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The Never-Ending War’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Jonathan Mirsky, in his “The Never-Ending War” [NYR, May 25], has written a bitter, personal review of Robert McNamara’s 1995 memoir of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect. Alas, Mirsky was instead asked to review a new book, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, of which Robert McNamara is one of three principal authors (with Robert Brigham and me). Mirsky’s piece betrays almost no familiarity with the content of Argument Without End—the unprecedented dialogues between Vietnamese and American scholars and former officials, the revelations by the Vietnamese participants, the use of previously unavailable Vietnamese sources, the identification of key missed opportunities to have avoided the war or to have ended it sooner than was the case, and the construction of a chronology of decisions made in Hanoi and Washington that permits us, for the first time, to begin to understand how and why North Vietnamese and American decision-makers radically misunderstood one another, and how these misunderstandings produced the tragedy in Vietnam. On these topics, which constitute the core of the book, Mirsky is silent.

Here are a few of the findings derived from our five-year project: details of a ten-to-fifteen-year North Vietnamese plan for a neutral government in Saigon, one Hanoi would have preferred at the time (1960- 1964), and which would have given Washington the “decent interval” it needed to withdraw with minimum damage to its reputation; definitive Vietnamese explanations of the events in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964, and at Pleiku in the Central Highlands in February 1965, each of which caused a major escalation of the war; a comprehensive explanation by the Vietnamese of their own attempts to apply “coercive diplomacy” against the US, by calibrating shipments of men and goods down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with their estimates of the level of US bombing of North Vietnam; and, for the first time, a step-by-step analysis by former North Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials of their handling of many secret US peace initiatives, including one that might well have ended the war by late 1967.

The picture that emerges from these dialogues—distilled from more than seventy-five hours of audiotaped discussions, involving thirty-one participants, including sixteen Vietnamese scholars and former officials—is one of two peoples, cultures, and nations, ignorant of each other’s motives, gradually drawn into a conflict that neither desired, with tragic consequences for both societies. Moreover, these insights were achieved during often difficult, sometimes bitter, but ultimately enlightening cross-questioning by some of the principal protagonists of the war, as well as top scholars of the war. The participants came to learn the instances when their assessments of the other side were wrong, and thus how their misperceptions led to the tragedy.

Apparently, none of this interests Jonathan Mirsky. What does interest Mirsky—it is the principal focus of his essay—is attacking the character, career, and alleged motives of Robert McNamara. Here, for example, are some of Mirsky’s comments: McNamara is irresponsible (“failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered”); arrogant and deceptive (“he remains as dogmatic as ever—and as unreliable”); timid (“Mr. McNamara’s…apparent determination never to speak ill of his ex-enemies”); annoying (“It is irritating to read Mr. McNamara’s repeated breast-beating about ‘American ignorance of the history, language, and culture of Vietnam”’); and he is a liar (“Mr. McNamara distorts the record…”).

One gets the impression from Mirsky that Argument Without End is 479 pages of autobiography and opinions by our principal coauthor. Yet McNamara’s singly-authored introductions and conclusions, devoted mostly to the lessons of the war, account for only about 15 percent of the book, while the Vietnamese-American dialogues and scholarly analyses occupy about 85 percent of it.

Jonathan Mirsky has written his piece from within what I would call a paradigm of blame. Mirsky is still fighting his own personal Vietnam war, still handing out the blame. But the project which has generated Argument Without End, and the book itself, has nothing to do with accusations of blame. Instead, our book derives from what might be called a paradigm of mutual inquiry. The book is filled with questions seldom asked before in the West, and with responses from knowledgeable Vietnamese in an evolving context of increasing trust and openness.

Joseph Lelyveld of The New York Times once wrote: “When we talk about Vietnam, we are seldom talking about the country of that name or the situation of the people who live there. Usually we are talking about ourselves. Probably we always were.” Due in large part to the courageous contributions of our Vietnamese and American colleagues, including Robert McNamara, when we talk about “Vietnam” we should henceforth be talking not about which of us is to blame, but about the mutual and colossal ignorance of Americans and Vietnamese Communists. In Argument Without End, there are enough facts about decision-making on both sides to begin to move beyond blame to real understanding.

James G . Blight

Watson Institute for International Studies

Brown University

Director, Vietnam War Project

To the Editors:

In his discussion of the NLF [NYR, May 25], Jonathan Mirsky quotes Truong Nhu Tang, an original central committee member and later minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Tang, he says, “represented [the NLF] abroad before defecting to the United States.” While it is true that Tang undertook several overseas missions for the NLF, it is untrue as well as gratuitously defamatory to say that he defected to the United States. Tang fled Vietnam as a boat refugee in 1978, three years after the war ended, because he was appalled by Hanoi’s dismissal of moderate NLF figures and disgusted with the totalitarian regime imposed by the North on the South. After a precarious escape, Tang was granted asylum in France, where he has lived ever since. As Mr. Tang’s literary collaborator, I am also puzzled that an article in The New York Review cites the British edition of Mr. Tang’s book (Journal of a Vietcong), which, as far as I know, has been unavailable for many years, rather than the original American edition (A Vietcong Memoir), which has been in print in this country since its initial publication.

Of far more significance is Mr. Mirsky’s mistaken suggestion that the NLF was in some way an independent organization which exercised its own foreign policy, at times in conflict with that of the Communist Party. While the NLF attracted many non-Communists and galvanized significant nationalist sentiment, it was founded by the Party and was controlled by the Party from its inception. Of course there were differences between Northern and Southern revolutionaries, but these never in any way affected the Party’s authority over its Southern front. For the relationship between the Party and the NLF down to the village level I would recommend two books Mr. Mirsky does not refer to: Silence Was a Weapon by Stuart Herrington and Slow Burn by Orrin DeForest.

