the families at home and for the men in the field. Veterans’ protest groups such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War became increasingly vocal, attacking U.S. policy after they came home. Because the draft continued to exempt college students and skilled workers, critics increasingly denounced the conflict as a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Blacks in particular suffered some of the highest casualty rates.
In 1971, the U.S. Army court-martialed Lieutenant William Calley for his role in the My Lai Massacre of 1968, sentencing him to a life term in prison (although he was later paroled). In a series of congressional hearings that same year, a number of U.S. soldiers confessed either anonymously or publicly that dozens of similar war crimes had taken place over the course of the war and claimed that the U.S. military had tacitly supported them.
The court-martial and the hearings turned American public opinion against the U.S. military. For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, antiwar protesters focused their anger not only on the politicians who began and oversaw the war but on the troops in the field as well. Some Americans denounced men in uniform as “baby killers.” During a notorious trip to North Vietnam in 1972, prominent American actress Jane Fonda made public statements sympathizing with the North Vietnamese government, denouncing U.S. military actions, and condemning U.S. soldiers as “war criminals.” The infamous incident earned Fonda the derisive nickname “Hanoi Jane” and incensed many Americans, even those who opposed the war.
The U.S. government came under further fire in June 1971 when the New York Times published a series of articles about the contents of a secret study that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had commissioned in 1968. The leaked documents, collectively called the Pentagon Papers, detailed U.S. government and military activity in Vietnam since the 1940s. The papers revealed that the U.S. Army, as well as presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had authorized a number of covert actions that increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam unbeknownst to the American public.
The Nixon administration attempted to halt the Times series, but a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed the articles to be published. The Pentagon Papers caused an uproar in the United States and pushed the already unpopular war into even murkier moral territory. Public distrust of the government grew deeper.
Outraged by the unauthorized invasion of Cambodia and by the double scandal from the My Lai Massacre and the Pentagon Papers, many in Congress took steps to exert more control over the war and to appease the equally angry public. The Senate voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to reduce the military’s unchecked spending power (although the House of Representatives did not follow suit). Congress also reduced the number of years drafted soldiers needed to serve in the army. Finally, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971 to lower the U.S. voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, on the grounds that the young men serving in Vietnam should have a say in which politicians were running the war.