The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
AMERICAN RECKONING is a unique account of the place of Vietnam in America’s self-image – the relationship between the war’s realities (both during its conduct and in the decades since) and its impact on our identity, conscience, pride, shame, popular culture, and postwar foreign policy.
Chris Appy’s widely praised oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots, has remained a landmark book among the accounts of the war; it focused on the experiences and memories of all who were touched—military and civilian, Vietnamese and American. His new book takes a completely different approach to unraveling the complicated story of our relationship to Vietnam. We (finally) now know the basic facts of the war—what decisions were made, who went where and with what ammunition and to what end. Appy probes a different narrative of the war—the images that we had before we went in (spun by books like Tom Dooley’s Deliver Us From Evil, a massive bestseller in 1956 and an almost wholly fictitious account), the prejudices that we brought out of the century’s other wars (hot and cold), the fantasies we propagated about both the enemy and our allies during the entire war, the morass of military goals and metrics and the politics embedded in them; how the war was managed, reported, packaged, and consumed; the myths that began to be created about the war while it was still going on, and then in the years after about why we lost, why decisions were made, who (if anyone) got left behind, our accountability for atrocities and for the wounds inflicted on our own soldiers, and how the real “Vietnam syndrome” has played out in our popular culture—and our foreign policy. He trolls across newspaper accounts, TV coverage, Pentagon stats and position papers, memoirs, movies, novels, and more to create a completely fresh account of the meaning of the war.
If we are going to understand the enduring significance of this vast history, we need to revisit what the Vietnam War meant in its own time and see how our views have changed over the years, a journey that takes us back to the 1940s and forward to the present. The question then that this book poses is, how did the Vietnam War change the way we think of ourselves as a people and a nation? Did it reveal fundamental flaws in our values and institutions, or temporary failings? Did it demonstrate the limits of military might or the weakness that flows from a divided home front? Did it reflect our strongest ideals or our basest ambitions, or something in-between? Are we a force for good or evil? Are we the good guys or the bad guys?
Chris Appy is a professor of history at UMass, Amherst, and the author of two previous books on the Vietnam War, including Patriots which was a main selection of Book of the Month Club and won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction.