Over at Salon, there’s an excerpt from Christian G. Appy’s new book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, which was published by Viking in February. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of two previous books on the Vietnam War. Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides was a main selection of BOMC and won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction.
In his new book, Appy posits that the myth of American exceptionalism is a lie—and that our country has not been a force for good. Appy believes that “only an honest accounting of our actual history will allow us to chart a new path.”
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…