In the history of the United States, our foreign policy has caused many disputes over the proper role in international affairs. Because of the unique beliefs and ideals by which we live in this country, we feel obligated to act as leaders of the world and help other countries in need. Therefore, the U.S. has attempted to somehow combine this attitude with economic and strategic gain. After World War II, the Cold War was initiated, and America’s fear of communism led Truman to begin the endeavors of the “containment” of communism. As a result, the U.S. became involved with Korea and then Vietnam. The U.S. was determined not to let South Vietnam fall to the communists because President Eisenhower once stated that the fall of Vietnam would have a “domino” effect. Unfortunately, not everyone viewed Vietnam the same way as Eisenhower. Opponents of the war believed that the U.S. had no right to intervene in this civil war, while supporters maintain the attitude of moral obligation for the world by defending freedom and democracy from communism. Three historians in Conflict and Consensus carefully examine our foreign policy and involvement in the Vietnam War. Each article emphasizes different points and explains how one of the most powerful countries in the world lost the war.
In the first article, “God’s Country and American Know-How,” Loren Baritz argues that the American myth of superiority based on nationalism, technology, and moral ideals brought the U.S. into the war. The Americans never understood the Vietnamese culture and their true sentiments on the war. Nevertheless, because of our power and moral prowess, the U.S. was confident that we would prevail. This was our biggest mistake; we were blind and “ignorant”(473). Baritz states that “we were frustrated by the incomprehensible behavior of our Vietnamese enemies and bewildered by the inexplicable behavior of our Vietnamese friends”(470). Because of our isolation on the North American Continent, the U.S. had a difficult time understanding the exotic cultures around the world, especially Vietnam. Thus, as a direct result, Americans considered foreign courtesies and rituals crude and inferior to the customs of the civilized country of America. This point is quite sad and embarassing, but Baritz points out that “cultural isolation”(476) occurs all over the world. It is the Solipsistic philosophy that the universe revolves around the earth, just as all the nations of the world revolve around the U.S. According to John Winthrop, we are the “Chosen People”(473) because of God’s favor and presence. So are we obligated to set the standards of culture for the world? Because of our prominence and success as a prosperous nation, we stand forth as leaders; however, no country can define the culture of another nation. The U.S.
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failed to understand that “everyone prefers their own language, diet and funeral customs”(475). Upon first impression, the American soldiers viewed the Vietnamese people as savages because “they lived like animals”(470). Thus, the soldiers failed to appreciate “the organic nature of Vietnamese society, the significance of village life, the meaning of ancestors, the relationship of the family to the state, the subordinate role of the individual, and the eternal quest for universal agreement”(470). Just because the Vietnamese were poor, we presumed that they were begging for our help; we were “attempting to build a nation in our own image”(471). Furthermore, it is not the “ingratitude or stupidity”(470) which sparked the Vietnamese resistance against U.S. soldiers but rather a cultural misunderstanding.
Baritz believes that this ignorance of culture is one of the primary reasons why we lost the war. Dr. Henry Kissinger even admitted that “no one in this government understands North Vietnam”(471). We even thought we understood the Vietnamese to some extent by thinking that “life is cheap in the Orient”(471). However, this ridiculous comment rose from our “ability to use technology to protect our own troops while the North Vietnamese were forced to rely on people, their only resource”(471). This meant that the Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice as many men as possible to win the war. Our ignorance prevented us from overcoming this kind of warfare.
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As for the cultural misunderstanding of our allies, the South Vietnamese, Baritz points out one custom which the American soldiers could not tolerate: soldiers holding hands. Vietnamese soldiers held hands with other accompanying soldiers. This was a show of friendship for the Vietnamese, but for Americans, holding hands was a sign of homosexuality. American soldiers measured up to “the military’s definition of manhood”(472) by compeletely condemning homosexuality. This simple custom caused many problems between the U.S. soldiers and the South Vietnamese.
