The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, yet this brutal episode continues to haunt America and affect our foreign policy, our culture, and our national identity.
The war left more than 58,000 Americans dead in combat and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese dead, including many civilians. Indeed, U.S. wartime policy encouraged the dislocation and destruction of civilians in the war zone. And the catastrophic war left the idea of American exceptionalism in tatters as the conflict came to be seen by many citizens as unnecessary and immoral, undermining the basic American belief that the United States is the greatest force for good in the world.
In his wide-ranging book "American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity" (Viking), historian Christian Appy explores the complex history of the war, from the Cold War fear and idealism that led to the initial American involvement to the ruthless and seemingly endless and grotesque conflict that perplexed the military, devastated Vietnam, and fueled an antiwar movement at home. Appy also looks at the aftermath of the war, analyzing the amnesia and pumped up patriotism in its wake as well as the wariness of further military intervention. But, as Appy observes, historical memory faded and policy makers after 9/11 ignored the lessons of Vietnam, launching protracted and indecisive wars in the Middle East as an imperial presidency directed foreign affairs without the consent of the citizenry.
In his study of the Vietnam War and its legacy, Appy considers official documents, personal narratives, and cultural artifacts including books, music, and movies. His thoughts on works from the movies "Rambo," "Platoon" and "Top Gun" to the writing of Michael Herr, Richard Stone, Robin Moore, and Tim O’Brien and the music of Bruce Springsteen and others reveal the complex and contradictory artistic responses to the war.
"American Reckoning" has been praised for its original research, compelling narrative, and fresh perspective on recent history. For example, historian Nick Turse commented: “A triumph of originality. Appy weaves together a rich tapestry of sources into a completely innovative, eye-opening, and compulsively readable account of the Vietnam War and its far-reaching consequences. 'American Reckoning' offers a fresh lens for understanding the United States in the context of its most controversial conflict as well as its twenty-first-century wars.”
Professor Appy, you’re a renowned expert on the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. What prompted you to study the war? Was there a special incident or the experience of a friend or mentor that inspired your work?
No, certainly nothing dramatic. How I became so intensely committed to the subject remains something of a mystery to me. I grew up just in the wake of the Vietnam generation, turning 18 the year the draft ended in 1973 and the last U.S. troops were withdrawn. I didn’t have any friends or family who served in Vietnam. Nor was I close to anyone deeply involved in the antiwar movement. But even kids like me who were relatively sheltered from the turmoil of the age could feel the powerful political and emotional undertow caused by that war—a testament to its powerful penetration of our home front culture.
I had my first really heated political argument on May 5, 1970 with a ninth grade classmate who believed the students killed at Kent State got what they deserved. I remember feeling that the war had awakened the country to many of its failings and we might therefore be all the better because of it. That proved more than a little naïve, but by the time I got to college, and especially graduate school, I felt a kind of moral obligation to educate myself much more fully about the war.
You have presented a sort of people’s history of the Vietnam War, especially with your books "Working-Class War" and "Patriots." How did you come to tell the story of the war in this way?
It was really a product of my undergraduate education at Amherst College in the mid-1970s where I was the beneficiary of some of the best new thinking to emerge from the New Left and the political activism that reshaped every academic discipline. Thanks to my wonderful mentor Barry O'Connell (and other teachers, including Leo Marx and George Kateb), I began to think that an academic life need not be “merely academic” (to use that awful phrase) but profoundly relevant and that there were no limits to what subjects might be examined. I was particularly taken by the idea of doing history “from the bottom up.” In those days that idea was not yet a cliché, but an inspiring call to action. I first imagined I might be a labor historian and did an undergraduate honors essay on Appalachian coal miners.
"Working-Class War" began as a Ph.D. dissertation and was spurred on by the intuition that studying combat veterans would teach me far more about the war in Vietnam than official documents and would also be a way to continue my commitment to the social history of people whose experiences and opinions might be overlooked or discredited.
Can you please remind readers of why you called the Vietnam War a “working-class war”?
Because the evidence I found indicated that roughly 80 percent of the men who served in Vietnam came from poor or working-class families. The draft system of the era was class-biased in ways that allowed men with greater economic means far more opportunity to avoid military service or to find forms of service (like the military reserves) that kept them out of Vietnam. And few men of privilege volunteered. I had a personal sense of this as a teenager living in an affluent, almost entirely white, Connecticut suburb where almost everyone went to college and very few kids were drafted or enlisted.
