America’s Memory of the Vietnam War in the Epoch of the Forever War
By H. Bruce FranklinJuly 16, 2014
WHILE WASHINGTON PONDERS the ifs and wheres of our next military adventures, the hawks are shrieking against America’s “war weariness” and croaking that Americans have no right to be weary. Robert Samuelson writes in The Washington Post that our unending wars have “posed no burdens, required no sacrifices, and involved no disruptions” for us civilians. William Kristol, who promised us in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a “two month war, not an eight year war,” raves that the “war-weary public” must again be “awakened and rallied.” Sounding her familiar alarm, Condoleezza Rice urges us to “heed the wake-up call of Ukraine” before it’s too late. “Of what exactly are you weary,” demands an irate Wall Street Journal correspondent, arguing that those with an authentic right to weariness are just “those who have suffered severe physical and mental wounds or lost a loved one.” War-weary citizens seem to be just a gaggle of selfish, spoiled brats, traitors to the heroes fighting our wars.
Maybe we have no right to be weary of our young service people getting maimed and killed, weary of the slaughter and devastation we have been inflicting on peoples in dozens of nations, or selfishly weary of having trillions of dollars sucked out of health care, education, infrastructure, and the environment to pay for these wars. Whatever the reason, it’s true that the American people are fed up with our nonstop wars, even the proxy ones. Polls show 61 percent of Americans opposed to any US intervention of any kind in Ukraine. During the run-up to Washington’s planned military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2013, polls revealed 63 percent of Americans opposed to any form of military action, even to risk-free missile strikes on Syrian air bases.[i]
And the hawks better watch out before calling on the troops to applaud their war cries and tirades against war weariness. For obvious reasons, the soldiers are even sicker of this endless combat than we civilians. When the Military Times polled active-duty service people during Washington’s threat to intervene in Syria, the troops opposed any form of intervention by a three-to-one margin. Eighty percent said that any intervention was not in the US national interest.
Teaching students in the 21stcentury — including the combat veterans, National Guard soldiers, and reservists in my classes at Rutgers University, Newark — I have to keep reminding myself that they have lived their entire conscious lives during America’s endless warfare. For them, that must seem not just normal, but how it has always been and always will be. Is that also true for the rest of us?
I had to rethink this question a few months ago, when I woke one day to discover that I was 80 years old. For more than half a century I’ve been involved in struggles to stop wars being waged by our nation or to keep it from starting new ones. Before that, in the late 1950s, I had spent three years in the US Air Force flying in Strategic Air Command operations of espionage and provocation against the Soviet Union and participating in launches for full-scale thermonuclear war. Some of these launches were just practice, but a few were real war strikes that were recalled while we were in flight just minutes before it would have been too late. (I recall with embarrassment that I never had a flicker of doubt about whether I should be participating in the start of a thermonuclear Armageddon.) And before that were four years of ROTC, which I joined during the Korean War, a war that had started when I was 16. From age 11 to 16, I had bounced right from the Victory Culture at the end of World War II into the repression and militarization of the early Cold War years.
So it dawned on me that living one’s life during America’s Forever War is hardly unique to those millennials I’m teaching. How many people alive today have ever lived part of their conscious lives in a United States of America at peace with the rest of the world? Would someone even older than I am have any meaningful memory of what such a state of peace was like? How many Americans are even capable of imagining such a state? I can remember only two periods, bracketing World War II, when I believed I lived in a nation at peace. And even these were arguably just childish illusions.
My first memory of peace was under the encroaching shadow of war. Every night, just before getting into bed, I would kneel on the floor and say my prayers, which ended, “Dear God, please keep us out of the war.” That was in 1940 and 1941, when I was six and seven. Of course war was already pulsing through the veins of American culture, including the veins of us little boys. Every week I looked forward to Friday, my father’s payday, the day he came home with one or two metal toy soldiers for me. While I was kneeling in my pajamas praying for peace, the first contingents of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were being deployed to the US colonies of Hawaii and the Philippines and loaded with incendiary bombs designed to carry out Air Corps General Claire Chennault’s plan to “burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps” of Japanese cities.[ii] Work on atomic bombs was already under way, although the designers and builders of these bombs intended them only to deter potential Nazi use of atomic weapons. The idea of our using them first on an enemy population was anathema not just to these scientists but to American culture — at least until mid-1941 when the government secretly prohibited Americans from hearing or reading anything at all relating to atomic energy.
