Hollywood and Vietnam: (Mis)Treating History–Conceptual Framework

It took a long time for American movies to deal directly with the Vietnam War, the most important event in American history since WWII–until September 11, 2001.

The Vietnam War differs sharply from other wars. It’s the second  longest war (after Afghanistan) in American history.

Unlike WWII, which functioned as a unifying and integrative force, the Vietnam War was debatable and divisive from the start.

The Vietnam War lacked the 1940s idealistic values (“to make the world safe for democracy”) and the urgency to stop the threat of Nazism. As one critic observed: “This was a war whose origins were shadowy, whose motives were suspect, and whose will to win was badly compromised.”

The comparison between the WWII and Vietnam is instructive, for the former had an immediate influence on American movies. It is estimated that about one third of all Hollywood films between l942 and l945 dealt with the actual combat or the impact of the war on the home front. By contrast, American movies ignored Vietnam for a long time; it took over a decade for the film industry to come to terms with this war.

Moreover, the symbolic meaning of WWII has not changed over the years; there has been no reassessment of its “worthiness,” or motivation to engage in the war. This stands in diametric opposition to the Vietnam experience whose meanings have continued to change. Indeed, the changes in the images of the Vietnam veteran chronicle the construction of a new consciousness.

This article examines the complex and multifaceted impact of Vietnam on the American cinema, focusing on the kinds of movies made during the war, from 1965 to 1975, when the U.S. pulled its forces out of Saigon. The paper’s chief concern is: What has the American cinema told its public about their collective dreams, anxieties and fears, that is, what kinds of values were expressed in movies made during the Vietnam war

Vietnam received extensive coverage by the news media, thus becoming the first “television,” or “living room,” war. But unlike previous wars, it didn’t result in the immediate production of films–or other cultural–products (books, songs). The Vietnam War has been labeled by some critics as “the secret war,” because many people failed to grasp the durability of American involvement. These critics claim that the news media were engaged in a conspiracy, a tacit agreement between the government and the media to “bury” or “ignore” Vietnam, which resulted in distorted coverage (and knowledge) of the war. It was only after the war ended that various groups (intellectuals, politicians, military officials, Vietnam veterans, artists) began to engage in what Noam Chomsky (1979) called “an effort to reconstruct recent history,” according to their needs.

Studying the interplay between the Vietnam experience and American cinema provides a fascinating topic because the symbolic meanings of the war have transformed over the years. These meanings had less to do with the reality of the war than with collective reconstructions of values based on the ideological ambiance and public opinion at the time.

It’s instructive to explore the social and political conditions under which the nation’s collective feelings about Vietnam have been shaped. Placing these issues in their historical settings sheds light on the processes by which the national consciousness was created and recreated, and the mechanisms through which the collective memory was transformed.