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The Big Muddy

George C. Herring is a professor of history at University of Kentucky and the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975."

Americans have a long tradition of rewriting the history of their wars. Nineteenth century “revisionists” traced the origins of the Mexican-American war to a conspiracy of slave owners seeking to expand their control over the federal government. Later generations of revisionists blamed United States intervention in World War I on the pernicious influence of bankers and munitions makers and entry into World War II on Franklin Roosevelt’s provoking the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

The Vietnam War has also had its revisionists but with an unusual twist. In the case of a conflict discredited long before it ended, the generally accepted view was that American leaders had intervened in a war that should not have been fought and probably could not have been won.

Thus, ironically, the first wave of revisionism mounted in the late 1970s by conservative and neoconservative intellectuals and by some former participants comprised a spirited and often passionate defense of a war that was deemed both moral and necessary and that, some argued, could and indeed should have been won. These writings provided an intellectual underpinning for the Reagan administration’s vigorous waging of the Cold War. They did not persuade a skeptical public and had little impact on historical writing about the Vietnam War.

Michael Lind’s “Vietnam the Necessary War” agrees with these revisionists on some key points but departs sharply from them on others, advancing arguments that are certain to provoke controversy. The Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lind calls himself an anti-communist liberal and, like his conservative predecessors, he has an explicit agenda: to correct what he sees as the myths about Vietnam perpetuated by academic and journalistic critics of the war that stand in the way of a vigorously interventionist foreign policy today.

A great deal is packed into these tightly argued pages, but the major points are unmistakably clear and in many cases highly debatable. Lind insists that the war in Vietnam was legal, moral and, most important, as his title boldly asserts, necessary.

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He views the Cold War as World War III and the Vietnam War as one of the “proxy wars” on the Asian periphery that formed its major campaigns. He revives and takes seriously the long-discredited Cold War doctrine of a communist monolith, the notion of a tightly unified world movement directed by the Kremlin and committed to world revolution. He uses--quite selectively--evidence gleaned second-hand from scholars who have worked in newly opened Soviet and Chinese archives to try to demonstrate an absolute unity of purpose among the communist nations. He sees the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as a “charter member” of the “international communist conspiracy,” minimizing the intense nationalism that most writers have seen as an essential part of his being. Ho is condemned, along with his mentors Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, as one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century.

According to Lind, the United States had to stop communist expansion in Indochina to preserve American credibility as a world leader. Otherwise, a bandwagon (rather than domino) effect might have resulted, causing numerous countries to jump on the victorious communist bandwagon and producing a “geopolitical catastrophe” for the United States.

Indeed, he concludes, this is precisely what happened. America’s defeat in Vietnam set off a “worldwide Marxist-Leninist revolutionary wave, and discernible band-wagoning with the Soviet Union . . . in the mid-1970s.” It was stopped only by the Reagan administration’s timely and vigorous reassertion of American power that in time produced a Cold War victory for the United States.

Lind is equally firm on questions of morality and legality. Because communism is intrinsically evil, he argues, the Cold War was moral, and thus the the proxy wars that were central to the Cold War were also moral. He admits the corruption and repressiveness of the South Vietnamese government the United States supported but, he says, it was no worse than regimes the United States backed elsewhere, including South Korea and Taiwan, and it was less corrupt and repressive than its communist counterpart in Hanoi. He spends long pages seeking to correct what he refers to as “disinformation” about the Vietnam War as a way of rehabilitating it and giving it a moral foundation.

The war was also legal, he says, because the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 (which he labels the Southeast Asia Resolution, presumably to give it greater credibility) was a “conditional declaration of war,” an “ultimatum permitting, but not requiring, the president to use military force in certain circumstances.” Through some artful use of the evidence, he takes the resolution further than Lyndon Johnson would have dared, claiming that it authorized the president to expand the war in Indochina and even to go to war with China without seeking further authorization from Congress. And he sees it as a model for military interventions today.

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Could the United States have won the war? Echoing earlier writers, Lind sharply criticizes the United States military, and especially the army, for the way they fought the war. Heavy bombing, intensive artillery fire, the use of big units in search-and-destroy operations did not defeat the enemy and also, more important, they undermined public support for the war. He is even more critical of the way some military leaders blamed defeat on the civilian leadership and since 1975 have been reluctant to commit troops abroad except to fight conventional wars on their terms.

Lind also maintains that the United States should have fought a counterinsurgency war, at least up to 1968. Such an approach, he claims, would have been more effective in dealing with guerrillas and would have entailed a much lower cost, both of which might have helped sustain public support longer.

