Re-enacting Independence through Nostalgia – The 1976 US Bicentennial after the Vietnam War

David Ryan,

University College Cork

The US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 shaped the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial in unintended ways. The 200th anniversary of US Independence offered the nation the opportunity to restore aspects of its identity after the devastating effects of the Vietnam War. The Ford administration emphasised renewal and rebirth based on a restoration of traditional values and a nostalgic and exclusive reading of the American past. Despite Federal efforts to advance certain themes through their ‘monumental’ reading of US history, no dominant theme prevailed. This article reflects on the representations of the Bicentennial themes and issues through the lens of nostalgia and collective memory. It does so by examining the events, media coverage and the internal documents of the Ford administration. Despite efforts to reconnect the nation with traditional images of the United States, ultimately the success of the Bicentennial relied on enactments and events that were predominantly local and regional; the federal direction was resisted and therefore relatively restrained. The temporal proximity of defeat and a tarnished reputation could no be elided through hollow narratives on tradition and the narrow reading of the past.

Modern nostalgia is in mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the Edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.
(Boym 2001, 8 )

On the April 29, 1975 Hugh (Hubert) van Es, the Dutch photographer working with UPI was summoned out of his darkroom and took the famous picture of the US evacuation of Saigon from the room of the Pittman Apartments. There were twenty to thirty people climbing up a ladder and sequestered at its base. He realised only a fraction could get on the Huey helicopter. He later wrote the helicopter ‘… took off with 12 to 14 on board … Those left on the roof waited for hours, hoping for more helicopters to arrive. To no avail’ (Heald 2009). The image became one of the enduring icons of the US defeat in the Vietnam War. It captured the retreat from the narrated ideals of the nation. As late as 1961, John F. Kennedy could intone the words at his inauguration, without any sense of irony, that the United States would ‘to pay any price and bear any burden’ for the success and survival of ‘liberty’; he and then President Johnson deepened US engagement in Vietnam. The van Es photograph captured the sense of abandonment, of broken commitment, of a cultivated dependency. In one image (deployed by editors across cumulative photographs of loss) the meta-history of the nation was deeply called into question. The war, coupled with the simultaneous Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the assertions of nationalism, the post-colonial discourse and the advent of postmodernity, left some Americans with a deep scepticism of governmental authority and a fragmentary and fractious set of experiences in the months after the Vietnam War. [1] The scepticism of federal authority and the presidency was compounded by the repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the passing of the War Powers Act and the scandals associated with Watergate. There was a ‘performative silence’ (Winter 2011) that shrouded the war and its meaning for US identity. It was difficult for Federal authorities or the Ford administration to articulate its meaning too directly, so soon after the catastrophe; as Richard Cheney, then the White House Chief of Staff, relates, as recently as 2011, that he found it ‘impossible’ to ignore the fact that Washington was leaving thousands of Vietnamese behind. There was a debate in the White House on what was left to say on the war. ‘Ford’s instinct … was to let go of the past and find a way to bring the people and the country forward’ (Cheney 2011, 82). In large part the new articulations on American identity would have to spring from the people and the states, a federated distribution of remembrance and re-enactment. The irony of history was obvious. Newsweek related in late April 1975 that just as the US commenced its celebration of the Bicentennial of its wars of independence, ‘two countries that the U.S. had struggled mightily to help were in the process of losing theirs.’ Ford, instead of initiating a celebratory party, requested the crowd at Concord, ‘to place the hand of healing over the heart of America’ (Steele 1975). The tone he struck at the meeting was sombre, Newsweek reported, it comported with the ‘mood of his countrymen and the nature of the times.’ Newsweek concluded that ‘the high hopes and wishful idealism with which the American nation had been born had not been destroyed, but they had been chastened by the failure of America to work its will in Indochina’ (Steele 1975).

