[Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States, by historians writing a generation apart:
Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985); and
Christian Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015)
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In Backfire, Loren Baritz labels the collaboration between President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s aide and eventual Secretary of State, as “the politics of ego.” (190) In his eyes, the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger was “mutually enriching and parasitic,” one that was “consummated in a shared dedication to secrecy, which always tends towards a conspiratorial view of political and human affairs.” (206) To Baritz, the seeds of the Watergate scandal were planted in the secret bombing of Cambodia and in the intricacies of the subsequent diplomatic negotiating process that eventually brought “peace with honor” and ended American participation in the Vietnam War.
The proof that Vietnam era Presidents misrepresented the importance of Vietnam to our foreign policy, Baritz argues (writing in 1985, remember), is that, since the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule in 1975, almost nothing had happened in that part of the world to threaten our security. “America was now like other nations of the world, its meaning, if it still had one, in shambles. What was left for America was power, technology, and bureaucracy. What was missing was purpose.” (230) So much for the “domino theory.”
When Baritz speculated on the nation’s future in the wake of our Vietnam adventure, his view was gloomy. War is the product of “culture,” he argued, and in Vietnam our “managerial sophistication and technological superiority resulted in our trained incompetence in guerrilla warfare.” (322) Put another way, to Loren Baritz the “American culture” he refers to in the subtitle of his book was that of the civilian and military bureaucracies, rather than what we might call “popular culture,” although he also hangs his interpretation of the early support for the Vietnam War on the widespread acceptance in the United States of the “myth of American exceptionalism.”
Yet, Baritz writes, the end of the draft under President Nixon freed most young Americans to indulge “their distaste for public issues.” (336) They evinced no concern beyond self. Thus, we became “a nation without citizens, and a people without politics,” yet another impact of the war on American popular culture that is only implicit in his text. (338) The prototypical young American of the 1980s, the “Yuppie,” had arrived.
What had we learned from the Vietnam experience? In Baritz’s view, not much. In fact, as he was writing, President Ronald Reagan was urging Americans to abandon self-doubt and to restore that “city upon a hill.”
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In American Reckoning (2015), Christian Appy, with three more decades in his rearview mirror than Loren Baritz, could assess the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States through the first term of President Barack Obama (2009-2013).
In language similar to that of noted Southern historian C. Vann Woodward when analyzing the impact of the Civil War on the American South, Appy argues that the war in Vietnam introduced “something new and unexpected into the American war story: failure.” (228) By 1982, with the opening of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., American popular culture had decided to “separate the warriors from the war”: thanks to memorials and clichés, “mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (241)
Then, enter Hollywood’s string of Vietnam War action flicks, stage right, featuring symbols of American manhood like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris heading back to a cinematic Southeast Asia to “rescue” the remaining POWs. (246-249) (Appy comments that few if any Americans knew or cared about the real POWs, the South Vietnamese forced into “re-education centers” because of their service in the South Vietnamese government and military, or their work for the U.S. government during the Vietnam War.)
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During the Reagan years, according to Professor Appy, in the USA “the pride was back,” and the process of rebuilding it had not taken long. Somehow, Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born in the USA,” became a sort of post-Vietnam national anthem, thanks mainly to the fact that “hawks” promoting it didn’t listen to the words. And then there was the Chrysler advertisement interpreting Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon” as a “’memorial’ to Vietnam veterans.” (257-258) Springsteen wouldn’t agree to let “Born in the USA” be used in a Chrysler commercial, so the corporation created a new anthem, “The Pride is Back,” which was transformed into a country song that included a musical reincarnation of American exceptionalism: Americans were “born special, born blessed/born different from all the rest.” (260)
The opening to the public of the renovated Statue of Liberty in 1986 featured tributes to the nation’s immigrant past, but, because we were also being roiled by economic problems, this focus fostered “a xenophobic hostility to foreigners and newcomers, particularly immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.” (261)
Moreover, high school history texts were being revised to remove iconic Vietnam War photographs that put us in a negative light, while, at the same time, movies and paperback books had joined the rush to make the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese the unalloyed “bad guys” and the Americans the “good guys.” (267-269)
Even if “the pride was back,” pride was accompanied by a desire for “no more Vietnams.” Antiwar Vietnam vets, for example, opposed our involvement in Central America during the Reagan years, which angered congressional “hawks,” who blamed their lack of enthusiasm for further military engagement on a loss of national will, the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.” According to Appy, though, the real “Vietnam Syndrome” was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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President Reagan was the captain of the national cheerleading team, in Appy’s view, doing his best to wash all the negativism away. Still, there emerged a bipartisan agreement that “never again should the U.S. engage in long, inconclusive wars with high American casualties.” (286) Perhaps sensing this, the sometimes bellicose President Reagan responded to an attack on U.S. barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 Americans by withdrawing our forces. On the other hand, when Reagan was convinced we could prevail, as in the American assault on Grenada, he stood firm. These events formed the background for the “Iran-Contra scandal,” when secrecy was preeminent, and both Congress and the American public were kept in the dark.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, served only a single term, but he managed to launch “the two biggest military operations since the Vietnam War,” the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. (293-300) The nation’s now twenty-four hour news cycle provided “mostly celebratory coverage” of Desert Storm, Appy claims, which enabled the first President Bush to declare that Iraq was “not another Vietnam,” and to crow that “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” (299)
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And yet, under both George H.W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, the public’s doubts resurfaced when confronted with events in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (300-304) Still, to the nation’s “hawks” we were at least projecting American power abroad (if not very effectively), one of the keystones of “American exceptionalism.”
