Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is famously sorry about American responsibility for the Vietnamese war. When he wrote in his book of five years ago that “we were wrong, terribly wrong,”1 this was universally assumed to be an astounding public apology. In these pages Theodore Draper commented, “With this book, he has paid his debt.”2 Others were less forgiving. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times observed, “McNamara expresses no regret for his greater wrong: failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered.” Rejecting Mr. McNamara’s explanation that he owed loyalty to his president and to his constitutional oath, Mr. Lewis recalled Justice Robert Jackson’s ruling that the Constitution “is not a suicide pact,” and added that an official who foresees “‘a major national disaster’ …surely has a higher obligation to the country than to the President.”3

In one of his often anguished musings, in his recent book Argument Without End, about how the major national disaster in Vietnam might have been averted, Mr. McNamara regrets that during the 1950s and 1960s his adversaries in Hanoi learned about the US from international news agencies and weekly magazines—“not from sources like The New York Times.” But it was Mr. McNamara who could have done the learning. He might have found arresting the following comments in The New Yorker by the fiercely anti-Communist Joseph Alsop, who in late 1954 visited a Communist-controlled area in Vietnam as the French were disengaging after fighting nine years to retain their colony—a struggle 80 percent paid for by the US in its last phase—and Washington was creating its chosen regime under Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon:

It was difficult for me, as it is for any Westerner, to…imagine a Communist government that was also a popular government and almost a democratic government…. The Viet Minh [Ho Chi Minh’s forces] could not possibly have carried on the resistance for one year, let alone nine years, without the people’s strong, united support.4

As for reading The New York Times, that would have encouraged Hanoi, not dissuaded it. Mr. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, regarded the paper’s coverage of Vietnam as subversive, and regularly put pressure on its leading columnists and even on the publisher. Reading the two magnificent volumes of Reporting Vietnam, a collection of dispatches from the field and more discursive essays, reminded me why I came to oppose the war in the early 1960s. In The New York Times in February 1962, Homer Bigart, one of its most admired foreign correspondents, began his analysis from Saigon with these words: “The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam. American troops will stay until victory.” Bigart then noted, “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.” He concluded:

The struggle will go on at least ten years, in the opinion of some observers, and severely test American patience. The United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war. The Communists can prolong it for years.

In July 1962 Bigart wrote again in the Times, and once more Hanoi would not need to have read it:

The United States, by massive and unqualified support of the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem, has helped arrest the spread of Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. But victory is remote…because the Vietnamese President seems incapable of winning the loyalty of his people.

Bigart predicted either the removal of President Diem, whom the Americans had installed in the late 1950s, or the insertion of American ground forces. (Both took place.) If the latter, Bigart went on,

No one who has seen the conditions of combat in South Viet-nam would expect conventionally trained United States forces to fight any better against Communist guerrillas than did the French in their seven years of costly and futile warfare…. Americans may simply lack the endurance—and the motivation—to meet the unbelievably tough demands of jungle fighting.

In Argument Without End, we reenter the morass that invariably surrounds Robert McNamara, who during the war always seemed so certain of facts and views he now regrets having had. In 1964, for instance, he told the public in detail that there had been two attacks by small North Vietnamese boats on the American warships Maddox and Turner Joy in the Tonkin Gulf. This was highly suspect at the time and we now know that while the North Vietnamese acknowledge one attack, there certainly weren’t two. In one of the meetings with Vietnamese leaders which are the occasion for Argument Without End, Mr. McNamara reacts with surprise when he is told there was no second attack—an odd reaction, because he knew the facts in 1964.


He also insists in his new book that American and South Vietnamese sabotage and intelligence-gathering activities, such as Oplan 34-A, were of little “hostile intent” and need not have caused so much concern in Hanoi about the US naval vessels cruising inside what the North Vietnamese considered their territorial waters. Yet at that time, as Fredrik Logevall shows in his compendious and persuasive Choosing War, Mr. McNamara knew of the secret US and South Vietnamese operations, believed they were connected with the single North Vietnamese attack, and said so to President Johnson: “There’s no question [the Oplan 34-A covert operations] had a bearing on it.” Mr. McNamara therefore misled a Senate committee in August 1964 when he said, “Our Navy…was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…. I say this flatly. This is a fact.”5

To say “if there were any” was compounding the lie. President Johnson himself admitted, “There have been some covert operations in that area that we have been carrying on…. So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it.” Professor Logevall, a historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, sums up the evidence we now have:

Ultimately, the question of whether the United States deliberately planned its operations in the Gulf of Tonkin as a means of provoking North Vietnam to retaliate remains elusive…. But there is compelling circumstantial evidence that, at the very least, government officials entered the month of August hoping desperately for a pretext that would allow a show of US strength and determination.

