When a few years ago I undertook to write a book called Why We Were in Vietnam, I was a little startled to discover that there was hardly anyone around who still wanted to talk about Vietnam. Indeed, upon learning that I was working on Vietnam, most people would either change the subject after getting through the obligatory courtesies of a perfunctory question or two, or else they would shake their heads in commiseration: how could I bear to immerse myself in that sorry story again?
It was not that Vietnam had been forgotten. On the contrary. Even after the war ended in 1975, books and articles continued trickling out. To be sure, relatively little attention was paid to these postwar writings as compared with their wartime predecessors, but on the other hand, Macbeth could more easily have held his banquet without the ghost of Banquo than a discussion of American foreign policy or of the American character could have been conducted without an invocation of Vietnam. Still, as became vividly clear during the debate over Central America that flared up in the early days of the Reagan administration, invoking Vietnam was not the same thing as discussing, let alone reexamining, Vietnam.
It was in fact the curious role played by the invocation of Vietnam in this debate that impelled me to go back over the history of American involvement in the war. What was curious here was not the warning cry of “another Vietnam” raised by opponents of the administration’s announced determination to prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador; that was to be expected. What did surprise me was that most supporters of the administration seemed to accept the right of the opposition to claim Vietnam as a vindication of its perspective on the moral and political issues involved.
Thus, those who believed in holding the line in El Salvador did not counter the invocation of Vietnam by showing how, if Vietnam was relevant to Central America at all, it proved the opposite of what the people who had brought it up were trying to establish. Instead, the administration and its supporters countered by saying that El Salvador was not Vietnam in the sense that local conditions there were less favorable to the guerrillas and more promising in general to the development of a successful resistance. No doubt this was true, but the resemblances between El Salvador and Vietnam were also striking. And these resemblances were so obviously damaging to the position of Reagan’s opponents that it was only by a veritably Orwellian inversion that they were able to get away with pointing to Vietnam as their clinching argument.
For example, in El Salvador, as previously in Vietnam, a Communist-dominated guerrilla insurgency was trying to overthrow the government, and in each case the critics of American policy said that the insurgency was indigenous rather than manipulated or controlled from outside. Yet by the time the debate on El Salvador erupted, the North Vietnamese themselves had admitted that they had indeed created and directed the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the South. Or again, in El Salvador, as previously in Vietnam, there was much talk of a negotiated settlement through “power-sharing”—that is, of ending the presumably indigenous uprising by inviting the insurgents into a coalition government. Yet by the time this proposal was being advanced for El Salvador, the North Vietnamese had already conquered the South and refused to allow even their Communist allies, let alone any non-Communists, in the NLF a share in the power for which they had fought. Or again: in El Salvador, as previously in Vietnam, the American-supported government was under constant attack for abuses of human rights, and yet by the time demands for a cut-off of aid to El Salvador were being made, the experience of Vietnam had already demonstrated that the Communist alternative was much worse.
In other words, on every one of these crucial points of resemblance between Vietnam and El Salvador, the critics had been proved wrong where Vietnam was concerned. Nevertheless they blandly went on invoking Vietnam as though it provided unanswerable evidence for their position on El Salvador.
I think that something deeper was going on here than the usual refusal to admit error. For the people who kept bringing Vietnam into the debate over El Salvador seemed innocently unaware of how dangerous it was to their own case. It was not that they had never heard of the boat people and the other blessings the victory of Communism had brought to Vietnam. All of them had heard of these things, and a fair number also knew that other elements of the old antiwar position had been exposed as illusions or outright lies. But for many people, the very word “Vietnam” had become so charged with meaning and affect that no amount of new information seemed able to defuse it. To lose “Vietnam” was to lose the organizing principle of all their ideas about America and its role in the world. And so they held on.
If we ask how this was possible, the answer is that some who heard the reports coming out of the new Vietnam held on by refusing to believe them; others held on by refusing to think about the implications of those reports; and still others held on by continuing to blame everything on the United States.
