Democrats and the Killing Fields

Arthur Herman reminds us of the price of “cut and run”:

Most people have never heard of Operation Frequent Wind, which ended on April 30, 1975, 33 years ago. But every American has seen pictures of it: the Marine helicopters evacuating the last U.S. personnel from the embassy in Saigon, hours before communist tanks rolled into the city. Thousands of desperate Vietnamese gathered at the embassy gate and begged to be taken with them. Others committed suicide.

Those scenes are a chilling reminder of what happens when a great power decides to cut and run. Two of the three presidential candidates are proposing to do just that in Iraq. We need to remember what happened the last time we gave up on an unpopular foreign policy, not only in humanitarian terms but in terms of American power and prestige.

The Lies of Tet

Peter Braestrup’s “The Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington” is a must read. Arthur Herman offers an anniversary capsule of the true history of Tet:

On January 30, 1968, more than a quarter million North Vietnamese soldiers and 100,000 Viet Cong irregulars launched a massive attack on South Vietnam. But the public didn’t hear about who had won this most decisive battle of the Vietnam War, the so-called Tet offensive, until much too late.

Media misreporting of Tet passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The Tet experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all U.S. military successes — such as the Petraeus surge — minimized and glossed over.

In truth, the war in Vietnam was lost on the propaganda front, in great measure due to the press’s pervasive misreporting of the clear U.S. victory at Tet as a defeat. Forty years is long past time to set the historical record straight.

…The Tet offensive was Hanoi’s desperate throw of the dice to seize South Vietnam’s northern provinces using conventional armies, while simultaneously triggering a popular uprising in support of the Viet Cong. Both failed. Americans and South Vietnamese soon put down the attacks, which began under cover of a cease-fire to celebrate the Tet lunar new year. By March 2, when U.S. Marines crushed the last North Vietnamese pockets of resistance in the northern city of Hue, the VC had lost 80,000-100,000 killed or wounded without capturing a single province.

Tet was a particularly crushing defeat for the VC. It had not only failed to trigger any uprising but also cost them “our best people,” as former Viet Cong doctor Duong Quyunh Hoa later admitted to reporter Stanley Karnow. Yet the very fact of the U.S. military victory — “The North Vietnamese,” noted National Security official William Bundy at the time, “fought to the last Viet Cong” — was spun otherwise by most of the U.S. press.

As the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his 1977 book, “The Big Story,” the desperate fury of the communist attacks including on Saigon, where most reporters lived and worked, caught the press by surprise. (Not the military: It had been expecting an attack and had been on full alert since Jan. 24.) It also put many reporters in physical danger for the first time. Braestrup, a former Marine, calculated that only 40 of 354 print and TV journalists covering the war at the time had seen any real fighting. Their own panic deeply colored their reportage, suggesting that the communist assault had flung Vietnam into chaos.

Their editors at home, like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, seized on the distorted reporting to discredit the military’s version of events. The Viet Cong insurgency was in its death throes, just as U.S. military officials assured the American people at the time. Yet the press version painted a different picture.

To quote Braestrup, “the media tended to leave the shock and confusion of early February, as then perceived, fixed as the final impression of Tet” and of Vietnam generally. “Drama was perpetuated at the expense of information,” and “the negative trend” of media reporting “added to the distortion of the real situation on the ground in Vietnam.”

The North Vietnamese were delighted. On the heels of their devastating defeat, Hanoi increasingly shifted its propaganda efforts toward the media and the antiwar movement. Causing American (not South Vietnamese) casualties, even at heavy cost, became a battlefield objective in order to reinforce the American media’s narrative of a failing policy in Vietnam.

Yet thanks to the success of Tet, the numbers of Americans dying in Vietnam steadily declined — from almost 15,000 in 1968 to 9,414 in 1969 and 4,221 in 1970 — by which time the Viet Cong had ceased to exist as a viable fighting force. One Vietnamese province after another witnessed new peace and stability. By the end of 1969 over 70% of South Vietnam’s population was under government control, compared to 42% at the beginning of 1968. In 1970 and 1971, American ambassador Ellsworth Bunker estimated that 90% of Vietnamese lived in zones under government control.

However, all this went unnoticed because misreporting about Tet had left the image of Vietnam as a botched counterinsurgency — an image nearly half a decade out of date. The failure of the North’s next massive invasion over Easter 1972, which cost the North Vietnamese army another 100,000 men and half their tanks and artillery, finally forced it to sign the peace accords in Paris and formally to recognize the Republic of South Vietnam. By August 1972 there were no U.S. combat forces left in Vietnam, precisely because, contrary to the overwhelming mass of press reports, American policy there had been a success.

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Cassandra on the True History of Vietnam

The first rough draft of history is getting it all wrong again. Somebody get me rewrite.

Contrary to the countless media stories of crazed vets returning with PTSD, these men are not broken. They endured horrors vastly worse than the average soldier or Marine in today’s conflict. Jeremiah Denton survived nearly eight years in a North Vietnamese prison camp and went on to become a United States Senator for his home state, Alabama. How many people know that?

There is hope. Beliefs matter, but what is more important, standing up for your beliefs matters. The support and respect of your peers matters. But even if you are spat upon when you come home, even if your heroism is never recognized, even if your service is forgotten by a biased press that distorts history, you are not defeated, you are not shamed, you are not broken unless and until you decide to be.

The sad thing is that the past is about to repeat itself. What will future generations know about Iraq and Afghanistan?

The first rough draft of history is getting it all wrong again. Somebody get me rewrite.

