Argument Without End:
In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy
By Robert S. McNamara, with James Blight,
Robert Brigham, Thomas Biersteker, and
Col. Herbert Schandler
Public Affairs. 419 pp. $27.50.
Vietnam: The Necessary War:
A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict
By Michael Lind
Free Press. 284 pp. $25
The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the Vietnam War
By Fredrik Logevall
University of California Press. 413 pp. $35
Peace Now! American Society and the Ending of the Vietnam War
By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Yale University Press. 228 pp. $25
There are too many new books on the Vietnam War. Too many, because that war is no longer particularly relevant to the American, Asian, or global political context. It may be true that future U.S. wars will resemble Vietnam more than World War II; politically ambiguous conflicts with limited military parameters will be more frequent than large, set-piece winner-take-all conventional warfare. But it would be wrong to exaggerate the degree of useful similarity between the Vietnam War and the American conflicts of the future. From both a geostrategic and an ideological perspective, Vietnam is indecipherable except in terms of Cold War conditions and concerns. American policy was conceived against the backdrop of a global totalitarian threat, in an age when the massive use of U.S. nuclear weapons in anger was a real possibility. Standing behind North Vietnam was Soviet and Chinese power, and the implications of victory or defeat for all the great powers involved were universally understood to transcend local and regional stakes.
However difficult the contemporary problems of American policy in the Balkans, the Caribbean basin, or Southwest Asia, none bears such a context. U.S. credibility and reputation in one area or policy episode does still affect it in others, but the fit is looser than in Cold War times. Most important, no other single power or coalition has both the capacity and the will to exploit U.S. errors and weaknesses as the Soviet Union once did. The military technology of the on-rushing future, too, is so different from that of the Vietnam era that it is hard even to learn much from the tactical experience of that war.
If the subject has become less relevant to practical concerns, why, then, so many new books, of which the four discussed here represent a semi-random sampling of the recent production? Three reasons stand out.
The first is that the American generation for whom the Vietnam War was the seminal intellectual and political experience has now reached intellectual maturity; namely, about fifty years of age or thereabouts. People write about themselves and what they know, or think they know, from direct experience—as well they should. One of the books reviewed here, Peace Now! by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, fits into that category.
The second is that the generation that fought the war is aging, and we thus have new memoirs and pseudo-memoirs about it. Robert McNamara’s Argument Without End is a particularly exotic—and neurotic—example of that genre.
The third is that younger scholars suppose that they can bring a "post-emotional" analysis to the subject. Perhaps so. That we are beyond the Cold War, and know how it ended, allows a certain closure on the broader subject at hand. More than that, hitherto inaccessible archives are being made available to scholars. Fredrik Logevall (born 1963) and Michael Lind (born 1962) both fit into this younger generation of writers on Vietnam.
Of course, there are broader reasons for the sustained interest in the Vietnam War, reasons less practical than philosophical. The "long 1960s," as it is often called, witnessed a major cultural shift in the United States, and there is not a major social statistic that does not bear witness to it—whether on family life, race relations, consumer behavior, or political dynamics. It stands to reason that the war had something to do with this shift, if not as cause then as catalyst, shaper, or accelerator.
More important, we still disagree about the war itself. If we had reached consensus on three key issues—Was the Indochina problem worth the level of U.S. effort devoted to it? Was the early problem of Indochina ever solvable, or the later war ever winnable? If so, why was the problem not solved, or the consequent war not won?—there would not be nearly so much interest in the war within any generational cohort. We are still arguing over whether the Vietnam War, in its essence, was a civil or an international war. But as far as American politics was and remains concerned, it is a civil war, seen by the light of our continuing disagreement about it.
In addition to addressing historical matters, most interpretations of the war are at least implicitly forward-looking, their aim being to tell us what sort of people we are and, by implication, where we should be heading and how we ought to get there. As we overwrite our history we prejudice our future. This is why, if have new books we must, we need book reviews, even long ones, to oversee this overwriting. We all have a stake in how the putative last draft reads.
Robert Strange McNamara is a strange man. He is a perpetual convolution machine and the reason is plain. I am certain that Mr. McNamara has never harbored a single evil or malicious intention, and yet the consequences of his "public" acts (Vietnam, his years at the World Bank, his becoming a nuclear dove at precisely the wrong moment of the Cold War) have ranged from unfortunate to evil with a consistency that almost beggars belief. An intelligent and impressive man, McNamara cannot have been oblivious to this pattern, but his manner of dealing with it over the years is something passing strange to behold.
