Lost-war angst over Vietnam quietly pooled into a political resource that white nationalist movements have tapped into.
By Jerry Lembcke at TRUTHOUT
The 50th anniversary of Vietnam War’s end and the return of American prisoners of war (POWs) from Hanoi has passed with little notice. While independent media outlets like Truthout reported on the war’s ongoing legacies of trauma, with the exception of a USA Today series in late March that included Vietnam veteran portraits, nearly all major news organizations opted not to cover the anniversary.
The inattention to the anniversary is surprising. In 2012 President Barack Obama announced congressional funding for the commemoration of the war’s turning points upon their 50th anniversaries. The President’s initiative inspired conferences and newspaper columns recalling the 1965 landing of Marines at Da Nang, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, the 1968 My Lai Massacre, and the shooting of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970. The Paris Peace Accords signed in January 1973 and the POW’s homecoming in February and March would surely bookend the half-century remembrances. But that did not happen.
The notice of that gap in news coverage notwithstanding, the displacement of the war’s end from the news cycle has the consequence of eliding from memory the uneasiness left by its loss: worry that failures on the home front had robbed the military of victory metastasized into suspicions that subversive activism was to blame.
Lost-war angst quietly pooled into a political resource that white nationalist and militarist movements would tap decades later. Yet, when Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement escalated racist and authoritarian sentiments in 2015, many efforts to explain its popularity failed to address the role of the war in Vietnam.
Continued inattention to the fountainhead of Trumpism cradled in the Vietnam War’s wake portends a post-Trump life for the MAGA movement.
Trumpism Before Trump
Postmortems on the Republican Party’s failure to deliver the expected “red wave” in the 2022 midterm elections focused on Donald Trump and the personalities of his coterie. They drew on themes from The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman’s book Confidence Man, a coda for her attribution of Trumpism to the perverse magnetism of his arrested development; and Robert Draper’s Weapons of Mass Delusion, which psychologized his followers’ plunge “into a Trumpian cult of compulsive disassembling and conspiracy mongering.”
These books’ insight on the personalities of Trumpism were descended from Nicole Hemmer’s earlier book, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. It was the Rush Limbaughs and Pat Buchanans, Hemmer said, who had realigned the staid GOP with “partisan punditry and political entertainment.” It was the 1990s, wrote New York Magazine writer Gabriel Debenedetti in his New York Times review of Hemmer’s book, where responsibility for today’s political turns will be found.
However, Carlos Lozada, in his December 2022 Times piece titled “How the House of Trump Was Built,” cautioned against the Great Man theories of history that credit media influencers like Limbaugh and Buchanan and even Trump himself for the rise of Trumpism.
But if the Trump phenomenon is not solely personality driven and conceived and nurtured in the 1990s, where might we look for its origins?
The clues are written in the tropes that constitute the MAGA movement’s identity, beginning with MAGA itself. If “Vietnam” isn’t part of the answer to the question implicit in MAGA — when did America lose its greatness? — the trees are obscuring the forest. And the other Trumpian tropes, the Deep State, and Americans Left Behind? They, too, trace back to the war in Vietnam and the revanchist political culture spawned by its loss.
Make America Great Again
Make America Great Again appropriates Ronald Reagan’s assertion that it was “Morning in America Again,” that the country was moving on from its Vietnam War nightmare. Reagan declared the war “a noble cause” in 1980, hoisted the POW-MIA flag over the White House in 1982, and proclaimed May 7, 1985, as Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day.
From Reagan, the thread of American preoccupation with Vietnam is continuous, running through President George H.W. Bush’s declaration that we had, “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome” in the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91, to Barack Obama laying the loss of the war at the feet of the anti-war movement in 2012, to Donald Trump’s insinuation that U.S. pilots like John McCain shot down over Vietnam signaled mission failure, not heroics.
But if Reagan was about moving on to a new day, MAGA is distinguished by its “back to the future” thrust. Its followers would have us return to a prelapsarian Edenic way of life that they believe was lost along with the war in Vietnam.
By their read, the urbanization of life in the post-World War II years had broken the father-son bonds characteristic of rural work. With fathers pulled into factory and office work, boys were raised by moms in an effeminizing home environment. The specter of “momism,” as historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in Fortress America, averred that America had sent a generation of sissified boys off to fight the war; not up to the task, these softies were also receptive to pacificist appeals often voiced by women.
The adoption of traditionally feminine attire by young men in the 1960s and 1970s — peace symbols as necklaces, bellbottom pants with blousy tops, and long hair — signaled rejection of the military “high and tight.” By the late 1960s, home-front countercultural styles had made their way to Vietnam where they became a flipped finger to military authority by unruly troops.
