The never-ending war

Even in hindsight, no one -- soldier or journalist, politician or scholar -- can agree on what went wrong.

By Zachary Karabell
July 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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In 1995, Robert McNamara, former president of Ford Motor Company and the secretary of defense who oversaw the military buildup in Vietnam between 1961 and 1968, published a scathing, self-excoriating memoir called "In Retrospect." One passage in particular received extraordinary attention. "We were wrong, terribly wrong," McNamara confessed. Wrong to fight the war, wrong to commit American troops to a civil war in Southeast Asia and wrong to sacrifice nearly 60,000 American lives and nearly 4 million Vietnamese in a failed effort to preserve an independent, non-communist South Vietnam.

That confession sparked intense debate and soul-searching. The wounds of Vietnam, many observed, were reopened with a vengeance, and though George Bush had proudly proclaimed at the end of the Gulf War that the United States had, once and for all, kicked the Vietnam syndrome, the publication of McNamara's book showed that this particular dog wasn't going to die so easily. Dozens of editorials denounced McNamara's confessional as too little, too late. Appearing at events publicizing the book, McNamara was subjected to verbal assaults. Speaking in front of nearly 1,000 people at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (an event I attended), McNamara was confronted by a veteran who demanded an apology, and when McNamara dodged the request, the questioner persisted by listing the names of his friends who had been killed in Vietnam and shouting at McNamara that he owed the nation an apology. McNamara quickly lost his cool and shouted back, "Shut up! You just shut up! You've had your chance to speak."

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The publication of "In Retrospect" inaugurated the most recent round of Vietnam books. With some exceptions -- the most notable being Michael Lind's upcoming book, "Vietnam: A Necessary War" -- contemporary writers on Vietnam are united in their analysis that this was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the current wave of books amounts to a stunning indictment of the men who made policy for the United States and a persuasive demonstration of what many people suspected in the late 1960s but could not prove: that the war was utterly misguided, unnecessary and unwinnable. Given that the legacy of Vietnam continues to influence every military decision that the United States makes, and given that the entire leadership of today's armed forces adhere to what might be called the "Vietnam avoidance doctrine of military engagement," how Americans understand Vietnam shapes not just public consciousness about history, but the political and military decisions we make in places ranging from Kosovo to North Korea.

The new orthodoxy on Vietnam is aggressively countered by Michael Lind, the gadfly of the intelligentsia who works for both the New America Foundation and Harper's magazine. His implied rejoinder to McNamara is "We were right, mostly right." He rejects the view that the war shouldn't have been fought, and he asserts that the underlying reasons for the conflict were sound. Vietnam was a battle in the Cold War, which was a global struggle that used proxy conflicts in lieu of nuclear weapons to decide the outcome. Though Lind faults the way the United States military prosecuted the Vietnam War, he maintains that in every respect, U.S. officials were right to think of Vietnam as vital and right to try to defend South Vietnam against a Marxism-Leninist incursion led by Ho Chi Minh in alliance with the Soviet Union and China.

At every turn, Lind rebuts the view that the United States shouldn't have committed itself to Vietnam. Instead, he contends that the Johnson and Nixon administrations should have learned the lessons of the Korean War and kept American casualties to a minimum while still making a maximal effort to rebuff the Viet Cong insurgency. If the United States had backed down in Vietnam, the effects of its global position might well have been devastating, as events after the fall of Saigon in 1975 suggested.

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Lind is especially dismissive of McNamara's Hamlet-like guilt, and he has little but scorn for the former defense secretary's historical revisionism. McNamara himself felt that "In Retrospect" left much unexamined and unfinished, and he organized a series of meetings between 1995 and 1998 that brought together American academics, military men and former policy-makers with their Vietnamese counterparts. The result of these half a dozen meetings is the book "Argument Without End." It's an odd combination of narrative, transcripts of the conferences and descriptions of the discussions between American and Vietnamese participants. Though the structure is unorthodox, it's actually a breezy, easy to follow read. McNamara was known for his methodical, scientific approach, and this book is full of six-point summaries and concluding paragraphs that restate central questions and posit new ones. He leaves no ambiguity about his conclusions, and therein lies both the book's strength and its weakness.

