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The Frontier Myth and Political Rhetoric:The Case of the ‘Vietnam War’

Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along.

Michael Herr, Dispatches

We use the term “Indian country” to describe Vietnam.

Airborne Ranger Infantry Veteran Robert B. Johnson

All I remember is that I was with Custer’s Seventh Cavalry riding toward the Little Big Horn and we were struck by the Indians. After we crossed the Rosebud, we made it to Ridge Red Boy and then we were hit. No. I must have my wars confused. That was another time, another place. other Indians. William Eastlake, The Bamboo Bed

As a public myth and “structure of feeling” (cf. Williams’s text of the same title), the West has not only been expressed in mass culture but has also been used in political culture; presidents, presidential candidates, and others seeking or holding office have often fashioned themselves as farmers, cowboys, or pioneers, and employed the rhetoric of the frontier myth. The first ‘cowboy president’ was probably Andrew Jackson (cf. Lepore, Story), a former US Army general who embodied a heady mix of frontierism, militarism, and expansionism. In the context of the 20th and 21st centuries, we may think for example of Lyndon B. Johnson, who wore a Stetson and rode on horseback in his 1964 presidential campaign; Richard Nixon, who exploited his friendship with John Wayne and James Stewart for political gain (cf. Coyne, Crowded Prairie 1); Ronald Reagan, who made political use of the cowboy image even if among his 54 films only six were Westerns (cf. ibid.; Rogin, Ronald Reagan; Jeffords, Hard Bodies); or George W. Bush, who liked to pose on his Texas ranch dressed in a cowboy outfit. All of them used these references to the West in order to convey a sense of rugged masculinity and strong leadership. By the 20th century, the frontier myth had become engrained in political discourse and campaign rhetoric through a set of tacit references that were understood by all Americans.

One of the best-known examples of an appropriation of the American West in political rhetoric by way of the frontier myth is certainly John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. While Kennedy did not fashion himself as a cowboy during his candidacy and later as president but rather displayed the habitus of an East Coast urbanite, he did use the myth of the West in this so-called “New Frontier” speech, and invested it with new meanings:

I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build our new West. [...] [T]he problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won, and we stand today on the edge of a new frontier - the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. [...] I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that new frontier. [.] For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand at this frontier at a turning point of history.

Kennedy’s ‘new frontier’ rhetoric, which helped him win the presidential election, was fuelled by a ‘Cold War’ logic that would also provide the rationale for the US military involvement in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The latter’s descriptions in official rhetoric, fiction, film, and memoirs likewise often reference the frontier and the ‘Indian Wars,’ and draw analogies between Native Americans and the Vietnamese (cf. Bates, Wars 10):

The invocation of the Indian war and Custer’s Last Stand as models for the Vietnam war was a mythological way of answering the question, Why are we in Vietnam? The answer implicit in the myth is, “We are there because our ancestors were heroes who fought the Indians, and died (rightly or wrongly) as sacrifices for the nation.” There is no logic to the connection, only the powerful force of tradition and habits of feeling and thought. (Slot- kin, Fatal Environment 19)

These attempts at making the war in Southeast Asia intelligible and comprehensible through the familiar language of the frontier myth cannot be considered a simple, successful transference; they also challenged American self-perceptions in new and unprecedented ways, and tested the myth’s elasticity and, more profoundly, its validity:

Vietnam is an experience that severely called into question American myth. Americans entered Vietnam with certain expectations that a story, a distinctly American story, would unfold. When the story of America in Vietnam turned into something unexpected, the true nature of the larger story of America itself became the subject of intense cultural dispute. On the deepest level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future. (Hellmann, American Myth x)

The interdependency of the myth of the West and the interpretation of the war in Southeast Asia as well as the “Vietnamization” of the West (Coyne, Crowded Prairie 120) can be identified on several levels; we can for instance analyze how representations of the ‘Vietnam War’ use the Western formula in order to describe individual and collective war experiences. The convergence of the West and the East is most clearly evident in the Pentagon-sponsored The Green Berets (1968), which was one of the first Vietnam War films; based on Robin Moore’s bestselling novel of the same title which had been published three years earlier, it starred and was co-directed by John Wayne, the prototypical Western hero. Hoping to “make the old magic work” (Adair, Hollywood’s Vietnam 38), this film is quite overtly anti-communist propaganda cloaked in Western imagery: the film’s depiction of a base camp in Vietnam is very similar to that of cavalry forts in Westerns, and its demonization of the Vietcong also strongly resembles that of Native Americans in earlier films and other media. The film heroized the Green Berets - i.e., the US Army Special Forces, whose guerrilla and counterinsurgency tactics were endorsed by the Kennedy administration - by representing them as “a fused image of sophisticated contemporary professional and rough Indian fighters” that embodied the “paradox of the genteel killer” and “the deathdealing innocent” on the new frontier in Asia (Hellmann, American Myth 46/47). John Wayne’s son Michael, who produced the film, would later note in an interview: “Maybe we shouldn’t have destroyed all those Indians, but when you are making a picture, the Indians are the bad guys” (qtd. in Adair, Hollywood’s Vietnam 35).

