Old Tapes

I know the young folks despair at the way we moldering relics of the Baby Boom can’t let go of Vietnam. Let me say forthrightly that I know how you feel.
Imagine being a teenager in the mid-1960s and lusting after the Correges-style boots the other girls were wearing, and being told you couldn’t have them because of the bleeping Great Depression, which had been over for 25 bleeping years. And, of course, every Archie-and-Gloria argument between me and my Dad over Vietnam ended with his lecture on Pearl Harbor. Made me crazy. And now I apologize for being just as stuck in the past as my parents were. But on this last day of an old year, there are things that need to be said about replaying old tapes.

If you weren’t around in the Vietnam War era it may be hard to imagine a psychological connection between World War II and Vietnam, but I saw it plainly then. The Greatest Generation was begotten of the World War I generation, and World War I was as stupid and as nasty as any war ever was. The “lesson” many took from World War I was that if Europeans wanted to dig trenches all over France and shoot each other to smithereens again, they could go ahead and do it without us. I’m told that the GGs spent the late 1930s locked in bitter argument between internationalists, who wanted to move against Hitler, and isolationists, who didn’t. Then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of war with Japan, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S., and the argument was settled.

The lesson the GGs took from Pearl Harbor was that if some little pissant foreign country starts to act out, don’t wait until after it bombs your fleet to smack it down. So in 1964, when Americans were told the highly, um, improvised story about an “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin — which is in Asia, mind you — those old Pearl Harbor tapes went on a continual playback loop with a vengeance.

↓ Story continues below ↓

Other old tapes were being played as well. As described in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, by the mid-1960s the U.S. military top brass were guys who had been junior officers in the glory days of World War II. They’d spent the long years since the stalemate in Korea preparing for total war against International Communism and waiting for their turn. Likewise, the fresh-out-of-the-academy junior officers of the mid-1960s had spent their childhoods refighting the Battle of Iwo Jima in thousands of suburban back yards, and they entered adulthood primed and ready to fight. Eventually the building pressure of long-denied desire caused the U.S. military to seek gratification in Vietnam.

President Lyndon Johnson, meanwhile, was replaying a different set of old tapes. Historian Fredrik Logevall wrote in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 1999),

Like many of his generation he was marked by the failure of the allies to stop Hitlerat Munich, and he often declared that he would not reward “aggression” in Vietnam with “appeasement.” He also invoked the mythology of the Alamo, where, as he said, Texas boys had “fought for freedom.” Moreover, history taught Johnson that right-wing adversaries would finish him politically should South Vietnam fall to communism—just hours after taking office, he vowed that he would not be the president who saw Vietnam go the way of China. As he later said to biographer Doris Kearns, in a dubious interpretation of the past: “I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam.”

For more on those old tapes, see Kevin Baker, “Stabbed in the Back!” from the June 2006 issue of Harper’s.

Now, forty years or so later, the Boomers are running the country and re-playing their Vietnam tapes. Tom Engelhardt explains this brilliantly in “Good Evening, Vietnam,” published recently in The Nation. In particular, he writes, the top officials of the Bush Administration seem to have Vietnam on the Brain.

It was as if their invasion was always aimed, as in a suicide mission, directly at America’s well-guarded Green Zone of Vietnam memories. After all, much war planning was based on what they considered the “lessons” of defeat in Vietnam.

Yeah, what about them lessons? The recent death of President Gerald Ford brought back memories of the mid-1970s and the fall of Saigon. To me, one of the striking things about that period was the way many people stopped talking about Vietnam. Suddenly we went from almost a decade of non-stop argument to near silence on the subject. With the exception of the occasional Vietnam war film (which became more nightmarish and hallucinatory as time went on ; think Apocalypse Now!, The Deer Hunter, or Jacob’s Ladder) the Vietnam War was repressed. Which meant, unfortunately, that our individual ideas about What It All Meant remained stuck in 1975.

I don’t think old Vietnam War tapes were the primary impetus for invading Iraq. (Old Gulf War tapes, on the other hand, played a big part; neocons never got over leaving Saddam Hussein in power.) But as the calamity wore on, long-buried enmities and resentments and frustrations left over from Vietnam floated to the surface. And now there is Vietnam War tape-playing going on across the political spectrum, big-time, to the consternation of the young folks.

We’re not all replaying the same Vietnam War tapes, however. The Left’s tapes remind us that the fall of Saigon had no nasty repercussions here in the United States. Southeast Asia was a mess for a while, but we mostly found ways to ignore this. In recent weeks I’ve noticed several people arguing that since retreating from Vietnam turned out for the best, retreating from Iraq should work out OK, too. As tempting as this argument is, I have to point out that there are enormous political and cultural differences between Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the 1970s and Iraq and the Middle East today that could effect a very different outcome.

The Right’s tapes are all about erasing the shame of Vietnam with a glorious victory. Unfortunately, you cannot make them think logically about how to achieve this victory or even what it might look like. Given the factors we’re dealing with in Iraq, I suspect the only victory that would satisfy them would require the mass slaughter of most of the Iraqi population, which would be rather counterproductive to our political goals in the Middle East. Sometimes I think much of the world’s problems would go away if we could round up the wingnuts and put them through glory aversion therapy. Something involving many hours of nonstop John Wayne movies with no potty breaks might do it.

Young people have every right to be weary of their elders and the Vietnamization of Iraq. But for nations, as with individuals, unresolved issues do tend to re-surface in many unexpected and ugly ways. Beware that you don’t find yourselves replaying old Iraq tapes someday. Undoubtedly, writes Tom Engelhardt,

… when we’re done, the Iraqis will be forgotten and — as in the Vietnam era — this will be called an “American tragedy,” to be followed by an “Iraq Syndrome,” and so on into the Möbius strip of history, farce, and catastrophe.

You’ve been warned.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service (revised 3/17/2016) for information on our posting policy.