Argument Without End is a book so deeply flawed in its very essence that it is literally painful to read. It got me in the stomach. I also confess to a loathing for its primary author, an emotion that I will indulge in a moment. But it is nonetheless an important book— first, for its information. Between 1995 and 1998, McNamara and a team of like-minded American scholars and officials traveled to Hanoi for seminars with their Vietnamese counterparts to discuss what both sides were thinking at each stage of the developing conflict. These seminars provided matter for the reflections of McNamara and his coauthors. While the reader can trust neither the authors’ interpretation of the Vietnamese-American discussion nor McNamara’s historical memory, the book is valuable for the insight it provides into the thinking of North Vietnam’s wartime leadership. Second, thanks to McNamara’s coauthors, who wrote most of the text, the book represents as close to an official version of a certain interpretation of the war as we are likely to have for some time. That version is the incarnation of the liberal antiwar view that saw the war not as a crime but as a strategic misjudgment so huge that it doomed the United States to fight an unwinnable and multi-destructive war. At least within the academy, this is the hegemonic view. It is the view that posterity will inherit unless it is debunked, and it is valuable to have it laid out with reasonable dispassion and completeness in one place.
McNamara’s main aim in Argument Without End is to glean the mutual "missed opportunities" that led to the American phase of the war in Vietnam, and to examine those missed opportunities to distill general lessons about the future conduct of U.S. policy. McNamara believes it is possible to learn from history, but what he has "learned" from his several seminars with the Vietnamese Communist leadership shows how tricky a business this is.
For the reader, the difficulty is compounded by the unreliability of McNamara’s memories about his own views. After all, he is both author and subject here, interviewing others and dissecting his former self at the same time. But some of this interrogation just does not make sense. From the day he set foot in the Pentagon as Secretary of Defense, he tells us in Argument Without End, he believed that U.S. nuclear weapons should never be used anytime, anywhere, for any purpose. So, he says, he told the President. If that is so, and not a memory edited for purposes of latter-day conscience- salving, then why did McNamara preside so vigorously over the most extensive quantitative buildup of U.S. strategic nuclear forces in history? Equally implausible is his plaint that in 1961-65 he was foolishly ignorant of the polycentric tendencies in the Communist movement. As Michael Morris has pointed out, that admission, also made in McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect, is contradicted by a 1964 speech in which McNamara shows a clear understanding of the complex political relationships among Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union.
The odd thing about McNamara’s retrospective confessions is that they amount to a falsification of the historical record not to justify his own past but to condemn it. Not only are such convolutions peculiar, they are misleading; McNamara is wrong about why he was wrong.
What McNamara got wrong at the time was the nature of the war the Communist side was fighting. He never understood it, and, as a result, he failed to scrutinize the advice tendered to him and to the President by the uniformed military to see if it would produce an effective strategy. There was no easy way to prevail in Vietnam at any stage of the conflict, but preventing the unification of the country under Communist rule by conventional force of arms in 1975 was possible.
As others have argued, the U.S. search-and-destroy attrition strategy was not only unavailing in Vietnam but downright counterproductive. It had the effect of turning the National Liberation Front (NLF) from a small, bedraggled minority force before 1964 into a formidable politico-military movement by mid-1967. American tactics politicized a peasantry that, like most peasantries, preferred to be left alone. They undermined the nationalist credentials of the government in Saigon and played into the hands of those who argued that American motives in Indochina were no different from those of the French. They infantilized the entire South Vietnamese government, pushing it toward a level of corruption and venality it had never known under President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was overthrown in 1963. At the same time, the policy of graduated response, which used American air power to retaliate measure for measure against Vietnamese aggression, was unavailing, because U.S. decision makers underestimated the pain threshold that the North Vietnamese government was willing to inflict on its people. In short, what was a remediable if not easily winnable situation in 1961 was turned into an increasingly unwinnable war by 1967-68, not despite American efforts but because of them. As Secretary of Defense, McNamara bore much of the responsibility for allowing such a thing to happen. And judging from Argument Without End, he still doesn’t get it.
That is not all he does not get. Argument Without End endorses the view that the United States erred by not aiding Ho Chi Minh in 1946 against French imperialism. It endorses the view that the American attitude toward the 1954 Geneva Conference was a mistake, and that President Diem was more likely to reconcile with the North than to allow an Americanization of the war. It also endorses the view that South Vietnam’s internal security policy hardened before the campaign of Communist assassination and intimidation, a campaign directed from the North and carried out largely by the minority of southerners who had gone north after the division of the country. More to the point of his own culpability, McNamara endorses the view that a Communist victory in Vietnam would not have crippled U.S. Cold War policy worldwide, and that even such an outcome could have been prevented for at least ten years through the vehicle of a neutralist coalition government in Saigon.