Baritz now provides the other argument for entering the Vietnam War: The Cold War. In this argument, the U.S. is more concerned with showing off our strong military power with strategic planning in the nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union. “They [Soviets] knew, and we knew, that this threat was not entirely real, and that it freed the Soviets to engage in peripheral adventures because they correctly believed that we would not destroy the world over Korea, Berlin, Hungary or Czechoslovakia”(480). Thus, we extended the arms race in “limited wars”(480) around the globe. We demonstrated this in Korea, and the situation is the same in Vietnam; “we had to find a technology to win without broadening the war”(481). We felt invincible; up to the Vietnam War, we had never lost a war. “We had already beaten the Indians, French, British, Mexicans, Spaniard, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese”(479). The U.S. was becoming too confident in relying on our technology to beat the North Vietnamese. “We thought we could bomb them into their senses with only limited human costs to ourselves”(483). Technology gave us the ability to organize precise strategic maneuvers and attacks, but unfortunately, the simple guerrilla warfare of the Vietnamese was overpowering. “Our national myth showed us that we were good, our technology made us strong and our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedures”(483), but even with this combination, the strategy was not good enough to win the war.
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In the second article, “The Legacy of Vietnam,” Guenter Lewy carefully discusses the assumption that Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia are important for strategic and economic gains for the U.S. For strategic purposes, Lewy believes that by defeating the North Vietnamese, America might contain Communist China because the Chinese threatened to “change the status quo in Asia by force”(485). As mentioned before, Truman wanted to contain communism and prevent the rapid spread of the evil, and Eisenhower believed that controlling Vietnam was the key to continue the “containment.” However, Lewy believes that the “containment” of China by defeating Vietnam is not necessary. “Asia is a very large continent. It has a diversity of cultures, traditions, states, and so on. Nations like their independence in Asia just as much as they do in other parts of the world. To assume that some mystic inevitability has decreed that they are all to be swallowed up in the Chines empire is not convincing”(485). Lewy thinks that Eisenhower’s prediction of the “domino” effect was wrong. In fact Lewy believed that American policy makers went into Vietnam because of fear for the grand alliance of communism that would dominate Asia. The importance of Vietnam is over exaggerated. “By 1969 South Vietnam accounted for less than one percent of American import”(487). This obviously shows the unimportance of the economic gains in Vietnam Even if these imports were important to United State’s economy, it seems that the “commodities produced by the area, such as rubber, tin and coconut oil… were not irreplaceable”(486). The only commodity that South Vietnam had that was important to the U.S. is the potential oil off the shores. Yet the discovery is not made until 1970, twenty years after the conflict had started. “Needless to say,” Lewy concluded, “this discovery in 1970 can hardly explain decisions taken in the previous 20 years”(487).
Even as the war dragged on, the validity of American claim in Vietnam diminished. The valid fear for the spread of Red Asia under the leadership of Russia came to a halt in the mid-1960s. As Lewy pointed out “Russia and China were no longer close allies but open enemies.” It is therefore no valid claim to stay in Vietnam for “the world communist movement no longer represented a monolith”(487). China turned inward and focus more on its cultural revolution. In terms of foreign policy, China sought new allies to counter-balance the presence of its hostile Northern neighbors. The admission of China into the United nations in 1971 proved the new direction that Chinese foreign policy head toward. As Lewy stated, “Communism had ceased to be the wave of the future”(487).
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It seems that after series of claims to be in Vietnam fell short, the only reason to go in is the preservation of democracy. Democracy is the one claim which compelled us to stay in Vietnam. Yet again Lewy doubted the great moral claim. He believed that United motives to go into Vietnam was not as altruistic as it seemed; the main motive of the war was to defend the title of United States as the dominant power in the world. Such challenge is stated when North Vietnamese Defense Minster declared in July 1964 that “South Vietnam is the vanguard fighter of the nation liberation movement in the present era… and the failure of the special war unleashed by the U.S. imperialists in South Vietnam would mean that this war can be defeated anywhere in the world.” (487) It is not surprising that presidents immediately begin to declare Vietnam as “a vital interest of U.S.” 200,000 U.S military personnel were in Vietnam by early 1966, despite the fact that Vietnam was “not a region of major military of industrial importance.” (488) United States was ready to defend its world supremacy through the battles of Vietnam. What was worse for the United States was the arrogant attitude. United States was not like France, who “could withdraw from Indochina and North Africa without a serious loss of prestige.” (488) Many people believed this philosophy to be true. In fact even as the situation became worse during Johnson’s and Nixon’s administration, it was still “important to liquidate the American commitment without a humiliating defeat.” (488) The defeat however is inevitable and the impact of the war was more devastating than the optimistic Americans had predicted.
