America's immoral exceptionalism: The lie we keep telling ourselves about foreign policy and democracy

Americans are disgusted with all of these wars, but feel powerless to do anything about it

Published March 19, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Jonathan Ernst)
(AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Jonathan Ernst)

The task of historians in our time is to unbury the buried. For journalists, it is to see that the truth of events is never interred—or at least that enough of it is available for later historians to dig up the whole. The age is impoverished in both respects.

Christian Appy, an accomplished historian of the Vietnam period, is a model case of what can be done with clear sight and commitment. Appy, who lectures at the University of Massachusetts, takes as his topic not Vietnam per se. To put it precisely, his books concern the consequences of the war for the American consciousness—or, as he put it in the interview that follows, “the broad question of the war’s impact on us as a culture and a people.”

To take on this topic is to map a certain kind of tragedy. And with “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity,” his new book, Appy declares himself a leading cartographer of the Vietnam era. This is psychological terrain, over which American thinking advanced—not truly the word—from the hubris of the 1950s to the desperate escalations of the ’60s to the defeat of the ’70s and on to the denial syndrome of the 1980s and beyond.

One reads this era differently by way of Appy’s work. Beyond Reagan’s famous faceoff with the “evil empire,” Star Wars and all the rest, for instance, he licensed Americans to avoid the truth of defeat and recast themselves as the Vietnam war’s victims, so entering upon the hyperpatriotism that has since prevailed. Appy lights the long, strange trip.“Reagan gave Americans psychological permission to forget or mangle history to feel better about the country,” Appy said in an e-mailed remark after we met.

Among much else, what comes through in “American Reckoning” is the immense opportunity we missed post-1975. Defeat being the mulch of renewal, we forwent its many rich lessons when we flinched from it. We still live with this, of course. In this respect, Appy’s book about the Vietnam era is a book about us, now, amid all our nearly congruent messes.

What did we make of ourselves as we waged war in Indochina, and what has since become of us? These are Appy’s questions. He is an excellent guide through a kind of sentimental history, not least because he lived the Vietnam years and possesses that ’60s consciousness still recognizable to some of us but another country to many.

I met Appy on a late-winter’s day at his home in Amherst. This is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange.

As I read “American Reckoning” it seemed to be four things, and I moved from one to another and then back and forth between them. It is a psychiatric study of Americans after Vietnam, and then an attack on exceptionalism, and then a treatise on the dynamic between memory and forgetting, and then a chronology of what amounts to a national neurosis born of a process of denial that began on April 25, 1975, the date I assign the fall of Saigon—or its rise, as I think of it. How do you describe the book?

It’s all of those things, but, in addition, the ambition was an act of recovery. Historical recovery. I was most interested in trying to recover what I would call the great awakening of the 1960s. Not a religious awakening but a political awakening, which challenged every kind of authority, including the war-making in Vietnam—which in my mind, even as a young kid, struck me as very positive. I thought it would change us forever for the better, naively. The other recovery I thought we needed because of the historical post-Vietnam amnesia that you alluded to is trying to recover a sense of that—now we are talking about religion—deep, fervent faith in American exceptionalism, the idea that we’re always a force for good in the world, a beacon, a supporter of democracy, freedom and human rights. Of course, that really explodes in the ’60s, this fundamental challenge to the [exceptionalist] concept. It struck me that it’s not just sort of left-wingers who think it was broken apart by Vietnam. I quote Henry Kissinger early in the book as mourning the death [of the idea].

Henry says remarkable things sometimes, doesn’t he?

He does. This was the big casualty we’re most worried about. Not the 3 million Vietnamese or 58,000 Americans. So that, along with what you’re saying, the book’s an effort to document and assess the ways Vietnam came gradually into the American consciousness after World War II and how our views changed quite radically through the ’60s, and then how the memory of the war gets repackaged in a way that’s much more palatable for American sensibilities.

This word “revelation” caught me as I read, Vietnam as a moment of revelation. Was a certain self-revelation inevitable at some point, given the arc of American history since 1898 or, depending on how you’re counting, Jackson’s Indian wars or the “self-and-other” paranoia of the 18th century? Was America fated to come face to face with itself one way or another? I suppose the question is, What’s the larger context of Vietnam?

We might have expected that the idea of American exceptionalism would’ve crashed and burned much earlier.

It keeps popping back up like one of those inflatable dolls with a weight in its foot.

Of course, it has been around with us for centuries. There was the famous sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 as the British sailed into Boston Harbor, in which John Winthrop said, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of the world are upon us.”

So it started then?

