The comparison between World War I and Vietnam is interesting, and my observations on it tie in to the fact that it was often the civilians, not the veterans, who didn’t want to talk about the war.
To begin with Vietnam: as both of us remember, it took a while for the public to come to terms—however impartially—with that war. As veterans know, especially wounded veterans, the hatred with which civilians treated returning soldiers in the late 1960s changed to a vast indifference in the 1970s. People just didn’t want to hear about it, or talk about it—much as no one wants to talk about the fighting in Iraq now. Although The Deer Hunter came out in 1978 and Apocalypse Now in 1979, it was not really until the mid-1980s that discussion of the Vietnam War intensified to the point that the public was able to process it and make some sense of where it fit into our history. Since then, I think that historians and popular writers have done a fairly good job of discussing it frankly and revealing something of its true nature.
Much the same thing happened after 1918, as we’ve been discussing. The difference is that Americans never came to terms with that war in any real sense. Yes, isolationism, the Great Depression, and World War II intervened; but there’s more to it than that. In part, we need to remember that the culture was different in the 1920s than it was in the ’70s or ’80s. On the one hand, there was the sense that “polite people don’t talk about that sort of thing”—so that while from time to time people would speak of the plight of impoverished veterans, especially after the Bonus March of 1932, no one wanted to discuss the brutality and degradation of the actual fighting. On the other, society became dominated by the escapism of the Roaring Twenties—Bix Beiderbecke’s heyday—and didn’t want to discuss the ugliness of the past.
In Europe, along with Canada and Australia, 1929–30 brought a turning inward, a kind of national introspectiveness, when books like All Quiet on the Western Front became popular. In America, apart from a brief blip of interest, nothing of the sort happened. Of course, we had not suffered as much as they had. But the almost frenetic optimism with which Americans have always liked to look at the world also played a heavy role.
In conclusion, the answer is that I have no answer. Most everything I’ve said has been speculation. Even if the why is unanswerable, though, I think it’s clear that this ignorance of our past, and the willful forgetfulness of a whole generation of Americans, is something that we need to overcome.
I appreciate all of your excellent questions and look forward to our discussion later this week!
This is one in an occasional series about the Virginia Festival of the Book, to be held in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 26–30, 2008, and sponsored by my employer, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.