In the beginning was Viet Nam, the alpha and omega of an increasingly tangled American psyche. Thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland, the nation's optimism and self-image were bogging down. By January 1968, nearly 16,000 Americans had died in Viet Nam; more than 100,000 had been wounded. The number of U.S. troops in that remote, frustrating country hit 500,000 in February. At home, the strain of the war effort was rubbing harder against the certainties of Pentagon planners, as Americans watched nightly televised images of young men engaged in search-and-destroy missions with a stubbornly invisible enemy. Nonetheless, official American confidence...

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