Just prior to the US escalation into Vietnam, the revisionist historian, William Appleman Williams had argued that as the United States moved abroad and escalated its power and reach, the tragedy of its history was that it lost control of its identity and the destiny premised on the founding interpretations of the nation and its values (Williams 2009). Not only had the United States overextended its power, in doing so the democratic balance within the union had been upset and had given rise to what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labelled the ‘imperial presidency’ (Schlesinger 1989). In other words, the United States had moved through a period during which it was openly charged and identified as an imperial power and its internal system of checks and balances was deemed to be so out of kilter that Congress felt pressed to assert their powers to curb the ‘imperial presidency’. In a broader context, Renato Rosaldo advanced the argument on ‘imperialist nostalgia’. Under this type of yearning there is a longing for a form of life that had been altered and destroyed, ‘where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed’ (Rosaldo 1989, 108). It is a seeming paradox; those yearning for the qualities and values of the past have somehow been complicit in their erosion. Yet these same political actors engage in ‘imperialist nostalgia [which] uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination’ (Rosaldo 1989, 108). There was a process of ‘mystification’ of the American past; the brutality that went with the American process of expansion (Hixson 2008; Hixson, forthcoming; Ryan 2000) was absent from the reconstructed narratives of the nation in 1976. That year and that Bicentennial are not exceptions in that regard. The very processes of the formation and articulation of collective memory necessitates a displacement of certain aspects of the past that no longer comport with the attempts to reconstruct the nation’s identity through a selected reading of the past. A part of the Bicentennial objective, and one key reason for its success, was also the emphasis on low-key events and the participation of local and state initiatives without the imposition of a dominant theme (Washington Post 1976).

The 1976 Bicentennial enactment reached back to a mythical and monumental reading of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its revolution. It did so through a lens and frame of nostalgia that produced a discourse and evident yearning for home and for a past that no longer existed and never did, except in the constructivist formations of national stories and identities. This condition is not that surprising, but its timing was awkward. Wolfgang Schievelbusch argues that the nation that emerges from a loss moves quickly to a period of euphoria (Schievelbusch 2001, 14). However, in moving to such a state there is the simultaneous gaze backward. Milton Bates argues in his The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling, that in ‘every American epoch, and particularly during moments of national crisis, writers and thinkers have revisited New England Puritanism to assess the evils or achievements of their own day’ (Bates 1996, 12). In this state the past is quickly forgotten and the new (old, renewed) narratives are asserted and deployed for cultural effect. The key concern for the Ford administration was to renew the spirit of the identity associated with the American past, associated, that is, in the traditional American mind and orthodox histories (Appleby, Hunt, Jacobs 1994, 91-125). 1976 provided the opportunity to proclaim a declaration of independence from themselves; or at least from their recent past.

The Ford administration had to find ways to marshal the themes associated with American origins, revolution and independence which would be linked to American values and character, in an attempt to produce a better image of US foreign policy for both domestic and international audiences. In conversation with Ford, Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger identified the ‘profound impact on others’ perceptions of our judgement, our constancy, and the wisdom of the United States’ at the final stages of the US part of the Vietnam wars. He reminded Ford: ‘There is nothing we can do about the past, but it is important how we react to this.’ And ‘the worst mistake we could make now is to say we are undertaking a global reassessment.’ Vietnam represented a set of special circumstances, ‘to generalize from this would be disastrous in all areas. There can be no domino effect not related to Vietnam but to our competence in foreign policy.’ Confidence, assurance and commitment remained the watchwords for the period; important signals to be sent from Washington to the rest of the world. Similar messages were soon conveyed to legislators on Capitol Hill. Kissinger informed his congressional audience in the East Room of the White House:

We have gone through a traumatic period. Those who say this is having no effect simply don’t know. You should see all the cables we receive about leaders all over the world, who are worried about what will happen and how we have reacted and will react. We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future. We must recognize that since World War II, most of the really great initiatives in the world have been American initiatives. Much of the world today is dependent on American attitudes.

… If we face the fact that as a result of Vietnam some of our problems have become more difficult; if we determine not to withdraw from the world, we can succeed. If we are to deal in the world, though, we must deal with authority. [2]

The great evasion on the US motivations and the values associated with its recent engagements largely continued in US culture.


The defeat in Vietnam compounded a strain of nostalgia that had emerged during the 1960s (Lytle 2006). Though evident in that decade of turmoil, the mood according to Michael Kammen did not become pervasive until after 1971 (Kammen 1993, 618). By then most knew that defeat was a matter of when rather than if. In 1971 Time magazine asked the question: how much nostalgia Americans could take. The implied response was that it was unlimited. Of course it recognised that the eye of memory was selective. It took in the elegance of 1936 Fred Astaire and not the breadlines of the Depression; ‘it catches the shapely legs of Rita Hayworth in 1944’s hot pants but neglects the 500, 000 U.S. war casualties of that year.’ Time Identified a homesickness amongst those in their 20s or 30s for a time they never knew. This ‘radical generation’ genuinely hungered ‘for unexperienced past, as if they were hearing some melancholy autumnal horn summoning them through an undiscovered hallway to a place they can search for but can never find. It is as if they felt cheated for being given their maturity in the sad and sinister world of the ‘70s’ (Clarke 2008; Rose 2008). A couple of years later Newsweek noted the rise in history-related tourism. They identified a yearning of people to visit places and to ‘touch anything old – the genuine old, if possible, but even the hokey and plastic “old” will do if nothing better is available’ (Kammen 1993, 618). By turning the past into ‘amusing and readily available souvenirs,’ Americans could depoliticise the past, (Boym 2001, 51) at a time when, to do otherwise would be to risk the opening of deep wounds.

