When America Turned
Reckoning with 1968
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014
Paperback. xiii + 365 pp. ISBN 978-1625340610. $27.95
Reviewed by Eric J. Morgan
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
1968 was undoubtedly one of the most dynamic and polarizing years in modern American history, emblematic of the larger, tumultuous decade that some historians have called a period of “civil war.” The year began with the disastrous Tet Offensive in Vietnam and ended with the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States. In between those bookends, the following are just a few examples of events that typified the frenzied year: in March, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota presented a strong challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in early Democratic primaries; the same month, the horrific My Lai Massacre occurred and LBJ announced that he would neither seek nor accept the presidential nomination; in April and June, respectively, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; in June, artist Andy Warhol was shot; and in August, all hell broke loose at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This pithy list omits Prague Spring, massive protests in Paris, and numerous other moments of unrest that occurred outside of the U.S. 1968 was indeed a watershed moment not only in the United States but also the larger world, a defining year in the chaotic and transformative decade of the 1960s.
In his thoughtful, elegant, and sometimes wistful When America Turned, David Wyatt seeks to come to terms with this catastrophic year. Employing a close reading of various texts, from novels to memoirs to speeches, Wyatt endeavors to understand how and why America “turned.” To do so, Wyatt examines two types of history, what journalist Michael Herr called “straight” and “secret” (Wyatt’s previous book was titled Secret Histories : Reading Twentieth-Century American Literature). “Straight” history comes to us from historians and public figures, while “secret” history is written by novelists, poets, and New Journalists. Only through an examination of both histories, Wyatt believes, can we begin to understand the complex legacies of the 1960s.
Wyatt’s general thesis is that the United States has failed to accept the truth that it lost the Vietnam War. “A good deal of this continuing reluctance to accept failure,” Wyatt writes, “derives from our refusal to surrender our innocence. As long as we turn away from a known rather than an opinionated take on our past, we will remain imprisoned by a self-defeating belief in our own and our nation’s purity of intent” . To understand this collective reluctance, Wyatt proceeds chronologically through the year, analyzing key individuals and events of 1968, from Lyndon Johnson to Robert McNamara to student protests at Columbia University. Wyatt lived through the events he chronicles and analyzes—he was a 20-year-old student at Yale in 1968—and does not flinch from including himself in the narrative. In many ways this book is also Wyatt’s personal attempt to reckon with 1968, also hoping to use the tragic Vietnam experience as a uniting national moment rather than a divisive one.
Throughout When America Turned Wyatt combs through an impressive array of texts. Wyatt is a professor of English rather than a historian, and thus his analysis is strongest when he is examining various pieces of literature, though for his purposes literary works expand well beyond fiction. Wyatt looks at various books on Vietnam from Michael Herr’s groundbreaking work of New Journalism, Dispatches, to Tim O’Brien’s novel, In the Lake of the Woods. By delving into these “secret” histories, Wyatt concludes: “information can only be converted into knowledge by way of a resolutely self-aware and self-interrogating language, one beholden to and willing to be corrected by experience” . We must be willing, Wyatt asserts, to revisit and revise our experiences of the past, and only then will we be able to make peace with it.
The character of John Kerry looms large in Wyatt’s narrative. Wyatt is incredibly dismayed that Kerry—a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War—fared so poorly in the 2004 presidential campaign against George W. Bush. Wyatt attributes this failure to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign or, to be more precise, Kerry’s inability or unwillingness to confront the group’s charges that he embellished his record of service. Kerry, of course, was a notable veteran who returned home from Vietnam and turned against the war. During his 1971 testimony before the U.S. Senate, Kerry remarked, “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Yet in the 2004 campaign, Wyatt notes, Kerry ran largely on his war service, not on his turn against the war. The book ends with a speech Wyatt wrote for Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign. Wyatt never attempted to have the speech delivered to Kerry through his contacts, but the message is one of acceptance. He writes, “We need to stop looking at Vietnam as a cynical game in which young men tried to second-guess the future. What unites all of us who lived through the Vietnam years is that we all went through them together. And we lived on, and learned to live together” .
When America Turned will be of great interest to scholars of the 1960s, particularly those intrigued by the intersection of history, literature, and memory, though the work is not well suited for undergraduate classrooms or as an introductory text to this contested era. The textual references are at times too obscure and the analysis occasionally a little abstract for the lay reader, and students would be better served with more accessible texts such as Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin’s America Divided : The Civil War of the 1960s. But for those interested in a thoughtful and slightly nostalgic literary history of 1968, this book offers a wealth of worthwhile treasures.
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