In his American Tragedy, a study of the origins of the war as systematic and as comprehensive as Professor Logevall’s, Professor David Kaiser of the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College says he suspects the White House was hoping for an incident and knew that 34-A operations were afoot. It was a scenario that “the Pentagon had envisaged since January 1964: that South Vietnamese covert operations against the North could lead to enemy retaliation, and hence to American bombing of the North.” Professor Kaiser says of Mr. McNamara’s public statements that he “deliberately lied in order to make the North Vietnamese action as provocative as possible.” In short, he tricked the Senate, led by William Fulbright, into supporting Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf resolution authorizing the widening of the war, a measure opposed publicly only by Senators Morse and Gruening, although other senators like Russell and Stennis, old allies of the President, were worried about the deepening involvement. Professor Kaiser points out that Democrats like Fulbright wanted to ensure Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election by demonstrating that the President, while not a warmonger as the Democrats portrayed the Republican candidate, would react toughly when American lives were in peril.

The secretary of defense, like President Kennedy, had been a keen enthusiast of covert operations in Asia. All those we know of, like the ones in Tibet, were disastrous. The ones that sparked the Tonkin crisis are laid out in detail in Richard Shultz’s The Secret War Against Hanoi. Shultz writes that the covert attacks “appear to have played a key role in Hanoi’s decision to attack the Maddox. The ongoing DeSoto [naval] patrols also likely contributed to that decision.” The CIA’s William Colby warned Mr. McNamara in 1962 that operations inside North Vietnam were doomed: “Mr. Secretary, I hear what you are saying, but it’s not going to work. It won’t work in this [North Vietnamese] kind of society.” “He was throwing in the towel,” Mr. Shultz states. “Denied areas were too difficult to penetrate. It was a staggering concession.”

Now, as all the world knows, Mr. McNamara has done a U-turn. But he remains as dogmatic as ever—and as unreliable. Argument Without End is an account of six meetings in Hanoi between 1995 and 1998, organized by Mr. McNamara, and attended by American and Vietnamese scholars, ex-officials, and retired military officers. There was an additional meeting in 1998 at Bellagio, in northern Italy. Mr. McNamara’s purpose was

to examine a hypothesis that had gradually taken shape in my mind: Both Washington and Hanoi had missed opportunities to achieve our geopolitical objectives without the terrible loss of life suffered by each of our countries…. What lessons can we draw to avoid such tragedies in the twenty-first century?

Top American officials, he admits, knew little about their adversary’s history, views, or even how to spell their names. This is so. Daniel Ellsberg once wrote, “There has never been an official of Deputy Assistant Secretary rank or higher (including myself) who could have passed in office a midterm freshman exam in modern Vietnamese history, if such a course existed in this country.”6 (But the information was easily available.) Mr. McNamara’s conviction, however, that dealing directly with the adversary, patiently and at length, leads to positive results is not made more convincing by the example he gives: Richard Holbrooke’s fifty hours with Slobodan Milosevic in 1998, “thereby defusing, at least for the moment, a crisis in Kosovo that might well have led to military intervention by one or more Western powers.”


The central misconception in Mr. McNamara’s book is repeatedly expressed in italics throughout: There were a great many missed opportunities” to end the war; “…both sides missed opportunities every step of the way.” From this, as he says more than once, he concludes that genuine discussions in “real time” would have prevented the war. But there is hardly any evidence that the Vietnamese thought they had missed opportunities, although Mr. McNamara claims that one Vietnamese participant in the conference, retired Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, said Hanoi missed some. On the whole Mr. McNamara’s Vietnamese hosts stonily reminded the Americans that from the late 1940s Washington had propped up the French, installed Saigon regime after Saigon regime, including that of Ngo Dinh Diem, which began exterminating leftists in 1955; America’s efforts led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, Mr. McNamara’s hosts further reminded him. Ex-Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co twitted Mr. McNamara in English, by using his famous phrase “wrong, terribly wrong” to describe the suggestion that Hanoi could have negotiated while the bombing was going on. “We understand better now that the US understands very little about Vietnam. Even now—in this conference—the US understands very little….”

Ex-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach said testily to retired General W.Y. Smith, who was entreating him to explain which of Hanoi’s policies had been about a neutral solution, “Why bother? The time has passed. Even if in the end we all agree on something, what difference will it make? It will make no difference. I have finished.” (This statement may have reflected two realities: that Hanoi disagreed with the National Liberation Front over offering “neutrality” as a solution for South Vietnam, and that neutrality probably would not have lasted long anyway.)

