English 321 – American Masterpieces

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Born on the Fourth of July – Discussion Questions


  1. Some scholars argue that Born on the Fourth of July subverts fundamental American values and myths.  What values and myths does Ron Kovic subscribe to before his experience in Vietnam?  How are those values and myths redefined?
  2. As the title implies, Born on the Fourth of July is the story of a man’s birth.  It is a bildungsroman “education novel” that describes one person’s maturation from a boy to a man.  Trace Ron Kovic’s passage.  What events signify the stages of his development?  What does he learn from the journey?  In what ways can his rite of passage be read as an allegory?
  3. Discuss how Born on the Fourth of July supports the “monomyth” of the Western Cowboy and the Western Frontier?
  4. In many ways this narrative is a story about the importance of communities in our lives.  List the communities that Ron Kovic participates in in the course of the narrative.  Define each community.  How does the community function?  What happens to the community?  Is the community ever in conflict with the individual?  What values does the community emphasize?  What does Kovic gain or lose from each community?
  5. List the “father figures” in this story.  How is Born on the Fourth of July a testament of the father/son relationship?  In your examination of the father/son relationship, consider as well Kovic’s description of his mother and other women in the narrative.  How are paternal and maternal images handled in Kovic’s story?
  6. Obviously Kovic is psychologically devastated by his physical wound.  He is outraged by his physical emasculation.  But how is the physical wound a symbol of other wounds—psychological, political, spiritual—of not only Kovic, but others?  Is the book a book about the death of an ideal, of a country, a generation?
  7. America has sometimes been described as a righteous country that abhors violence—yet it used napalm against the people of Vietnam.  You may rightfully consider much of this book to be obscene and personally offensive.  But look carefully at what repulses you.  Why is it obscene?  How does Kovic use this obscenity to develop the themes in the narrative, as well as develop the tone?  Is he merely trying to shock the reader to sell books?  Can you defend this “literature,” which is full of violence and profanity, as an edifying text?
  8. “One part of me was upset that people were swimming naked in the national monument and the other part of me completely understood that now it was their pool, and what good is a pool if you can’t swim in it…I couldn’t understand why this was happening, why the police would attack the people, running them into the grass with their horses and beating them with their clubs.”


Explain to Kovic what is the reason to have pools you can’t swim in.  Exlain why the police were beating the protestors.


  1. “We have lain all night in the rain in ambush together.  We have burned anthills with kerosene and stalked through Sally’s Woods with plastic machine guns, shooting people out of trees.  We have been a generation of violence and madness, of dead Indians and drunken cowboys, of iron pipes full of matchheads.”


The rate of violent crime in America is higher than in any other industrialized country.  The number of children killed by firearms between 1979 and 1991 equals the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.  What statement if any does Kovic make about American violence in Born on the Fourth of July?  How do you account for the tremendous violence in our nation?  Is this a part of our “Western” heritage?  Or is this too a myth?


  1. Some scholars will say that one purpose of literature is to criticize society.  Assuming this is true, what criticisms does Kovic make of American institutions in Born on the Fourth of July?
  2. What knowledge or understanding do you have of the Vietnam War from your previous study or from personal experience?  How does this knowledge or understanding compare to Kovic’s description of the war?  In what way is Kovic’s an autobiography?  In what way is it a political statement?


Quiz on Vietnam


  1. During the Vietnam War, what was the capital of North Vietnam?  Hanoi
  2. During the Vietnam War, what was the capital of South Vietnam?  Saigon
  3. Which American President first committed several hundred military advisors to South Vietnam? Dwight D. Eisenhower.  However, Harry S. Truman gave financial and military aid to the French in their war against the Vietnamese.
  4. What was the Domino Theory?
  5. What was the difference between the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese?
  6. In what year was the first American soldier killed in Vietnam?   One
  7. In what year were the first American ground troops (not classified as advisors) sent to Vietnam?  1965.  This was also the first year that the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam
  8. Who was the general of the North Vietnamese Army?  Giap
  9. Who was one of the generals of the American forces?  William Westmoreland
  10. Who was president of South Vietnam when it fell to North Vietnam?  Thieu, April 21, 1975
  11. Who was President of the United States when South Vietnam fell?  Gerald Ford
  12. What was the Tet Offensive?
  13. Name the Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Robert McNamara
  14. Name the two men who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace in Vietnam?  Which of the two men refused to accept his prize?  Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger.  Le Duc Tho
  15. Approximately how many American men and women served in Vietnam?  2.7 million
  16. Approximately how many American men and women were killed in Vietnam?  58,000
  17. What percentage of the Vietnamese population was killed in the Vietnam War?  10 percent of four million inhabitants
  18. How much money did the United States spend on the War in Vietnam?  $150 billion
  19. What year did the last American soldiers leave Vietnam?  April 30, 1975
  20. Who designed the Vietnam War Memorial?