The first group was very small, but it was given a certain amount of weight by the presence within it of a few major stars of the old antiwar movement, most notably Noam Chomsky, William Kunstler, and Dave Dellinger. Yet in speaking, in Chomsky’s words, of the “extreme unreliability” of the reports, these people were flying in the face of evidence that was so solid and so extensive that their denials proved an embarrassment even to many of their former allies in the antiwar movement. Chomsky, whose pieces on the war had once been a major feature of the New York Review’s coverage, quietly disappeared from its pages, while other intransigent apologists for the Hanoi regime were no longer lionized on the campuses and the television screens.
Radical critics of the war were, however, not the only ones who refused to be budged by new information from previously held positions. Take, for example, the case of Theodore Draper, who once seemed to me and many others one of the most responsible of the moderate critics. In a book entitled Abuse of Power, which appeared in 1967 (and parts of which had originally been published in COMMENTARY), Draper devoted a good deal of energy to making fun of Washington’s claim that the United States began bombing North Vietnam in 1965 only after Hanoi had decided to change the character of the war by sending in North Vietnamese regulars to reinforce the Vietcong guerrillas in the South who had been doing most of the fighting up to that point. According to the State Department, the regulars in question were units of the 325th Division of the North Vietnamese army, and Draper, picking out small inconsistencies in various official American statements concerning “The Mysterious 325th,” as he sarcastically called it, also ridiculed the implication that “the North Vietnamese command had gone over to the so-called ‘third stage’ of Mao Tse-tung’s famous formula, which called for a large-scale counteroffensive by the main armed forces.” The upshot of Draper’s analysis was that the Americans were inflating the presence of perhaps four or five hundred North Vietnamese regulars into an “invasion” in order to provide themselves with a pretext for bombing the North.
Eleven years later, in 1978, Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam came out with new documentary evidence proving that the North Vietnamese had, as early as December 1963, decided to escalate by sending in regular units, and that about 5,800 men drawn from the “mysterious” 325th Division had indeed infiltrated the South by March 1965. Faced with this new evidence Draper simply refused to be convinced.
Now in a new book, Vietnam: A History,1 Stanley Karnow produces additional evidence on this crucial issue (crucial because it became one of the first counts in the indictment charging the United States with lying about its conduct of the war). In interviews with North Vietnamese officials which he conducted in 1981, Karnow (himself a moderate critic of the war) discovered not only that North Vietnamese troops were sent South “long before Lyndon Johnson seriously considered the introduction of American battalions into Vietnam”; he also learned from General Tran Do, “one of North Vietnam’s most distinguished soldiers,” that by the fall of 1964, “The first complete North Vietnamese unit . . . had already departed for the South. . .,” and that this unit was none other than a regiment of the “mysterious” 325th.
As for the question of numbers, it turns out that even Lewy’s estimate of 5,800 (let alone Draper’s of four or five hundred) was too low. “Throughout 1964,” Karnow was told by his North Vietnamese informants, “an estimated 10,000 North Vietnamese troops went South. . . .” This was done, moreover, for precisely the reason Draper contemptuously dismissed: the North Vietnamese had decided to shift (against Mao’s advice, but that is another story) from a protracted guerrilla war to an offensive conventional war.
One might expect a responsible scholar who had been wrong on so important a point—a point bearing on the good faith of the United States government—to admit the error and perhaps even to begin rethinking his interpretation. But as of this writing, Draper has been no more open to Karnow’s evidence than he was to Lewy’s. Like the radicals who have held on to their idea of Vietnam by denying that the Communist victory has brought horrors to the people of Vietnam, Draper has held on to his interpretation of how the war developed by blinding himself to the inconvenient and embarrassing new facts which have come to light since 1975.
So far as the horrors are concerned, however, a more popular line of defense than denial has been to acknowledge the truth, and even to express anguish over the fate that has befallen the people of Vietnam, but then to go on talking about the world as though no such things had ever happened.
