[NOTE: It’s awfully easy to stereotype historians as calm, objective, even bloodless observers of the past, especially when you read a garden-variety history textbook. But, when one moves to more specialized works, there is room for a historian to bring in personal opinions. That is certainly the case with both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy in their treatments of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture(s).
Both historians consider the cultural significance of the Vietnam War as a product of American culture and for American culture, and they do not pretend to be “objective.” Rather, they clearly analyze and “passionately” interpret their topic. Why?
I also append to this final post in the series links to online information concerning historians Baritz and Appy; and a list of sources I’ve found especially helpful in assessing the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States.
Two odd coincidences: Loren Baritz was affiliated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in one capacity or another from 1980 until his retirement in 1991. Christian Appy has been on the faculty of that school since 2004. Secondly, Appy does not mention Baritz’s book in the endnotes to his own volume (there is no bibliography), perhaps because Baritz’s volume, written a generation earlier, had a more limited perspective, and, thus, did not add much to Appy’s picture in 2015 of the war’s domestic impact.]
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In his Preface, Loren Baritz claims that, when he began writing Backfire in the summer of 1982, he had been agonizing over the War in Vietnam for nearly two decades; had read “every major book and article about the war”; but “was always disappointed by them.” (7) To Baritz, these sources merely described the conflict; they “did not explain the war, or why it happened, or why we waged it the way we did, or why we negotiated the way we did, or why it eventually became such a disaster for us.” (7)
Baritz admits that, to him, the Vietnam War was not an abstract, “academic” topic. He “became a political participant in opposition to” the conflict; participated in “teach-ins, marches, more speeches than was consistent with sanity, and political organization.” In 1968, he was elected as a delegate to “the terrible Democratic National Convention in Chicago.” (8)
Baritz asserts that the War in Vietnam was one of those events where, for the historian, “truth is more important than evenhandedness,” and he does “not apologize for the fact that some of [his] conclusions are passionate. We are considering matters of life and death,” he writes, “not merely an intellectual exercise.” (11)
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In 1985, Loren Baritz appeared on Chicago radio icon Studs Terkel’s interview show to talk about his new book, Backfire. Baritz emphasized there that the roots of our Vietnam involvement had been our belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism.” This notion, which he traced to Puritan Massachusetts, essentially made Americans “God’s Chosen People” and led us, as Bob Dylan sang, to believe that “God was on our side,” but with disastrous results. (See Baritz’s 1964 book, City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths and America for background on this.)
Angry and frustrated with the Vietnam War, Baritz applied his notion of the folly of “American exceptionalism” to his study of our journey into the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam—and onward, into the Reagan administration. His view of the war in Backfire clearly reflects, no doubt with the aid of hindsight, his feelings at the time.
Another factor that might have shaped Baritz’s attitude towards the Vietnam War was that, by the 1970s, he had left the classroom and become a college administrator, first as provost, executive vice president, and then president of the State University of New York’s Empire State College; and, finally, as provost and acting vice president of the SUNY system. In 1980, Baritz was appointed provost and, in 1982, acting chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, before stepping down in 1983 and returning to the classroom, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. To college administrators in that era, the war in Vietnam simply would not go away, if only because students refused to stop protesting against it and its consequences, and those protests were easily transferred to other issues.
To Baritz, President John F. Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” were merely “engineering mechanics” who tried to calm the country down, and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was the “great cheerleader of them all.” In this 1985 interview, Baritz scathingly described the “management mentality” in engineering and business administration graduate schools, populated by “Yuppies” who were no longer subject to the draft, as the same mindset that had “brought us Vietnam.”
Baritz argued that we equated our technological superiority with moral superiority, so that George Orwell’s dictum in the novel 1984, “Ignorance is strength,” became, during the Lyndon Johnson era, “strength is ignorance.” What we were not taught to do, he believed, “was to see ourselves as the bully.”
Baritz told Studs Terkel that “the press did not distinguish itself in Vietnam.” He also maintained that subordinates lied to General William Westmoreland, attempting to make their reports of wartime “progress” match Westmoreland’s heightened expectations. In short, a key lesson of Vietnam, at least according to Loren Baritz, was that guerrilla wars were not as easy to fight and win as we had expected.
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In his “Introduction” to American Reckoning, Christian Appy proposes that “the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life. A common term for this belief is ‘American exceptionalism.’” (xi-xii)
So, where did Appy’s animus towards the concept of “American exceptionalism” originate? Born in 1955, Christian Appy grew up during the Vietnam War, graduating from high school in 1973. Appy claims that the conflict did not have a major impact on him or his family at the time. He does recall that his father, a World War II veteran who initially supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, turned against the war, voting for George McGovern, the Democratic antiwar candidate, in the 1972 presidential election. Appy turned 18, and became subject to the draft, in 1973, but was not drafted
At Amherst College, Appy was exposed to more debate about Vietnam, including the views of Amherst’s legendary American History professor Henry Steele Commager, a one-time exponent of American exceptionalism, who came to believe that the country had badly lost it bearings in Vietnam. In a 1972 essay, for instance, Commager wrote that, although we honored Germans who had resisted Hitler during World War II, we failed to respect the views of Americans who opposed the Vietnam War a few decades later.
