For most Americans, particularly those over the age of fifty, the very mention of the word “Vietnam” produces a visceral response of anger, frustration, and sadness. In that place the United States of America suffered a great defeat and the loss of over 55,000 lives. After a twenty year “quagmire” Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, finally fell in 1975. By that time all US combat troops had been withdrawn and we were already in the process of trying to forget about the war and put Vietnam out of our minds like a bad dream. The fate of the hapless South Vietnamese people, who we had for so long agonized and fretted over, was no longer our problem. Though we did later take in a few thousand “boat people”, we mostly left them to the tender mercies of their Northern conquerors. I was in college at the time and don’t even remember any fellow students talking about the fall of Saigon. Vietnam was no longer an issue.
Yet in many respects the war and the policy issues related to it remain alive and unresolved. Thirty -six years later, the legacy of American intervention in Vietnam haunts us still, particularly the combat veterans, many of whom, upon returning to US soil from Vietnam, found themselves the subject of catcalls, jeers, and even were spat upon by angry left-wing “hippie” protestors who “greeted” them at airports, holding military personnel, in a perverse manner, responsible for the war, a thing all the more bizarre since so many of these returning veterans had been drafted. Many veterans, understandably, remain angry about this and much more.
In the 2004 election, questions were raised about the Vietnam war era activities of both presidential candidates. A veterans group called the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” opposed the John Kerry candidacy, reminding the US public of Kerry’s anti-war activities during that conflict (among other things), while various opponents of incumbent George Bush accused him of using the Texas National Guard as a means of escaping being sent to Vietnam and being frequently awol from weekend drills with (mysteriously) no apparent repercussions from his superiors.
In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan the specter of Vietnam is raised anew as critics of the official national policy warn us that if we’re not careful either or both of these places could turn into another “Vietnam” with the universally understand implication being that no one wants that. Yes, we are haunted by Vietnam still.
SO what do we make of it? Was US intervention in Vietnam, particularly the sending in of ground troops in 1964, simply one huge mistake, a policy doomed to failure? Was the US, however noble were it’s intentions in containing the spread of Communism, intervening in what was essentially a civil war, sticking our noses into something where we really had no business? Was the anti-war crowd, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Martin Luther King Jr. and even Jane Fonda, right? Has history vindicated the protestors and draft-card burners?
Ask your next-door neighbor what he/she thinks about the Vietnam war nowadays and one is likely to get one of two responses: A) getting involved in the Vietnam war at all was a mistake. Our boys, especially combat troops never should have been sent there. The whole thing was pure folly. Or B) Though it probably wasn’t a good idea to have gotten involved, the US could have won it if only the politicians had not “ hog-tied” the military and kept them from winning. The outcome was especially frustrating, in this view, because the defeat was unnecessary. The US could have won and didn’t. Those damned politicians. These two views are the mainstream contemporary “wisdom.”
These two views have been underscored by the writings of many historians, military figures, and intellectuals, including former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, and best-selling author Mary Tuchman, who, in her book THE MARCH OF FOLLY, maintains that the US stubbornly clung to a failed policy despite mounting evidence that it could not succeed. McNamara, who finally broke his silence on the subject with the publication of his book IN RETROSPECT some years ago, yielded to the contemporary “party line” ending any speculation that he was unwilling to admit the national “folly” of Vietnam or of his role in the affair.
There is however, at least one historian and prominent intellectual who challenges both contemporary viewpoints. In 1999, author Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, raised eyebrows with the publication of VIETNAM: THE NECESSARY WAR, “a reinterpretation of America’s most disastrous conflict.”, a book that by it’s very title stirs up the controversy anew. One commentator calls the book(and this writer agrees): “..provocative, engaging…it blows up some old myths that need deflating.” Journalist Dan Rather called it: “A necessary book…”
Since I‘ve never felt comfortable with either viewpoint, and have never, among other things, found either intellectually feasible, I found Mr. Lind’s book especially persuasive and helpful in formulating my own perspective.