A striking case in point is Tom Wicker of the New York Times. While many veterans of the antiwar movement were triumphantly saying that the Communist conquest of South Vietnam had not led to the “bloodbath” which had been anticipated by supporters of American policy, Wicker had the decency and the honesty to admit that the “vast tide of human misery in Southeast Asia” unleashed by the Communist victory was the functional equivalent of a bloodbath. Yet regular readers of Wicker would be very hard-pressed to find any traces of that acknowledgment in his post-Vietnam columns on Central America (or indeed on any other aspect of American foreign policy). What has happened to Vietnam since the Communist victory casts no retrospective light for Wicker on the moral and political character of a war which was fought to prevent just such an outcome; nor does the experience of Vietnam say anything to Wicker about the morally and politically comparable situation in Central America today. He knows what has happened in Vietnam, but knowing it makes no difference.
This refusal to face up to the implications of the Communist victory in Vietnam often and quite naturally flows into a third defensive tactic, which is to blame the United States for what the Communists have done. The locus classicus of this tactic is Sideshow (1979), William Shawcross’s book about Cambodia. According to Shawcross, not only were the Americans responsible for bringing the war to Cambodia; they were also responsible for embittering and enraging the Cambodian Communists (Khmer Rouge) who, upon coming to power, gave vent to this bitter rage by murdering several million of their own people.
Now, even if Shawcross’s account were not marred at almost every point by errors of fact and tendentious manipulation of evidence,2 this effort to shift the responsibility for a crime from those who committed it to those who were trying to prevent the criminals from coming into power should have been laughed out of court. Instead it was gratefully seized upon as a way of refuting (as Stanley Hoffmann put it in the New York Review) “All those who, somehow, believe that the sufferings inflicted on the Cambodian people, first by the Pol Pot regime, and now by the Vietnamese, retrospectively justify America’s attempt to save Phnom Penh from the Reds.”
The enthusiasm that greeted Sideshow stands in instructive contrast to the way Lewy’s America in Vietnam had been received only a year earlier. This magisterial work did more than bring all the available facts together for the first time into a coherent account. It also provided a critical examination, solidly rooted in all the available documents and guided by a meticulous respect for what the evidence did and did not reveal, of the conventional wisdoms about the war. On such questions of fact as whether the American government was lying about the attack on our ships by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964; or whether the Vietcong was an instrument of the North Vietnamese; or which side began the escalation of the war in 1965; or whether the Tet offensive of 1968 was accurately reported by the American media; or why Nixon decided on the incursion into Cambodia in 1970; or how destructive the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi actually was—on all these questions Lewy’s researches turned up answers that very often made nonsense of what by the late 70’s had come to be widely believed.
More startling still was his analysis of the charge that the United States had been guilty of “officially condoned illegal and grossly immoral conduct” (emphasis in original). Relying on previously classified records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as a host of other sources (including some of the same North Vietnamese documents that would later be confirmed by Karnow’s interviews in Hanoi), Lewy came to the conclusion that the United States had not violated the laws of war in Vietnam and that its battlefield tactics had resulted in a lower level of civilian casualties than Korea.
If, then, Shawcross convicted the United States of crimes that nobody had previously charged it with, Lewy absolved the United States of crimes that almost everyone believed it had committed. Yet in spite of the fact that Shawcross’s case rested on misrepresentations of the historical record and on a preposterous conception of responsibility, his book was—and continues to be—celebrated as an important contribution. By contrast, Lewy’s book, whose scholarly reliability has nowhere been challenged and whose moral arguments have never been refuted, largely goes ignored. (It was not even mentioned in a New York Times Magazine article about recent scholarship on the war or in a similar survey later done by Newsweek, and though Karnow’s bibliographical notes refer to Sideshow as “The comprehensive book on Cambodia during the Nixon years,” there is no reference at all to Lewy’s book—or, for that matter, to my own Why We Were in Vietnam, which was heavily influenced by Lewy.)
