HOME | AS@UVA | SITE INFORMATION
Members of the American Legion discussing the war in 1967. Note the repeated reference to "these people."




View a teach-in at the University of Virginia. Note the student's professed fear of communism.



Ideology as Narrative

I
n many ways, the Vietnam experience was informed by existing cultural myths. Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier experience defined the American character. Setting aside the validity of his argument, it is true that frontier symbolism resonates with Americans, provoking an almost reflexive and subconscious identification with the experience itself. Kennedy's vision for America during the Cold War was the "New Frontier." The potency of the frontier myth is closely connected to American exceptionalism, the lynchpin of hegemonic ideology during the Cold War and the early years of Vietnam. American exceptionalism describes the fundamental historical and cultural belief that America possesses a dramatic and unique destiny. Early conceptions of American exceptionalism were religious in nature, though contemporary invocations deal more with spreading democracy (and a free market system).

Cultural myths have ample psychic power; the stories we tell about our history, our experiences, and our heroes construct our cultural identity. When these are undermined or challenged, identity itself is destabilized. John Hellman writes,

"Vietnam is an experience that has severely called into question American myth. Americans entered Vietnam with certain expectations that a story, a distinctly American story, would unfold. When the story of America in Vietnam turned into something unexpected, the true nature of the larger story of America itself became the subject of intense cultural dispute. On the deepest level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future."45

Richard Waswo argues the Vietnam was a consequence of the stories we tell about our history and our civilization. Myths about progress, democracy, and civilization led to a flawed conception of the true nature of the war. Political and military leaders could only cognize the war in terms of communism. There was no public discourse about Vietnamese nationalism or Vietnamese colonial history. Television news did not question the urgency of preventing communism in the South or the wisdom of forcing American "civilization" on Vietnam. For many Americans, then, the focus of the war was the establishment of democracy and the inexorable march of progress. The "duty" to spread these American values was so powerful as to border on imperialism. Waswo writes, "Although American policymakers claimed to be founding a new and just political order in South Vietnam, for the South Vietnamese, the way in which those people were in fact viewed and treated made the claim as empty as that of the conversion of the heathen was for the European conquests of the last five centuries."46

If the war was legitimated in some measure by appeals to cultural myths, television seemed to buttress those myths rather than examine the exigencies of escalation. This bandwagon approach to reportage was indicative of Cold War consensus, derived in part from fears about the communist menace and national security. Consensus was a fact of American life in the early 1960s, and consensus rhetoric was used to "sell" Vietnam to the public (in addition to the event or non-event that occurred in the Tonkin Gulf). Vietnam became a symbolic battleground of good and evil tantamount to Europe during the Second World War. Hall writes, "In the ideology and rhetoric of 'consensus politics,' the 'national interest' is represented as transcending all other collective social interests."47




Back | Top | Next

Introduction

Subjectivity, Mediation, & Violence

The Resiliency of the Establishment

The Sway of Consensus

Ideology as Narrative

Technology & Morality

Conclusion

Endnotes

Works Consulted