Piece by piece, Lind takes apart the so-called conventional wisdom. First he addresses the view that the US never had any business in SE Asia. He insists that we did, that we had vital business there, and that the Vietnam war be viewed almost entirely in it’s cold war, strategic context. He reminds us to again put ourselves in the shoes of American and European leaders witnessing the rapid rise of post-war Soviet and Chinese communism and influence and see afresh the need for capitalist countries to have made a stand and a statement somewhere, especially a show of strength for those emerging third-world nations seeking superpower aid, support, and material assistance. How quickly and easily, Lind reminds us, have modern Americans forgotten the horrors of Stalinism, the threatening stance of Nikita Kruchev (“We will bury you”) and the Cuban Missile crisis. Having witnessed the sobering fall of the “Iron Curtain” upon Eastern Europe and the formation of a Communist China things seemed, in the late fifties and early sixties, to be only getting worse. Not only were leftist uprisings occurring all over South America and Africa, Cuba, at our very doorstep had bolted into the Soviet camp in 1960. Within two years their new friends, the Soviets, had installed nuclear weapons there within range of major US cities. People were scared. Though I was quite young in the late fifties and early sixties, this I remember well.
Something had to be done. In the early fifties the Communists had been stopped at the 38th parallel in Korea by a coalition of allied but mostly US and South Korean troops. Technically it wasn’t a victory, but it was good enough for the time being, a far better thing than a major conflict between the US and a communist power such as Red China. In another part of Asia, it began to appear that the US would have to step in again. This time it was Vietnam, the former Indo-China, a former French colonial nation. Soon after the French collapse there the country was divided into two sections, North and South like Korea and for the next few years it appeared that it would stay that way indefinitely. But alas, North Vietnam, with help and encouragement from both China and the Soviet Union, determined to “unite” the nation anew under Communist rule and so the war began anew in the late fifties with the Vietcong insurgency in the South. During the Eisenhower administration US aid was limited to advisers and various types of material aid. But slowly but surely, it became apparent that South Vietnam needed more than that and US involvement deepened in the Kennedy administration. By 1964, during the Johnson administration, ground troops were landing on Vietnamese soil and “the fat was in the fire”-so to speak.
In a fresh and provocative analysis, Lind provides us with a third view: that the war, like it or not, was both necessary, and though not really winnable in the conventional sense, worth a determined, though limited national effort. He reminds us that John Kennedy informed the nation of just that thing quite early on, that it would be a new kind of war fought through unconventional and creative means against shadowy insurgencies, enemies that raided and melted into the jungle at the earliest opportunity, always avoiding the prolonged all-out battle. Though he didn’t state it as such, Americans understood that Vietnam would be a proxy war, that the real enemy, the backers, trainers, and providers of those insurgents, was the Soviet Union or perhaps China. Without substantial help from their sponsors the North Vietnamese never stood much of a chance against US forces nor did the South Vietnamese stand much of a chance against the North without US assistance. For both sides it was a proxy war, an important campaign in much larger global struggle between superpowers.
One of the most pervasive myths of the war, Lind explains, is the notion that the US was intervening in what was primarily a civil war, a noble struggle against “colonialism”, and that “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Mien) was a kindly, freedom-loving figure dearly loved by legions of loyal followers, and essentially a nationalist with a merely superficial loyalty to communism, a pragmatist who knew that he could obtain needed supplies and training for his forces only as a temporary client of the Soviet Union. Lind explores this view and concludes that it is pure moonshine. On the contrary “Uncle Ho” was a life-long committed Marxist, an admirer and friend of Joseph Stalin,( possibly the most oppressive ruler in world history), who in turn emulated dreadful, oppressive Stalinist techniques in his initial consolidation of power in North Vietnam in the late nineteen-fifties just prior to substantial US intervention resulting in a tremendous exodus of refugees to the South, people fleeing from forced collectivization and newly constructed “re-education camps” where many thousands perished. The “whitewashing” of Ho Chi Mien in the nineteen-sixties by spokespersons of the US anti-war left who saw him as a valiant resister of American imperialist aggression, was both tragic and shameful. To this day many have refused to admit their error. It’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Later in 1975, with US combat troops gone home, hundreds of thousands in South Vietnam, knowing what had happened twenty years before, attempted to flee the country. Maybe a hundred thousand made it. Most did not. It was brutal. How many perished, both in South Vietnam and a little later in the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, we’ll never know just as we’ll never know how many more millions perished in Communist China in the so-called “cultural revolution” in the late sixties. Communist regimes don’t release such figures.
Since Western journalists were never allowed in those countries to report on it, people in the West were, at least for a time, able to pretend that those terrible things didn’t really happen. But the news leaked, the truth came out, and this Holocaust couldn’t be denied. And if the terrible plight of the South Vietnamese and the genocide of over a million Cambodians occurred, if only in part, because of the US troop withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973? Well… we certainly don’t want to think too hard on that. We had to bring our boys home. The anti-war war crowd insisted that the US “give peace a chance” and so we did and far more people died as a result of this “peace” than had died in twenty-five years or so of war. But the “war” was over and SE Asia was no longer a US problem.
