American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. By Christian G. Appy, Penguin, 2016.
Nations seldom exit wars as they entered them. In an important new book, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Chris Appy argues that, though the Vietnam War ended thirty-two years ago, the United States continues to struggle with its results. He even asserts that with “the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U.S. history has demanded more soul-searching than the war in Vietnam,” a conflict that “provoked a profound national identity crisis, an American reckoning” (x). A short list of its impact includes the shattering of “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” (xi-xii).
Few scholars have a better grasp of Vietnam and the workings of the military-industrial complex than Appy. He mines an array of primary sources in this study, but he also understands that popular culture frequently embodies a better understanding of how Americans see their past. Hence, Appy also draws upon movies, advertisements, novels, music, and other such sources in a book that begins with the question, “Who Are We?” and ends with observations of “Who We Are.” The book is divided into three sections: “Why Are We In Vietnam?”, “America at War,” and “What Have We Become?”. An example of Appy’s unorthodox but deeply enlightening approach comes in a chapter titled “Saving Vietnam.” It builds upon Deliver Us From Evil, a 1956 best-selling book from Thomas A. Dooley, which Appy uses to show the deep roots of U.S. misunderstanding of Vietnam, and to place under the microscope Americans’ self-deceptions. This journey takes Apply into the geopolitics of post-World War II, as well as into the sermons of Fulton Sheen, Cecil B. DeMille’s rants on “godless communism,” the exceptionalist pronouncements of Henry Luce, and the naïveté of films like South Pacific.
Scholars won’t find much new in what Appy relates about the illogic of American reasons for entering Vietnam or the inappropriateness of how the war was conducted. His revelations lie in his innovative narrative and in the depth of how various missteps continue to impact society. For example, in his look at American soldiers (“Our Boys”) he sets the stage for understanding the gap between admiration for U.S. warriors and rejection of their cause. It’s hard to find common ground between —on one hand, the film The Green Berets, Barry Sadler’s hyper-patriotic ballad of that title, and Merle Haggard’s middle finger to the counterculture and — on the other hand —revelations of My Lai, the rise of the antiwar movement, former Green Beret Donald Duncan’s excoriation of the American way of war, and the spate of songs and movies critical of the conflict and those who conducted it.
In his final section, Appy turns his capacious mind to Vietnam’s impact. Among its effects is the “Victim Nation” (221-49), a simultaneous sense that American ideals have always been under attack, “willful amnesia” (224) concerning Vietnam, a loss of faith in American institutions, a reconfiguration of GIs as “the primary victims” of the war (241), and a contradictory go-it-alone attitude as seen in films such as Rambo.
Conservatives from Ronald Reagan on have fanned post-Vietnam disillusionment and disunity to argue for a reinvigoration of American supremacy. Indeed, though Appy’s book went to press before the 2016 election, it’s easy to cast Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in this light. But Appy incisively captures the problem facing the sloganeering of both right and left in his chapter “No More Vietnams.” As he captures it in vignettes, such bromides can justify both the 1983 mass force invasion of Grenada and the antiwar activism of Brian Willson four years later.
Appy ends his book with bleak notes and a clarion call. He sees Vietnam in the war in Iraq, noting that it took President Obama three years “to find an exit” for a “war that began in March 2003 with ‘shock and awe’ [and] ended almost nine years later in head-shaking silence” (305). 9/11 brought back American exceptionalism, even support for the idea of empire. These took their place aside new contradictions: the national security state and attempts to manage the news versus leaked revelations of misconduct such as that of David Petraeus and troops at Abu Ghraib; the valorization of Pat Tillman versus a lack of public support for the mission in Iraq; and belief in “global hegemony” versus critiques on the right and left that see it as “expensive, destructive, and antithetical to republican institutions” (319). By 2009, a scant 24% of Americans saw any value in the Iraqi conflict. Shades of Vietnam indeed! But how does one reconcile this with a 2010 poll in which 80% affirmed that the USA has a responsibility to lead the world? You don’t. In Appy’s words, “As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power….” Our best hope is to “seek a fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened…. It is our record; it is who we are” (335).
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst