American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy (Viking Press, 2015), 416 pages.
In his new book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, Christian G. Appy deals with some big historical and conceptual problems of great interest to Americans and non-Americans who seek an end to the permanent war state that has developed in the United States. As the subtitle of American Reckoning suggests, Appy seeks to establish how the Vietnam War was related to the American “national identity” but also how the war altered that identity.
Appy argues in the very first chapter that the central tenet in the American national identity was the belief in American “exceptionalism” — “the broad faith that the United States has been a unique force for good in the world,” as he defines it. And his “main argument,” he writes, is that the Vietnam War “shattered” that idea. Appy suggests that the Vietnam War was enabled by a popular belief in American exceptionalism that had been long and deeply imbedded in the nation’s culture.
The argument about the connection between American culture and ideology, on one hand, and the Vietnam War, on the other, involves two quite distinct issues: why the United States went to war in Vietnam and why the vast majority of Americans supported it for so long. But Appy does not distinguish between those two issues. He appears to suggest that the American nation was so thoroughly penetrated by the ideology of exceptionalism that there was no distinction between the ideas and interests of the political-bureaucratic elite and the rest of the population in regard to Vietnam. He cites Henry Kissinger and popular religiosity as equally relevant to understanding the role of exceptionalism in American life in the Vietnam era.
The historical episodes recounted by Appy on the relationship between popular beliefs and opinion on U.S. policy in Southeast Asia during the period leading up to the war itself cannot be defined as the working out of “national identity” or American cultural values. What Appy shows — more powerfully than any previous work on the American war in Vietnam — is how the public’s understanding of the realities in Vietnam and their relationship to the U.S. military was the product of a very deliberate and thorough job by the U.S. government and its minions in the news media of manipulating it.
Appy argues in the first chapter of the book, “Saving Vietnam,” that growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam was connected to broad cultural trends in the United States in the 1950s. He makes the point that the rise of religiosity was a dominant leiftmotif of U.S. social change during that decade and that Catholicism was the most rapidly growing religious group in the country. He suggests that it was a key to the development of popular support for the U.S. role in Vietnam, recounting the influence on public opinion on Communism in general and Vietnam in particular, of such iconic figures as Francis Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
It can certainly be reasonably argued that the enormous popularity among American Catholics in particular of such conservative anti- Communist figures was a factor in the readiness of the U.S. public to be led into war against a peasant revolt supported by a Third World revolutionary state. But the connection between a figure such as Spellman, who fulminated against “Christ-hating Communists whose allegiance is pledged to Satan” and support for U.S. aggressive policy in Southeast Asia does not constitute evidence of popular belief in American exceptionalism at work.
The story in Appy’s first chapter that this reviewer found most revealing about the American Catholic anti-Communist connection with the Vietnam War is the story of how Tom Dooley, a Navy doctor who worked in a refugee camp in Haiphong in the final phase of the Franco-Viet Minh War and its aftermath, told stories of American kindness and Communist brutality in Vietnam that reached millions through Reader’s Digest, his own best-selling books, and television appearances starting in the latter half of the 1950s.
The cutting edge of Dooley’s account was his tales of Communists crucifying Vietnamese Catholics and sticking chopsticks through the eardrums of their children. His grisly stories of Communist atrocities were never supported by any other source, even though the U.S. Information Service sought to get confirming details, as Appy’s account documents. Yet no one questioned their veracity at the time or through the entire U.S. war in Vietnam that followed a decade later.
Many years after the war people who had worked with him revealed the truth: Dooley had fabricated the stories out of whole cloth. But it was those stories that had ingratiated Dooley with powerful people whose interests it served. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, for example, wrote a forward for Dooley’s first book, Deliver Us from Evil.
Dooley was forced to resign from the Navy after a Naval Intelligence sting operation established that he was a homosexual, but the Navy kept the information under wraps, allowing him to establish medical clinics and hospitals in Northern Laos and write two more books that pushed more stories of atrocities by Communist forces, while passing on information to the CIA. The major mass print and electronic media outlets all featured Dooley and his stories of Communist horrors. By the time of his death of cancer in 1961, Dooley had become the third-most esteemed person on Earth, just after the pope and the former president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But although his charm and talent for self-promotion were important in his rise to fame, it was primarily the result of decisions by powerful figures in the national-security state and their allies in the media. And Dooley’s role in shaping the popular American view of Vietnam was not so much to confirm the unique goodness of the American people as to peddle a systematic deception about the Vietnamese adversary.