Isn’t the military now still basically a working-class institution?
I think so, but there are other scholars who've tracked this far more closely than I, like Beth Bailey ("America's Army"), who might disagree. Her book indicates that an intense, market-oriented approach allowed the military to raise recruiting standards significantly in the 1980s and 1990s. However, much of the focus of all that very expensive recruitment—especially during our apparently endless current wars--are working-class men and women. And since many of them lack attractive alternatives, the all-volunteer force can function as a form of economic conscription.
Your books give the war a human face and you display remarkable empathy in your interviews of those affected by the war, from combatants on both sides to protestors, conscientious objectors and medical personnel. What was helpful for you as an oral historian in locating interviewees and talking with those who often shared traumatic experiences with you?
One of the major challenges of oral history is a simple human one, overcoming any reluctance you might have to ask strangers for help. I got much better at it, but it's not easy. I learned not to complicate the process by over-explaining it. I tried to keep the focus on a simple, honest statement and question: I'm working on a book about people's memories of the war. Will you help me? Once you get a few people to help, it becomes easier to find others. And it turns out most people are willing to talk, and even to share very hard memories, so long as they believe themselves to be in the presence of someone with genuine curiosity who will treat them and their stories with the respect they deserve.
In your new book "American Reckoning," you discuss the idealistic concept of American exceptionalism and how Vietnam undermined this sense of our role in the world. Can you briefly define what you mean by American exceptionalism?
To put it most plainly, it's the belief that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, unrivaled not only it its wealth and power, but in the quality of its institutions and values, and the character of its people. That faith has been with us for centuries and has often had a religious underpinning—the idea that we are providentially destined for our unique mission in the world. When it reached its heyday during World War II and the early Cold War, American exceptionalism was the driving ideological force of our particular brand of imperialism. It was founded on the appealing idea that we are the greatest force for good in the world and therefore have the right and responsibility to assert “global leadership.”
Some commentators contend that the notion of American exceptionalism is founded on our history of slavery, genocide and imperialism. How do you see the origins of this exceptionalism and its role in Vietnam and in U.S. policy today?
Yes, in many ways the political and cultural values and institutions that have shaped American exceptionalism (republicanism, various kinds of freedom, etc.) were constructed on the backs of dispossessed native peoples, enslaved Africans, and, over time, the domination of many foreign lands and people. Of course, the faithful have tended to view all such devastating evidence as insignificant or temporary blemishes along the road to ever greater freedom for all.
The Vietnam War, in my view, was the first experience that shattered that broad faith. Even supporters of the war began to wonder what had happened to the invincible nation that had seemed providentially destined always to triumph. And in the face of war crimes like the My Lai massacre in which a company of U.S. soldiers slaughtered some 500 unarmed and unresisting civilians in 1968, many war supporters proposed that all nations do similarly horrible things in war. Well, that excuse is itself a rejection of a core ingredient of American exceptionalism—the idea that we put a higher price on life than other nations and cultures.
What are a few things readers should know about the origins of the doomed Vietnam War? Some younger people may be surprised that the war was not only waged to stop the spread of communism by supporting a corrupt government but also so the U.S. would “look tough in the world,” as demonstrated by the “aggressively masculine” policies of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. As a historian, how do you see that perceived need to project U.S. power?
Perhaps it’s a tell-tale sign of a dying empire when leaders know that their exercise of military power is failing but they continue the killing nonetheless in a desperate effort to avoid defeat, to avoid humiliation, to avoid looking weak.
I have a chapter called “Paper Tigers” that is really about the significance of gender in prolonging and expanding a war that American leaders believed was failing but did not have the moral courage to stop. Many of these same men had once believed that stopping Communism in Vietnam was significant to the maintenance of American power and a U.S.-dominated global economy, but by the mid-1960s most of them no longer privately felt those were the stakes. Instead, their primary concern was maintaining “credibility” and that really boiled down to preserving an image of national and personal toughness. As National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy put it, the “cardinal principle” of U.S. foreign policy was not to be viewed as a “paper tiger.”
