By Howard Machtinger
January 8, 2017
Why It Still Matters:
The American War in Vietnam in the Age of Trump
“We don’t win anymore. As a country, we don’t win.”
“We don’t want to use our military, honestly. We don’t want to use our military. But we’re being scoffed at right now and we never fight to win.”
“It will change. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me.”
Donald Trump on the state of America
Why does it still matter to bring the truth of the American war in Vietnam to the American public more than a generation after fighting ended? Shouldn’t progressives focus solely on campaigns to bring an end to Donald Trump’s reign? Why be distracted by putting energy into digging up the long ago past? After all, don’t Americans agree with Henry Ford that “history is bunk”?
We are all creatures of history; we all live in it. Demagogues don’t drop from the sky, and the rise of the ultra right is not confined to Germany or the dustbins of history. What is the nature of Trump’s appeal and how has his politics gained legitimacy and currency? What feelings of humiliation, fear, racism and sexism has he tapped into?
America’s self image as an exceptional society suffered from five significant 20th century events that laid the basis for the current crisis:
- The Great Depression of the 1930s & The Great Recession of 2008+
- The rise of Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s
- The challenge to Jim Crow racism
- The rise of the women’s and LGBT movements
- The American war in Vietnam
The Great Depression of the 1930s and its 21st century kin, the Great Recession of 2008, challenged the notion that the American system would guarantee the good life for most Americans and their children. The rise of Fascism posed an authoritarian alternative to liberal capitalism; its extreme version of white supremacy and ensuing violence threatened to expose the limitations of the American trajectory and, among other things, provoked African Americans to hope for a Double V-victory over Fascism abroad and racism at home. The challenge to Jim Crow by the Black freedom movement undercut notions of freedom and equality central to the mainstream American narrative and inspired movements by others marginalized in US society. The women’s and LGBT movements undermined traditional male privilege and introduced new ideas defining what it means to be male or female or human. And, pertinent to the concerns of this piece, the war in Southeast Asia raised profound questions about American power–its use and abuse–the American character, government accountability, concepts of manhood, and the purported role of the US as a defender of freedom.
Trumpism is a truly reactionary movement in that it is a well-honed authoritarian response to perceived economic crisis; a reassertion of fascist and masculinist symbols of power, a white and male supremacist counter-attack against the gains of people of color, as well as the successes of the LGBT community. Ta-Nehisi Coates adds: ”historians will spend the next century analyzing how a country with such allegedly grand democratic traditions was, so swiftly and so easily, brought to the brink of fascism. But one needn’t stretch too far to conclude that an eight-year campaign of consistent and open racism aimed at the leader of the free world helped clear the way.”
To complement all of the above, our brief is to demonstrate that how Americans responded to defeat in Vietnam importantly contributed to the rise of Trumpism. A core component of Trumpism is a desperate desire to reassert American power in an increasingly uncontrollable world in which the US no longer has a free hand. There is a powerful fear among significant portions of the US population that “they’ are coming for us, that everyone must be armed for protection and that the US must do anything, from deportation to torture, to exercise the full brunt of its power to crush these dangerous enemies.
Some of these feelings have their source in US defeat in Vietnam, an early and profound signal of the loss of pre-eminence; it stoked the fear that the non-white barbarians were everywhere and ready to strike. For some Americans, this is when Americans began ‘losing’. The war was a traumatic defeat for the US military and also for those Americans whose self-image has been tethered to American “exceptionalism”, and who hold the core tenet that the US is a God-given “city on a hill” (in Ronald Reagan’s sampling of the Sermon on the Mount and Puritan John Winthrop). These Americans felt humiliated by the damage to America’s moral image as well as the sting of military defeat by what Henry Kissinger demeaned as a ”fourth-rate power”. The peace movement had in America (as part of a world-wide peace movement) succeeded in helping to end a terrible war which had cost the lives of million of Southeast Asians as well as 58,000 Americans, while seriously dividing the American people. But it did not succeed in helping Americans come to real terms with the defeat—to understand it as something besides loss; certainly no easy task, but, as we shall see, a crucial and necessary one.
