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The Never-Ending War

essentially urged civilian authorities to plan for general war…. They made quite clear that they regarded nuclear weapons as an essential element in plans to deal with possible North Vietnamese or Chinese retaliation.

Within a few months, Professor Kaiser continues, “remarks by leading civilians showed a willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to North Vietnamese or Chinese aggression against the South, just as the Chiefs had suggested.”In late 1964, “when someone asked whether nuclear weapons might be used, McNamara said that he could not imagine such a case, but McGeorge Bundy predicted that under certain circumstances both military and political pressure for their use might arise.”

Professor Kaiser says the Vietnamese war “occurred largely because of Cold War policies adopted by the State and Defense Departments in 1954-1956.”In fact, the origins were earlier. It was the White House, beginning under Truman and Eisenhower, that foresaw US military responses to Communist aggression anywhere, especially in Southeast Asia. George Kahin, whose scholarly expertise was ignored by successive administrations, put this clearly: the French attempt to defeat Ho’s forces provided

the pretext for claiming that a colonial war had been transformed into a civil war, in which France was simply supporting one of the two contestants…. And the Truman administration soon participated in this charade, Secretary of State Acheson in par-ticular helping to ensure that one of the most perduring myths of the Vietnam War gained popular acceptance in the United States—if not in France.14

Neutralism was viewed by men like Dulles and Eisenhower as the equivalent of communism. Drawing on recently released documents, Professor Kaiser derides the notion of Eisenhower as a champion of restraint. Beginning in 1955, while the war was still being fought by the French, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff observed that the “use of atomic weapons should result in a considerable reduction in friendly casualties and in a more rapid cessation of hostilities.” During Eisenhower’s presidency, Professor Kaiser writes, the administration “did everything it could to build up pro-American, anti-Communist regimes in Southeast Asia, while preparing to meet renewed Communist aggression with American military force, including atomic weapons.”

Thereafter, in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, and most of the Joint Chiefs “never questioned the assumptions of the Pentagon and State Department, and supported intervention in Southeast Asia from 1961 on.” McNamara and the Pentagon, moreover, “helped hide the true situation from the President, the rest of the government, and the American people, thereby putting off the need to reevaluate American policy. Kennedy died believing, mistakenly, that the war was still going well.”

Kaiser’s theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning:

Having lost the war in the South Vietnamese countryside, they had chosen to begin a new war against the government, the society, and the regular army of North Vietnam, which in turn had secured powerful material and manpower support from Communist China and the Soviet Union.

While doing so, Johnson’s closest advisers “accepted the need to conceal new departures from the American people and loyally collaborated in deceiving the public….”

This is true, but it is also true that while the public, as Professor Logevall shows, and as the defeat of Goldwater in 1964 proved, was not keen for a wider war, after 1965 Americans supported the war once their patriotism and loyalty to the President were appealed to. But it did not require antiwar academics to counter the spirit of rallying around the flag. When the bodybags began piling up, morale at home began to sag. The doubts of the press deepened, and were confirmed by television reporters on the scene. In an interview with me in London in 1979, General Westmoreland reminded me that in his autobiography, A Soldier’s Story, he had referred to the Vietnamese war as “the first war in history lost in the columns of The New York Times,” and added that it was the first uncensored war in history, fought out on television.

This notion of betrayal at home suffuses Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, an embittered defense of Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s successor as commander in Vietnam. Mr. Sorely, a military tactician, historian, and CIA veteran, pins the blame for the defeat on political weakness at home, especially in Congress, inadequate time for building a capable South Vietnamese army, and a failure to cut off Hanoi’s sanctuaries and lines of supply. There are so many “if only’s” in his book that it fails as a piece of serious analysis. It never addresses the most telling question of all: Why were the South Vietnamese armies, backed by the most powerful country in the world, so weak? General Abrams clearly understood what was wrong. Talking to his staff, he described his conversations with the Vietnamese commanders and their president as follows:

I said, “Equipment is not what you need. You need men that will fight. And you need officers that will fight, and will lead the men…. I don’t think you’ve lost a tank to enemy fire. You lost all the tanks in the 20th because the men abandoned them, led by the officers. You’ve lost most of your artillery because it was abandoned and people wouldn’t fight.”

Of course the South Vietnamese were not the only problem. The NLF and the North Vietnamese, despite their moments of panic and their corruption, fought hard and were willing to accept enormous casualties and would have gone on doing so; I sometimes heard American soldiers in Vietnam say they were stuck with the wrong Vietnamese.


