- Paperback: 408 pages
- Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press; 2nd edition (July 1, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 155849586X
- ISBN-13: 978-1558495869
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #963,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Revised Edition with new preface and afterword) 2nd Edition
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"Sets out to trace the vicissitudes of America's self-image since World War II as they showed up in popular culture: war toys, war comics, war reporting, and war films. It succeeds brilliantly. . . . Engelhardt's prose is smart and smooth, and his book is social and cultural history of a high order."―Boston Globe
"Engelhardt is absorbing and provocative. . . . Everything he writes is of a satisfyingly congruent piece."―New York Times
"America Victorious has been our country's postulate since its birth. Tom Engelhardt, with a burning clarity, recounts the end of this fantasy, from the split atom to Vietnam. . . . As powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus."―Studs Terkel, author of The Good War
"A brilliant meditation on the past half-century of the American national story. . . . Its account of the disintegration of a confident post-World War II national identity is a stunning achievement."―Marilyn Young, author of The Vietnam Wars
"An extraordinarily original work that places postwar American history in an entirely new perspective."―John Dower, author of War without Mercy
"In this tour de force, Tom Engelhardt tracks the American 'war' story along its declining arc. . . . Full of brilliancies, this is one of those rare books that can change the way we see."―Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties
"Freelance writer Engelhardt here traces the roots of American "triumphalism" back to early New England, where the massacre of Indians set the pattern for the self-justified slaughter of external enemies, a ritual that would be replayed endlessly not only in life but also in fiction, movies, toys and comics. In his sprawling meditation, he considers the effect of our "loss of enemy" when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. In his tedious recap of the Vietnam tragedy Engelhardt suggests that the American public's inability to view the Viet Cong as a savage, lesser adversary contributed to our becoming 'the world's most extraordinary [because least expected] losers.' The desire to create a Third World battlefield with maximum U.S. weaponry and minimum U.S. casualties was briefly satisfied, he contends, by the Gulf War with its seemingly bloodless, machine-versus-machine destructiveness. America, according to Engelhardt, is still yearning for a revival of our national identity via the victory culture, 'the story of their slaughter and our triumph.'"―Publishers Weekly
"Engelhardt, an editor and freelance writer, traces the growth and decline of 'victory culture' in American history. A triumphalist myth, unquestioned for years, promoted the belief that America would always overcome its enemies. Engelhardt shows how major events since 1945 have thoroughly eroded this belief, resulting in disillusionment for those over 40 and bewilderment for the post-Vietnam War generation. He focuses on a variety of related themes: Indian captivity narratives; Hollywood's depiction of our 'enemies,' usually dehumanized Native Americans and Asians; the phenomenon of 'GI Joe,' the most popular war toy ever created; and the advent of rock'n'roll and the teen subculture that grew up around it. Engelhardt's study is a solid contribution to Cold War literature, especially where it touches upon questions of national purpose and identity. Although scholarly in tone, his book will appeal to anyone interested in American popular culture. Recommended for most libraries."―Library Journal
From the Back Cover
The End of Victory Culture is an autopsy of a once vital American myth: the cherished belief that triumph over a less-than-human enemy was in the American grain, a birthright and a national destiny. This book is a compelling account of how a national narrative of triumph through which Americans bad always sustained themselves as a people underwent a vertiginous decomposition from Hiroshima to Vietnam.
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In establishing the war narrative as a discursive device, Engelhardt argues, “Triumphalism was in the American grain” (pg. 3-4). The war narrative could not take on an aggressive tone, however. Engelhardt writes, “From its origins, this war story was essentially defensive in nature, and the justness of American acts was certified not only by how many of <i>them</i> died, but by how few of <i>us</i> there were to begin with” (pg. 5). Americans could justify most actions in war as long as they conceived of themselves as underdogs. After World War II, however, “shadowed by the bomb, victory became conceivable only under the most limited of conditions, and an enemy too diffuse to be comfortably located beyond national borders had to be confronted in an un-American spirit of doubt” (pg. 6). This narrative, and its upset, plays a key role in Engelhardt’s insight into the Cold War.