In spite of these ingenious efforts of denial, however, little by little the onslaught of evidence and sober argument began undermining the idea that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were the villains of the war while the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Communists were the heroes. Holding on to Vietnam as a symbol of American malevolence and Communist virtue was therefore becoming increasingly difficult. For those whose intellectual and emotional investment in the antiwar movement’s version of Vietnam was so great that giving it up would be tantamount to declaring political bankruptcy, a new defensive line needed to be drawn. That line has now been drawn by Stanley Karnow’s book and reinforced by the PBS series entitled Vietnam: A Television History, of which Karnow himself was one of the “originators,” on which he served as “chief correspondent,” and to which his book is described as a “companion.”
As it happens, there are a number of differences between the book and the television series. Indeed, having been led to believe from a massive and lavishly produced press kit that the series was a straightforward translation by Karnow of the book into a television documentary—with the relation between the two resembling, say, that of Kenneth Clark’s book Civilization to the TV series of the same name—I was amazed to find that Karnow neither wrote any of the scripts nor acted as narrator and guide nor even ever appeared on camera.
Be that as it may, both the book and the series have been very widely praised as objective, fair-minded, and well-balanced, and while neither deserves these accolades, the series deserves them a good deal less than the book. For unlike Karnow, the people who wrote and produced several of the thirteen episodes are still trying to push the old version of the story, with the Communists cast in the role of heroes and the Americans and the South Vietnamese represented as villains.
This becomes immediately clear in the first two episodes which mainly deal with the Vietnamese struggle for independence against the French. These episodes are made up in large part of interviews and film footage taken from North Vietnam and taken, moreover, almost entirely at face value. The predictable result is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh as an almost saintly figure; his lieutenants, too—men like Pham Van Dong and General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose policies have brought nothing but war, destitution, and the terrors of totalitarianism to the people of Vietnam—are consistently presented in flattering poses and allowed self-serving interviews.
In general, the impression conveyed is that the Vietnamese Communists were and are people of courage, integrity, singleness of purpose, and selfless love of country. The South Vietnamese, by equally predictable contrast, are for the most part shown throughout the series as corrupt, unprincipled, incompetent, cruel, and selfish. We repeatedly hear them denounced as “puppets” by Pham Van Dong and other Communist leaders, and the way they are portrayed—wholly dependent on the United States and unable or unwilling to fight for themselves—lends tacit credence to this characterization. At the same time, the South Vietnamese are repeatedly being denounced on the screen by Americans who complain that they refused to institute various reforms urged upon them by Washington. Yet it never seems to occur to the authors of the series that the stubbornness of South Vietnam’s leaders—first Ngo Dinh Diem and then Nguyen Van Thieu—makes nonsense of the charge that they were American puppets.
In several episodes, the attitude of the series toward the United States also bears traces of the anti-Americanism that was so prominent and so ugly a feature of the antiwar movement. The CIA is accused of responsibility for the flight of a million refugees from North to South after the Geneva Accords dividing the country had been signed in 1954 (when in fact most of these refugees were Catholics who needed no encouragement from the CIA or anyone else to flee from Communist rule); Lyndon Johnson is accused of caring more about domestic politics than about containing Communism (when in fact he sacrificed his Presidency to his belief in containment); American soldiers are shown weeping over what we are led to believe were atrocities (when in fact the responsibility, both moral and legal, for battlefield tactics that caused civilian casualties rested with an enemy who fought by hiding behind civilians); and the influence of Shawcross is all over the episode on the war in Cambodia.
