Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. Has A Hidden Meaning – But It Wasn’t A Hit With Ronald Reagan

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” about the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran, is arguably his most famous song. He released it in 1984, and though that was over a decade after the war ended, the scars of it were very much still there. Maybe that was why so many people – including President Ronald Reagan – took the song to mean something that it didn’t.

It’s easy to see why “Born in the U.S.A.” became such a massive hit. When Springsteen shouts out the line, “I was born in the U.S.A.!” it sounds proud and triumphant. You can put the song over any footage and give it an upbeat vibe. Audiences at Springsteen concerts went completely wild for it.

The tune could have been a feature song for a movie, if things had gone differently. Originally the plan was for Springsteen to write a song for a Paul Schrader movie then titled Born in the U.S.A. But by the time Schrader actually got around to making the film, the song “Born in the U.S.A.” had taken on a life of its own.

It was also the title of Springsteen’s album, so having it be a movie title as well might have gotten confusing. So, Springsteen instead wrote Schrader “Light of Day” for his movie, which also became the title of the film. And he also made sure to thank the director in the notes for the album – without him, the smash hit might not have happened.

But to really understand the history of “Born in the U.S.A.” you have to consider what was happening in America during the ’80s. The decade prior had disillusioned many people. American citizens had been promised prosperity, but what the ’70s actually brought was the Watergate scandal, war in Vietnam and economic problems.

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Many Americans began moving to the right politically, which is one of the reasons why President Ronald Reagan gained so much support. Another reason was the career he had prior to becoming a politician. He had been an actor. And with the entertainment industry booming, many people seemingly liked the idea of an actor in the White House.

But America was still haunted by what had happened in Vietnam. Many soldiers who’d returned from the war unsurprisingly suffered from PTSD. In 1972 The New York Times newspaper ran the headline “Postwar Shock Is Found to Beset Veterans Returning from the War in Vietnam.” It was a problem that needed intervention.

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Unfortunately, there wasn’t much intervention to be had. There was little in the way of real help available for Vietnam veterans. Some got cancer as a result of the chemical weapons used in the war, such as Agent Orange. Some were left penniless and homeless. And tragically, plenty of veterans took their own lives.

This would all have been very much on Springsteen’s mind when he wrote “Born in the U.S.A.” However, he himself had not served in Vietnam. He had, in fact, specifically gone out of his way to avoid it, as many others had done. After all, there was a very real chance that if you were sent away to fight, you wouldn’t come back.

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Springsteen knew the toll that the Vietnam war took on the people around him. Towards the end of the ’70s the young man picked up a copy of the book Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic. It was Kovic’s story of going to Vietnam as a patriot and returning in a wheelchair.

The anger and power of the book blew Springsteen away. And then by sheer coincidence the musician happened to run into Kovic, who had become an anti-war activist. The two men became friends and Kovic introduced Springsteen to other Vietnam vets. This had a profound effect on the young musician.

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Many years later in July 2019, Springsteen actually wrote a foreword to a new edition of Born on the Fourth of July. He talked about how the book was “one of the most powerful I’d ever read.” He concluded, “Ron’s book, his passion, and his friendship have stayed with me to this day. Here’s Born on the Fourth of July. Read it and rejoice. Read it and weep.”

And Springsteen also knew somebody who had died in Vietnam. This was Walter Cichon, the frontman of a band called The Motifs. He was sent to war at the age of 21 and was declared MIA in March 1968. His body was never recovered, and thus his family never knew the exact circumstances of his death.

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This was, of course, a traumatic experience for Springsteen. But then matters got even worse. One year after Cichon’s death, he and his friends received their draft notices. All three of them went to the Selective Service office knowing well what awaited them in Vietnam. They were desperate not to go.

But there were things people could do to ensure that they weren’t sent to war. Anyone with a medical condition couldn’t be drafted, and gay men weren’t allowed in the army, either. These were the routes Springsteen took. He told the military officials that he was gay, and he falsely claimed to have taken LSD.

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However, Springsteen didn’t actually need to do this. Little did he know, you see, he was already ineligible. He had been in a serious motorbike crash back in 1967, leaving him with a broken leg and a concussion. Though he’d healed, this was enough to disqualify him from being sent to Vietnam.

Many years after these events, Springsteen spoke about them at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. Chatting to actor Tom Hanks at New York’s Beacon Theater, he remembered, “I had some friends, very close friends of mine… guys who came home in wheelchairs and, then, I didn’t go. I was a stone-cold draft dodger.”

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Springsteen recollected that he’d told the official at the Selective Service office, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand what you are saying because I am high on LSD.” And he went on to the audience, “So, perhaps, I felt guilty about that later on. I had friends who went. I had friends who went and died. I had friends later on who were seriously hurt.”

Then, Springsteen spoke about how those experiences helped him write “Born in the U.S.A.” He said, “If you were going to write about who we are at this this particular moment, if you were going to write about your place, if you were going to try to seize your little moment in history, which were all things I wanted to deliver to my audience, [the Vietnam war] was something that needed to be reckoned with.”

