Another book on the Vietnam War? Yes, and one well worth our attention. Enough time has now passed that A.J. Langguth’s Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975 serves not only as a wonderful addition to the rich and diverse literature on the war but as a good vehicle for revisiting and better understanding a tragedy of profound dimension. It is also an excellent one-volume introduction to the subject for those to whom this two-decade national experience is mainly a historical episode–and a useful lens through which to view the new Administration of George W. Bush as it begins to deal with military and national security issues.
Langguth is not a professional historian who approaches the Vietnam War merely through archives and secondary sources; he is a seasoned journalist who was on the ground in Vietnam for the New York Times when US combat troops began fighting in large numbers. Initially as a reporter and then as the paper’s Saigon bureau chief, Langguth covered the war during this transformative period of 1964-65. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 to report on the aftermath of the Tet offensive, and then in 1970 to report on the US invasion of Cambodia. In preparing Our Vietnam he made five trips to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, wherehe writes he was “warmly received by Vietcong officers and lifelong Communist politicians.”
Langguth’s firsthand experiences in Vietnam help infuse this anecdotally rich chronological narrative with a vividness and immediacy that propel the reader through nearly 700 pages of history. It is disappointing that he did not write a concluding chapter or two in which to reflect on the longer-term meanings and consequences of the war. But, to his credit, he does cover the war not only from the American perspective but also from the vantage points of the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Langguth stays out of the way of his story–as he states, “My goal was simply a straightforward narrative that would let readers draw their own conclusions”–but makes his own point of view quite clear in the book’s final paragraph: “North Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to lose. And America’s leaders, for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States.”
Our Vietnam compares favorably with other books on Vietnam written by journalists that attracted wide public acclaim when published and retain distinguished and important places within the literature on the war. David Halberstam began The Best and the Brightest on the heels of covering the domestic turbulence created by the war during the 1968 campaign, in which he “had seen the Johnson Administration and its legatee defeated largely because of the one issue.” When his book was published in 1971, US soldiers were still fighting in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was President. Thus, although Halberstam’s study of how and why American leaders made decision after decision leading up to and sustaining the war remains a touchstone, he wrote of an event he was living through and for which he had limited sources.
Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History is an exceptional single-volume history of the American war in Vietnam, which Langguth almost seems to have used as a guide for his own effort. Although Karnow gives his thoroughly engaging, magisterial history a broad perspective, Langguth had access to more information because he was writing later, and his narrative provides a richer Vietnamese perspective on events. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam is a remarkable, at times staggering, historical account of the war. But because Sheehan uses the story of Vann’s life to tell the tale–even ending with the observation that “John Vann…died believing he had won his war”–his captivating narrative is more personal than a conventional historical account.
Our Vietnam should help keep the record honest today, too, by constituting an antidote to the published memoirs of those who planned and executed the war, the most prominent being former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In his memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote that his “associates in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were an exceptional group: young, vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic servants of the United States,” and he wondered: How “did this group…get it wrong on Vietnam?”The mistakes, he insisted, were “mostly honest mistakes,” the errors ones “not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities.” (Langguth’s chronology and evidentiary record contradict that view forcefully.)
Langguth’s retelling of America’s involvement in Vietnam covers already familiar ground. After the North Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Washington–in keeping with a cold war mentality that gripped much of the nation–promised “free elections” in South Vietnam and dispatched military personnel to train South Vietnam’s army. But Vietnam was not on President Eisenhower’s radar screen. When he met with President-elect John Kennedy during the transition, he drew Kennedy’s attention to Laos as a potential trouble spot and made no mention of Vietnam. As the new President became focused on Vietnam, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles–both an oracle and a lone wolf–warned (to no avail) against US military involvement there, because it would put the “prestige and power” of the United States on the line “in a remote area under the most adverse circumstances.”
In 1961 McNamara became the Kennedy Administration’s “supervisor for Vietnam,” which caused many, years later, to refer to the conflict as McNamara’s War. In 1962 Kennedy began to increase the number of US personnel in Vietnam. In 1963 Buddhists there were mounting a challenge to the autocratic ways of South Vietnam’s Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem; indeed, that summer one Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, horrified the world by burning himself to death on a Saigon street. Diem was murdered only weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
On to the Johnson Administration: On August 7, 1964, Congress rubberstamped–the House vote was 416 to 0 and the Senate’s was 88 to 2–an Administration-drafted resolution informally called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (following a trumped-up incident of attack on a US vessel), which authorized the President to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against” US forces and “to prevent further aggression.” A month after eight Americans were killed at the US base in Pleiku in February 1965, the United States commenced Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, which continued (with some pauses) until October 1968. In March 1965 President Johnson committed land troops to South Vietnam, which over the next two and a half years were increased to more than 500,000.
