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…
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…
In his review of American Recokning for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Wecht wrote the following:
Mr. Appy, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, explores American culture to show how our experience with Vietnam affected us. He takes us on a journey across the decades from Tom Dooley’s 1956 Vietnam love story, “Deliver Us From Evil,” through such diverse milestones of film and music as the Rambo and “Top Gun” movies, Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s mournful “Ohio” after the Kent State shootings, and Bruce Springsteen’s ballads.
Mr. Appy explores how, over time, the war cracked the monolithic and idealistic faith in American exceptionalism and shattered the pristine image of the shining City Upon a Hill.
The heroic John Wayne portrait of Green Berets extinguishing a brush fire in a distant land degenerated into a long and bloody slog that — in one way or another — dragged in millions through the draft, or through protest, or through other experiences.
Mr. Appy takes the reader through this history, showing how broad the war’s impact was on American society. His preoccupations in doing so are not military or strategic, but rather cultural and historical.
From Kirkus Review:
Although he [Appy] does not prove that belief in “American exceptionalism” was shattered, the author makes a strong case that the war continues to affect national identity. As the war raged, many soldiers became disillusioned and demoralized by the futility of their mission; at home, a fiery peace movement burgeoned into other areas of social protest, generating widespread “debates and disunity.” After the war, the fall of South Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge’s victory in Cambodia generated concerns about American culpability for the volatile political situation in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, President Gerald Ford, rather than call for “a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, called for a ‘great national reconciliation,’ ” which the author characterizes as a call for “a willful amnesia.” In the 1980s, protest over Ronald Reagan’s Central American policies seems to Appy evidence of “a broad public skepticism about military intervention” that, some feared, might result in another Vietnam. Nevertheless, writes the author, despite “all the heated rhetoric about the Vietnam syndrome, it never produced a drastic military downsizing or demobilization.” What it did produce was intolerance for more protracted wars with high American casualties. That intolerance, though, ended on 9/11. As the author admits, government leaders still unabashedly proclaim that U.S. power is justified “because it would be used only as a force for good.”
For generations who know the Vietnam War largely through movies and fiction, this well-informed and impassioned book is an antidote to forgetting and an appeal to reassess America’s place in the world.
Click here to read America’s not a force for good: The truth about our most enduring — and harmful — national myth by Christian Appy.
‘American Reckoning’: A thoughtful look at Vietnam and the mistakes we keep making (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)