What did we learn from Vietnam?

Bobbie Ann Mason, Michael Lind, Philip Caputo, Jonathan Schell and others talk about how the war changed the U.S., and the world.


Daryl LindseyFiona Morgan
April 24, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Bobbie Ann Mason, novelist, author of "In Country"

The resistance to the war was partly a baby boomer thing. College kids raised on "Leave It To Beaver" were suddenly threatened with personal danger (You want me to do -- WHAT?). Since then, we've been through various phases of boomer concerns -- career, family, inner child, working-out, stock options, etc. Now the Golden Years are fast closing in, and I expect Baby-Boomer Adventures in the Nursing Home to be no less self-centered. I'm counting on boomers to battle mortality just as they did in the '60s. I confess to some nostalgia for that time -- the intensity, the drama, the music.

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No matter how self-centered, the '60s rebellion was basically noble and right. Youthful eyes could penetrate falseness and hold the country to its own highest ideals. The threat of death concentrates the mind beautifully, it's said. That happened to the mind of an entire generation. I credit the anti-war movement -- and the whole social upheaval -- for opening up American society in a chaotic, but rather wonderful, way. Anything is possible was the premise; now anything can be examined, investigated, analyzed. Everything is up for exploration and in that mood we met the 21st century. We live in dizzying but exhilarating times.

But an evil has always haunted the heart of the American dream -- ranging from slavery to the devastation of Native Americans to exploitation of foreign workers. The kind of injustice done to the less privileged draftee grunts who died in disproportionate numbers in the Vietnam War continues in its various forms.

In my novel "In Country," one of the characters, a Vietnam vet, says, "What you learn from history is that you can't learn from history -- that's what history is." During the Gulf War I had a sinking feeling that this was true. The U.S. was once again gearing up for a questionable overseas venture -- this time to exorcise the ghost of our defeat in Vietnam. But Vietnam is embedded in our history; it's part of us.

Philip Caputo, author of "A Rumor of War"

The Vietnam War achieved the reunification of North and South Vietnam under Communist rule; so from our point of view, it did not accomplish anything and was therefore not worth the cost. Revisionist historians who now say it was worth the price are wrong. Like a lot of Americans, they cannot accept the fact that we wasted 58,000 American lives and many billions of dollars fighting an unwinnable war.

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That's a bitter truth to swallow, but I don't think denying it or revising it will do us any good; on the contrary, it could do harm, because overall the country has made a lot of progress coming to terms with the tragedy, and it's done so by facing it for the debacle it was.

I don't buy the idea, currently advanced by these historians, that the war was not a war but a "lost campaign" in the Cold War that somehow or other contributed to our triumph over the Soviet Union. I'm not agile enough for that leap of logic. We committed 2.6 million troops, dropped several times the tonnage of bombs that were dropped by both sides in World War II and suffered 365,000 dead and wounded. That in addition to the estimated 5 million civilian and military casualties suffered by the Vietnamese, North and South. To my mind, brothers and sisters, that's a war.

As for the assertion that we could have won had we fought harder, I'm at a loss as to what more we could have, or should have, done. Invaded the North? Then we would have had to fight everyone, men, women and even children, and our casualties would have been horrendous. In the end, the war was always the South Vietnamese's to win or lose.

The war's effects on our foreign and military policies have been beneficial for the most part. Leaders in the U.S. today require a clear mandate from the American people before committing troops to battle, and they demand a clear objective. In other words, America is less likely to leap blindly into a quagmire, which doesn't mean, of course, that it's incapable of stumbling into one again.

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As the epicenter of the cultural and social earthquake that shook America in the 1960s and 1970s, its influence has been profound, and not entirely for the better. A book would be required to describe and explain the changes it wrought on our institutions and values; it's sufficient for now to say that the America we live in was formed during the Vietnam era. The old order, "the establishment," that had run the country for many decades -- mostly white, male and Protestant -- lost its "right to rule" because it was discredited by its folly in pursuing a disastrous policy in Southeast Asia.

As its grip on the reins of power loosened, the civil rights, feminist and environmental movements gained strength, and our country today is far more egalitarian and tolerant than it was 30 or 40 years ago. (I'm 58 and I remember seeing "colored only" signs on bathroom doors and over drinking fountains in the South in 1964.)

But if America has become a more just society, it also has become more fragmented, with a diminished consensus on social, cultural and moral values, and that splintering of our vision is one of the worst effects of the Vietnam era. Sometimes I think that the only things holding us together are our current prosperity -- which could end in the near future -- and televised sports.