The upset, however, took time to develop. Engelhardt explores both the joint role that the military industrial complex and consumer culture played in upsetting that narrative, writing, “The arms race and the race for the good life were now to be put on the same ‘war’ footing” (pg. 77). The media repackaged the war narrative through film and television and toys for children that sold Americans the narrative in a time of increasing uncertainty. Engelhardt writes, “The United States was involved in a global ‘war,’ yet Americans were militarily unmenaced” (pg. 87). This conflict of ideas spread throughout American culture since, “in 1950s America, the worlds of consumer arcadia and global fear, of twenty-four-hour-a-day television and twenty-four-hour-a-day airborne nuclear-armed bombers coexisted” (pg. 87). Finally, McCarthyism, HUAC, and containment on a global scale obliterated the us-versus-them dichotomy because they “helped transform America’s enemies into beings who looked indistinguishable from ‘us’” (pg. 122).
Writing of the impact of Vietnam on American culture, Engelhardt argues, “Because it was impossible to ‘see’ who had defeated the United States and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been lost. So American victimhood, American loss – including the loss of childhood’s cultural forms – became a subject in itself, the only subject, you might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent that loss a particular aura of unfairness” (pg. 180). Vietnam obliterated the narrative of American certainty without an identifiable enemy. Engelhardt writes, “Vietnam was like an ambush that refused to end and for which no retribution proved satisfying” (pg. 194). Even when Americans could fight back, it was not satisfying. According to Engelhardt, “Victory somehow meant defeat, for to win you had to destroy what you ‘won,’ and to destroy what you won – the villages, towns, and cities of Vietnam, not to speak of its livestock, land, and people – was to ensure the enmity of those in whose name you fought” (pg. 206). This led to atrocities that flipped the script with which American soldiers grew up in the early Cold War of the 1950s. Without a clear explanation for the change that occurred in their cultural narrative, Americans sought desperately for an answer in the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
Engelhardt argues that George Lucas’ "Star Wars" led the cultural charge against the upset to the victory narrative. He writes, “In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom <i>and</i> victory, captivity <i>and</i> rescue, underdog status <i>and</i> the spectacle of slaughter” (pg. 267). Further, the American military placed the blame for the troubles of Vietnam on the media and carefully orchestrated and choreographed Grenada and Desert Storm in order to prevent the public outcry that accompanied American actions in Indochina. Engelhardt argues, “In the new version of victory culture, the military spent no less time planning to control the screen than the battlefield, and the neutralization of a potentially oppositional media became a war goal” (pg. 290). Despite this choreography, however, the war story no longer offers the comfort it once did when facing the future.
This "victory culture" reached full measure in the American experience in World War II, as the United States responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and fought to unconditional surrender the Axis powers. Using the Atomic bomb, and its strategic power, after 1945 the U.S. sought to achieve a Pax Americana in the decades that followed. The Cold War fed into these ideas, as a closed, non-democratic, non-capitalistic Soviet Union offered an ideal replacement for the evil Axis powers of World War II. The strategies of containment used to oppose the Soviet Union, however, challenged the myth of the "victory culture" during the Vietnam debacle of the 1960s, many in the U.S. began to question the exceptionalism of America. The familiar patterns of national identity reified through the "victory culture" created a crisis of confidence in society with setbacks in a range of international and national settings.
One might have thought that the "victory culture" would collapse, but it came back strong, especially after 9/11. Tom Engelhardt explicitly draws parallels between popular culture--especially toys and movies--and the events in the broader world. He finds that children's toys, especially military-oriented ones, led to play that reinforced the "victory culture." The packs of cowboys and Indians, and a host of other martial toys, taught a generation how to triumph over opponents. This was especially true of G.I. Joe, which has been transformed over time to allow children the flexibility to defeat a wide range of foes.
Englehardt also uses movies in this same way. He draws on western and war movies, the science fiction of Star Wars, and a host of other films to show how the ideas inculcated into the culture through these movies informed real-life experiences.
Through all of this, Englehardt focuses a lot of attention on the American myth of the innocent nation. Completely without justification, the United States has come to believe that whatever it does is just and righteous, and that it is locked in a desperate struggle with evil. This may be seen in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. World Wars I and II especially led Americans to believe they were fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also may be seen in the cold war against the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism. This is an unfortunate development, according to the author. I especially enjoyed his take on the post-9/11 era in which explicit relations between movies and reality were made by the nation's leaders. A sense of victimization is present in this rhetoric, but a belief in triumph through virtue and perseverance also rings out whether or not it should. The "victory culture," as Englehardt concludes, is still very much with us.