Digital History

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War and American Culture Previous Next
Digital History ID 3467



No American conflict in the 20th century so tore this nation apart, so scarred its social psyche, so embedded itself in its collective memory, and so altered the public view of institutions, government, the military, and the media. More than 750 novels, 250 films, 100 short-story collections, and 1,400 personal narratives have been published about the war in Vietnam.

A few figures in popular culture supported American involvement in Vietnam, including novelists John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac and actor John Wayne, who starred in hawkish The Green Berets, the only major film made during the war itself. Barry Sadler's 1966 pro-war song "Ballad of the Green Berets" sold 8 million copies.

During the war, popular culture tended to deal with the war indirectly. Such novels as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and such films as Bonnie and Clyde, M*A*S*H, and Little Big Man were ostensibly about other subjects, but clearly reflected the issues raised by the Vietnam War.

Movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon created a swampy, fiery hell peopled by psychopaths. As one character in Apocalypse Now puts it, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Many of these Vietnam War films featured a scene modeled on the My Lai massacre of 1968, when American troops killed at least 347 unarmed civilians in a South Vietnamese hamlet.

The emerging images in the media of the "Vietnam vet" were of a troubled and neglected victim--a scraggly and deranged outcast with a rumpled boony hat, a legless victim converted to pacifism, a returning P.O.W. scarred by unspeakable horrors.

During the 1980s, a number of influential films focused on Americans who were prisoners of war or missing in action, such as Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, and Rambo. In the realm of cinematic fantasy, the United States was able to reap revenge for the frustrations and losses it had experienced in Vietnam. Rambo's most famous line was, "Sir, do we get to win this time?" These films provided consolation concerning the morality of American forces in the conflict. In Uncommon Valor, a character tells a band of fellow veterans about to rescue a group of MIAs: "No one can dispute the rightness of what you're doing."

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