Vietnam Reevaluated – "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series

I went through under- and grad-school during the 1960’s. Like many of my peers, I thought the press coverage of Tet in 1968 supported the logic of the anti-Vietnam protestors. It never occurred to me not to trust the “mired in stalemate” interpretation of “the most trusted man in America” (the full text of Walter Cronkite’s 27 Feb, 1968 broadcast).

When the New York Times leaked the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971 doubts about the quality of government decision-making were compounded with the worry that high level officials were not telling the citizenry the truth. Then came Watergate. The result? For my entire adult life I have believed certain “facts” about the Vietnam era that were wrong. I’ll never know how many such “wrong facts” there are as it will take more effort than my motivator can supply.

Since 9/11 I’ve read more history than ever before. It has become increasingly clear that the North Vietnamese strategy – to destroy the will of the American public – succeeded. But, like today’s terrorists, that NV strategy was enabled by media reportage. Also like today, the misleading reportage was not some sort of left-conspiracy — people tried to do their job, but failed.

A few weeks ago Roger Simon recommended a series on the Boomer Generation reevaluation of assumptions by new-to-me blogger Neo-Neocon. I’ve been a keen reader of all of her writing since, especially the “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series. The anticipated “Part 4C (Vietnam–change and betrayal)” was just posted yesterday.

Why do you want to read neo-necon? Because she elegantly documents her own difficult process of reevaluation – it might well stimulate your own thinking.

Personally, I did not relish a review the history of politics and policy of the period surrounding the Vietnam war. You, dear Reader, may have a similar aversion. But the study I’ve invested so far has been productive. I learned something about the framework that guides so much contemporary discourse, discourse that otherwise doesn’t make sense.

The reader-of-the-whole thing will be amply rewarded. Here’s an appetizer from Part 4C:

But what if, at some time in the future, evidence surfaces that that hard-won knowledge may be wrong? How many people, having lost faith because of a betrayal, and having laboriously reconstructed a new worldview, can revise that worldview again? What if that worldview turns out to have been a house of cards? Who can stand two betrayals–trust having been placed in a rescuer, the press, who is now exposed as having been a liar and a betrayer, also? Who can return to believing that the government–although flawed (there is no returning to the initial state of naive, unquestioning trust)–is now to be trusted more than the press, after all?

For some, one betrayal is enough. They can’t even entertain the possibility of a second, or the idea that they may have come to incorrect conclusions about the first one. To say you’ve been wrong once is one thing; to go through it again (“fooled me twice”) is quite another. And the second time it is even worse, because this time you are older and more experienced, and should have known better.

So, just as some generals continue to fight the previous war, so do some people. Over and over.

Action

So far, I’ve talked mostly about cognition and feelings. But action also had its place in reactions to the Vietnam War. The behavior/action component, for those liberals who were not directly involved in the war itself (and that constitutes most of us), was the demonstration.

Getting together with like-minded people in organizations dedicated to stopping the war tended to reinforce the feeling of the rightness of the cause, in the usual way of groups. Ultimately, the actions of the antiwar liberals (and their far more extreme and far less numerous fellow-travelers, the leftists) had its effect: the withdrawal from Vietnam. And so, young liberals had the heady experience of affecting history at an early age–protests seemed to matter; they worked. Liberals considered this a success, perhaps their finest hour, something to be proud of for the rest of their lives. As I wrote here, the terrible scenes of the American withdrawal, the fall of Saigon, the reeducation camps, the boat people, the killing fields of Cambodia–all these things that came after gave pause to some of us, myself included. But rationalization is a powerful tool, and many of us were able to rationalize that it was not our fault because there had been no alternative, that this outcome was unevitable, and that the only thing that would have occurred had we stayed longer was more American deaths, and more Vietnamese deaths at American hands.

So the investment in believing this particular “narrative” of Vietnam was huge for liberals. As the years went by, decades of beliefs, affiliations, and activities were added to the mix, and the stakes grew even higher. To have disbelieved it all at some later date would have meant facing a profound disillusionment, not just with institutions such as the press and the government, but with the self itself.

The bitterness and polarization of that time had deep roots, as we discovered post-9/11. But that’s another story for another time.

In Part 4C I learned that I’ve been reading some of the same history as neo-neocon. I’ll try to cover some of these references soon.

Meanwhile, another highly recommended source is VietPundit, written by a Vietnamese-American who escaped from Vietnam in 1982. Enjoy!

Update: There is an excellent profile of Neo-Neocon by Norm Geras.