None of this is true; McNamara had all of this essentially correct while in office. The only way to believe what he now believes is to assume that there was a basic symmetry in aims between the United States and North Vietnam; in other words, to believe that both wanted to prevent war and were prepared to make significant political concessions to do so. But there was no symmetry. The United States was defending the status quo, which included a non-Communist government in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, the NLF, and their Chinese and Soviet allies were determined to extinguish that country and annex it to the North under Communist domination. There is therefore no reason to credit statements by Vietnamese Communists that they would have tolerated a neutralist government in Saigon for year after year—unless, of course, they were forced to do so by an unfavorable balance of power. But any neutralist arrangement mandating the withdrawal of U.S. military forces would have been rolled up by Hanoi in short order, just as the Paris Peace Accords were violated massively as soon as it became possible to do so successfully. It is sad to imagine McNamara in Hanoi, straining to get his Vietnamese interlocutors to say the things he wanted so dearly to hear, to provide him company in his contrition all these years later. And so, perhaps hoping to use McNamara’s influence against the late 1990s U.S. embargo against Vietnam, they said them—a few of them, anyway.
McNamara never could quite get the Vietnamese to admit that they, too, missed opportunities. They did admit some miscalculations. They admitted that they had tried to win quickly in the South after Diem’s fall in 1963-64 before the United States could stop them, and failed. They admitted, after a fashion, that they would have preferred not to have lost so many people. But the only "missed opportunities" the Vietnamese were prepared to admit were those that foiled their attempts to win the war sooner and at lower cost. They never accepted McNamara’s view that the war was a joint tragedy. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, it was a tragedy for the United States because the United States lost. They won; so where’s the tragedy? Their dead are all martyrs; American dead died in vain because the United States lost the war.
Now, this is a rather old-fashioned way of looking at things, perhaps, but the Vietnamese were, and remain, rather old-fashioned. McNamara cannot accept this at face value, because without the assumption of symmetrical missed opportunities and mutual tragedy, his interpretation of his own mistakes makes no sense. This also explains, very likely, why it never occurred to McNamara to seek out the South Vietnamese side. There are still secrets, and perhaps even a missed opportunity or two, to be found there, but those secrets fall outside the script of McNamara’s private passion play.
What is one to make of all this? Robert McNamara’s pattern is clear: he is an infinite regress of error. He errs; he admits error after the fact but mistakes what his error was; this leads him to new error; he recognizes and apologizes again but also mistakes the essence of that error; and so on and on and, with this book, on again. In the case of Vietnam, McNamara has become so intent on pursuing a particular logic of contrition that the falsification of his own earlier views replicates the twisted logic of a Stalinist show trial, where devout Bolsheviks deranged by the ideological disease of Marxism-Leninism confessed crimes they never committed. In McNamara’s case, however, there is no Stalin, there is no ideological disease (unless it is unreconstructed antiwar movement liberalism), and McNamara is prosecutor and victim rolled into one.
Perhaps a different metaphor is better suited to explain McNamara’s strange ways. Pope Urban II blessed the First Crusades as a penitential war, meaning that through war it was possible for individual crusaders to atone for their sins. McNamara seems to be seeking penance by making war against war, by arguing, Woodrow Wilson-like, against power politics and urging the United States to put its trust in the United Nations. "I believe," he writes, "that the United Nations charter offers a far more appropriate framework for international relations in the future than does the doctrine of power politics." This isn’t even originally wrong. It therefore isn’t worthy of Mr. McNamara.
As painful as it is to read Argument Without End, it is as frustrating to read Choosing War. Fredrik Logevall, a Swedish national, gives us a history of the Vietnam War as an object lesson in how to produce grand tragedy. It is a good history, but one that nevertheless reaches dubious, and even hapless, conclusions.
Logevall argues that, contrary to received wisdom, there was little risk that an American failure to engage in Vietnam would have jeopardized America’s overall Cold War strategy. He argues further that Lyndon Johnson was worried more about his personal power, and his Administration about the credibility of the Democratic Party, than they were about geopolitics. He also argues that the considerable opposition to escalation failed to organize itself effectively to press its case. Overall, Logevall contends that American policy was extraordinarily rigid. He shows how U.S. leaders rejected diplomatic means of damage limitation even though they knew that military resistance to North Vietnamese strategy would likely be difficult to sustain at a cost the American people would be willing to bear. He seems to suggest that wiser people would have chosen differently, and that their absence made the difference between prudence and tragedy.
Such a view does indeed run against the grain of much post hoc analysis of the war. Ernest May argued that "given the assumptions generally shared by Americans in the 1960s, it seems probable that any collection of men or women would have decided as did members of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations." In The Irony of Vietnam (1979), Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts showed that the decision process worked well: options were considered, dissenting opinions were aired, and agency views were well coordinated. Others have argued more broadly that had American leaders not made decisions that ran the American ship of state aground in Vietnam, they would soon enough have run it aground somewhere else owing to an undifferentiated, ideologically driven expansion of the Containment doctrine.
