"Born in the USA" - the Back Story
"Born in the USA" is a 1984 song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. Taken from the album of the same name, it is one of his best-known singles. Rolling Stone Magazine included it in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America placed the song as 59th (out of 365) of the Songs of the Century. The song was initially written as the title song for a film by Paul Schrader to be titled "Born in the USA", but the film wasn't released until 1987, and the title was changed to Light of Day
Lyrically, the song deals with the effects of the Vietnam War on Americans, although it is misinterpreted by some as purely patriotic. In part the song is a tribute to Springsteen's friends who had experienced the Vietnam War, some of whom did not come back; it also portrays the futility of the war, and protests the hardships and alienation that Vietnam veterans faced when they returned home. The song's narrative traces the protagonist's working-class origins, induction into the military, and disaffected return back to the US. There is a side story, describing the fate of the protagonist's "brother" (in some recordings or live shows, the word brother is replaced with "buddy") at the Battle of Khe Sanh, which became one of the media symbols of the futility of the whole war effort for the United States. Although the song at first sounds lively and patriotic, careful listening will reveal it to be laden with irony and cynicism.
In late August 1984, the Born in the U.S.A. album was selling very well, its songs were all over the radio, and the associated concert tour was drawing considerable press. Springsteen's shows at the Capital Centre outside of Washington, D.C. thus attracted even more media attention, in particular from CBS Evening News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who saw
Springsteen as a modern-day Horatio Alger story. Yet more notably, the widely- read conservative columnist George Will, after attending a show, published on September 13, 1984 a piece entitled "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen" in which he praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American patriotic values. He wrote: "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'I was Born in the U.S.A.!'"
The 1984 presidential campaign was in full swing at the time, and Will had connections to President Ronald Reagan's re-election organization. Will thought that Springsteen might endorse Reagan, and got the notion pushed up to high-level Reagan advisor Michael Deaver's office. Those staffers made inquiries to Springsteen's management which were politely rebuffed.
Nevertheless, on September 19, 1984, at a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, Reagan added the following to his usual stump speech:
"America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."
Beyond the 1984 presidential campaign, it seems that "Born in the U.S.A." was widely misinterpreted as purely nationalistic by those who heard the anthem-like chorus but did not listen carefully to the bitter verses. But many others, on the other hand, especially among Springsteen's fans, found it humorously ironic that such a critical song should be embraced by the very type of people it was criticizing.
Time-line of US Involvement in the Vietnam War
1858 through 1887 - France conquers and colonizes Vietnam (Cochin China, Annam, Tonkin), along with Cambodia and Laos, as the colony of French Indochina.
1930 - Ho Chi Minh helps found the Indochinese Communist Party.
1940 - Japan invades Vietnam; the French flee.
1941 - Ho Chi Minh establishes the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam).
1945 - Japan surrenders; the French return; Ho Chi Minh declares an independent Vietnam, called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and calls for the French to leave.
1945 - First US protests against involvement in Vietnam, against aiding the French army.
1946 – Breakdown of negotiations between the French and Viet Minh; the war of resistance against France begins.
1950 - The Viet Minh receive military advisors and weapons from China; US aid and military advisors arrive to help the French
May 7, 1954 - The French suffer a decisive defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
1954 - The Geneva Accords creates a cease-fire; the French withdraw from Vietnam; North and South Vietnam are divided at the 17th parallel.
1955 - South Vietnam declares itself the Republic of Vietnam.
1957 - Beginning of communist insurgency in the South.
1960 - The National Liberation Front (NLF), or Viet Cong, is established in South Vietnam.
1961 – US military aid and advisors are sent to South Vietnam
1963 - South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem is executed during a coup; the first coordinated Vietnam War protests in the US.
1964 – "Gulf of Tonkin Incident"; US aerial bombing of North Vietnam begins; large anti-war protests spread across the US.
1965 - The first US combat troops arrive in Vietnam.
January 21 – July 9, 1968 - The Battle of Khe Sanh
January 30, 1968 - The North Vietnamese join forces with the Viet Cong launch the "Tet Offensive", attacking approximately one hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns.
1968 – The number of US troops in Vietnam reaches 540,000.
1969 - President Nixon begins to withdraw US ground troops from Vietnam
November 15, 1969 - Peace demonstration of approximately 250,000 in Washington DC, the largest anti-war protest in US history
1970 - US troops attack enemy locations in Cambodia; widespread protests in the US, especially on college campuses, Kent State University shootings (4 killed, 9 wounded).
1971 - US forces attack enemy locations in Laos; increasing protests across the US.
1973 - The Paris Peace Accords provide a cease-fire; last US troops withdraw from Vietnam; military conscription (the draft) ends in the US.
1975 - North Vietnam launches a massive assault; the US evacuates Embassy in Saigon; South Vietnam surrenders.
1976 - Vietnam is officially unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City.