Although the United States was not yet at war, at that point it was rapidly transforming into the warfare state that today seems so normal and eternal. Perhaps the last protest against that government control of scientific information and public discussion of national policy came from John O’Neill — science editor of the New York Herald Tribune and president of the National Association of Science Writers — who charged, in 1941, that this government censorship represented “a totalitarian revolution against the American people.” Pointing to the devastating potential of an atomic bomb utilizing uranium-235, O’Neill offered a fateful prophecy: “Can we trust our politicians and war makers with a weapon like that? The answer is no.”[iii]
When war did come, it turned out to be surprisingly glamorous and thrilling, especially for young boys. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, my parents and I were visiting relatives in a big Manhattan apartment building. A bulletin came over the radio: the Japanese, without warning, had attacked the American base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. While the adults were all solemnly buzzing about it, I sneaked over to a window facing west from the high apartment and gazed into the night, staring with a little dread but mostly excited anticipation for the first sight of approaching Japanese warplanes.
Soon we were all participating in the war effort. Except for the draftees, wounded vets, and the families whose windows became adorned with gold stars for their killed loved ones, there were no great hardships. Sure, there were shortages, and we needed ration stamps to buy meat, and sugar, and shoes, and to get enough gas for our family’s 1936 Packard. But even we kids got to participate in the unity and patriotism of the war effort, planting victory gardens, collecting scrap metal with our wagons, buying victory stamps at school each week until you filled your album with $18.75, enough to exchange for a victory bond worth $25 in 10 years. Most of us boys built models of the latest warplanes and warships while imagining fighting in the real things, especially the fighter planes and bombers. My most vivid war fantasies had little to do with my toy soldiers. They were all about vast formations of multi-engine bombers, B-17 Flying Fortresses and, later, B-29 Super Fortresses, escorted high above by lines of fighters, P-51 Mustangs or P-38 Lightnings, all culminating in an apocalyptic airborne triumph just like the 1943 Disney movie “Victory Through Air Power.” Above the bed where I had said my prayers for peace, there now hung a huge map of the Northern Hemisphere on which I pinned each nation’s flags to mark the advance of the Allied forces.
The reality of war got as close as the Nazi U-boats that were sinking ships so near to Brooklyn that oil and wreckage from the torpedoed victory ships blotted the beaches of Coney Island. We had to have blackouts to keep Brooklyn’s lights from silhouetting the ships, but even these were fun, especially when I got to go with my father, an Air Raid Warden Precinct Captain, as he patrolled the neighborhood.
Yes, we did yearn for peace, but it was victory that we really craved. We were jubilant when President Truman announced on August 6, 1945, that an American airplane had just dropped an “atomic bomb,” which harnessed “the basic power of the universe,” on “Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” Eight days later we heard the news that Japan had surrendered.
August 14, 1945. I was now 11, and I was crammed in the back of a pickup packed with other boys and girls, all yelling our hearts out to be heard over the cacophony of honking horns and blaring air raid sirens. We were part of an impromptu motorcade weaving through the evening streets of our Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn. Everywhere we went, more and more cheering people poured onto the sidewalks, waving American flags and homemade signs, hugging, dancing. We kids in the truck were all screaming “Peace! Peace! The War is Over!” We believed this was the end of not just this war but of war itself, that we were all going to live the rest of our lives in a prosperous and victorious nation on a peaceful planet.
Like those people mobbing the sidewalks, none of us were aware that the world of unending US warfare had already begun. Nor did we know that this would be the last victory celebration of our lifetime.