Logevall’s case is well-documented and well-argued, and nearly all of what he writes is literally correct. But he builds the evidence into conclusions that are mostly wrong; alas, scholarly honesty and diligence are no guarantee of real success. It is clear that Logevall had a thesis already in mind as he was reading and analyzing the documents, a condition that has led many a scholar to unwittingly procrustean results. He is wrong, for example, to argue that Johnson pursued an urge to escalate despite the harm these foreign policies did to his domestic policy aims. In truth, Johnson would have had a harder time prevailing domestically had he not been a hawk on Vietnam. He needed the Southern Democrats to sustain the Great Society at the margins, and he would have riled their Jacksonian souls by withdrawing from Vietnam.
More than that, while President Johnson was a political animal concerned about the impact of his decisions on his own power, he was concerned about it for less parochial reasons than Logevall suggests. Where does one draw the line between preserving power for personal reasons and preserving power for higher aims? Was Johnson wrong to believe that his national popularity as a liberal southerner might well be the difference in keeping avowed segregationists out of political power in the United States in the mid-1960s? Or that he might be the difference in keeping someone out of the White House who might have blundered into a nuclear war over Indochina? All public figures present an insoluble problem in this regard, because it is impossible to climb into their heads to parse their motives. (This is true even in the case of Bill Clinton, a man whose political avariciousness at the expense of the national interest is an extreme example.)
Logevall also argues, along with those of the McNamara school, that a neutralizing coalition-government solution to the problems in South Vietnam was available to the United States. He contends, moreover, that had the United States availed itself of such a solution, U.S.-Soviet relations would have improved markedly and more quickly than they eventually did. This is certainly wrong. The sure collapse of South Vietnam under such a scheme would have created a sharp political backlash in the United States and it would have filled the sails of both Soviet and Chinese imperialism. Great power relations would have worsened, not improved.
The larger problem in Choosing War is that Logevall places less emphasis, and sometimes does not mention at all, the crucial mistakes that were made by American decision makers. Most of these mistakes were at the tactical level, both militarily and managerially, in South Vietnam. They were numerous and they were deadly. The decision to act to prevent the fall of South Vietnam, however, was not a mistake. Perhaps, as McNamara and Logevell suggest, that decision could have been different. Judged by the light of that day, however, it shouldn’t have been different.
Besides, what would it mean if Logevall were right about the American mistakes of the "long 1964"? Logevall makes a reasonable case that, pace May, Gelb and Betts, et al., escalation in Vietnam in 1964 was not for all purposes inevitable. But then how to explain why it happened anyway? If one would predict the past, the safe thing to do is to call it like it was, not like it might have been. Logevall takes the harder course and he plays it about as well as possible, but where does that leave us? What is the status of a successful counterfactual argument? After all, what mattered at the time was not what was "objectively" so—as determined by an exhaustive rendering of foreign views of American credibility and half a dozen speculative pseudo-psychiatric glosses on Lyndon Johnson’s character. What mattered was how things looked to Lyndon Johnson. Though he never actually comes right out and says it, Logevall leaves us with the conclusion that someone other than Lyndon Johnson, someone wiser or endowed with different personality traits, should have been President. Maybe so; but thirty-six years after the 1964 election, how useful, really, is it to know that?
Here, of course, we enter the realm of philosophy, and even theology. Do the things that happen have to happen? Is this both the best and only of all possible worlds, or not? To what extent is human history contingent and to what extent is it necessary—and how are we to know which parts are which? Such questions make God laugh; they make us uncomfortable.
Michael Lind takes the safer route. By calling Vietnam the "necessary" war, Lind aligns himself with those who contend that the decision to go to war was at least determined "enough." But Lind goes further: he argues that it was the right thing to have done, and that it might have turned out pretty well had Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, and a few choice others not screwed things up.
Of course, this is swampy terrain. Can it be argued that the onset of escalation and war could not have been otherwise, and yet argue that the prosecution of the war could have been otherwise? Can the decision to make war be correct, given what we knew at the time, while the decisions involved in prosecuting it be so clearly incorrect? Can one counterfactual speculation be inadmissible, but another allowed? If avoiding the war was impossible because it wasn’t avoided, then how could losing the war have been avoided since it was, in fact, lost?
This is a problem, and not only for Michael Lind and those, like me, who believe that the prosecution of the war could indeed have been otherwise. One can turn this around. Those who say the war was unwinnable but avoidable—like McNamara, for example—have precisely the same problem, only the terms are reversed. They would have the decision to fight the war be contingent, but the fate of subsequently losing it be necessary. One version of the dilemma has Johnson acting as he must but Westmoreland acting as he shouldn’t, the other version having Johnson acting as he shouldn’t but Westmoreland acting as he must. What is the solution to this problem? It will come clearer once we have limned Mr. Lind’s fine if flawed book.
