As a recovering Ph.D. in history, I've become a little disturbed lately about the inappropriate uses some people have been making of the past. Twisting history to fit one's own preconceptions, biases and beliefs is nothing new, of course. Since the beginning of recorded time, the victors have been writing the histories of mankind's wars, and the governing classes have been putting their own interpretations (with aid of house hagiographers) on their periods in power. The obligatory presidential memoir produced by each modern White House occupant is just such an effort to influence Clio's verdict. History may be described as a "dust bin" (Thomas Carlyle) or dismissed as just plain "bunk" (Henry Ford), but its retrospective seal of approval is still sought by each side in every human conflict.
One recent exercise in this vein -- a relatively harmless one -- has been the determination by popular chroniclers of the Second World War (Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, et al.) to anoint those who participated in the war, or merely lived through it, as America's "greatest generation." This nostalgic interpretation appears motivated by a baby-boomer desire to honor aging parents. It's nothing to get overly indignant about (who can begrudge World War II veterans their due?), but it does involve a certain myopia and overstatement. After all, while the greatest generation may have won the 20th-century struggle against fascism and survived the Great Depression, it also brought us the scourge of McCarthyism, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War. And its arbitrary selection as "greatest" demeans the truly greatest generation, that of the 18th-century Founders.
Again, this kind of pseudo-historical rewriting of the past is of little serious consequence, but other forms of revisionism are another matter. One case in point is the seemingly unending effort of dedicated conservatives to rehabilitate the Reagan administration, a project aided lately by the mass media, which cast a rosy hue over the former president last June at the time of his funeral. Ronald Reagan, who enriched the already wealthy, savaged the environment, punished the working poor, coddled foreign dictators, undermined human rights abroad, and bequeathed a massive government deficit to the American people, was lionized as a genial combination of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
The fact that Reagan happened to be president when the Soviet Union, undermined from within by systemic contradictions, was gasping its last breaths has been used by the Gipper's partisans to proclaim him the undisputed winner of the Cold War. In truth, the Cold War would not have ended as it did without the internal democratic reforms (glasnost and perestroika) of Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev and the containment policies of a succession of American governments going back to the Truman administration. Nevertheless, an attempt is underway to assign the sole credit to Reagan and to invest him with presidential greatness on a scale just short of Washington and Lincoln.
This new view of Reagan, triumphant cold warrior abroad and beloved father figure at home, requires a willful form of collective amnesia on the part of the American people; it asks them to forget supply-side (or "voodoo") economics, the recession of 1981-82, the savings-and-loan scandal, David Stockman's "rosy scenario" of economic growth, the secret war in Nicaragua, the Iran-contra scandal, the "Star Wars" missile-defense system, ketchup as a vegetable, "killer trees" causing pollution, the income gap, food-stamp and Medicaid cuts, the fired air-traffic controllers, the visit to Bitburg's Nazi cemetery, James Watt, and Ed Meese. If the right can eradicate or refashion all of that historical baggage, they're better than I think they are.
In addition to repainting their hero Ronald Reagan's presidential portrait in soft, appealing pastels, conservative historical revisionists have another item on their agenda: refighting and winning the Vietnam War, and destroying the reputations of those who opposed it (including Sen. John Kerry) in the process. Thus, while the Reagan rehabilitation is mostly an academic exercise, useful for massaging the psyche of the Republican base, the revisionist interpretation of Vietnam has immediate practical applicability; it could very well alter the election of 2004.
The vicious "Swift-boat veterans" ad campaign against the current Democratic nominee, laden as it is with half-truths and outright lies, is part and parcel of a new, more positive spin on the Southeast Asia adventure of a generation ago. This new take on the war, which contradicts the long-authoritative writings of scholarly observers like Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Jean Lacouture and Bernard Fall, among others, depicts Vietnam as a righteous cause that America could easily have won except for traitors at home in the media, the intellectual community, and the antiwar movement.
The continuing personal attack on John Kerry is motivated not so much by any question of his heroism in combat as by the fact that he later returned from Vietnam to oppose the war. This placed him, along with Bill Clinton, on the wrong side of his generation's great divide, as conservatives see it. For the baby-boomer generation, especially the culture warriors of the political right, only one issue has ever, and will ever, matter: where did their contemporaries stand on the Southeast Asian conflict? The first order of business conservatives have taken upon themselves, with the aid of a suddenly chastened and compliant media, is to establish the historical rightness of the war; the second is to vilify and condemn those who opposed it.
The veteran community has a key role to play in this rewriting of history. Vietnam veterans, like most veterans of prior wars, are prone to view their service in a more positive, patriotic light as they age. To them, a nasty, brutish conflict is looking more heroic as time passes. Conservatives hope to use this natural human tendency, especially in a current time of war -- and in a country where 16% of the electorate (the consequence of a war-prone foreign policy) are veterans -- to reinstall the Bush administration. It therefore behooves American voters to educate themselves on the truth of the tragedy that befell us in Southeast Asia 40-odd years ago. As Harry S. Truman once wrote, "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know."
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.