Was Vietnam Winnable?

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My interest in the Vietnam War began in the early 1990s, when I took a college course on the history of the conflict. Part of what drew me to the subject was the visceral contempt that my peers, professors and intellectuals generally had not just for the war, but for its veterans. It seemed to me a profound wrong that the young men who had risked their lives in Southeast Asia were deemed less worthy than those who had stayed safe at home.

The history of the war, as taught in my college classes, rested on two assumptions. First, that the war was unnecessary; the “domino theory,” the idea that a Communist takeover in Vietnam would cascade through the rest of Southeast Asia, was wrong. Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a Communist — and therefore, America needn’t have worried about “losing Vietnam.” The fact that most of the dominoes did not fall after South Vietnam’s defeat in 1975 was Exhibit A.

The second assumption was that the war was unwinnable. According to the orthodox historical narrative, the United States never could have won the war because of the dedication of the Vietnamese Communists, which was said to be far superior to that of America’s South Vietnamese allies. No alternative strategies could have achieved success, and hence America was fated to abandon South Vietnam after sustaining prolonged casualties.

As I pursued the study of Vietnam into graduate school, I began to question both these assumptions. By delving into the conflict’s deep crevices, I came upon a wealth of untapped information pointing me in a different direction. (I owed many of those discoveries to Merle Pribbenow, a retired linguist who found and translated a wealth of documents and histories from the opposing side.) These North Vietnamese sources shed extraordinary light on longstanding debates. They showed that North Vietnam controlled the South Vietnamese “resistance” from the beginning, even while Hanoi’s propagandists convinced gullible Westerners that it was a purely local movement. They also refuted the widely held view that the South Vietnamese government was reeling militarily at the time of Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination in November 1963.

Other discoveries resulted from investigation into hitherto neglected aspects of the war. No previous historian had looked in detail at what was taking place in the neighboring “dominoes” when Lyndon Johnson made his fateful decision in 1965 to insert American ground troops into the war. In fact, in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, anti-Communist leaders were warning that South Vietnam’s fall would cause all the Southeast Asian dominoes to fall, and were offering to commit troops to the anti-Communist cause. Suddenly, the domino theory looked far more plausible.

As the huge size of the unexplored territory became apparent to me, a projected single-volume history of the war turned into a trilogy. The first volume, covering 1954 to 1965, took seven years to complete. Titled “Triumph Forsaken,” it was promptly termed “revisionist,” since it fundamentally challenged the reigning orthodoxy, joining a small number of other books in that category such as Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War” and H. R. McMaster’s “Dereliction of Duty.”

The book showed that Ho Chi Minh was a doctrinaire Communist who, like his Soviet and Chinese allies, adhered to the Marxist-Leninist view that Communists of all nations should collaborate in spreading the world revolution. By the time of Johnson’s decision to deploy ground troops into South Vietnam, Ho and his allies were nearing their objective of turning all of Southeast Asia Communist, and they most likely would have succeeded had the United States bailed out. American intervention made possible an anti-Communist coup in Indonesia and the self-devastation of China’s Cultural Revolution, and it bought time for other Asian dominoes to shore up their defenses.

Not only was the war necessary, I argued, but it was winnable with better strategic decisions. The most momentous blunder was the decision of the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to foment the coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, which wrecked the South Vietnamese security apparatus and led North Vietnam to initiate a huge invasion of the South. Another mistake was Johnson’s decision to not insert American ground forces into Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a move that would have transformed the war and reduced the need for American forces.

The book generated considerable discussion in academic circles, including a volume of responses, “Triumph Revisited.” Some of the resulting conversation was constructive, but much of it was dismissive, petty, even ad hominem, particularly when it came from veterans of the antiwar movement and their protégés. Although a minority of professors welcomed a well-substantiated challenge to conventional wisdom, the collective hostility coalesced wherever I applied for an academic faculty position.

I bring this up not to gain admittance to the nation’s ever-expanding victim class — my misfortunes with academia led to the unexpected good fortunes of teaching terrific students at America’s military universities and conducting research on pressing topics. Rather, it is to point out the dangers to society of a politicized academia. When a profession that claims to thrive on new ideas and debate instead ostracizes those who challenge certain orthodoxies, it deprives students of access to serious thought and encourages the rest of society to ignore it. The only way for the profession to regain its relevance is to show that it is open to challenges, and that it will give serious consideration to new ideas.

Challenging the orthodoxies around Vietnam is as important today as it has ever been. While working as a consultant in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones, I saw politicians, military officers, journalists and political scientists seek to apply the lessons of Vietnam. The more I saw, the more I became convinced that superficial historical understanding and excessive reliance on academic theorizing were yielding bad advice — advice that could get men and women killed, that could even lose wars.

In fact, my most recent research, focused on the events of 1967, casts important new light on how domestic conversations about war can have a decisive effect. Among the most fascinating developments of 1967 was the Johnson administration’s regret about its decision to refrain from generating support for the war by discussing the necessity for it in public. The lack of public enthusiasm for the war, administration officials now realized, was encouraging the enemy to believe that the United States would eventually abandon its ally, and therefore North Vietnam had no reason to desist.

“The administration made a deliberate decision not to create a war psychology in the United States,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked that October, because it was “too dangerous for this country to get worked up.” Johnson, Rusk and other officials had feared that war fever would undermine the domestic programs of the Great Society and heighten tensions with the Soviets. But now, Rusk conceded, “maybe this was a mistake; maybe it would have been better to take steps to build up a sense of a nation at war.”

During 1967, White House advisers and foreign leaders repeatedly urged Johnson to change course, to tell the American public why the United States was in Vietnam and what it was trying to achieve. But Johnson could not bring himself to do it, even as he increasingly recognized the damaging consequences of his silence. “If history indicts us for Vietnam,” Johnson admitted in the fall, “it will be for fighting a war without trying to stir up patriotism.”

In the absence of presidential cheerleading, American public support for the war declined over the course of 1967. As administration officials had feared, the apparent weakening of American resolve hardened the determination of the North Vietnamese to persist. Hanoi rebuffed every American overture for peace negotiations, anticipating that the coming Tet offensive would destroy what remained of America’s will.

In other words, the public’s turn against the war was not inevitable; it was, rather, the result of a failure by policy makers to explain and persuade Americans to support it. Today, with the country engaged in two distinct, long-running conflicts and the possibility that others could flare up at any moment, it’s a lesson that our current leaders should take to heart.

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