Lien-Hang Nguyen: Exploding the Myths About Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

Lien-Hang Nguyen is an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam.”

AS the war in Afghanistan drags on with no definitive victory in sight for the United States and American troops begin to withdraw, comparisons to the Vietnam War are once again in the air, 50 years after both Washington and Hanoi decided to beef up their forces in South Vietnam. “Just take a run through the essential Vietnam War checklist,” wrote Tom Engelhardt in Mother Jones magazine, noting “there’s ‘quagmire’ ” and “the idea of winning ‘hearts and minds’ ” as well as “bomb-able, or in our era drone-able, ‘sanctuaries’ across the border” and even “a one-man version of My Lai.” Although these analogies are particularly attractive to critics — who see America’s battle in Afghanistan as even more futile than Vietnam and advocate a quick exit — they are deeply flawed.

Among the many problems with drawing lessons from Vietnam and applying them to Afghanistan is that the history of the Vietnam War is often completely misunderstood. The war’s history is constantly evolving as new evidence emerges, particularly from the other side. Since too little attention was paid to understanding the enemy’s motivations, internal dynamics, and foreign relations, we have always had an incomplete and incorrect picture of that war.

If we are to learn from the past, then, it’s worth parting the bamboo curtain that has long concealed decision making in North Vietnam to dispel some ingrained myths of that oft-invoked war.

IT is commonly believed that North Vietnam decided to go to war in 1959-60 to save the southern insurgency from eradication and that the Communist Party enjoyed the unflagging support of the Vietnamese people until the war’s end in 1975. But recent evidence reveals that the party’s resolution to go to war in South Vietnam was intimately connected to problems at home. Revolutionary war was an effective way to deflect attention from domestic problems, including a devastating land reform campaign, a dissident intellectual movement and an unsuccessful state plan for socialist transformation of the economy....

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