The Book Club

Vietnam: The Necessary War

Greetings, Fred; greetings to the Book Club community.

This book was a huge surprise for me. But first, let’s have a little talk about the unspoken psychology of book reviewing.

It seems to me that there is a basic question about a book that’s often the real question in a reviewer’s mind but that rarely gets laid out directly in a review: Do you hope other people actually read the book? We can all think of books that we read as reviewers (because we have to), and whose achievement and message we applaud but that we’d never urge our friends to take the time to read themselves. Similarly, other books may have big logical holes, or messages we find unconvincing, but are nonetheless a ton of fun to read.

So let me start by saying: People should read Michael Lind’s new book. You and I, Fred, will no doubt find things we disagree about in the book’s message. I will try to explain in the next few days why I am unconvinced by the most fundamental point the book tries to make. But I will be satisfied if people take from the Book Club one point only, which is that they should get hold of this book. There is much more richness and subtlety to its content and argument than we can cover here.

I know and respect Michael Lind. He is productive, versatile, and above all, utterly fearless. He writes with a kamikaze spirit (in the admirable sense)–taking his argument as far as he can and not seeming to care about who might be mad at him as a result. Many people who write as fearlessly as Lind does are often tempted to be contrarian just for the hell of it. Think of Christopher Hitchens’ debunking of … Mother Theresa. And I was afraid that this would be my main reaction to Lind’s new book. He would start by finding the event that most people consider to have been a disaster, and by sheer virtuosity try to show that actually it was a good idea and a big success.

But the tone I feared, of being contrarian for its own sake, turns up only a little bit, as we’ll discuss later on, in sections arguing that more or less everyone was wrong in assessments of Vietnam at the time, and in Lind’s proposal of a new regional-psychology explanation of why the United States goes to war. But the book as a whole is a calm, well-researched, carefully reasoned, gracefully written development of an argument that I finally disagree with but that cannot at all be laughed off. By the end of our installments here, I will have tried to convince Book Club members that this book has the wrong title. It should have been called Vietnam: The Understandable War. Lind does a very impressive job of showing why people who weren’t idiots and weren’t war criminals made decisions that turned out so badly through the 1960s. He does not convince me that it was “Necessary,” in the sense that policy makers at the time had no better options.

But that’s for later installments. Let me wrap up this one, and suggest some areas for discussion and disagreement, in three ways.

1) What the book basically says. The heart of Lind’s argument is that the Cold War was a real war, “the third world war of the twentieth century.” The Soviet Union and its pawns and allies really wanted to expand their ideological, military, and territorial influence, and they really were engaged in a winner-take-all contest with the United States and its allies for supremacy. Because of nuclear weapons, the United States and the Soviet Union could not afford to do what great rival empires would previously have done: go to war over the places that really mattered to them, in this case Europe and China-Taiwan-Japan. Instead they tested each other constantly in proxy wars, for instance, and over Taiwan. These proxy fights mattered because real fights were too dangerous.

In all of these other cases, Lind says, the United States understood the importance of winning or at least contesting the proxy fight: mounting an airlift to Berlin, arming Taiwan, fighting in Korea, making clear that it would resist any further push on these frontiers. If the United States had not done so, he says, then its world position would have fundamentally changed, with serious consequences for it and the world. No one would have believed in its will to fight. There would have been a “bandwagon” effect against it. Vietnam, in his view, was not an exception to this pattern, but a logical–“necessary,” as he puts it–continuation.

2) What’s interesting about his argument. Lind means to debunk “minimal realism,” the argument that the United States should do only those things in the world that it really has to do, because the great evils it must avoid are overextension and overcommitment. As applied to Vietnam, this would mean staying out of a fight that was likely to go bad. But Lind comes up with a memo claiming that in 1950, George Kennan had made the same argument–about Korea! There was really no way to preserve it from the Communists in the long run, so it would be better to look the other way if the Russians or Chinese tried to take over. (“A period of Russian domination, while undesirable, is preferable to continued [American] involvement in that unhappy area.”) Assuming that the memo is presented in context, it is interesting, to say the least. There are dozens of similar discoveries.

3) Where I think he has not made the sale. Lind recognizes that a “necessary” defense of South Vietnam would have cost many American lives–because the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Soviets had so much at stake in the conflict. Because of the casualties, Lind says, the United States would eventually have had to leave Vietnam anyway. The (quite understandable) nature of American politics is that support for a war falls when casualties rise.

Nonetheless, Lind says, the strategy of “maximal realism” means it would have been better to have started the defense, and continued it until the casualties became too high for domestic politics to bear, than to have taken the “minimal realism” course of not starting the fight.

This really is the crux of the “necessary” argument: better to have fought and withdrawn than never to have fought at all. This is where I disagree with Michael Lind–and with you, Fred, I’m guessing. Reading this book helped me see that I am a “minimal realist.” Here’s a place we might start. Do you agree with this characterization of Lind’s argument? And do you agree with him that it was worth having made the start, even if the end was likely to be bad?