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The Vietnam War in American Memory

The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing

Patrick Hagopian
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 576
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  • Book Info
    The Vietnam War in American Memory
    Book Description:

    A study of American attempts to come to terms with the legacy of the Vietnam War, this book highlights the central role played by Vietnam veterans in shaping public memory of the war. Tracing the evolution of the image of the Vietnam veteran from alienated dissenter to traumatized victim to noble warrior, Patrick Hagopian describes how efforts to commemorate the war increasingly downplayed the political divisions it spawned in favor of a more unifying emphasis on honoring veterans and promoting national “healing.”

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-104-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. Introduction: A “Noble Cause”
    (pp. 1-22)

    On the afternoon of May 27, 1968, Victor Westphall was operating a mechanical digger, a backhoe, on Val Verde, his ranch in northern New Mexico. A pair of Marine Corps captains in dress uniforms were searching for the ranch, bearing bad news. They drove through the Moreno Valley, in the green foothills of Wheeler Peak, asking Westphall’s neighbors for directions. When they found him, they told Westphall what every parent who sends a child to war dreads to hear: his son David, a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, had been shot and killed while leading his platoon in combat. Victor...

  6. 1 “Never Again” The Vietnam Syndrome in American Foreign Policy
    (pp. 23-48)

    The conflict that surrounded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, drew its energy from Americans’ conflicting views of U.S. actions in Vietnam. Wartime disagreements about foreign policy persisted in the postwar period as Americans debated the proper “lessons” of the war. The arguments about the war were heated and visceral and led Americans to question one another’s morality and good faith. The nation grew to mistrust its leaders as a result of governmental deceit and Americans with differing views of the war were distrustful of and hostile to one another. Jack Smith, a psychologist who had served as a...

  7. 2 “Something Rather Dark and Bloody” Atrocities, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the Pathologization of Vietnam Veterans
    (pp. 49-78)

    The cultural construction of Vietnam veterans played a central role in shaping the remembrance of the war. The veterans were living embodiments of the war and their difficult readjustment to civilian society became a metaphor for the nation’s problems in integrating the Vietnam experience into the pattern of national life. In the early 1970s, antiwar veterans, the most publicly visible and organized body of Vietnam veterans, were an anomalous, alienated group challenging received ideas about the moral virtues of the American military.¹ By the end of the decade, though, veterans’ image had undergone a sea change. They remained plaintive figures...

  8. 3 The Discourse of Healing and the “Black Gash of Shame” The Design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
    (pp. 79-110)

    On July 1, 1980, within a few months of the American Psychiatric Association’s validation of the condition Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), President Jimmy Carter signed the congressional resolution authorizing the creation of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital.¹ The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), the memorial’s sponsors, espoused a depoliticized version of the discourse of healing and reconciliation that emerged in discussions of Vietnam veterans and the “post-Vietnam syndrome” in the 1970s. The fund eschewed the antiwar politics that the activist psychiatrists and Vietnam Veterans Against the War promoted as part of the veteran’s “survivor mission”; and they...

  9. 4 A “Dangerous Political Issue” The War about Memory in 1982
    (pp. 111-139)

    In December 1981, the Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, a one-time supporter of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) who had paid the costs of the design competition, forcefully took up Carhart’s denunciation of Lin’s wall and demanded that the memorial make an affirmative statement of America’s honor. Perot was a fiercely conservative businessman who had enjoyed a special relationship with the Richard Nixon White House. He used the massive wealth he accumulated through government contracts to organize private citizens groups to back Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. He was an authoritarian and he sometimes exhibited fears of malevolent conspiracies that...

  10. 5 “Home to America’s Heart” The National Salute to Vietnam Veterans
    (pp. 140-165)

    Jack Wheeler said that the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would “mark the end of a phase during which it was more comfortable for Americans to pretend we have no Vietnam veterans among us.” More than mere acceptance, he said, the dedication would show that “America affirms the integrity of her fighting forces without apology or stain.” The National Salute to Vietnam Veterans, he explained, would expose, and thereby end, “the denial that has characterized the country’s reaction to the war.” He called the November 1982 national salute “probably the single most important step in the process of healing...