Those on the right early on recognized the existential threat to American self-image portended by defeat in Vietnam. Attempts to resuscitate the American (imperial) mojo since the end of the war until today by both those in the mainstream and those on the fringes can be crudely classified as follows (concepts are listed separate for analytic purposes, but of course they are interconnected and build on each other):
- The restoration of national ‘pride’ and the link to white supremacy: Losing the war unsettled the country and led some on the right to rationalize the loss and make efforts to restore national pride. That “gooks” had defeated the pride of the US military also called for a reassertion of white pride exemplified by a willingness to fight the dangerous ‘other’. Today, for the right and others, traditional western values and power continue to be under siege and require a no-holds-barred response. Read more on National Pride here
- The “stab in the back” and anti-state patriotism: One explanation, reminiscent of the Nazi view of Germany’s defeat in World War I, was that politicians at home abetted by domestic opposition had forced the US to fight with ‘one hand tied behind the back’. As Rambo puts it in the postwar First Blood (1982): “Do we get to win this time?” This view gained widespread credence despite the incredible resources actually expended on the war. During the war, the opposition had been decried as pro-Communist, cowardly, elitist and unpatriotic. Added to this in the postwar period was the mythology that antiwar protesters had spat on returning American soldiers. The POW/MIA issue led some to believe that US politicians were deliberately colluding with the enemy. The critique of backstabbing evolved into a new anti-state nationalism, in which establishment politicians were scorned and government derided. These cowardly, fumbling bureaucrats needed to be replaced by heroic warriors and plain-speaking outsiders ready to do the deeds that the desperate situation required. Trump, in his version of an old socialist slogan, now promises to “Drain the Swamp (DTS). Read more on “Stab in the Back” here
- Rehabilitation of a warrior concept of manliness: On the far right came a call for warriors to fight a New War against not only foreign Communists but internal enemies as well, including not only unpatriotic protestors, but emasculating feminists. War movies, war games, and paintball gave full play to this machismo, often tied to violent fantasies of revenge. A cultural amalgam of the fictional Rambo and the renegade Oliver North (of Iran-contra fame) encapsulated this new hero willing to act out of the control of establishment power. Second Amendment fundamentalists carry on this tradition and pose as protectors of the population where the state power has seemingly abdicated its duty to protect America from border crossers, terrorists, and criminals as well as saboteurs of traditional values. Read more on “Warrior” here
- Rehabilitation of the image of the military: The military became sacrosanct and criticism of policy became equivalent to questioning the courage and service of ordinary Americans. The military and the police symbolized bastions of protection against the savage world of barbarians. The media became glutted with heroic fighters, crafty and courageous CIA agents, and tough, no-holds barred police who were unafraid to violate ‘politically correct’ rules and laws to take out the barbarians in their midst. Read more “Military” here
- War is back and normalized. Starting with Grenada, and carrying on with Panama, the two Gulf wars, as well as Afghanistan, plus other more hidden forays around the world, the US seemed to be engaged with an eternal, and often frustrating, enemy—in recent years transmuted from Communists into (Muslim) terrorists. Threats to American security were exaggerated, excuses for war made up, and real enemies mythologized. There was to be no more coddling of outsiders perceived as threatening the American way of life. Read more “War is Back” here
Even as establishment politicians in 21st century America carried on an aggressive foreign policy, accompanied by increased domestic surveillance of ‘outsiders’, the image of terror-coddling Washington bureaucrats gained traction—especially after Barack Obama’s election. Accusations that Obama was a secret Muslim or that he wasn’t born in the US by the “birthers” (with Trump as a major popularizer) were not made because of their truth value–they were patently false—but to embellish Obama’s outsider status (already signified by his race), to brand him as a traitor, and to legitimize him as a target of unprecedented abuse. The slow and weak recovery from the economic crisis of 2008 in the industrial and mining heartland further fed a resentful, vengeful, anti-pc, avowedly racist and sexist, masculinist, and white supremacist narrative to restore American ‘purity’ and power. This authoritarian, populist movement abetted by new and old media entered the mainstream of political discourse culminating in a campaign to “Make America Great Again” with enough traction to take the Presidency. For Trump, the last time America was great was in his youth before the successes of the Black freedom and women’s and LGBT movements, and before the war in Vietnam.