Meanwhile, women had played major roles in the antiwar movement. Women Strike for Peace initiated outreach to the Vietnamese people, sending representatives to Hanoi in 1965; scores of activists and celebrities followed in their footsteps in the coming years. But the climate of fault-finding that followed the loss of the war demeaned and even vilified women’s work for peace.
The Deep State
“[Trump] is the battering ram that God is using to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.” — Charles Pace, Pastor Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.
The loss of the war in Vietnam was such a turning point for Americans because of the disparity in the perceived military power of the United States and Vietnam. How could this small, agrarian country of outgunned peasants have defeated the most powerful military force on earth?
The answer embraced by pro-military conservative leaders was that the United States had not lost to the Vietnamese. Rather, it was civilian fifth columnists at home who had tied one hand behind the back of the military: Liberals in Congress had refused to fund tactics that could have won the war, and communists, socialists and campus radicals had opposed the war with tactics that demoralized American forces and gave aid and comfort to the enemy.
In 1971, a 234-page treatise “The Viet Cong Front in the United States” was read into the Congressional Record of the 92nd congress by California Congressman John Schmitz. Schmitz was a member of the John Birch Society and a coauthor of that document, which exaggerated the roles of the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party in antiwar organizations, forming a precursor of the deep state myth that MAGA would promote 50 years later.
Belief in a deep state conjures a governmental apparatus with an unacknowledged existence lurking beneath the surface of formal power. The “deep state” phrase triggers paranoia about educated elites in government, colleges and universities, news organizations, and Hollywood, settings known to most people only through film, literature and news reports. When the Nixon administration came down on the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, Vice President Spiro Agnew named the enemy: “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
Intellectuals. The bugaboo that there are people who work with ideas, and use those ideas against the rest of us, is as pernicious as it is old. Dating from the aftermath of the French Revolution, suspicions about what had inspired the rebels conjured hints of mysterious forces at work to undo the religious and civil order.
The illusiveness of ideas and those who have them was fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Richard Nixon himself blamed Jews in the New York media for the release of the Pentagon Papers that revealed Government lying about the war in Vietnam — that “damn Jew [Times editor Max] Frankel,” the president once ranted.
The antisemitism sweeping over the nation in the 2020s — more antisemitic incidents in 2021 than at any time in 40 years, according to the Anti-Defamation League (though publications like Jewish Currents argue that this number is distorted by the inclusion of anti-Zionism and Palestine solidarity activism) — is hard to separate from Donald Trump’s claim that Jewish philanthropist George Soros’s money backed the attorney general who went after him in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case.
Trump’s broadside attacks on the news media and “coastal elites” strum antisemitic chords that carry into his followers’ objection to Critical Race Theory: CRT was conceived at elite university levels and then imposed on public schools. “Higher education is the problem,” Cornell law professor and CRT critic William Jacobson told Fox News in 2021. Posting on BitChute in 2021, white supremacist Vincent James Foxx wrote, “. . . it’s almost always Jewish Americans who are pushing [CRT] . . . the white people funding these sorts of ideas and pushing this sort of rhetoric are always Jews.”
Americans Left Behind
The controversies over critical race theory touch deep nerves in conservative America. In the 1960s and 1970s, millions of white Americans fled to the suburbs resenting the courts’ imposition of school integration. In the same years, school consolidations closed thousands of schools across the heartland, putting children on buses to neighboring towns. The schools were the economic lifeblood of farm towns and when they closed, so did the local grocery stores, barbershops and gas stations.
The Interstate highway system designed far beyond the states it would cross, broke local and regional commercial ties while opening blue-line America to 18-wheeler supply chains. The concentration of agricultural capital foreclosed hundreds of thousands of family farms. “Get big or get out,” said Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. With that, thousands of farmers sold their tractors and dairy herds and got out.
The generation that bore those losses is aging away but the distrust of big government etched in family stories and boarded-up towns endures. Middle America had been abandoned, discarded by Washington.
Phrases, such as “forgotten Americans” and “Americans left behind,” have personal connotations in coastal suburbs and the fly-over states. Still restive when the war in Vietnam ended and the POWs held in Hanoi came home, the phrases caught new wind. The Nixon administration had kept the war going, promising that our POWs would not be abandoned. The return of POWs in February and March of 1973 were trophies that, seemingly, validated Nixon’s commitment.
POWs Left Behind
But did they all come home? Speculation soon began that some American prisoners were still held by the communists. Hardcore rightists, angry that the peace accords had ended the war short of a clearcut victory, fed rumors that unnamed parties in Washington had dealt POWs to the Soviets in return for post-war favors.
The POW/MIA flag that flew over the Reagan White House had the caption “You Are Not Forgotten.” The words were a perfect contranym because the flag had been conceived and produced in the last years of the war to accuse the government of having done just that — forgotten the POWs and men missing in action.
