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Having sought to avoid this outcome, the United States found itself at war.
The place was an impoverished peninsula near a major industrial region, to which the United States was committed by a long-standing military alliance. The enemy was a communist dictator who skillfully manipulated the nationalism of his people in an attempt to unite all members of his ethnic group into a single enlarged state under communist-nationalist rule. The dictator's regime, ignoring an ultimatum by the United States and its allies, persisted in sponsoring a low-intensity war against the inhabitants of a neighboring territory that the communist-nationalists sought to bring under their control.
The terrain, wooded and mountainous, favored the communist-nationalists. Throughout history, the region had been invaded many times, by external powers that had often come to grief. The president of the United States and his advisers, stunned by the number of troops that Pentagon estimates called for, repeatedly shelved plans for sending in ground forces.
Nevertheless, the administration believed that something had to be done. If the United States allowed itself to be humiliated by the communist-nationalist regime, then its military credibility would be seriously undermined. The regional alliance that the United States led might dissolve as the area's countries lost faith in American protection. Across the world, both enemies and allies might interpret American retreat as a sign of military incapacity or lack of political resolve. The reputation of the United States for power and determination, the basis of its rank in the regional and global hierarchy, was at stake.
Reluctantly the president ordered the bombing of the communist-nationalist dictator's homeland, hoping that air power alone would compel the dictator to abandon his campaign of aggression. Although a majority of Americans initially supported the bombing, the president's critics accused him of waging war in violation of the Constitution. A number of leading radical leftist intellectuals and journalists denounced the bombing as an act of immoral American imperialism. "Realists" in the press and academy, dismissing the importance of U.S. military credibility as a factor in world politics, claimed that no vital American interest was at stake in this poor and peripheral region of the world. Some conservatives denounced the limitations on the military effort as proof of the folly of trying to wage a "liberal war."
When bombing initially failed to change the enemy's policy, the pressures on the president to commit ground troops increased. The president, a politician more interested in the mechanics of domestic reform than in foreign policy, pondered his options. To back off at this point would result in devastating humiliation for the United States, with consequences around the world that could not be foreseen but which might well be severe. To escalate the war by introducing ground troops would be to risk a bloody debacle and a political backlash. Every choice presented the possibility of disaster.
This is a description of the situation that confronted President Bill Clinton in the spring of 1999, after the United States and its NATO allies began bombing Serbia with the goal of forcing Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic to agree to autonomy for the Albanian ethnic majority in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. It is also a description of the dilemma of President Lyndon Johnson in the spring and summer of 1965, when the failure of U.S. bombing raids against North Vietnam to dissuade Ho Chi Minh's communist dictatorship from its low-level war against South Vietnam had become apparent. In each case, what was at stake for the United States was its credibility as the dominant global military power and the survival of a regional alliance NATO in the case of the Balkan war, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in the case of the conflict in Indochina. (In fact, SEATO did dissolve, when the United States abandoned Indochina to communist conquest between 1973 and 1975.)
Both Slobodan Milosevic and Ho Chi Minh were communist dictators who manipulated the nationalism of their subjects Milosevic in the service of his dream of a Greater Serbia dominating the former Yugoslav federation, Ho in the service of the dream of a united Vietnam dominating all of Indochina. Both Milosevic and Ho promoted their goals by supporting guerrilla terror campaigns in other countries. Milosevic armed, supplied, and directed Serb paramilitary units engaged in mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia; Ho armed, supplied, and directed Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia who waged war against South Vietnamese military and police forces and murdered tens of thousands of South Vietnamese officials and civilians. In both cases, the low-intensity wars launched by the communist-nationalist dictators produced tidal waves of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs were forced from their homes in different parts of the former Yugoslavia by Serbian ethnic cleansing. Nearly a million residents of North Vietnam fled Ho Chi Minh's rule in the 1950s, and following the communist conquest of South Vietnam in the 1970s more than two million others risked their lives in fleeing the country. Of the two communist-nationalist leaders, Milosevic was the less tyrannical; his Serbian regime was far less repressive than the government of Ho Chi Minh. The latter was a strict Stalinist dictatorship that tolerated no political or intellectual dissent and executed more than ten thousand North Vietnamese villagers in cold blood in a few months because they were landlords or prosperous peasants and thus "class enemies," according to Marxist-Leninist dogma.
