American Reckoning – Book Review
It has been over 40 years since the fall of Saigon and the formal ending of the Vietnam War. Time has not softened many people’s opinions on the war itself nor of any aspect tied to the war. This passion has found its way into the numerous books written about the Vietnam War. Author Christian Appy shares his thoughts and his own passion in his provocative volume, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and our National Identity.
Appy quickly defines his thesis to his readers in the opening introduction: “My main argument is that the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American 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 in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life. A common term for this belief is “’American Exceptionalism.’” Clearly, Appy leaves little room for interpretation regarding his belief on the war’s influence on America then and how it continues even today.
To lay out his argument, Appy focused his volume into two areas, which he blends throughout. The first is an extremely concise history of the United States from the early 1960s to present, with the author dedicating the majority of his pages to the Vietnam War years but not solely focused on a military history of the war. Instead, he keys on America’s political and cultural events of the “war years.” Consequently, readers will find a unique account of the Vietnam.
The second area is far more subjective. In this portion, Appy conveys his conviction that the Vietnam War completely changed the way Americans and the world viewed the United States. Throughout the volume, Appy weaves his analysis and opinion on how this occurred. He specifically addresses the short- and long-term influence of the Vietnam War. It is an influence which he feels is very much in evidence today.
In order to address the above areas, the author relies on two strengths that are exhibited throughout the volume. The first is the exhaustive research Appy conducted for his book. Not only is the sheer amount of sources utilized impressive, but the diversity of these sources is equally notable, including past scholarship, official documents, interviews, movies, song lyrics, etc. Appy melds these together to draw upon the political, cultural, and military aspects he requires to support his thesis.
Sources and information are only of importance if the author is able to articulate them to his readers, and this is the second strength of the book: its readability. American Reckoning is well-organized and flows extremely well. Whether readers agree with the book’s premise or not, most will concur that Appy is a gifted writer able to hold a reader’s attention.
Appy’s thesis is unlikely to achieve such consensus. I believe reader’s views will span the continuum. First, there will be a group in complete disagreement with Appy. For them, the author’s argument will not be well-received. Second, there will those who will support portions of the thesis but not all. That concurrence will be mainly that the Vietnam War did have some effect on our national identity; some may feel this effect was the short-term while others may believe it was of a far longer duration. Finally, there will be readers who are in total agreement with the author and concur that the Vietnam War did in fact shatter the belief of American superiority (exceptionalism) within the United States and outside.
In his book’s initial pages, Christian Appy writes, “With the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U.S. history has demanded more soul-searching than the war in Vietnam.” Appy has utilized the pages of American Reckoning to articulate his own soul-searching on the War and the war’s impact on society at the time and in the decades that followed. His strong sentiments will not be shared by everyone. This only highlights the fact that people’s passionate views on the Vietnam War will continue for years to come.
Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General web series “Tactics 101.”