It may be that my favorite portions of the book are those in which Lind goes after the mythology and fantasies of the anti-war radical left and their flagrant disregard for truth. They maintained that the South Vietnamese government, being especially corrupt and unconcerned with human rights, was not worth US support. Lind counters that the South Korean government, ten to fifteen years before, had been no better, and that little was ever said of that. Much of the book, interestingly enough, is a comparison of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and of how the two were far more alike than they were different in terms of the conduct of the war, US interests, the “Civil War” aspect, and overall strategic objectives. Among Americans today, the legacy of the Korean war is far more positive. It is rare to hear complaints about it even though almost as many Americans died there as in Vietnam. Lind insists that both wars must be thought of as large scale battles in the broader context of the Cold War, a war that the US did, finally, win.
Even the sainted civil rights leader Dr. Martin L. King, was caught up in the mythology of the anti-war radical left. When he announced his opposition to the Vietnam War in an address on 4/4/67 his remarks were, unfortunately, a collection of outright falsehoods and distortions, as if the speech had been handed to him by Uncle Ho himself. Again and again he praised the government of North Vietnam saying, among other things, that “this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs of their lives” ignoring the terrible Stalinist-style nature of the manner in which it had been carried out. Ignoring the crimes of Ho Chi Minh, Moscow’s proxy, he instead denounced South Vietnam’s Diem as “one of the most vicious modern dictators.” To add insult to injury King compared the US to Nazi Germany: “What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them (the Vietcong), JUST AS THE GERMANS TESTED OUT NEW MEDICINE AND NEW TORTURES IN THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS OF EUROPE?”- a remark that Lind calls “most despicable of all.” (p.182) Soldiers using new weapons against their enemies in the field is what soldiers have always done. It is foolish not to do so. A better “weapon” gives one an advantage over his enemies and one is always seeking an advantage in warfare. A helpless person being tortured in a concentration camp by a sadistic, misguided “doctor” far away from the shooting is not warfare. It is something quite different. The comparison is illegitimate. Sorry Dr. King.
At the time I remember people calling Dr. King a “communist”. Of course he wasn’t, he was far too smart for that. However, he did, at times (such as this speech) give his critics some real ammunition. King was a great man, one of our best, but he had his faults.
Lind insists that we recognize again the important similarities and differences between the Vietnam and Korean conflicts. Both were attempts by the US to stem the tide of Communist aggression. Neither Korea or Vietnam as pieces of real estate were any more important to the US than Guadalcanal or Tarawa had been in World War Two. But it was in these places that the enemy made his moves. Most of the time in warfare, particularly if the stance is essentially defensive, the commander does not choose the battlefield. Instead, he simply moves to the sound of the guns.
After years of nearly constant warfare, a peace treaty was signed with North Vietnam in 1972. Americans were relieved. Many strategists insisted that we leave a sufficient number of troops there to serve as a deterrent to the possibility of further incursions into South Vietnam by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) But it was too late. The Nixon administration, bowing to tremendous political pressure and consumed with problems of its own (that eventually led to the Watergate scandal) began bringing all combat troops home, a process that was nearly complete by the end of 1973.
It is crucially important to remember that a massive withdrawal of all, or nearly all combat troops had NOT been done in Korea or in Germany or in a number of other potential hot spots around the world. In these places troops remained on guard. Many, even now, are still there. In Korea, the North Koreans and Chinese did not invade again because the US left troops in South Korea. It is almost that simple. And there has been relative “Peace” along the 38th parallel for nearly sixty years. I’ve yet to hear anyone use the word “defeat” in reference to Korea.
This was not to be in Vietnam. After a year or so of preparation, amassing heavy armor and other equipment and supplies from their Soviet sponsors, the North Vietnamese army invaded the South in 1975 with little opposition and concluded the whole business. The presence of US air weaponry alone might have been a sufficient deterrent. It became painfully obvious then that North Vietnamese officials had never had the slightest intention to honor the “so-called Peace Treaty” of 1972. With the US ground forces absent they had little difficulty pushing the demoralized, weakened South Vietnamese forces out of the way and seizing their tactical objectives quickly in a conventional manner with armored columns and troops marching out in the open on roads, not in a gradual Vietcong-style” incursion in the “bush” or the jungle. “But, as before stated, Americans had already put Vietnam out their minds.