Room at the Top

Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam

by Richard Goodwin
Random House, 143 pp., $1.45 (paper)

Stripped of all pretenses, double-talk, and outright lies, two simple and stark choices face the United States in Vietnam. One derives from the assumption that in Vietnam the credibility of the United States and its prestige as a great power are irrevocably engaged, that the war in Vietnam is a test case for all “wars of national liberation,” and that in consequence the fate of Asia and perhaps even of the non-Communist world at large might well be decided in Vietnam. It follows from this assumption that the United States can only tolerate one outcome of the war: victory, and never mind that victory is bound to mean the physical destruction of Vietnam, South and North. The inevitable means to the end of victory is the escalation of the war. In the North, escalation means the unrestricted bombing of industrial and population centers; in the South, it means the commitment of what according to authoritative estimates will amount to a million American troops. Such an allout effort at victory carries within itself the risk of a military confrontation with China or the Soviet Union or both. Yet these risks are justified by the magnitude of the stakes.

The other choice assumes that the war is primarily a civil war owing to local conditions, that its global significance is remote, that, far from containing China and Communism, it opens the gates to both by destroying the social fabric of Vietnamese nationalism which is implacably hostile to China, and by casting the Vietcong in the role of defenders of Vietnamese freedom, and that in consequence the risks we are taking in the pursuit of victory are out of all proportion to the interests at stake. We should never have got involved in this war, but we are deeply involved in it. The aim of our policy must be to avoid getting more deeply involved and to extricate ourselves from it while minimizing our losses. We can serve that aim in three ways: through the offer of meaningful negotiations, something we have not yet done, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding; through the establishment of a government in Saigon that will initiate such negotiations; and through the de facto division of South Vietnam in consequence of the “enclave” policy.

Such a policy of negotiated or implied disengagement would have to be supported by a military policy of the status quo. That is to say, we would have to stop the bombing of North Vietnam and the search-and-destroy operations in the South and maintain our position in the cities and coastal enclaves we militarily control.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON appears to believe that there is a third position, that of controlled response, which he has chosen. Time and again, in private and in public, he has tried to disarm the advocates of the second position, by pointing to the differences between his policy and the first position, of which the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the most potent advocates. In truth, however, the difference between the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.