It’s often marked as the origin of the thought. But the conquest of the continent, displacement of native people, an aggressive war against Mexico, the history of slavery, the counter-insurgency in the Philippines and many other moments in our history—all of it evoked criticism and resistance. There has been a narrative of dissent throughout our history. But nothing quite challenged the [exceptionalist] idea as the ’60s did in the Vietnam context.

Do we want to say that the American story, fully and honestly developed, is a story of unresolved identity? I mean, our identity consists of an ever-unresolved identity as to who we truly are? It’s there from 1630 onward, and it doesn’t get much earlier.

One indication of how profound the revelatory aspects of the 1960s were is that it in the historical profession the period generated this re-questioning of every part of our history. There were some progressive historians going back a hundred years who had already started that process, but in many ways—I studied in the ’70s and consider myself a beneficiary of all the thinking that was generated in the ’60s. There was a whole new approach to doing history (which very quickly became a cliché), that we should do history from the bottom up and that everybody’s history counts.

I take it you consider this profound identity crisis unresolved. It is resolvable?

I’m not that optimistic that it’s going to be resolved soon.

Can I backtrack briefly? My earlier point was that our identity may be a people who live eternally with an identity crisis.

Yes, I agree, I like the phrase: Our identity is to have an identity crisis. To resolve it requires us to dispense with this idea of American exceptionalism. It’s very dangerous. First, because it is not substantiated by the historical record. Second, because it creates more animosity in the world than it does friends. It’s completely annoying to the rest of the world. And third, the effort to maintain a military basis for the claim has us all over the globe with nearly 1,000 military bases and is unsustainable economically. But for the idea behind all this to go—that’s a tricky matter. I think Americans have the capacity to be self-critical. If you ask Americans, “What do you think of public schools?” for example, they could be super critical. “What do you think of our roads and bridges?” “What do you think of Congress?” Approval ratings lower than 10 percent.

But you can’t find this on the foreign side.

I think even in foreign policy Americans tend to be more dovish than our leaders. Even there we can be critical, if we’re not indifferent. That is something to come back to: Why there isn’t more outrage. But when you ask Americans still if it is the greatest country on earth, you get a big majority saying yes. I think people want us to be exceptional. I think people want us to live up to our ideals, so it’s not necessarily just a kind of careful objective or empirical analysis of things as they are but what people want them to be.

I want to talk about memory and forgetting. You mention the great forgetting, and we are the world’s champion forgetters at this point. How do you see that? What do you see as the causes and, more important, the consequences?

One of the things historians of memory always say is that remembering is also forgetting because when you remember one thing you are displacing or forgetting another. So we, in the decades after 1975, found a way to remember the war that displaced many of its most troubling aspects and substituted one kind of mourning for another.

There was a kind of national mourning, but it was all about what came to be known as “an American tragedy.” This allowed us to stop thinking so much about what we actually did in and to Vietnam and to lick our own wounds and think about the ways that it had divided us—all those things people like Ronald Reagan said the war had hurt, if not destroyed: our natural pride, our international prestige and most of all our power.

There was a kind of reconstruction project, and much of it took place at the level of memory and public discourse about the past. It’s amazing how successful that project was. Of course, memory can’t be defeated or completely erased. There is a legacy of dissent that continues in these decades. There is certainly an incredible proliferation of literature, much of it expressing dissenting viewpoints, but at the broad level of collective or public memory, this epic event gets reduced to a tiny set of images. Most of them focused on the American combat soldier. Some small unit of Americans walking through very menacing and dangerous jungle environments and endangered, physically and psychologically. That’s a way of worrying about what the war did to us, particularly to our own soldiers. I still have students who grew up persuaded that maybe the most shameful thing about the war was the way we treated returning veterans. That’s a classic example of how we transformed [Vietnam] into an American tragedy.

It’s complicated question because we didn’t treat them well, but it’s hardly the most shameful thing about the war, and I think that’s your point.

Right. And what needs to be pointed out is the most shameful abuser of veterans was the government itself, for having first of all lied to everyone, including soldiers, about the war’s origins and conduct and the realities of Vietnam, and when they came home failing to provide the kind of support and services that had been offered to earlier generations of veterans.

What are the consequences of this form of remembering and forgetting? Do you know this quotation from Ernest Renan in “What Is a Nation”? “A nation is a people who remember certain things together and also forget certain things.” Vietnam seems to me a rather outsized occasion for forgetting with, for my money, extremely large consequences, since we’re living with these consequences. What’s your take on this?

