We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.
—Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (1974)
“I didn’t know there was a bad war,” George Evans recalled. He grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Starting at age six, before and after school, he helped his father deliver blocks of ice to poor working-class people who could not afford the shiny new refrigerators advertised in all the magazines.
George understood that the American Dream was beyond the grasp of his parents and most of their friends and neighbors. He was a streetwise kid.He knew life was difficult and the future uncertain.
But there was one thing George trusted completely—his nation’s military power and the good that it did. With all his heart he believed the United States was on the side of justice and freedom and all our wars were noble.
Despite personal hardships, you could always count on Americans to be the good guys, and always victorious. It was simply unimaginable that the United States might betray that faith. “I was raised in a family and neighborhood of extreme patriots,” George explains. “My father was the commander of his VFW post and I got to go to the club and hang out with the veterans. I was their little mascot.” He especially looked forward to Flag Day, when he would help the World War II vets decorate the graves in a military cemetery. “Imagine how beautiful it looked to a kid to see hundreds of graves in a geometric pattern, all with shining bronze plates and flags waving in the wind. You just can’t exaggerate the pull of the military on kids from neighborhoods like mine. Everything you’d seen and heard your whole life made it feel inevitable and right.”
But George’s faith in America’s global goodness was forever destroyed in Vietnam, where he served as an air force medic. “I realized that the country I was from was not the country I thought it was.” One day at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay he was ordered to clean the bodies of two young Vietnamese boys. They were dead. As he was sponging one of them with soapy water, a Vietnamese woman raced into the room. She must have been the mother, but George wasn’t sure. “I’ll never forget her face. I can see her still. I remember her hitting me on the chest, grabbing me. Then she was running back and forth between the two bodies, from child to child.” George later learned that the boys were hit by an American military truck driver who may have been competing with other drivers over “who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like ‘gook hockey.’ ”
With the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U. S. history has demanded more soul-searching than the war in Vietnam. The false pretexts used to justify our intervention, the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare, the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw despite public opposition, and the stunning failure to achieve our stated objectives—these harrowing realities provoked a profound national identity crisis, an American reckoning. The war made citizens ask fundamental questions: Who are we? What defines us as a nation and a people? What is our role in the world? Just as the Civil War forced Americans to confront the reality of slavery, an institution that stood in glaring contradiction to the nation’s avowed ideals of human freedom and equality, the Vietnam War compelled millions of citizens to question the once widely held faith that their country is the greatest force for good in the world, that it always acts to advance democracy and human rights, that it is superior in both its power and its virtue. And just as the Civil War ended slavery without resolving racism and racial injustice, the Vietnam War ended without resolving the conflicting lessons and legacies of America’s first defeat.
The Vietnam War still matters because the crucial questions it raised remain with us today: Should we continue to seek global military superiority? Can we use our power justly? Can we successfully intervene in distant lands to crush insurgencies (or support them), establish order, and promote democracy? What degree of sacrifice will the public bear and who among us should bear it? Is it possible for American citizens and their elected representatives to change our nation’s foreign policy or is it permanently controlled by an imperial presidency and an unaccountable military-industrial complex?
Our answers to those questions are shaped by the experience and memory of the Vietnam War, but in ways that are cloudy and confusing as well as contested. I believe we could make better contributions to our current debates if we had a clearer understanding of that war’s impact on our national identity, from its origins after World War II all the way to the present. But this is not a conventional chronological history. There are already many good ones. Nor am I interested in irresolvable speculation about how the war might have turned out differently if only other decisions had been made or alternative strategies pursued. I want instead to explore the ways the war changed our national self-perception. It is such an important and even obvious subject you might assume it has been thoroughly examined and exhausted. After all, there is now a vast literature about various aspects of the Vietnam War—so many books we don’t even have a precise count and no one could possibly read them all. Surprisingly, however, only a small number have taken on this topic and none have tracked it over a six-decade span. My ambition, therefore, is not just to enrich our understanding of the Vietnam War, but to show how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our nation’s global role from the early days of the Cold War to the wars of the twenty-first century.
To do so, I have drawn on a great variety of sources—everything from movies, songs, memoirs, novels, and advertisements to official documents, polling data, media coverage, Pentagon studies, government propaganda, presidential speeches, and contemporary commentary. And, of course, I have relied on a long list of superb scholars and journalists whose work made this one possible.
My main argument is 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.” Because that term has been bandied about so much in recent years as a political slogan and a litmus test of patriotism, we need to be reminded that it has deep roots and meaning throughout our history. In many ways the nation was founded on the faith that it was blessed with unrivaled resources, freedoms, and prospects. So deep were those convictions they took on the power of myth—they were beyond debate. Dissenting movements throughout our history did little to challenge the faith.
That’s what made the Vietnam War’s impact so significant. Never before had such a wide range of Americans come to doubt their nation’s superiority; never before had so many questioned its use of military force; never before had so many challenged the assumption that their country had higher moral standards.
