American Reckoning: UMass professor’s book looks at the tangled legacy of the Vietnam War

Christian Appy jokes that, to many of the students who take his class about the Vietnam War, the long struggle seems almost like “ancient history.”

But as the University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor sees it, the Vietnam War has left a long, tangled legacy that is still very much with us today.

Appy, who teaches a number of courses on modern American history, is the author of three books on Vietnam, including “Patriots,” an acclaimed 2003 oral history of the war in which he interviewed some 350 people — Americans, Vietnamese, soldiers and generals, journalists, antiwar protesters and government officials — who had been touched by a bitter struggle that cost more than 58,000 American lives and more than 3 million Vietnamese ones.

Appy’s newest book, “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and our National Identity,” offers a different look at the war and its aftermath. Part history, part essay, part cultural study, “American Reckoning” examines how the war affected our national self-perception and how it has come to be viewed today — as well as how it’s shaped our foreign policy in a new century that, so far, has been marked by our involvement in long, indecisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among a number of positive reviews, Kirkus Reviews calls “American Reckoning” an excellent introduction to, and reappraisal of, the Vietnam era: “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.”

In a recent interview in his UMass office, Appy, a 1977 graduate of Amherst College, said his main argument is that for many people, Vietnam shattered the idea of “American exceptionalism.” U.S. involvement in the war, he noted, began at a time when there was a widespread belief among Americans that our country was an unquestioned force for good in the world, that it always acted to advance democracy and human rights, and that our military was invincible. But the war, he says, steadily eroded those notions.

“It took awhile to happen, but eventually that kind of belief, that collective faith in our government and our institutions and our principles, really collapsed,” Appy said. “I wanted to revisit the time before that because I think it’s kind of been forgotten just how deeply convinced most Americans were that our country invariably did the ‘right thing.’ ”

Appy argues that there’s widespread distrust of the government today, a wariness of getting involved in foreign wars that can’t be quickly won, however much public approval there might be for a conflict at first; he points to the dramatic drop in support that occurred for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as fighting dragged on for years.

There’s also a sense of resignation or cynicism among many Americans, he says, about our inability to stop the “permanent war machine” in Washington, D.C., the one that today conducts drone strikes and special forces operations, without restraint, over half the globe, outside the view of the public, the media, or even congress.

Much of this, he believes, stems from our failure to come to grips with the Vietnam War — to, as he writes, “complete the moral and political reckoning” the war awakened. Though not all the distrust of government and general cynicism of today can be traced to Vietnam, he said — Watergate, other political scandals and an all-pervasive media have played their part as well — the war “is still right at the center of this problem.”

College debate

Appy, who’s 60, grew up during the Vietnam War, graduating from high school in Connecticut in 1973, though he says the conflict didn’t have any major impact on him or his family. He does recall his father, a World War II veteran who initially supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, turning against the war and voting for George McGovern, the antiwar candidate, in the 1972 presidential election.

At Amherst College, Appy was exposed to more debate about the subject, including the views of legendary history professor Henry Steele Commager, a one-time exponent of American exceptionalism who came to believe the country had badly lost it bearings in Vietnam. In a 1972 essay that Appy quotes from in his book, Commager said that though we honored Germans who had resisted Hitler, we failed to respect the views of Americans who opposed the Vietnam War.

“Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history,” Commager wrote, “that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots?”

While working toward his doctorate in American Civilization at Harvard University in the 1980s, Appy began interviewing Vietnam veterans in Boston, and that work became the basis for his award-winning dissertation, which in turn formed the foundation of his first book, “Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam,” in 1993. “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered by All Sides,” won the Massachusetts Book Award in 2004.

Appy taught at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before coming to UMass in 2004. With two titles on Vietnam behind him, he says, he felt ready to move on to a different topic for his next book. But about six years ago, the frustration and anger he felt with the drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan got him thinking, again, of Vietnam.

“It seemed in both cases we were seeing the same pattern,” he said. “The dubious reasons for going to war, the failure to achieve our objectives, the propping up of governments that did not have popular support, the rise of persistent anti-American insurgencies.”