No book on Vietnam has received as much attention during the last year as Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War. A skillful polemicist, Lind attacks almost everyone who has tried to explain the American defeat, including the generals and Robert McNamara. His thesis is clear:

Once the Vietnam War is viewed in the context of the Cold War, it looks less like a tragic error than like a battle that could hardly be avoided. The Cold War was fought as a siege in Europe and as a series of duels elsewhere in the world—chiefly, in Korea and Indochina. Both the siege and the duels were necessary.

Had the Americans avoided such “duels,” Lind argues, there would have been “a dramatic pro-Soviet realignment in world politics….” But because Johnson and Nixon fought the war the wrong way, the pro-American cold war consensus eroded and nearly collapsed; the Americans drifted into semi-isolationism and Moscow’s allies gained momentum in the third world in such places as Ethiopia and Angola. Only the new determination of Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand, and Kohl reversed the trend, largely by driving the Russians into bankruptcy by way of the arms race.

Mr. Lind’s analysis of the nearly disastrous American loss is the opposite of David Kaiser’s: “One great irony of the Vietnam war,” Professor Kaiser writes,

nearly forty years after it began and thirty years after it ended, is its essential lack of effect upon the Cold War…. It never really shook the foundations of the Western alliance…. Even the fall of South Vietnam had few repercussions outside of Indochina…. The war, however, stopped progress in Soviet-American relations for four critical years, during which the arms race entered a new and very important phase.

Professor Kaiser points out as well that Washington’s “purchase” of troops from South Korea and the Philippines to fight in Vietnam strengthened authoritarian regimes in both countries.

What the Americans should have done in Vietnam, Mr. Lind thinks, was to shun a high-tech war and fight a pacification campaign based on “ink-blots,” or small-unit warfare which would have spread slowly from village to village, cutting the villages off from the NLF. (The French used this tac-tic and lost.) A single commander, a Marine general accustomed to pa-tient, small-scale warfare, should have been put in charge of combined US-Vietnamese operations. Pacification of the enemy would have taken ten to twenty years, and it would, he believes, have depended on setting a ceiling on dead American soldiers. About 50,000, the number killed in Korea and Vietnam, is the limit from which the American public recoils, Lind argues. He contends that if that ceiling had been reached after a vigorous counter-insurgency, US forces would have to have been withdrawn after only a few years. But because they had stayed through a patiently fought first phase, their failure to launch a large-scale new offensive would have been seen internationally as merely humiliating, not as a panicky bug-out. The Americans could then have moved on to confront Cuban and Soviet proxies in Angola and Ethiopia.

This leads to a geopolitical dis-quisition by Mr. Lind. Because the Americans bugged out of Vietnam, he believes, the Russians seized the opportunity to provoke a “Marxist-Leninist revolutionary wave” throughout the world. “Soviet proxies” succeeded from the Congo, Ethiopia, and Benin to Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. All of these “were inspired in part by the example of the successful struggle of the Indochinese communists against the United States.” Those were the true dominoes, Mr. Lind contends, and their fall marked the decline of the US as a super-power. This had been Lyndon Johnson’s justification for the war. In 1965 the President warned that “around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of America’s commitment, the value of America’s word.”

This of course was a distortion; as Kennedy had admitted, the Americans had created an entity in Saigon in the late 1950s which they then claimed was a legitimate government under attack. Successive regimes were displaced with either American encouragement or acquiescence. The notion, moreover, that Moscow won anything more lasting than what the Americans lost in Indochina would astonish Kremlin veterans of the “revolutionary wave.” Indeed, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan helped bring about the end of the Soviet empire. Mr. Lind has no idea whether the Soviet-backed forces in Africa would not have also erupted while Americans were tied down in the “inkblot” war he favors. Nor does he seem to realize how badly both the American and Soviet “proxies” in his geopolitical vision have fared. An irony escapes him: following their departure, Americans are very popular today among Vietnamese; Russians are despised.

The “weak link” in the war as it was fought, says Lind, was American public opinion: Americans are willing to spend money but not lives. The Russians, he says, knocked the Americans out of the war in Vietnam “by enabling the North Vietnamese to bleed the United States in combat.” (In fact, substantial Russian aid to Hanoi came only after Johnson began bombing the North.) He says that in Vietnam the Americans not only were fighting against Russian and Chinese-aided Vietnamese troops but were engaged, “often without realizing it… in direct combat with Soviet andChinese troops.” (He means Soviet and Chinese soldiers manning the Northern air defenses; there is al-most no evidence that they fought in battle.)

  1. 14

    Kahin, Intervention, p. 26.

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