The Book Club

The Bandwagon Defect

Hello, Fred–

Well, after our moment of concord, let’s give the crowd what it came for. Are you ready to rummmmmmmmbbbbbllle??!!

Actually, let’s talk about concord a little more. Maybe the most surprising thing about Michael Lind’s book is what has not occurred. When I heard that it was coming out, and what its title was, I thought: Oh, no, here we go again. I was remembering the rancor that followed two previous revisionist works on Vietnam–by Norman Podhoretz and Richard Nixon, to say nothing of Robert McNamara’s 25-years-after-the-fact revelation that he’d made a little mistake back in the ‘60s. Each of these books seemed to zoom us straight back in time to all the anger of that era. (Disclosure: I was really in a lather about McNamara’s book and did a very bitter denunciation of it on NPR. I said, essentially, if you didn’t speak up when it could have made a difference, Mr. Secretary, you should have the decency to remain silent now. Chances are I attacked the other books too. Bonus disclosure: As is no secret, I was in the antiwar protest movement in the ‘60s and avoided being drafted in 1970 by deliberately failing a physical.) In fact, Lind’s book has received mainly positive reviews, and not all from publications in the “stab in the back” camp.

It’s conceivable that the calmer reception has to do strictly with the book and its author. These other writers were public figures during the war; Lind was a schoolboy. They wrote as if they had scores to settle; reviewers often settled scores right back. But factors like these can’t be the whole explanation. One of the things I don’t like in the book is a long chapter debunking myths of Vietnam (e.g., that the Khmer Rouge were OK until U.S. bombing of Cambodia drove them berserk). Many of Lind’s specific points are reasonable, but it’s the one place where he has a categorically dismissive rather than explanatory tone. The journalists were all dupes, so were the lefties; this is a picture of the antiwar movement similar to the protestors’ mental picture of Johnson, McNamara, and Rostow. That this hasn’t yet created a flap may mean that people haven’t noticed. Or it may mean that the emotional steam has gone out of the whole subject. If so, I think the rise of John McCain has a lot to do with it. Or it could just be actuarial forces. The median age in the United States is just over 30, so most Americans have no personal memory whatsoever of this episode.

On to the disagreement. There is so much in this book that I’d like to go into 20 different themes that it raises. But one is most important–and it’s the main one where I disagree both with you and with Lind.

To recap: The two great axioms of the book are: 1) Great powers constantly test each other for dominance, and if one side shrinks from a fight, even a symbolic one as in Vietnam, its perceived “weakness” will cascade into real weakness, as other countries classify it as a loser. But also 2) the United States will stomach wars, other than total wars against Hitler, only as long as the casualty rate is low.

On No. 1, for reasons we just don’t have space for here, I think that Lind presents the “bandwagon” effect of weakness in too sweeping and mechanistic a way. But that’s because I belong to the camp he’s specifically arguing against: the “minimal realists,” who think the country doesn’t have to accept every symbolic challenge. Lind presents No. 2 not as a failing of America–as he hardly could, having written before about the evils of an “overclass” that avoids military service and public obligations–but as a realistic factor to bear in mind when the country makes commitments. (As an important corollary to No. 2, Lind argues–unlike many conservatives–that the United States couldn’t have fought Vietnam, in a really, really casualty-sparing way, with all-out attacks on the North, because China and the Soviet Union would have backed North Vietnam up.)

When you put these together, you end up with the contention that it was better to have gone in, casualties and all, than to have avoided the fight early. The clinching evidence is supposed to be that Southeast Asia is in better shape than if we hadn’t fought.

Now, I love Southeast Asia. I lived for two years in Malaysia–which beat its own Communist uprising a decade before Vietnam. But even accepting, for purposes of argument, that America’s war spared Malaysia and its neighbors from invasion, it wasn’t worth it. We are marveling at an end to rancor after 25 years, which shows how terrible the damage was within the United States.

The clinching argument on my side comes, you will be pleased to hear, from Ronald Reagan. Lind presents the Reagan years as the time of a revived Cold War, which he endorses as a way to offset the bandwagon of weakness that followed the collapse of Saigon. But Reagan was unbelievably conscious of the need to avoid U.S. casualties. This was the president who pulled out of Lebanon after Marines were bombed there. So he clearly found a way to project a “bandwagon of strength” without putting U.S. troops on the line. Sounds like effective “minimal realism” to me!