I was born in November 1974. The Paris Peace Accords had been signed by Richard Nixon in January of the previous year. The war, for all intents and purposes was well over by the time I came around. Except it never ended. The shadow of Vietnam fell over American culture like a heavy, dank blanket--smothering anything else that may have emerged for the last three and a half decades.
For my entire life, I have lived under the specter of a war that ended before I was born. It started at childhood--from a mother who kept me from playing with GI Joes because of her peacenik past, to the schoolyard games of Rambo and the A-Team (we were always deep in Vietcong territory and framed for a crime we didn't commit or rescuing lost buddies). That was the start. It only got worse from there--for me, for others in my generation, and for the country.
Granada, then Panama, and, ultimately, the first Iraq war were meant to cure the country of "Vietnam syndrome," a term coined by Reagan to criticize the Carter administration, well over a decade before tanks hit the sand of Kuwait. We could win wars again, and win them decisively, the lopsided ejection of Iraq from Kuwait implied for many Americans. But while the syndrome may have been cured, the thick blanket of Vietnam still covered our national psyche.
The election that followed the first Iraq War was the 1992 matchup between Bill Clinton and George HW Bush. It was the first election that I and many in my generation could vote in. And how was it framed? By Vietnam: Clinton was a draft dodging pot-smoker (even if he never inhaled), Bush a proud WWII vet. Sure, the draft-dodger won, but the way he viewed the world was one of a young man changed by his opposition to the war. The politics of the 1960s colored his every move, thirty years later.
1996 offered a sequel, this time starring Clinton and Bob Dole. It was the hippie versus the war hero redux, a pattern that would continue to play out again and again and again. For many, it felt like we would never see the end of Vietnam.
2000? The Vietnam game was played by both the left and the right. Gore framed himself as a man who proudly volunteered for the army, "because I knew if I didn't go, someone else in the small town of Carthage, Tennessee would have to go in my place." Predictably, his service was questioned by the right. But two could play at that game, and so it was that the left grabbed onto the spectre of Vietnam as well, this time questioning Bush's (admittably questionable) time in the Texas Air National Guard.
The left thought it finally had the Vietnam upper hand with Kerry in 2004 (31 years after Nixon's signature in Paris). Here was a bonafide war hero, complete with purple heart. With the nation at war (we'd finally gotten over that Vietnam syndrome and were quite good at starting wars again--though not so good at ending them), the decision was made to foreground Kerry's service. And so it was that the ghost of Vietnam played out in star-spangled hi-def, from Kerry's choreographed boatride into the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he "reported for duty," to the brutal swiftboating that followed soon after. We all know how that ended.
And this year seemed, at first, like we'd be repeating the same never-ending passion play: war hero vs. anti-war; POW vs. liberal elitest; sacrifice vs. silver spoon (even though there was no spoon). When the eerie voiceover at the Republican National Convention implored "when you've lived in a box, you dedicate your whole life to making sure others don't have to live in that box," it was clear that the Reublicans were going to haunt us with the ghost of Vietnam once again. McCain's constant reminders about his five years as a POW, Palin's repulsive attack about Barack Obama's "pal," Vietnam-era "terrorist" Bill Ayers--they're all there to keep Vietnam front and center.
And they're not working.
With Obama, it's not possible to fight the Vietnam war all over again. It's simply not his war. He was, after all, a child when the war ended. And so it is that the references don't stick: his anti-war stance was against Iraq, not Vietnam; his political awakening happened among the poverty of Chicago's South Side, not at a peace march on the National Mall. Even his association with ex-Weatherman Ayers was from a different era: they met at a foundation for education reform. Trying to play Vietnam against Obama was like trying to give a lecture to an audience of zebras: it's not only a different language, but a different species.
And so it is that we're one day away from finally escaping from the ghost of Vietnam, 35 years late. There are entire generations that have been desperate to emerge from under the stifling weight of its history--generations that are soon to be free at last. Watch us.
So goodnight Vietnam, may you never wake again.
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