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The questioning of authority that characterized the '60s and '70s went much too far, in my opinion, extending beyond the establishment's war policies to the story of America itself. One commentator [John Hellman, a professor at Ohio State University] summed it up in these words: "On the deepest level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future."

David Frum, author of "How We Got Here -- The '70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life"

There is a difference between what it would have accomplished had it succeeded and what it in fact accomplished. The involvement in the end didn't accomplish anything because it ended in defeat. And was it worth the cost? No. Defeat means that you spend nearly as much as you do in lives and treasure as you would have done to win and you reap nothing. I am one of those who believes that the war was winnable with different methods.

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But in the first place, given all that we know now, the right decision was not to have gotten involved at all. The correct decision would have been back in 1962 to have taken the defeat. It must have been very hard on the South Vietnamese, but states, as DeGaulle said, are selfish monsters. From the point of view of American interests, that was probably the right answer, to have let that one go.

Having made the decision to intervene, the right way to intervene was to, if you're going to intervene, take the war to the North. The argument used against doing that is not even halfway plausible: The argument that the Johnson administration used was, we can't invade the North because this is just like Korea. Invading North Vietnam would be just like invading North Korea, which Gen. MacArthur did in 1951, and if we do that, China will come into the war and we'll have World War III. It's hard for me to believe that they actually meant that seriously. China was engaged in civil war -- that's when the cultural revolution was taking place; the country's top leaders, civilian and military, were being executed. It's inconceivable -- China lacked the capacity to make war.

And even if they'd wanted to, it's one thing for China to intervene in North Korea, about a hundred miles away from the country's industrial center of gravity and main population base. It's quite another if you get a topographical map and just feel for the bumps. China, in fact, fought a war with North Vietnam in 1979 and was beaten by the Vietnamese.

I think the Johnson administration wanted to fight the most limited possible war. They were not prepared to do what it took, so they made the first of a series of inadequate efforts that led to ever-escalating involvement, with bad results.

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The ending of the Vietnam War was disgraceful, not just because the U.S. lost -- countries, even great powers, lose sometimes -- but because the U.S. broke faith. When the agreements were reached in Paris in January of 1973, the U.S. made promises to the South and threats to the North. Both the threats and the promise were disregarded. That is the thing that, over the long haul, has probably hurt the U.S. most. The U.S. has been, on the world stage since 1975, an actor with a reputation for bad faith.

The U.S. is trusted less by its friends and feared less by its enemies. Pipsqueak powers like Iraq and North Korea, even Somalia -- it's hard to imagine more insignificant, weaker characters than that -- and yet they in fact take a contumacious attitude toward the U.S. Why? Because at some level, they just don't believe in American firmness.

Meanwhile America's friends -- small friends, not the big powerful friends, I don't think it's had an impact on them so much -- but countries like Israel and Taiwan are just not going to put any credence at all in American promises. Twenty-five years seems like a very long time to us, but I suspect that the Taiwanese remember it as if it were yesterday. Why was the Gulf War fought? Where in the world did the Iraqis get the insane notion that they could hope to grab control of the world's oil supply? They didn't believe American threats.

I think the war is probably the single most important of the series of disasters that caused Americans to lose faith in the competence and integrity of their government and their institutions in general. The war creates the anti-war movement -- which is not so numerically significant and had a much smaller role in ending the war than I think most Americans believe -- but it was still an important part of American culture. It had a big impact on the academy, movies. And it left behind an oppositional style that is still here.

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The most important political effect is not what the anti-war movement did, but the destruction of the Democratic Party's reputation for credibility on foreign and security affairs. From 1940 to 1970, the Democrats were the party Americans trusted on national security. There was a Democratic president that had taken the country into war in 1940, while many of the most visible Republicans had opposed it. Vietnam destroys that. The hawks of the Democratic Party desert the party. The doves take over the party apparatus. To this day, that has left the Democratic Party to be perceived as the more weak-willed party, a party uncomfortable with the use of force, hostile to the interests of the military.

Michael Lind, author of "Vietnam: The Necessary War: Grand Strategy, Domestic Politics, and the American War for Indochina"

Vietnam was a disastrous failure. The result was both a geopolitial catastrophe, where the U.S. was humiliated and defeated by the Soviet bloc, and a domestic political catastrophe, because American public support for the Cold War melted down for much of the 1970s. So it was a resounding defeat. But the thesis of my book is that it was a defeat, but it was not a mistake. It was a battle that was worth fighting, because Indochina was one of the most important fronts in the Cold War along with Korea and Taiwan and West Germany.