The day after our celebration of V-J Day, 8,000 miles away another people celebrated the surrender of Japan quite differently. That day was the beginning of the August Revolution, when the Vietnamese people rose up and in less than three weeks swept away Japanese and French control and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
As the movement against the Vietnam War surged between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, it discovered some of that early history. The movement had thought that it began in the 1960s and was unaware of its own birth within the first few months of the life of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The American people’s struggle against our nation’s war against Vietnam began, we came to learn, just a few months after our celebration of victory and peace in August 1945.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence to half a million Vietnamese people jam-packed before him in Hanoi, the old capital of a new nation that had been fighting for its independence for more than 2,000 years. “`All men are created equal,’” he read. “`They are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” Suddenly two warplanes appeared overhead. The crowd gazed up. They saw two of those weird-looking P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers. When they recognized the US insignia on the planes, those half-million people, acting like a single being, let out an earthshaking cheer. Just as we kids in the truck believed in America’s peaceful future, the Vietnamese believed that we Americans were their friends and allies, that we would be the champions of their freedom and independence from colonialism.
At that very moment, Washington was planning with the French government to launch an invasion of Vietnam designed to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and restore French colonial rule. This would be a joint French-American project. The United States would supply the weapons and the financing. It would also turn over to the French tens of thousands of Nazi troops, including Waffen SS units, many of whom would be forced into the French Foreign Legion to be shock troops for invasion. A dozen US troopships would be diverted from bringing GI’s home from Europe to carrying the French invasion army — equipped with American weapons, tanks, warplanes, and jeeps — to Vietnam. This was arguably the beginning of America’s Vietnam War. It was also, as it turns out, the beginning of the American people’s movement against that war.
British troops who had been sent to Saigon to disarm the remaining Japanese forces had instead rearmed the Japanese who had already been disarmed by the Vietnamese. Soon the Japanese joined the British and remnants of the French colonial forces in waging war against the newly declared independent nation of Vietnam. What was left of the Japanese air force, together with the British RAF, bombed and strafed any concentrations of armed Vietnamese they could find.[iv] Japanese troops were deployed to control the Saigon waterfront. When the US troopships carrying the French invasion army arrived in Saigon in the late fall of 1945, they were met by uniformed and armed Japanese soldiers, who saluted them on the docks. The sailors manning the flotilla of American troopships were profoundly shocked and outraged. Every single enlisted crewman on these ships signed petitions to Congress and the president condemning the US government for participating in “imperialist policies” designed “to subjugate the native population of Vietnam.”[v]
The antiwar movement at home began as soon as Americans discovered that Washington was supporting the war by France against the DRV. At a large 1947 meeting of the Viet Nam American Friendship Association, the chairman prophetically proclaimed that "the founding of the newest Republic in the world — the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam" is "an event which history may well record as sounding the death knell of the colonial system." Six-time presidential candidate Norman Thomas explained, "It is only by direct and indirect aid [. . .] from the United States that colonial imperialism can be maintained in the modern world."[vi]
Vietnam’s war for independence was in the vanguard of a global revolution that destroyed the colonial form of imperialism. It helped spread the virus of revolution in the French empire, as Algerian, Senegalese, and other African veterans of the French Foreign Legion sent to fight against the Vietnamese returned to France’s African colonies with military skills and anti-colonial fervor. Between 1945 and 1949, independence from colonial rule was won by one-fourth of the world’s population as outright colonialism crumbled throughout much of Asia, including Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, and the Philippines. In 1949, with the victory of the Communist revolution in China, another quarter of the world’s population escaped from the “Open Door” version of colonialism. England, France, Belgium, and Portugal were determined to keep their African colonies, a fight that was decided when Belgium lost their Congo (1960), France lost Algeria (1962), Britain lost Kenya (1963), and Portugal lost Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique (1974-1975). Just as in Vietnam, the colonial powers could count on the support of the United States throughout their losing wars. As Martin Luther King Jr. so succinctly put it in 1967, the United States was fighting “on the wrong side of world revolution.” Vietnam’s three decades of war against European and US imperialism — 1945-1975 — exactly matched the period of the destruction of European global colonialism.
France fought desperately to keep possession of “Indochine” — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. As the French war against Vietnam went on, with increasing US covert involvement — such as military advisers on the ground and 250 US pilots flying combat missions in US warplanes with French insignia — opposition to this Franco-American war grew and intensified. In the spring of 1954, as the French were on the verge of total defeat, the Eisenhower administration prepared for open US military intervention.