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So, “Born in the U.S.A.” sounds like it’s a patriotic anthem… but the actual lyrics of the song are condemning the American government and the Vietnam war. The first verse goes, “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up.”

In the second verse of the song Springsteen sings, “Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man.” Though this probably sounds offensive to modern ears, Springsteen intended it to be a jab against the anti-Asian racism of the era.

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The next two verses of the song are about the Vietnam vet attempting to get a job. He can’t do this, and he then remembers the people that he’s lost in the war. He recollects, “I had a brother at Khe Sanh / Fighting off the Viet Cong / They’re still there, he’s all gone / He had a woman he loved in Saigon / I got a picture of him in her arms now.”

Throughout all this, the song keeps its upbeat sound. But nothing about the story being told is in any way hopeful. The last verse goes, “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery / I’m ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.” Being “Born in the U.S.A.” isn’t a plus for Springsteen’s narrator, it seems. It’s a negative.

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Yet a lot of people didn’t read the song as being anything other than patriotic. Among them was none other than President Reagan. Originally, one of his advisors outright asked Springsteen if the Reagan campaign could use “Born in the U.S.A.” and Springsteen refused. Reagan didn’t actually play it in the end, but he did reference it.

In a 1984 campaign speech Reagan declared, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man 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.”

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Springsteen, who had no politics in common with Reagan at all, was not impressed. Just days after the President’s speech, the musician played a concert in Pittsburgh and said, “The President was mentioning my name the other day and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been… I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then played “Johnny 99,” about a man who loses his job and turns to crime.

And that wasn’t all Springsteen had to say, either – not by a long shot. In December of that year the musician told Rolling Stone magazine, “When Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation. And I had to disassociate myself from the President’s kind words.”

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Even many years after the fact, Springsteen expressed displeasure at what Reagan had done. In 2005 he told National Public Radio, “This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American. And if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic.”

However, had Springsteen released his original version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” perhaps President Reagan would have been left in no doubt as to its meaning. The first draft of the song was called simply “Vietnam.” This was before Paul Schrader and his new movie title came into the picture.

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The original song had even darker lyrics. Springsteen wrote about bombs “falling like rain” in Cambodia and pollution covering the American town the narrator returned to. A lot of Springsteen’s anger was reserved for President Nixon, however. In the song the musician suggests someone should have “cut off his balls.”

That wasn’t all. The original version features the dark refrain of “You died in Vietnam, you died in Vietnam / Now don’t you understand, you died in Vietnam.” At another point the narrator goes to visit his girlfriend only to be told she ran away “with a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band.” Some have suggested Springsteen is referencing himself and his avoidance of the war in that line.

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After the Reagan incident, Springsteen determined that no politician would misappropriate “Born in the U.S.A.” ever again if he could help it. Later, though, Republican Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1996 – and he used the song. So, Springsteen quickly penned a letter to New Jersey newspaper The Press.

Springsteen wrote in the letter, “I read in The Press this morning that my music was appropriated for the Republican rally for Bob Dole in Red Bank yesterday. Just for the record, I’d like to make clear that it was used without my permission and I am not a supporter of the Republican ticket.” Dole’s campaign changed tack.

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However, Springsteen has always made something clear whenever he discusses “Born in the U.S.A.” His issue with Vietnam is about American politicians, rather than the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. In fact, come 2005 Springsteen wrote a new song called “The Wall” in memory of Walter Cichon, the friend he’d lost in the war.

Springsteen played the song at a concert that year and told the audience, “I wrote this song for Walter, Walter Cichon. I was in Washington, and I was visiting the Wall and I wrote this for him.” The wall he’s talking about, the subject of the song, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

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No-one could ever misunderstand the lyrics of “The Wall.” Springsteen sings, “You and your rock ’n’ roll band, you were best thing this s**t town ever had / Now the men who put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls / And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all at the wall.”

Cichon’s sons got in touch with Springsteen after hearing the song. In December 2018 the 52-year-old Bryan Cichon told The Washington Post newspaper that eventually the family had met Springsteen. Apparently, he’d told them, “Everything I learned about performing onstage, I learned from going to the Motifs and watching your dad.”

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During the meeting Bryan asked Springsteen if he could put “The Wall” in an album. He told The Washington Post what happened next. He said, “He looked at me right in the eyes and said, ‘I am going to do that.’” And he did. The album came out in 2014, and Springsteen talked in the liner notes about his admiration for his late friend.

Springsteen wrote, “Walter went missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. He still performs somewhat regularly in my mind, the way he stood, dressed, held the tambourine, the casual cool, the freeness… His was a terrible loss to us, his loved ones and the local music scene. I still miss him.”

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Perhaps nowhere did Springsteen sum up “Born in the U.S.A.’s meaning more succinctly than in his 1984 interview with Rolling Stone. He said, “When you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back – surviving the war and coming back and not surviving – you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness.”

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