The most obvious and dangerous consequence is that after 9/11, we embarked on a set of open-ended and apparently endless wars with amazing parallels to Vietnam. Once again, we embarked on wars under false pretexts in far-away countries where our military was perceived as an unwelcome foreign invader in defense of governments that didn’t have popular support, and there’s no successful conclusion. Since we formally left Iraq in December 2011, we’ve gone off to other places by way of drone warfare, and now we’ve even gone back into Iraq. The very enemies who weren’t there to begin with are there because of our interventions.

And you read this from your corner as a direct consequence of our failure to recall the war?

I do. History has no clear lessons and they’re always contested, but there is what we didn’t learn from the experience. And what we did learn were unfortunately the wrong lessons at the highest levels. But, again, I think the public is not entirely blameless because we do, to the extent that we still adhere to this idea of America as “indispensable,” to take Madeleine Albright’s phrase, and a force for good in the world. We still hang on to this, and it allows us to acquiesce as the war-makers continue.

I suppose the real question here is whether we should look at Vietnam singularly or as the logical or illogical outcome of, again, our arc of history, our stance, let’s say since 1898.

The origins of the modern American empire are deeper than Vietnam, for sure. We’ve been building it for 75 years. I think it begins with World War II.

Do you? I’d put it to the Spanish-American War.

Well, that’s why I said “the modern American empire.” Clearly, the real American empire begins much earlier than 1898. We did actually rethink things in an interesting way after World War I. The public and even a significant number of people in places of power really begin to doubt whether that war was a legitimate American intervention. But with the legacy of World War II, what was taken out of that and launched us on to the present was this notion that we had stood by while fascism was on the rise [in the 1930s]. The lesson policy makers took from that was that never again should aggression be allowed to spread without our intervening. Even after the Cold War this continues. We look forward with this unquestioned idea that we must be the world’s hegemon and, if we don’t take that role, chaos and disorder will ensue. To the extent we continue to assert imperial power, we’re unable truly to look forward—or backward—and we create more disorder and animosity.

We cannot see that.

We don’t seem to see it. I don’t think you can be a part of the foreign-policy machine and the tiny elite that conducts policy unless you buy into this assumption—that we really are a necessary force for good.

I’ve constructed a sort of psychological progression within the frame of your book. We had defeat in April ’75. We had, with Carter, a half-hearted effort to accept defeat and reflect constructively. While Carter got shouted down, I’m convinced he’ll have his revisionist historian one day. He wasn’t the milquetoast we were supposed to think he was.

Yes, there was that famous speech he gave.

“The malaise speech” you note in the book.

He doesn’t actually use the term, but, in any case, he gives an historical analysis that is quite striking.

Exactly. So, defeat, Carter’s incomplete effort to accept it, and then a massive embrace of denial, which I consider a huge bad investment. And we keep throwing good money after bad. In ’89, when the [Berlin] Wall came down, a moment of illusory affirmation. This is why it’s vitally important for us to claim credit for the Soviet collapse, which is absolutely wrong. Then in 2001, a moment of unforgiving truth that set us on a really remarkable course. That’s my progression. In biblical terms, we went from the New Testament’s  humanism back to Old Testament revenge and retribution. I wonder if there isn’t even a kind of psychological impulse here: We went back to the Puritan notion of justice. This is my third progression.

That’s smart, and you date this from ’75 to the present, but I think that perfectly encapsulates the entire period of the book, from the ’50s to the present.

From the Tom Dooley days on.

Exactly, because Dooley was New Testament: more confident, expansive, confident that we could, in fact, bring the blessings of Americanism to the world. We no longer have that confidence. We have this victim mentality, that there are evildoers out there and we are the seat of virtue, but very little confidence now. Bush may say that he wants to bring light to the benighted, but I think it’s a much more defensive, brittle, even xenophobic kind of conception.

Was this advance or regression into victimhood and hollow triumphalism a conscious or unconscious matter? It seems to me that the more intractable aspect would be the unconscious aspect, because it’s an animal drive.

The effort to reconstruct American nationalism after Vietnam has both conscious and unconscious aspects. How else could you explain, for example, the construction of a new form of American heroism? When we were growing up, the common definition was that a hero is someone who puts his or her life on the line for a noble cause. In the decades after Vietnam, we modified that and came up with an idea that if you simply put on a uniform in service of the country— either in the military or the fire department or the police— you are conferred a kind of automatic hero status.