David Chanoff

Marlboro, Massachusetts

Jonathan Mirsky replies:

Normally I would take care to answer a letter as long and detailed as Professor Blight’s. But I am going to be brief because his letter criticizes what I say about Robert McNamara, whose character and acts while making policy on Vietnam, and whose comments in Argument Without End, I treat harshly. Professor Blight’s summary of my criticism of Mr. McNamara’s character is largely accurate, although I mention his In Retrospect only once. I concentrate on Argument Without End, as my many quotations from it and comments make clear.

I am not going to take up his argument, at any length, about the book’s content and argument, because such an argument properly should come from Mr. McNamara himself. Surely a man of his eminence can defend the book of which he is the principal author. He was a major policymaker and high official during much of the war and certainly during its most dramatic escalation. He will always be judged by what he did and said while secretary of defense. If he has changed his mind and admits he was wrong, that is to his credit; but his record as a director of events at the highest level remains.

Mr. McNamara’s name, moreover, stands alone on the book’s spine, and on the front cover it is set in type far larger than the names of his coauthors. Furthermore, Mr. McNamara writes most of the introductory and concluding parts of the book and says repeatedly that the book proves—as I contend in my review it does not—how many missed opportunities there were on both sides to end the war and how, in Professor Blight’s words, these mutual “misconceptions produced the tragedy.”

I don’t think mutual misunderstandings “produced the tragedy.” What produced it was the US involving itself in the French war and then compounding the mistake by taking the place of the French in the anti-Communist cause. In 1962 The New York Times‘s Homer Bigart, reporting from Vietnam, wrote, “Actually the United States has been deeply involved in the fate of Vietnam since 1949 when the decision was made to subsidize the continuation of French rule against the Communist Viet Minh rebellion.” No book makes this plainer than George Kahin’s Intervention, which I cited.

There were many “decent intervals,” to use Professor Blight’s words, and Mr. McNamara, together with Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy, and LBJ spurned them all. This is more evident than ever in the documents exploited by Fredrik Logevall and David Kaiser, whose books are reviewed in my piece. Professor Logevall shows in his Choosing War that in 1964 alone the administration had several chances to stop the war and almost all its allies urged such a course. But the US had set up its own government under Ngo Dinh Diem (and then connived in his murder) and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, always supported by Mr. McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy, feared the domestic political consequences of losing. This is not me re-fighting the war or searching for blame. It is the conclusion of the leading scholars now working in this field.

As I said in my review: Mr. McNamara’s hosts in Hanoi, as quoted in Argument Without End, for the most part do not take seriously the “missed opportunities” over which Mr. McNamara—and Profes-sor Blight—exclaim. Ex-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach says, “Why bother? The time has passed. Even if in the end we all agree on something, what difference will it make?” Ex-Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co says, after many hours with Mr. McNamara’s group, “We understand better now that the US understands very little about Vietnam. Even now—in this conference—the US understands very little.”

It is true, as Professor Blight says, that here and there in Argument Without End is some new information. The Tonkin Gulf “attack” is such an instance. But the basic American distortion about Tonkin, largely on Mr. McNamara’s part, which was used as an excuse to bomb the North, has long been understood, and was amplified especially clearly in 1996 when Edwin Moise published Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War—and in the books by Logevall and Kaiser. It is not my judgment but that of Professor Kaiser of the Naval War College, who writes that Mr. McNamara “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.” Professor Logevall refers to Mr. McNamara’s (and Bundy’s and LBJ’s) “talent for duplicity.” In Argument Without End Mr. McNamara again engages in obfuscation by his pretense of “missed opportunities. ”

The most important information in the book, on the National Liberation Front and Hanoi, is by Robert Brigham, one of Mr. McNamara’s coauthors. But as I say in my review, to fully understand Professor Brigham’s research and conclusions, one must read his own excellent book, Guerrilla Diplomacy, which I explore at some length. If Mr. McNamara himself wants to argue this out, let him, as the chief begetter of this book and the author of its most important passages, state his objections.

David Chanoff accuses me of gratuitous defamation in saying that Truong Nhu Tang “defected” to the United States. I’m sorry; I have the greatest respect for Mr. Truong (and for Mr. Chanoff, whose book, In the Jaws of History, on which he collaborated with Bui Diem, I praised in my review) and my phrase was just a mistake. I praised Journal of a Vietcong in The Observer (London) on February 17, 1986. I happen to have the British edition, which is why I cite it. I’m puzzled that Mr. Chanoff takes me to task for commenting on the complexities of the nature of the NLF and its relation to Hanoi. Mr. Truong was certainly bamboozled (as I quote him) until he discovered the truth about Hanoi’s control. He quotes the Vietnamese historian Nguyen Khac-Vien on how Hanoi pretended that the southern movement was autonomous until the North Vietnamese were “obliged to unveil our cards.” Mr. Truong describes the “funeral” he and other disillusioned southerners organized for the NLF in Saigon’s Rex Dance Hall. It was, he said, “The last rites of South Vietnam’s revolution…. We knew finally that we had been well and truly sold.” Mr. Truong certainly had imagined that the NLF was to some degree independent. That was what I meant; not that it was. Various studies have made this clear, most recently Professor Brigham’s.

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