A provocative new study of the Vietnam War places it in the larger context of a global conflict.
By Michael D. Hull
America fought the war in Vietnam because of geopolitics, and forfeited the war because of domestic politics. The ultimate responsibility lay with neither the new civilian policy elite nor the American press, but with the U.S. military establishment, which failed to adapt to the demands of what before 1968 had been largely a guerrilla war. The high costs of the military command’s misguided approach in American and Vietnamese lives sapped the support of the American people for the nation’s commitment to Indochina. Even worse, the cost of the conflict undermined U.S. public support for the Cold War on all fronts.
So says Michael Lind, the Washington editor of Harper’s magazine, in Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict (The Free Press, New York, 1999, $25), a hard-hitting look at the controversial and unpopular war. Well informed, original, convincing and sure to generate considerable debate, this study tramples the tired orthodoxies of both the leftists and rightists and puts the Vietnam War in its logical context–as part of the global conflict between America and the Soviet Union.
The Cold War, according to Lind, was actually the third world war of the 20th century, and the proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan were its major campaigns. Unwilling to engage each other on the battlefields of Europe, the superpowers instead played out their grim contest on the Asian front, while the rest of the world watched to see which side would retreat.
Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam experience continues to plague the American consciousness. Divisions prevail. Some people, mostly on the left, say that Indochina was of no strategic value to America and was not worth a war. Others, mostly on the right, argue that hesitant civilian leaders and liberal defeatists within the press fatally eroded the war effort. Such “lessons of Vietnam” have become ingrained in the American mentality, says Lind, at the expense of an accurate understanding of the war.
Lind argues that Indochina was the Dunkirk of the American effort in the Cold War. The Vietnam War will never be understood as anything other than a horrible debacle, he claims. At the same time, it cannot be understood except as a failed campaign in a successful world war against Communist tyrannies that slaughtered and starved more of their own subjects than any regime in history.
For the past generation, Lind points out, the war has been considered not only a disastrous defeat (which it was) but also an easily avoidable mistake (which it was not, any more than was the Korean War)– and a uniquely horrible conflict. Yet more Americans were killed in three months on the Western Front in 1918 than in a decade in Vietnam. The anti-Vietnam War orthodoxy is so exaggerated and so implausible, says Lind, that it is certain to change as younger historians, uninfluenced by the partisan battles of the Vietnam era, write a more accurate and dispassionate history.
In the war’s aftermath, few people were willing to rebut charges leveled against the presidents who waged it, no matter how preposterous those charges were. Most of the brickbats that so-called progressives and radical leftists tossed at Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had been flung earlier at Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower–and would be hurled again at Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Those presidents or their successors won their wars, so the libels did not stick. Johnson and Nixon lost their war, so the libels stuck to them.
Lind points out that Truman and Eisenhower early in the Cold War, like Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the conflict’s final stages, held much stronger cards than the presidents in office in the middle of it. John Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon faced a Soviet Union that had recovered from World War II, that was growing in military power and diplomatic prestige and that was far from being bankrupted by military competition with the West.
In this scholarly, literate and eminently objective study, Lind destroys many myths and misconceptions about the Cold War in general and Vietnam in particular, not least the human cost. America won the Cold War, he writes, with considerably fewer casualties–a little more than 100,000–than it suffered in World Wars I and II. United States losses in the Korean and Vietnam wars–56,000 and 58,000 respectively–are comparable to American losses in the bloodiest single battles in the world wars. In 47 days in the fall of 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces suffered 26,667 dead as part of 120,000 casualties in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
Lind dismisses canards foisted on the pub-lic by the so-called liberal press that Vietnam was an immoral war that turned American soldiers into emotional wrecks. Tom Wicker of The New York Times claimed in 1975 that “hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans” were suffering from severe psychological difficulties–now labeled posttraumatic stress disorder and known in earlier generations as shell shock or combat fatigue. The disorder is real enough, as Lind points out, but careful studies indicate that Vietnam veterans do not suffer from PTSD in greater proportions than World War II veterans. Psychiatric casualties in Vietnam were actually low (12 per thousand) compared with those in Korea and World War II. Yet the average Vietnam War fighting man spent more time in the combat zone than did his counterpart in 1941-45. Wicker also alleged that 500,000 Vietnam War veterans had attempted suicide. The number, which Wicker had obtained from Penthouse magazine, was “completely bogus,” says Lind.
In this thoughtful, clear-eyed examination, the author throws all the myths, lies and half-truths out of the proverbial win-dow while presenting an intelligent perspective of the Vietnam War that has been long overdue.