Impact back home

For “American Reckoning,” Appy resolved to take a broad look at the American experience in Vietnam: our support of France’s post-WWII effort to maintain Vietnam as a colony against a communist-led independence movement; our creation and support of a provisional government in South Vietnam that was soon revealed as hopelessly corrupt; our full-scale military campaign, which brought more than 500,000 U.S. troops and massive airpower to the country by 1969; and the shifting ways the war has been portrayed in the decades since it ended, as well as how it’s affected U.S. foreign policy decisions, especially military action.

But the book, published earlier this year by Viking Press, is not a detailed year-by-year account. Appy’s sources, aside from previous Vietnam War histories, government documents, and period journalism, include movies, songs, memoirs, novels, advertisements and some of his own interviews from “Patriots”; he looks not just at the war but its impact back home.

“The presentation is roughly chronological, but I wanted each chapter to be able to stand on its own, like a separate essay,” he said.

For example, “American Reckoning” examines the contradiction African-American soldiers faced when they were sent to fight for “freedom and democracy” in South Vietnam while facing segregation and racism at home. Appy points to a 1967 article in Time magazine that aimed to buttress the war effort by celebrating black soldiers in Vietnam, but which mainly served to marginalize them further with comments like “[the black soldier] fights for the dignity of the Negro, to shatter the stereotypes of racial inferiority.”

“Clearly, very few stereotypes had been shattered at Time,” Appy writes. “The Time piece had an obvious political agenda: to use black soldiers in Vietnam (good) to criticize ‘Negro dissidents’ at home (bad).”

There are also portraits of key figures like Walt Rostow, President Lyndon Johnson’s hard-line national security adviser, who went to his grave insisting the war had been justified. And for readers with only a passing knowledge of the war, Appy reveals some startling facts. It was South Vietnam, not North Vietnam, that bore the brunt of U.S. bombing — roughly 75 percent — which destroyed countless villages and killed tens of thousands of civilians, the ones whose “hearts and minds” the U.S. was trying to win.

Retooling history

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in “American Reckoning” are the ones that look at how the war was essentially repackaged in the 1980s — primarily by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan, the media, and Hollywood — as a specifically American tragedy, one in which 3.4 million Vietnamese dead (and perhaps another 500,000 Cambodians and Laotians) became invisible. Instead, U.S. soldiers and the country as a whole were cast as victims.

Victims of what, or whom? “Inexplicable foreign forces,” Appy writes — and, in the view of conservatives, the antiwar movement, the media, and liberal politicians.

There was a renewed effort to honor Vietnam veterans, he notes, yet some of these, like the pumped-up “Rambo” movies starring Sylvester Stallone, only did a disservice to vets. The alienated Vietnam vet played by Stallone, who fights back against a bullying small-town police chief, evil Russian and Vietnamese communists, and other bad actors, embodies “every negative stereotype imaginable — vet as psycho, vet as killer, vet as outcast, vet as victim,” writes Appy. “Nothing in these films did justice to the complexity of the war or those who fought it.”

In an otherwise grim account, Appy provides a few flashes of dark humor, such as the episode in 1984 when Reagan’s handlers tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” for the president’s re-election campaign. Reagan’s team believed the song represented the kind of flag-waving patriotism that was a central theme of the campaign — yet it was actually about a disillusioned Vietnam vet. Springsteen declined to let them use the song, suggesting the president hadn’t been listening to his other tunes about Americans living hardscrabble lives.

Today, Appy notes, the questions raised by Vietnam, such as what our country’s role should be on the world stage, seem more pertinent than ever. But he believes the failure to come to full terms with the war — most notably the government’s lies in propagating it — have helped allow the last two presidential administrations to construct a vast domestic and foreign spying network and to wage war outside the jurisdiction of almost all Americans.

And though some may still subscribe to the idea of American exceptionalism — politicians routinely pledge fealty to it, particularly in an election year — most Americans take a tougher view of their country when the questions become more specific, Appy says.

“When you ask people about our education system or about infrastructure, about jobs and the economy, or income inequality and the power of corporations and big banks, they’ll tell you that maybe we’re not doing so great,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.