The evolving history of Vietnam

My interest in Vietnam has been motivated by seeking both “lessons learned”, e.g., as might be applicable to counter-insurgency today, and “lessons to be unlearned” — i.e., conventional wisdom that may be dangerously wrong. Recently a friend asked me for some of the references I’ve found that might shed new light on the history of Vietnam.

One place to start is my post from two years ago – where I was beginning to ask questions like “how do I know what is true?”: Vietnam Reevaluated – “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series.

In the same time frame I was reading The Big Story [Peter Braestrup, Yale University Press 1997]. I first learned of this work from Professor of Rhetoric Cori Dauber in a private communication. Peter Braestrup is a very careful researcher who made it quite clear that the “accepted” Tet narrative was wrong. That it survives today I suppose is evidence of the difficulty of changing minds, especially older minds. So now we know that rather than a US/ARVN defeat, Tet was a military disaster for the enemy.

The next day VietPundit pointed me to Prof. R.J. Rummel’s essay on the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon — Vietnam Reevaluated – Consequences. There I learned of the magnitude of the lives lost in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as a consequence of the 1975 American retreat – some 4 million lives. I’ve not attempted to verify these figures – which were taken from Rummel’s book on genocide and government mass murder, Death By Government

BTW, if you are at all interested in Vietnam, the VietPundit blog is a valuable resource – written by a man who escaped to America from Vietnam in 1982 at age 16. He often provides a personal, human perspective on Vietnam of the 1960’s and today.

Also in the May 2005 timeframe I wrote Vietnam Reevaluated – The Isolation of the Old Radical Left, which led to a lively comments-discussion with Ralph Hitchens — who obviously knows more of this history than I do. I asked Ralph for his comments on the excellent Stephen J. Morris essay Vietnam: The War We Could Have Won, which I had earlier excerpted so readers could access it after it vanished behind the NYT Select “wall”. Ralph wrote:

I unfortunately didn’t get to Stephen Morris’s op-ed piece in time (it’s not free anymore — strange, I thought “information wants to be free” :-)), but read your long excerpt and believe he’s basically correct. I’ve thought for a long time that had Watergate not happened, Nixon might have been able to preserve the credibility of his threat to reengage with airpower — a threat that Hanoi clearly respected. I made this point in a letter that got published in the Washington Post Book Review some years ago, along with a quote I stole from the late, great TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street” — old Sicilian proverb: “Never get in the way of your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” Recall that Hanoi made no overt moves against the South until several months after Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

In December 2006 I wrote True history, quoting Princetonian Tigerhawk – who succinctly summarized my own views on why it often takes 50 years before the first “true histories” emerge:

My father, who was in the history trade, said that it took forty or fifty years for the interpretation of any American presidency or epoch to stabilize. People have to die, documents have to be declassified, and — most importantly — we need historians who were not politically aware at the time the events in question happened…

from which I learned of the publication of Mark Moyar’s new book Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. This book didn’t arrive before we left the Northwest so I’ve not yet read it [sadly it isn’t listed in the Tasmania state library system]. However, the reviews I’ve read so far are illuminating, and you can read an online copy of the Preface, and of Chapter One. Note that only Volume 1 has been released, covering 1954 – 1965. Prof. Moyar’s Volume 2 is in progress at Cambridge University Press.

This January 2007 review, published just a week ago, is the best I’ve found so far. Mackubin Thomas Owen is on my short list of “reliable resources” on such matters. Owen, a Professor of Strategy and Force Planning at the Naval War College, wrote:

…Both Krulak and Mendenhall briefed Kennedy on September 10. So diametrically opposed were their conclusions that the president quipped, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?

After reading Mark Moyar’s remarkable new book, Triumph Forsaken, readers accustomed to the “orthodox” view of the Vietnam war–entrenched in the academy and the press for decades–will no doubt have the same sort of “Kennedy moment.” Could Moyar possibly be writing about the same war that is described (in the orthodox view) as, at best, a strategic error and, at worst, a brutal imperialist war of aggression–in any case, a tragic mistake?