With the war ten years gone when Reagan ran the flag up, and with no credible evidence that there were any missing POWs to be forgotten, the flag and its slogan became a kind of political prosthetic adopted by a growing rightwing revanchist movement claiming a “forgotten” America as its constituency. Legislation mandating its flying over federal buildings and then many state buildings imbued it with what British writer Michael Billig called “banal nationalism,” a surrogate nationalism licensing belief in government deception as a kind of patriotism.
From Rambo to Waco and Back
Public receptivity to the abandoned-POW narrative led to a Hollywood genre of POW-rescue films of which Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is the classic. Rambo, the character, may have been based on the real-life Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Green Beret veteran of Vietnam. In 1978 Gritz led a private mission to Southeast Asia to do what the government refused to do: rescue POWs. Deep into communist controlled territory, his men received word that their mission had been betrayed. Under attack by the communist Pathet Lao, they fought their way out without any POWs.
The experience confirmed for Gritz that the government was conspiring to keep the fact of abandoned POWs a secret from the American people and actually sabotage efforts like his to get them out. It was the ultimate Washington betrayal story, one that would be supercharged in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, then later resounding forward 30 years in Trump’s campaign for the 2024 presidential election.
Gritz’s alignment with POW conspiracism put him in league with the John Birch Society’s deep-state fantasies. His persona fused right-wing emotions left over from the war in Vietnam with domestic issues around gun rights, income tax and public schools when he involved himself in the negotiations at an August 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. There, Randy Weaver had ensconced his family off the power grid, homeschooling, stockpiling weapons and avoiding taxes. When the FBI and U.S. marshals attempted to arrest him, a gun fight ensued, killing one marshal and two of Weaver’s children. Gritz had known Weaver as a Green Beret and suspected the raid was a government effort to assassinate Weaver because of what he knew about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
Five months later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) raided a religious center called Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas. The center was occupied by the Branch Davidians, a Seventh-Day Adventist religious offshoot led by David Koresh, a similar figure to Randy Weaver. Shots were fired, killing four agents and six Davidians. The Davidians and ATF dug in.
On April 19, 1992, M-60 tanks rolled up to the compound. Gas canisters were discharged, and a fire started that quickly consumed the building. Seventy-six people were killed including twenty-five children. The fire set off an explosion with a mushroom-like fireball that Gritz called “a federally induced holocaust.”
MAGA Closes the Circle
To many Americans, the trail from paranoia about communists in colleges, and government betrayal of the military mission in Vietnam, through Republican Party revving of lost-war anguish for political gain in the 1980s, and on to the anti-government movements of the new century must seem a long and discontinuous path through unrelated events. But Donald Trump’s return to Waco in March of 2023 during the 30th anniversary of the standoff confirms that many MAGA followers see it all as one piece.
Choosing Waco for his first campaign stop for the 2024 election campaign was “on the nose” said the Atlantic before recounting the details of the 1993 government raid on Mt. Carmel Center. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed,” declared Trump, “I am your retribution.” Pastor Charles Pace’s connection of MAGA’s retribution themes with the religious dimensions of Deep State imaginings (see the epigram above) fits with a revanchist narrative of the movement’s origins.
But Bonnie Honig’s “Rambo Politics from Reagan to Trump” in the January 7, 2020, Boston Review takes an even deeper dive. Trump’s instinct for “retributive payback,” she avers, lies in what she calls “a fantasy of poetic justice” linking to “Trump as Rambo, the Vietnam veteran and symbol of masculinity . . . who avenges American humiliation.”
Honig avoids the simplicity of a Great Man kind of explanation, writing that Trump’s desire to Ramboize himself “is not merely a matter of personal vanity” because the Ramboesque narrative is “a fundamental part of the Republican Party’s cultural politics.”
Contra the attribution of MAGA’s rise to Trump’s personal magnetism or the influence of media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, then, an explanation with deeper historical roots uncovers the resemblance between the Republican Party retributive campaign themes and those that flared in interwar Europe.
Germany’s defeat in World War I registered as a humiliating loss of racial and national pride with enough Germans that the Nazi’s promise to avenge the losses won support. The campaign of retribution that followed alleged the war had been lost due to betrayal at home. Leftists, ethnic minorities, Jews and homosexuals, all thought to compromise Arian greatness were targeted.
The resemblance is troubling. Its denial is dangerous.
Jerry Lembcke is the author of eight books, including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998) and Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (UMass Press, 2010). His The Cult of the Victim Veteran: MAGA Fantasies in Lost-War America will be out with Routledge in July, 2023. Jerry’s opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been a guest on several NPR programs including “On the Media.”