Scholar reviews the Vietnam War and American identity

Professor Christian Appy of UMass Amherst gives a lecture on "why the Vietnam war still matters."  in 1974 Conference Room on April 6, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Speaking to a crowd of students and faculty Wednesday afternoon in the library, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Christian Appy argued that America hasn’t learned from the Vietnam War.

Appy began by explaining the reason that he began writing his third book on Vietnam, which is titled, “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and our National Identity.”

 “I felt that it was clear that we had, in many ways, not learned the lessons of Vietnam. More precisely, our leaders had learned precisely the wrong lessons about the Vietnam War. In my mind, we learned that foreign policy should be ever-more transparent and democratic, and less secretive,” Appy said. “Once again, we found ourselves sending troops to these faraway places, as in Vietnam, under false pretenses in countries where they were widely perceived to be foreign invaders and occupiers.”

Appy first argued that the Vietnam War was a turning point in modern American history and permanently shook our faith in what Appy called “American exceptionalism.”

“No other event in our history so challenged and so shattered the broad faith in American exceptionalism than the Vietnam War,” Appy said. “As I argue in the book, Vietnam really undermined that, and in the decades since, there has been a largely successful effort to cobble together again, like Humpty Dumpty, a faith in American exceptionalism.”

Appy was extremely critical of the way that the government withheld information on the war from the American people. The lack of information, he argued, was one reason that it took so long for the anti-war movement to become as popular as it did.

“Much of the work in the book tries to document the process by which Americans challenged and got the information to challenge the lies being told by one presidential administration after another,” Appy said.

The collapse of the United States’ moral high ground and the point at which Americans turned against the war in great numbers was the My Lai massacre in 1968, in which American soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

“Most of you have probably heard of the My Lai massacre, so I won’t say too much about it, except that a company of Americans entered this village,” Appy explained. “They arrived in the village and did not receive a single round of hostile gunfire. These were completely non-resisting civilians, with no military age men to be seen. The company proceeded to murder 500 civilians slowly, systematically, over the course of four hours where they took breaks to smoke.”

One of the lessons that Americans have yet to learn, but should, Appy argued, is the way Americans confer a “hero status” on any member of the military.

“Since then, I would argue that we have conferred automatic ‘hero status’ on anyone who puts on a uniform and it’s not incumbent on us to worry about what they do when they have that uniform and they’re representing us. That’s part of the repackaging of American exceptionalism,” Appy said.

Appy was blunt in his description of the solution to the failure of the American people and government to understand the lessons of the Vietnam War.

“I think we’ve got to get rid of this idea of American exceptionalism. I do not think it is supported by the historical record,” Appy said. “It’s unimaginably offensive to the rest of the world, who are being told they’re inferior to the lone superpower in the world. Beyond that, to the degree that people accept this idea that we’re the indispensable nation, it underwrites and gives support to a war machine that is happy enough to pursue its policy in a way that strikes Americans as impervious to public control.”

Members of the audience were impressed with the presentation, suggesting that Appy successfully took a broad topic and focused on one important aspect of it.

“The presentation was very interesting. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it delivered,” said Nu-Anh Tran, a professor in the history department.

Concluding the presentation with a warning, Appy suggested that the current U.S. foreign policy is “unsustainable and ineffective.”

“Unless we challenge this idea of American exceptionalism, we’re not going to be able to even make tiny steps to draw down the American military presence,” Appy said. “Our imperial presence in the world is unsustainable and ineffective.”


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.