But first Eisenhower had to test possible American reaction. On April 16, 1954, Vice President Richard Nixon floated a trial balloon, declaring that the United States may soon have to “face up to the situation and dispatch forces” because "the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves.” Reaction was swift, impassioned, and came from across the entire political spectrum.[vii] Thousands of letters and telegrams opposing US intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division with 78,000 members demanded that "the United States should refrain from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia."[viii] There were public outcries against "colonialism" and "imperialism." Senators from both parties rose to denounce even the contemplation of sending US soldiers to Indochina. The Monday after Nixon's Saturday speech, for example, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared on the Senate floor: "I am against sending American GI's into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man's exploitation in Asia."[ix]
By mid-May, a Gallup poll revealed that 68 percent of those surveyed were against sending US troops to Indochina.[x] Nevertheless, the Eisenhower Administration was already actively shifting from supporting the French to replacing them. May was the month the French bastion at Dien Bien Phu fell, the Geneva Conference opened (it ended with French recognition of the independent nation of Vietnam), and Washington selected Ngo Dinh Diem to be the US puppet ruler of "the State of Vietnam."
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to "fight with one arm tied behind its back." But this stands reality on its head. Right from the beginning, the government understood that the American people did not and would not support a war in Vietnam. Therefore, when Washington decided to replace France in the war against the DRV, it could not be overt. So it when covert. It thus committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, hiding its actions from the American people. Each exposed escalation and every unmasked lie then inevitably intensified opposition. The US government thus created and empowered the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. That movement was inspired and empowered by our outrage against both the war itself and the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming directly from our government and from the media. Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally forced Washington to accept, in 1973, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called “Viet Cong”) back in 1969.
Any pretense that US intervention in Vietnam had ever represented the will of the Vietnamese people was finally blown away in the spring of 1975 when the Saigon puppet government, and its superbly equipped armed forces, fled in panic rather than face the advancing revolutionary army. The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support.
Did we learn anything from what we did in Vietnam? For a while, it seemed so. Through the rest of the 1970s, there was general agreement, across the political spectrum, on one thing: No More Vietnams. Although this had different meanings to different people, there was evident consensus on two points: No more war without the support of the American people. And no more war without a clear exit strategy.
But then how would imperial war be possible? To reopen the pathways to imperial war, it was necessary to rewrite and reimage the history of both the war and the antiwar movement. What was needed was a narrative, a cultural story that would transform the horrors into “A Noble Cause.” The story of the Vietnam War was first labeled “a Noble Cause” by Ronald Reagan as he ran for president in the fall of 1980. The Noble Cause story runs like this: there was once a small democratic nation named South Vietnam that was being invaded by the evil Communist dictatorship of North Vietnam. The United States went to help South Vietnam defend its democracy and freedom, and we were succeeding in our heroic efforts. But our noble cause was betrayed by privileged college students, long-haired, drugged-up hippies, the liberal media, pinko college professors, and Jane Fonda. This is the narrative of the Vietnam War now dominant in American politics and culture.
Soon “Vietnam” became not a people or a nation, and not even a war. “Vietnam” became something that happened to us. America became the victim of “Vietnam,” which was some kind of crippling addiction or disease, or, in the immortal words of George H. W. Bush, a “syndrome.”
The Noble Cause narrative fed and was fed by tremendously powerful myths that became vital organs of a national body in a permanent state of imperial war. As the narrative shaped our memory of the war, the real heroes of the story, as well as the true victims of “Vietnam,” were revealed to be American veterans, hundreds or thousands of whom were still imprisoned in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of whom were spat upon by those same antiwar protestors who kept us from winning the war. These two myths — the myth of the spat-upon veteran and the POW/MIA myth — thus turned “Vietnam” into the cultural foundation of the Forever War.
I use “myth” in the fullest sense of the word, as anthropologists or archeologists use it; a society’s myths are key clues for understanding how a society perceives itself and its relation to the world around it. Myths also dramatize deep psychosocial content. But the content and meaning of a myth are often not obvious. These two powerful myths about “Vietnam” are, in part, responses to a perceived emasculation of American manhood. It’s not just a coincidence that the most common form of the spitting myth has a returning vet being spat upon by a “hippie chick,” usually in the San Francisco Airport. And in the Hollywood productions that burned the POW/MIA myth into the nation’s memory and imagination, the POWs are betrayed by women or unmanly men such as bureaucrats and other “suits.” In the first of these movies, Uncommon Valor (1983), Gene Hackman must begin by liberating his team of heroic POW rescuers from their imprisonment by castrating women. The climax of First Blood (1982) comes when bare-chested Sylvester Stallone, after rescuing the POWs, mounts the prostrate arch-bureaucrat Murdock and forces this fake man to whimper and moan in terror of our hero's gigantic phallic knife.[xi]
While these cancerous myths were colonizing American culture in the 1980s, Washington was busy waging covert and proxy wars, as in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and quick in-and-out wars, as in Grenada and Panama.