After many hours of debate between American and Vietnamese participants, McNamara and his co-authors conclude that throughout the 1960s, the United States constantly missed opportunities to negotiate with the North Vietnamese and consistently made choices that led to further involvement. The greatest failure, McNamara now believes, was "a failure of empathy." American policy-makers and military officials never understood what motivated the North Vietnamese and therefore misjudged how the enemy would react.

McNamara believes that he and other officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were guilty of mirror-imaging. He recognizes that U.S. leaders often assumed that the North Vietnamese would act the way Americans would act, that the heavy loss of life and property caused by the bombing campaign after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 would bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table or that the deployment of more U.S. ground forces would signal to Ho Chi Minh that a communist takeover of South Vietnam was not a possibility the United States would accept. Yet, judging from the testimony of North Vietnamese officials in "Argument Without End," the bombing campaign had the opposite effect and in fact stiffened the resolve of the North, while the deployment of U.S. ground troops was not seen as particularly threatening given the initial American and South Vietnamese ineptitude in dealing with Viet Cong guerrilla activity.

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What is most striking about McNamara's recent book is the degree to which he and other Americans remain unable to listen to what the Vietnamese were saying. Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, an exasperated McNamara still can't quite grasp "how the North don't owe you an apology when you devastated our country in a war designed to deny the Vietnamese people their right of self-determination. We tried to negotiate with you, but you wouldn't even agree to a neutral solution, so convinced were you that communism in Vietnam would mean communist domination throughout Southeast Asia. So we fought, we paid the price, and we won."

McNamara wants a quid pro quo, an "I'm sorry/no, I'm sorry" dialogue. The Vietnamese will have none of it. McNamara and his co-authors conclude with a devastating indictment of the American war effort, including a painful look at the missed opportunities for negotiation and an effective point-by-point deconstruction of the canard that, had the military been unfettered by the timidity of civilian commanders, it could have won the war.

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Lind agrees that the conventional war envisioned by General Westmoreland wasn't suited to the realities of the Vietnam conflict, and he harshly rebukes conservative critics who believe that it was liberal policy-makers alone who prevented the army from winning. But Lind vehemently denies that the so-called windows for negotiation were anything more than clever mirages projected by devious North Vietnamese leaders. That analysis stands in direct opposition to the argument made by Fredrik Logevall of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who asks in "Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam" whether the war was inevitable -- and answers that it wasn't.

Logevall argues that at numerous points during the crucial two years before Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive deployment of ground troops in the summer of 1965, the United States government could have pulled back with only a minimal loss of international prestige and domestic support. The role of the South Vietnamese government was pivotal. The ultimate success of the American war effort depended on a Saigon leadership that could cobble together a government that enjoyed the active support of the Vietnamese. That never happened, and it left the Americans in the position of fighting on behalf of a South Vietnam that functionally ceased to exist after 1965.

As Logevall shows, not only is that fact clear in hindsight, it was clear at the time to U.S. officials. Even more astounding, Americans policymakers prevented the South Vietnamese leadership from negotiating with the North in 1963 and 1964. So adamant were the Americans that South Vietnam remain non-communist that they allowed and even facilitated coup after coup in Saigon rather than permit leaders in Saigon to broker a political settlement with Ho Chi Minh.

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Logevall punctures the myth that Johnson's hands were bound by the actions of the Kennedy administration. Marshaling an impressive amount of evidence, he underscores that at numerous points between November 1963 and the summer of 1965, the Johnson administration chose escalation and war over less bellicose options. Logevall's book amounts to one of the most effective indictments of the Americanization of the Vietnam War that has yet been written.

The recent publication by the Library of America of two volumes that bring together the best journalism of the war supports Lind's contention that the reporting of the time simplistically presented the American war effort as an unambiguous strategic and moral failure. The Vietnam War exists in the American imagination largely through the pivotal reporting done by the likes of David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan, Ward Just, Peter Arnett and Frances Fitzgerald. The evolution of Browne and Halberstam from early supporters of the war to disillusioned chroniclers of the conflict parallels the ill-considered Americanization that Logevall charts. It's hard not to be struck by the "gosh, gee-willickers" quality of the early stories, especially when juxtaposed with the hard-bitten perspective that creeps in after 1966. The change in attitude that the press corps underwent is easier to appreciate if one reads the Library of America volumes alongside William Prochnau's "Once Upon a Distant War," which shows just how anguished journalists such as Browne and Halberstam were about this war gone wrong. Even in their raw, unannotated form, however, the reporting underscores the disconnect between policy-makers in Washington and realities on the ground in Vietnam.

