Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity — a Mini Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


28 July 2015




I appended a caveat to this review at its end, where it makes the most contextual sense. Stated here, it would be superfluous and too easily cast aside.


All you need to know at the outset is that I am not certain that I have been gracefully objective in this book review. In criticizing some of Professor Appy’s thoughts, I probably prove them.


Ironic, no?



A too broad and subsequently poorly supported core thesis


I suspect that Christian Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015) has too many analytical and organizational flaws to appeal to a wide range of readers, even those interested in his core argument — which is that:



The false pretexts used to justify our intervention, the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare, the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw despite public opposition, and the stunning failure to achieve our stated objectives — these harrowing realities provoked a profound national identity crisis, and American reckoning.


[T]he Vietnam War compelled millions of citizens to question the once widely held faith that their country is the greatest force for good in the world, that it always acts to advance democracy and human rights, that it is superior in both its power and its virtue.


My ambition . . . therefore is not just to enrich our understanding of the Vietnam War, but to show how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our nation’s global role from the early days of the Cold War to the wars of the twenty-first century.


My main argument is that the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity — the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.


© 2015 Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015) (at Introduction, pages vii-xiv) (extracts)



Professor Appy:


(a) succeeds in demonstrating, “how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our nation’s global role . . . .”




(b) fails in proving that “the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity — the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world . . . .”


The rest of this review concentrates on Appy’s too little qualified core premise . . .


Namely that Vietnam “shattered the central tenet of American national identity . . . .”


I winnow Appy’s two themes down this way because (from my perspective), it is easy enough to snatch bits of post-Vietnam War history to show that many Americans, “question[ed] the once widely held faith that their country is the greatest force for good in the world.”


This can easily be accomplished impressionistically. Which is not a high scholarly or reasoning bar to hurdle. Reviewing his book in this respect would be a waste of effort, since no scholarly standards reasonably apply to a casually offered opinion about the fluctuating mood(s) of various times.


On the other hand, proving Professor Appy’s core contention, regarding the “[Vietnam]-shattered . . . central tenet of American national identity” — is scholarly challenging. Especially so in light of my own sense that today’s exceptionalism-based psyche goes in the opposite direction.


In view of Appy’s perhaps too boldly stated claim, I examine the book’s analytical merit with regard to it. I ignore the book’s more trivial demonstration of our psychic self-wrestling.



After reading favorable reviews at Amazon dot com, I expected more strongly linked together substance and a sounder analysis of the core premise


Which is why I am posting this mildly cautionary review.


As a whole, Professor Appy’s analysis is not especially well argued, only hit and miss supported, and is pretty consistently disorganized.


He certainly succeeds in showing that we struggled with Vietnam’s legacy. But he falls well short in demonstrating that we have fallen out of love with our self-regarded exceptionalism.


American Reckoning is therefore, at best, an impressionistic analysis written by someone arguably lacking the ability to weave multiple and conflicting historical strands into a persuasive whole in support of an overbroad theme.



Professor Appy’s conclusion about doubted exceptionalism is too boldly stated


As I quoted above, he says that:



My main argument is that the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity — the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.


© 2015 Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015) (at Introduction, pages xiii-xiv)



Given how deeply American exceptionalism still motivates political speeches, foreign policy and interventions abroad — it is difficult to agree with Professor Appy that Americans’ majoritarian sense of being exceptionally good has been shattered.


With the rise of Islamic extremism, my guess is that we are even more obnoxiously self-righteous in our perception of moral superiority than we were before.


If Lyndon Johnson’s perfidy got us started in Vietnam, his levels of lying were drowned by the (massively exposed) ones exhibited by the Bush 2 Administration in initiating the Iraq War with overwhelming approval from Congress and public.


Even in more recent years, there has been virtually no substantial public disapproval of President Obama’s:



(a) often non-selective drone murdering of alleged terrorists — meaning, essentially, young males seen in the vicinity of broadly described locations where vaguely identified “bad guys” might be —




(b) his massively delivered air power interventions with accompanying losses of almost certainly innocent lives.


These are not the actions of a humble and hubris-lacking nation. They ae violent responses from a people still determined to club some American-defined sense into the rest of the world.


It is also noteworthy that no dominantly significant numbers among American leaders and the public have been willing to analyze our strategic (and moral) failures in Afghanistan and Iraq with a view toward doing better against the same kinds of disorder in the future.


This stone-headedness is the antithesis of that which characterized visibly huge segments of the Vietnam era’s American public.


Thus, in my estimation, Professor Appy should have attempted to explain the contradictory strands of (a) our fall from and (b) simultaneous rise back to a sense of Vietnam-ignoring exceptionalism.


In fairness, Appy does try to reason that the hurt of Vietnam caused a reaction in which we invaded small countries, so as to demonstrate that we still had cojones.


