The recent 10-part PBS series on Vietnam by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has reawakened the ghost of the war (1960-1975) that still haunts the baby boom generation. Since I served two tours in Vietnam in 1972 and 1973, and then devoted the bulk of my scholarly career to writing about the Vietnam War, I felt compelled to watch the series.
It was an intense — and upsetting — experience. Still, the series resurrected several issues that deserve further consideration. Here I will confine myself to the Alpha and the Omega of the Vietnam War itself: the going in and the coming out. These, I think, are the critical points where judgments on America’s most misunderstood war have to be made.
Concerning the going in: The series conveyed the impression that intervening in the war was pointless, and morally dubious, for the United States because it was interrupting a longstanding Vietnamese drive for national independence. Though partly true, much more history is needed for the full story.
First, the documentary made far too little of the fact that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were communists — and, the communist rise to power in the North was brutal; their conduct in the war in the South was brutal (the communists inflicted far more civilian deaths than did the U.S.); and their treatment of the vanquished southerners was brutal.
Second, internationally, the Vietnam War was part of a global Cold War (1947-1989). In the 1950s and 1960s, the Russian communists maintained a huge nuclear-armed military in Europe challenging America and its allies, and attempted to upset the balance-of-power by the secret and provocative installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. Meanwhile in Asia, China hurled a million troops against American soldiers fighting in the Korean War (1950-1953).
In South East Asia, communist insurgencies in the same 1950s and 1960s raged in Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines. Further, in 1965 in Indonesia, the communists staged a coup within the military that nearly toppled the government. And, in Indochina (which included Vietnam); the communists defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, thanks to Chinese-supplied artillery. The defeat and withdrawal of the French left a huge power vacuum in Southeast Asia, leaving a Cold War region on fire with a contagion of communist expansion.
To counter all this, the United States stitched together a series of treaty alliances as a dike against the communist tide: NATO in Europe and SEATO in Southeast Asia, which included Vietnam in its “treaty area.” Thus, when Vietnamese communists reignited an “armed struggle” in 1959 and then sent North Vietnamese “regular” units south in 1964, the United States intervened to fulfill its treaty obligations to block this aggression. Despite the tragic result in Vietnam, the U.S. intervention brought time to the rest of region for governmental institutions to “nation build” and dry up their own insurgencies, in large part because Chinese and Russian attentions had diverted to Vietnam. Significantly, today, apart from the former Indochina, the rest of Southeast Asia is non-communist and prosperous.
In brief, America’s engagement in the Vietnam War was not pointless or morally dubious, and the 58,000 names inscribed on the wall of Vietnam War Memorial did not die in vain. To imply otherwise does a disservice to the truth — and to the memory of my fallen comrades.
But it was in the coming out where the United States disgraced itself. Contrary to the series’ contention that Washington saw no way to win the war, but continued cynically on anyway, both of the American commanders in Vietnam (Generals Westmoreland and Abrams) had strategies for victory. Abrams demonstrated the success of his “Vietnamization” approach in the victorious repulse of Hanoi’s Easter Offensive of 1972. South Vietnamese ground forces, accompanied by a network of battlefield American advisers, supported by American air power, proved unbreachable by communist forces. President Nixon issued a public promise at a press conference in January 1973 to re-engage this formula should the communists attempt another offensive.
When the communists did just that in 1975, America refused to honor the pledge of its Watergate scandal-tarnished former president, or to render any further military assistance at all. For the chaos that ensued in the collapse of South Vietnam, and for the recriminations that still ripple in the United States, the only word for our behavior is betrayal.
For me, as a veteran who worked closely with the Vietnamese, abandoning our friends in South Vietnam remains an indelible stain on the Stars and Stripes of our Flag.