  11. 6 “In Unity and with Resolve” The Statue, the Flag, and Political Speech at the Memorial
    (pp. 166-201)

    The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial did not bring an end to the conflicts between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and their rightwing antagonists. During the whole of 1983, the memorial fund’s detractors kept up a campaign of obstruction and harassment, first in Congress and through the office of the secretary of the interior, then through a McCarthyite lawyer, and finally through a zealous investigative reporter’s television broadcasts. The attacks failed, partly because of the goodwill the memorial fund had garnered during the National Salute to Vietnam Veterans and partly because the Reagan administration tended to favor the...

  12. 7 “No Shame or Stigma” The Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program
    (pp. 202-230)

    Ronald Reagan’s wish to neutralize the “problem” of the Vietnam veteran as outsider is evident in his speeches praising Vietnam veterans’ faithfulness, applauding other Americans for welcoming them home, and observing that America had consequently transcended “the tragedies of the past” and come together “in unity and with resolve.” The Reagan administration’s wish to do away with negative stereotypes of Vietnam veterans is also evident in the activities of a little-remarked federal organization, the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program (VVLP).¹ In this chapter, we see how the Reagan administration would have liked ideally to construct the image of the Vietnam veteran....

  13. 8 “A Confrontation between Faiths” The Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial
    (pp. 231-267)

    In the decade between the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in 1982 and its tenth anniversary, scores of Vietnam veterans memorials were constructed around the country.¹ Studying them can provide useful confirmation and amplification of the debates surrounding the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital, distinguishing idiosyncratic, accidental matters from recurrent themes. This chapter focuses on the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose leading advocate, the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program (VVLP) in Louisville, wanted the memorial to make a clear political statement justifying the war. The Vietnam War, he believed, was a...

  14. 9 “Today, We Are One People” The Family Drama of Race and Gender in Commemorative Statuary of the Vietnam War
    (pp. 268-308)

    Healing, as advanced by the VVMF and other memorial planners in the 1980s, was an all-embracing response to a multifaceted phenomenon: the Vietnam “wound,” “trauma,” and “syndrome” that encompassed individual veterans’ psychological experiences and national divisions and uncertainty. These twin concepts of wounds and healing materialized in a striking number of sculptural memorials to the Vietnam War. Although the most obvious figurative representations of a war might seem to be combat scenes, statues of Americans pointing their weapons do not predominate in Vietnam War memorials. True, some memorials show infantry troops in action. For example, the statue in Nashville, Tennessee,...

  15. 10 “Our Offspring” Children in Vietnam Veterans Memorials
    (pp. 309-347)

    An unexpected idea kept coming into the imaginations of Americans considering how to commemorate the Vietnam War: scenes involving American troops helping or saving Vietnamese children. The people who proposed some of these monuments said that they intended them to counter the well-known images of U.S.–perpetrated atrocities, which motivated the “baby killer” accusation. Far from superseding those disturbing images, however, the designs betray the extent to which Americans were haunted by images of dead and injured Vietnamese children. Both the defenders of U.S. policy in Vietnam and its critics had used U.S. forces’ relations with Vietnamese children as the...

  16. 11 “The Wall Is for All of Us” Patterns of Public Response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
    (pp. 348-398)

    Memorials are not simply the products of their designers’ imaginations and their planners’ motives. Once a memorial is constructed it ceases to be the “property” of those who created it. As visitors enrich the site with their own thoughts and feelings, a memorial becomes a public possession. In this chapter, we obtain some measure of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s reception in American society by looking at public interaction with the wall and at the way the memorial’s image disseminated through American society—in photographic books, children’s storybooks, and the various incarnations of the “moving wall,” the half-scale replicas that tour...

  17. Conclusion A “Statute of Limitations”: What “Healing” from the War Might Mean
    (pp. 399-432)

    Since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, the most common forms of commemoration of the Vietnam War in the United States have been inscribed walls of names and bronze statues. After 1982, the rhetoric and ideology of commemoration around the country have also been consistent with the precedent of the national memorial: memorials elsewhere have almost universally been titled Vietnam veterans memorials, not Vietnam War memorials, and exclusively record the names of military personnel on inscribed walls. The roll call of the dead recalls the fate of those who served, rather than anything they did. The...

    (pp. 433-434)
  19. NOTES
    (pp. 435-530)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 531-554)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 555-557)