But he falls short of explaining away the post-9-11 era’s exceptionalism-based American military occupations and power projections.


He falls even further short of explaining why our self-righteous, indiscriminate meddling abroad is in geographically more widespread “bore” (gun analogy intended) than it was before and during Vietnam.



If I am somewhat correct in these observations . . .


Professor Appy’s main premise should have been stated in a milder form. For example, “More Americans than before think that our government lies and indulges in morally base actions.”


Phrased this less sensational way, Dr. Appy’s premise is inarguably true. But if so, so what?


If a slight upsurge in public disenchantment has had no appreciable effect on our foreign adventures, our speeches, or the nation’s militaristic mindset — who cares?


Why write a book about the fact that there are a proportionally few more dissatisfied Americans than before? Especially so, when we have no rationally justifiable sense that this will soon motivate a change toward strategic sanity in American policy?


Wrestle we may have with Vietnam’s legacy, yet that turmoil went nowhere appreciable that I can detect.


It is in defeating my thesis-rejecting objection that the book goes methodologically astray.


Professor Appy’s proffered proof is mostly taken from scattered writings — including novels, musicals, and a handful of citizens or official public statements — rather than from arguably more persuasive indicators of mass opinion — like voluminously referenced public opinion polls, election outcomes, and persuasively construed actions on the ground.




Appy often mentions government and military actions, but he fairly consistently neglects to explain why he chose them as examples and in which specific regard(s) they prove his thesis.


Professor Appy’s analysis is ultimately a hither and yon —  scattered and sprinkled — non-proof of his main thesis.



Questionable methodology and arguably unwarranted inferences weaken the book


As a former historian, I am not a believer in cobbling together a handful of novelistic and artistic endeavors — taken from only a handful of people — to make an argument of any kind about the nature of the “times”.


Three pages into the American Reckoning, Professor Appy sets off with weak analytical methodology which he frustratingly never abandons.


He begins his discussion of the Vietnam War with Thomas A. Dooley’s memoir/novel about the United States’ prewar humanitarian efforts there:



The first popular American book about Vietnam was a love story. Written by a young navy doctor named Tom Dooley, it showed how big-hearted Americans could save a small, infant nation with Christian compassion.


Lieutenant Dooley’s message carried the weight of personal experience — he participated in Operation Passage to Freedom, the navy mission that helped transport more than 800,000 northern Vietnamese to the South between August 1954 and May 1955. Dooley gave medical care to the “hordes of refugees from terror-ridden North Vietnam,” and vividly described their exodus to “Free Vietnam” in the South.


Despite widespread illness and frailty, many refugees drew strength and solace from their Catholic faith.


Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, Dooley convinced millions that the U.S. role there was nothing less than a holy mission to rescue poor and tortured Christians from godless Communism.


Dooley’s 1956 book, Deliver Us from Evil, casts the United States in an indisputably heroic role.


Deliver Us from Evil was one of the most widely read books about Vietnam ever written. And many who did not read the book nevertheless knew about Tom Dooley because he was a master of TV-age communication and self-promotion.


© 2015 Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015) (at pages 3-4 and 8) (extracts)


There are obvious reasoning problems with this approach.


In these very few pages, Professor Appy encouraged me to doubt his credentials as a competent historian and critical thinker:



First, he never identifies Deliver Us from Evil as either a presumably valid memoir or a less evidentiarily worthy work of fiction.


My impression is that he never thoroughly digested Dooley’s book. More important, Appy seems never to have thought about whether basing the start of his cultural history upon an obviously fictionalized story constitutes sound historiography — “historiography” meaning the skill of writing critically valid history.


Professor Appy also does not cite a documenting source regarding the US Navy’s allegedly humanitarian movement of 800,000 Vietnamese from north to south.


Indeed, Wikipedia states that only 310,000 people were transported by our Navy and a further 500,000 were moved to the purported safety of South Vietnam by the French. How did Professor Appy miss this easily recoverable detail? The fact that he apparently overlooked it weakened my trust in him as a diligent verifier of facts.


Third, Appy cites no authority for his claim that physician Dooley “convinced millions that the U.S. role there was nothing less than a holy mission . . . .”


How does he know this? How could anyone know it? Indeed, how does one prove the strands of historical influence?


This is another question regarding proper historiography that evidently flew over the professor’s head.


Instead of trying to support his claim that Dr. Dooley “convinced millions” — Appy contents himself with partially tracking Dooley’s activities, rather than analyzing his audiences and their records (if such exist) of his influence upon them.


Fourth, the good professor cites no authority for his claim about this “most widely read book.”


We are left to assume that his source of authority for the statement is the same one he offers to demonstrate that Reader’s Digest had published a condensed version of Deliver us from Evil. But there is nothing in the footnote that specifically links the two.


Similarly questionable reasoning and attributional sloppiness continue throughout the volume.