That's just the problem, Lind counters. The realities on the ground were ugly because war is ugly. American and South Vietnamese troops committed atrocities in no lesser or greater numbers than any troops in any war, and the naivet&#233 of the reporters was breathtaking. Lind says that the Cold War demanded not just strength but the appearance of strength and that had the United States forfeited Southeast Asia, the bandwagon effect could have been lethal. The nations of Western Europe, seeing that the United States would not fight, might have shifted allegiance to the Soviets, not out of warm feelings but out of strategic common sense. And the loss of Vietnam, Lind continues, would have led to a global copy-catting, where revolutionaries in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Syria and the nations of Latin America would have taken the cue, allied with the Soviet Union, and overthrown governments allied with the United States.

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The problem with Lind's argument is that he chooses his evidence too selectively. Lind believes that the fact that Laos and Cambodia went communist after 1975 and the fact that the Third World became intensely anti-American and pro-Soviet in the late 1970s proves that the fears that the loss of Vietnam would have a deleterious effect on U.S. influence worldwide were correct. Yet he fails to take into account that the deleterious effect might not have been the loss of Vietnam per se, but the loss of Vietnam after nearly 15 years of direct and indirect war during which the United States explicitly tethered its prestige to the outcome of the conflict. And Lind's argument that the disasters of the 1970s would have been even worse had it not been for the preventative policies of the 1960s doesn't truly rebut Logevall's arguments about what actually did happen and what feasibly might have.

Lind maintains that the example of Vietnam can teach much to leaders dealing with conflicts in Kosovo and beyond. He thinks that the orthodoxy about Vietnam has dangerously colored contemporary approaches to foreign policy. What he calls the "liberal-isolationist consensus" has created an absurdly high bar to the commitment of U.S. troops, and the military's continued reliance on conventional warfare demonstrates just how blind the Pentagon has been to the actual lessons of Vietnam.

A quarter century after the fall of Saigon, the link between Vietnam and U.S. foreign policy is stronger than ever. Though Lind seems to feel that learning from history is simple and that only stupidity or ignorance can prevent us from understanding the legacy of Vietnam and applying that wisdom, most people find that learning from the past is easy to preach but hard to do.

For instance, take McNamara's injunction that each side in a potential conflict listen carefully and try to understand the goals and attitudes of the other before escalating. In the case of Kosovo, that necessity was clearly grasped and conflict was still not prevented. Years of dialogue and negotiation between Slobodon Milosevic and Richard Holbrooke ensured that each side had a good reading of the other. That didn't stop the Serbs from cracking down on the KLA, nor did it halt U.S. intervention. Luck, as much as anything else, allowed the Clinton administration to avoid sending in U.S. ground troops. Had Serbia been less industrialized, as North Vietnam was, or had Milosevic been slightly less tractable, the United States would have eventually done so.

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In addition, as Lind is at pains to remind us, some of the supposed lessons of Vietnam are wrongly learned. The utter unwillingness of the military to countenance putting American troops in harm's way in Kosovo is a direct result of the Vietnam syndrome in action. However, the problem with the Vietnam War wasn't that Americans died; it was what they died for. Thirty years later, we seem to have forgotten that.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of Lind's book is that he fails to recognize that his is merely one interpretation of what happened. Like McNamara, he is an absolutist who believes in Truth, and he thinks, just as McNamara thinks, that he knows it. Logevall, for all his prodigious research, understands that his is only one reading. Unlike Lind and McNamara, he wouldn't say that he has found the Truth where others have somehow missed the path. If history were simple, then everyone would understand it, no one would repeat it and lessons would be learned as easily as we learn not to put our hands on a hot stove.

Like it or not, Vietnam has become a touchstone for contemporary questions about the United States, about military force and about global power. It is a giant screen onto which we project our fear that we might make the wrong decision and squander our strength. If only we could figure out Vietnam, we could assure our place of preeminence in the world for generations to come. That is a comforting thought. It says that our fate is controllable and that our future can be manipulated. Less comforting but probably more true is that the only thing that we can control is how we write about the past.


Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

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