The Book Club

The Folklore of the Antiwar Movement

Our debate reminds me of that old story about Winston Churchill or George Bernard Shaw or whoever the Brit was who asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for one million pounds. She is outraged. “How about for 10 pence?” he asks. “Just who do you think I am, sir?” “We’ve already established that,” he says. “Now we’re just haggling over price.” In a sense, that’s what we’re arguing over. We disagree on whether the price of keeping South Vietnam out of North Vietnam’s control was worth paying–or even if there was a price that might have been politically acceptable in the United States in the early 1970s.

Let me try to make the case that the price was worth paying. First, look at what happened as a result of the American pullout. Critics of U.S. intervention have never come to grips with this. But a lot of horrible things did happen. One million boat people, of whom tens of thousands died at sea. The creation of a giant gulag in Vietnam that was euphemistically referred to as “re-education camps.” I’ve even heard American journalists defend the camps as legitimate educational institutions. An oppressive Communist regime over all of Vietnam. And the fall of Cambodia, which fell all the way back to the Stone Age, and Laos, countries that might not have fallen if the United States had maintained a relatively small military force in South Vietnam and provided serious amounts of aid to non-Communist leaders. My point is that all this was a very high price to pay, though it wasn’t paid by Americans.

Now, what was the most explosive event of the war in terms of adverse reaction at home? Clearly it was the incursion by American troops into Cambodia in 1970. That led to protests all over the country, including the one at Kent State in which four students were shot to death by National Guardsmen. But as bad as the eruption was, the Nixon administration weathered it. Anger didn’t vanish, but it did die down. And I think there was still plenty of room for President Nixon to maneuver. The trouble was he and Henry Kissinger maneuvered for the wrong thing. They got a peace settlement that left some North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, but, ultimately, no American troops.

I know that “what-ifs” are pure speculation, but I’m not going to let that stop me. So, what if Nixon had announced that he would leave a contingent of American troops in South Vietnam. They wouldn’t stay there in a front-line combat role. That would be left to the South Vietnamese army, much improved by this point in the war. But the U.S. troops would be there. At the very least, I believe, their presence would have effectively deterred the North Vietnamese from an all-out attack. It was such an invasion in 1975–and not anything the Viet Cong did–that caused the collapse of South Vietnam. Sure, there would have been protests and teach-ins. Rennie Davis and Dave Dellinger would have been mad. But I think fury would have subsided and the new Vietnam policy could have been implemented successfully.

O.K., all this is hindsight. But we learn a lot from hindsight. You and I agree with Mike Lind’s destruction of myths about Vietnam, or what he calls “the folklore of the antiwar movement.” One of those myths is championed by Fredrik Logevall in Choosing War. That’s the idea of “missed opportunities” for a peace settlement before the American buildup in 1965. As Lind points out, this myth is a favorite of the left and always pops up in connection with U.S. relations with a Communist country. It’s classic anti-anti-Communist. But would any treaty have stopped Ho Chi Minh, a convinced Stalinist, from pursuing his goal of capturing all of Vietnam by any means necessary? Of course not. He’d have achieved his goal a lot sooner.

Jim, I’d recommend a different book, one I’ve mentioned before. It’s A Better War by Lewis Sorley, which explains how the war had been all but won, militarily, by the end of 1970. It hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that Mike Lind’s book has, but A Better War deserves strong consideration by anyone still interested in Vietnam. Yes, I was predisposed in favor of his argument. Still, I think he made it especially well.

As for Nixon, I’m not going to defend him. I’ve always wondered whether, absent Watergate, he’d have lived up to his promise to President Thieu of renewed American military intervention in the case of a North Vietnamese invasion. I doubt it. But, as you say, that’s another story.