Lind suggests that the United States did not have to win to avert disaster in Vietnam, one of his most original and least persuasive arguments. A ceiling for casualties should have been set, he asserts, and the war called off when it was reached--presumably after 1968. The trick, he claims (obviously not an easy one to pull off), was to win or lose “well,” that is to say, at acceptable cost, preserving American credibility and sustaining popular support for an interventionist foreign policy.

Lind vigorously defends the much maligned Lyndon Johnson, praising his decision to commit troops to Vietnam, his much-criticized refusal to mobilize the reserves and his micro-management of the military’s conduct of the war. Indeed, he insists, Johnson should have interfered more. He even defends Johnson against charges that he deceived Congress and the nation into war.

On the other hand, he criticizes Richard Nixon. Unlike Charles de Gaulle, who spared France further agony by terminating the Algerian War, Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War in a futile and costly search for peace with honor that accomplished neither peace nor honor and in the process destroyed popular support for the Cold War.

A book like this cannot help but rekindle controversy over a war that never seems to go away. There is no new research here, but the arguments are provocative and in some cases original. Ultimately, for the most part, these arguments are unconvincing.

Lind’s discussion of the nature of the war is as one-dimensional as the views put forward by many of those he criticizes. Newly opened communist archives have revealed a fascinating picture of the complex, nuanced, ever-shifting relations among the major communist nations and their allies. Lind carefully selects only the evidence that fits his notion of a monolith. His portrayal of the North Vietnamese as puppets of China and the Soviet Union and of the National Liberation Front as a puppet of North Vietnam reduces to utter simplicity a highly complex set of relationships.

He is right in arguing that Chinese and Soviet aid was crucial to the outcome of the war, but he ignores other important factors, such as the leadership, strategy and unrelenting determination of the North Vietnamese. The Soviets are portrayed as instigators of the war, but in fact, as Lind fails to note, Soviet aid did not assume significant proportions until after the United States initiated the bombing of North Vietnam in 1965.

Lind seems to know little about the complicated history of Vietnam itself. He ignores the rich body of scholarship dealing with the Vietnamese side of the war, probably because it might get in the way of his argument that the revolution was imported from abroad. French colonialism is scarcely mentioned, and the fact that the First Indochina War began in 1946 as a nationalist anti-colonial war is played down.

His incredible conclusion that through its 1975 victory in Vietnam the Soviet Union “knocked the United States out of the Cold War” would have come as a huge surprise to First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies. The Soviet regime of the 1970s was not the triumphant, menacing machine portrayed here but a sclerotic regime thrashing about recklessly while in the process of self-destruction. Its own internal weaknesses, far more than anything the Reagan administration did or did not do, produced the outcome of the Cold War.

Much of his criticism of the United States military during and after the war is on the mark, but it is not at all clear that his preferred solutions would have produced better results. Fighting guerrillas and winning hearts and minds were not things that Americans or South Vietnamese did well and, as scholars who have written on the insurgency have made clear, the NLF was so deeply entrenched in many parts of South Vietnam by the mid-1960s that it would have required a massive effort to get it out.

Nor is it clear how the United States could have “lost well.” It is difficult to see how any administration could have simply withdrawn once a certain level of casualties had been reached. War is the ultimate act of passion, and it does not lend itself to such fine-tuned rationality. And what would such a withdrawal have done to the credibility Lind attaches such importance to?

The tone of the book is tendentious and polemical. Lind pleads for dispassionate analysis of a war that aroused huge emotions, but he indulges in overstatement. Robert Kennedy’s alleged 1963-1964 contacts with Soviet agents are condemned as “acts of insubordination and political treachery with few if any parallels in American history.” Lind’s analysis of the Vietnam War is closely tied to the war in Kosovo, and he condemns the decision of President Clinton to rule out the use of ground troops as the “single greatest act of incompetence ever committed by an American commander in chief.”

Such phrases as “we now know,” “it is no longer possible to deny,” “nor is it possible any longer to argue,” “history reveals” and “history has vindicated” betray the dogmatic tone of Lind’s arguments and conclusions. His suggestion of an “outreach effort” to correct the alleged liberal imbalance in the media and elite academia is unsettling. It is also troubling when someone claims the authority to pronounce the “genuine” historical lessons of anything. History can be a tricky and unreliable teacher, its lessons elusive and contested.

Lind’s lessons, not surprisingly, are in line with his blueprint for global intervention in the 21st century. The United States must learn how to fight low-intensity wars to uphold its credibility as a world power, and it must maintain an imbalance of world power in its own favor. To facilitate the waging of such wars, conditional declarations of war must be institutionalized and censorship imposed.

Lind’s analysis of the war in Vietnam is as one-sided as many of the academic and journalistic studies he sets out to disprove. It should not and likely will not have much impact on the way we remember or how we write the history of America’s longest and most divisive war.


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