Lately I’ve had the nagging feeling that today’s younger generations of Americans have lost touch with some very important parts of our nation’s not-too-distant history, especially the Cold War and Vietnam. With this in mind, I picked up American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy (@ChristianGAppy).
Although highly readable while putting out a lot of information, it wasn’t always an easy read for me. As one of the last wave of Baby Boomers, I was born and raised in an environment (small Midwestern farming town) where there was unquestioned belief in American Exceptionalism — as defined by the author: “… 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.”
Although the concept of our “Exceptionalism” has remained a central theme of politicians from both major parties running for national office, the Cold War, Vietnam and, later, Watergate, did much to create a significant segment of the citizenry unwilling to put complete faith in such an idea. Although I agree with much of what he says, the author’s strident tone while debunking our “Exceptionalism” rubbed hard at what my inner child still wants to believe to be true.
Playing out nightly on the TV news at dinnertime, the Vietnam War was as much a part of my childhood as playing baseball in the summer or raking leaves in the fall. For many years I assumed armed conflict was just the normal state of being for nations of the world: surely every country had its own war (I recall thinking England’s was in a place called “Belfast.”).
I saw and heard things that I didn’t understand, but somehow have never forgotten — Tet, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Route 9, the Mekong Delta, Danang, the DMZ, and My Lai, to name a few. I remember watching TV reports of anti-war protests, although I don’t recall seeing any in my small town. Later in the war the draft lottery was also broadcast, and I was excited to see my birth date float across the screen — had I been a few years older, I’m not sure ‘excited’ was how I’d feel.
Although the author sketches the background of the war, our involvement and domestic reactions in fairly broad strokes, given my concern about the lack of basic knowledge held by those younger generations I believe this book would be quite useful as an introduction to the subject. Those interested in diving deeper into particular events will find the Notes section a great place to start.
Although somewhat uneven, I found the third part, What Have We Become, the most interesting. The author sketches how our view of the Vietnam War changed in a surprisingly short period of time as we cast ourselves — improbably, based on the facts — as the true victims. From this well springs such theories as “the military wasn’t allowed to win” espoused by Ronald Reagan while running for the presidency, easy explanations for events like the Iran Hostage Crisis, and also the central themes of classic 80s movies like “Rambo” and “Top Gun.”
Early on in my reading, I was struck by how many similarities there are between the Vietnam War and Iraq in 2003. So many, in fact, that I can only conclude many of the “smart folks” in government either didn’t learn anything or they chose to ignore the facts.
This is as good a point as any to say this book will likely not find a receptive audience among those whose political beliefs tend to the conservative side. In fact, just tweeting that I was reading American Reckoning resulted in a series of negative and derogatory responses from a person whose Twitter bio made clear their political orientation as a staunch conservative — and that they hadn’t read the book before forming an opinion of it. For those with an open mind who want to learn more about the war, and how it helped change our view of ourselves, this is a fine place to start exploring. You may not agree with the author, but decide for yourself.