1991 was the crucial year for the current form of our Forever War. From the end of World War II until 1991, our nation’s number one priority, to which all social goods were subservient, was the Cold War: defending freedom and democracy from the ogre of Communism. But in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. This was the moment for our long-awaited peace and our anticipated Peace Dividend, which could now fund our health care, education, infrastructure, and other social goods. But, in a remarkable coincidence, it was also the moment when the Iraq War began. Mysteriously, the Cold War morphed into the Forever War.
In August 1990, eight months after the invasion of Panama, the Bush Administration dispatched the first US forces to Saudi Arabia, launching Operation Desert Shield ostensibly to protect Saudi Arabia and convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Then began the propaganda campaign designed to generate fervor for launching a war against Iraq. To satisfy the first criterion of “No More Vietnams,” it was necessary to gain the full support of the American people. The campaign tried one line after another: Saddam Hussein is a new Hitler. We need Iraq’s oil. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is naked aggression. Iraqi soldiers are throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait. But none of these was working to get the emotional juices of war flowing through the veins of the American public. In fact, opposition to war was rapidly building. What did the job was the myth of the spat-upon vet, which had been mushrooming throughout the 1980s despite the fact that there has never been a shred of contemporaneous evidence of any antiwar protestor spitting on even one Vietnam veteran. The administration launched Operation Yellow Ribbon, the theme of which was “Support Our Soldiers.” The media enthusiastically joined the campaign. America was not about to scream “baby killers” and spit on our brave fighters this time. Newspapers, radio, and TV started campaigns to write letters of support to the soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Full-page pro-war ads said nothing about Iraq and Kuwait, but showed the American people voicing support for “all the men and women participating in Operation Desert Shield.” Yellow ribbons sprouted everywhere, even as magnet emblems attached to cars throughout the land. Now we had something to fight for. As Jerry Lembcke put it in his groundbreaking The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, “The war was about the American soldiers who had been sent to fight it.” And the main enemy was all those people who had spat on the Vietnam vets and who were now voicing opposition to a new war.
The campaign hampered the antiwar movement, forcing it to defend itself against the myth by insisting that it was not against the soldiers, just the war. Nevertheless, it was still a close call for the Bush administration. When the administration went to Congress in January 1991 to get authorization for possible military action, it barely squeaked through the Senate on a 52-47 vote. The nation that went to war a few days later was a nation festooned in yellow ribbons. It was also a nation flying omnipresent black and white flags.
The United States of America in the 21st century has two national flags. One is the colorful red, white, and blue banner created during the American Revolution, with stars that represent, in the words of the 1777 Continental Congress, "a new constellation." The other is the black and white POW/MIA flag, America’s emblem of the Vietnam War.
The POW/MIA flag is the only one besides the Star-Spangled Banner that has ever flown over the White House, where it has fluttered yearly since 1982. As visitors from around the world stream through the Rotunda of the US Capitol, they pass another giant POW/MIA flag, the only flag that has ever been displayed amid the epic paintings and heroic statues, a position of honor granted in 1987 by Congress and the president of the United States. The POW/MIA flag flies over every US post office, thanks to a law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1997. During the 1980s and 1990s, the legislatures and governors of each of the 50 states issued laws mandating the display of this flag over public facilities such as state offices, municipal buildings, toll plazas, and police headquarters. The POW/MIA flag also hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and waves at countless corporate headquarters, shopping malls, union halls, and small businesses. It is sewn into the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, post cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas-tree ornaments. Much of my speaking in the last few years has been at the local headquarters of the VFW, Elks, American Legion, and Knights of Columbus, and over each of these buildings flies the POW/MIA flag.