The restorative and reflective elements of nostos and algia, (of home, pain and longing) were apposite for the nation. There was a sense of a need to build or rebuild a ‘lost home’ coupled with a longing for the past, a past that was somewhat situated in the future (Boym, 41). Thus the longing can transport the desire across a turbulent period and provide a sense of security that the nation and the individual within the nation can move forward, get over recent disruptions, and regain what they thought they had lost. Of course the past remembered was an essential past based on the constructions of collective memory and various forms of discourse and instruction; it was an ‘imagined’ past to comport with contemporary psychological and cultural needs (Schlesinger 1992; Draper 1990). [3] As a generalisation Kammen notes that it is no wonder that the rise of nostalgia occurred during times of transition, disruption and cultural anxiety. All of those components exerted a strong presence during the 1970s (Kammen, 618).

The Washington Post anticipated the recognition that orators across the country ‘are likely to note that America at the Bicentennial is once again a nation in transition, sobered by new awareness of the limits of abundance, concerned about its future role in the world, uncertain of its social health and political vitality’ (July 3, 1976). Under such enduring malaise, the appeal of myth and the restorative nostalgia manifested itself in a reconstruction of the monuments of the past, the tourism to such places, the acquisition of artefacts and emblems – a tangible connection with the ‘imagined community’ in conjunction with the temporary loss of that identity. The country imagined its future by improvising on its past (Boym, 75). Amongst the multitude of the glorious re-enactments of patriotic ritual, marchers in colonial dress, with horse drawn sleds carrying iron and brass cannon, cannon balls and gunpowder, retraced the steps of Henry Knox. They were dressed with ‘woolen capes, muskets and powder horns, some wearing knitted caps with the word “Liberty” embroided on the front.’ The Washington Post asserted: ‘It could have been 200 years ago.’ One marcher, Bob Peloquin, from Springfield, Massachusetts said ‘this has rejuvenated my faith in America.’ The computer specialist continued: ‘After Vietnam and Watergate, people were afraid to wave the flag. Maybe with the Bicentennial, people can come out of their shell and say, “We’ve made some mistakes, but let’s go on from here”’ (Hornblower 1976).

In the Book of Memory, Mary Carruthers relates how in the process of likening the notes of music to a set of letters, from A to G, Guido d’Arezzo, ‘used a common trope in music theory.’ It was always amazing how much music could be produced from the limited range of notes. Similarly, with the process of recollection, especially collective memory, the emphasis was on using the limited range of symbols and artefacts to ‘compose in the present – not to reproduce a record of past events’ (Carruthers 2008, 21). Even if the geographical distribution of celebrations emphasised a distancing from the federal government, the enactments and re-enactments played out with a limited range of symbols. Given the fractious cultural experiences of the decade past, the cultural challenge to its narrated official identity from within and outside the country, coupled with the impact of revisionist interpretations of US foreign policy, the need to repair and heal necessitated a restorative narrative. It was essential that the story was conveyed without too much contemporary instruction. The re-enactments, the artefacts, and the relative weakness of the federal narrative were essential to the Bicentennial proceedings. The contemporary compositions of the past reflected on the glories of Independence some 200 years ago coupled with the cultural return to the symbols of the 1950s. It is not that cultural myths were completely false, but rather represent a set of ‘shared assumptions that help to naturalize history and makes it livable, providing the daily glue of common intelligibility’ (Boym, 54).

