Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is a novel written in troubled times about troubled times. As the novel was being finished in 1968, America saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In the South, Blacks and their supporters were struggling to overturn centuries of racial inequality under the law. At times, the struggle became violent. American values were being convulsed by the coming-of-age of the baby boomers. Never before had young people felt so certain in their rebellion against their parents and their parents' values.
The United States was involved in a costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. 1968 saw the psychologically devastating Tet Offensive, in which the Viet Cong launched a massive offensive against American and South Vietnamese positions all throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong took heavy casualties, the offensive was the true turning point of the war. To the South Vietnamese people, the offensive proved that the Americans could not protect them. To the American people, the offensive showed that the war in Vietnam would be far more costly than the politicians in Washington had promised. The country that had defeated the Axis powers just over two decades ago was now involved in a morally dubious and costly war in a Third World country.
In the U.S. opposition to the war grew, but in Vietnam the killing continued. The Americans would eventually suffer fifty thousand dead, but the Vietnamese would pay a much heavier price. Millions of Vietnamese died, many of them from heavy bombing. The U.S. dropped more explosive power onto Vietnam than all of the world's powers had dropped in all of World War II put together, including the two atomic bombs and the bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. Vonnegut's novel about the bombing of Dresden was written while American policy makers and pilots were implementing one of the most brutal bombing campaigns in history.
Although Vonnegut despairs of being able to stop war (he likens being anti-war to being anti-glacier, meaning that wars, like glaciers, will always be a fact of life), Slaughterhouse Five is an earnest anti-war novel. Vonnegut's own war experiences turned him into a pacifist. Like his protagonist, Vonnegut was present at Dresden as a POW when American bombers wiped the city off the face of the earth. The bombing, which took place on February 13, 1945, was the most terrible massacre in European history. Over 130,000 people died, putting the death toll above the 84,000 people who died in the Tokyo bombing and the 71,000 people who died in Hiroshima. In Europe's long and often bloody history, never have so many people been killed so quickly. The novel is disjointed and unconventional. Its structure reflects this important idea: there is nothing you can say to adequately explain a massacre. Part of Vonnegut's project was to write an antidote to the war narratives that made war look like an adventure worth having.
This study guide's citations match the 1991 printing of the novel by Dell Books.