The flag displays our nation's veneration of its central image, a handsome American prisoner of war, his silhouetted head slightly bowed to reveal behind him the ominous shape of a looming guard tower. A strand of barbed wire cuts across just below his firm chin. Underneath runs the motto: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.
This flag has flown and still flies as America’s understanding of the meaning of the Vietnam War. In 1991, that meaning shifted dramatically, as it came to symbolize America as a heroic warrior, victimized by "Vietnam," but reemerging as Rambo unbound. The yellow ribbons and the black and white flags had been transformed into symbols of American pride, not shame. This is what George H. W. Bush meant on March 1st, 1991 when he proclaimed “a proud day for America” because, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"
How many people knew back then that Bush was really celebrating the beginning of our epoch of endless wars?
A month after Bush’s proclamation, my wife Jane and I were on our way to Japan, where I was to teach American Studies for a few weeks as a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University. I had just finished the manuscript for my book M.I.A., Or, Mythmaking in America, a history of how Richard Nixon created the “POW/MIA” category and used it to prolong the war, and how and why the preposterous belief in POWs in postwar Vietnam came to possess our nation. I thought I understood everything about the history and meaning of the POW/MIA myth, but I was wrong. And I was about to learn something crucial about American culture and culture in general.
Where does a society’s culture exist? Obviously in the artifacts, cultural productions, and discourse of the society, and of course inside the minds of the people who constitute that society. That’s why sometimes it can be hard to understand or even see what is most peculiar or even bizarre about one's own culture; it’s inside one's own head. Learning that in Anthropology 101 is one thing. Discovering how that works in yourself is something else.
One night several Japanese scholars of American Studies, from Meiji and other universities, expressed their keen interest in the POW/MIA myth. They said that, on some levels, they understood it, that from their study of POW movies and other cultural artifacts they saw that the prisoner of war was functioning in American society as an icon of militarism. "But," one said, "that's what we find so puzzling. When militarism was dominant in Japan, the last person who would have been used as an icon of militarism was the POW. What did he do that was heroic? He didn't fight to the death. He surrendered." I was flabbergasted and totally flummoxed. Here I had been studying the POW/MIA myth for years and I had missed its most essential and revealing aspect.
After we got home, I had to look once again at those sickening, but often alarmingly effective, POW/MIA movies. Only then did I realize that this is a myth of imprisonment, a myth that draws deep emotional power by displacing onto Vietnam the imprisonment, helplessness, and alienation felt by many Americans in an epoch when alien economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces control much of their lives. And the man on the flag is American manhood itself, beset by all those bureaucratic and feminine forces seeking to emasculate him. He incarnates America as victim, a victim who must regain his manhood in victorious war, who might be able to truthfully boast “Mission Accomplished,” and thus offer the nation its first joyous victory celebration since August 1945.
Before we left Japan, I was asked to give a lecture about the Gulf War and American culture at Hiroshima University. After the talk, Professor Hiroyuki Miyagawa offered to take Jane and me on a guided tour of Hiroshima the next day. Just three years earlier, I had demonstrated, in War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, that there was no military need to explode atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that Truman had decided to use these bombs in order to intimidate the Soviet Union and be the president who would end all war by showing that America possessed and would use the ultimate and invincible superweapon. Miyagawa was 16 years old on the day the atomic bomb was airburst at 8:15 AM, a time that would inflict maximum casualties on the workers going to work and the children going to school.[xii] Miyagawa was home sick that day; he showed us on the diorama at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum the small hill between ground zero and his home, a feature that provided enough protection so that he was able to live despite severe burns. The tour was one of the most profoundly disturbing experiences of my life, especially as I recalled my own joy on hearing the news of the atomic bomb later that day in Brooklyn.
Like many atomic survivors, Miyagawa for many years was unable to talk to anyone about his experience. But then survivors began to meet together and share their stories. From these reunions emerged a collective vow that for the rest of their lives they would share their experience with as many people as possible. They hoped that their memories might help prevent not just nuclear war but all war.
Miyagawa’s testimony got me to see how key parts of my own experience fit together. I got an astonishing view of that week in August, when a 16-year-old Japanese boy was burned by the blast while an 11-year-old American boy celebrated the atomic bomb along with the great victory that ended the so-called “good war,” just as the 55-year-old Ho Chi Minh was launching the Vietnamese and global revolution against the great colonial empires. Stretching forward were all those American wars designed first to support the old empires, and then to replace them with a more up-to-date model.