Some people may be more heroic than others, but the way we pay homage to military service in this very empty way... It’s in the culture and the commercials. Every time you turn on a football game there’s a flag-waving memorial to military service. I think that comes out of the Vietnam war and a search to recover a sort of pride in the American nation. That brand of patriotism has deep roots, but it became ever more reflexive in the 1980s and especially after 9/11. It pops up in all kinds of weird places. It first became most noticeable at the time of the Iran hostage crisis, when these 52 Americans suffered this ordeal. To suffer an ordeal is not inherently heroic, and yet they came home to this unbelievable hero's welcome.

We’ve confused heroes and victims.

Yes, exactly. Rambo was kind of the classic victim-hero.

Bless you for watching those movies! The unconscious element is rather prominent, in any case. Do you agree?

I do.

I was reading Staughton Lynd's old book [“The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism”], which says resistance during Vietnam expressed itself by way of Enlightenment ideals. O.K., but Nietzsche had already advised us that Enlightenment thought would prove not enough; we have to reinvent atop it. What about the form dissent takes?

The variety of dissent in the ’60s is almost irreducible. It’s so hard to generalize either Enlightenment thought or something more mixed and complex. In the post-Vietnam period, it’s interesting how the dissent of the ’60s has been reduced— just as the war has been reduced— to this small set of images: The image of the anti-war movement has sort of become Jane Fonda.

A dismissible, marginal...

Right, exactly. In fact it included, by the end, elements of labor, there were campus-based elements, every religious denomination was involved. Even business eventually turned against the war. Their protest, of course, was not in the streets, but it was not insubstantial in helping to explain the end of the war.

It has obvious roots in the civil rights movement; King's eloquent anti-war testimony in his famous 1967 speech at Riverside Church hits the variety of elements that you’re suggesting here. It’s not just an Enlightenment recognition that reality doesn’t square with our ideals, but a darker sense of the root of the nation. It goes beyond Vietnam. King says that; it’s not just a matter of getting out of this one war. We have to change who we are as a people and unless we overcome our tribalism we’re never going to come close to overcoming militarism— by which King really meant imperialism— or materialism— by which he really meant capitalism.

You don't have to go even as far as European social democracy.  You need simply to go back to the ideals this country was founded on and proceed from there. Is this possible?

To go back to those original ideals?

Look, it was very few years before we abandoned them, one way or another. Maybe our true identity is a people without ideals. What’s your thought?

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to return to some of the founding ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence or, for that matter, even in the Constitution. Whether this would solve our problems or not, at least it would be a step in the right direction for us to have a foreign policy, for example, in which Congress took its Constitutional responsibility to decide matters of war and peace and to actually challenge this ever-more imperial presence.

Even these “authorization of military force” resolutions in place of declarations of war, simply defer authority to the executive under the pretense of debate. It simply puts Congress in a position of rubber-stamping the president.

Remember the pictures in Life magazine of the Soviet Duma with all hands up? If that isn’t our current....

Wayne Morse, who was one of the two people to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution [in 1964], called for a people’s foreign policy. He used that phrase!

My concern with this question of Enlightenment ideals is that the exceptionalist story is actually woven into those ideals; the idea that we are doing something that has not been done before.

A new order, yes.

I want to move into the question of passivity, which profoundly disappoints me. Relative to the ’60s, it’s one of the heartbreaks of our period. What’s your take on the public’s passivity toward, say, American responsibility in the Ukraine crisis? We installed another murdering dictator in Cairo and no one gives a damn. How do you view this?

It’s very discouraging. It’s not that the American public is gung-ho about our role in the world. I think the majority of Americans are disgusted, actually, sick and tired of all of these wars, but feel powerless to do anything about it. I think the war-making machine is so powerful and so longstanding that people feel it to be impervious to change. It's almost as if it has a life of its own.

The deep state, as some people say.

Along with that, it’s possible for the vast majority of us to go on with our lives in wartime without any consciousness that we’re at war. We have the strongest military in the world and we spend more on it than the rest of the world combined, but still the cohort of people that are on these deployments is less than 1%. That’s why some people think what might get people more energized is the return of the draft. First of all, I don’t think that's going to happen; it has no political support. My own recommendation— and this also has no political support— is to have a massive war tax. You really soak the rich. You triple their taxes; if you want to have these wars, pay for them. That would really bring some challenges to it. [laughs]

The leadership appears to have absolutely no intention whatsoever of changing course. As you said, if you want to sit at the table you have to be drinking their water. Not a single voice of any influence comes forward to suggest an alternative. How do you see this? How do you explain it? How does one respond?