The Ford Administration and the Renewed Nation

In his memoir, A Time to Heal, President Gerald Ford reflected back on the Bicentennial and the meaning of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. He seemed to enjoy the space it provided in the midst of the three way presidential race. The Democrats were about to appoint Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale as their representatives. Ford still had to contend with the unusual challenge to a sitting president from within the Republican Party advanced by Ronald Reagan. The celebrations, he wrote, provided ‘an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the qualities that had made America great.’ Ever since his childhood he enjoyed the Fourth of July. He and his brothers saved their nickels and dimes for fireworks, their step-father added to the purse to buy skyrockets; they turned and churned the ice cream freezer. The sentences waft out of a Rockwell-esque image; the big flag hung out from the porch, there were parades, bands, patriotic speeches, ball games and picnics and the wait till dark for the fireworks. Ford, never in those days, or perhaps in the years just preceding, imagined he would be president, let alone president on the momentous anniversary. [4] Over the immediate holidays he dedicated the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, spoke at the National Archives in front of the Declaration of Independence, flew to Valley Forge to commemorate George Washington and the Continental Army, spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and flew to New York to watch the tall ships from thirty nations participate in Operation Sail. In his speech he reflected on the adventure of 200 years past that ‘stirred the imagination and quickened the hopes of men and women throughout the world.’ No other nation, he intoned, had ever dedicated itself to the ‘proposition that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with such unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ He certainly did not reflect on the irony that Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnamese national independence in September 1945, with an intentional, plagiaristic derivative of Thomas Jefferson’s encompassing words. And Ford, stated, with no sense of irony, that the hallmark of the ‘great American adventure … has always been an eagerness to explore the unknown, whether it lay across an ocean or a continent, across the vastness of space or the frontiers of human knowledge.’ The memoirs present the fairy tale aspiration: aides had reported that millions of Americans were praying in churches and synagogues, dancing in the streets and marching in the squares. He concluded: ‘rarely in the history of the world had so many people turned out so spontaneously to express the love they felt for their country. Not a single incident marred our festival. The nation’s wounds had healed. We had regained our pride and rediscovered our faith and, in doing so, we had laid the foundation for a future that had to be filled with hope’ (Ford 1980, 378-80; Ford 1976, Philadelphia). In this rarefied tale, little had he noticed the fracture and disruption advanced by the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC), which organised several counter marches and demonstrations, and ill-conceived mailshots of cassette tapes to the wives of the Fortune 500 executives. The PBC pointed an accusatory finger at corporate America and the Federal government for many of the ills that afflicted the United States in the 1970s (Bodnar 1992, 236). Further, Newsweek characterised the period as one of ‘doubt and contrition’ (Steele 1975).

From late 1974 the US stepped up preparations for the Bicentennial. It provided an opportunity to inoculate US culture with an antidote to the impact of the Vietnam War at home. The violence that the Vietnam War had brought into the United States, epitomised by the disruption of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, ushered in a new era of lost confidence, pointlessness of purpose. It was no wonder then that in George Herring’s words there was a period of ‘self-conscious collective amnesia.’ Before the fall of Saigon, Ford told his audience at Tulane that Americans could regain the sense of pride that had existed before the war, ‘but it cannot be achieved refighting a war that is finished’ (Balogh 2000, 27, 43). The early attempts to dampen the impact of the Vietnam metaphor through the Bicentennial preparations were over wrought and the federal co-ordination efforts moved through several false starts, before the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA) established in 1974 under the direction of John Warner. He not only negotiated the Federal and State cooperation as a celebration of diversity, but also advanced a ‘low-key, non-political program, encouraging state and local initiatives without imposing a single theme’ (Washington Post, July 3, 1976).

The ‘Freedom Train’, an embodiment of the past-locomotion moving forward, carried the symbols of the nation, historic documents and artefacts, limited to the benign meta-narrative of US history. The carriages included George Washington’s draft of the Constitution, Pennsylvania’s ratification of it, Moon rocks, the handwritten draft of Kennedy’s inauguration, the first American bible and Paul Revere’s saddlebags (Ford, December 5, 1974). Its twenty-one month journey across the forty-eight contiguous states would see it stop at a symbolic seventy-six cities. It was estimated that some eleven million people would visit the carriages, while another fifty million might see it. Walkways carried 2000 people through the carriages an hour; this was whistle-stop history past the exhibits of ‘the precious documents which are the foundation of our liberty’. The ‘frontier’ theme of US exploration and expansion was projected through depictions of the growth of the nation, innovation, profession, sports, arts, conflict and resolution. The experience was intended to move Americans forward through the past. Unity and rediscovery were apposite themes. The Chairman of the General Motors Corporation, R.C. Gerstenberg, one of the four major sponsors of the Bicentennial Train, wrote President Ford: ‘In these trying times when there have been so many divisive pressures in the country, I believe that projects which importantly emphasize the unity, common purposes and heritage of our people are particularly worthy of significant support.’ He argued that the train was especially timely ‘since it is designed to bring to the people of the country significant reminders of the nation’s birth-right, history and future promise’ (Gerstenberg, September 25, 1974). Though supported by the ARBA, White House advisor, Anne Armstrong wrote to Donald Rumsfeld, that while official support was given it had not been made public. Moreover, there would be a chance for Ford to participate later. For now, they did not ‘recommend direct participation by the President at this time’. The fear was that other groups would seek similar endorsement and the Federal presence for a private project ‘might well establish an untenable precedent’ (Armstrong, October 8, 1974).

