In the ongoing debate over the war in Iraq and, in a larger sense, American involvement in the war on Islamic terrorism, the ghosts of the Vietnam War linger. It seems we cannot go a day without spurious comparisons to the Vietnam "quagmire" or, more accurately, the dire consequences of a premature withdrawal of troops, both then and now.
It’s even become part of the standard narrative for America’s enemies to conjure up the perceived U.S. defeat in Vietnam as proof that the same thing will happen today in Iraq.
The significance of the Vietnam War, both from a historical and a political standpoint, cannot be emphasized enough. It was the most controversial of all America’s military ventures and it led to a rupture in American society that continues to this day. If allowed to hold sway, this rupture threatens American success in Iraq and beyond.
Speakers at a four-day symposium titled, "The Vietnam War: History and Enduring Significance," at Hillsdale College this month came to much the same conclusion.
Gathered together were the "new historians" of the Vietnam War. This group of military historians, veterans, and social commentators has dared to challenge the anti-war orthodoxy that dominates American higher education, mainstream media, and popular culture. Namely, the belief that the war was an intrusion of unwarranted U.S. military aggression into a civil war and in support of a corrupt and inept ally.
Mark Moyar, author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965" and the first to speak at the symposium, labeled this conventional wisdom the "Halberstam/Sheehan/Karnow" narrative. He was referring to the three journalists and authors who, in his opinion, did more to engender a false and negative view of America’s role in Vietnam than anyone.
David Halberstam’s book, "The Best and the Brightest" (1972), Stanley Karnow’s "Vietnam: A History" (1983), and Neil Sheehan’s "A Bright Shining Lie" (1988) were critically acclaimed at the time of their publication and went on to become bestsellers. More importantly, the picture they painted of the Vietnam War has persisted in the American popular consciousness.
So too has the image of U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam and, later, Vietnam veterans, as drug-addled, psychotic losers. This stereotype was refuted by speaker after speaker at the Hillsdale symposium, not to mention the questions and comments from veterans in the audience.
Mackubin T. Owens, associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, himself a Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient, didn’t pull any punches in expressing his disgust with the dysfunctional image of Vietnam veterans in American popular culture. Particularly, he pointed out, via films such as "Apocalypse Now," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Platoon," and "Casualties of War." Hollywood has tended to present the war as a boondoggle and veterans its willing dupes to an American populace that, unfortunately, gets much of its history lessons from the movies.
Owens reserved particular contempt for Senator John Kerry and his April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he accused his fellow soldiers of committing widespread atrocities and, essentially, of being war criminals. As Owens indicated, no one denies that atrocities occurred, as they do in all wars. But, quoting decorated Vietnam veteran and "Fields of Fire" author Senator Jim Webb, "stories of atrocious conduct, repeated in lurid detail by Kerry before the Congress, represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme."
The image of the famed 1960s anti-war movement as being fueled by idealism, representing the entire baby boomer generation, and ending the Vietnam War also received a sound thrashing at the Hillsdale symposium.
In this case, author, film critic, and talk radio host Michael Medved did the honors. As a former leader of the Vietnam anti-war movement, Medved witnessed its foibles and follies from the inside. In fact, it was the callousness of his fellow peaceniks towards the victims of the Cambodian genocide and Vietnamese totalitarianism in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal that propelled Medved towards the other end of the political spectrum.
As Medved pointed out, it was not idealism that motivated the 1960s anti-war movement, but, rather, the military draft and the desire of adherents to avoid serving in Vietnam. What else accounted for the veritable disappearance of the once mighty anti-war movement after President Nixon ended the draft in 1973? The opportunity for young activists to meet girls didn’t hurt either, he noted.
Furthermore, far from representing the entire baby boomer generation, the anti-war movement constituted a societal fringe. Much like today, where adherents of the anti-war movement inflate their numbers through the depictions of a biased media, then too, those out protesting the war represented only a fraction of the population.
As for ending the war itself, it was general war-weariness, as well as the fallout from failed political and military policies, that, according to Medved, were the true cause of its demise.
Other speakers examined these political and military policies in great detail. And, lest it be thought that the Hillsdale symposium constituted some sort of cheerleading session for the Vietnam War, there was plenty of criticism to go around.
It was almost universally felt that the U.S.-instigated overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dihn Diem in 1963 served as a setback for America’s allies. According to Mark Moyar, the coup was fomented by anti-Diem reports from erstwhile reporters Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow, which, in turn, were based on unreliable sources. Accepted without question by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, these reports formed the basis for the ill-conceived coup to follow.