The salient point about the link between popular culture and readiness for war, at least by the mid 20th century, I would suggest, is that it is a product of highly unequal power relations between elite and mass in regard to the communications media. Popular thinking about the U.S. role in the world had long ceased to be a reflection of genuine popular culture. Well before U.S. troops splashed ashore at Danang in 1965, those who controlled the levers of power in American society had been consciously manipulating mass opinion about both the world in general and Vietnam in particular for many years.
Appy’s argument that the Vietnam War “shattered” the U.S. belief in American exceptionalism is developed in detail in a chapter called “The War at Home” that is arguably the best in the book. As he recounts in a series of riveting wartime episodes, the Vietnam War provoked the deepest social and political divisions the United States had ever experienced except for the Civil War itself.
Here was an expression of cultural and political values that was truly popular in character, emerging out of the individual responses of millions of people to the experience of a war that was obviously evil and irrational. The intense and even violent socio-political conflicts to which the anti-war movement gave rise provide the most dramatic accounts in the entire book. Appy’s retelling of the killing of protestors at Kent State in May 1970 is a wrenching tale of deliberately planned political murder by the warfare state. His recounting of carefully planned attacks by anti-war demonstrators in Manhattan a few days after Kent State is a fascinating case study of how pro-war workers were used by reactionary labor leaders to strike back at Americans who were challenging their values. And Appy identifies a dark political nexus between the pro-war union leadership behind those attacks and the Nixon White House.
My only complaint about Appy’s treatment of the side of his argument devoted to the impact of the war and the dissent it stirred in American society is that he did not carry it far enough. What is missing from his analysis is any reference to the fact that the institutions of the warfare state itself were actually forced to go on the defensive. An important part of the story of the U.S. war in Vietnam is how the breadth and depth of popular anti-war sentiment led to a weakening of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex as well as that of the CIA for nearly fifteen years after the war had finally ended.
A permanent war state
In his final chapter Appy traces the fortunes of what evolved into a permanent war state after 9/11 over the four decades that have passed since the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. His story-telling approach to this daunting task, going back and forth between vignettes of meetings involving administration policymakers and snapshots of public opinion, makes Reckoning more readable but at the cost of losing focus on the key issue of the underlying conflict over the power of the warfare state.
A crucial point in that history is what happened after the George W. Bush administration succeeded in its plot to build a political consensus for an invasion of Iraq on false pretenses of a WMD threat. Appy recalls how millions of protestors responded to the invasion by what he calls “the largest global outpouring of antiwar dissent in history.” Although that moment seemed to show that a strong, spontaneous anti-war movement still existed in 2003, the movement disappeared almost without a trace over the next few years. This writer recalls conversations with activists in Northern Virginia during the latter stages of the Iraq War who had moved on to housing and other local issues after their initial involvement in opposing the war. They felt disempowered and dispirited on the question of American wars.
That demobilization was seemingly unconnected with the broad trend in public opinion toward the war. Frightened at first by the Bush campaign like a deer in the headlights, public opinion recovered its composure within two years and began to turn on the Iraq war as it had done on Vietnam. Those two contrasting sets of facts pose a deeper question about what was really happening in the cultural-political struggle for national identity during the post–9/11 period.
In his final chapter, Appy seeks to explain the underlying sociopolitical shifts that explain the contradiction between profound unease in the society about Iraq and Afghanistan and the seeming popular political passivity on the issue, even as it became clear that the United States was becoming a “permanent war state” during the second Bush administration and especially during the Obama administrations. He points to the all-volunteer force fighting the wars and the underlying context of economic crisis, which was “capped off by the Great Recession” that began in 2008.
Those factors were undoubtedly factors that diminished the capacity for activism in the country. But Appy goes on to raise an entirely different issue: has American society lost its innocence and accepted the idea that America is an empire? He seems to suggest that the answer is yes, but he loses the analytical focus on how and why that is the case. He bounces from one subject to another — from the Bush administration official’s revealing comment (attributed to Karl Rove) contrasting “the reality-based community” with the administration’s ability to “create our own reality,” to the phenomenon of General Petraeus’s promotion of counter-insurgency and his own success — then circles back to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 80 percent of those surveyed agreed that the U.S. history and Constitution make it “unique” and “the greatest country in the world.”
What Appy’s discursive approach to the problem establishes, however, is not that a belief in American exceptionalism drove the process that has led to the present permanent war state but simply that dissenting views have been marginalized sufficiently to consolidate the power of that state within a state. What opponents of the permanent war state have needed is a tightly focused account of how that state has consolidated its power in large part through the demobilization of activism and an analysis of what, if anything, could reverse that process. Appy’s book doesn’t provide such an account and analysis, but it does whet the appetite for them.
This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.