For almost half a century, the debate over the Vietnam War has been replayed endlessly between the defenders of the orthodoxy and the revisionists, with neither side making much headway with the other. The broad outlines of the debate are easy to lay out. The orthodox view permeated many of the most influential media accounts of the war—by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Frances FitzGerald, and Stanley Karnow—and represented the party line of Americans who opposed the war. This view has been carried on especially among professional academics, including historians like George Herring and Robert Buzzanco. They maintain that the United States had no business being in Vietnam; Cold War policymakers exaggerated the threat of the spread of Communism; the Vietnamese just wanted independence and would fight forever for that end; the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations lied in order to get and keep the United States in the war; the South Vietnamese were corrupt, inefficient, and unpopular American puppets; the American military, especially the Army, fought the war foolishly and immorally; and as a result of all of this, the war was always unwinnable.
The revisionists in the academy are few and far between and tend to be attached to the military. In a delightfully ironic switch from most academic revisionist historians, Vietnam revisionists reject Marxist orthodoxy and cheer American exceptionalism. Their ranks initially included participants in the war like General William Westmoreland, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, and Colonel Harry G. Summers, and later such contrarian observers like Guenter Lewy and Michael Lind. They have questioned all of the orthodox premises, arguing at different points that Communism had to be confronted in southeast Asia; Vietnamese Communists were the tools of a larger Soviet—and Chinese-inspired global movement; the military started off badly but eventually did pretty well despite being hamstrung by foolish politicians; the South Vietnamese were hurt by American actions initially but then improved during the last years of the war; and that the war was won militarily and lost politically, or that regardless it achieved the grand policy objective of containing the spread of Communism.
And that’s it. That’s the debate, repeatedly endlessly and with the same acrimony. As a result, both sides ascribe the worst motives to the other; and neither side has much interest in even talking, let alone working, with the other. The latest round has included Lewis Sorley’s A Better War (1999) and Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken (2006), revisionist books that have added enormous detail to the cases that the United States made a huge mistake in pulling support early on for South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and that the war was all but won on the ground by the early 1970s. The orthodoxy has answered in equal detail, the most notable recent example being John Prados’s 650-page tome Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War (2009). Needless to say, neither side is convinced.
But the inertia of the debate is even worse than that. At times, scholars like Philip Catton, Andrew Wiest, and James Willbanks have tried to change the terms and tone of discussion by looking at the South Vietnamese perspective or changing the level of analysis to focus on the conduct of operations. The orthodox and revisionist schools have responded by asserting that such work is irrelevant to what really matters: The war was unwinnable! Or, the war would have been won if Johnson had not gotten in the way of the military’s path to Hanoi! In this debate, the political and historical are entirely personal.
The “Me” Generation
I should have known something was up when my 7th-grade social studies teacher told us that every major problem in the United States could be traced to the 1960s. When I repeated the claim to another teacher, he responded with outrage, insisting that the social studies teacher was too young to know anything about that decade. My teacher went too far—certainly we can come up with some contemporary problems traced to other decades—but the response illustrated something more important. For many who lived through the events of the ’60s, true understanding required personal experience with the decade—a poor standard by which to evaluate the past, because as soon as different individuals who live through an event disagree on what happened, all of the accounts come into question. Indeed history is built by sorting through competing evidence and using the evidence to build a compelling account of what happened.
But not for the generation of Americans who lived through the Vietnam War years. For them, all that really matters is that personal impression into which they invested so much emotional energy. They made the 1970s into the “Me Decade,” and while Christopher Lasch saw many long historical antecedents to the phenomena of his times, it was no mistake that The Culture of Narcissism was published in 1979. Just think of their favorite historical parlor game: “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” Which is really to say “Where was I when Kennedy was assassinated?”
Fascinated as they are in their own aging, Baby Boomers assume of course that as they head towards dotage all of the rest of us would like a front row seat. To be fair, Boomers are neither the first nor the last generation of Americans to be self-centered, and time will tell whether such self-regard has become a permanent American trait. For now, however, the persistent narcissism of the Vietnam generation goes a long way toward explaining why the debate has been so pernicious in its repetition. Earlier this year, journalist and academic Todd Gitlin wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
I was not one of the three-million-plus Americans who served in the armed services there or nearby, but another kind of veteran, one of “the movement,” as we used to say, whose idea of how to invest our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor was to strive to extricate America from a moral catastrophe and leave that unfortunate country to its own devices. The war was both my obsession and, for years, the pivot of the life I cheerfully lived instead of a career. Whoever I might have turned out to be had John F. Kennedy lived or Lyndon Johnson made different decisions was a question that fell out of my mind…
…and so on. The article was called “My Vietnam.” Of course. Is there any other kind?