Not only is that, in my view, a kind of insanity, but it didn't work. The longer we stayed in Vietnam the more our international credibility was shredded. It didn't even work for LBJ in personal political terms—the war led him to drop out of the presidential campaign of 1968. As for Nixon, his illegal efforts to silence antiwar criticism (and thus preserve his credibility) were the first crimes of Watergate that ultimately forced him to resign.
The U.S. waged a savage war in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people—more often than not civilians—bore the brunt of the brutal tactics such “free fire zones,” “body counts” to “incentivize death,” forced relocation, and an unprecedented bombing campaign. You vividly recount the cost of the war to both sides. What are a few things people should know about the casualties of the war?
For starters, although American losses were the greatest since World War II—more than 58,000 lives and hundreds of thousands of wounded—if the U.S. had lost as many people as the Vietnamese, proportionate to our population, the “Wall” in Washington would have to include the names of perhaps 20 million people. And bear in mind that had our losses been equivalent to that in Vietnam, more than half of those names would be those of women, children, and other civilians.
Though it is impossible to know precisely how many Vietnamese died, 3 million seems like a reasonable estimate. Tens of thousands more have died since the war by accidentally setting off unexploded ordnance left over from the American war. Uncountable others (including American veterans) have suffered or died as a result of the use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange. And we haven't even mentioned the devastating psychological cost of the war among survivors and their families; nor the casualties of all kinds from the wars in Laos and Cambodia.
At My Lai, U.S. troops killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in one day, but you stress that brutality against civilians was a daily occurrence. The military routinely violated the Geneva Conventions and ignored rules regarding the need to protect civilians. Can you discuss how these atrocities were a product of U.S. policies?
U.S. policymakers understood that they faced an insurgency that had widespread support throughout South Vietnam (despite telling the public that the war was essentially an invasion of northern Communist aggressors against an “independent” South). Given the fact that the Communist-led side had support in villages across South Vietnam, it would have been impossible for U.S. troops to occupy every village. Instead, the military opted for a meat-grinder approach—to simply send its forces on hunting expeditions throughout the countryside hoping they would get into firefights with guerrilla forces and North Vietnamese regulars and kill as many as possible.
With the body count as the central measure of success, soldiers quickly learned that very few commanders were going to be too fussy about whether the Vietnamese they were killing were carrying weapons and were clearly identifiable as enemy troops. And even according to the formal rules of engagement, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces claimed the right to bomb any South Vietnamese village that was known to give some form of support to the Viet Cong.
And we don't give nearly enough attention to the U.S. policy of forcing Vietnamese farmers off their land and putting them in refugee camps or making them fend for themselves by moving to the cities or by building shanty-towns near U.S. bases. Forced relocation was designed to deprive the Viet Cong of civilian support in the countryside and it ultimately displaced 5 to 10 million people. Their ancestral villages were then burned down or bulldozed and proclaimed “free fire zones” where the U.S. claimed the right to fire at anything that moved in the area.
Far from “winning hearts and minds,” policies like these simply served to drive more and more Vietnamese to an anti-government, anti-U.S. position.
You tell the story of Martha Gellhorn, an undaunted war correspondent who reported early in the war on Vietnamese women and children injured and killed by U.S. bullets and napalm. She was later prohibited from entering Vietnam, but other journalists were on the scene as our involvement grew, and they sent back images and words. How do you see the role of the media then as compared to recent reporting from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
That would take another book to answer adequately. First, it's important not to exaggerate the degree to which the media criticized the U.S. role in Vietnam. There's a good reason why hundreds of underground newspapers popped up in those years (including within the military): the mainstream media by and large did not sufficiently challenge official sources (especially before 1968) and the media as a whole was never more antiwar than the public. That said, there was some extraordinary reporting done in Vietnam and the news outlets were far less fragmented than now. Thus, if a searing report managed to make it into Life magazine or onto CBS news (or in the case of that astonishing article that Martha Gellhorn published in Ladies' Home Journal) a huge number of Americans would see it, including many people who supported the war.
Now, people are more likely to “curate” their news, mostly by looking only at sources that confirm their political positions. It is also true that the military has become far better at news management and propaganda than it was during the days of the “Five O' Clock Follies”--the press briefings in Saigon that were laughably unpersuasive.
What was the role of racism in the war, both in term of U.S. perceptions of the Vietnamese and in the service of African-American troops?
