Professor Christian Appy is a historian with a focus on the Vietnam War and Modern United States History. He discusses his research, his collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Press, and teaching war in the classroom. Professor Appy is a speaker in the 2017 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series and recipient of the Chancellor's Medal, the highest honor bestowed on individuals for exemplary and extraordinary service to the campus.
Congratulations on being awarded the Chancellor’s Medal. Your concurring distinguished faculty lecture is called “The Atomic Origins of America’s National Security State: How Nuclear Weapons Produced an Imperial Presidency and Degraded Democracy.” How did you approach writing this talk, considering your research background and the current political climate?
Thank you. I proposed this lecture last spring well before the presidential election, but now that Donald Trump has his finger on the proverbial “button,” nuclear issues are suddenly much more a part of national discourse. In fact, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was so unnerved by Trump’s election it moved the hands on its famous Doomsday Clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest we’ve been to that metaphorical moment of nuclear catastrophe since the development of the hydrogen “superbomb” in the 1950s.
I certainly want to make clear how dangerous nuclear weapons remain. Although the number of warheads is down to about 15,000 from a Cold War peak of more than 60,000, the world’s nuclear arsenals still have the power to cause human extinction. But I want to focus less on the potential that nuclear weapons have to destroy us and more on the great damage their mere existence has already done to our democracy and foreign policy.
For starters, when the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 gave the president the exclusive power, on his own authority, to launch nuclear weapons at any time on any target without restriction, it provided a justification for additional expansions of presidential power. I believe nuclear weapons were a key factor in the creation of an imperial presidency and a national security state that is full of agencies and institutions unaccountable to the public or even Congress. For 70 years, our presidents have said, in effect (though usually not out loud in public), ‘if I have the power to use nuclear weapons without asking Congress, why do I ever need to ask Congress for a declaration of war?’ And, indeed, Congress has not exercised that constitutional responsibility since World War II.
I also believe that policymakers have gotten us bogged down in non-nuclear wars like Vietnam in part because they believed that fighting smaller wars would demonstrate to the Soviet Union and other adversaries that they were tough enough, if necessary, to fight an all-out nuclear war. So, in that sense, having nuclear weapons, even in the name of “deterrence,” has hardly been a bloodless policy. It has been a largely unknown and secret factor in the waging of nonnuclear wars that have been very bloody indeed.
Much of your published work focuses on America in wartime, the culture of war, and often the failures or wrongdoings of America at war. Why is this topic important historically?
It’s important, most obviously, because since World War II we’ve been in a state of permanent militarization and almost continual warfare. And yet, the vast majority of all that fighting has taken place thousands of miles away from home, carried out by an ever-smaller cohort of our population. It has been possible for many Americans to remain unaware of just how violent, costly, and largely ineffective our foreign policy has been. However, as I argue in American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015) the public is almost always more antiwar than the government. Just as in Vietnam, our 21st century wars have gone on many years after the public turned against them. Yet there has not been nearly the level of public protest and antiwar activism that there was in the 1960s. One reason is that there is not a draft to awaken the attention of an entire generation. Another reason is that there is more cynicism today about the possibility of changing what seems like a permanent and unaccountable war-making establishment. Also, in spite of widespread opposition to one or another policy, many Americans still believe, in spite of contrary evidence, that the United States is an indispensable force for good in the world with the best of intentions for spreading democracy and human rights. I don’t believe the faith in American exceptionalism is justified by the historical record. It’s also an insult, by definition, to every nation that does not want to think of itself as second rate. During the Vietnam War a majority of the public deeply questioned the idea of American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, in my view, it was cobbled back together in the post-Vietnam decades and provides an ideological roadblock to all efforts to scale back our vast imperial footprint around the globe and its breath-taking expense.
You’ve written three books about the Vietnam War, each of which approaches the conflict from a different angle. Why is this war relevant to modern American culture? How has it—and any war—shaped American history?
Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam is astonishingly relevant to the present and relevant for the saddest of reasons—our leaders continue to reject evidence, historical and contemporary, that challenges the morality and effectiveness of our use of violence. In the 21st century, as in Vietnam a half century ago, the United States once again waged undeclared war under false pretexts; once again, hundreds of thousands of American troops were deployed to distant lands where they were widely perceived as hostile invaders; once again, the mission was to prop up foreign governments that could not gain the broad support of their own people; once again, we fought brutal counter-insurgencies guaranteed to maim, kill, or displace countless civilians; once again, U.S. officials insisted that victory depended on winning the “hearts and minds” of ordinary people even as our warfare was endangering those very people and driving them into the arms of the enemy; once again, the fighting persisted long after a majority of Americans had deemed it mistaken or even immoral; and once again the government failed to achieve its stated objectives and sought face-saving exits to disguise the disasters it had created.
Describe the series “Culture, Politics, and the Cold War,” which you edit for the UMass Press.
Back in the 1990s I became close friends with Clark Dougan, the recently retired senior editor at UMass Press (a decade before I arrived at UMass to teach). Clark and I started discussing some of the profound changes in the field of U.S. diplomatic history. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, many younger scholars were creating new ways of thinking about the Cold War, military history, diplomacy, you name it. They insisted that foreign policy could not be fully understood apart from a wide range of cultural and social factors including race, class, gender, and religion. A once pretty hide-bound field was exploding and we saw an opportunity to build a book series around those promising changes. I recently decided that my twenty-year tenure as editor was enough and I happily passed the baton to younger scholars Ed Martini and Scott Laderman.
How do you approach the topic of war in the classroom? How do students approach it?
I tell students in the first class that one of the biggest challenges in studying war is to overcome the very human tendency to avoid the most troubling realities. I often begin by reading the great poem that W.H. Auden wrote on the brink of World War II, “Musee des Beaux Arts” in which he examines the details of Breughel’s painting, “Icarus.” What Auden notices is that while “something amazing” is happening—“a boy falling out of the sky”—“everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” If we are to understand warfare, we can’t turn away, even though, as with so much in history, it can be heart-breaking. Most students, remarkably, are willing to make that commitment. My course on the Vietnam War still draws 180 students and their perspectives and engagement continually reawaken my commitment to the subject.