Murray Polner, Review of David L. Anderson, editor, The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (Columba University Press, 2011)
Looking back at the still highly politicized Vietnam War debate, sixteen historians, eminent scholars of the war at home and abroad, have drawn on recent scholarship for their conclusions about that calamitous conflict. The result is a brilliant collective exposition of what happened and why. Editor David L. Anderson, Professor of History at California State University, Monterey, and former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, explains: “The assumption behind this work is that many of the historical themes in the study of the Vietnam War have contemporary relevance” (my italics).
Do they! We need only consider our nation’s historical and unceasing addiction to war and military intervention and the abysmal failure to hold powerful decision-makers accountable for all those wars and the many deaths they incurred. When the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, was dedicated and thus became a sacred shrine to the dead in a war that should never have been fought, no one in authority who had dreamed up the bloodletting had ever been held accountable, thereby insuring that few if any future lessons would be learned.
So it’s fair to ask, even at this late date, why the U.S. from the early fifties on, insisted that Vietnam, north and south, large parts of which were impoverished and rural, was of such vital American interest that it would eventually cost the lives of more than 58,000 American troops, a disproportionate number of whom were draftees, and another 153,000 or so wounded in body and mind, not to mention more than one million southeast Asians? “Few wars in U.S. history have been so affected by domestic politics and few wars have had such a lasting impact” writes Melvin Small, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Wayne State University.”
The U.S. disapproved of colonialism but was fearful of Communist expansion, which led Washington to favor France then trying to hold onto its Asian colony because the battle was viewed as vital to U.S. national interests. “Washington’s first reason for favoring France was that Europe, not Southeast Asia, was America’s front line of defense in the emerging Cold War,” writes Anderson, a belief which became the basic assumption of U.S. foreign policy in the post-WWII Cold War decades. “The United States might criticize France for its behavior in Indochina, but it would ”not risk a rupture with Paris for the sake of the Vietnamese—especially not for a Vietnamese political movement headed by a man [Ho Chi Minh]with a history of collaboration with Moscow and the Comintern.”
Secondly, the triumph of the Communists in China and the Vietminh’s “ideological and military closeness to the new rulers in Beijing raised the specter of a ‘Red Menace’ in Asia” akin to that of the Soviets in Europe. And finally, “If France, Britain and Japan were to be effective political and economic allies of the United States, French interests in Southeast Asia were worth preserving as part of an American trading block.” The United States “had no significant investment in Indochina, but they did have a large stake in the economic health of major U.S. allies.” Early on in 1950 the Truman administration recognized South Vietnam and sent $10 million in military aid to the pro-French Vietnamese in Saigon. “By late 1952, U.S. funds were paying for more than one-third of the French war costs.”
Gary R. Hess, Distinguished Research Professor of History, Emeritus, at Bowling Green State University, argues that by 1965 Lyndon Johnson’s essential dilemma was whether “U. S. national security require[d] ensuring the survival of South Vietnam” and points to his retention of Kennedy’s Cold War foreign policy advisors. Richard H. Immerman, Professor of History at Temple University and director of the Marvin Wachman Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy, offers his insight: Eisenhower and Kennedy, he notes, never had the limited vision about Southeast Asia as did Johnson and his hawkish advisors, but neither “demonstrated the foresight or political courage to make a decision based on the realistic assessment that there never would be a viable state of South Vietnam and that a unified Vietnam under Communist leadership would not threaten the United States or its allies.”
“Foresight and courage” were certainly lacking throughout the ranks of policymakers and pro-war cheerleaders in and out of the Congress. In the earliest stages of the war there were always a handful of American dissenters such as long-forgotten senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, insider George Ball, and outsider John Kenneth Galbraith who challenged the intervention but none more so than Senator George McGovern, who on September 1, 1970, demanded an end to the failing war and the return of troops to the U.S., telling his senate colleagues, “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. ” Not many listened.
Still, despite the continuing dispatch of troops to war, most Americans and the mass media believed that the Reds were out to control all of Southeast Asia. So it was easy to swallow talk about falling dominoes, a bizarre hypothesis dreamed up by home front theorists and which was later echoed during Ronald Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America.
The defeat in Vietnam at first seemed to exhaust American foreign policy elites’ appetite for more wars, but not for very long. In Andrew Bacevich’s important new book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, he explains his opposition to our perpetual wars. Bacevich, whose son was killed while serving in the Iraq war—see his article “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose,” Washington Post, May 27, 2007 – served in the army during the Vietnam War, retiring with the rank of Colonel, and is now Professor of International Relations at Boston University. “In the simplest terms,” he writes, “the [American] credo summons the United States -- and the United States alone—to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world,” a doctrine which requires the U.S. spend billions if not trillions of dollars and maintain a permanent military presence in some 700 overseas bases. Conservative Patrick J. Buchanan –yes,Patrick J. Buchanan—has rightly asked about our latest war,” Why is Libya’s civil war our problem?”
The invaluable Columbia History of the Vietnam War offers cautionary lessons even as our nation fights three wars and continues planning for and spending enormous amounts for our inevitable future wars.
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Tim Matthewson - 4/8/2011
The book captures the essence of ideas that drove America in the post-war world: "The U.S. disapproved of colonialism but was fearful of Communist expansion, which led Washington to favor France then trying to hold onto its Asian colony because the battle was viewed as vital to U.S. national interests."
Now that the USSR has collapsed, I would like to ask if Americans have achieved any greater insight into the well springs of US foreign policy.
As we plunge into the middle east, more and more deeply, I would like to suggest that we have learned little or nothing.
H Doanld Capps - 4/4/2011
Forgive me if I seem a trifle puzzled by your statement given that I have done much work in what was once a focus area for me in literally a few decades. It is difficult to discern whether this is a question of semantics or of political geography. There was the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam and there was the Republic of Viet-Nam from the time of the French withdrawal, 1954, until the forced unification in 1975 when it became the Socialist Republic of Viet-Nam.
The RVN was composed of the area in the south known as Cochin-China and the DRVN in the north the area known as Tonkin, both sharing parts of the area between the two, An-Nam.
These three areas were roughly the way what is known as Viet-Nam operated, there being sometimes one, two or even three divisions within what is now a single country.
I think that to suggest that the idea of "south Vietnam" being "conjured up in the mind of someone in Wash., D.C.." might be a bit of hyperbole. While the US was very much in favor of, as well as supportive of, a pro-Western regime in the former Cochin-China and An-Nam area, one should also realize that those living in the area also had something to say regarding the matter. To suggest otherwise would be to dismiss some very important factors in the history of the struggle that developed. It would also smack of not letting the facts get in the way of an opinion.
ken lusk - 4/3/2011
FYI, there was never a south Vietnam. It was conjured up in the mind of someone in Wash., D.C. and never existed in reality. The USG propaganda machine is the only place it existed. Americans being instilled with mindlessness don't know to discern thoughts from facts. The is there was only a Vietnam which means there was never a north Vietnam as well.
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