Analyzing public, political and cultural responses to the Vietnam War, Appy (History/Univ. of Massachusetts; Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, 2003, etc.) argues that the protracted conflict “shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world.”
Although he 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.