Of course, the faith in American exceptionalism has hardly disappeared.Countless times since the Vietnam War our presidents have invoked it in support of wars and interventions around the world. Although the public has been more reluctant to use military force than its leaders, there is still substantial support for the idea that our power is benign and that America remains a singularly admirable nation. That’s why virtually everyone who runs for higher office in the United States pledges allegiance to the creed.
Yet even many ardent believers understand that the faith is no longer as broad or assured as it was before the Vietnam War. In 2000, for example, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the war’s end, Henry Kissinger wrote: “One of the most important casualties of the Vietnam tragedy was the tradition of American ‘exceptionalism.’ The once near-universal faith in the uniqueness of our values—and their relevance around the world—gave way to intense divisions over the very validity of those values and the lengths we should go to promote and defend them.” Kissinger had been almost as responsible as President Richard Nixon for prolonging the Vietnam War an additional six years. When it finally ended in 1975, 58,000 Americans had died, and three million Vietnamese. Yet in 2000 Kissinger chose to mourn the loss of American exceptionalism. For him, there was nothing so terrible about the war to justify any doubt about our nation’s superiority. Unlike Kissinger, many others believed the war exposed American exceptionalism as a dangerous myth. They did not regret its passing. National aggrandizement had led the United States into an unjust and unwinnable war. In Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, for example, John Converse is a disillusioned American journalist in Vietnam who persuades an old Marine Corps buddy to smuggle heroin into the United States. As they discuss the deal, with gunfire in the background, Converse says: “We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.”
The war, he implies, was a kind of awakening. It enabled Americans to recognize their capacity for bloodlust and evil. His friend Ray Hicks offers a witheringly sardonic comment about the price of that awakening: “What a bummer for the gooks,” he says. Americans were learning hard truths about themselves and their nation on the backs of a people they dehumanized and killed and whose country they wrecked. It was an expensive education and Vietnam bore by far its greatest cost. For many people, major reappraisals came slowly, a testament to their deep trust in American institutions and values. In the 1950s and early 1960s, before the major military escalation in Vietnam and the shocking revelations it brought, Americans had remarkable faith in their elected officials.
Until the mid-1960s, roughly three-quarters of Americans told pollsters they trusted the government to do the right thing. Therefore, when public leaders announced that the United States was in Vietnam to save the people of South Vietnam from Communist aggression and to defend freedom and democracy, few challenged the accuracy of the claim or the necessity of the commitment. And when Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy said the struggle in Vietnam was required to prevent Communism from taking over one nation after another like tumbling dominoes until our own shores would be directly imperiled, that seemed not just a reasonable theory, but a frightening possibility. And the broad acceptance of Cold War policies was bolstered by the era’s equally broad religiosity. The idea that the United States was engaged in a godly crusade against atheistic Communism was not an extreme position in the 1950s, but part of everyday discourse.
It was still unimaginable to most Americans that their own nation would wage aggressive war and justify it with unfounded claims, that it would support antidemocratic governments reviled by their own people, and that American troops would be sent to fight in countries where they were widely regarded not as liberators, but as imperialist invaders. Of course, there were cracks in the Cold War consensus even in the 1950s—the emergence of a mass struggle for civil rights, new forms of dissenting art, literature, and music, early signs of a growing youth culture, and the critical perspectives of older left-wing activists and intellectuals whose challenges to state and corporate power dated back to the intense political struggles of the 1930s. Even so, it is hard today to recover a full sense of how effectively the dominant Cold War culture blanketed the nation with an uncritical acceptance of America’s right and responsibility to intervene overseas. But as the Vietnam War continued, year after year, that faith declined dramatically. Alarming evidence mounted that the United States was doing exactly the opposite of what its leaders claimed. Instead of saving South Vietnam, U. S. warfare was destroying it. South Vietnam was not an independent nation, but wholly dependent on American support. The United States did not make progress by amassing huge body counts of enemy killed, but only convinced more Vietnamese that it was a foreign aggressor.
Prolonging the war did not preserve American credibility; it only did further damage to the nation’s reputation.As citizens came to reject their government’s claims, many also shed the once commonplace assumption that Americans place a higher value on life than foreign foes. That faith was eviscerated by the vision of U. S. soldiers burning down the homes of Vietnamese peasants and forcing millions off their ancestral land; the incessant U. S. bombing, year after year, with nothing to show for it but further death and destruction; and the indelible images from My Lai, where an American company of infantrymen slaughtered five hundred unarmed, unresisting Vietnamese civilians.
By 1971, 58 percent of Americans had concluded that the war in Vietnam was not just a mistake, but immoral. More than at any time in our past, broad sections of the public, cutting across lines of class, gender, race, and religion, rejected the claim that American military power was an invincible force for good. Many concluded that the United States was as capable of wrongdoing as any nation or people, if not more so. And by 1973, when the final U. S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, only a quarter of Americans still trusted the government to do the right thing.