I criticize the argument that many conservatives and military people have made, though not all military people: that civilians unjustly restrained Gen. Westmoreland, who could have won the war between 1965 and 1968 with fewer limits on either the scope of the war or the intensity.

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The new archival evidence from the Soviet Union and China suggests that there was a genuine threat of Chinese intervention if the U.S. had actually invaded North Vietnam. There was a secret agreement between China and North Vietnam that China would go to war with the U.S. if the U.S. invaded, and that seems like a plausible threat since they did that during the Korean War. In retrospect it now appears that the Johnson administration was prudent in ruling out an invasion of North Vietnam.

The problem with the other alternative that is sometimes discussed, cutting off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, is that that would have been a good idea, but you would have had to suppress the Hanoi-controlled insurgency in South Vietnam first. Basically, there is a certain amount of wishful thinking on the part of the right, particularly thinking that the war could have been won very quickly by massive use of firepower, or by an invasion of North Vietnam or cutting off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once the U.S. was committed to South Vietnam, and to Indochina in general, this was a long-term commitment that required a combination of low-intensity war and conventional war. There was no quick, easy solution.

In terms of foreign policy, I think it's had a bad effect on both the left and the right. There used to be realistic liberals and essentially the anti-war movement took over liberalism in the late 1960s. The so-called Cold War liberals, in the tradition of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, were either marginalized or driven into the Republican Party. Up until recently, the Democrats have been almost completely pacifist and isolationist. They've opposed every single weapons system, every later campaign in the Cold War, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats voted against the Gulf War. This has only changed slightly since the Kosovo war, where for the first time in a quarter of a century, some liberals supported the use of military force abroad.

It was bad for the liberals, and the conservatives learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War. I agree with the thesis of many military experts and civilian experts on the military, that the U.S. fought the wrong kind of war in Vietnam. Initially it should have concentrated on countering guerrilla war instead of trying to fight a massive World War II or Korea-type conventional war. But that's the sort of war that the Pentagon wants to fight. They've adopted the Weinberger and also the Powell doctrine since the Vietnam War, which holds that the U.S. should almost never intervene militarily anywhere, but if it does, it should have completely unrestrictive massive firepower, completely obliterating the enemy.

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And that's just unrealistic. As we've seen both in the Gulf War and in the Balkan war, diplomacy imposes limits on all-out war. And in a lot of situations like the Balkans and Haiti and Ethiopia, what's needed is a long-term, low-level commitment, in which the U.S. engages in low-intensity conflict -- really almost policing -- where your enemies are snipers, or even crowds, and using massive firepower is both inappropriate and immoral to deal with those sorts of threats. So I think that the left and the right came away with dangerously mistaken conclusions about how to conduct the military dimension of foreign policy.

Finally, the effect of the war on American society is grossly overrated. If you look at most of the trends that are attributed to Vietnam in the U.S., whether it's the unwillingness of people to serve in the armed forces, a kind of rejection of authority in society -- usually Vietnam and Watergate are blamed for these things. But you see the same trends in Britain and Western Europe, the societies that are closest to the U.S., which obviously did not fight a Vietnam War in the 1960s. So it seems to me that almost all of these social and political trends have nothing to do with the Vietnam War. They are simply part of the evolution of these wealthy industrial democracies in the last quarter of the 20th century.

It's just intellectual laziness that leads people to ascribe these global trends to one war fought by one country. If the U.S. had simply forfeited Indochina in 1965 and withdrawn into isolationism and appeased the Soviet Union, I think there still would have been a counterculture, a student movement, all of those things would have happened. There still would have been a collapse of support for the draft, because all of those things also happened in France and Britain and in West Germany around the same time.

Adrian Cronauer, now a communications attorney, was airman first class in the U.S. Air Force and spent a year in Saigon. Robin Williams portrayed him in "Good Morning, Vietnam"

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No. 1, I think that back in the '60s a lot of people talked about the domino theory, and they would smirk and chuckle at the naiveti of those who thought that if we would abandon Vietnam, that Laos and Cambodia would fall to the Communists, and then after that, Thailand and after that, who knew, maybe the Philippines and then maybe even Hawaii.

When we did leave Vietnam nobody seemed to point out or say, Gee maybe I was wrong, look what happened in Laos and Cambodia. Because we'd stayed there for 12 years, we did indeed stop that from being any worse than it was. It stopped after Laos and Cambodia. Thailand did not fall to the Communists. Neither did the Philippines. Those were real dangers back in those days.