Despite these similarities, the U.S. wars in the Balkan and Indochinese peninsulas differed in one fundamental respect. The Yugoslav War was not a proxy war among great powers. Although Russia protested the NATO war against the Serbs and supplied some limited assistance to the Milosevic regime, postcommunist Russia, truncated, impoverished, and weak in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, did not commit itself to defeating American policy in the Balkans. The situation was radically different in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union then growing rapidly in military power, confidence, and prestige and communist China. Despite their rivalry for leadership of the communist bloc of nations, the Soviets and the Chinese collaborated to support North Vietnam's effort to destroy South Vietnam, to promote communist revolutions in Indochina and, if possible, Thailand, and to humiliate the United States. In the 1990s, Serbia was a third-rate military power lacking great-power patrons. In the 1960s, North Vietnam was protected from an American invasion, and equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and air defenses, by the Soviet Union and China, the latter of which sent hundreds of thousands of troops to support Ho Chi Minh's war effort between 1965 and 1968. By the late 1970s, the Vietnamese communists, after annexing South Vietnam, occupying Cambodia, and breaking with and defeating China in a border war, possessed the third largest army in the world and ruled the most important satellite region of the Soviet empire outside Eastern Europe. At the time of the Vietnam War, the United States was engaged in a desperate worldwide struggle with two of the three most powerful and murderous totalitarian states in history; in 1999, the United States faced no significant challenge to its global primacy by another great power or coalition.
The American wars in defense of Kosovo and South Vietnam, then, differed chiefly in this respect: More far more was at stake in Vietnam.
As a result of the U.S. intervention in the Balkans, the assumption that America's intervention in Vietnam was an aberration, an assumption shared by many critics across the political spectrum, is no longer plausible. Twice in thirty-five years, American armed forces have engaged in massive military intervention in a civil war in a peripheral region in order to demonstrate the credibility of the United States as a military power and an alliance leader. When the Korean War is taken into account, the Vietnam War looks less like an exception and more like one member of a series of similar American limited wars (as of 1999, the Gulf War looks like the exception to the norm established by the Korean, Vietnam, and Yugoslav wars). Whether or not the American intervention in Kosovo ultimately achieves its goals, one thing is certain the debate about the Vietnam War in the United States will never again be the same.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it took on a second life as a symbol in American politics. For the radical left, the war was a symbol of the depravity of the United States and the evils of "capitalist imperialism." For the neoisolationists and "realists" of the liberal left, the U.S. war in Indochina was a tragic and unnecessary mistake, brought about by American arrogance and an exaggerated fear of the threat posed to U.S. interests by the Soviet Union and communist China. Conservatives, too, had their orthodox view of the conflict. Conservatives joined many military officers in arguing that the United States could have achieved a quick and decisive victory in Indochina, if only the pusillanimous civilian policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had not "tied the hands" of the U.S. military and "denied it permission to win."
One point of view has been missing from the debate over the Vietnam War. The political faction known as liberal anticommunists or Cold War liberals, identified with the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, ceased to exist as a force in American politics in the 1970s, more as a result of partisan realignment than of the Vietnam War. One group of former Cold War liberal policymakers and thinkers sought to ingratiate themselves with the antiwar leftists and liberals who were ascendant in the Democratic party after 1968. Among these were the late McGeorge Bundy and his brother William (who, as part of his campaign to rehabilitate himself, recently wrote a harsh and unfair book criticizing Nixon's and Kissinger's handling of the war that the Bundys had helped to begin). Former defense secretary Robert McNamara not only recanted his support for the war in his book In Retrospect but endured the abuse of functionaries of the Vietnamese dictatorship during a humiliating pilgrimage to Vietnam in 1997. Another group of former Cold War liberals joined forces with anti-Soviet conservatives, maintaining their support for the Cold War while jettisoning their prolabor liberalism in domestic politics. The number of unreconstructed Cold War liberals thus dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s, making it easy for radical leftists, left-liberals, and conservatives, in their discussions of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s, to caricature and vilify Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and their advisers with no fear of rebuttal.