The axioms of the orthodox view concerning the Vietnam war are well known: that Southeast Asia in general, and South Vietnam in particular, were not vital strategic U.S. interests; that the “domino theory”–the belief that the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists would lead to the collapse of other non-Communist regimes in Southeast Asia–was false; that the South Vietnamese government was hopelessly corrupt and did not command the allegiance of the South Vietnamese people; that among the most corrupt was the regime of Diem, who was good at repressing Buddhists (Diem was Catholic) but was losing to the Viet Cong Communists; that Ho Chi Minh was not a true Communist but a nationalist; and that the rejection of certain military options–the mining of Haiphong Harbor, the use of ground troops to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail–was proper given the fear of Chinese intervention.

According to the orthodox view, Vietnam was indeed a “quagmire,” a war the United States was destined to lose.

Moyar’s history takes issue with all of these contentions. A brilliant young scholar with a Cambridge doctorate who is currently teaching at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Moyar is representative of a small but increasingly influential revisionist school that rejects the fundamental orthodox premise that America’s involvement in Vietnam was wrongheaded and unjust.

The primary weakness of the orthodox school, Moyar demonstrates, is its constricted historical horizon. For the most part, orthodox historians have covered the war as if the only important decisions were made in Washington and Saigon. This is an example of what has been called “national narcissism,” the idea that history is just about us. Of course, important decisions were also made in Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow, and many other places. Moyar has exhaustively consulted the relevant archives and uses them to demonstrate the very real limitations of the orthodox view. He not only places Vietnam in its proper geopolitical context, but demonstrates the Clausewitzian principle that war is a struggle between two active wills. An action by one side elicits a response from the other that may be unexpected.

Orthodox historians often act as if Hanoi pursued a course of action with little regard for what the United States did. But Moyar demonstrates that the North Vietnamese strategy was greatly affected by U.S. actions.

This point was driven home to me in 1983 when the late Douglas Pike, the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism and an early proponent of Vietnam revisionism, delivered a paper at a Wilson Center symposium on the war. Pike observed that “the initial reaction of Hanoi’s leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February 1965–documented later by defectors and other witnesses–was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure.” But the air campaign was severely constrained, a fact that became increasingly apparent to Hanoi. As a result, North Vietnamese leaders concluded that the United States lacked the will to bear the cost of the war.

Pike then made an extraordinary claim by comparing the effects of the constrained air campaign in 1965 and the “Christmas bombing” of 1972. Officially known as Linebacker II, this massive, around-the-clock air campaign far exceeded in intensity anything that had gone before. Hanoi was stunned.

“While conditions had changed vastly in seven years,” Pike continued, “the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in February 1965, the Vietnam war as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks.”

Triumph Forsaken is one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam war. The first of two projected volumes, it focuses on the period from the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh in 1954 to the eve of Lyndon Johnson’s commitment of major ground forces in 1965. Moyar’s thesis is that the American defeat was not inevitable: The United States had ample opportunities to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, but it failed to develop the proper strategy to do so. And by far our greatest mistake was to acquiesce in the November 1963 coup that deposed and killed Diem, a decision that “forfeited the tremendous gains of the preceding nine years and plunged the country into an extended period of instability and weakness.”

Not surprisingly, Vietnamese Communists exploited that post-Diem instability and adopted a more aggressive and ambitious stance. Moyar argues that President Lyndon Johnson rejected several aggressive strategic options available to him, options that would have permitted South Vietnam to continue the war, either without the employment of U.S. ground forces or by a limited deployment of U.S. forces in strategically advantageous positions in the southern part of North Vietnam or in Laos. The rejection of these options meant that Johnson was left with the choice of abandoning South Vietnam, a step fraught with grave international consequences, or fighting a defensive war within South Vietnam at a serious strategic disadvantage.

Nothing illustrates the orthodox/revisionist divide more than their respective treatments of Ngo Dinh Diem. In the orthodox view, Diem was a tyrant losing control of his country, a Catholic running roughshod over a predominantly Buddhist populace. Moyar contends that this is false. In fact, Diem was an effective leader who put down the organized crime empires that had thrived before his rise to power. Nor was he a democrat: His legitimacy, in the eyes of the people, arose from his ability to wield power effectively and provide security for the people who were the target of the Communist insurgency. Indeed, under Diem’s leadership, the back of the Communist insurgency had pretty much been broken by 1960.

This is a far cry from the orthodox view, but Moyar has some pretty good witnesses: the Communists themselves. Citing Communist documents, Moyar shows that they were honest enough to acknowledge their lack of success in the period leading up to the 1963 coup, as well as the fact that the Diem government was killing and capturing Communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect.

