The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?

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W.J. Astore

I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment.  The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.

The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise.  I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:

  1. There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese.  And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva.  Which is exactly why that election never came.
  2. As one American admitted, the U.S. totally misread the situation in Indochina after the French defeat in 1954.  The Cold War and Falling Dominoes dominated the thoughts of Americans, obscuring the reality of a powerful and popular anti-colonial and nationalist revolt that tapped Vietnamese patriotism.
  3. When not fearing Falling Dominoes, U.S. officials were far more concerned about their own prestige (or political fortunes) than they were with the Vietnamese people.
  4. U.S. officials recognized South Vietnam was a fiction, a puppet government propped up by American money and power, and that they had “backed the wrong horse.” But they came to believe it was the only horse they had in the race against communism.
  5. U.S. presidents, stuck with a losing horse of their own creation, began to lie. As president, Kennedy said he hadn’t sent combat troops; he had.  As president, Johnson tried to obscure both the size and intent of the U.S. military’s commitment. These lies were not done to deceive the enemy — they were done to deceive the American people.
  6. After backing the wrong horse (Diem and his family), American leaders conspired to eliminate him in a coup.  When Diem was assassinated, matters only grew worse. Left with no horse in the race and a “turnstile” government in South Vietnam, the U.S. began to bomb North Vietnam and committed combat units beginning in March of 1965.
  7. More duplicity by U.S. officials: Battles such as Ap Bac and Binh Gia, which revealed the “miserable performance” of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), were reinterpreted and sold as victories by senior U.S. military leaders.
  8. Both JFK and LBJ had serious reservations about going to war in Vietnam. However, domestic political concerns, together with concerns about containing the spread of communism, always came up trumps.  For example, the series quotes Kennedy as saying he believed America couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t win the 1964 presidential election if he withdrew U.S. advisors from Vietnam. LBJ was similarly skeptical but took a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which saw his approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.

One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle.  If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.

To summarize: the series provides evidence of U.S. dishonesty and duplicity and showcases the mistakes generated by hubris when aggravated by ignorance.  Yet, the overall message is one of sadness about a “tragic mistake” committed by decent men who were overwhelmed by fears of international communism.

Final points: As we watch the series, we follow individual Americans, and hear American commentators, far more than we hear Vietnamese voices.  Also, while the series shows U.S. bombing from afar and mentions Agent Orange, the effects of this destruction haven’t yet been shown in detail.  (A telling exception: a young Vietnamese women joins the communist resistance after U.S. bombing destroys a center for senior citizens near her home.)

In short, the Burns/Novick series privileges the American experience, suggesting that U.S. troops of that era fought courageously as a new “greatest generation,” even as senior U.S. leaders spoke privately of an unwinnable war.

Is killing millions of people in a lost cause merely a tragic mistake?  Or is it something far worse?  More to come as the series continues to air on PBS.

American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press).  Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed.  Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.

Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam.  In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony.  When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens.  The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia.  Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources.  So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.

Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam.  Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration).  And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy.  Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.

In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:

portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War.  The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists.  Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles.  Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare.  By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)

Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam.  It was about them.  This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war.  Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood.  When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).

Withdrawal, of course, was never an option.  As Appy insightfully notes,

LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage.  In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs.  They could see that the war was failing.  But they could not pull out.  A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war.  They simply could not accept being viewed as losers.  A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)

A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.

Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen.  Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda).  As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’  It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)

As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering.  They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.

Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting.  But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?

Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.  Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope.  Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.