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COLUMN ONE : Vietnam and WWII: Myths and Memories : New ideas open some old wounds as Americans re-examine the legacies of two watershed eras. 'When you tamper with the war stories that a culture tells itself, you're playing with fire,' one observer says.

April 09, 1995|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Old war stories never die. They just fade away, into bulletproof memories and media myths. Like comforting legends, they reassure us of our strengths. Like ugly scars, they remind us of defeats that can't be forgotten.

Whether they are told by a veteran to his grandchildren or beamed to millions of viewers in a television documentary, war stories can bind one generation to the next. But do they tell us the truth?

This year, America will mark two watershed dates--the 50th anniversary of World War II's conclusion and the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. As commemorations begin, a growing number of historians, veterans and civilians are taking new looks at the social legacies of both conflicts. They are chipping away at the conventional wisdom that America had only shining moments during World War II and only bad experiences in Vietnam.

None doubt that the Allies won a clear victory over tyranny in 1945, or that the Southeast Asian war was a fiasco. Few question the bravery of American soldiers in either conflict, or the astonishing economic productivity of the U.S. home front in the 1940s, a time when Americans seemed as united by national purpose as they were divided in the 1960s.

But that is where the common ground ends.

"America loves to portray the Second World War as a great crusade, which in many respects it was, but we've ignored the dark underbelly of that time," said Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University history professor. "We've also viewed Vietnam as a dark hole from which nothing good emerged. But these are exaggerations. People are coming up with new interpretations of both eras."

The new views range from explorations of racism, sexism and profiteering in World War II, to suggestions that the Vietnam years--for all their rancor--led to a maturing of U.S. foreign policy, a cultural revolution and a healthy skepticism about government that endures in our political life.

Collectively, these new war stories add up to a major revision of American history, and there appears to be some public support for them. But they also inspire fierce opposition. To many, these new interpretations are offensive, bordering on desecration.

"They didn't call World War II the Good War for nothing," said Joe Liotta, 73, who served on the aircraft carrier Intrepid in the Pacific. "I can't think of a time when this country was in better shape. We got the job done. We worked together and came out on top."

For Liotta and others, there is no finer moment in America's official history. Those who would criticize the Big One do so at their own peril.

"When you tamper with the war stories that a culture tells itself, you're playing with fire," said James Loewen, a University of Vermont sociology professor. "That's when history gets dangerous, when it rocks the boat."

A-Bomb Raises Issue

America got a taste of this in January when the Smithsonian Institution was forced to revise a proposed exhibit on the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II in August, 1945. Veterans groups and some politicians were furious that curators questioned the morality of using the bombs. But they seemed even angrier at portrayals of the Japanese as victims of an atrocity, replete with stomach-turning photos and testimonials.

"The original exhibition they had planned was preposterous," said historian Stanley Karnow. "You can't turn history upside down and tell people that a war we had to fight 50 years ago was bad. People don't buy that."

But is it that simple? In a recent Times national poll of adult Americans, 59% said World War II was a mixed experience for the country and 20% said it was negative. Only 15% said the war was one of the nation's greatest moments.

Meanwhile, 72% said America is either no longer divided over Vietnam or the divisions are healing. Although 72% also called the war a negative experience, the findings suggest that the United States may be ready for a more objective look at the conflict, which ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

"These wars are different, but they're two sides of a coin," said Studs Terkel, who wrote "The Good War," an oral history of World War II. "They were defining moments for fathers and sons, for two generations who got sore at each other. They never told the same war stories, and they still don't."

Welcome to the great divide.

For John Marshall, a Vietnam-era conscientious objector, the 1960s were a time of tension with some family members. There also were clashes with members of his own generation who fought in Vietnam. Looking back, he says protesters across America helped end a futile war.

Marshall served 21 months in the Army before he was reclassified as a conscientious objector in 1971. His grandfather, S.L.A. Marshall, a prominent military historian, was appalled and disowned him in a blistering letter:

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