When the United States went to war, most Americans might have said that the goal of the war was to stop the spread of Communism. But it is likely that only a small portion of them gave much thought to the meaning of that slogan as it applied to Vietnam. Moreover, a still smaller percentage probably thought carefully about how this war would actually prevent the spread of Communism, and what important interest the United States really had in doing so in South Vietnam per se. Thus, when the war began for the United States in earnest in 1965, the American public had only a wafer-thin understanding of why the nation was fighting a land war in Southeast Asia, the goals of the conflict, the dangers, whether the aims of the war were realistic and what magnitude of commitment and sacrifice might be required to see it through.
Once the war began, it dragged on from one season to the next, year after year. The public became restless and the antiwar movement became forceful. In early 1968 the North Vietnamese pulled off the stunning Tet offensive, which left the indelible image of Marines desperately fighting for their lives as they defended the US Embassy in Saigon. Washington tried to assure the American people that Tet was not a Communist victory. But George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, may have expressed the public’s mood best when he said sardonically: “If this is a failure, I hope the Vietcong never have a major success.” In the end, Tet shredded confidence in Washington, the idea that the war was being won and the suggestion that the South Vietnamese government was anything but a corrupt puppet.
Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged President Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and stunned the nation by getting 42.2 percent of the vote in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary. A few weeks later, the group of so-called Wise Men advised Johnson not to escalate the war further, and days after that Johnson told the nation he would halt much of the bombing and agree to negotiations with the North Vietnamese. He added that he would not be a candidate for re-election. When the Paris Peace Talks were about to begin, the South Vietnamese refused to attend, and the North Vietnamese and US delegations settled into arguing about the shape of the table at which they would sit–and Americans and Vietnamese continued to die.
When Richard Nixon won the general election, he didn’t consider an immediate cessation of hostilities. Instead, he inaugurated a policy–eventually termed “Vietnamization”–of gradually withdrawing ground troops. At the same time, the war from the air was enlarged as he ordered the secret bombing of Communist bases in Cambodia. But the war did wind down, if slowly, and the last US combat troops left South Vietnam in March 1973. Rather than face an impeachment trial, Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, which left Gerald Ford as President when the North Vietnamese smashed through the gates of Independence Palace in Saigon and defeated the South Vietnamese in 1975.
Vietnam was a tragedy of immense proportions, and although it is regrettable that Langguth does not try to distill its causes, his carefully presented evidence makes it plain that the only arguable United States national security interest in Vietnam was the cold war policy of containing Communism to ward off the oft-invoked “domino effect.” But even in this regard, Langguth’s account indicates that those who planned and executed the war believed that the primary interest of the United States had less to do with containing Communism than it did with some vague idea of national prestige. As the respected John McNaughton, assistant secretary for international security affairs, stated in a 1965 memorandum to McNamara, “70%” of the purpose of US military intervention during the transition was “to avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).”
Langguth’s account also firmly rules out the idea that Vietnam was a quagmire that US leaders stumbled into unaware of the risks. The “quagmire thesis” first made its mark on public consciousness when David Halberstam wrote The Making of a Quagmire in 1964, maintaining that well-intentioned, idealistic American leaders blundered their way in. After that, many were responsible for restating and elaborating the theme, but it was probably Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the prominent historian and former Kennedy aide, who gave the thesis one of its most quoted expressions, in The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966, published in 1967.
When I did my research for The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, it seemed that the Pentagon Papers had smashed the quagmire thesis to smithereens. The Pentagon Papers were a massive, 7,000-page, top-secret military history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II to 1968, which McNamara had commissioned in 1967 and which Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times (and the Washington Post also ran) in 1971. They consisted of government documents embodying key decisions that led up to the war and sustained it, as well as accounts written by so-called Pentagon historians whose task it was to write a narrative of the decisions and events as recorded in the government documents that the study comprised.
But the theme of a morass that had trapped us unwittingly proved resilient. Weeks after the Pentagon Papers became public, none other than Schlesinger stepped forward to defend the quagmire claim against attacks on it by Ellsberg and others. Schlesinger wrote that “the Vietnam adventure was marked much more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation.” He concluded that “I cannot find persuasive evidence that our generals, diplomats, and Presidents were all that sagacious and farsighted that they heard how hopeless things were, agreed with what they heard, and then ‘knowingly’ defied prescient warnings in order to lurch ahead into what they knew was inevitable disaster.”
Even today that view continues to have currency, but Langguth will have none of this. He establishes not only that ranking US officials time and again perceived the dangers but that they were simultaneously unconvinced that the United States had any meaningful national defense or security interests in Vietnam that would have warranted war. Langguth’s portrait is one of these same leaders feeling hemmed in by domestic political considerations. They believed that the harm to themselves at home (as well as perhaps to their party) would be too substantial if they were to change the direction of the cold war-inspired policies that were spawned at the end of World War II, and gradually but relentlessly supported the American military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Consider three incidents recounted by Langguth as illustrative of this theme. President Kennedy told his scheduling secretary, Kenny O’Donnell, in 1963 that “withdrawal in 1965 would make him one of the most unpopular presidents in history. He would be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. ‘But I don’t care,’ Kennedy said. ‘If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.'”