Almost everything written by Americans about the Vietnam War in the past quarter century has conformed to one of the three scripts of radical leftism, anti-Cold War liberalism, or conservatism. Each of these three partisan schools has drawn attention to evidence that appeared to support its preconceptions, while ignoring evidence that contradicted them. These ritualized debates might have continued for another generation or two. But two historic developments have now made it possible to transcend the thirty-year-old debates about the Vietnam War.
The first development is the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, including the global collapse of communism and the realignment of world politics around the United States as the hegemonic military power. Only now is it possible to view the Cold War as a whole and to evaluate the U.S. strategy of global containment that led to the U.S. wars in defense of South Korea and South Vietnam, as well as the U.S. protectorate over Taiwan "the three fronts," according to Mao Zedong, where the communist bloc met the American bloc in East Asia.
The second development is the demise of the radical left in North America and Western Europe as a political force (leftism survives only in pockets in the academy and the press). In the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendancy of the radical left in the liberal and social democratic parties of the West the Democrats in the United States, the British Labor Party, and the German Social Democrats caused western electorates to turn to conservative, anticommunist parties under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. The economic difficulties of Swedish social democracy, coming soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have discredited western as well as eastern Marxism and permitted the emergence of a new, more moderate center-left, variously described as "the Third Way" or "the New Center" and symbolized by President Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair. As recently as the Gulf War, which the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress voted against, foreign policy debates in the United States pitted anti-American leftists and isolationist liberals against interventionist conservatives. But the subsequent U.S.-led NATO war in the Balkans, supported by many liberals and opposed by a number of conservatives, has helped to rehabilitate the legitimacy of military intervention for many left-of-center Americans.
These developments in global politics and western politics have made it possible to write this book, which could not have been written in the 1970s or 1980s. In this book, I examine the Vietnam War in light of the end of the Cold War, from a centrist perspective more sympathetic to American Cold War policymakers than that of their critics on the left and the right.
The United States fought the war in Vietnam because of geopolitics, and forfeited the war because of domestic politics. This being the case, I make two major arguments in this book, one about the geopolitics, and one about the American domestic politics, of the Cold War. The argument about geopolitics is that in the circumstances of the Cold War, and particularly in the circumstances of the 1960s, the United States was justified in waging a limited war to defend South Vietnam and its neighbors against the communist bloc. The argument about U.S. domestic politics is that the Vietnam War was not uniquely divisive. Rather, this particular Cold War proxy conflict exposed preexisting regional, ethnic, and racial divisions in American attitudes about foreign policy divisions familiar from previous American wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The two subjects of geopolitics and domestic politics are connected by the issue of the costs, in treasure and blood, of American Cold War policy. In both the Korean and Vietnam wars, the balance of power between interventionists and isolationists in the U.S. Congress and the public at large was held by a "swing vote" sensitive to casualties. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States could not afford to do too little in Indochina, for fear of a disastrous setback in the Cold War a struggle that was as much a test of nerve as a test of strength. At the same time, the United States could not afford to do too much in Indochina, for fear of undermining American public support, first for the defense of the Indochina front, and then for U.S. Cold War strategy in general. The choice between global credibility and domestic consensus was forced on American leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the costs of the war in Vietnam chiefly, the costs in American lives, though the costs in Indochinese lives and the costs to America's global military infrastructure and its financial hegemony were also important factors.
This, then, is the story I have to tell about the Vietnam War. It was necessary for the United States to escalate the war in the mid-1960s in order to defend the credibility of the United States as a superpower, but it was necessary 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. Indochina was worth a war, but only a limited war and not the limited war that the United States actually fought.
The argument set forth here differs fundamentally from a new and misguided consensus on the subject of the Vietnam War that has become influential in recent years. That argument holds that it was a mistake to intervene in Indochina at all, but that once the United States had intervened, it should have used unlimited force to quickly win an unqualified victory. The political appeal of this emerging consensus is obvious. While it offers nothing to the radical left, it makes concessions to "realist" left-liberals (who are acknowledged to have been right about U.S. strategy) and to promilitary conservatives (who are acknowledged to have been right about U.S. tactics). As a rhetorical formula that can "heal the wounds of Vietnam," this emergent synthesis has much to recommend it. Unfortunately, as an assessment of the Vietnam War it is wrong, and to the extent that it influences U.S. foreign policy it is dangerous.
