Modern history

artThe Age of Vietnam: The Myth of the Evil Americans

As the celebrations became more exaggerated, the midnight messenger was riding for a fall. A reversal of his reputation came with a vengeance, during the late 1960s and 1970s. The American mood changed more abruptly and radically in that period than in any other era of the nation’s history. Once again the reputation of Paul Revere was a highly sensitive cultural barometer.

The deeply troubled generation of Vietnam and Watergate returned to a mood of iconoclasm that was very different from the light-hearted debunking of the early 20th century. The first generation of American debunkers had often come from the right. From the Adamses to Henry Ford and H. L. Mencken, they were deeply uncomfortable with the principles of American liberalism and democracy. The iconoclasts of the 1960s and 70s came mostly from the left, and complained of collusion between capitalism and democracy. The tone was different too. The old debunkers had cultivated a light touch. The new iconoclasts were bitter, cynical, cruel and angry. They turned furiously against the culture of the nation they called Amerika, and published scathing attacks on its patriotic symbols. A favorite target was Paul Revere.

One iconoclast of this new school was Richard Bissell, a dramatist whose credits included the popular broadway shows The Pajama Game and Say, Darling. In 1975 Bissell tried his hand at history. For the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution he contributed a little book loosely modeled on 10 66 and All That, called New Light on 1776 and All That. One of its chapters demolished the myth of Paul Revere and the battles of Lexington and Concord. Earlier iconoclasts had been content to accuse Paul Revere of failing to complete his ride, and stealing the glory from William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. Richard Bissell went further. He informed his readers that Paul Revere was a coward and traitor who “sang like a canary” to his British captors, and betrayed his friends to save his own skin. This interpretation was illustrated with a bizarre cartoon of Paul Revere as a canary, chirping away in his cage. Bissell’s account was grossly inaccurate, the very opposite of what actually happened; but it was what some Americans wanted to hear about their heroes. 48

A similar interpretation was repeated by a writer named John Train who in 1980 told a reporter for the Washington Post that Paul Revere “set out with two other guys for money … he was quite a despicable … he was arrested en route by the British. He turned stool pigeon and betrayed his two companions.” In fact Revere was not paid for his midnight ride, and in no way betrayed anyone. There was no truth whatever in these interpretations, which combined credulity and cynicism in equal measure. But in the turbulent wake of Watergate and Vietnam, some Americans wanted desperately to disbelieve. 49

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The iconoclasm that followed the Vietnam War was very different from the good-natured debunking of the 1920s. Several writers in the 1970s casually invented an accusation that Paul Revere’s Ride ended not merely in failure but in treason to his cause. One asserted that he “sang like a canary” to his British captors. As evidence, one iconoclast published this bizarre illustration to make his case. It was the opposite of what actually happened, but Americans in that unhappy era wanted desperately to disbelieve. (Little, Brown and Company)

In 1968, the editors of the Boston Globe joined in. That paper published an editorial on Patriots’ Day which roundly asserted as fact (with absolutely no evidence whatever) that early in the midnight ride Medford’s Captain Isaac Hall “gave Paul a little something to warm his bones,” and that it was “a little rum poured on top of patriotic fervor that caused Paul to sound his cry of alarm.” The only possible foundation for this idea was the fact that Captain Hall happened to own a distillery. There was nothing else in the record to support it, and much to the contrary about Revere as a man of temperate habits. But this schoolboy humor by the editors of the Globe was widely read and believed. Revere scholar Jayne Triber concludes that became “one source for the recent cynical belief that ‘Revere was drunk when he made the ride.’“50

Iconoclasm became something of an industry in this period. A professional iconoclast named Richard Shenkman was regularly employed by newspapers and television networks to explode the patriot myths of American history. In 1989 he captured the national mood in a book called Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History, which included Paul Revere among its many targets. The author minimized the importance of the midnight ride, assuring its readers that Revere’s “role in warning of approaching redcoats has been exaggerated.” This work was followed by another volume called “I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not.” The title, a garbled quotation from Warren Harding, hinted that maybe the midnight ride never actually happened at all. That innuendo was corrected inside the book, but once again bewildered students began to ask their teachers if it was true that Paul Revere never made his ride at all. From the work of the new iconoclasts, one could not be sure. 51

Filiopietists fought back. On April 19, 1975, in a bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution, the two parties confronted one another at Concord’s North Bridge. On one side was the official Revolutionary Bicentennial Commission led by President Gerald Ford, which celebrated Paul Revere and the minutemen as symbols of free enterprise and democracy On the other side was the People’s Bicentennial Commission, with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, who read (very selectively) from James Otis, Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams, and converted the occasion into an impassioned attack on American capitalism and multinational corporations. Altogether 100,000 people attended the event. The only damage was to the environment, from 822 tons of litter left by filiopietists and iconoclasts alike. 52

Something of the searing impact of the Vietnam War on historical memory in the United States appeared in an essay called “Ambush,” published by novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien in 1993. The piece consisted of a series of passages on the fighting of April 19, 1775, alternating with the author’s highly personal memories of Vietnam. “The parallels,” O’Brien wrote, “struck me as both obvious and telling. A civil war. A powerful world-class army blundering through unfamiliar terrain. A myth of invincibility. Immense resources of wealth and firepower that somehow never produced definitive results. A sense of bewilderment and dislocation.”

This American identified mainly with the British Regulars, the grunts of an earlier war. “Down inside,” he added, “in some deeply human way, I had more in common with those long-dead redcoats than with the living men and women all around me. I felt a member of a mysterious old brotherhood: shared knowledge and shared terror. I could hear 700 pairs of boots on the road; I could smell the sweat and fear. Somewhere inside me, Vietnam and Battle Road seemed to merge into a single ghostly blur across history.”

What was most extraordinary in this work was its idea of history itself. “History was not made by plan or policy,” O’Brien asserted, “but by the biological forces of fatigue and fear and adrenaline.” He appeared to reject any idea of progress or purpose in human history. “What happens is this,” he insisted, “time puts on a fresh new uniform, revs up the firepower, calls itself progress.”

The author claimed a kinship with soldiers who came before him, but his essay was profoundly different from writings by veterans of earlier wars, including the men of Lexington and Concord whom he claimed as brothers in misfortune. The difference appeared not merely in the self-pity and despair of the Vietnam veteran, but in his profound rejection of any sort of teleology in history. 53

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