Thus, from a New Historicist perspective, The Green Berets can be read as a film that makes sense of the ‘Vietnam War’ by employing the Western’s mode of representing the ‘Indian Wars.’ Other Vietnam War films also transpose the myth of the West, and in particular the myth of the frontier, to Vietnam: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) references James Fenimore Cooper’s historical frontier romance The Deerslayer (1841); First Blood (1982) places its pro?tagonist Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a former Green Beret and traumatized war veteran, on the outskirts of a small American town in a quasi wilderness, thus rendering him an inverted Natty Bumppo; its sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), a latter-day American captivity narrative, once again stages Rambo as a prototypical ‘Indian fighter’ who this time is on a mission to liberate American soldiers from Vietnamese POW camps; Apocalypse Now (1979) by contrast uses the hardboiled detective genre - which can be considered to have transposed the ‘Wild West’ into an urban context - to more radically depict “Vietnam as a nightmare extension of American society” (Hellmann, American Myth 201), and further undermines “the idealistic self-concept embodied in the American hero” (ibid. 203) through its references to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Let me add in passing that we can also examine how the war in Southeast Asia changed the American Western proper; as a case in point we may consider Little Big Man (1970), an early revisionist Western based on Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel of the same title that “portrayed the settling of the frontier as a succession of My Lai’s” (Hellmann, American Myth 95).

As John Clark Pratt points out in a similar context, we can observe that “the literature of the Vietnam War is filled with American characters who enter Vietnam as traditional frontier huntsmen, then become men trying merely to survive in a wilderness they do not understand” (“Lost Frontier” 238). In many ways, Vietnam brought the American foundational mythic formula to a crisis, because the myth failed to successfully work the war into a coherent narrative; as many have noted, the war could not be easily contained in the language of the frontier myth, and moreover brought to the surface the ‘origins’ of the myth - the collectively dis- or misremembered ‘Indian Wars’ - which thus became the object of reinterpretation. “The war did what almost nothing else could have: it forced a major breach in consciousness” (Charles Reich qtd. in Hellmann, American Myth 76). Hellmann also suggests - in language echoing that of earlier Americanists - that Vietnam became “a landscape in the American consciousness that would have to be journeyed through many times over, self-consciously experienced through narrative art as myth and symbol” (ibid. 95). We may thus consider the war in Southeast Asia as an event that unsettled the heroic myth of the West in that it brought to the fore the violence inscribed into it as well as the utter ‘ugliness’ of US military engagement in Asia and elsewhere (cf. William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s 1958 political novel The Ugly American). However, official efforts at (re-)mythologizing Vietnam continue to this day, as president Obama’s 2012 proclamation in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the war show:

[W]e reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. (Presidential Proclamation)

The doubts about individual and collective American identities triggered by the war were articulated in many forms; representatives of the American counterculture and the peace movement argued that Vietnam revealed the pathological nature of the American empire, or, less radically, that it signified a loss of values. Activists and writers who visited North Vietnam, among them Susan Sontag, regarded Vietnam as “the America that no longer exists” (Hellmann, American Myth 85); the innocence yet also the ‘primitiveness’ and ‘backwardness’ Sontag perceives are evident in many instances of her travel report Trip to Hanoi (1968), in which she pastoralizes Vietnam and describes its inhabitants as “children - beautiful, patient, heroic, martyred, stubborn children” (15). Whereas the ‘Indians’ of Vietnam are demonized in productions such as The Green Berets, they are infantilized by Sontag and other countercultural voices, which constitutes a form of othering that is hardly less problematical. Thus, we can see that the Vietnamese are still described within the bounds of the myth of the West - as evil or noble ‘savages.’

Lastly, there is yet another aspect to the connection between Vietnam and the American Indian Wars which centers on Native American agency rather than on the objectification of ‘natives.’ In the midst of the ‘Cold War,’ ‘Indian country’ migrated back from Vietnam to the American heartland when Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, from February 27 to May 8, 1973. The protest of the American Indian Movement (AIM) at Wounded Knee focused on what many considered as America’s racist imperialism at home (cf. Rosier, Serving 264) and was joined by a number of Native American veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. The protest in South Dakota soon appeared as a (semi-staged) re-creation of Vietnam which indicated that for the US, the ‘Cold War’ had both an international as well as a domestic side to it (ibid. 269). Woody Kipp, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and a US Marine Corps veteran who fought in Vietnam, would in his memoirs titled Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist (2004) refer to this connection as the “pervasive issues of race and dominance [...] that have shaped and formed this country since its earliest days” (141).

Illustration 7: The Anti-Mad Cowboy

Photograph by Gail Williams (2005).

Clearly, and in spite of the most radical protest at the time of the war in Southeast Asia, the frontier myth was not entirely debunked and much less destroyed, but perhaps it was expanded to the extent that post-Vietnam, it could include failure as well as triumph and victory. Beyond Vietnam, the US national security apparatus has continued to conflate ‘Indians’ with those it felt the need to frame as enemies, and to use the semantics of the frontier myth in acts of epistemic violence; the Old West revenge tale, for instance, has figured prominently in the political rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ (‘dead or alive’), and it led protesters against the War in Iraq to chant “it’s the Middle East, not the Wild West” (Kol- lin, “Introduction” x). A connection between the ‘Indian Wars’ and US foreign policy was established once again in May 2011 when ‘Geronimo,’ the name of an Apache leader, was used as a code word in the CIA-led operation that presumably resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden.

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