The 1960s–that extraordinary decade–is celebrating its 50th birthday one year at a time. Happy birthday, 1965! How, though, do you commemorate the Vietnam War, the era’s signature catastrophe? After all, our government prosecuted its brutal and indiscriminate war under false pretexts, long after most citizens objected, and failed to achieve any of its stated objectives. More than 58,000 Americans were killed along with more than four million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
So what exactly do we write on the jubilee party invitation? You probably know the answer. We’ve been rehearsing it for decades. You leave out every troubling memory of the war and simply say: “Let’s honor all our military veterans for their service and sacrifice.”
For a little perspective on the 50th anniversary, consider this: we’re now as distant from the 1960s as the young Bob Dylan was from Teddy Roosevelt. For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history. Most of their parents weren’t even alive in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson launched a massive escalation of the Vietnam War, initiating the daily bombing of the entire country, North and South, and an enormous buildup of more than half a million troops.
In the post-Vietnam decades, our culture has buried so much of the history once considered essential to any debate about that most controversial of all American wars that little of substance remains. Still, oddly enough, most of the 180 students who take my Vietnam War class each year arrive deeply curious. They seem to sense that the subject is like a dark family secret that might finally be exposed. All that most of them know is that the Sixties, the war years, were a “time of turmoil.” As for Vietnam, they have few cultural markers or landmarks, which shouldn’t be surprising. Even Hollywood–that powerful shaper of historical memory–stopped making Vietnam movies long ago. Some of my students have stumbled across old films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but it’s rare for even one of them to have seen either of the most searing documentaries made during that war,In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds. Such relics of profound antiwar fervor simply disappeared from popular memory along with the antiwar movement itself.