Did Captain America Really Sleep Through Vietnam?

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The new movie glosses over a controversial period of American history

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Marvel Entertainment

In the opening scenes of Captain America: The First Avenger, the hero is discovered in present day after being frozen in ice since World War II. He slept right through Vietnam. But in the original comics, his awakening came much earlier.

The movie plot focuses on Cap's early years during World War II. Steve Rogers is a student from Brooklyn—a borough bracing itself for an invasion of Nazis, when it should probably worry more about the coming invasion of hipsters. After Rogers is turned away from military service because of his puny physique, he joins an experimental program involving "Super Soldier Serum" and "Vita-Rays," which transforms him into the hero Captain America.

World War II allows for the classic Cap of good against evil. Not only does he battle the Nazis, he also faces an even more threatening force, Red Skull, a one-man Axis of Evil. Malevolent villains worse than Nazis? I hate these guys.

But something is missing. What about the Captain America of the Vietnam era? The director Joe Johnston said: "The stuff in the '60s and '70s we're sort of avoiding. We're going back to the '40s, and then forward to what they're doing with Captain America now." But it turns out that the Vietnam era is the most intriguing chapter in Cap's storied career, and perhaps the most relevant to today's world.

In the comic books, just like in the movie, Captain America returns to action after decades frozen in ice in the North Atlantic. But in the comics, his comeback is not in 2011—it's in 1964. Emerging into a world of civil rights marches, a quagmire in South East Asia, and, soon, Watergate, Cap struggles to adapt to a very different time. The old certainties of World War II are gone, replaced by division and distrust. Cap becomes more self-conscious, more socially aware—all the while wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hero barely makes an appearance in Vietnam. On one of his rare trips, he rescues an African-American pilot being held captive by a Vietcong general—who also doubles as a giant sumo wrestler. Cap felt that the Vietnam War should end with a peace settlement, not a crushing victory.

Captain America also confronts his own Watergate-style conspiracy, in the form of a shadowy right-wing organization called CRAP (Committee to Regain America's Principles), modeled on the real-life CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President). It turns out that the leader of CRAP is Richard Nixon himself.

The U.S. government is no longer the good guy. As the hero puts it: "I've spent a lifetime defending the flag and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more!"

The hero even abandons his Captain America persona in favor of a new identity: Nomad. When he finally grasps the shield again, Cap decides he will fight for American ideals, and not for the administration in Washington. "I'm loyal to nothing ... except the [American] Dream."

Given the parallels to today, why miss out the Cap of Vietnam? The movie is meant to be upbeat, more Raiders of the Lost Ark than The Dark Knight. Dwelling on Vietnam would be too gloomy. In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, we don't want to consider dark analogies. We want to be distracted by nostalgia for a simpler time.

For escapism, go with the Cap of World War II. For insight into today's world, go with the Cap of Vietnam.


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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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