Actually it turns out Professor Appy (UMass) isn't quite old enough to have the Viet Minh's ouster of the French from Indochina as part of his childhood mental furniture as I do. But he's written an extremely comprehensive narrative of how the Vietnam war shaped and still shapes our country's behavior on distant shores. I hope younger people pick it up; this is necessary history.
Appy begins with the question that haunted this country for a couple of decades until the Vietnamese finally made it moot: "Why are we in Vietnam?" He connects the behavior of our ruling elites to the heady confidence they enjoyed after 1945.
Appy's history might have been a little more grounded if he'd explored what tarnish, if any, the unpopular stalemated Korean War (1950-53) had left on this faith. But he argues that buoyed by this bumptious idolatry, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations picked up what the French had lost by propping up corrupt, dictatorial puppets in South Vietnam in the interests of "anti-Communism." Meanwhile most Vietnamese still sought and would fight for national independence.
By the time that President Lyndon Johnson crushed opponent Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election by insinuating that the Republican was a warmonger, U.S. elites knew they were in deep doodoo in Vietnam -- and large-scale escalation had not yet even started. Internal memos admit that 70 percent of the war's aim, even in 1965, was to avoid humiliating defeat. These men (most all men in those days) felt they would lose their manhood if they pulled back.
And so the full catalogue of atrocities -- napalm, defoliation, Agent Orange, cluster bombs, saturation bombing, some 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers and some 3,000,000 dead Vietnamese -- ground on. Appy draws his readers into the unfolding horror.
In his second section, "America at War" he provides a wide-ranging account of the multi-faceted, evolving U.S. citizen movement against the war. He is less thorough about the international revulsion the U.S. brought down on itself, but this is understandable given his focus on our "national identity."
The book's third section brings us up to the present asking "What Have We Become?" We had launched ourselves into Vietnam with such "good intentions." How could we have become so hated? He documents the rapid creation of
He goes on to write about U.S. reactions of victimhood to such incidents as the Iranian Revolution and hostage taking, the truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For any who have managed to forget or never knew, Appy tells the stories understandably. All of these events killed and/or injured many and shocked the inattentive, but none presented genuine threats to underlying national security -- yet all were enmeshed in the post-Vietnam narrative of American victimization.
It's hard to tell whether this country is even vaguely ready to grow up and face the reality that the ambitious bellicosity of our elites is what endangers us, not spooky foreigners. Appy is very good at capturing data from contemporary opinion polling which shows a continuing, strong, post-Vietnam disinclination among many of us to rush to war, most recently demonstrated when Obama suggested intervening more visibly in Syria in 2013. We can be whipped up by nationalist enthusiasms, but these remain quite short-lived and shallow.
Appy finds some hope in the contortions our rulers have had to adopt to keep us willing to fight.
He's done his bit; are we all doing ours?