The book’s footnotes are not admirable in quality


Dr. Appy and his publisher decided not to number footnotes within the text. Instead, notes are relegated to the end of the book and numbered by the page they refer to. Only a few words from the text orient the reader as to which of the book’s phrases they are supporting.


This system works poorly. Without a text-located number, a reader cannot know whether there is an accompanying footnote in the back of the book, without first flipping there.


And, as in the above “most widely read book” example, one often does not know from the frequently too abbreviated footnote content which sentence Professor Appy is trying to uphold or expand.



Woeful analytical organization


Appy’s argument wanders back and forth through time, both with regard to the book as a whole and within each chapter.


This habit quickly grates, in part because it destroys the continuity of Appy’s proofs. To my mind, Appy’s illogical meandering reflects the work of someone incapable of gathering together the ducks of rational argument.


For example, American Reckoning’s chapter titles are only haphazardly associated with what might have been prongs of a credible cultural analysis. To wit:



Saving Vietnam


Paper Tigers

Vietnam, Inc.

Our Boys

The American Way of Life

The War at Home

“The Pride Is Back”

No More Vietnams

Who We Are


These are all poetic enough. But they are not intellectually descriptive labels for the steps of reasoned argument that would establish the decline of America’s faith in exceptionalism.


Professor Appy’s writing appears to begin afresh with each chapter and in ways that only marginally relate to what went before or comes after. I often found myself wondering what each chapter was trying to prove, other than to provide sprinkled examples of post-Vietnam turmoil.


Appy’s unnecessary deviations from chronology make this topically wandering quality even more irritating.


His style is similar to a story teller who frequently interjects, “Oh, I forgot to tell you” — and then afterward further forgets to indicate how that bit of new information relates to the core of the story.


Having had to cobble together facts from numerous sources in my own writings, I suspect that Professor Appy sometimes just picked one tidbit up from his research pile and almost randomly inserted into his evolving text, so as to get rid of it.



You get the idea . . .


Impressionistic scholarship, lousy supporting attributions, and overly generalized and often irrelevant thinking.


No wonder some politically “conservative” readers at Amazon (dot com) disliked Professor Appy’s premises and his way of proving them.


Even I, as someone who came to maturity during the Vietnam era and fit into the questioning group that the author describes, have trouble seeing American Reckoning as notably well reasoned.



On the other hand, the volume is certainly not wasted effort


Most Amazon reader reviews very much liked the book.


American Reckoning serves as a good reminder of aspects of the tenor of Vietnam War era times. And some of its footnotes — almost all made to secondary rather than original sources — may lead people unfamiliar with the Vietnam War to other reading.



But overall? — Disappointing to me


This is neither an especially convincing book nor a scholarly gifted one.


From a critical thinking perspective, the history department that trained me would have chided even a master’s degree candidate for submitting such an airily reasoned and weakly tied together work.


This is a pity because Christian Appy is an excellent writer. The quote I started with is an outstanding summary of his thinking and one that a great many people could not have delivered so concisely. Intelligent summary is always difficult to do.


Perhaps this implied contradiction explains my disappointment with American Reckoning.  Professor Appy is noticeably less talented as a crafter of sustained linked argument — based on persuasively prioritized, voluminous factual detail — than he is at occasionally coming up with admirably concise and descriptive paragraphs.


In sum, he is too much an “artiste” and too little the cogent analyst for me.


Harshly stated (so as to make the point), American Reckoning constitutes knowledgeably spewed cocktail chatter, rather than a proof generated by a diligently careful thinker.


That said, people who agree with Professor Appy’s politically “liberal” view of the Vietnam War’s lessons — and who are not anally held by critical reasoning standards — will probably like his book.



The promised caveat


I am uncertain whether I have been fair to Professor Appy’s effort. Intellectually and rationally speaking, always my preferred ground, I probably I have been. Emotionally though, another component of truth, I am not sure.


I close this review by cautioning readers to take the seared-in biases of old men and old women into rebutting account. On Vietnam and its aftermath, I and many others struggle to be objective.


Perhaps American Reckoning will be proportionately better received by people who are younger than I am and less well versed in both the Vietnam War era and its extended aftermath.


Many of us still feel betrayed by our leaders and our culture, whichever side of the political fence we are on. Arguably irreparably jaded, some of us see no improvement, and even a worsening, in the American course since Vietnam. This is again true, whichever political meadow we occupy.


Perhaps asking that Professor Appy convince me and us of anything was a step too far.


My biggest disappointment with regard to Vietnam is how we learned essentially nothing from the experience. We are the same historically and culturally ignorant, pig-headed, arrogantly intrusive, militaristically violent and strategically obtuse people we were then. Hubris remains our first name. That is why I contest Professor Appy’s more hopeful conclusion about the extent of our supposedly now questioned sense of being exceptional.