Although cultural memory is the sum of individual memories, a society’s collective cultural memory can reshape or overwhelm individual memory. Perhaps this is what convinced President Obama in 2012 to issue his “Presidential Proclamation — Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War” calling for a 13-year campaign of thousands of events throughout the nation to honor the three million “proud Americans” who “upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces […] fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.” The Proclamation began by defining 2012 as the 50th anniversary, but how did he calculate this? On Memorial Day that year, speaking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the President explained that although “historians cannot agree precisely when the war began,” 1962 marked the beginning of “major operations.” Choosing this date conveniently consigned to a black hole of historical and cultural memory the previous 17 years of proxy operations, the creation of a puppet regime in Saigon, the covert operations (including the beginning of chemical warfare designed to obliterate South Vietnam’s rainforests), and the active combat by thousands of US “advisors.”
“Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam,” Obama declared, “America is even stronger than before.” What were these lessons? The two main lessons cited by the President were actually the two main myths I have described. They were to not dishonor our soldiers and to not forsake our POW/MIAs. Vietnam was “one of the most painful chapters in our history,” he said, “most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there.” Not the war, but the treatment of its veterans “was a national shame, a disgrace.” “And when an American does not come back — including the 1,666 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War — let us resolve to do everything in our power to bring them home.” [xiii]
Recognizing the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the President chose a neutral, disinterested, objective organization to organize and run the commemoration: the Department of Defense. The Pentagon has already organized, in collaboration with state and local governments, hundreds of events designed to carry out the mission proclaimed in the Presidential Proclamation. These are just the beginning of a campaign that will climax in 2025 when we officially commemorate the end of the war. Will that, then, become a victory celebration? Or will we have learned the real reasons for the Vietnam War, and the real lessons of that war, and thus put an end, if not to war forever, at least to our ongoing Forever War?
[i] “Poll: Most Say U.S. Doesn’t Have a Responsibility in Ukraine,” CBS NewsMarch, March 25, 2014, 7:00 AM; “Syria Poll Finds Airstrike Opposition Rising Dramatically, Huffington Post, September 10, 2013; “Syria Strike Poll Finds Support For Military Action Keeps Falling,” Huffington Post, September 11, 2013.
[ii] War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, Revised and Expanded Edition (University of Massachusetts Press 2008), 98.
[iii] “Writer Charges U.S. with Curb on Science,” New York Times, August 14, 1941. For a full discussion of nuclear weapons in American culture from 1939 to August 1945, see Chapter 8, “Don’t Worry, It’s Only Science Fiction,” in War Stars.
[iv] Archimedes L. A. Patti, Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America’s Albatross (University of California Press, 1980), p. 325.
[v] Michel Gillen, unpublished dissertation, “Roots of Opposition: The Critical Response to U.S. Indochina Policy, 1945-1954” (New York University, 1991).
[vi] "Transcript of the Proceedings at the Meeting in Celebration of the Second Anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Viet-Nam, 1947," Typescript, Cornell University Library. Tara McAuliff unearthed this document and provided me with a copy.
[vii] Senator Ernest Gruening and Herbert Wilton Beaser, Vietnam Folly (Washington, DC: National Press, 1968), pp. 100-105.
[viii] Gruening and Beaser, p. 105.
[ix] Gillen, 379-383, 402. As Gillen notes, some sources incorrectly attribute this speech to Lyndon Johnson.
[x] Gillen, 402.
[xi] For my extended exploration of the gender issue in the POW/MIA movies, see M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America (Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 140-156.
[xii] Survivors’ stories, including that of Miyagawa, are now available on the internet. His is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyIoLJWrZog. Viewed April 20, 2014.
[xiii] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/05/28/remarks-president-commemoration-ceremony-50th-anniversary-vietnam-war (accessed June 8, 2014). The official proclamation can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/05/25/presidential-proclamation-commemoration-50th-anniversary-vietnam-war (accessed June 8, 2014).
H. Bruce Franklin is an American cultural historian who has authored or edited 19 books on a range of subjects.
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