The fall of Vietnam marks the most humiliating defeat in American History. Americans were awaken by the trauma of Vietnam. A “No more Vietnams” psychology sprung up all over the country. Lewy commented that American turn to isolationism in hope that such an disaster will never happen again. Lewy stated that the “United States cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.” (490) The result for taking up a moral burden such as Vietnam only results in the severe casualties. Despite what the American ideal for democracy, Lewy concluded, we can not support and change the world. “The Statesman cannot be a saint” (491) as the Korean Conflict and Vietnam conflict had shown to the American people. The American idealism changed significantly because of the impact of Vietnam war.
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Lewy ended his essay with one of the most frequently asked questions: could the United States have won in Vietnam? Lewy suggested that United States started off on the wrong foot in the beginning. Simple motives like “fighting for democracy in Vietnam” and “halting communist aggression” while having some truth in them are not enough to justify the position of U.S. intervention. President Johnson also made a mistake in the beginning of the war because of his confidence. He constantly “spoke of success and light at the end of the tunnel, but continued to dispatch additional troops while casualties mounted steadily.” (492) The turning of the war from a “limited war” to a full scale occurred as more troops were sent in. Yet while Johnson was willing to send in more troops, he was unwilling to declare war. American people did not know what they were fighting for because of the undeclared war. Further, without industrial mobilization on the home front, the mission was destined to fail. The nation ended up fighting “a limited with the full employment of its military power restricted through elaborate rules of engagements and limitations… while for its determined opponent the war was total.” (492)
Lewy did not deny that the war was lost militarily. In fact he believed that U.S. strategy was wrong from the beginning. He wrote that “the U.S. failed to understand the real stakes in a revolutionary war.” (497) United States army failed to realize the objective of the war. Edward G. Landsdale once wrote that “the Vietnamese Communist generals saw their armed forces a instruments primarily to gain political goals. The American generals saw their forces primarily as instruments to defeat enemy military forces.” (497) As a result Lewy concluded, “the enemy’s endurance and supply of manpower proved stronger than American persistence in keeping up the struggle.” (497) The resolute Vietnamese opposition simply demoralized our will to fight. When they suffered major casualties it strengthened them while it weaken United States’ morale when we suffered major casualties. Finally Lewy believed that The United States had set out on the wrong foot from the beginning. “The war,” Lewy commented, “not only had to be won in South Vietnam, but it had to be won by the South Vietnamese.” (497) Yet it seems that from the beginning of the conflict, The Republic of Vietnam did not have the zeal that the U.S. did. The United States however failed to stress the importance of the role the South Vietnamese should play. As a result the war could not be won because we were not Vietnamese. Henry Kissinger inevitably concluded that “outside effort can only supplement, but not create local efforts and local will to resist.” (499) The United States could neither win a war nor lose one because it is not our war. The failure of the Vietnamese people to take their active roles in their revolutionary war was the cause for the lost war. Lewy therefore concluded that with the war lost on the enemy front, home front and the Vietnamese front, the war in Vietnam could not be won.
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Finally, in “The Last War, The Next War, and The New Revisionists” Walter LaFeber also attempts to address the Vietnam question. He first addresses the reason for the losing of the war. He brings up the Westmoreland Thesis which argued that “the conflict was not lost on the battlefield, but at home where overly sensitive politicians followed a “no-win policy” to accommodate “a misguided minority opposition.” and that “the enemy finally won ‘the war politically in Washington.’” (500) Other revisionist historians like Gelband Betts proposed that “it was not the ‘system; that failed… the failure was to be blamed on the American people who never understood the war and finally tired of it, and on the President who supinely followed the people.” (501) Lewy, another historian further, clarified Westmoreland’s argument that antiwar groups wrongly labeled Vietnam illegal and immoral. But Lewy inevitably destroyed Westmoreland’s thesis when he mentioned the massacre at My Lai and at Cam Ne. The blame for losing the war, therefore LaFeber concluded, is split among the Revisionists and the other historians.
LaFeber then addresses the impact of the war to build up his thesis of the Revisionists. He argues that “Vietnam ‘greatly altered’ the world balance of power” and that “American power has dramatically declined, politically as well as militarily.” (501) The lessons of Vietnam invariably became the basis for American foreign policy for the next decade. The Afghanistan and Iran crisis during Carter’s administration showed that lessons of Vietnam had finally taken itself in the form of the nations policy. Furthermore, Ronald Reagan proclaimed in one of speeches that “we must rid ourselves of the ‘Vietnam syndrome.’” (503) Therefore LaFeber concluded that the lesson of Vietnam had changed U.S. foreign policy greatly.