The historian and diplomat Luu Doan Huynh condemned the insistence of the visiting Americans that the US had no French-style imperialist designs on Vietnam. “But really, your bullets are the killers of our people. We see that this is America’s gift to Vietnam—allowing the French to kill our people…. So how can we conclude that you are not our enemy?… But please try to understand me when I say: Blood speaks with a terrible voice!

Chester Cooper, a CIA veteran whose career reaches back to the 1954 Geneva negotiations on Indochina and the author of an intelligent book, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam, written in 1970, provided an antidote to Mr. McNamara’s optimism at the meetings with the North Vietnamese. Following a Vietnamese charge that US peace initiatives were covers for escalating the war, he burst out, “I am beginning to think that not only did we not understand each other. I’m beginning to think that we did not want to understand each other.” The retired journalist and diplomat Luu Van Loi responded: “…As for our reaction—the psychology of our reaction—all of these points, all of these proposals, all of these initiatives, all of these intermediaries—all of these efforts foundered, and could not be taken with total seriousness, because of the bombing.”

Most blunt and remorseless of all, as he has always shown himself, was General Giap, the victor at Dienbienphu and over the Americans in many battles. He rejected Mr. McNamara’s use of the word “tragedy.” “Maybe it was a tragedy for you…. You wanted to replace the French; you failed; men died; so yes, it was tragic, because they died for a bad cause. But for us, the war was a noble sacrifice…. So I agree that you missed opportunities and that you need to draw lessons. But us? I think we would do nothing different, under the circumstances.” I am reminded of Giap’s encounter after the war with the CBS reporter Morley Safer in Hanoi. When Mr. Safer told the general that a crippled North Vietnamese veteran admitted to him that, in view of the suffering it caused, the war may not have been worth it, Giap made “a movement of the back of [his] hand across [his] face…as one would discourage a pesky gnat.”7

At various points in McNamara’s report the Vietnamese say how little they knew about their adversaries, even the French (hence Mr. McNamara’s regrets that they had not been readers of The New York Times). They admit that at Geneva in 1954 they let the Chinese and the Russians talk them into a two-year pause before elections to unify the entire country—which the US and Diem ensured never took place. They admit, too, that they were exhausted by the war with the French between 1947 and 1954, and needed peace.


What they do not speak about is the National Liberation Front. It is a mark of the Hanoi-centered viewpoint of McNamara’s book that there is only one veteran of the National Liberation Front on the Vietnamese side—Nguyen Thi Binh, the NLF’s best- known international figure throughout most of the war. She is mentioned in the index but says not a word in any of the book’s many verbatim exchanges, and no one refers to her. In all their talk of history, which they insist the Americans fail to understand, the Vietnamese themselves pass over the years of disagreement between the Lao Dong, the Vietnamese Communist Party, based in Hanoi, and the Southerners who were left largely on their own from 1954, after Geneva. The exhausted Communist army withdrew to the North and the Southerners were given instructions to oppose Diem by political means and in a united front with non-Communists. It was this front that Diem began destroying with American encouragement.

This is the background to Robert Brigham’s admirable Guerrilla Diplomacy. Professor Brigham is also a joint author of Argument Without End, and while that book sketches the differences in the interests of Northerners and Southerners in the 1950s, it omits, unlike Brigham’s own book, their essentially irreconcilable quarrels. These were always the same: before 1959, they disagreed on how Diem and the Americans should be resisted and, in the last years of the war, on whether there should be negotiations. Those arguments help to explain the confusion about “the missed signals,” or the signals from Hanoi which were changed after the first transmissions. In fact Professor Brigham’s sources told him that Hanoi sent signals to the US about possible negotiations which the NLF opposed. The NLF, as Mr. Brigham shows, sometimes sent its own conflicting signals.

The facts of the struggle between Ngo Dinh Diem and the dissident South Vietnamese he was determined to exterminate in the years after the North-South division of the country in 1954 were well known to the Americans supporting Diem; they had, after all, brought him to Saigon from his American exile in 1954 to head Washington’s creation: the South Vietnamese government. (Diem, a genuine nationalist, had earlier turned down an offer of high office from Ho Chi Minh.) In the 1960s Mr. McNamara could have read this history in the book by Professors George McT. Kahin of Cornell and John Lewis of Stanford,8 as well as in the work of others, and listened to some of the more skeptical officials in the State Department and the National Security Council. Instead Mr. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson convinced themselves that they were defending the South—an American-created entity—against an invasion ordered by Hanoi. Scholars like George Kahin were dismissed as antiwar academics.