Critics of the war were not the only ones whose faith in American exceptionalism was damaged or destroyed. Pro-war hawks were also disillusioned. They agonized over the U. S. failure in Vietnam. Why had the greatest military power in world history been unable or unwilling to prevail against a small, poor, agricultural people? What happened to the America that had rallied so magnificently to defeat Fascism in World War II? Had the protests and divisions of the 1960s forever destroyed our national will and patriotism? And how would the world ever respect us again knowing that we abandoned the Vietnamese government we had so long supported? For the political right, defeat in Vietnam was an intense motivator. Conservatives were determined to rebuild everything they thought the war had destroyed—American power, pride, prestige, and patriotism. Above all, they wanted to resuscitate a faith in American supremacy. Their restoration project was a key factor in the rightward movement of American culture and politics in the decades after Vietnam. It depended, in part, on efforts to redefine the political and moral meanings of the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 saying Vietnam had been a “noble cause”—a war that should have been fought and could have been won. Only a core of hard-line conservatives agreed with that, but many more voters agreed with Reagan’s claim that the country and its military had been badly weakened and unfairly attacked by the protest movements of the 1960s, liberal politicians, and a biased media.
Right-wing challenges to the patriotism of even mainstream liberal Democratic leaders put many former critics of the Vietnam War on the defensive. Few prominent Americans were eager to continue the passionate debates the war had raised. The most searing evidence of the damage the United States had done in and to Vietnam largely disappeared from public view and consciousness. In its place, a new mainstream consensus emerged around the idea that the Vietnam War had primarily been an American tragedy that had badly wounded and divided the nation. The focus was on healing, not history. Attention turned to those Americans who seemed most obviously wounded by the war—Vietnam veterans. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., completed in 1982, encouraged citizens to honor military veterans without debating the merits or meaning of the wars they fought. In one characteristic piece of mid-1980s rhetoric, Chrysler president Lee Iacocca appeared in an advertisement praising Vietnam veterans “who fought in a time and in a place nobody really understood, who knew only one thing: they were called and they went. . . . That in the truest sense is the spirit of America.”
The war that had once led so many to anguish over their nation’s devastating impact on other lands was increasingly leading citizens to worry about the need to rebuild American pride and power. Fanning that concern was a growing sense of national victimhood, a belief that the country had become the unjustified target of inexplicable foreign threats. Prior to 9/ 11, this belief was fueled most powerfully by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1981, when Americans watched with horror as TV news showed footage of angry Iranian crowds burning American flags and chanting anti‑U. S. slogans. A new nationalism arose—defensive, inward-looking, and resentful.
Along with it came renewed expressions of American exceptionalism but it was a far more embittered and fragile faith than it had been in the decades before the Vietnam War.And for all the pumped‑up patriotism of the post-Vietnam decades—all the chanting of “U. S. A., U. S. A., U. S. A.” and all the chest-pounding TV ads (“The pride is back!”), there was never broad public support for protracted military interventions. Fear of “another Vietnam” permeated the culture, even the ranks of the military. Reagan and his followers argued against what they called the Vietnam syndrome—a dangerous reluctance to use military force. But even advocates of a more aggressive foreign policy were hesitant to pursue policies that might produce high American casualties.
Despite many military interventions in the 1980s and 1990s, fewer than eight hundred American troops lost their lives in warfare during the quarter century after the Vietnam War. The attacks of 9/11 decisively destroyed the cautionary lessons of the Vietnam War, at least among the tiny group of people who formulated American foreign policy. George W. Bush launched a “Global War on Terror” premised on the idea that the United States was an exemplar of all that was good in the world fighting against all that was evil. He started two wars 0that led to protracted occupations and provoked bloody anti-American insurgencies.
Both wars continued long after a majority of Americans had come to oppose them and were further prolonged by Barack Obama, a Democratic president who had been one of the first critics of the Iraq War. Indeed, through drone warfare and the secret deployment of Special Operations Forces to some 120 countries, Obama has extended U. S. military intervention as widely as ever. The size of our domestic and foreign spy network has grown so large no one even knows precisely how to measure it or how much it costs. Nor can anyone say for sure that our global commitment to “homeland security” has made us any safer, or that the animosity our policies engender in faraway places will not further endanger us decades into the future. Nor is there any serious plan at the highest levels of power to change course. If the legacy of the Vietnam War is to offer any guidance, we need to complete the moral and political reckoning it awakened. And if our nation’s future is to be less militarized, our empire of foreign military bases scaled back, and our pattern of endless military interventions ended, a necessary first step is to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world. Only an honest accounting of our history will allow us to chart a new path in the world. The past is always speaking to us, if we only listen.
Excerpted from "American Reckoning" by Christian Appy, published February 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright Christian Appy, 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.