There are a lot of reputable historians who say that one of the factors contributing to the ultimate fall of Communism, at least in the Soviet empire, was the fact that we had stayed by our guns and stood by our friends and our treaty obligations for 12 years or more in Vietnam.

I think there's probably something to that [argument that we should have fought harder] in that one of the things that I found at the time was a sense of frustration among some of the troops when I would interview them. They were frustrated because there was no policy of trying to win the war. It was called at the time McNamara's No-Win Policy. We deliberately were engaged in military activities and just as deliberately were determined not to win.

When you do that, you reduce the entire business to getting up each morning, going out and seeing how many gooks you can shoot. That to me and to a lot of people, was profoundly immoral. And yet that is what Robert McNamara imposed upon the American military. Plus the general atmosphere of political control over the details of military operations.

Certainly we have a very important principle in this country of civilian control of the military. On the other hand, in the grass-roots operations of the military, down at the platoon level, it was a source of great frustration. You would be pursuing the enemy, have him in sight, he crosses over some invisible border and suddenly you have to break off pursuit. Or worse, you're sitting there receiving incoming fire and not only are you not allowed to return the fire, you're not even allowed to load rounds in your weapon without approval from political authorities up the chain of command. I'm sorry, that is not a good way to fight a war.

In the short run the war had a great effect [on foreign policy]; in the long run, I don't know. Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense, commissioned a study to determine what we should have learned from Vietnam, and the results were published as the Weinberger Doctrine. Among other things, it said, God forbid if we have to get involved in military operations overseas again, there are a number of criteria that should be met. There should be a clearly defined U.S. interest to be served, not just going off to play peacekeeper or policeman to the world. There must be strong political support on the home front because it's impossible to fight the enemy abroad and Congress at home at the same time. You should have a clearly defined military objective to achieve. You should define what it means to win. And finally, you should have an exit strategy, so that once you have achieved your objective, you get out as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

With Desert Storm we saw that applying such lessons led to very good results. Since Desert Storm though, we have been ignoring all of those lessons to our country's detriment, and certainly to our country's ability to keep a strong defense.

It had a profound effect on American culture in so many ways. A whole generation of people were torn apart by the war and their attitudes toward it. It made us rethink a lot of our values and our priorities. It made us doubt a lot of what we had held without question. Every once in a while I guess a little soul-searching is good for a society, so I'm not sure it was necessarily bad that we had to go through that as a country. But by now we have a population the majority of whom have never experienced war, certainly not on the scale of Vietnam -- and please God they never will.

Jonathan Schell, war correspondent and author of "The Real War" and "The Time of Illusion: An Historical and Reflective Account of the Nixon Era"

The Vietnam War accomplished the virtual destruction of South Vietnam, the deaths of more than 50,000 American soldiers, the embitterment of American society, the pulverization of a liberal consensus in the Democratic Party and the worst constitutional crisis in the United States since the Civil War, namely Watergate and the [resignation] of Nixon, which were not conceivable without the war. There were no positive consequences worth mentioning.

The war was lost by the French before the United States ever arrived. Its essence was political. The great majority of the Vietnamese people were resolved, even at the price of living under the repressive regime in North Vietnam, to live as a single, united, independent nation. Nothing the United States did or could have done would have altered that will. In its absence, victories in battle were simply meaningless. The United States, in fact, monotonously won the battles -- as opposed to the war -- including the Tet Offensive. But these military victories only postponed the day when, upon the eventual withdrawal of our armies (which the American people had been promised and rightly demanded), that political will would have its way, and Vietnam would be united under the North.

The American military belatedly learned the lessons of Vietnam to a fault. They have been a rather dovish influence in subsequent interventions -- such as the ones in the Balkans. They demand an "exit strategy" before they will enter a conflict; they demand that politicians solve political problems, leaving them with strictly military tasks. Whether this has been positive or not depends on your evaluation of the subsequent interventions. My own views are mixed.

By destroying the liberal consensus centered upon the Democratic Party (there were other causes, but this was the main one), the war changed the direction not just of foreign policy but of American politics. What the assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King began, the war finished. Nixon was the product. Ever since, the Democrats have been meandering from one thing to another in search of the lost consensus. The most recent innovation has been Clintonism, which has managed to hold its own against the Republicans at the cost of sweeping concessions to Republican views.


Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

MORE FROM Daryl Lindsey

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

MORE FROM Fiona Morgan

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