What even those antiwar academics did not understand fully, however, was the extent of the splits inside the enemy camp. In 1986 Truong Nhu Tang, one of the non-Communist founders of the NLF who also represented it abroad before defecting to the United States, published Journal of a Vietcong. In it he made a fundamental point: “…The actual relationship between North Vietnam’s government and the Southern revolution was both more complex and more direct than Westerners like to believe—more complex than Johnson and the now-departed Richard Nixon thought, and more direct than many antiwar figures believed.”9

Complex is also the word used by Professor Brigham to describe the relationship between the NLF and the Lao Dong. He is one of the first Western specialists to use documents available only in Hanoi and to interview veterans of the Party and of the NLF without the intention of scoring political points. His book is a highly professional work of history, well written, and in my opinion reliable. It will disturb the former US officials for whom the NLF was simply a tool of the North. It will also upset those of us who opposed the war and visited the offices of the NLF and North Vietnam abroad where we were assured that the NLF was virtually independent. Its alliance with Hanoi, we were then told, was a purely comradely one, created because the Americans and their puppet government in Saigon were too much for the Southerners to handle on their own.

Professor Brigham shows that the Front did indeed have its roots in the South, but that the Lao Dong, the Communist Party, which was controlled by Hanoi, was always central in its ultimate leadership. Both the Chinese and the Russians, keen to avoid a dramatic confrontation with the Americans, had urged a political struggle. But by 1959, after Diem’s “unprecedented purges,” as Brigham puts it, the Hanoi Politburo resolved that “the time has come to push the armed struggle against the enemy.” In 1960, at a meeting in the southern jungle near Cambodia, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam was proclaimed. By 1961, harried by Diem’s counterinsurgency, which was mistakenly modeled on British strategy in Malaya, the NLF was assassinating local officials and harassing Diem’s soldiers. During the time of most of this violence in the countryside much of the rural population, apart from Catholics and members of Southern sects such as the Cao Dai, tended to side with the NLF. This was widely accepted by journalists in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and was certainly my experience in 1965 and 1967.

While this was going on in 1961, American officials such as John K. Galbraith, Chester Bowles, and Averell Harriman urged Kennedy to press Diem to reform rather than make war; but Kennedy, McNamara says, believed the US was in danger from international Communist ambitions and was in any event fascinated by counter-insurgency, although he said of the Vietnamese, “It’s their war.” Unaware of Kennedy’s willingness to go it alone in Vietnam, both the NLF and Hanoi hoped that an international campaign calling for a “neutral” solution would bring pressure to bear on the US. But once the Americans were fully involved, it was the NLF that opposed any negotiations until the US had pulled out its troops; the Lao Dong, fearing the destruction of the North’s economy, considered negotiations if the bombing stopped.

Professor Brigham concludes that the Lao Dong’s Political Bureau had fashioned the Party’s negotiating position and the NLF had no ultimate independent course of action. But the NLF’s envoys abroad, especially in France, continued to press for US withdrawal to be succeeded by negotiations. A Lao Dong veteran told Professor Brigham, “We had to watch the NLF carefully in those days. We were not sure what they would say on one day that we had to undo the next.”

Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese war veteran and the author of one of Vietnam’s most famous novels, The Sorrow of War,10 says that the Northern soldiers were warned to give no credit at all to the NLF’s contribution to the final victory. As soon as the war ended, the NLF was shoved aside. “I guess we were naive,” said one non-Communist member of the NLF. “We always believed there would be a place for us in a new government of reconciliation.” Brigham suggests, following the analysis of William Duiker, that the Northerners imposed their regime on the South because so many Southerners had been killed and there were very few able officials to start reconstruction. I am more convinced by another of Mr. Duiker’s explanations: that the North feared that NLF veterans might create “obstacles.” This is also the view of the North Vietnamese who appear in Henry Kamm’s excellent book Dragon Ascending, discussed below.

Another curiosity of Mr. McNamara’s book is his apparent determination never to speak ill of his ex-enemies; this means it is impossible for a new reader about Vietnam to know that many middle- and upper-middle-class Southern patriots were deeply afraid of the Communists. There are very few firsthand accounts by such anti-Communist Southerners (as there are few accounts by non-Communist Southerners who joined the NLF) which describe the murderous habits of the Communists in the years before 1954. Bui Diem, who was Saigon’s ambassador in Washington from 1967 to 1972, has written the best such account I know of in In the Jaws of History. He comes from a mandarin family which in the mid-Thirties sent him to the elite Thang Long school in Hanoi. One of his most charismatic teachers there was the future General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose favorite historical character was Napoleon. By 1946, while Ho Chi Minh was negotiating with the French outside Paris, Giap was overseeing the extermination of non-Communist nationalists like Bui Diem. He writes,

Panic struck the [Vietnamese] parties as Giap’s reign of terror swept their ranks with a force that dwarfed previous assassination campaigns the factions had launched against one another. While Ho and the French colonial ministers danced a slow minuet at Fontainebleau, site of the increasingly futile independence negotiations, thousands of nationalists in Vietnam died quietly.

