Vietnam: The Defense’s Case

America in Vietnam

by Guenter Lewy
Oxford University Press, 540 pp., $19.95

In America in Vietnam Guenter Lewy, a political scientist, attempts to exculpate American wrongdoing in Vietnam. Oddly enough, he also provides an extremely comprehensive and damning catalogue of the physical destruction, especially of civilians, caused by American firepower. Nevertheless, he provides legal absolution for most of the killing—which may be a comfort to the policy-makers who ran the war and those who would like a freer hand to plan such “interventions” in the future. Lewy’s absolution will be little comfort to the millions of victims.

Put simply, Lewy’s argument suggests that the members of the NLF were the only Vietnamese in all of Vietnam who had no home towns. Where they were born, where they grew up, and were they came from when the fighting started in earnest during the early 1960s he does not say. He seems to believe that the NLF had little or nothing whatever to do with Vietnam, or with the Vietnamese.

“It first should be recognized,” he writes, “that the VC’s practice of ‘clutching the people to their breast’ and of converting hamlets into fortified strongholds was one of the main reasons for the occurrence of combat in populated areas.” Elsewhere he makes the same point. “The enemy liked to make the villages and hamlets a battlefield because in the open valleys and coastal lowlands the villages contained much natural cover and concealment,” he writes. “The hamlets also offered the VC a source of labor for the building of fortifications, their spread-out arrangement afforded avenues of escape, and, lastly, the VC knew that the Americans did not like to fire upon populated areas.”

This statement is nonsense. It suggests that the association between the NLF and the villages, hamlets, and their people was purely tactical and that it was initiated by the NLF from that strange, unnamed place where, presumably, the NLF had been lurking until the fighting started. It denies the facts that the NLF was composed of people from the villages, and that—as he recognizes elsewhere—they were often identical with the village populations. His account also denies the fact that the NLF were fighting in the villages because that was where their homes were. His discussion here brings to mind one of the slang expressions current among journalists and diplomats in Saigon in the late Sixties and early Seventies. We called the two opposing sides “us” and “the home team.” The basic truth of these words was not in dispute then and nothing Lewy says here contradicts it now.

Just as he provides much evidence of deliberate destruction by the US while trying to make a legal defense for it, he also contradicts his own claim that Americans “did not like to fire upon populated areas.” He writes:

Most military commanders during Westmoreland’s tenure as COMUSMACV felt they had no choice but to meet the enemy head-on wherever they encountered him. In a message to Washington, written on 30 December 1967 and addressing the problem of civilian war casualties, Ambassador Bunker…

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