When you’re in these positions, even people like John Kerry— who once, decades ago, was an eloquent critic of the very military and political establishment he presides over now— lose all that critical edge that would make any kind of fundamental challenge to the premise that American power is necessary and indispensable. To challenge it, it’s going to take something from below that won’t necessarily take the same form as ’60s protest. It’s a very different time, and there’s very little confidence that street protests do anything, though one of the things that made the Occupy movement so surprising is that people did come out, permanently, into the streets. It was a fascinating thing. It’s going to take something like that and some radical change, obviously, in our political system, in the way we elect people, in the kind of people we elect to office.

There are some good people in Congress, but obviously not enough. There are people like Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others who are willing to fundamentally rethink our role in the world, but that has to expand tremendously to get any kind of traction.

You summarize one of Obama's speeches as making the point that people and nation are one, and that’s a very important lie. The question is, What do we mean when we use the word “we”? The divorce of power from citizenry is radical now. Is there a “we” we can truly talk about?

It is dangerous when we conflate the royal “we” of the government and the national “we,” as in “We the people,” because they are not the same, but this usage is commonplace nonetheless. I do think there is such a thing as national identity, obviously, but I am at pains to distinguish between government policy and national mood.

Obama is great at convincing us of this national “we” being one and the same as our role in the world, and that’s why they’re always saying things, as Obama did in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, that those who dove in to help the survivors, that’s who we are as a nation. If you want to understand how we respond to evil, this is it—fearlessly, selflessly, that’s who we are. Then, of course, when we have a massacre in Kandahar or troops are photographed urinating on corpses, all of these examples pile up and yet the president and Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta always say the same thing: “This is not who we are.”

Never mind the great long record indicating that it is who we are.


The moral and political reckoning your book indicates is imperative on every single page— what are the instruments by which this reckoning can be completed? I name two myself: history and language.

Yes, the rectification of names and language and memory is a huge part of the project. It's not going to change things overnight— no book can do that much— but it does add up.

This is the story of the true relevance of good scholarship, right? Scholarship is irrelevant when it’s not good, honest, authentic.

This book relies deeply, as every book does, on other people’s work. There have been hundreds of very serious, important monographs on very small aspects of this story; I was surprised when I first started to think about this book that there weren’t more like it because it seems to me such an obvious question to raise, the broad question of the war’s impact on us as a culture and a people. In fact, it had not actually been done very much.

The Reaganesque pose of American strength: I assume you’re on for the idea that it is, more than anything else, an expression of fear and weakness.

I am. I might even say that the conception of masculinity that has so underwritten American foreign policy forever has undergone a shift toward something reflecting a deep insecurity and real psychological weakness. You see this among real policy makers and in popular cultural expressions. One thing that’s interesting about that Rambo character, if you watch the movies, is that as overdetermined as his masculinity is— the films make Tarzan look like a wimp— underneath it he’s a very fragile person. He’s dragged out by his commanding officer; he’s reduced to tears.

You ask, Who are we? But you didn’t tell us who we are. I want it straight, no chaser: Who are we? Are we frightened? Are we hopelessly confused? Are we propagandized beyond retrieval? Are we in some sort of regenerative phase?

You kind of hit on it: I do think we remain in a profound national identity crisis. We really don’t know who we are. We have a set of stock images that have been with us for ages and they’ve worn out; Vietnam turned them upside-down. We’re like Humpty Dumpty, in the decades after Vietnam, trying to cobble the pieces back together again, but it is a very fragmented figure. We don’t have a clear national “we” anymore, so in that sense the next 50 years might be very interesting because we’re changing every day. Where we are 50 years from now could actually look very different.

I often urge readers to find the optimism buried in the pessimism. A lot of things in this country have to collapse before we make any progress, so let’s hope they collapse. Do you agree?

My optimism comes from a sense that change does happen, that history is not inevitable, that change often comes when you least expect it. This climate-change movement is important, so I hope that doesn’t collapse. I hope the environment really doesn’t— it can’t. I do think that movement, which is gaining steam even on campuses, they are starting to make connections between other issues, like foreign policy. Any effort to change our reliance on fossil fuels, for example, can’t be done only at a local or a national level; it has to be global, so there has to be this reliance on that old-fashioned thing called diplomacy.

Do you think we live in a democracy?

We don’t live in a vibrant democracy or, for that matter, even a vibrant republic, because we’ve operated as an empire for so long. The institutions that sustain empire do degrade democracy; they can’t coexist. It goes back to what we said about people feeling powerless. Empire thrives on the unaccountable exercise of power, and that further enlarges the gap between the kind of government that still exists— we still elect people to office— but it could obviously be much more genuine and thorough. It would be a great thing if we had the ability to make decisions in more aspects of our life.

The history of American foreign policy is the history of a sequestered elite. This has to be addressed. I hope it is....

Me, too.


By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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