Also unmentioned in Mr. McNamara’s book is the land reform in North Vietnam beginning in 1955 during which “thousands died,” according to Stanley Karnow, or were imprisoned. Ho eventually apologized, but the bitterness was so great that in 1956 a peasant uprising broke out in his native Nghe An province which Ho suppressed with the same ferocity that the French had used during an insurrection in the same place twenty-six years earlier. Yet again there were apologies. Giap admitted, “We attacked on too large a front, and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror…. Worse still, torture came to be regarded as normal practice.”11 Nor does Mr. McNamara mention the almost one million Catholics who fled the North after Geneva in 1954 and 1955. The Americans and French helped them leave for the South, but the impetus for the flight was fear of the Communists. These refugees became strong supporters of Ngo Dinh Diem. I visited Catholic “strategic hamlets” in 1965, where I felt unusually safe at night even though they were sometimes in areas dominated by the NLF.

Not only does Mr. McNamara keep silent on these matters, which were used at the time as justifications for American support of Saigon; he is unwilling to make judgments about them. He now condemns only his own side. By supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, “leaders in Washington, in supporting a despot, betrayed their own stated principles, in the name of fighting communism.”He suggests that

US leaders and citizens should seek to counter their triumphalist urges, their belief that everyone should establish a multiparty system and accept our mores. If Americans do not do this, it seems inevitable that Vietnams—tragedies rooted in mutual misunderstanding—will recur.

But the Americans did not press Diem to establish a democracy; they helped him organize a police state. Mr. McNamara knows well that the United States was not supporting American “mores” in South Vietnam. The nature of the Diem regime, which he admits the US “created,” was plain at the time. Neither Professor Logevall nor Professor Kaiser would support Mr. McNamara’s contention that “the fundamental enemy—the root cause of the agony over the Vietnam War—was mutual ignorance, the inability of Washington and Hanoi to penetrate the outlook of the other side.”

It is irritating to read Mr. McNamara’s repeated breast-beating about “American ignorance of the history, language, and culture of Vietnam.”A quick reading of the Pentagon Papers shows how well informed some of the intelligence agencies were from the late 1940s on. Apart from the voluminous Chinese and French literature on Vietnam’s history of fighting foreigners,12 which were available in translation, there were specialists in American universities, some of them writing in this journal during Mr. McNamara’s time in office, who disputed Washington’s justification for the war. While not accurate in every detail, their analyses, if taken seriously in the White House, would have arrested, if not stopped, the war.13

Mr. McNamara further distorts the record by a historically dubious mea culpa. Leaders, he says,

are supposed to lead,…to understand more fully than others the range of options and implications of choosing such options…. And I believe this is what President Johnson and his associates, including myself, should have done to resist the pressure—from the public, the media, academicians, and the Congress—toward a military solution to the problem of Vietnam.

This is unconvincing. In the pivotal year, which Fredrik Logevall calls “The Long 1964,” there was next to no such pressure on the leaders, except from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Logevall underpins this judgment with conclusive documentation, much of it only recently available. “At no point during The Long 1964 were American leaders hemmed in on Vietnam…. They always possessed real choice. Neither domestic nor international considerations compelled them to escalate the war.” He shows that much of the mainstream press and many in Congress opposed a wider war, as did the public, which voted heavily against Goldwater in 1964 partly because he seemed to be a warmonger. In the international community, Logevall says, almost all of Washington’s allies—the Australians were the main exception—urged de-escalation—although later Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea (whose soldiers were much feared by all Vietnamese for their bloodthirstiness) sent troops. Moscow and Beijing supported Hanoi but feared a war with the Americans. Hardly anyone abroad and few at home thought that the credibility of the US would be crippled if it backed away from war, especially because of the widely reported fact that most of the South Vietnamese appeared uncommitted to such a struggle.

More important still, Logevall continues, was the “pronounced pessimism” of most US officials. Their intelligence officers told them that Hanoi was prepared for a long contest. The top officials were even aware that the more Americans appeared in the South, the more resentment would spread among the population. But what the highest policymakers refused to do, Logevall shows, was to consider withdrawal, disguised by a fig leaf, such as maneuvering Saigon into asking the Americans to depart. Hence the McNamara myth of the missed signals, about which he reproaches himself throughout his book. A 1965 State Department Intelligence Report said, “Has Hanoi shown any [serious] interest in negotiations? Yes, repeatedly.” Professor Logevall observes, “The same thing could never have been said of the United States.”