In some ways Trumpism is an original right wing amalgam of competing narratives–extremely pro-business but anti-free trade; skeptical about American exceptionalism but pledging to make America great again; gaudy capitalism in touch with working class anger; a Big Business cabinet and a pledge to protect social security; America First isolationism with growing ties to authoritarian leaders around the world (from Putin to Netanyahu), presumed misgivings about some wars and disparagement of generals during the campaign, negative about NATO and suspicious of the CIA; then placing generals in roles traditionally held by civilians and fostering dreams of increasing the nuclear arsenal; the anti-politician in charge of government.
Trumpism is also in some ways the same old authoritarianism sowing fear, racism, demonization of the ‘other’, and hate for advantage. Trump is putting the generals in charge so the crooked, corrupt politicians will not hold them back from smashing the ‘enemy’. As he put it during his campaign, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”. In hard times, he is advising his people to lash out at the others as a way to resolve their problems. He has coopted frustrations with the state of American society, as well as its blundering wars and pretends to allay them with the fantasy of the protective father who has mastered the art of the deal and will thereby save American jobs and bring American power to bear effectively abroad. Whether his break with the post-world War II bipartisan foreign policy consensus as well as Republican orthodoxy can be sustained in the face of opposition from the national security state and Republican cold warriors, as well as from the grassroots remains to be seen. But it is clear that something new is afoot in the world; alliances breaking down and shifting, the European Union dividing, strongmen in power –from Putin to Netanyahu to Erdogan (Turkey) to Duterte (Philippines) to Orban (Hungary) and whoever is next in France and possibly Germany—with the potential of a global authoritarian alliance.
The trajectory of Trumpism toward an American-style authoritarianism or what Umberto Eco calls ur-fascism is clear. How the contradictions in his thinking play out is harder to predict, but they will matter politically if we can offer a relevant counter-narrative. Part of our job is to develop a narrative that speaks to ordinary people’s vulnerability while honestly confronting America’s ongoing shortcomings. We need a new sense of American-ness; one that forgoes exceptionalism. We need to elaborate an inclusive–not confined to the middle class–genuine inter-racial dialogue along with honest relationship building; a strategy and sensibility, which replace resentment and the naked pursuit of wealth and power with humanity and self-understanding.
Assuming that the case has been made that the roots of Trump’s movement reside in part in a dangerous and distorted response to the war in Vietnam, why does that connection matter? We, in the Veterans For Peace Full Disclosure campaign for an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam, initially responded to the Pentagon’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the war, which began in 2012. We have been very concerned about government attempts to whitewash and mythologize the war and US actions in Vietnam, and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars. The Trump Presidency has only heightened our concerns.
Our point has been that the roots of Trumpism lie in part in deep-seated feelings of resentment and victimization that will not easily be uprooted or challenged. What is America’s proper place in the world? How does one help a society and a culture cope with what feels like losing? How do we combat the politics of ‘resentment’? What is a useful political response to people’s fears and feelings of vulnerability? What allows a people to honestly admit and deal with historical immoralities and mistakes? How can the US engage the world without seeking dominance? This speaks to many contradictions in the American experience, not just the war in Vietnam. How are the moral problems of the past to be forthrightly confronted so that we can productively move forward in the present? Our view is distinct from that expressed by President Obama’s: “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
We have seen that the unresolved past lives on; the further it is buried or rationalized, the more likely it is to resurface in disturbing and dangerous fashion. Especially when it involves profound issues of race, class, sex, and war! Our hope and aim is for an honest examination of the war that can be part of a healthy process by which Americans encounter the world and its inevitable frustrations and moral challenges. We need to work these issues through rationally, while also recognizing the deep emotional stakes involved. We have been indoctrinated to be a nation of exceptional ‘winners’; are we capable of posing an emotionally satisfying and humane alternative? We do not expect progress to come easily, but it needs to come. There has been important work done in the last generation to come to terms with many of these questions. Obviously more needs to be done in a way that’s is accessible and meaningful to most Americans. Few nations have honestly confronted their historic sins; where there has been progress it has been over generations. We in the US face a unique challenge because of America’s outsize role in the world. If we are controlled by our demons, then all of humanity will pay the price. The truth needs to make us free or at least wiser and more humble.