American Decline

America’s Vanishing Kingdom

Ms. Tu, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, moved from South Vietnam to Connecticut as a child not long after the fall of Saigon.

My dad’s American dream was made of aluminum. Not that he would have put it that way. He did not talk much, and never about his dreams, but most days for nearly 25 years he headed off to a factory and turned aluminum and other metals into parts and a paycheck. He started at the Torrington Company, once one of the largest producers of metal bearings in North America and the biggest employer in Torrington, Conn., where we somehow found ourselves in 1980. Half a decade had passed since the fall of Saigon. My dad had been in and out of a re-education camp; we had been in and out of refugee camps. After we did stints in Thailand and Hong Kong, someone, somewhere sent us to Torrington. My father died there three decades later, having spent the rest of his life making industrial and military supplies in America’s gun belt.

Aluminum is a “magic metal.” It’s so light and strong that without it, “no fighting is possible, and no war can be carried to a successful conclusion,” proclaimed a 1951 pamphlet. Practically made for war, aluminum lets jets soar, makes tanks lighter, keeps canteens from rusting. During the First and Second World Wars, about 90 percent of U.S. aluminum production went into military uses.

My father spent years working this famously malleable metal. He knew it well — its remarkable versatility, its shine, its feel. I wonder if he also knew that it was a main ingredient in “daisy cutter” bombs — once described as the world’s largest nonnuclear weapon — which were dropped near my mother’s home in central Vietnam to clear out the trees surrounding her commune. The blast of these bombs would leave circles of razed land all over the country, like ghostly flowers from the air. First used in Vietnam, daisy cutters would reappear years later, eviscerating bodies and landscapes in Afghanistan.

America spent the second half of the 20th century more or less continuously ramping up its production of war technologies, expanding its military-industrial ecosystem. The Korean War was a major leap forward, bringing along with it advances in nuclear weapons, but it was the Vietnam War that changed everything. As the economic historian Adam Tooze tells it, we inherited from that conflict not just new weapons, but also more sophisticated doctrines of warfare, and better coordination of air and land forces. We also got a professionalized army and an abiding faith in the necessity of military spending. Since the defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has become nearly impossible to reduce military budgets without stoking outrage over factory closures and international threats.


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