Were the Hawks Right About the Vietnam War?

THE Vietnam War unsettled a lot, not least the relationship that normally exists between orthodoxy and revisionism in historical writing. It's usually the case that the former precedes the latter: the first historians to write about great events generally accept official explanations for them. Only with the passage of time and the opening of archives does skepticism tend to emerge. For Vietnam, though, the sequence reversed itself. With dissent mounting to unprecedented levels during that conflict, and with the Pentagon Papers having produced a flood of documents prior to its conclusion, few if any scholars were prepared to accept the justifications that the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations had provided. Few have done so even now, three decades later. Revisionism did not just precede orthodoxy with respect to Vietnam: for historians, it has always been the orthodox view of the war.

Michael Lind's book breaks new ground, therefore, by insisting that the Vietnam War was necessary for precisely the reasons that American leaders at the time said it was: to preserve the credibility of Washington's commitment to containing communism throughout the world. By questioning -- at times assaulting -- most previous scholarship on the subject, Lind writes as an uncompromising, even a radical, revisionist. But his revisionism defends the decision-makers: the "best and the brightest," he insists, knew what they were doing and had no choice but to fight the war.

In making this argument Lind draws heavily on the publications of the Cold War International History Project, and especially on research in Soviet and Chinese archives by the historians Ilya Gaiduk, Chen Jian, and Qiang Zhai. He shows that Ho Chi Minh could hardly have defeated the French in the early 1950s or challenged the Americans a decade later without military assistance from Moscow and, to an even greater extent, from Beijing. He claims that Marxism-Leninism gave Ho, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Mao Zedong a common objective in seeking revolution throughout the world: "In reality, there was an international communist conspiracy, and Ho Chi Minh was a charter member of it."

The Cold War was, therefore, "a world war ... in which the future governance of the international system was at stake, and in which the great powers opposing the United States and its allies were the moral equivalents of Nazi Germany." Vietnam became a battleground because the Soviet Union did not dare challenge the Americans in Europe -- or, after the Korean War broke out, in Northeast Asia. In the Third World, though, Moscow could conceal its hand and still advance its cause. Ho's reputation as a nationalist, together with Mao's willingness to sustain him, made Vietnam a particularly promising opportunity. This was a confrontation, then, that the United States could hardly have avoided: to have remained aloof would have risked "a dramatic pro-Soviet realignment in world politics."

Vietnam was the right war, Lind thinks, but it was fought in the wrong way. Lyndon Johnson deferred too uncritically to generals whose strategy of searching out and destroying enemy forces -- instead of securing population centers -- produced more casualties than results. As a predictable consequence, public and congressional support eroded. Expanding the conflict would only have made things worse, because, new Chinese sources show, Mao was prepared to intervene. The only good alternative was for "the United States to forfeit the war after 1968, in order to preserve the American domestic political consensus in favor of the Cold War on other fronts."

Victory, Lind maintains, was not the point. All that was needed was to have made an effort, to show that the United States would defend its allies in the Third World as well as elsewhere, to assure future targets of Moscow's expansionism that Washington would not abandon them. But by sticking with the war to the point of a complete collapse of domestic resolve and a humiliating withdrawal, the Nixon and Ford Administrations encouraged Soviet aggressiveness during the late 1970s -- a trend reversed only when Ronald Reagan took the country back to a strategy of making its commitments credible once again.

Such is Lind's argument, and some of it makes sense. We do know now that Stalin, Mao, and Ho met in Moscow in 1950 to map out the strategy for an eventual takeover of Indochina. We know that there was greater Soviet and Chinese support for North Vietnam than previously suspected: Russian anti-aircraft crews actually shot down Americans over that country, and at one point there were as many as 170,000 Chinese soldiers on its territory. We know that the North Vietnamese were never really serious about a negotiated settlement, and that their supposedly autonomous Viet Cong allies were in fact their puppets. We certainly know that the Americans and the South Vietnamese had no monopoly on the use of violence: the North Vietnamese were just as bad, and the Khmer Rouge were of course much worse.

STILL, I had an uneasy feeling as I read this book. One reason was its supercilious tone, which ill accords with its slapdash composition. It's not a good idea to treat most other historians of one's subject as knaves, fools, or incompetents (I seem somehow to have been exempted) and then to place the Formosa Resolution, the Sputnik launch, and the Buddhist uprisings in South Vietnam in the wrong years, or to assure us that New York once had a senator named Javitz.

A more serious problem is Lind's selective use of evidence. He ignores a central finding of Gaiduk's research, confirmed in the former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin's memoir: that far from seeking a confrontation with the United States in Southeast Asia, Kremlin leaders in 1963 and 1964 were hoping for détente and hence tried -- unsuccessfully -- to restrain Hanoi. He neglects what Zhai and Chen have revealed about how Mao sought to use the war to turn the Soviets and the Americans against each other, and how the North Vietnamese later played off the Russians against the Chinese. He misses the irony of Nixon's plotting with Mao and Zhou Enlai against Moscow in 1972. If there really was an international Communist conspiracy, it functioned strangely.

Nor is Lind clear on just why American credibility was at stake in Vietnam. The United States never trumpeted its determination to keep China from going Communist in 1949, or North Vietnam in 1954, or even Cuba in 1959, and these defeats produced no discernible pro-Soviet realignment in world politics. It's hard to see how anyone could have viewed American credibility as being on the line in South Vietnam until officials of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, through their failure to distinguish vital from peripheral interests, unwisely put it there. It was they, not their adversaries, who risked the nation's reputation. As precedents set by their predecessors suggest, they need not have done so.

It's even harder to see how the United States, after entering and escalating the war, could simply have "forfeited" it after 1968. Lind is irresponsibly vague on what he means by this: What would the nature of the settlement have been? How would some 500,000 American soldiers have been withdrawn? What would then have happened to the South Vietnamese, on whose behalf the United States had gone to war in the first place? Henry Kissinger, who lacked the luxury of sliding past these issues as easily as Lind does, put it well in White House Years (1979): "We could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and thirty-one thousand dead as if we were switching a television channel."

Lind makes credibility a supreme national interest and then, all too casually, dismisses it. He seems not to recognize its relationship to context, capability, geopolitics, morality, or contingency. He certainly fails to see the importance of retaining the initiative: to announce an intention to defend all points is only to invite adversaries to pick the most favorable ones to attack. "The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle," Sun Tzu wrote more than 2,000 years ago. "And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few.... when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere."

It's disconcerting, therefore, to find Lind concluding that the only plausible path to peace and justice in the post-Cold War world is an "imbalance-of-power" favoring the United States. His book winds up as an undisguised pitch for American unilateralism -- for preparing everywhere against whatever might come along. Learning the "right" lessons from Vietnam, he is sure, can help to pull this off. That there might be deeper lessons from a more distant past about the dangers of such arrogance seems not to have occurred to him.

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Were the Hawks Right About the Vietnam War - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 130-132.