Vietnam is Back in Town

News Abroad


Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He is the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" and more recently "Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal."

Just as perennial announcements that “Freud is dead” or “God is dead” signal that they're anything but, the recurring claims that America is over and done with the war in Vietnam are just as certainly premature.

The aftershocks of the military defeat in Vietnam reverberated through the country’s economic, political, and cultural institutions well into the 1980s. By the end of the century, though, the past-tensing of the war became common. The roll-back of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991 prompted President George H.W. Bush to declare the so-called Vietnam Syndrome “kicked,” the hangover inhibiting the national will for more war cured. When President Bill Clinton established diplomatic relations with the former enemy regime in Hanoi in 1995, the July 12 Chicago Tribune announced: “The War in Vietnam is over.”

Historical landmarks are seldom that definitive, of course, and so it was that the first years of the new century were speckled with countervailing impressions of Vietnam’s enduring memory. The 2004 Presidential election, decided as it was by the “swift-boating” of Vietnam veteran John Kerry’s campaign brought the war back into view. With news organizations frequently framing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with comparisons to Vietnam, and Vietnam-era POW John McCain’s campaign for president in 2008, the meaning of Vietnam seemed as immediate as ever.

Still, just weeks ago and five months before the 2012 election, Tom Engelhardt announced at TomDispatch.com: “Vietnam Has Left Town.” Washington, he says, has “dropped Vietnam through the memory hole”; analogies to it as a way to think about Iraq and Afghanistan “left in the dust.” Afghanistan has become its own quagmire unbeholden to any other for definition.

Engelhardt may have been right that military strategy and tactics no longer need the preface, "like Vietnam." But it was the war at home, not the one abroad, that fixed Vietnam in American memory. Long after the battles for the Ia Drang valley and Khe Sanh were forgotten, the images of the war at home lingered: military tactics hamstrung by liberal politicians and fighters demoralized by antiwar radicals composed the thesis the war had been lost in Congress and on college campuses. The idea that veterans were scorned, even spit upon, during the post-war years enlivened the betrayal narrative so graphically that by the 2000s, Americans who knew nothing else about the war were nonetheless sure that Vietnam veterans had been spat on.

If Vietnam had ever left Washington, it returned for this year’s Memorial Day commemorations. It nearly smothered everything else. The Vietnam Memorial was the day’s main stage. Introduced by former senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel, President Obama called the war begun fifty years earlier “one of the nation’s most painful chapters.” The pain he spoke of, though, wasn’t the ill-conceived reasons for the war, or its consequences for the Vietnamese, or even its loss. The war he had in mind was not the one fought in Vietnam at all but the one fought and lost in Washington and Berkeley.

The painful chapter was, he said speaking to the Vietnam generation of veterans, “ ...you came home and sometimes were denigrated. ... It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that's why we’re here. Today we resolve that it will not happen again.”

Obama was pitching to the veterans’ vote for the fall election, an understandable campaign strategy. But why wrap the appeal in the imagery of those conflicted years? His 2008 election was, after all, another one of those generational markers that supposedly put Vietnam in our rearview mirror: just born when the war was beginning, Obama seemed a likely figure to finally lead us out of our post-Vietnam malaise. Why evoke those memories?

The answer is more complex than the simple appeal to veterans that it appears to be. Were it only that, it would have made more sense to just reference the men and women home from Iraq and Afghanistan. His speech, however, encoded an appeal to a demographic much larger than veterans, with interests much broader than theirs. Obama’s target audience was a neo-conservative constituency whose worldview was birthed in the tumultuous years of Vietnam and whose identity was formed by its opposition to the antiwar movement of that era. By aligning with Vietnam veterans the way he did, he staked out a position against the opponents of that war, and locked arms with many independent center-right voters. Being for, he managed to be against in a way that made him for -- a kind of double dialectic.

Some of Obama’s supporters with biographies running through the '60s and '70s, as well as younger opponents of the current wars who worked hard for his first election, may have been shocked to hear what sounded to them like historical revisionism. But not everyone was surprised. The week before Memorial Day, the president had rolled his Veterans and Military Families for Obama effort at a Medal of Honor ceremony at which he claimed Vietnam veterans had been shunned and called names. That was a trial balloon to see if the same imagery would work for his huge national audience on May 28 -- former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat, gave it his imprimatur on MSNBC’s Hardball show the next day saying Vietnam veterans had been “kicked to the curb.”

More astute commentators saw where Obama was headed years ago. Even before the votes were cast in 2008, Paul Rosenberg noted on OpenLeft.com that Obama was campaigning for the White House by running against the antiwar Left of the Vietnam period. Rosenberg found, then, Obama using words very similar to those used now: protesters committing acts against veterans that “remain a national shame to this day.”

Heading to the 2012 election, the national political culture toggles between the poles: Vietnam-is-over / not-over. In his sardonic send-up of contemporary American political life, radio host David Sirota wrote in Back to Our Future that the groundwork of that divide was laid in the 1980s. The Reagan years, argues Sirota, galvanized reaction to the loss in Vietnam into a movement bent on return to “the '50s,” conservatives’ prelapsarian decade. For them, the legacy of Vietnam is an irritant to be engaged, the radical collectivism and liberal permissiveness responsible for the defeat called out. Obama added his voice to that movement on Memorial Day, a contribution acknowledged that evening by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg on Fox Cable News’s All Star Panel who said, “Obama apologized for his side ... the Left.”

There is something comical about the Right’s adoption of postmodernists’ back-is-forward approach to the present, but Obama’s complicity with it is more tragic. Beyond the likelihood that it will cost him as many votes as it wins, there is the longer term consequence that by displacing consideration of America’s folly in Vietnam with mythical enemy-behind-the-lines imagery, and caricaturizing the anti-war movement’s role in that story, his words open wider doors for an avenging militarized right wing that really could take us back -- and large portions of the world with us.

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