Lind begins his argument by placing the Vietnam War precisely where it belongs: in the context of the Cold War. His essential argument is that the United States was right to fight in Vietnam to defend its credibility as a superpower, but it was necessary for the United States to forfeit the war after 1968 in order to preserve the American Cold War consensus in favor of prosecuting that larger struggle on other fronts. "Indochina was worth a war," writes Lind, "but only a limited war—and not the limited war that the United States actually fought."
This view leads Lind to find at least two major culprits in American policy: those whose decisions with respect to the war’s prosecution were so wrongheaded; and the Nixon Administration, which failed to cut American losses quickly and doomed the country to four more years of war in search of a futile "peace with honor." Nixon, says Lind, turned a regional retreat into a global defeat.
Perhaps only the Cold War’s end allows any writer to take its full measure. If so, Lind’s cup is overflowing. He deftly characterizes the nature of the Cold War as a combination of siege and duel. The superpowers, contending in what amounted strategically to World War III, laid siege to one another in areas of core importance—mainly Europe. In those areas they became "frozen in a stalemate that could not be broken without the risk of general war." Peripheral areas of dueling, mainly in Asia and especially in Indochina, were important because they could be contested without such risks. Thus, "Indochina was strategic because it was peripheral."
By giving pride of place to the larger context, the waging and winning of the Cold War, Lind is able to make sense of particular approaches to the Vietnam War. One of his most contentious arguments is that, by 1968, the cost of winning in Vietnam—or of merely not losing—had grown so high, thanks to antecedent American tactical errors, that to pursue it risked support for Cold War policy generally. Lind cites Senator Henry M. Jackson, a Democratic hawk on Vietnam, as being one of the few who understood the point, and praises Jackson’s wisdom in counseling quick disengagement. "His nuanced understanding of the issues at stake is shown by the fact that he voted for the Cooper-Church Amendment, which prohibited the widening of the war, and yet opposed the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would have reduced U.S. leverage in negotiations by imposing an artificial deadline for U.S. withdrawal." Exactly right.
By insisting on that context, moreover, Lind argues that the real choices before the United States in Vietnam all along were not win or lose, but win well, win badly, lose well, or lose badly. In contests of great power, Lind insists, it is often better to be defeated than to surrender without a fight, better even to lose well than to win badly.
This is Lind’s core realist argument, and it is a persuasive one. The book itself, however, deviates widely from it. Lind is at pains to show that the decision to fight was the right one, and this leads him on his own long war, with many side battles, to show that every single "myth" purveyed by the antiwar movement was wrong.
Ho Chi Minh was not a Vietnamese nationalist whose Marxism was a veneer. "There was an international Communist conspiracy," writes Lind, "and Ho Chi Minh was a charter member of it." Moreover, Ho was not the only legitimate nationalist leader in Vietnam in the 1940s, and Lind shows how Ho and his subordinates found it necessary to execute, assassinate, imprison, and exile non-Communist nationalists and dissidents in both North and South Vietnam in order to assure Ho’s dictatorial perch.
Neither was Ho a Southeast Asian Tito. There was never a chance that a Communist Vietnam would be Communist but anti-Soviet in geopolitical terms. There were, Lind points out, pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions in the Vietnamese Communist Party, but never anything remotely like a pro-Western one. Thus, pace McNamara, the United States "missed no opportunities in 1945 or 1950 or 1954 or 1956."
South Vietnam did not violate international law by refusing to participate in the 1956 elections called for in Geneva in 1954; neither South Vietnam nor the United States were signatories of the 1954 accords, and for good reason.
Again, the overthrow of Diem in 1963 did not abort reconciliation between North and South Vietnam.
The National Liberation Front was never a spontaneous South Vietnamese movement; it was created and manipulated from Hanoi from start to finish.
The Vietnamese Communists were never serious about a stable, neutralist coalition government except as a transition first to Communist rule and then to unification under Hanoi’s total control.
John Kennedy was not about to abandon South Vietnam; had he lived, there is no good reason to think that the basic impulses of U.S. policy would have been different (although Kennedy’s conduct of the war might have been shrewder).
South Vietnam did not fall because it was venal and corrupt; it fell because the United States abandoned it to a regime that was at least as corrupt and far more brutal. Lind details the mass murder by the North Vietnamese regime of its internal "class enemies," when between 1953 and 1956 it exterminated as many as 100,000 wealthy peasants and professionals during a spasm of "land reform."
