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How Will We Remember the Pandemic Era? - Brownstone Institute

How Will We Remember the Pandemic Era?


As we reach the four-year anniversary of Covid, it is difficult not to wonder what the legacy of that period will ultimately be. How will it be remembered by future generations? How will it be taught in schools? How will the people who lived through it talk about their experiences with their children or nieces or nephews? 

Will Covid be largely forgotten like the second Iraq War? Will the threat of future pandemics be used to justify constitutionally questionable restrictions on the rights of Americans like the threat of terrorist attacks following 9/11? 

Will primary and secondary school students learn some sanitized version in their history classes that presents Pandemic Era restrictions as the only way out of the pandemic like the New Deal was the only way out of the Great Depression? 

Or will their lessons be so plagued by elisions that general knowledge of US Covid history will rival knowledge of World War I where everyone just has some vague sense that America did the right thing because Covid was bad just as the Germans were bad?

My answer to this is unfortunately yes to all of the above, although with the caveat that no analogy between historical events is perfect.

With that being stated, the historical analogy I have found myself turning to over the past four years is that of the Vietnam War.

Part of the reason for this is likely the obvious points of comparison. As described in 1968 by James C. Thompson, an East Asia specialist who worked for both the State Department and the White House, Vietnam was a paragon of what happens when out-of-touch bureaucrats commit to baseless, failing, but fashionable policies at all costs.

By Thomson’s account, the prevailing thought in Washington from 1961-1966 was that China was on the march, all communist states operated as a cohesive monolith, and if Vietnam went communist, the rest of Asia would follow. Real experts who could have challenged these ideas had been banished from circles of meaningful influence. 

Dissenters and doubters who remained kept quiet, potentially as a means to present a challenge at a later date when the stakes were higher – or perhaps to simply remain viable for future promotions. After a certain point though, no one knew what kind of war they were in, who the enemy was, or what the goals were. However, after a certain point, none of this mattered as the more important campaigns were the PR efforts at home to convince Americans that the fall of Vietnam would herald the end of the American experiment. 

Although no historical analogy is perfect, and there are certain finer points of comparison that could be debated, as well as others where the two periods undoubtedly diverge, something about both Vietnam and Covid just feels like different depictions of the same themes. 

Then again, at least for me, Vietnam also likely comes to mind due to personal and familial reasons. Despite having been born well after the conflict ended, for children of the 1990s and 2000s, the shadow of Vietnam had yet to lift. The tensions of the era still permeated American culture.

The most obvious example of this could be seen in the buildup to the second Iraq War and the years that followed as politicians and talking heads regularly compared the conflicts as unwinnable foreign quagmires with dubious justifications.

However, even before that period, the specter of Vietnam could still be felt as part of daily life. Songs like “Fortunate Son,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “For What It’s Worth,” the last of which probably wasn’t about Vietnam but had become widely associated with it anyway, could be heard on your parents’ oldies stations, as well as in countless commercials, TV shows, and movies. Most boys by the time they reached a certain age became enthralled with some combination of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. Shows like The Simpsons and South Park contained secondary and tertiary characters that had served and sometimes hippies and radicals who had not.

More notably though, many kids of the 1990s and 2000s had family members for whom Vietnam was more than a soundtrack and a triple feature. In my own family, it was my mother who talked most about the war, passing down bits of family lore pertaining to how two of her three brothers had come to find themselves in Southeast Asia and the impact that had on those they left behind.

As my mother told it, my eldest uncle served in the National Guard as he was too asthmatic and probably too old for military service by the time combat troops were actually being sent. My second eldest uncle was drafted. My youngest uncle volunteered upon being promised by a recruiter that his older brother would be released from duty on account of a fictive policy that the military would not require multiple sons from the same family to serve. My family was left feeling betrayed when both my uncles were sent anyway. My grandmother was left devastated, living every day with the expectation that that would be the day she would receive the letter informing her one of her sons had been lost.

Whether every part of the story is entirely true, I can’t say for certain. Although both of my uncles who served in Vietnam did return home, they never spoke about the war and there was only one time I ever dared discuss it with either. But, hearing what had become something of a family fable time and time again as a child, my takeaway was the US government was the bad guy in the story and was not to be trusted or even obeyed in certain situations. Yet, early on, I also learned others in my family did not share my interpretation.

Once when very young, following a retelling of the story while riding in a car with my mother and grandmother, I promised both I would never fight in a war, even if drafted. The risk of death, the loss of autonomy, and the family anguish would be too much. Consequently, I quickly was reprimanded by both for even thinking something so shameful and dishonorable. Apparently the full lesson of the story was even if you can’t trust the government, you still must obey the government, and probably shouldn’t second-guess the government either.

By and large, this probably was not that far off from the lesson of Vietnam with which most of those who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s were inculcated, at least up until the United States was being led into an analogous conflict with Iraq. There was something faintly unsavory about Vietnam, but it was still necessary, and, even if it wasn’t, there was something distasteful about taking off for Canada.

Translate this to 2045 terms concerning Covid and you might get something along similar lines. There was something faintly unsavory about US Covid policy, but it was still necessary, and, even if it wasn’t, there was something distasteful about not masking when told and refusing to get one’s first two jabs and booster. 

As for the one time I dared speak to one of my uncles about Vietnam, I remember being several years out of college and at his home for dinner with a few other family members. Although I don’t recall how it came up, I do remember commenting cautiously that the Vietnam War was perhaps misguided or unnecessary. Maybe in some attempt to show him I was informed about the war and convey I thought it was unfortunate he ever had to go, I went on to reference how the conflict resulted from five or six presidencies of bad policy that entailed Truman supporting France’s failing colonial efforts, Eisenhower sabotaging the Geneva Accords and Vietnamese elections to support what was then a non-existent state, Johnson escalating military commitment to avoid embarrassment, Nixon doing the same, and Kissinger maybe sabotaging a peace deal. 

Realistically, I may not have hit every point as clearly or articulately as I would have liked at the time, but I think I made my thoughts on Vietnam clear. Subsequently, my uncle, in turn, made it clear he felt my thoughts on Vietnam were those of an ill-informed moron. America was in Vietnam because we were helping the South Vietnamese fight the Communists. How could I not have known that?

By the 2010s, I sort of assumed everyone kind of knew that American politicians and bureaucrats had behaved in a disreputable manner during Vietnam and had been dishonest with the American people, even if perhaps it was still considered impolite to acknowledge this in some circles. Apparently I was wrong. Dominant narratives surrounding major historical events are slow to die assuming they ever do. Plus, maybe the US was more successful with its domestic PR efforts than its military efforts overseas. As late as spring 2001, even the likes of Bill Maher and Gene Simmons still were defending the US’ involvement in Vietnam against contrarians like Christopher Hitchens.

Jump ahead a couple decades from the present and it seems almost certain that there will be no shortage of people reluctant to accept that organizations like the CDC behaved in a disreputable and dishonest manner. Moreover, it does not seem difficult to imagine mothers reprimanding sons for vowing disobedience in future pandemics, while older relatives shake their heads in disbelief at how young contrarians somehow don’t understand the reason we locked down and masked up was to do our part and help flatten the curve.

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  • Daniel Nuccio

    Daniel Nuccio holds master's degrees in both psychology and biology. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in biology at Northern Illinois University studying host-microbe relationships. He is also a regular contributor to The College Fix where he writes about COVID, mental health, and other topics.

    View all posts

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