Insidious editing tricks, amounting to outright lies, are also used to reinforce the anti-American appeal. “We’re trying to do the reasonable thing,” says the voice of Lyndon Johnson as images flash by of Marines blowing up a village, of mangled corpses, and of weeping children. (The lie here is that it was the Americans rather than the North Vietnamese who stood in the way of a negotiated settlement, when in truth the North Vietnamese, as they themselves now freely admit, never had any interest in compromise and were single-mindedly pursuing victory.) Or again: an American veteran of the war, talking about his experience, is shown saying that trying to kill someone “sends a real charge through you,” and an American soldier is pictured wearing a helmet with the inscription “Kill a gook for God,” while a chaplain leads a company in the field in the singing of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” (Here the lie is that the American troops in Vietnam were bloodthirsty and mindlessly self-righteous, when in truth—as other episodes indicate—most of them had an ironic sense of themselves as “the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful,” which is what the much more characteristic helmet inscription “UUUU” stood for.) Or again: the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi is mainly represented by footage of a hospital that had been hit, with the camera dwelling almost lovingly on wounded children and outraged doctors. (The lie here is the suggestion that the bombing was indiscriminate, when in truth American pilots were threatened with court-martial if they deviated from prescribed bombing runs designed to minimize civilian casualties, with the result that such casualties were indeed kept to a minimum.)
In the eyes of this series, the only good thing about the United States was the antiwar movement. But the antiwar movement we actually see on the screen and hear about from the invisible narrator is as sanitized and idealized as the North Vietnamese. Though we get a glimpse of Jerry Rubin and another of Stokely Carmichael, in only one quick shot—a sign with a swastika carried by a protester—are we given any real indication that the movement consistently vilified the United States and the South Vietnamese, while either supporting the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese or lying about their character and purposes.3 The antiwar movement we see here seems to be made up entirely of sober dissenters like George Ball and Mike Mansfield, anguished veterans whose eyes had been opened by the horrors of the war, and earnest young idealists being clubbed by the cops.
As Stephen J. Morris points out in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, however, most of this kind of thing is confined to the episodes which were done either by French or British producers. Those episodes that were produced by an American team under Richard Ellison at WGBH in Boston are in general neither pro-Communist nor anti-American. Moreover, because even the French and British-made episodes were toned down as a result of criticism from outside academic consultants, the impression left by the series as a whole, and explicitly conveyed by the concluding episode (written and produced by Ellison himself), is more even-handed than some of the individual pieces. In that sense, it can be said that the series is a “companion” to Karnow’s book, even though the book is on many points of detail as well as in its overall perspective better balanced and far more honest.
Thus, writing as a critic of American policy, Karnow nevertheless tries to go where the evidence leads even when it undermines the antiwar case. While recognizing, for example, that three times as many bombs were dropped on North Vietnam as the United States used in all of World War II, he also takes care to emphasize that these bombs did far less damage because they were directed only at military targets:
The dikes along the Red River, whose destruction would have flooded the valley and killed hundreds of thousands of people, were never targeted. Nor were North Vietnam’s cities subjected to the kind of “carpet bombing” that obliterated Dresden and Tokyo [in World War II]. Bombs devastated parts of North Vietnam, particularly the area above the seventeenth parallel, where troops and supplies were massed to move south, but Hanoi and Haiphong were hardly bruised.
Unlike the TV series, Karnow also gives a reasonably balanced account of the Christmas 1972 bombing. He mentions the “ghastly results” of bombs that went astray, such as the one that accidentally hit the hospital which is featured on the TV series. But he does not dwell disproportionately on these results, because he recognizes that the figures of civilian casualties (about 1,600 for both Hanoi and Haiphong) dispose of the charges of carpet or terror bombing; he knows that the reason these figures were so low was that “the B-52’s were programmed to spare civilians, and they pinpointed their targets with extraordinary precision”; and he also recognizes that the North Vietnamese, so often represented as helpless, were well-enough equipped with surface-to-air-missiles to shoot down 26 U.S. aircraft, among them 15 B-52’s. (What he fails to say is that these losses would have been lighter if the pilots had not been forbidden to deviate from their prescribed flight plans even to avoid being hit.)
If Karnow is not disposed to put the Americans in the worst possible light, or to lend easy credence to the anti-American lies of the old antiwar movement, neither is he inclined to whitewash the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. One major example, to which I have already alluded, is his acknowledgment that North Vietnamese regulars were sent to the South not in response to American escalation, as has so often been claimed, but “months before the U.S. Marines splashed ashore at Danang in March 1965,” and also before the bombing of the North began.