So why has Diem been depicted the way he has? First, he was a victim of press bias: No one did more to undermine Diem’s reputation in the United States than David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Far from providing a balanced picture of the war, they pushed a decidedly anti-Diem view, and their prejudice was so transparent that a 1963 congressional mission described the American journalists as “arrogant, emotional, un-objective, and ill-informed.”

But then, these same reporters were themselves influenced by others with axes to grind. Much of the criticism of the Diem regime’s military policy was fed to them by the maverick U.S. Army adviser, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. In addition, many American reporters relied on a Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer later revealed to be a Communist agent whose very mission was to influence the American press. As journalists such as Stanley Karnow later admitted, Pham was very good at his job.

…No review can do full justice to this critically important book. Triumph Forsaken is meticulously documented and bold in its interpretation of the record. Even orthodox historians will be forced to acknowledge the magnitude of Moyar’s scholarly achievement. It should, at the least, reopen the debate about America’s Vietnam enterprise, reminding us that countries are not destined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.

I commend the entirety of Owen’s review to you.

Here’s a book blurb by military historian Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations – but I’ve not found a full review by Prof. Boot:

“Numerous bits of conventional wisdom have accreted around the Vietnam War. It is commonly held that Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese nationalist above all, not a true communist, and that his victory was inevitable. That Ngo Dinh Diem was an unpopular and repressive reactionary. That the United States had no vital strategic interest in defending South Vietnam. That the ‘domino theory’ was a myth. That the U.S. was right not to invade North Vietnam or Laos for fear of triggering Chinese intervention. Mark Moyar, a young, bold, and iconoclastic historian, takes a sledge hammer to these hoary beliefs. It is ‘revisionist’ in the best sense of the word.”

I’ve also found two audio podcast interviews of author Mark Moyar:

1. This is the better interview – by conservative blog Powerline, 25 minutes.

2. Written Voices [author interviews], 20 minutes.

Earlier I mentioned the excellent Stephen J. Morris essay Vietnam: The War We Could Have Won. Morris, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, is writing a book on the Vietnam War in the Nixon years. Like Mark Moyar he has been doing a lot of archival research, in particular Soviet and N. Vietnam archives:

Even Hanoi’s main patron, the Soviet Union, was convinced that a North Vietnamese military victory was highly unlikely. Evidence from Soviet Communist Party archives suggests that, until 1974, Soviet military intelligence analysts and diplomats never believed that the North Vietnamese would be victorious on the battlefield. Only political and diplomatic efforts could succeed. Moscow thought that the South Vietnamese government was strong enough to defend itself with a continuation of American logistical support. The former Soviet chargé d’affaires in Hanoi during the 1970’s told me in Moscow in late 1993 that if one looked at the balance of forces, one could not predict that the South would be defeated. Until 1975, Moscow was not only impressed by American military power and political will, it also clearly had no desire to go to war with the United States over Vietnam. But after 1975, Soviet fear of the United States dissipated.

During the war the Soviets despised their North Vietnamese ”friends” (the term of confidential bureaucratic reference, rather than ”comrades”). Indeed, Henry A. Kissinger’s accounts of his dealings, as Nixon’s national security adviser, with President Thieu are models of respect when compared with the bitter Soviet accounts of their difficulties with their counterparts.

In secret internal reports, Hanoi-based Soviet diplomats regularly complained about the deceitfulness of the North Vietnamese, who concealed strategic planning from their more powerful patron. In a 1972 report to Moscow, the Soviet ambassador even complained that although Marshal Pavel Batitsky, commander of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, had visited Hanoi earlier that year and completed a major military aid agreement, North Vietnamese leaders did not inform him of the imminent launch date of their Easter Offensive.

What is also clear from Soviet archival sources is that those who believed that North Vietnam had more than national unification on its mind were right: Its leaders were imbued with a sense of their ideological mission — not only to unify Vietnam under Communist Party rule, but also to support the victory of Communists in other nations. They saw themselves as the outpost of world revolution in Southeast Asia and desired to help Communists in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere.

3 thoughts on “The evolving history of Vietnam

  1. Jim L,

    Have you read “A Better War”

    No – but thanks to your lead I’ve just added to my Amazon wish list . It looks excellent.