The American Freedom Train Foundation circular noted, ‘as trains in the American past served to weld this great nation together, so perhaps will this train play a large part in bringing the people together’ (Armstrong, October 8, 1974). President Ford later echoed the intention in December 1974. At the certification ceremonies of the Freedom Train at Alexandria Railway Station, 1976 was not just a birthday; the intention was that it would act as a symbol of rebirth. Ford intoned ‘It will strengthen our resolve to fulfil the promises of our forefathers.’ And ‘I look for the Freedom Train to provide a unifying symbol of the heritage that made America’s great past a great one, and will make its future an even greater one.’ The cargo, Ford stated, ‘represents much of our Nation’s past history and our hope for the future’ (Ford, December 19, 1974). Within the short address the juxtaposition of the past and the future echoed like a refrain to escape the present: ‘… as we take a long look back, let us also take a long look forward. If we do, we will be able to see the problems facing us today in a much clearer perspective’ (Ford, December 19, 1974).

Simultaneously, with a different intention, Walter Cronkite suggested an ‘American Issues Forum’. The initiative set up a nine month schedule of issues that as wide an audience as possible could discuss, reflect and ‘engage together in a serious and thoughtful examination of those issues fundamental to the development and future of American society’. The idea was to create a ‘unifying community of discourse across the whole nation.’ The National Endowment for the Humanities envisaged a cluster of themes and issues that would all be discussed across the country simultaneously. The diversity of voice would find unity in discussion. It was a ‘framework for the exploration of matters of common concern; it is, quite simply, an opportunity for every American to participate in a serious and thoughtful observance of the Bicentennial …’ (National Endowment for the Humanities 1974). The premise of the forum was that the Bicentennial ought to be much more than an opportunity for celebration. It should also facilitate ‘a significant opportunity for all the living heirs of a unique tradition and legacy to examine together what has been done and should be done to keep the legacy alive’ (NEH 1974). The National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association compiled a reading list and set of issues. Open and somewhat liberal in content, the reaction was swift. William Safire in the New York Times experienced no end of angst. He blasted the bibliography, arguing that it represented a bias list that privileged a ‘liberal’ interpretation of US history. In each category he pointed out there were one to two classics; they could not be omitted. There was the obvious ‘sop to conservatives’; the rest, perhaps a half-dozen that pushed the liberal agenda. Safire concluded, the list ‘will be seen by the people who hold the library cards as a national brainwashing.’ He excoriated each section. On foreign policy he sought a ‘fair shake’ but instead got two books to his liking followed by ‘the self-flagellating deluge, from “The Ugly American” to “Pax American,” from “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” to “The Best and the Brightest”,’ down to the ‘final selection in the hair-shirt laundry, “The Crippled Giant”’ (NEH 1974; Safire 1975). He was not alone in his angst. A dissenting article in the National Review, published just before the Bicentennial excoriated the ‘Big Brother’s Reading List.’ It was according to this anonymous writer, ‘anti-business, and New Left revisionist in its attitude toward the cold war and toward America’s role in the world.’ It was ‘fashionably self-lacerating’ on the history of ethnic minorities in the United States. Ultimately the list was ‘relentlessly middlebrow and breast-beating’ (National Review 1976).

If Safire and the New Republic spilt ink on the national ‘self-flagellation’ bibliography, compiled at the expense of the tax payer, President Ford’s strategists and speech writers were careful to avoid such negative themes from the recent past. Instead they drew on the spirit of the benign meta-narrative of US history with the intention of projecting it into the future and claiming its mantle in the unfolding electoral campaign. Ford’s personnel realised that in compiling and writing his speeches for the year and the celebrations they had to address two audiences. First they had to consider the American people of that period. Second they had to consider future audiences that would look back to 1976; just as many commentators in 1976 noted the rancour of 1876. They concluded that this was an opportunity to ‘place the challenges facing us as a Nation in a historical context, comparing the dangers and possibilities of 1776 with those of 1976’. Moreover, the president could make new commitments to the founding values of the nation and to renew the emphasis on peace and ‘wars in behalf of liberty’, US leadership and the dangers of isolationism and disengagement. Ford’s speeches should ‘draw from [America’s] past to chart its future, centred on the recurrent theme of freedom: the heritage, the values, the vitality and the unity of the concept.’ Ford himself indicated a preference for the speeches to be structured around a simple dichotomy: ‘Where have we been?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ (Cannon, October 28, 1975). So the speechwriters in the White House crafted the issues and themes along this convergence through the bifurcation of past and future. Robert Hartmann, drew up the plans for the series to focus on ‘American Achievements; American Tasks.’ Each major speech to be delivered at the symbolic sites also evoked the temporal apposition. Ford would speak from the Air and Space Museum (‘reaching for the unknown’), the National Archives (‘a reverence for the past’), Independence Hall (‘a foundation for liberty’), and Monticello (‘a haven of opportunity’). On each of these occasions particular themes would be addressed but the structure would remain consistent and centred on: Achievement, Challenge, and Course (Hartmann, June 8, 1976).

By the summer of 1976 the references to the future became even more compelling as the echoes of trauma and division remained. Just as Lincoln had identified ‘a new birth of freedom’ arising from the Civil War, in the White House, Jim Reichley recommended the theme to Richard Cheney in a memorandum on Ford’s speeches. Reichley advocated ‘a new dimension of freedom’ though he thought it ‘doesn’t sing’ – ‘too many syllables to be really catchy’ unlike Square Deal, New Freedom, New Deal or the New Frontier. Still they wanted the theme to ‘appeal to the voters’ desire for a society rooted in moral values – without, of course, sounding stodgy or old-fashioned’ (Reichley, September 1, 1976; Lytle 2006, 13).

The problem for the Ford administration was that despite the yearning and the nostalgia associated with the Bicentennial the national narrative could not adhere as closely as he would have wished. The country had not healed after the Vietnam War and there was always the risk that the celebrations would stand in ironic indictment of the recent past. Ford was trying to declare an independence from the division that characterised the United States; yet there was a risk in moving beyond the conflagration too quickly. Of course it was not his fault that 1976 followed 1975. But how the federal government hosted and depicted the bicentennial celebrations of Independence was important. Still, as John Bodner writes, ‘for many Americans the weekend celebration surrounding July 4, 1976, marked an end to a period of social unrest and dissent and a renewal of American consensus and patriotism’ (Bodnar 1992, 227). There was widespread editorialising on commonality and shared identity; that people still had faith and believed in the United States. John Warner, head of the ARBA had hoped for a shared participation throughout the nation. But that set of experiences could only be facilitated by an extensive promotion of local activities throughout the states. He hoped, in Bodnar’s words, ‘… for patriotism as a symbol to mediate official and vernacular concerns in such a way that the former would dominate the latter’ (Bodnar, 227). Indeed, the deployment of the national symbols did occur, though the demographics and the spaces in which they were deployed were significant. Moreover, the original approach had to be altered significantly to accommodate the agendas of a multiplicity of groups and localities. For instance, the journey of the Freedom Train, was preceded by the ‘Preamble Express’ which toured to meet local mayors and city fathers to discuss the train’s arrival. The intention was to make each stop of the actual Freedom Train an opportunity for municipalities to become a focal point for ‘local Bicentennial celebrations’, which in turn was ‘a unique opportunity for each community to link directly to national Bicentennial celebration’ (Ford, December 5, 1974). In many ways, while patriotism still pervaded the celebrations, there were quiet ‘declarations of independence’ or an edging away from the federal government. There was a give and take between the local and the national. Bodnar argues the ‘national themes were distorted to a greater extent in local celebrations by vernacular interests’ (Bodnar 242). Perhaps, without that practice of distancing through re-enactment, and the celebration of the local, the national narratives and rituals might have been exposed to ironic scepticism. Reinhold Niebuhr, writing in 1952, recognised the problem: ‘… the second element of irony lies in the fact that a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security and serene in its infant innocence’ (Niebuhr 1952, 74). Thus the federated mediation of memory, enactment and identity managed to preserve a sense of local pride coupled with a dilution of the national narrative.

