Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Q&A with writer Marc Leepson

Marc Leepson's books cover topics ranging from the Civil War to the American flag to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. He is arts editor of the VVA Veteran, and served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the war.

Q: You have written about the Civil War in your book Desperate Engagement, and you served in the Vietnam War and have written about that war as well. How would you compare the two divisive conflicts in terms of their lasting impact on the United States?

A: The Civil War was the crucible of American history. At least 660,000 Americans were killed, fighting one another on American soil. The South was devastated physically. Slavery ended, but only after the nation was nearly torn apart. The impact of that still is being felt, primarily in the South. The issue of states’ rights still is in the forefront of the national political picture in 2012. As are race relations.

The Vietnam War also continues to have a strong impact. Today’s all-volunteer force, for one thing, is a direct result of the inequities of the draft during the Vietnam War. That war also continues to resonate among the huge Baby Boom generation (also known as the Vietnam War generation), which was extremely divided then over the war. Although tensions have cooled considerably, the divisiveness engendered over that war is not far below the surface.

And, as your book Haunting Legacy points out, the Vietnam War continues today to have an impact on national politics, especially at the presidential level.

Q: In your biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General), you write about his experiences serving with George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Given the very different time periods two centuries apart, what is your impression of the military leadership of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, compared with the U.S. military leadership in the Vietnam conflict?

A: The biggest difference that stands out is the leadership at the top. George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army was primarily responsible for the victory over enormous odds. Although by no means perfect, Washington turned out to be a brilliant, courageous leader who led his men on the ground and was often very good at tactics and strategy. William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam for much of the war, was a dismal failure in all of those areas.
Of course, there were other good military leaders during the American Revolution; Washington didn’t win it alone. But his leadership proved crucial.

As for the Vietnam War, there were excellent generals and other great military leaders. Gens. Creighton Abrams, Fred Weyand, Victor Krulak, and Lew Walt and Col. (later Gen.) Hal Moore come to mind. But their courage and leadership abilities couldn’t overcome the weaknesses at the very top.

Q: Another of your books is about the American flag (Flag: An American Biography). How did the flag's image change, or remain the same, during the Vietnam period?

A: The Vietnam War was unique in American history with respect to the American flag. Unlike all of the other wars fought by the United States in which flying the American flag symbolized commitment to the war effort, the flag’s role during the Vietnam War was vastly different. By the end of the 1960s what has been called “a cultural war” using the flag as its primary symbol had broken out in the nation, a cultural war caused by the bitter antagonism in this country over the war.

Vietnam War hawks displayed the flag as the primary emblem of their support for the war, as well as their anti-communism and their disdain for those who spoke out against the war. That was expressed in flag-accented phrases such as “Love it or leave it” and “My country right or wrong.” Doves flew the flag as well, but the message they conveyed was not support for the war.

To the contrary, doves displayed the flag upside down as a sign of distress; they created posters with the stars arrayed in the peace sign and other forms of protest; they wore American flag shirts and bandannas; they flew the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag. The most radical elements of the antiwar movement defiantly displayed the Viet Cong flag. And some antiwar protesters burned the Stars and Stripes to protest the American war in Vietnam.

Q: How were you treated as a veteran returning from Vietnam, and how does that compare with the treatments of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

A: No one spat at me or called me a baby killer when I came home from Vietnam in December of 1968. But they didn’t have to; the feeling was in the air that Vietnam veterans were not welcome in their own country.

It wasn’t just from the antiwar crowd, which blamed us for taking part in the war. It also came from many of those who supported the war, who blamed us for not winning. It’s a shameful thing to think that so many Americans turned their backs on Vietnam veterans, but it happened and today many Vietnam veterans are still bitter about it. That’s the reason why Vietnam veterans often still greet each other by saying, “Welcome home.”
I guess the only good thing that came out of this has been the fact that Americans woke up to the situation in the early 1980s following the release of the hostages in Iran and the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and they began to stop blaming the warrior for the war. That set in motion the almost universal support by Americans, regardless of how they feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the veterans returning home from those conflicts.

Q: Do you have a favorite time period to research, and if so, why?

A: If I had to choose, I’d say the last third of the 19th century in this country because there is a wealth of primary source material available and because the country grew so rapidly in so many ways after the Civil War.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am working on a proposal for my next book, but the topic is a state secret because book proposals are so iffy these days. It’s more U.S. history, in the nature of a biography of a 19th century figure whose name you know.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. A version of this interview previously appeared on www.hauntinglegacy.com.

Marc Leepson


  1. Thanks for posting this, Deborah.

    Since we did the interview, I did get a contract for my next book. It's a biography of Francis Scott Key, and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan (which did the Lafayette book)on July 4, 2014, the 200th anniversary year of the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

  2. That's great, Marc--congratulations! It's a wonderful topic!