  2. I read with great interest “The evolving history of Vietnam” on the Seeker Blog website, especially since I have written on the subject in “Unraveling Vietnam: How American Arms and Diplomacy Failed in Southeast Asia.” This book, published in Feb. 2005, has gone practically unnoticed which I attribute to the fact that the publisher, McFarland & Co., is a small firm which promotes its non-fiction list only through a catalog directed at academia and libraries. As a book that orthodox academia would categorize as “revisionist”, it is not one that would attract a great deal of attention on their parts.
    So I was quite astonished when about a year after my book was published, Mark Moyar’s revisionist “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965”, appeared, published by the prestigious Cambridge U. Press which gained for it numerous reviews. I say astonished because having read his book I found that it parallels to a remarkable degree the arguments I posited in my book, not that he was even aware of the existence of my book, although to a large extent we drew on many of the same sources.
    With respect to sources, Moyar does not provide a bibliography, but his notes to the preface give an extensive list of just about everything of any significance written on the subject of the Vietnam War. A comparison with my biblio. will show a high degree of duplication. (My biblio. includes “The Big Story” and “A Better War”.)
    As to the books themselves, his, the first of two volumes, covers the period 1954-65
    in 416 pages of text incl. an opening chapter of 31 pages of Vietnamese historical background to 1954. Mine is more comprehensive in the period covered, fromWWII into the mid-1990s beginning w/ 59 pages of historical background up to 1961, all in 225 pages of text. Obviously, the two books differ substantially in the amount of detail provided. Examples: in our treatment of the battle of Ap Bac, he devotes 20 pages to my one-half page, and he gives 19 pages to the Tonkin Gulf incident to my 2 pages. The key point however, is not in the comparative detail devoted to events but in the drawing out of the significance of the event to American decision making. In this respect, generally, we arrive at the same point.
    As to substance, there are numerous key events on which our “takes” are in close agreement:
    -The 15th Plenum of the Lao ‘Dong Central committee in early 1959 when the DRV assigned first priority to reunification of Vientman by force. I make the point that this was in effect a covert declaration of war on th South and marked the true beginning of the Second Indochina War.
    -Hanoi’s Dec. 1960 establishment of the NLF, allegedly as an autronomous organization but which in reality was from the outset a creature of the Central Committee.
    -The impact of the outcome of the 1961-62 Laos crisis on later events. I make a much stronger point on the magnitude of Kennedy’s strategic error in allowing the DRV to take uncontested control of eastern Laos despite being warned by advisors that it would make South Vietnam almost indefensible from the DRV.
    -Finally, the 1963 decision by Kennedy and his dilettante advisors to withdraw support from Diem and to at least tacitly encourage the coup that resulted in his assassination. Kennedy loyalists (Schlesinger et al.) have been at pains to picture Diem in the worst possible light, the better to justify Kennedy’s decision, but aside from betrayal of a friendly head of state, this ill conceived act deprived South Vietnam of strong leadership, threw the country into political chaos, and locked the U.S. irreversibly into the war.
    In my treatment of the post-1965 period I describe:
    -The failure of the ground war and the “slowly ascending” Rolling Thunder air campaign, in both cases due to limitations placed on them by Johnson in his pursuit of a “limited war”.
    -The costly failure of the Tet Offensive, how it was misrepresented by the media as a disaster for American and SVN forces, and the fallout leading to Johnson’s suspension of Rolling Thunder.
    -Nixon’s beginning of disengagement and Kissinger’s tortuous secret negotiations with the obdurate Le Duc Tho.
    -The bombing of Cambodia, the raid by U.S. and ARVN forces into Cambodia, and the raid by ARVN into Laos.
    -The defeat of the Easter offensive and Nixon’s resumption of bombing with Linebacker I raids.
    -Impasse in negotiations, Linebacker II B-52 raids, final negotiations and signing of the cease-fire agreement Jan. 27, 1973. U.S. withdrawal.
    -Final DRV campaign to conquer the South, failure of Nixon to intervene, Watergate having stripped him of will and authority.
    -Aftermath, describing conditions in the South under Hanoi’s totalitarian Stalinist regime. Impoverishment of the nation. “Re-education” camps. Boat people. DRV invasion of Cambodia.
    -Conclusions, citing reasons for the 1975 lost peace, and how the U.S. guarantee of 20 yrs. standing to a small ally was allowed to lapse. How, in seeing the loss of political resolve by the U.S., the confidence of many uncommitted nations in U.S. leadership was badly shaken, encouraging Soviet adventurism in Africa, the Middle East and Central America.

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