The ARBA essentially tried to freeze the meaning and interpretation of the American past, treating the Bicentennial and the American Revolution as a static symbol. Boym observes in her chapter on reflective nostalgia, virtual reality and collective memory, that ‘Restoration (from re-staure – re-establishment) signifies a return to the original stasis, to the prelapsarian moment. The past for the restorative nostalgic is a value for the present; the past is not a duration but a perfect snapshot. Moreover, the past is not supposed to reveal any signs of decay; it has to be freshly painted in its “original image” and remain eternally young.’ Bodnar explains that the ARBA did not seek to celebrate the idea that people could engage in radical politics and seek social and political change. Rather the ARBA produced an a-historical America that deserved support, past, present and future (Bodnar 234). Yet, the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC) advanced a very different interpretation of the event and its meaning. Essentially, led by Jeremy Rifkin, the PBC sought to challenge the powerful institutions, both corporations and government. By this stage, many of the events had been funded by corporate donation. The PBC aspired to celebrate the democratic ideals of their reading of the revolution and independence and complained that ‘in the 1970s the White House and Corporate America are planning to sell us a program of “Plastic Liberty Bells,” red, white, and blue cars, and a “Love It or Leave It Political Program”’ (Bodnar 235). Their complaints moved against the trends identified at the outset of this essay towards enhanced historical tourism and the purchase of ‘hokey’ trinkets and symbols of the past.

The PBC did organise various activities. The feared and anticipated violence was not as wide as some authorities believed. The major alternative march took place in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia. It was soon denigrated in importance. A reporter noticed that only one flag was seen in a drive through several blocks. And that the gathering was populated by ‘Puerto Rican nationalists, blacks, Indians, women’s rights activists, and “various leftist organisations and homosexual groups”’ (Bodnar 236).

Still, despite the retrospective presidential and other national narratives of the 1976 Bicentennial, after the Vietnam War and the discord associated with the Centennial of the Civil War during that period, by 1976 the federal authorities had to accommodate the local and the vernacular to a much greater extent; only through such dilution and compromise could any semblance of a national framework survive (Bodnar 243).


The timing of the Bicentennial threw into curious juxtaposition an American attempt to escape its immediate past through the recreation and re-enactment of its more distant past. The 1976 Bicentennial fell, coincidentally, in the year after the United States withdrew its final troops and personnel from the Vietnam War. Mesmerised by defeat, the nation moved quickly to patch up the past, so that they could reorient themselves to the future. The tension is caught well in W.D. Wetherell’s 1978 novel Souvenirs. One character, a baby-boomer who restores antiques was constantly engaged in patching up the past. Another, who lost a son in Vietnam sought to obliterate the past. Amnesia and ‘new memories’ were effectively juxtaposed. ‘The sixties’ a character in the novel reflects, ‘All the garbage that went with it. I remember I used to watch the news at night and thank God it had nothing to do with me. Then all of a sudden it did. I had a son in the army. I had a boy caught up in all the sordidness and filth.’ [5]

The irony of course was that the US expansionism and intervention, its outward velocity had concurrently given rise to an internal centrifugal force, which found expression during the post-war and Cold War period in the rise of the national security apparatus (Sherry 1995) and the ‘imperial presidency’. These developments, not only eroded democratic rights and distorted the balance of power between the White House and Congress, but also upset the balances between Washington and the states. By 1976 the respect for and the authority of the federal government was at an all-time low. The Vietnam War, Watergate, the domestic division and the CIA scandals coupled with the rising costs of living, the oil shocks and the inflation contributed to a national malaise that questioned the destiny of the United States and its constructed notion of US exceptionalism. Within this context the Bicentennial created both an opportunity and a problem. The opportunity manifested itself through a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence; one that could only be enacted through an elision of the past. Nostalgia, that sense of loss, longing and home, was rife. It lent itself to a discourse that reconstructed an imagined home and posited it as a destination towards which Americans could move in the aftermath of the war that had alienated so many. Of course the federal government had to speak. What else represented the unity of those disparate states and localities? The Ford administration assembled a response that emphasised the achievements of the past and the challenges of the future. The United States would regain its footing on the course. The linear narrative of that construction produced potential contestation. On the one hand the PBC attempted to present alternative interpretations, and on the other there was the decent into the ‘performative’ silence of the immediate years after the Vietnam War. The chastened Bicentennial celebrations at the federal level were offset by the integration and negotiation between the centre and the states and localities. These expressions of patriotism had at once the inclination towards depoliticisation and distance from the centre.