In his final chapter, “Who We Are,” Appy revisits the post-invasion period in Iraq, examining issues like the Abu-Ghraib prison photos. He believes that President George W. Bush was kept in the dark by Vice-President Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet, so that the younger President Bush could assert that the Abu Ghraib pictures did “not represent the America I know.” (309) Nevertheless, Appy maintains, our government’s actions in Iraq “fundamentally contradicted a core principle of American exceptionalism—the belief that the United States adheres to a higher ethical standard than other nations.” (309)
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Following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of Navy Seals in May 2011, the Barack Obama Administration began planning the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, while adding troops to Afghanistan. Despite the fact that bad stuff also was happening in Afghanistan, we continued to insist that “This is not who we are.” (307) When Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, spoke at Ft. Benning, Georgia (May 2012), he referred to the “challenges ahead,” which Professor Appy paraphrases as “Don’t commit war crimes, because you never know when someone might take a picture of it to make us look bad.” (308)
Appy concludes with this message to the American public: “As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good.” (335)
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So what, if anything, can we learn from these two studies of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture, published a generation apart?
First of all, perspective matters. When Loren Baritz put the finishing touches on Backfire, he stood only about a decade from the end of the Vietnam war. He could make some judgments, but the years after 1985 were of course unknown to him. Christian Appy, on the other hand, had thirty additional years of perspective (and hindsight) on the war and its consequences when he wrote his concluding chapter.
Secondly, definitions matter. Baritz’s subtitle is “How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did.” His understanding of “American Culture” focused on the civilian and military bureaucracies that attempted to guide our campaign against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. (Yet, his introduction to the issue also relied on his belief in another, more popular, cultural trope, the “myth of American exceptionalism.”)
Christian Appy’s understanding of “American Culture,” while taking into account the power of the belief in “American exceptionalism,” is broader than Baritz’s. Appy delves more deeply into the antiwar movement than Baritz and also considers how popular music, films, and novels portrayed the war and its consequences. Put another way, Baritz’s understanding of “American culture” was mostly from the top down, while Appy’s was more from the bottom up.
Nearly half a century after the end of the war in Vietnam, we still struggle with the conflict and its legacy. People in my age group have probably made up their minds about the war, because we lived through it—and many of us served in it—but younger Americans are perhaps not as certain of its causes or consequences. They no longer have to worry about the draft, no matter what sort of a bind American foreign policy places us in, and there have been so many subsequent adventures abroad for American foreign policy that the details of the Vietnam endeavor tend to fade into the mists of time.
While there are obvious similarities, then, between Loren Baritz’s view of the Vietnam imbroglio and its consequences and the analysis offered by Christian Appy, there also are differences in both approach and emphasis. Neither historian gives us the “whole story,” but they present enough of it to make the topic interesting; perhaps that is the most we can expect. Once more, in trying to understand the Vietnam conflict and what it did to us as a nation, we are wrestling with the idea that “each generation writes its own history.”
End of Part 2
Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh
Next: “Passionate Historians”; additional sources on Baritz and Appy; selected sources on the War in Vietnam.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: