Spotlight Scholar

The Human Side of War

Social historian explores the Vietnam War’s effects on American culture and identity
  • UMass Amherst history professor Christian Appy sits in his office with his books.

History informs who we are in the present and how we act and think in the present.”

–Christian Appy

Historian Christian Appy had been taking a break from academic life when he arrived on the UMass Amherst campus in 2004. Having just completed a monumental oral history of the Vietnam War called Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Appy was offered a one-year visiting professorship which included the chance to teach a class about the war to UMass Amherst students. “Students were clearly interested in learning about the war,” says Appy. “They had a sense that this was an important point in history that they should know more about. They were not getting this in high-school.” The experience was so gratifying, Appy applied for a full-time position in the history department.

Appy is a foremost authority on the effects of the Vietnam War on American culture and identity. He has authored three ground-breaking books on the subject, each with a different focus and each addressing an aspect of the war that was missing in the literature. He also edits a books series for UMass Press called Culture, Politics and the Cold War which now has more than 30 volumes in print.

His first book, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam examines the experiences and perspectives of U.S. soldiers before, during, and after their wartime service. It focuses largely on the striking contradictions between what American leaders claimed the war was about and what the troops were actually ordered to do. “We were destroying the very country we claimed to be saving and it was obvious to GIs that the Vietnamese people did not view them as liberators. American forces were not there to win hearts and minds or secure territory, but were mostly sent out on 'search and destroy' missions to kill as many people as possible. The “body count” was America's main measure of success in Vietnam.”

The aforementioned book Patriots is a collection of oral histories that explores the war’s impact from the eyes of those who lived and fought it on both sides. “I wanted to broaden our vision of the war. We had come to focus very narrowly on a small range of American experiences.” Appy interviewed both Americans and Vietnamese, military generals and grunts, journalists and artists, nurses and doctors, pilots and protesters, guerillas and CIA operatives. Appy purposely chose the title to be a bit provocative: to remind people that patriotism is a term with different possible interpretations. “There’s not only patriotism in our country but very much so in Vietnam. I don’t think that the United States and the South Vietnamese government would have been defeated if the other side had not been fueled by this intense patriotism that had roots going back thousands of years,” notes Appy. Patriots won the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award.

Appy’s latest book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity examines Vietnam’s impact on American culture, foreign policy and national identity, and the failure of U.S. policymakers to heed the lessons of that war in the wake of 9/11 and the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Reckoning asks the question “what happened to us as a country because of the effects of the war?” Appy believes the Vietnam War shattered the broad faith in American exceptionalism, the sense that we are the greatest nation on earth, endowed with extraordinary power, values and resources. “When word began to spread about atrocities like the My Lai massacre—where U.S. troops slaughtered 500 unarmed, unresisting civilians—Americans not only began to see the war as fundamentally wrong but also began to question the idea that America puts a higher price on life than other nations—one of the tenets of American exceptionalism. And the fact that we lost the war meant that even hawks had to confront the fact that we were not invincible.”

When asked what drew him to explore the social impacts of the Vietnam War, Appy says “I don’t have a dramatic story to explain the mystery of why I've devoted so much of my career to this subject. As a kid, I didn’t know a single person who fought in Vietnam and I didn't know anyone deeply involved in the antiwar movement. But by the time I got to college I did feel a moral obligation to learn more about the war. It says something about the times that despite having no personal connection to the conflict I could still feel something of the emotional and political undertow of the war,” he notes. Appy was drawn to the history of the conflict at a time, he says, that all of history was being called into question. “As a student in the 1970s we were studying history from the bottom up. We were seeing that everyone’s history counts. I figured I would become a labor historian” he says smiling.

Since the publication of American Reckoning, Appy has given dozens of talks around the country and been interviewed on nearly 50 radio programs. He was a featured panelist at the 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington DC where he spoke about the “Human Side of War”. Closer to home, Appy organized a campus “teach-in” last April in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, where a panel of veterans, peace activists and historians shared stories of combat, activism and post-war life. Presented by the history department and the Veterans Education Project, the teach-in aimed to further understandings of the realities and myths of America’s most controversial war and its impact on veterans, the national psyche, and the lives of Americans and Southeast Asians.

When asked if he would share one thing with prospective students about the value of studying history, Appy replied, “History informs who we are in the present and how we act and think in the present. The more conscious we are of these historical roots the better decisions we can make.”

Karen J. Hayes '85