Reconsidering Vietnam

Vietnam: Citizens Detained for Peaceful Expression

Asia Watch/Human Rights Watch, 11 pp., $2.45

A Vietnam Reader

by Walter Capps
Routledge, 316 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province

by Eric M. Bergerud
Westview Press, 383 pp., $32.00

Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945–1975

by Harry Maurer
Avon, 634 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Vietnam Wars: 1945––1990

by Marilyn B. Young
HarperCollins, 386 pp., $11.00 (paper)

War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam 1954–60

by Carlyle A. Thayer
Allen and Unwin, 256 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975

by Phillip B. Davidson
Oxford University Press, 838 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Romancing Vietnam: Inside the Boat Country

by Justin Wintle
Pantheon, 466 pp., $25.00

Remembering Heaven's Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam

by John Balaban
Poseidon Press, 334 pp., $21.95


“That war cleaves us still.” On January 20, 1989, George Bush included these words in his inaugural address. He followed them with the plea, “But friends, that was begun in earnest a quarter of a century ago. Surely the statute of limitations has been reached.” Then came advice: “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.”

If there were any Vietnamese listening in front of the Capitol they would have been puzzled by the phrase “a quarter of a century ago.” For them the war began no later than 1945, when the French returned to reclaim Indochina, and Vietnamese Communists might date it yet earlier, to an insurrection of 1930.

Here we begin to see the scale of the problem. There were plainly many wars, with many millions of memories—well over eight million Americans, including civilians, went to Vietnam. There would be the memories of the 58,000 Americans who died, and, according to General Giap’s staff, the one million Vietnamese soldiers who died. In the admirable anthologies put together by Walter Capps and Harry Maurer we encounter the memories of soldiers who say they loved the war, and of whom some were drunk during most of it. Some believed we won most of the battles but lost the war; some feared they had entirely lost their sense of morality. The last is a common feeling among Vietnam veterans, twice as many of whom have committed suicide since the war as died during it. Many suffer, as Peter Marin notes in A Vietnam Reader, from what Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, called ” ‘bad faith,’ the underlying and general sense of having betrayed what you feel you ought to have been.”

But what do the Vietnamese feel about the war? We hear a few of their voices in the two collections by Capps and Maurer, and in the books by Justin Wintle and John Balaban. The leaders in Saigon and Hanoi spent their citizens’ lives freely, while few died themselves. When Dean Rusk was asked by his son why the Vietnamese kept coming, he replied, “I really don’t have much of an answer on that, Rich,” and General Giap, when told by Morley Safer that some of his still-crippled veterans weren’t sure whether the war was worth the suffering, “made a movement across the face…as one would discourage a pesky gnat.”1

And what of the result? In Kyoto this April, Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense between 1961 and 1968, when asked to explain his support of the war, admitted to several hundred journalists at the International Press Institute’s annual meeting, “I was wrong.” William Westmoreland still thinks we were right, and lost because we didn’t go “all out.” Clark Clifford, in his recent memoir, Counsel to the President, writes, contrary to his public statements at the time, that we should never have gone in, but might have succeeded to some degree had we fought harder.


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