In addition to examining the Vietnam War from a post-Cold War perspective, one of the purposes of this book is to set the historical record straight. I address the major myths about Vietnam disseminated by the radical and liberal left at the time of the war and repeated for three decades afterward. When one examines the historical record, one finds that:
- Ho Chi Minh was not a Vietnamese patriot whose Marxism was a superficial veneer; like North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Cambodia's Pol Pot, Ho was both a nationalist and a doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist whose brutal and bankrupt tyranny was modeled on Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China.
- Ho was not the only legitimate nationalist leader in Vietnam; he and his subordinates found it necessary to execute, assassinate, imprison, and exile noncommunist nationalist leaders and dissidents in both North and South Vietnam.
- Ho was not a Southeast Asian Tito who might have created a neutral united Vietnam equidistant from Moscow, Beijing, and the United States in the 1940s or 1950s; there were pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions among the Vietnamese, but no prowestern faction. The United States did not miss an opportunity to befriend Ho in 1945 or 1950 or 1954 or 1956.
- South Vietnam did not violate international law by refusing to participate in national elections in 1956.
- The murder of South Vietnam's President Diem in the American-approved coup d'état in 1963 did not abort a potential reconciliation of North and South Vietnam.
- The South Vietnamese insurgency was not a spontaneous rebellion against misgovernment; although many noncommunist South Vietnamese took part, the guerrilla war was controlled by Hanoi from the beginning to the end.
- The Vietnamese communists were never serious about a coalition government for either South Vietnam or the country as a whole, except as a transition to communist rule; talk of a coalition government was a propaganda ploy intended to fool western liberals and leftists. (It did.)
- The South Vietnamese regime did not fall in 1975 because it was uniquely corrupt and illegitimate. It fell to Soviet-equipped North Vietnamese tanks only because the United States, which had left troops in South Korea to defend a comparably corrupt and authoritarian dictatorship, had abandoned its allies in South Vietnam.
To a remarkable extent, anti-Vietnam War activists recycled both Marxist and isolationist propaganda from previous American antiwar movements. For example, much of the anti-Diem and pro-Ho Chi Minh propaganda echoed the left's vilification of China's Chiang Kai-shek and South Korea's Syngman Rhee and its idealization of Mao Zedong; only the names of individuals and countries were changed. Various "missed opportunity" myths about U.S.-Vietnam relations were first spread in the context of relations between the United States and communist China in the 1940s. The influence of the generations-old isolationist tradition in the United States is clear in the arguments that Johnson and Nixon were treacherous tyrants whose foreign wars endangered the U.S. Constitution arguments almost identical to those made against previous wartime presidents, including Polk, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman. The ease with which Francis Ford Coppola could turn Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a parable about European imperialism in Africa, into the movie Apocalypse Now illustrates the extent to which much anti-Vietnam War literature and art has been generic antiwar propaganda that could be illustrated by imagery from any war in any country in any period.
In the section of this book dealing with domestic politics, I demonstrate the extraordinary continuities between the anti-Vietnam-War movement and other antiwar movements both earlier ones, like the movements opposing U.S. intervention in World Wars I and II, and subsequent ones, like the nuclear freeze campaign and the opposition to the Gulf War. Most remarkable of all is the continuity in regional attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. The Democratic party's abandonment of the Cold War liberalism of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson for the neoisolationism symbolized by George McGovern and Frank Church can be explained almost entirely in terms of the shift in the party's regional base from the promilitary, interventionist South to Greater New England, the region of the United States associated throughout American history with suspicion of the military and hostility to American wars.
Let there be no doubt: There will be "Vietnams" in America's future, defined either as wars in which the goal of the United States is to prove its military credibility to enemies and allies, rather than to defend U.S. territory, or as wars in which the enemy refuses to use tactics that permit the U.S. military to benefit from its advantage in high-tech conventional warfare. The war in Kosovo fits both of these definitions. Preparing for the credibility wars and the unconventional wars of the twenty-first century will require both leaders and publics in the United States and allied countries to understand what the United States did wrong in Vietnam and, no less important, to acknowledge what the United States did right.
Copyright © 1999 by Michael Lind