The title of Joseph Darda’s new book, How White Men Won the Culture Wars, may land awkwardly for weary followers of recursive debates over cancel culture, wokeness, and the like. The loudest and most visible partisans in these battles are aggrieved white men, insisting that they’re scapegoats in unhinged identity-driven witch hunts and eagerly putting themselves forward as martyrs in ugly confrontations over free speech. How is it, then, that this demographic emerged as the victors of the modern American culture wars and managed to leverage that success into ongoing, ever-renewable plaints of grievance?
The answer, Darda argues in this original and persuasive revisionist study, lies in the overlap between the post-1960s culture wars and the legacy of an actual war: the American debacle in Vietnam. The United States withdrew in defeat from Vietnam in 1975—a fraught moment as well for the American political economy, coinciding with the landmark civil rights and feminist uprisings that convulsed the country as many American soldiers served overseas. Returning Vietnam vets mimicked the rhetoric and strategies of the era’s homegrown protest movements while developing a powerful narrative of abandonment and trauma to convey their own sense of disaffection. And in spite of the heavily nonwhite and working-class makeup of the conscript army in Vietnam, the dominant image of the Vietnam vet became a white, middle-class one.
This curious work of cultural alchemy came about thanks to the convergence of several other post–civil rights reckonings in 1970s America. As white Vietnam vets struggled with the challenges of adapting to an American social order transformed by the politics of anti-discrimination and cultural representation, they were not simply echoing the well-worn refrains of white reaction. Rather, as Darda shows in this wide-ranging and provocative tour through the post-Vietnam cultural and political scene, they fashioned their own new brand of therapeutically inflected grievance politics, poised to capitalize in a host of ways on America’s emerging postliberal backlash.
Conditions were ripe for returning Vietnam vets to engineer this dramatic change in status. The so-called white ethnic revival announced a defection from the old model of WASP ascendancy, and the assertion of new cultural status on behalf of a cohort of twentieth-century immigrants—Polish, Italian, Greek, and Slovak Americans (or PIGS, in the provocative coinage of white ethnic theorist and eventual neoconservative theologian Michael Novak)—who bore limited culpability for the original sin of Black slavery. This reconfigured model of the white immigrant experience “turned white people into minorities, innocent and self-made,” Darda writes, while the culture-first logic of the white ethnic revival permitted these reborn white Americans “to attribute the material barriers that Black and brown Americans faced in education, health services, housing, law enforcement, and wealth accumulation to culture and choice.”