Was It Worth It?

Vietnam: The Necessary War

Was It Worth It?

Vietnam: The Necessary War

Was It Worth It?
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 10 1999 3:22 PM

Vietnam: The Necessary War

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Hello, Fred--

Advertisement

I'm in a sudden panic, realizing that this is the last installment and we have a few hundred words to wrap up the argument and resolve the points left hanging around. So I'll do it Larry King style, with varied points connected with ellipses (that's the three dots in a row, Larry ...).

* One perspective that's gotten no hearing in this discussion is the "immoral war" view--that the South Vietnamese regime was so corrupt, or the North Vietnamese aims so admirably anti-colonial, that the effort to protect South Vietnam was wrong per se. That's because neither of us, nor Lind, is in this camp. But we've suggested that the scope of argument is narrower than I suspect it still remains in the United States ...

* What you, Lind, and I disagree about, in various forms, all has to do with means and proportion. We agree that it would be better if South Vietnam had not been taken over by the North--and that it was better that Thailand, Malaysia, and others beat their insurgencies. The question is whether the fight was worth it at several crucial junctures: when the United States got more seriously involved in 1963-64; when it dramatically escalated in 1967-68; and when it began a prolonged withdrawal, from 1969 through the fall of Saigon in 1975 ...

* Lind argues that the initial engagement was necessary, for the "bandwagon" reasons of the Cold War we have discussed previously. I view it as understandable--for those same reasons--but ultimately unwise and destructive, for reasons that have been played out in U.S. politics ever since. And, much as I hate using this word, Nixon's prolongation of the withdrawal seems to me, well, criminal. (OK, '60s-style hyperbole, but you know what I mean. Maybe "criminally unwise.") Tens of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, died during the extended separation. Even assuming there was some offsetting increase in U.S. credibility in those years, it could not have been worthwhile ...

Advertisement

* You ask about the Korean option--long-term partition, enforced by U.S. troops. That might have been conceivable in 1963 or 1964, when the balance between aims and costs was still more reasonable from the U.S. perspective. By 1970 everything about that balance had shifted. For reasons Lind lays out very clearly, domestic politics had powerfully and predictably turned against such a costly war ...

* You raise several times the claim that the South Vietnamese were in some sense "winning" by 1970. Even assuming for purposes of argument that this is true (which I dispute, but that's for another day), by that time it was becoming irrelevant. The cost had exceeded a level that any student of U.S. politics thought this country would endure for such a symbolic struggle ...

* Yes, it's odd that we should be struggling for the mantle of Ronald Reagan. But the balance of costs and goals is something he clearly understood. The United States (as Lind also points out) is willing to pay financial costs, like those of the Reagan defense spend-up. But we properly dislike sending people to die for symbolic struggles when it's not really necessary--and that's why My Ronnie got those Marines out of Lebanon. I am sure someone made the case that this had become a symbolic stand, and he couldn't afford to look as if he was running. That didn't stop him ...

* My starting point was that, agree or disagree, people should read Michael Lind's book. I end on that point too. But of course it's not the only one to read. Peter Scott's recent Lost Crusade, the memoir of a U.S. soldier who trained Cambodian mercenaries, is the most affecting book of any sort I've read in a long time. It was, by the way, recommended to me by the novelist Charles McCarry, whose book The Tears of Autumn stands with Graham Greene's The Quiet American in conveying the climate of America's first involvement in Southeast Asia ...

* I've also just been reading Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War, a new academic history that argues more or less the exact opposite of Lind's case. From late 1963 to early 1965, Logevall claims, the Johnson administration faced a deliberate choice about whether it should raise or lower the stakes in Vietnam: Make it an all-out test of will, which it became, or look for an excuse to leave--perhaps with the claim that the regime in the South had become too ill-behaved to be worth further U.S. support or lives. Logevall's evidence is beyond my ability to introduce here. I'll simply say that if Lind proves that the decision to go to war was understandable, Logevall provides the argument for the "minimal realist" view that it was unnecessary and unwise. And as he says in the final pages of his book:

The certainty that this was an unnecessary war, not merely in hindsight but in the context of that time, also makes the astronomical costs that resulted from it during 1965-1973 that much more difficult to contemplate. ...

leftyesspacer/Slate247/991108_Vietnam.jpghttp://img.slate.com/mediafalseChoosing War and The Necessary War20111

21
103159AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:59 PM63431202719169129520111
21
103159AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:59 PM634312027191691295
20111
21
103159AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:59 PM634312027191691295
Pfalse200110
19
31101AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:01 AM631390578610000000
200110
19
31101AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:01 AM631390578610000000
This week, a discussion of Michael Lind's Vietnam: The Necessary War (clickhereto buy it).Fred Barnes is executive editor of theWeekly Standard. James Fallows is the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (clickhereto buy it) and a columnist for theIndustry Standard.