Lastly, LaFeber discusses the arguments of the new revisionists. He criticizes their explicit claims and the facts that they chose to ignore. The new revisionists claim that the country has been “misguided by the opinions of the minority” is not correctly stated. Herbert Schandler’s study had shown that the latest public opinions rallied behind the president. (503) Even as the antiwar movements increased during late 1970, the public opinions did not turn the president. LaFeber showed that “it did not stop Nixon from expanding the conflict into Cambodia and Laos.” (504) Therefore LaFeber concluded that the Antiwar movements had been greatly overrated by the Revisionists. The Revisionist instead should emphasize the defeat military in Vietnam. The Revisionists also concentrated too much on the Soviet Union. Instead they should focus “on the instability of the Third World areas that the Soviets have at times turned to their own advantage.” (505) The Revisionists therefore did not understand where the problems were in south East Asia. LaFeber also stressed that the Revisionist had underestimated Unites States military power. American military will is not lacking; the troops as LaFeber pointed out were “supported by the most powerful naval and air force ever used in Asia.” (505) Bombs were dropped every minute on Vietnam. Therefore neither the will nor the power is lacking in the war. The war was lost not because U.S.
declined in power but rather from the “overestimation of American Power.” (505) The Revisionists, suggested LaFeber, over-exaggerated some of the issues.
If the power of United States were overestimated, the war then was lost because of the aid of our allies and the cost of the war. The Revisionists often overlooked this subject, LaFeber argued. He pointed out that “of the forty nations tied to the United States by treaties only four- Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand- committed any combat troops.” (506) Even South Korea, a country which owed much to U.S., only send troops after Washington bribed them. The failure of the aid from the coalition eventually undermined the U.S. effort in Vietnam. The will of the people which the Revisionists stressed as the downfall of the war is also affected by the cost of the war. The American people simply did not want to fight a bread and butter war. Domestically, the Great Society Program must be sacrificed to accommodate the war. The great cost of the war eventually influenced the public sentiment so much that the will of people favors peace. By overlooking the two key aspects of the war, LaFeber concluded, the Revisionists attempt to make the war “more acceptable,” and “hoped to make the next war legitimate, even before… where it will be or what it will be fought over.” (508)
These three articles in Conflict and Consensus all showed remarkably similarity not only in their subjects but also in their opinions. They all attempted to address why the United States lost the war. In doing so they also addressed the attitude of American people and the military forces. They analyzed the strength of the U.S. military power and the Vietnamese forces. They all asked the question of why the war started and what importance was Vietnam. But despite the similarities of the three articles, they differ in details.
While Baritz addressed the loss of Vietnam, he attributed the loss to the ignorance and haughty attitude of Vietnam. She stressed the myth of America as the “God’s chosen country” and believed that we lost the war because we were too arrogant and too confident of ourselves. Baritz argued that Americans put too much faith into technology, Bureaucracy and the myth. These things she addressed as the downfall of United States. Lewy shared a different view when he attempted to address the loss of Vietnam. He attacked the conflict from the beginning, doubting the importance of Vietnam and United States’ motive to interfere. He also addressed some of the major forces that turned public opinion against the war such as TV, the lack of declaration of war, and the antiwar movements. On a military scale, Lewy also addressed the ineptitude of the American army to fight a revolutionary war and the failure to draw the Vietnamese into their own war. Lewy proposed a more comprehensive theory from the beginning to the end of how the United States could lose the war. LaFeber’s interest in his article however is not addressing how America lost the war. But nevertheless by rejecting some of the Revisionists’ points of view, he revealed a different scope of the war. He rejected Westmoreland’s theory and pointed out that the public sentiment was favoring the president and the war. He rejected the focus of the war on Communism and Russia to show that the South East Asia problem is a question of stability not communism. LaFeber also pointed out the common misunderstanding of the conflict’s central political and military features. He believed that United States overestimated its own power. Furthermore he revealed the reluctance of American allies to commit its troops, and he revealed that the public is unwilling to sacrifice butter for guns. LaFeber’s view therefore is extremely different from the two historians mentioned before yet he still attempted to address the same questions.