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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Vietnam and the Rewriting of the American Narrative

By Jerry Lembcke

Vietnam and the Rewriting of the American Narrative

Editor Charles E. Neu, in the lead chapter for his After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War, cites the legacy of the war for having rewritten the American story from one of a nation of hope that would be emulated around the world to one of a nation suffering defeat and disappointment, now anxious about the uncertainties in its future and longing for the recovery of its past.  Rewriting the past, as much as recovering it, is a theme of David Kiernan’s Forever Vietnam: How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory, which views key episodes of US history as far back as the Civil War as revised in their telling to make them a better fit for the way Americans want to remember the war in Vietnam.  David Wyatt writes in When America Turned: Reckoning with 1968 that Americans’ failure to accept the loss of the war—and the accompanying loss of innocence—has “imprisoned [us in] a self-defeating belief in our own and [the] nation’s purity of intent.”  Wyatt sees the “compression” into one year (1968) of many history-turning events—the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson declining to run for reelection, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the Democratic National Convention, which adjourned amid antiwar protests and police brutality—as the reason Americans still must reckon with that year.

For his chapter in Beth Bailey and David Farber’s edited volume America in the Seventies, William Graebner notes the pall of the Vietnam defeat that bequeathed the Watergate political crisis, the shrinking of US global economic options, and the postmodernist turn away from the Enlightenment promise of a better world through knowledge and truth.  David Sirota’s decadal focus in Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now shows how the conservative movement, galvanized by Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980, blamed liberal permissiveness and radical duplicity for the loss in Vietnam and sought national restoration through a back-to-the-future route through the 1950s.  Sirota points out the mythical elements at play in that use of the 1950s and warns of its dangerous revanchist fantasies.  Keith Beattie joins Sirota in debunking Edenic visions of a prelapsarian United States with The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War, a book with renewed relevance as the discourse of “healing” gains listeners in the new war era of the twenty-first century.  The disturbance to national identity created by Vietnam carried into political culture, shaping presidential politics into the 2000s.  Bernard von Bothmer’s Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush shows presidential candidates spinning public memory of the sixties to suit their political purposes.