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The War That Will Not End

Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam

by Morley Safer
Random House, 206 pp., $18.95

Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam

by William Colby, by James McCarger
Contemporary Books, 438 pp., $22.95

Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam

by Orrin DeForest, by David Chanoff
Simon and Schuster, 294 pp., $18.95

The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

by Mark Clodfelter
Free Press, 297 pp., $22.95

As I Saw It

by Dean Rusk as told to Richard Rusk, edited by Daniel S. Papp
Norton, 672 pp., $29.95

Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Last Days of the Fall of Vietnam

by Larry Engelmann
Oxford University Press, 408 pp., $22.95

Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives

by James M. Freeman
Stanford University Press, 446 pp., $29.50

Vietnam: ‘Renovation’ (Doi Moi), The Law and Human Rights in the 1980s

Amnesty International
66 pp., $5.00


In Saigon in 1965 I told Walter Cronkite, who was not yet known for having doubts about the war, that I had met a woman, a maid working for Americans in Saigon, who had visited her village, and found that it had just been bombed and bulldozed, and no longer existed. Her entire family had vanished. Cronkite gave me his professional opinion of her story: “Listen, these people are going to have to learn that you can’t fight a war without being hurt.”

I understand this episode better today because of Morley Safer’s recent book Flashbacks, in which he describes how in 1965 Cronkite’s usual skepticism (which Safer calls his “shit-detector”) was immobilized by his military escorts, who “saw to it that he had a chance to see and use everything, go on air strikes, be made to feel an ‘insider.’ ”

All the books about the Vietnam war under review are concerned with death, or at least concerned to show that their authors are not callous about it. Throughout his book Safer keeps asking the Vietnamese he meets if all the deaths were worth it. He describes how the North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap literally brushed the question aside, and he has much to say about the effects of showing dead young Americans on television.

William Colby of the CIA writes in Lost Victory that the Phoenix Program he presided over led to the “elimination”—deaths—of thousands of his enemies, but he wants it understood that they were properly killed, not assassinated. (One of his former employees, Orrin DeForest, casts doubt on this claim in his own book.) Colby, who describes the CIA as an institution of delicate judgment and sophistication, emphasizes that the needless killing by the US army disgusted him. He remembers seeing an American general “expounding on the need for higher body counts, stressing his point with an elongated arm and index finger strikingly evocative of the legendary skeleton Death.”

American policy makers could never decide how they felt, or should talk about, killing Vietnamese. Only a few, notably Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, and John Paul Vann in his last years, were open in saying that killing large numbers of Vietnamese was an effective way of breaking their morale. But according to the military historian Mark Clodfelter in The Limits of Air Power, even the air force, which wanted to bomb the North very heavily, didn’t include killing civilians in its “doctrine,” and it is important to Colby to say that few civilians were killed relative to the quantity of bombs that were dropped.

Death is very important to Hanoi, too. No one knows how many Vietnamese were killed. Most experts say that at least one million North Vietnamese died and Hanoi claims that 230,000 of its soldiers are missing, compared to 2,400 Americans. Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and General Giap spent their citizens’ lives freely to win the war—accepting one of the greatest losses of life in wartime, in relation to population, of any modern country. Once someone went down the Ho Chi Minh trail, he rarely came back unless he was one of a few fortunate wounded, who, Safer writes, were sheltered in their hospitals because Giap didn’t want anyone wounded twice. Some North Vietnamese officials like to boast that although they were badly defeated on the field during the Tet Offensive in 1968, when many of their soldiers were killed or demoralized, it was a psychological victory for them because Americans couldn’t stand the sight of their own dead.

The argument over the war never seems to end, for either side. A good many former American officials, like Rusk, Colby, and DeForest, not to mention General Westmoreland, still claim they could have won—if only there had been more bombing, or less bombing, or better intelligence; or if only we had not collaborated in the killing of Ngo Dinh Diem; or if only we had managed the press more effectively. A few years after the war, Westmoreland told me that Vietnam was the first war in history lost on the front page of The New York Times, and Colby, more subtly, makes similar charges.

Many of the Vietnamese to whom visitors manage to talk in private also feel they have been cheated out of victory, although they were the victors; and more deeply, as Safer shows, many feel a recurrent grievance at having been cheated out of the decent society they hoped for. Their country is poor and oppressive, and hundreds of thousands of people, some of them interviewed by Larry Engelmann and James Freeman in their books on the Vietnamese, have risked drowning, piracy, and rape to flee abroad.

Dean Rusk, the secretary of state for much of the war, admits to his son that he can’t understand how the people on the other side were able to endure the punishment they took. I was reminded by this of the late-eighteenth-century Chinese Emperor Qian Long, whose forces had participated in the two-thousand-year-long Sino-Vietnamese war: “The Vietnamese are indeed not a reliable people. An occupation does not last very long before they raise their arms against us and expel us from their country. The history of past dynasties has proved this fact.”1

Dean Rusk wants to have his say because he needs to draw closer to his son, Richard, who was a member of the Marine Corps Reserve and a student of political science at Cornell during the war and now lives in Alaska. Rusk had maintained that he would never write a memoir of his years as secretary of state to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but in 1984, when Richard, then almost forty and desperate for a closer relation to his father, drove from Alaska to his father’s doorstep in Georgia, Rusk agreed to talk openly with his son—to a degree—to “reforge the broken chain.”