In recent years, Robert McNamara has berated himself for his ignorance and arrogance; but he cannot blame the public, the Congress, or America’s allies for their pressure to widen the war. Nor can he continue to claim that American officials were ignorant of Vietnamese realities. One of Professor Logevall’s principal themes is that “American policymakers from mid 1963 onward were not merely skeptical of the possibility of finding an early political solution to the war but acutely fearful of such a prospect and strongly determined to prevent one.”

Far from being pressured by friend or foe, the key officials—Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Rusk—always anxious and pessimistic, and self-pitying because they felt misunderstood, were determined to widen the war. They punished subordinates who warned them about the war’s futility and worked hard to change the minds of skeptics such as Walter Lippmann and James Reston of The New York Times. Along with Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara and his senior colleagues feared that the defeat of Saigon and victory for Hanoi would lead to a collapse of the Asian “dominoes”—Laos, Thailand, and Malaya—and to a neutral Tokyo and Manila. US prestige would be threatened in Taiwan and South Korea.

Bundy reminded Johnson how Truman had suffered politically from the “loss” of China. Only when the US was strong, Bundy said, would it be safe to negotiate with Hanoi. Rusk described all negotiation offers as “phony.” McNamara himself warned that “the stakes in preserving an anti-communist South Vietnam are so high that, in our judgment, we must go on bending every effort to win.” The Pentagon official John McNaughton, a member of a National Security Council Working Group assembled by Johnson just before election day in 1964, in a famous formulation saw the need for a powerful military effort even if it failed. “It would demonstrate that the US was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.” Just how badly, as we will see, could include nuclear weapons.

There were officials who disagreed. Undersecretary of State George Ball, however, still admired for being the high official who argued with the president, is dismissed by Logevall for his “unswerving loyalty”; Johnson could always count on Ball to sturdily present the case for the war to foreign statesmen or unreliable columnists. “Ball always talked tough on the war, tougher than almost anyone else.” Logevall describes him as a careerist. “By all accounts, George Ball treasured his position in the administration and sought to do nothing that might jeopardize it…. He hoped one day to be Johnson’s secretary of state.”

Precisely the same ambition for the same post, Logevall contends, is the reason Senator Fulbright supported Johnson by shepherding the Tonkin Resolution, upon which the President depended for bombing the North, through the Senate. But there were other officials who spoke up and finally left the government. Among these was James C. Thomson Jr. of the National Security Council staff. Told about the plan to widen the war by McGeorge Bundy, Mr. Thomson replied, “If we go down this road we will not bring them to their knees, or to the negotiating table. We could bomb them back into the stone age. They will disappear into the jungle and they will wait us out. Because they know something we know deep down, and they know that we know, which is that some day we’re going to go home.” Bundy replied, “Thomson, you may be right.”

As for Johnson, Logevall writes that his “profound personal insecurity and his egomania led him not only to personalize the goals he aspired to but also to personalize all forms of dissent.” Those who worked close to him, if they wanted to stay close, took care not to defy his neuroses.


Professor Kaiser claims that his persuasive and splendidly informed book, American Tragedy, is “the most thorough and best-documented account yet of the American decision to go to war.” It is not better informed than Professor Logevall’s. But its scope is wider—and sometimes frighteningly so. What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how far their superiors were willing to go along with them. In January 1964, for instance, McNamara told the House Armed Services Committee, “The survival of an independent Government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of all of Southeast Asia and to the Free World that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to prevent a Communist victory.” In February of that year he asked the Chiefs for recommendations for both a limited war against the North and a wider one including China. The Chiefs replied in early March and, Kaiser writes,

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.)

Mr. Lind rejects what he calls the “praetorian” argument of men like General Westmoreland and Lewis Sorley that more men, supplies, and money would have prevailed in Vietnam. This view, Lind says, ignores the strategy he favors of continuing to fight in “quagmires” of “low intensity conflict, political chaos, and moral ambiguity.” American political culture must not “paralyze its military policy.” Citizens—so he seems to say—should not object to the unpleasantness of killing people in one village after another. For the Americans to win such wars, its “soldiers must learn to swim in quagmires.”

Mr. Lind attacks McNamara’s Argument Without End. He rightly says that the book’s alleged revelations “dissolve into word games or assertions resting on flimsy or nonexistent evidence.” He underlines the absurdity of claiming that for twenty-five years Hanoi and Washington misunderstood each other and emphasizes that the two sides went to war because each wanted to thwart its enemy.