Colonel H.R. McMaster author of "Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam" reserved his harshest criticism for President Lyndon B. Johnson. As McMaster noted, "the failure of Vietnam was a failure of leadership." McMaster contended that it was Johnson’s determination to pursue political consensus that set the tone for the administration’s misguided policies. More intent on pushing his "Great Society" domestic agenda than on winning the war, Johnson failed to provide the sort of leadership and vision required by history.
McMaster was equally critical of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who he described as mired in "service parochialism" and willing to "compromise principles for expediency." In his view, the outcome of the war might have been quite different if the Joint Chiefs had seen fit to confront Johnson with their doubts about his strategies.
It was this very outcome upon which Lewis Sorley, author of "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam" focused in his speech, titled simply, "Endgame."
According to Sorley, the U.S. defaulted on all of its commitments to its South Vietnamese allies, who, in contrast to the manner in which they were portrayed, "fought well and valiantly."
Sorley was particularly aggrieved by the Democratic-dominated U.S. Congress’ abandonment of the South Vietnamese, most evident in the decision to cut off funding in 1975. It was, as Sorely noted, a "naked, mean-spirited act" that eventually extended to the downgrading of single rounds of ammunition and even fertilizer.
Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union continued to provide the N. Vietnamese with a steady stream of supplies and, as he put it, "proved to be better and more fruitful allies than the
The Cold War backdrop for the conflict in Vietnam was brought into sharp focus by Michael Lind, author of "Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict." Rather than emphasizing the Vietnam War itself, Lind provided a larger context for what was, in fact, just one battleground in a worldwide power struggle.
As he noted, the typical view of the Vietnam War is one in which American troops were pitted against the N. Vietnamese in an "anti-colonial war." But these opposing forces were merely proxies in a wider conflict involving the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China. This struggle also encompassed the Korean War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the continuing tension involving China and Taiwan.
Since the U.S. today is, in theory, prepared to go to war to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression, why then, argued Lind, "wouldn’t American presidents have gone to war in Vietnam and Korea in the 60s?" Moreover, he pointed out, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was instrumental in preventing China and the Soviet Union from subsuming the entire Third World. In other words, the domino theory holds up.
However, as Lind and other speakers made clear, it was the unwillingness of U.S. leadership at the time to confront China that prevented U.S. forces from invading N. Vietnam and, thereby, striking a crippling blow to its enemies.
Classical historian and author Victor Davis Hanson also provided a long view of the Vietnam War, framing it within the context of Western civilization.
Hanson focused on two threads running throughout Western civilization: the citizen soldier and self-criticism. The latter, he noted, beginning with the Vietnam War began to veer dangerously close to nihilism. The propensity for members of the Western liberal intelligentsia to sympathize with totalitarian forces was demonstrated by David Halberstam’s fawning biography of N. Vietnamese Communist dictator Ho Chi Mihn. Titled simply, "Ho," the book, as Hanson described it, "made Ho Chi Mihn out to be Lincoln."
Similarly, the once-trusted television news anchorman Walter Cronkite’s devastating report on the Tet Offensive – namely that it had been lost when in fact the opposite was true – seemed to represent more wishful thinking than reality.
Hanson made reference to the recent antics on parade at the Senate Armed Services Committee to bolster his argument. The grilling of General David Petraeus by Senate Democrats and the despicable Moveon.org ad calling him "General Betray Us" brought to mind, he noted, the anti-war movement’s use of "General Wastemoreland" to describe General Westmoreland during the Vietnam War.
In regards to citizen soldiers, Hanson pointed out that Vietnam was the first war in U. S. history in which society had reached such a high level of affluence that asking the citizenry to give it all up and travel across the globe to fight in what appeared to be an obscure battle began to seem less appealing. Bringing the issue back to the present, Hanson warned that, "Americans have to feel that their civilization is under attack" to instill this level of commitment.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it would seem obvious that American, and, by extension, Western civilization is under attack. Thankfully, many brave citizen soldiers have responded to the call to arms, both in Iraq and beyond. If the legacy of the Vietnam War teaches us anything, it’s that their sacrifice must not be in vain.
Likewise, if the Hillsdale symposium imparted anything, it was that the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. It is crucial that those pushing for the very policies today that proved disastrous in Vietnam, and promoting the same disdain towards the U.S. military, not prevail. To allow them to do so would be to demonstrate that we’ve learned nothing. And, as always, history will be the judge.