The matter of death arises on Richard’s first page, where he refers to his father as “an architect of a war that killed fifty-eight thousand Americans and nearly a million Vietnamese.” After years of being unable to talk to his father about this, he wants to know what Dean Rusk thinks about it.

I’ve always had a sense of inner self that was impenetrable,” Dean Rusk admits to Richard. The curtain lifts here and there, especially on Rusk’s rural southern childhood and youth, but on Vietnam only slightly, and then only when the main facts have already appeared in print, often in the Pentagon Papers. “Most disappointing of all,” Richard writes, “he remained somewhat tight-lipped on Vietnam, revealing little of his inner struggle, saying less about conflicts within the administration over policy.”

Richard writes with great affection of his father, but he also remarks on his lack of introspection or psychological curiosity about others. What emerges from his book as well is Dean Rusk’s deep respect for his superiors, George Marshall, John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, and “all my presidents,” for none of whom he can find anything serious to criticize, although occasionally he concedes that things might have been done otherwise. Rusk tells his son that he sometimes questioned a particular action, even the sending of American troops into Vietnam—“we should not make a commitment unless we are prepared to carry through”—but he hurries to assure Richard that he could never be described as opposing official policy—“I didn’t necessarily oppose sending combat troops to Vietnam.”

Two things about Rusk strike one at once: his professed incomprehension of the motives of the North Vietnamese, and his advocacy of a policy that called for killing large numbers of them. After telling Richard that Hanoi’s tenacity stemmed from its ideology, fanaticism, and rigid social controls, Rusk freezes when asked, “Short of blowing them off the face of the earth how could we have defeated such a people? Why did they keep coming? Who were these people? Why did they try so hard?”

I really don’t have much to answer on that, Rich,” he finally said. Both of us were emotionally drained.

A bit further on, Dean Rusk returns to the inability to understand the North Vietnamese, which he refers to as one of his “two serious mistakes with respect to Vietnam.” The other mistake was overestimating the patience of the American people, who “strongly prefer peace and abhor war”—although he adds, “God bless us for that.” Rusk observes that if, instead of waging war “calmly” as a “police action,” the United States had committed 100,000 troops in 1962, “it is just possible that the North Vietnamese would have realized we were serious.”

Look at what could have been done, Rusk suggests: mining Haiphong harbor, bombing downtown Hanoi, destroying the northern dikes, invading the North, even using nuclear weapons. The United States, he reminds Richard, “in the late 1960s…could have lost ten thousand a week. We could have knocked out three hundred million people in the first hour.” (There were only eighteen million North Vietnamese.)

What continues to puzzle Dean Rusk is the Vietnamese capacity for absorbing even restrained American actions. “They took frightful casualties. In relation to our own population, their total casualties throughout the war were roughly equivalent to ten million American casualties.” But Rusk was willing to discover the limits to Vietnamese endurance:

I thought North Vietnam would reach a point…when it would be unwilling to continue making these terrible sacrifices…I thought Hanoi might come to the conference table and call the whole thing off. I was wrong.

Dead and wounded Americans did disturb Rusk; he recalled visiting an American army hospital in Saigon in 1966 where the nurse, a captain, “stared long and hard at me with a look of undisguised hatred…. From the look on her face she clearly held me responsible for what had happened to those men. I never forgot the look on that nurse’s face.”

Richard, too, became a casualty of his father’s willingness to support a policy of inflicting pain on others, even if it gave him bad memories:

Unable to stop the war, unable to take part, caught between my love for my father and the growing horror of Vietnam, I had begun to question the premises and assumptions that underlay my dad’s thinking. All this led to an emotional and psychological journey that ended, one year after he left office, in psychological collapse.

You had your father’s nervous breakdown,” a psychologist told me seventeen years later…. [My father] was unprepared for such a journey, for admitting that thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese might have been lost in vain.

For Dean Rusk little has changed. “What was Vietnam all about?” he asks rhetorically. His answer is simple: Hanoi was attempting to impose its will on the South by force. And why did the Americans respond? “The United States had a clear and direct commitment to the security of South Vietnam and external attack. This commitment was based upon bilateral agreements between the United States and South Vietnam, upon the SEATO Treaty, upon annual actions by Congress in providing aid to South Vietnam,…” etc. Then there is honor: “When the president of the United States makes a commitment, it is vitally important that what he says is believed. When both my presidents said ‘Gentlemen, you are not going to take over South Vietnam by force,’ I felt we had to make good on that pledge.”

  1. 1

    Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858–1900, Monograph Series No. 11, Southeast Asia Studies (Yale University Press, 1967), p. 3.

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