In addition, he confirms the contention earlier advanced by Lewy and the French journalist Jean Lacouture (though without citing them) that the Vietcong was an instrument of the North Vietnamese, thus dispelling what he himself calls “the myth, in which many Westerners then believed, that the Vietcong was essentially an indigenous and autonomous insurgent movement.” And in his section on the Tet offensive, he minces no words about the atrocities the Communists committed in Hue where they “displayed unprecedented brutality, slaughtering minor government functionaries and other innocuous figures as well as harmless foreign doctors, schoolteachers, and missionaries.”
Nor, finally, does he make any bones about the results of the Communist victory in Vietnam. He speaks of the “Vietnamese gulag” created by the Communists, of the destitution resulting from their management of the economy, of the boat people, and of the transformation of the country into a Soviet dependency.
All this no doubt helps to account for the enthusiasm with which such hawkish reviewers as Harry G. Summers and Douglas Pike have greeted Karnow’s book. But I would guess that the book owes its success in dovish circles to something else—to the general interpretation it offers of what happened in Vietnam and why.
This interpretation (which the TV series echoes) might be summarized as follows: The Vietnamese nationalist movement, led by Ho Chi Minh, was determined at all costs to achieve independence. After driving the French out, Ho Chi Minh was forced to accept a temporary division of his country and he then went to war through his surrogates the Vietcong to unify the nation under his rule. The United States, mistakenly seeing Ho as an instrument of international Communism, intervened, making the further mistake of believing that the increasing application of American power would persuade him to give up his goal. During the course of the war, many stupid and vicious things were done by both sides, and both countries, each in its own way, suffered considerable damage. In the end, Hanoi’s determination proved greater than Washington’s and the Americans, like the French before them, were driven out, opening the way at last for the unification of Vietnam under an indigenous nationalist regime. Ironically, however, victory was no kinder to Vietnam than defeat was to the United States. Vietnam was now unified and independent, but the people were repressed and impoverished. This, then, was “The War Nobody Won.”
In developing this version of the story (which, incidentally, represents a return to the main lines of the standard version accepted during the war itself by liberal critics like David Halberstam), Karnow does not deny that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Communists as well as nationalists. Yet he seems incapable of taking this fact seriously. At one point, he goes so far as to say that if not for “French intransigence [which] steered him toward violence,” Ho might have become, “like Gandhi, an apostle of passive resistance”—this, of one of the more ruthless Leninists of our time. In a similar vein, Karnow repeatedly deplores the “antiquated Marxist ideology” that led the Vietnamese Communists to commit “blunders” and “errors” that a more “realistic” assessment of their own interests would have permitted them to avoid. In other words, Karnow cannot get it through his head that what Ho Chi Minh wanted, and what his followers have achieved, was not merely an independent Vietnam: it was a Communist Vietnam. Therefore it is absurd to say that nobody won the Vietnam war. The Communists won; and the hideous results—give or take a local variation or two—were similar to the results of Communist victories in all the other countries whose people have been cursed with such victories.
But what of the United States? The implication of Karnow’s version of the story is that if only the United States had supported Ho Chi Minh instead of opposing him, all would have been well. As a nationalist, he would have been happy to lessen his dependence on the Soviet Union and China, and the fact that he was also a Communist need no more have stood in the way of American support for him than it had in the case of Tito (or than it later would in the case of Mao Zedong).
Just as Karnow fails to take Communism seriously as a factor in Ho Chi Minh’s behavior, then, so he fails to take anti-Communism seriously as a factor in the foreign policy of the United States. For it was never merely Russian imperialism that the United States was trying to “contain” through the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Korean war, and then the Vietnam war. It was also the system of Communist totalitarianism that went along with the expansion of Soviet power and influence. To support Yugoslavia, a Communist country breaking away from Soviet domination, was one thing; but it would have been quite another to support a Communist faction fighting against non-Communist and anti-Communist rivals for control of a country which had not yet been drawn into the Soviet orbit.