The domino theory, seen more broadly, was not false. "As it happened," writes Lind, "the fall of only three regional dominos in Indochina did trigger a worldwide revolutionary wave and an even more dangerous trend of pro-Soviet bandwagoning in world politics."
Finally, on the antiwar movement itself—speaking about the summer of 1967 but with a broader implication—Lind contends that it was a movement "led by radicals and pacifists" that "had failed to convince the American public that the war was immoral; indeed, the anti-American rhetoric of many antiwar activists was creating a backlash from which conservative politicians would profit for decades."
Along his way, Lind seeks the demolition of one liberal icon after another: Frances Fitzgerald and Barbara Tuchman, Seymour Hersh and David Halberstam, Todd Gitlin and Gareth Porter, Harrison Salisbury and Marilyn Young, Richard Rorty and Robert Dallek, among many. All of them are displayed at their tendentious, misinformed worst, hoisted high on the petards of their own words. If one is already inclined to Lind’s point of view, this is delicious, for it is so rare that anyone’s mistakes are ever recalled, let alone called to account. Lind is well-suited to the task, for he knows how to form words into fists, and land them square on target. If one is not so inclined, an uncomfortable time should be anticipated.
Lind saves a knockout punch for none other than Robert Kennedy, whom he accuses, essentially, of treason. Citing Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s archival research, Lind tells us that RFK created an unauthorized back channel to the Soviet government in 1963-64, when he was still Attorney General. Through that channel he denigrated President Johnson and "encouraged the Soviet elite to patiently await the more sympathetic policy of a second President Kennedy."
For all the book’s merits, there are some problems. On several points it is overly simple and on some others a tad stretched. There are a few factual errors. It seems almost randomly sourced. There is some awkward repetition. It features two curious digressions, and it is less scholarly in the true sense than a polemic with scholarly equipage. One of Lind’s digressions is in chapter four (of his eight chapters): "The Fall of Washington: The Domestic Politics of the Vietnam War." It is, over all, an insightful account of how the postwar constituencies of the Democratic and Republican parties switched sides during the Vietnam era. But the tale bears a theoretical underpinning based on a theory of U.S. ethnic regionalism. Following the historian David Hackett Fischer, among others, Lind argues that four "hearth" cultures have dominated American history. Liberal, nearly pacifist Greater New England and the bellicist Tidewater South are the two most important, while the populists of the Highland South and the Quaker-influenced mid-Atlantic stock make up the other two.
To explain American domestic politics over the Vietnam War, however, Lind feels he has to reinterpret every war in the American history according to the compass of hearth-culture regionalism. This takes many pages, and if one is less interested in grand theories of American political sociology than in the subject at hand—Vietnam—this is a wearying chapter. If one has a bit more patience and imagination, there is much that is edifying here. Lind perhaps takes the case farther than he should, but his is an exercise that repays the reader’s close attention.
Lind’s second digression is an excursion into moral philosophy (in the chapter "Was the Vietnam War Unjust?") that ought to have ended up on the cutting room floor. Not that the subject is unimportant; to the contrary, it is so important that it deserves more careful treatment. Lind starts out well enough, arguing that moral realism is the only acceptable way to explain how international politics both is and ought to be conducted. But he argues that the theory of moral realism is "relatively undeveloped," and this is not so. Nowhere in this chapter do we hear about or from Reinhold Niebuhr or John Courtney Murray, not to speak of Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, or a host of non-Western sources who long ago came to similar conclusions. Instead, having introduced the essential questions, Lind skips to a potpourri of topics—the morality of proxy wars, the war as an intervention or an invasion, the morality of supporting dictatorships, the questions of corruption, repression, and national legitimacy—most of which have to do more with semantics than moral philosophy.
Also, Lind’s views are not as rare as he makes out. He introduces Vietnam: The Necessary War by claiming to have published a unique perspective, one created by the destruction of pre-Vietnam-era Democratic strategic realism, or, as Lind calls it, liberal anticommunism. Some liberal anti-Communists, he says, fled left, ingratiating themselves with the antiwar movement and absorbing its guilt-assuaging views. The rest moved right, joining forces with anti-Soviet conservatives, jettisoning their liberal views on domestic politics in the process. Only Lind, we are to presume, is left standing.
This isn’t quite so. (I made many of the same arguments in my book back in 1995.) While some reviewers have been hostile to Lind, most have not, and the fact that the book has been as cordially received as it has shows two things: first, that Lind has had intellectual company all along; second, that time is mellowing the divisions of the Vietnam era. That is good.
So while Lind hath done valiantly, he hath also done quirkily. But there is one fact about Lind that, on reflection, may tie the quirks together. Lind is a high-country Democrat from Texas, a populist southerner in the mold of none other than Lyndon Johnson. If one likes, one can see his defense of liberal anticommunism in general and Lyndon Johnson in particular, his barely veiled loathing for Kennedys and Greater New England pacifism, and even his talent for polemic, as all reflecting this personal vector. Had the Republic of Texas survived as an independent state, Vietnam: The Necessary War might have been its official history of that war. Think about it: the battle for the Alamo ended badly, but Texans take pride in that, too.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a British veteran of the antiwar movement, does not agree with Mr. Lind. Nor, to him, are Messrs. McNamara and Logevall critical enough of the war. Jeffreys-Jones is not reluctant, for example, to call the war "racist." His thesis in Peace Now! is that American society effectively rose up and stopped U.S. participation in the Vietnam War, and that it did so in phases or pulses in which certain segments of society took the leading role. First came students, then African Americans, then women, and then organized labor: "The argument in this book is that the effectiveness of the revolt sprang in large measure from its serial nature. . . . I present the antiwar movement as a cumulative, repetitive series of protests." Each of the four groups, he argues, "reached a distinctive crescendo at an unpredictable moment," the result being that politicians had "no respite" and could find "no enduring formula to apply in suppressing all forms of protest."
Jeffreys-Jones acknowledges that all four of these groups initially supported the war; thus, "If the people won, they won slowly." This leads the author to show his own bias: "To imbue the American people indiscriminately with heroic and effective pacifism would be dewy-eyed." (That’s not all it would be.) But why did all four of these groups support the war at first, only to oppose it later? Jeffreys-Jones thinks the answer lies in four factors: considerations of "economic interests, immersion in local politics, . . . involvement in the Democratic coalition," and the "‘minority’ status, real or imagined, of the chosen groups." He emphasizes this last point, arguing that groups with social power deficits wanted, not to put too fine a point on it, to suck up to the establishment. In short, they wished to trade support for its foreign policy to secure access to power and social status.
Jeffreys-Jones is right to insist that the influence of American society on the course of U.S. participation in Vietnam cannot be understood apart from the main patterns of American politics. But by far the main reason that attitudes toward the war changed over time had to do with what was happening in Southeast Asia. The war went badly; American casualties mounted even as the prospect of achieving U.S. war aims dimmed; and the U.S. leadership vacillated and reversed course as a result. As John Mueller argued years ago, the data show that the American people followed their leaders into war, and then followed them back out when those leaders changed their minds. Jeffreys-Jones barely mentions the war, and never discusses the impact of mounting casualties on opinion shifts. His approach to the subject is therefore as analytically derelict as an approach to applied physics that considers everything except gravity.
Large as it is, that is not the only problem with Peace Now! The thesis itself smacks of academentia: it is far too parsimonious and artificial to have much to do with reality. The antiwar movement was not separable into phases, nor discrete groups of participants. Some students were female and some were black. Some blacks and women were in the labor movement. Some within all these groups were liberals, some were left-liberals, and some were radicals. The impact of student protest on American opinion did not fall off after 1965 as Jeffreys-Jones contends, nor that of women rise only in 1967-68. It is all much too neat, and the effort to force the dynamics of American society into these four little boxes leads to all sorts of pseudo-analytic contortions. Indeed, it leads Jeffreys-Jones to downright silly statements as he tries to show how the economic interests of various groups changed in such a way as to turn them from prowar to antiwar.
This is what happens when a Marxist frame of mind is superimposed on the normal complexity of social reality. It is also what happens when the contemporary framework of academic political correctness—replete with programs of black studies, women’s studies, labor studies, and special efforts, it seems, at engendering student narcissism—is thrust backwards onto history as an organizing principle.
In truth, ideas and organizations mattered a lot more in the antiwar movement than PC identities. The common self-identification of antiwar movement leaders was not "students" or "women" or "proletariat" but rather "liberal" or "pacifist" or "radical." Yet Jeffreys-Jones has little to say about the adversary-culture origins of most of the prime movers of the antiwar movement, and virtually nothing to say about their various organizational capacities. He mentions in passing, for example, that the Socialist Workers Party was anti-Stalinist without ever telling the reader that it was Trotskyite! At a certain point Jeffreys-Jones notes the fact that Students for a Democratic Society was antiliberal as though it were some sort of revelation, when it is the ur-observation of all serious analyses of the subject.
So where does this leave us? There are good, useful, mediocre, and bad books being written about the Vietnam War, this we know. But what stands out from the more serious efforts within the new literature is its revisionist intentions. All of these authors, and others besides, are trying to persuade us that what we thought was so is not so. And they are not trying to persuade us just for the sake of it; they do not subscribe to A. J. P. Taylor’s attitude toward the writing of history, that it is "an art just like painting or architecture and is designed like them only to give intellectual and artistic pleasure."
On the contrary, they all believe it could have been otherwise, and they all believe that seeing how it should have been otherwise can influence future decisions. McNamara believes that we can learn not only particular lessons about our mistakes, but very general ones, such as forsaking realism for the UN charter. Logevall believes that egoism and rigidity go hand in hand in bad decision-making, and hopes that new elites take the personality-wrought tragedies of the past to heart. Jeffreys-Jones believes that "people power" works, that it is good, and that we need more of it. Lind believes that understanding what went wrong in Vietnam is necessary to avoid repeating those mistakes in places like the Balkans, which Lind sees as being more similar to Vietnam than not, and which he views as the model for most future U.S. politico-military engagements.
Thus we are returned to the problem of the counterfactual, and to the meaning and potential uses of history that are so much the subject of analysis, aphorism, and misquotation. Is reading history, particularly the history of sorrowful times in which we have vested memories, like a Greek tragedy, a story that has to end tragically because that is what tragedies do? Is it so chilling to learn the details and the inner logic of such times precisely because one is helpless to change them? Or can such study steel us to do better, to redeem what has been done by exercising those choices we do have?
Many great minds have wrestled with this problem. Spinoza, among others, understood that a world without free will is a world in which moral action is a farce. But Machiavelli in The Prince saw that the tides and patterns of human affairs are not easily turned. In his discussion of Fortuna, which he likens to a woman, Machiavelli tells us that
it may be true that Fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but . . . she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; . . . and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provision against it by dikes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with Fortune, which always shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her.
One can resist the forces of history, then, through planning, and Machiavelli also counsels that one can benefit from such forces by aligning oneself with their general direction. Like Talleyrand, who defined diplomacy as the art of foreseeing the inevitable and expediting its occurrence in a manner beneficial to oneself, Machiavelli saw the possibility of contingency in history residing in wise leaders who take the proper measure of their own limits.
That sounds about right: leaders have real choices but only within certain boundaries. It takes wise leaders to understand those boundaries, and truly great ones who, by their own exertions, can broaden them. So, then, is it too much to expect that American leaders in 1956, or 1961, or 1964 could have understood the ultimate consequences of their agonized and generally conservative, incremental decisions with respect to Indochina? Yes, it is too much to expect. It would have taken men and women of the very greatest stature, and they were not at hand.
But is it too much to expect that General Westmoreland, General Earl Wheeler, and their staffs might have better understood their professional obligations in the face of a novel challenge? No, that is not too much to expect. It is not too much to expect a professional soldier to put his country’s interests above those of his service or his personal reputation, and that was precisely the problem. Thanks to Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech about "wars of national liberation" as the new face of the anti-imperialist struggle, and to President Kennedy’s conclusion that the United States needed to invest more resources into our capabilities to fight counterinsurgencies, a furious argument broke out in the early 1960s within the middle ranks of the U.S. Army. While some major figures, such as General James Gavin, supported Kennedy’s view, most senior Army brass resisted it firmly. General George H. Decker, Army Chief of Staff from 1960 to 1962, summarized this view with the comment that "any good soldier can defeat a guerrilla."
The conventionalists won the bureaucratic wars, and, as is the way of the world in such matters, their views hardened from having been subject to criticism. The conventionalists got promoted and, with those hardened views firmly implanted in their heads, rose to their places just in time to mismanage the war in Vietnam. Lind quotes an anonymous Army officer in Vietnam as saying, "I’m not going to destroy the traditions and doctrine of the United States Army just to win this lousy war." Such sentiment not only reflects Westmoreland’s misguided devotion to conventional tactics in the face of an unconventional situation, but also the primacy the Army accorded doctrinal orthodoxy (and the professional egos attached to the doctrines) above all else. The American people had a right to expect better, and certainly deserved better. Which brings us back to Robert McNamara.
Is it too much to have expected McNamara to have bucked the tide within the Johnson Administration as a whole and opposed the 1965 escalation? Yes, it is too much, and we would all be better off if McNamara ceased his self-flagellation over the point. But is it too much to have expected McNamara to put a stop to Westmoreland’s disastrous direction of the war before the end of 1966? No, it is not too much, because that was his job. McNamara himself was one of those who dressed down General Gavin for wanting to develop anti-guerrilla tactics, and he gave Westmoreland the leeway to wreak maximum havoc. It was also McNamara the systems analyst, along with the senior Army brass, who became fixated with body counts and other conventional indicators of military success that mislead in unconventional contexts. If McNamara insists on contrition, fine; he has much for which to repent. Just let him get the reasons right.
These are sharp judgments, and others will disagree with them. But that is nothing new. It is hard to reckon with Fortuna, for she’s not just any woman; she’s a bitch.
Adam Garfinkle is author of Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (1995).