With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the American withdrawal from Vietnam hard upon us, readers and viewers may well be treated to a multitude of reprises of the arguments surrounding the war and its legacy. Already a chilling interpretation appeared a few months ago, which resonates even more strongly now: Michael Lind has written a wild, dangerous book that pretends to offer a sober, scholarly rethinking of the Vietnam War that is, or should be, of decisive relevance to current issues of war and peace. The perverse tone and substance of Lind's argument is expressed in concentrated form by the following observation: "If American radical leftists, pacifists, and libertarian isolationists prevail in promoting a pacifist political culture in the United States, then it is only a matter of time before the world is dominated by a military superpower whose leaders have an ethos like that of today's Serb leaders." Such a juxtaposition of allegations and anxieties is positively surreal in its remoteness from any plausible understanding of either the United States or global trends.
What makes Lind's book important, and dangerous, is the extent to which it has caused a stir, evoking mainly laudatory reactions from establishment figures such as Dan Rather and Fareed Zakaria (managing editor of Foreign Affairs) and favorable reviews in the mainstream media. As a society we remember little of the experience of the Vietnam War and remain vulnerable to an array of twisted interpretations. Lind, too young to remember Vietnam, presents its reality in a most manipulative manner so as to present his highly polemical views about how American power should be used today and tomorrow. By deploying some scholarly apparatus, the outrageous is made to appear reasonable, even sensible.
Central to Lind's perspective is the assertion that the United States "fought the war in Vietnam because of geopolitics and forfeited the war because of domestic politics." Lind contends that the war was "necessary" as a means of assuring America's cold war allies in the sixties that it was a credible ally, and that failure to oppose Hanoi in Vietnam would have led many Third World governments to shift their allegiance to Moscow. In most respects, Lind's justification is one more rendering of notorious domino imagery that linked the outcome in Vietnam to a chain reaction of regional and global effects. In most respects, too, but with greater subtlety and flexibility, Lind's argument was fully formulated by Leslie Gelb (now, appropriately, president of the Council on Foreign Relations) and Richard Betts in their book The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, published more than twenty years ago. Mercifully, Gelb and Betts understood far better than Lind that it would be dangerous to draw from Vietnam doctrinal lessons about when and in what manner to engage the United States in a war, although they too accept as reasonable the geopolitical rationale for the early stages of the Vietnam War.
The distinctiveness of Lind's position is his acceptance, even in retrospect, that the politicians were right both to fight the war and then, in the late sixties, to try to end it. In fact, Lind faults Nixon for not ending the war sooner and disagrees with militarists who contended, and still do, that once a decision to intervene had been made, then victory was the only acceptable outcome regardless of costs and risks. Lind argues against such a militaristic argument not because of its international risks or immorality but, typically, because it would have undermined domestic support for the global containment strategy central to US cold war foreign policy. In effect, Vietnam was a necessary war, but it was not necessary to win it. Astonishingly, at a certain stage it became necessary to give up, and lose it!
With a stunning degree of detachment, going beyond even the heartless abstractions of Kissingerian realism, Lind unabashedly rests his case directly on bloodshed and body counts. The Vietnam War was worth as much as 20,000 American lives, not much more or much less. As such, in the early stages of the war US leadership was pursuing a correct foreign policy essential for alliance credibility, but in the late sixties and early seventies it went too far, risking the cold war consensus as the casualty figures climbed up toward their final total of close to 58,000.
To give the flavor of the argument, I can do no better than to quote Lind:
A war to defend a great power's military credibility might be compared to an art auction, which is, among other things, a competition among the rich for prestige. The fact that one stops bidding for a painting when its price reaches $9000 does not mean that the painting was worthless all along; it merely means that one has reached the limit imposed by one's budget.
Aside from the appallingly bad taste exhibited here, the approach recommended would provoke even harsher backlash against a foreign policy that was seen to be sacrificing the lives of young Americans for the sake of such a dubious abstraction.