The Book Club

The Winnable War

Hi, Jim,

Maybe the sting is finally out of the Vietnam War debate. Your comments were so reasonable, it’s hard to believe the subject was Vietnam. When I look back now at the Vietnam era and recall what people (including me) thought and said, I think a dark cloud must have passed over the country. Passions were so great on both sides of the debate in the United States–I was antiwar at the time–that few people have honestly reconsidered their views or taken a fresh look at the war and its results.

With all the Vietnam books pouring out, I’d been looking for months for a revisionist take, one that didn’t accept either of the liberal explanations (the United States missed opportunities for a settlement; the war was unwinnable) or the conservative one (politicians tied the hands of the military). But serious Vietnam revisionism barely existed–until Michael Lind’s book came along. I know Mike, but only slightly, and I haven’t read any of his earlier books. I was excited when I read Vietnam: The Necessary War, and I think it’s an enormously important book.

Let me start with three points:

1) Yes, I basically agree with your characterization of the theme of the book. And I agree with Lind that even an ultimately unsuccessful intervention was better than none at all. I’m not the first to make the point that Asia would probably be quite different today (and far worse off) if the United States had pulled out in, say, 1963 or 1964. Then, the dominoes might really have fallen; two did anyway (Laos and Cambodia). Peter Kann of the Wall Street Journal has written that a breathing spell was needed in Asia to allow free markets and political freedoms to grow. And, boy, did they grow during that 10-year period from 1965 to 1975 while the United States staved off the North Vietnamese. Would Thailand be a free country today absent that? I doubt it. Would Indonesia or Malaysia or Taiwan be independent?

2) Lind may overstate the bandwagon effect in world affairs, but there’s certainly something to it. The proof is what happened post-1975 after the United States did bug out. Then, the Soviet Union was emboldened and America was demoralized. The Soviets were soon on the move in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And at least two administrations (Ford, Carter) were all but paralyzed, and Congress was dead set against intervening anywhere. The defeat in Vietnam gave the Soviet Union and the rest of the world the message that the United States was out of the game for a while. And this was an accurate message. Lind’s contention is that things would have even worse if the United States had simply taken a pass on Vietnam. A more damaging message would have been sent and a bigger bandwagon effect touched off. As for minimal realism, it’s an excuse for neo-isolationism, for an ever-shrinking United States role in international affairs. It could have been invoked to let the North Koreans take the South, the Chinese Communists seize Taiwan, and Communist guerillas conquer Malaysia. I’m glad it wasn’t.

3. There’s one area where I think Lind comes up short. He thinks the United States, given the way the war was being fought, should have pulled out in 1968, if only to avert the subsequent casualties that, he argues, wound up weakening America’s determination to combat Soviet and Chinese communism. He’s right about the way the war was fought under Gen. William Westmoreland from 1964 to 1968. Wrongheaded is a mild way of characterizing it. Westmoreland tried to lure the enemy into big battles and stressed body counts. Meanwhile, most of South Vietnam was falling under Communist control. But everything changed when Westmoreland left. His replacement, Gen. Creighton Abrams, adopted a new strategy, stopped fighting major battles, and began piecemeal seizure of land from the Communists. His pacification program brought security and a better economy to rural areas. The Phoenix program wiped out the Viet Cong’s infrastructure. By 1970, the war was won militarily–or almost won. The South Vietnamese army had become a capable force. All that was needed to save South Vietnam was what the United States did in South Korea: leave a couple American divisions and provide military and other support for the government. The truth is, the war in Vietnam was winnable.