The war was so central to a self-involved generation in their formative years that what was formative to them simply must be formative to everyone. When Tom Brokaw called the veterans of World War II the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers like professor Leonard Steinhorn and novelist Mark Kurlansky showed up to insist that the Boomers were truly the greatest. Whereas the World War II generation only began to revisit what their service meant decades after the fact, the Boomers have never stopped using Vietnam to bludgeon every historical event before and since. Post-Vietnam commentators have insisted that George Washington and Nathanael Greene were prototypes for Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, and their British opponents hapless Westmorelands. Napoleon crushed all comers until he found intractable Vietcong-like guerrillas in Spain. The disillusionment of British soldiers with the First World War only began to make sense in America when compared to the angst of Vietnam veterans. The Soviets fought their Vietnam in Afghanistan, and the Israelis have fought so many Vietnams with their Arab neighbors—the latest one in Lebanon—that it’s hard to tell where southeast Asia ends and southwest Asia begins. Aging protesters have filed back into the streets to insist that America was headed into another Vietnam in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf (the first time), Somalia, the Balkans, and virtually every other American use of force since, including of course the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Google search for Vietnam and Iraq brings up over 160,000,000 hits. World War II and Iraq—where part of World War IIwas actually fought—gets about 7,000,000. Considering the fact that the orthodox and the revisionist schools cannot even agree on first principles when it comes to Vietnam, are we really sure that it is the best analogy to help guide our actions today? Yes, the United States is supporting and fighting along one side in both Iraq and Afghanistan, like America fought alongside the South Vietnamese. However, even a casual look at the wars from a military perspective shows that is where the similarities end. The policy objective of the United States is different; the enemy’s ideology, objectives, numerical strength, organization, tactics, technology, external support, and training are all different; the American forces are drastically different in allies, personnel, equipment, and training; and the terrain and weather are different.
Yet here we are in 2011, being told that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still looking for a Tet that will lead to their Walter Cronkite moment, or that Abu Ghraib was the same as My Lai, or that Iranian arms shipments to insurgents and cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan represent a latter day Ho Chi Minh trail. All of that means the United States faces the same choice it did during the Vietnam War: accept the evilness and futility of the overall project, or take the handcuffs off of the military and do whatever is necessary to win. But the truth is that the debate over Vietnam has been so contentious that we have never quite settled on what Tet, Cronkite, My Lai, or the Ho Chi Minh trail really meant in the first place, so comparisons to later wars do not actually say that much.
A Chance of Objectivity
If I had to guess, in the long run some version of the revisionist view will probably win out. The evidence, as best as I can sort it out, favors this interpretation. The United States got into the war for mostly the right reasons. American policymakers like Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara too often lost sight of the big picture and thus struggled to maintain coherence in their strategic guidance for the war, but they were right not to take the war to the North. South Vietnam was a real country and not a puppet, and that their political and military record was mixed but improving. The American military made plenty of mistakes with messages about the war and maintaining soldier discipline and morale, but generally did fairly well given the complex environment. American support for the war effort fell apart due to a complex combination of issues, including mistrust for the federal government in the aftermath of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, a poorly run conscription system, exhaustion over social upheavals at home, and ongoing frustration with South Vietnamese efforts. And finally, the harm done by the Communists in Vietnam in pursuit of their ideology and aided and abetted by greater Communist powers far exceeded the threshold of whatever sympathy we can muster for the nationalist and anticolonial aspects of their cause.
Even such conclusions, parsed as they are to shreds, will elicit howls of outrage from those who lived through the events and know absolutely how it all went down. What’s more, such conclusions clearly must be meant to serve some nasty current policy agenda. No amount of evidence will change their minds; no level of dispassion will persuade them that their personal impression at the time is not the best way to come to a greater understanding of the events of their lives. But when it comes to historical interpretation, I’ll take indifference over narcissism any day, because detachment provides at least a chance of objectivity.
If the world is viewed as the dim background in the mirror, then what is always most important is the image in the center of the reflection. Anyone who loses sight of that must be shouted at until they remember what really matters. It is all so tiresome and predictable.
This is how history gets forgotten. When it comes to the Vietnam War, at least for the time being, that’s really for the best.