In the 1980s, while working on a doctorate in American Civilization at Harvard University, Christian Appy interviewed Vietnam veterans in the Boston area. This research became the basis for his dissertation, and first book, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). A subsequent work, Patriots (2003), an oral history of the Vietnam War, featured interviews with some 350 people “from all sides”—Americans, Vietnamese, soldiers and generals, journalists, antiwar protesters, and government officials — who had been touched by the bitter struggle that cost more than 58,000 American lives and the lives of more than three million Vietnamese.
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After publishing Patriots, Appy was ready to find a new subject for study, at least until he became frustrated with the seemingly endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars (2002-present). He saw disturbing parallels between those conflicts and Vietnam but heard little discussion about how they might be part of the legacy of the Vietnam War. So he began to write American Reckoning.
Probably because of the publication of that work in 2015, Christian Appy agreed to review Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” (2017), for the Organization of American Historians’ blog, “Process.” His take on the series is well worth reading, whatever your opinion of Novick and Burns’s production (see below for episode links).
In a lecture delivered in 2017, Appy made an interesting point: Burns and Novick, in discussing their project, said that they hoped it would heal the wounds of the war and its legacy in the U.S. Yet, Appy argued, the series ends with the war itself, in 1975; there is no real attempt to treat its “legacy.” In fact, he asserts, there was no mention in the documentary of two crucial words that he believed were connected to said “legacy”: “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”
[Note: From 1989-2010, I used a lecture, “Growing Up with Vietnam,” with my senior AP U.S. History classes, then published it in four parts on this blog in 2011. In Part IV, “Paying the Cost to be the Boss: With Apologies to B.B. King,” I consider the short and long-term consequences of America’s adventure in Vietnam. And, in Part III, “Coming to Terms,” I examine my changing attitude towards the conflict.]
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Loren Baritz, interview with Studs Terkel, WRMT Radio (1985):
Christian Appy, with Steve Pfarrer, Amherst College Bulletin (2015):
Christian Appy, “The Legacy of the Vietnam War” (2017):
Christian Appy’s review of Novick and Burns’s “Vietnam” series for PBS:
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SELECTED SOURCES ON THE VIETNAM WAR
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979). Diplomatic history of the war.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History (1983). Companion volume to PBS series, “Vietnam: A Television History.” (1984, 2004).
Burns, Ken, and Lynn Novick. The Vietnam War (2017).The latest effort to analyze the war for television.
Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).
Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of The Vietnam War (2000).
Schell, Jonathan. The Time of Illusion (1975). The Vietnam War as part of the “Nixon Era.”
Emerson, Gloria. Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War (1985). By a New York Times correspondent stationed in Vietnam, 1970-1972.
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest (1993). A classic account of American hubris.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches (1978). From a correspondent sent to Vietnam in 1967.
The Library of America. Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 (2000). Paperback featuring sixty-one selections from 106 in the two-volume hardback edition with the same title published in 1998 by “The Library of America.”
The War at Home
Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation (1988).
Maraniss, David. They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (2003). A tour de force, in which Maraniss tells three stories that climaxed in the Fall of 1967: one occurred in Vietnam; the others took place on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in Washington, D.C.
Palmer, Laura. Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1987). What we learn from things left behind by loved ones at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Todd, Jack. Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam (2001).
Wells, Tom. The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (1994) The War on the home front.
Men at Arms
Atkinson, Rick. The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989). Hard to put down.
Goldman, Peter, and Tony Fuller. Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us (1983). Fascinating treatment of a single Army infantry company in Vietnam, 1968-1969. From a long piece in Newsweek magazine in 1981, based on the recollections of sixty-five members of Charlie company who attended a reunion.
Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once. . . and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1993). A gripping account of two American Army units who longed to meet the enemy and did so, in November 1965.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988). A classic of its kind.
Spector, Ronald H. After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (1993). Exactly what it says, unfortunately.
Memoirs and Oral History
Baker, Mark. Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Soldiers Who Fought There (1983). A gripping oral history, but like others of its kind, lacking in context.
Laurence, John. The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story (2002). Memoirs of the noted CBS correspondent who covered the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970. A long read, but worth it.
Marlantes, Karl. What it is Like to Go to War (2011). Memoir of a Marine officer in Vietnam in 1969. Marlantes also wrote a novel about his experiences there, Matterhorn (2010).
Mason, Robert. Chickenhawk (1983). Memoirs of an American helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
O’Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box me up and Ship me Home (1975). Memoir by the noted author of The Things They Carried (1990).
Santoli, Al. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (1981). Another powerful collection of stories, with the same weakness noted about Mark Baker’s volume, above.
Terry, Wallace. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984). See comment on Santoli, above.
Tripp, Nathaniel. Father, Soldier, Son: Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam (1996). A complicated work, but certainly worth the read.
End of Part 3
Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: