Last night my son John (he’s 8) was reading a biography of Coretta Scott King. The book included a section on her views of the Vietnam War. This left John confused. He asked me why the United States attacked Vietnam in the first place.
I tried to explain it but it turned out he didn’t know what communism or the Cold War were, so I had a lot of background information I needed to fill in. After I tried to define those terms, I concluded with something like this:
“So American leaders thought that if Vietnam became a fully communist country, other countries in that part of the world would become communist too, and that would make it harder to win the Cold War.”
John sat up (he had been laying in bed getting ready to go to sleep) and an incredulous smile flashed across his face. “So…” he said, “they were afraid they were going to lose the Cold War so they started a real war?” Then he burst out laughing.
Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:
Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…
In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.
In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”
While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.
Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”
I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.
I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:
1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.
The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.
2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.
As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.
3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.
The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.
4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.
U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:
While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.
The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:
On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:
One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”
Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”
Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.
Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”