But Mr. Lind, too, appears to have no knowledge of Vietnamese history, in which wars of resistance to foreigners have been going on for two millennia. Nor has he studied carefully enough American reporters’ dispatches from the Vietnamese battlefields; they were not accounts of heroic Communist guerrillas fighting corrupt Vietnamese gangsters and American intruders. But they did see that on the whole the rural Vietnamese preferred the NLF and the Northern regulars to the Saigonese and American troops. In 1966, in what Mr. McNamara might now consider a “missed signal,” Neil Sheehan, an experienced battlefield reporter, argued in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “Not a Dove, But No Longer a Hawk”:

The men who lead the party today, Ho Chi Minh and the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi, directed the struggle for independence from France and in the process captured much of the deeply felt nationalism of the Vietnamese…. The Communists, despite their brutality and deceit, remain the only Vietnamese capable of rallying millions of their countrymen…and the only group not dependent on foreign bayonets for survival.

In short, Mr. Lind has not adequately informed himself on the origins of the Vietnamese struggle: a long war to get rid of the French (bolstered by tales and songs of two thousand years of opposing the Chinese) during most of which they received very little help from Beijing or Moscow, and nothing like what the French received from Washington. There were indeed Chinese advisers and weapons at Dienbienphu in 1954; but it was the Vietnamese who advanced against the enemy (and sometimes faltered and fled), not on behalf of the international Communist movement but because they hated the French.

Those still trying to find someone to blame for the Vietnam debacle—in the press, in academia, in Congress, in Beijing, or in Moscow—should read Larry Addington’s America’s War in Vietnam. If there is such a thing as an objective account, this is it. A retired professor of military history at the Citadel, he manages in a brief compass to survey traditional Vietnamese history with particular attention to the Vietnamese hostility to foreigners and wars against them. He gives a careful account of the French occupation and war, and the American intervention. His bibliography omits no important works in English that I know of and his judgments are measured. His accounts of the American creation of the Diem regime and of the Tonkin provocation, for example, are exemplary.

Professor Addington praises all five American presidents involved in Southeast Asia, for one big thing: despite a long list of mistakes, they “made the correct decision to avoid a direct confrontation with the Sino-Soviet bloc over Indochina. Such a confrontation might have caused a localized conflict in Southeast Asia to escalate into a global conflict on the nuclear level….” Professor Addington, without the benefit of David Kaiser’s recent sources, could not know that the presidents rejected precisely such a course when it was recommended by the Joint Chiefs. If you want to read one book about Vietnam, read this one.

If Michael Lind is not persuaded by Professor Addington’s historical account, he should read The Sorrow of War, the powerful novel by the North Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh, which suggests that the final Vietnamese victory cannot be explained simply as a matter either of American weakness or of international support for Hanoi. “Victory after victory, withdrawal after withdrawal,” writes Bao Ninh. “The path of war seemed endless, desperate and leading nowhere…the soldiers waited in fear, hoping they would not be ordered in as support forces, to hurl themselves into the arena to almost certain death.” After the war, Bao Ninh also writes, the Northern soldiers were ordered to “guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in any way.” To swim in such a quagmire would never have been possible for Americans, even if they were fighting from the most advantageously situated “inkblots” and under the most sagacious and experienced Marine commander.

Another Vietnamese writer becoming known to Western readers is Duong Thu Huong, author of Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind,15 and, now, Memories of Pure Spring. She led a brigade of singers during the war; three out of forty survived. Outspoken in defense of democracy and human rights, she was expelled from the Party in 1989 and in 1991 spent seven months in prison. All her writings are banned, and her most recent novel, completed in 1997, has not been published in Vietnam.

Unlike Duong Thu Huong’s previous books, Memories of a Pure Spring is not a war novel, although it is set in a Vietnam that is still recovering from the war that finished twenty-five years earlier, and many of the characters fought in it. The war is remembered as a time of determination, heroism, and desperation, and does not seem to have been much of a victory. People are very poor; there is not enough of anything, except for the corrupt officials. Fear of the police is everywhere and political prisoners are treated brutally. The central character, Hung, is the director of a performing troupe who marries a sixteen-year-old, Suong, of great beauty and with a magnificent voice. She becomes a star and they are an admired couple. But Hung falls afoul of a political hack and loses his job while Suong’s fame increases. He drinks, takes opium, steals money from her, and is imprisoned for a half-hearted attempt to flee Vietnam by boat.

Duong’s novel provides a recent view of the Vietnamese life—whether in cafés, bars, theaters, or peoples’ houses—that is invisible to tourists and Western businessmen. Most people seem unhappy. Hong remembers how, during the war,

the troupe had received orders to perform for a unit of nearly three hundred young women volunteers who lived on the opposite side of the mountain. They lived in the jungle, far from their homes, their villages, without a shadow of a man, and they were known to go into fits of mass hysteria. The troupe’s scout had already been to this part of the jungle twice. And both times he had been scared out of his wits when the entire horde of women had swooped down on him like a swarm of bees, teasing and flirting with him. Once, running for dear life, he had hidden in a crevice in the mountain and looking back had seen them seated, hugging their knees, weeping and sniffling on one another’s shoulders, huddled together in one sobbing mass. It was a sight that could make your skin crawl.

Passages like these and others in Duong Thu Huong’s and Bao Ninh’s novels show how much nonsense about North Vietnamese and “the revolution” was written by some of the Americans who opposed the war, and how little if anything the carefully guided foreign guests of Hanoi in those years—like those visiting China then—saw that was genuine.

That is why Dragon Ascending, Henry Kamm’s report on Vietnam, published several years ago, provides a particularly valuable perspective. The New York Times correspondent in Southeast Asia for twenty-five years, Kamm knows Vietnam as well as any other journalist. One of his most telling points is that Vietnam, for most Westerners, is a war, not a country. “What would a Vietnamese make of a phrase that uses the name of his country to stand, not for his nation …but for a debacle in another nation’s history?” He points out that Americans as a whole bear much responsibility for the war. Unlike Vietnamese, who lived in a dictatorship, they could punish the politicians who made and escalated the war by voting against them. Many antiwar Americans, Mr. Kamm recalls, expressed anguish for the Vietnamese who suffered during the war. But those voices “were strangely silent during the next period of their suffering, when hundreds of thousands felt that their best choice was to entrust their lives and those of their children to tiny, unseaworthy boats on the treacherous South China Sea.”

This evasion by Americans is exposed further when Kamm talks to Bao Ninh in Hanoi. Bao Ninh was sympathetic to Americans for their search for MIAs, but observed:

We have mothers and widows who know where their sons or husbands died, but they can’t afford to visit their graves…. A Vietnamese mother who lost three or four sons in the war without knowing where they are buried may be helping to dig for Americans missing in action, because she knows where they were buried.

Some of Kamm’s accounts recall the grim scenes in Memories of a Pure Spring. He describes a police state where, as in China, the Party apologizes for past mistakes but does not “for a moment allow that having committed such errors should disqualify them from continuing to govern.” He found a pervasive system of surveillance in which informers spy on their neighbors in every village and in every city street. Vietnam is a country of centuries of resistance to foreigners, Mr. Kamm observes, but with no tradition of organized internal opposition, although there are plenty of individual dissenters, many of them either in jail or survivors of jail. These dissenters, suffering in silence, “step outside their restrictive system only by thinking and speaking to their friends as though they lived in a free, civil society. They live in truth, surrounded by many a lie.” In a country of 73 million, it is hard indeed to find open dissenters such as Duong Thu Huong.

Michael Lind could learn from Henry Kamm’s book that Vietnam has never been a pawn of the Chinese and Russians, even if at Geneva, in 1954, Ho’s envoys followed their advice and believed there could be a political settlement of the war. During the American phase of the war, “North Vietnam received extensive assistance from the Communist world,” Kamm writes, “but its will and ability to make its vital decisions independently were never in doubt.” The greater the rift between Beijing and Moscow, Mr. Kamm says, the more adroitly Hanoi played them against each other, unlike Ngo Dinh Diem, who “was never able to step out of the large American shadow that enveloped him.”

That shadow has now been replaced in the South by Hanoi, which, Kamm’s Southern informants told him, confirmed the fears of many that the North would shove them aside. The NLF learned quickly, as Truong Nhu Tang wrote in Journal of a Vietcong, that they now numbered among the conquered. Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, the NLF’s Minister of Health, told Kamm that as soon as the war ended,

Hanoi decreed the unification of the country and the elimination of all institutions through which the southern revolutionaries intended to achieve gradual reconciliation after twenty-one years of war and prepare a smooth joining of the two disparate entities.

Contrary to the view of Mr. Brigham that the South was short of experts, Mr. Kamm writes that Northerners replaced “qualified southerners eager to serve now that peace had finally been restored.” Thousands of such experts, who could have fled with the Americans but chose to stay to build a new society, were harshly confined for years in concentration camps. Two million other Vietnamese, many of whom could have built a modern country, fled abroad in unsafe boats. “To tell the truth,” Bao Ninh said, once the Americans had gone, “the victory of the north, by any accurate description, was an attack by the north on the south…. We soldiers from the north feel sad today…. We feel sorry for the southerners….”

In such a place, the open resistance of the novelist Duong Thu Huong is poignant. The official who signed her arrest warrant before her seven months in prison asked her why she bothered speaking out; very few Vietnamese had ever heard of her, he observed, and within a week of her death she would be forgotten. She replied, “I am not like you. I don’t do what I do in order to be remembered. I oppose you because I want to, and it pleases me to oppose you. Earlier I volunteered against the Americans, against the Chinese, and now I’m volunteering against you with the same force.”

This Issue

May 25, 2000