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Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation

by Tom Engelhardt

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1995
ISBN: 0-465-01984-6
Publisher: Basic

 Freelance writer Engelhardt offers an eloquent obituary for American triumphalism, which died a slow death in the years between US victory in WW II and the Gulf War. Engelhardt traces the roots of America's national ``war story,'' its public myth of just warfare and inevitable victory against savage and lesser peoples, to the beginnings of European settlement in the New World. He argues that colonial and early American justification of the slaughter of Indians became a paradigm for its national war story through subsequent Indian wars, the Revolution, and the Civil War. During these wars, and in the retelling of them to later generations, Americans justified violence and atrocities by stressing the nobility of America's cause and the inevitable victory of American arms. Engelhardt points to the transformation and decline of this ``victory culture'' in America's Asian wars, beginning with the atomic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, continuing through stalemate in Korea, and ending in defeat in Vietnam. In recreating the national myths Americans have told themselves, Engelhardt deftly extracts meaning about America's popular and political cultures from fiction, films, and children's toys and comics. As America became mired in Asian wars, the ``war story'' became as tinged with racism as it had been during the Indian wars. Later, the narrative tapped into fears of nuclear disaster and anti-Communist paranoia. During the Vietnam War, the national myth languished and finally perished as the US military became trapped in a war the public couldn't understand and ultimately loathed. Finally, the author discusses the failure of attempts to revive the national war myth, from actions in Grenada and Panama, through the hollow, strangely untriumphant ``total television'' of the Gulf War. A poignant, insightful work that examines how Americans have viewed their country in the past, and that leaves open the question of how America will define itself without an enemy in the postCold War future.