Slaughterhouse-Five details events of World War II, most notably the massacre of civilians in the February 1945 bombing of Dresden. However, when it was published in 1969, the novel was viewed as a commentary on the United States’ ongoing conflict in Vietnam. The war between communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam began in 1954 and ended in 1975 with a Northern victory that reunified the country under communism. During those decades, the U.S. was involved in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the period was marked by an extreme fear of communism. The U.S.’s desire to stop the spread of communism led to its involvement in the Vietnam War in support of the non-communist South Vietnam. In 1969, the year Slaughterhouse-Five was published, there were more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Vietnam. This marked the peak of U.S. involvement in the war.
The year 1969 also marked the peak of American resistance to the war. Although many had initially supported intervention in Vietnam, the 1968 Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of attacks on South Vietnam, turned many Americans against the war. From 1968 to 1969, protestors participated in hundreds of anti-war marches and events. The largest protest, in November 1969, drew over 250,000 peaceful protestors to Washington, D.C. At the same time, many young men were leaving the U.S. to avoid being drafted. The war, which was never officially declared by Congress, struck many as unfair, unjust, and unnecessarily violent.
The Vietnam War was bloody, costly, and ultimately unpopular. Its legacy was one of barbarism and folly. By contrast, World War II was seen in the U.S. as a “successful” war, fought for a just cause. However, Vonnegut’s depiction of World War II, with its focus on the unnecessary bombing of Dresden, a non-military city, challenges this romanticized notion of the war as heroic. As Vonnegut explains in Chapter 1 during his conversation with Mary O’Hare, part of the novel’s project is to show that no war, no matter its public reputation, is glamorous or heroic. Thus, Vonnegut’s war scenes are ridiculous, barbaric, absurd, peopled with characters who could be found in a “light opera.”
The Vietnam War, though certainly not the focus of Slaughterhouse-Five , appears sporadically in the novel, inviting comparisons with World War II. Vietnam is mentioned most frequently in reference to Billy Pilgrim’s son Robert, who joined the “famous Green Berets,” part of the special forces of the U.S. Army. It is ironic that Billy, who was so traumatized and disgusted by his own experiences during World War II, did nothing to stop his son from enlisting. In fact, Billy does not seem to connect his experience of war to Vietnam at all. While lunching at the Lion’s Club in Chapter 3, he hears a Marine Corps Major speak in favor of “bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age.” Despite the clear resonance with the bombing of Dresden, which turned the city into a “moonscape,” Billy was “not moved to protest the bombing.” This moment echoes the novel’s idea that war is inevitable and that time is cyclical and repetitive.
Mentions of Vietnam, though brief, are no coincidence; after all, Vonnegut was writing the novel as the conflict escalated, and the media was saturated with news and images of the war, including the many civilian casualties. The parallels between Slaughterhouse-Five and Vietnam were not lost on the American public. Just a few days before Slaughterhouse-Five was released in March 1969, 453 Americans died in one week. The first print run of 10,000 copies sold out quickly. The depiction of war as a series of random and meaningless acts of violence spoke to the young people who were busy marching against the war in Vietnam. At the same time, the novel’s depiction of World War II as a deeply traumatic and troubling event also resonated with veterans who, like Billy, had suppressed their own experiences in the name of being “strong” or “noble.”