The Book Club

How Vietnam Could Have Been Saved


Hmmm, Ronald Reagan’s on your side and not mine? I don’t think so. He was the fellow who declared in 1980 that America’s intervention in Vietnam was a “noble cause”–and the press trumpeted the comment as a gaffe. This didn’t bother Reagan, who was used to such treatment, and it didn’t affect his position on Vietnam. He not only supported the war; he often voiced the conservative argument that Washington politicians had prevented the generals in Vietnam from pursuing a winning strategy. (Lind rejects this view, and so do I.) As president, Reagan was willing to commit American troops, but he didn’t need to. The Reagan doctrine of backing anti-Communist guerrillas around the world worked. Reagan pulled the Marines out of Lebanon both because of the bombing that killed 250 of them and because the Marines didn’t have a mission there in the first place. This doesn’t make him a minimal realist. The truth is, the Marines should never have been sent in.

I think we disagree over what constitutes revisionism. The kind I’d been looking for would bring fresh analysis and a new interpretation of events. The late Peter Braestrup did that in Big Story, which showed how badly the press had misreported the Tet Offensive in 1968 and repercussions it caused. McNamara didn’t do that; he simply embraced the left’s contention that the war was unwinnable and America shouldn’t have intervened. I have to plead amnesia on what Nixon and Podhoretz said exactly. I read their Vietnam books, but I don’t remember them. Must be old age.

The problem with so much that’s been written about the war is that it stops in 1968. At the time, things did not look good for South Vietnam, despite the utter failure of the Viet Cong to achieve what they wanted in the Tet Offensive. The United States was still tied to the Westmoreland strategy of staging big battles. But post-Westmoreland, things did get better, but the media scarcely noticed. To cite one example, in A Bright Shining Lie, one of the most riveting books about the war, Neil Sheehan doesn’t take evidence that the war was finally being won by the United States and South Vietnam seriously. Nor do most others who covered the war. They’re frozen in time, I think, and that time was 1968. By the way, I know of only two journalists who wrote about the war critically and then lamented the outcome and what they’d written. They are William Shawcross and Jean Lacouture.

Casualties. Americans definitely are casualty-sensitive. I’m reminded of this every morning and night when my commute takes me past the Vietnam Memorial. There’s always a crowd there. I think it’s partly because people feel these soldiers haven’t got a fair shake from historians, the media, etc. Anyway, Lind is right that if casualties had stayed at the 1968 level, there would have been a huge political price to pay at home, far bigger than the one that was actually paid. But they didn’t stay at that level. President Nixon began bringing American troops home in 1969. Nonetheless, the war went better. The South Vietnamese fought better. The Viet Cong were driven away from the outskirts of Saigon and isolated in pockets. By 1970, the U.S. side had the upper hand. And some have claimed the war was essentially won. The first time I heard this argument was in 1978 when I took a course on the military at MIT. It was taught by Prof. William Kauffman, who used to write the Pentagon’s annual posture statement. I didn’t believe him at the time. But more recently the case has been made strongly by the late William Colby in Lost Victory and, just this year, by Lewis Sorley in A Better War.

All this leads to a question I’d like you to answer. It’s about the Korea model. What if the United States had not pulled all its troops out of Vietnam, but left, say, two divisions behind and kept up military and economic aid? Might South Vietnam have been–you won’t like this word–saved? I think so. Of course, I’m rewriting history here. In reality, Henry Kissinger allowed the North Vietnamese to keep thousands of troops in South Vietnam when he negotiated the 1972 peace settlement, and all the U.S. troops came home, and all aid was cut off in 1975.

Lind mentions the Korea model, but doesn’t really pursue this point. What’s your view, Jim?