During a 1964 taped telephone conversation between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Russell said, “I don’t see how we’re ever getting out [of Vietnam] without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don’t see it. I just don’t know what to do.” Johnson answered: “That’s the way I’ve been feeling for six months.” When Johnson asked Russell, “How important is it to us?” and Russell answered, “Not important a damned bit,” the President did not disagree. Johnson also told Russell that he did not think people knew much about Vietnam and that “they care a hell of a lot less.” Toward the end of the conversation, Johnson speculated, “They’d impeach a President that runs out, wouldn’t they?”
Langguth also reports a telling incident just before Christmas 1970, when President Nixon told Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, that he “considered making 1971 the last year of America’s involvement in Vietnam.” Nixon said that he planned to tour South Vietnam in April 1971, reassure South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu about the consequences of the impending US withdrawal and then come home and “announce that America’s role in Vietnam was over.” Kissinger protested. He argued that after the withdrawal, the “Communists could start trouble” in 1972, which meant that the “Nixon administration would pay the political price in the 1972 presidential election.” Kissinger advised, as Langguth recounts, that “Nixon should promise instead only that he would get American troops out by the end of 1972. That schedule would get him safely past his re-election. Nixon saw the wisdom in Kissinger’s argument that guaranteeing his second term would require American soldiers to go on dying.”
It would be overreaching to assert that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made defense and national security decisions solely in response to their own perceived political fortunes, but the evidence does make it clear that their decisions were greatly influenced by the consideration. And to accept that domestic political concerns played such a pivotal role in the US war in Vietnam, which cost 57,000 American and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese lives, constitutes a profound challenge to the capacity of a democratic order to fashion and implement moral and prudent policies.
As damning as it is to accept the degree to which personal and party interests prompted policies that led to such a protracted war, it would be a mistake to think of the Democrats and Republicans who made those decisions as somehow uniquely flawed. It is unlikely that the qualities of mind, temperament and character of current and future political leaders will be more vital, wise or resourceful than those who occupied high office between 1954 and 1975. One must accept that the United States is not likely to have leaders who have the vision, the ability to communicate and that rare quality of leadership that will allow them to reshape what is politically possible by fundamentally altering (after they have helped formulate it) an entrenched mindset that dominates a nation.
Although Langguth’s Our Vietnam does not confront this conundrum, his vivid retelling of the American war there allows us to consider once again the role played by the antiwar movement in bringing the war to an end. In so many ways, the movement was chaotic and ineffective. But can one imagine what would have been the course of the conflict if there had been no movement? Would the US combat forces in Vietnam have risen to a million? Would the United States have used nuclear weapons? Would the United States have supported a war of attrition for another three or four years? The movement was the countervailing force to, in its words, “the system” that made and sustained the war. The movement restrained Johnson’s buildup; it put Senator McCarthy in a position to mount a challenge to a sitting President; it pressured Nixon to find a way out of an even longer war. The movement accomplished nothing quickly or easily–it couldn’t. It was battling a cold war sensibility implanted in the American mind since the end of World War II. What is so astounding, therefore, is not that the movement did not achieve more, but that it achieved so much.
Just as a people may set constraints on the political process that politicians experience as a prison without walls, the people may also be, as they were during the Vietnam War, the system’s last best hope. And if that is true, then the people need to be fully engaged as the inexperienced President Bush confronts an array of defense and national security issues: When and under what circumstances should the United States commit ground forces to a situation comparable to Kuwait or Bosnia? Should the United States deploy a national missile defense system? Is the United States meddling in a civil war in Colombia under the guise of advancing a hapless “war on drugs”? If dangerous weapons of mass destruction are identified with certainty in a nation considered a threat, what is the appropriate response?
Langguth’s Our Vietnam reminds us time and again of the importance of skepticism and distrust in assessing defense and national security policies. One anecdote about that engagement makes the point memorably. In August 1964 Johnson was widely praised for ordering airstrikes against North Vietnam in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident. The influential New York Times columnist James Reston wrote that “even men who had wondered how Johnson would act under fire ‘were saying that they now had a commander-in-chief who was better under pressure than they had ever seen him.'” There were not many dissenting voices, but I.F. Stone was one. Referring to the right-wing Republican presidential candidate, who criticized Johnson’s policies toward North Vietnam as insufferably weak, Stone wrote in his weekly: “Who was Johnson trying to impress? Ho Chi Minh? Or Barry Goldwater?” Stone’s response in this pivotal event is a vital example of a frame of mind that would serve the nation well if it were widely adopted. Any book that becomes a vessel for meaningful re-examination of a national tragedy is exceptional and demands broad attention. And that is what Langguth’s book is, and does.