The battle over reconstructing the collective memory of the Vietnam War is a battle over reinterpreting America, and it started even before the end of the war, and continues to the present day. George Orwell summarized the significance of such struggles in his novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” Since national leaders invariably assume a leading role in the development of an official memory of traumatic events in a nation’s history, the article begins with Nixon’s efforts in redefining and reconstructing the war.
Nixon Administration’s: the Reconstruction of Collective Memory
Nixon’s approach to the war was viewed as Birchesque. He redefined the war by resorting to the excuse of POW/MIA, and successfully reconstructed American’s memory of the war. When the anti-war movement criticized these measures, Nixon did what any Bircher would do: he decried the anti-war movement as a communist conspiracy that was prolonging the war and that deserved to be treated as an internal security threat. Meanwhile he redefined the war by creating a myth of POW/MIA, and successfully created new visions of the war for Americans.
Nixon campaigned for president in 1968 as a peace candidate by promising to bring the troops home, and his campaign was also under the slogan that he would end the war in Vietnam and bring "peace with honor" and he reiterated it in the coming years. In the third Frost interview he stressed his actions were “to try to win an honorable peace abroad”. However, this is only half of the story, and we should clarify the misconception of “honor” here. Here is what he said exactly in the interview:
The actions I took with great reluctance, but recognizing I had to do what was right, the actions that I took in Vietnam: one, to try to win an honorable peace abroad; and two, to keep the peace at home, because keeping the peace at home and keeping support for the war was essential in order to get the enemy to negotiate. And that was, of course, not easy to do in view of the dissent and so forth that we had.
It is obvious that, contrary to what has been popular assumed that Nixon and Kissinger had come to power in 1969 wanting simply to extricated the U.S. from South Vietnam “with honor,” their goal was to win the war –to win a negotiated settlement that would keep Thieu in power in Saigon. This is what honor meant to them. Hence, their fundamental policy goal in Vietnam was little different than that of previous American administrations: sustaining U.S. global hegemony and credibility. His path to peace entailed an escalated war: after election, he secretly unleashed a ferocious air assault on the Vietnamese and extended the ground war into Laos and Cambodia.
Before the election, Nixon said he had no intension of seeking a military victory in Vietnam. He saw how “Johnson’s war” had so severely wounded his predecessor. He did not want Vietnam to become “Nixon’s War”. He also did...