African-American troops were the first to recognize and condemn the racist dehumanization of the Vietnamese. That racism has still not been sufficiently acknowledged or examined. During the war, for example, journalist Michael Herr asked a GI what he thought of the domino theory, the idea that the U.S. had to “contain” communism everywhere to defend itself. The withering response: “All that's just a load, man. We're here to kill gooks. Period.”
At home, African-Americans who had once made the “right to fight” a key plank of civil rights protest were now finding themselves carrying a disproportionate load of the fighting in a war that seemed more and more at odds with the freedom struggle at home or abroad. A growing number were drawn to the antiwar messages of Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the anti-imperialist stance of the Black Power Movement.
And racial tension also divided troops in Vietnam. While my interviews with a wide range of veterans confirm that many found an extraordinary level of interracial solidarity in battle, that sense of brotherhood proved all too ephemeral. Back in the rear areas, old divisions and animosities often reasserted themselves and in moments of crisis—such as the aftermath of the King assassination in 1968, bitter racial fights erupted at a number of bases in Vietnam.
And while Vietnam was the first fully integrated war (there were still some segregated units in Korea despite Truman's 1948 executive order formally banning segregation in the military), the percentage of black officers was still tiny and other forms of discrimination persisted as well.
How has the legacy of Vietnam influenced—or haunted—our involvement in unending wars in the Middle East?
Although Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations of the Greater Middle East in which we engage in seemingly endless war are all vastly different from Vietnam (and each other) there are certainly commonalities in the way the U.S. has behaved in all of those places. Once again our troops have been sent to war under false pretexts, in faraway countries in which they are widely perceived as hostile invaders or occupiers, to prop up local regimes that lack the broad support of their own people, and to wage brutal counter-insurgency against an elusive and difficult-to-identify enemy (while also being told somehow to win the hearts and minds of the people). Moreover, our presidents have prolonged these wars, as in Vietnam, long after the American public has turned against them, and once again we have failed to achieve our stated objectives.
What lessons do you hope readers take from your study of the Vietnam War?
First, I hope people think long and hard about the lessons many citizens learned but our leaders have failed to act upon—the need for a vastly scaled back war-making machine and a foreign policy that is far more democratic and accountable to an informed public.
But all of that depends, I think, on achieving another great hope I raise in the book—that we fully and finally dispense with American exceptionalism. I don't think the historical record justifies the faith, it alienates other people and nations (for obvious reasons), and it contributes to public acquiescence to the tiny few who make foreign policy in our name and are all to ready and willing to assure us that they can be trusted to use our “indispensable” power as a force for good in the world.
In discussing our recent history, you have commented on the conflict between the priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent U.S. war machine that those in power are unwilling to challenge. What do you recommend in terms of beginning a shift away from unending war and to dealing with the priorities of citizens?
A great deal must change. One step, as I mentioned, is to toss out American exceptionalism, but that isn't sufficient. Our foreign policy will never be more democratic and more resistant to the military-industrial complex unless our elections no longer require candidates to raise millions (and, at the presidential level, billions) of dollars. That's a key precondition for overcoming the public cynicism about the prospects of making change. I am also hopeful that the global climate justice movement will gain ground and further its connections with anti-imperial and anti-nuclear movements.
How do you view the recent comments by many of the presidential candidates who seem to favor military solutions to problems and further projection of U.S. power?
To be completely blunt, those comments strike me as delusional and reflexive invocations of American exceptionalism based on the threadbare idea that we are a force for stability and peace in the world no matter how glaringly the facts contradict the claim. They remind me of the remark Vice President George H.W. Bush made in 1988 shortly after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers. Running for president at the time, Bush said: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are.”
Is there anything you’d like to add about your work? What are your current projects?
The legacies of World War II now have my attention. I'm especially interested in how “the bomb” has shaped U.S. politics, culture, and protest from Hiroshima to the Global War on Terror. I published an online piece on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan and the response I've received, much of it negative, makes me think this is something I should pursue at greater length. The justifications offered by Truman in 1945 are still with us, perhaps the most persistently embedded legitimizing narrative in our history.
I don't think we can move toward nuclear abolition until the one nation that has used those weapons in war begins to challenge its own dogged rationalizations for their necessity in ending that war. As late as 1995 Congress unanimously passed a resolution claiming that the atomic weapons dropped on Japan brought a “merciful” end to World War II. That language strikes me as completely Orwellian.