The performative aspects of the anniversary were enacted without overdue politicisation. Still, soon after in 1977 President Jimmy Carter found it necessary to infer a born-again quality to his inaugural proceedings. Later still, President Reagan’s 1984 campaign asserted that it was ‘morning in America.’ Yet, still Reagan left office in 1989, decrying the loss of civic ritual. In his farewell address he included the injunction: ‘we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important … If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics – more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual’ ( Reagan 1989, 417; Kammen 656-661).

President Ford faced the first test on the declaration of independence from History, though he faltered, he was not alone in the quest.


[1] In this article ‘America’ refers to the United States and ‘Americans’ to its inhabitants.back to text

[2] “Cabinet Meeting, April 16, 1975.” NSA Memoranda of Conversations 1973-1977, April 16, 1975 – Cabinet Meeting, Box 11. Grand Rapids: Gerald R. Ford Library. Print.; “Secretary Kissinger’s Remarks to State Legislators, April 25, 1975.” NSA Memoranda of Conversations, 1973-1977, April 25, 1975 – Kissinger, State Legislators, box 11. Grand Rapids: Gerald R. Ford Library. Print.back to text

[3] At the cultural level see for instance a chapter on ‘History as Weapon’ in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 45-72; Theodore Draper, A Present of Things Past: Selected Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), 247-264; more recently, Joanne Meyerowitz (ed.), History and September 11th (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003); at policy level see Richard A Melanson, Reconstructing Consensus: American Foreign Policy since the Vietnam War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); more generally on the struggle over the meaning of the Vietnam wars see Milton J. Bates, The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Richard Morris and Peter Ehrenhaus (eds.), Cultural Legacies of Vietnam: Uses of the Past in the Present (Norwood: Ablex, 1990); Cynthia Weber, Imagining America at War: Morality, Politics, and Film (London: Routledge, 2006); Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); John Hellmann, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); Subarno Chattarji, Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001); Robert J. McMahon, ‘Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society, 1975 – 2001,’ Diplomatic History 26, no. 2 (Spring 2002); G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1995); H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Amherst: University of Massachsetts Press, 2000); David W. Levy, The Debate Over Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Arnold R. Isaacs, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Earl C. Ravenal, Never Again: Learning from America’s Foreign Policy Failures (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978); Charles E. Neu (ed.), After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg (eds.), The Vietnam War and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).back to text

[4] The National Mall was significantly improved in the 1970s. The inner roads were removed and replaced by gravel pedestrian paths. Naval buildings were removed from near the Lincoln Memorial, and landscaped into what became known as Constitution Gardens – and a few years later in the early 1980s, the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The adjustments were less formal than earlier intentions and plans, they were designed for accessibility and hospitality, curved paths and ponds. ‘All this happened in anticipation of the Bicentennial of 1976, which Richard Nixon had hoped to celebrate at the end of his term; Watergate, of course, interfered with his plans’ [Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C. the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 262. See also, Nathan Glazer and Cynthis R. Field (eds.), The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 73; J. Carter Brown, ‘The Mall and the Commission of Fine Arts,’ in Richard Longstreth (ed.), The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991 (New Haven: National Gallery of Art, 2002), 261.back to text

[5] W. D. Wetherell, Souvenirs (New York: Random House, 1978), 119; Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, 656. ‘There was nothing left but a last pile of newspapers from the late 1960’s. She took out a copy from the bottom and bent to sweep the dust onto the outspread front page. In doing so she noticed that it wasn’t as yellow as the older papers she had already worked on. Her eye was caught by a picture below the largest headline. It was of a little girl. She couldn’t have been much over eight or nine. She was naked, screaming, running along a dirt road toward the camera lens, arms flung out to either side as though pinioned on an invisible cross that her pathetically thin ribs just managed to hide. Behind her was a forest, with a tall column of smoke rolling toward the picture’s right-hand side. Between her and the trees were more people, in hazier focus – a woman, some smaller children, the smallest of whom was in the process of falling to the ground. But it was the girl on whom the picture centered. Elaine read the caption, registered the words “napalm,” “mistake” and “village,” but none of these seemed to have anything to do with the terror so evident on the girl’s face. As she looked at it, she realized it wasn’t a picture of a terrified girl at all. It was a picture of pain itself’ (Wetherell, Souvenirs, 192-3).back to text

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