Though there were a few people in the State Department and elsewhere who favored trying to coopt Ho Chi Minh (and Mao Zedong as well), the consensus in the United States—and it was a bipartisan consensus in which liberal Democrats were even more enthusiastic participants than conservative Republicans—rejected any such policy. Karnow himself quotes Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, who once dismissed as “irrelevant” the question of whether Ho was “as much nationalist as Commie” because “all Stalinists in colonial areas are nationalists.” On another occasion (not cited by Karnow), Acheson told the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who had suggested that a more sympathetic policy toward Communist China might encourage Mao to move in a Titoist direction, that the American people could not be expected to support an “interventionist” (i.e., anti-Communist) policy in Europe and an “isolationist” one in the Far East. Ache-son’s Republican successor, John Foster Dulles (though his behavior in office was much less bellicose than Acheson’s and certainly more restrained than his own rhetoric), also regarded Ho Chi Minh as “an arm of Communist aggression.” And so too did his Democratic successor Dean Rusk, not to mention the four Presidents of both parties (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) for whom these men all worked.
The point is that it is unhistorical to argue for an alternative policy in the past that had no chance of being adopted. Nor do subsequent events prove, as is so often suggested, that the Americans were wrong about “international Communism.” For China was subservient to the Soviet Union at least until the end of the 50’s and Ho Chi Minh remained so to the end; moreover, “wars of national liberation” were encouraged and supported by the Chinese and the Soviets as a prudent way of expanding Communist power and influence in Third World countries like Vietnam. Those who ridicule the idea that there was a monolithic Communist movement directed from Moscow in this period are either being dishonest or do not know what they are talking about. Nor is it at all clear that the subsequent break between the Soviet Union and China, or between China and Vietnam, could have been hastened or manipulated by a different American policy.
Yet if Karnow’s book, and still more the TV series, are unhistorical in dealing with the spirit of the past, they are both exquisitely attuned to the spirit of the present. To interpret Vietnam as “The War Nobody Won” plays with perfect harmony into the pacifist attitudes that have become so widespread in the past few years; and so does all the gory combat footage running through the TV series. Not long ago the purpose of dwelling on such images would have been to expose the evils of the American intervention, and while (to repeat) some of that remains in some episodes, the main purpose now is to stress, in true pacifist style, the horrors of war itself.
Similarly, to interpret the American intervention as a mistake rather than as a crime is nicely consonant with an atmosphere in which patriotic feeling has been crowding out the anti-Americanism of the old antiwar movement. Finally, to locate this mistake in the American failure to understand that nationalism is a more powerful force than Communism fits perfectly with the increasingly fashionable idea that the United States should be supporting the guerrillas in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as nationalists instead of opposing them as Communists linked with the Soviet Union through Cuba.
In short, at a moment when the old antiwar case has been losing its credibility, Karnow and his television colleagues have produced a kind of Revised Standard Version of the story that salvages Vietnam for the fall-back position, which is that American power ought to be used not to oppose Communism but to coopt it, not to make the world safe for democracy but to make it safe for “Titoism.” Thanks to the Revised Standard Version, Vietnam, no longer useful as a symbol of American evil and Communist virtue, will now more and more be taken as a definitive demonstration of the stupidity of anti-Communism, the sanctity and power of nationalism, and the futility of resorting to force. No wonder so many people have moved from merely invoking Vietnam to talking happily about it again.
1 Viking, 750 pp., $20.00.
2 For precise documentation, see Peter W. Rodman's two articles, “Sideswipe” in the American Spectator, March 1981, and “Shawcross Swipes Again,” in the American Spectator, July 1981. See also Why We Were in Vietnam (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, paperback edition), pp. 207—09.
3 Anyone who either doubts or has forgotten that the movement was shot through with such attitudes will find many examples, drawn from writers like Frances Fitz-Gerald, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and many others, in Why We Were in Vietnam, pp. 85—105.