'It Didn't Happen'

Obama calls for unleashing genocide in Iraq — because withdrawal is best. Kerry called for withdrawal from Vietnam, acknowledging that “there would be certain political assassinations,” but said they would number only “four or five thousand,” but “There’s absolutely no guarantee that there would be a bloodbath. . . . One has to, obviously, conjecture on this. However, I think the arguments clearly indicate that there probably wouldn’t be”.

James Taranto documents what did happen:

In 1973, the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam, as Mr. Kerry had urged. In December 1974, the Democratic Congress ended military aid to South Vietnam. In April 1975, Saigon fell.

According to a 2001 investigation by the Orange County Register, Hanoi’s communist regime imprisoned a million Vietnamese without charge in “re-education” camps, where an estimated 165,000 perished. “Thousands were abused or tortured: their hands and legs shackled in painful positions for months, their skin slashed by bamboo canes studded with thorns, their veins injected with poisonous chemicals, their spirits broken with stories about relatives being killed,” the Register reported.

Laos and Cambodia also fell to communists in 1975. Time magazine reported in 1978 that some 40,000 Laotians had been imprisoned in re-education camps: “The regime’s figures do not include 12,000 unfortunates who have been packed off to Phong Saly. There, no pretense at re-education is made. As one high Pathet Lao official told Australian journalist John Everingham, who himself spent eight days in a Lao prison last year, ‘No one ever returns.’ ”

The postwar horrors of Vietnam and Laos paled next to the “killing fields” of Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge undertook an especially vicious revolution. During that regime’s 3 1/2-year rule, at least a million Cambodians, and perhaps as many as two million, died from starvation, disease, overwork or murder. The Vietnamese invaders who toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 were liberators, albeit only by comparison.

In the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. According to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, between 1975 and 1995 more than 1.4 million Indochinese escaped, nearly 800,000 of them by boat. This does not include “boat people” who died at sea, 10% of the total by some estimates.

Sen. James Webb recalls the predictions of the left that withdrawal would be a very good thing:

“Vietnam should teach us an important lesson. Hanoi [is creating] a collectivist society . . . likely to produce greater welfare and security for its people than any local alternative ever offered, at a cost in freedom that affects a small elite.” — Stanley Hoffman

The New Republic

May 3, 1975

“The greatest gift our country can give the Cambodian people is not guns but peace. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now.” — Rep. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.)

Congressional Record

March 12, 1975

“It is ironic that we are here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated.” — Producer Bert Schneider

Academy Awards

April 8, 1975

while the reality proved very different.

History is an elusive chimera, shaped and recorded by the winning side. Nowhere in recent times has this proved more true than in the periodic commemorations of the Vietnam War, as we are seeing once again with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

In Vietnam, the propaganda machines must work full time to convince an increasingly restless population that the communist war effort was uniquely nationalist and “pure,” and that the rigid disciplines that allowed Hanoi to prevail in war still have validity as the future threatens to pass them by.

Here at home, a quiet but intense debate has raged over our involvement, with the forum largely controlled by the media and academia, two of the most staunchly antiwar communities during the conflict (a third being Hollywood). All of these groups have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.

Simplistic, cartoonish mythologies accompany both the communist and antiwar versions of the war, no doubt bringing solace to those who were on the right side of its outcome. It is easier to understand why our former enemies persist in such notions than it is to comprehend why so many of our own best and brightest still cling to the illusion that allowing — or in some cases assisting — a Stalinist takeover in South Vietnam was an honorable enterprise. The communists paid a heavy price for this victory, and it is natural that they should continue to rejoice in it. What is not natural is that our own commentators, now provided with so much evidence to measure results, should abet the rewriting of history.

Deliberate Amnesia

And yet these errors of omission and commission have prevailed so long that they have permeated public thought:

In order to justify the war as more of an inevitable reunification of the country than a communist takeover, scant mention is made of other nationalist parties inside Vietnam that the communists systematically eliminated beginning in the first days after World War II. The continuing focus on American and other “atrocities” (My Lai is a national monument) blurs the reality that assassinations were an essential part of the communist insurgency. According to the late Bernard Fall, communist terrorists killed an average of 11 government officials daily during the early 1960s — the equivalent in this country of an Oklahoma City bombing every day, for years. In a form of deliberate amnesia, commentators rarely mention that such policy-driven assassinations continued throughout the war, with thousands being executed in the city of Hue alone during the brief communist occupation in the 1968 Tet offensive.

In order to demean attempts to nurture a democracy in the south even as a war was being fought, the South Vietnamese are continually portrayed as corrupt “puppets” of the U.S. Communist leaders, meanwhile, are elevated to the now-familiar caricature of the selfless noble savage. Communist soldiers — who fought well but lost repeatedly — are reverentially referred to as wily guerrilla fighters who continually bested the inept, over equipped forces of the U.S. and South Vietnam. These misrepresentations persist despite Hanoi’s admission that more than 1.4 million of its soldiers died in the war, as opposed to 58,000 Americans and 245,000 South Vietnamese.

The American military is portrayed as an army of unwilling draftees with an overrepresentation of minorities. In reality, two-thirds of those who served — and 73% of those who died — were volunteers. With respect to minorities, African-Americans comprised 13.1% of the age group, 12.6% of the military and 12.2% of the casualties. In terms of attitude, the most comprehensive survey of those who fought in Vietnam (Harris, 1980) indicated that 91% of those who served were “glad they served their country,” 74% “enjoyed their time in the military,” and 89% agreed with the statement that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.”

The American antiwar movement, whose former members dominate the present administration as well as many of the media and academic filters through which the debate must pass, is benignly portrayed as a reactive force that mobilized only in response to a failed American strategy. In truth, many of its core leaders were dedicated to revolutionary change in America even before the Vietnam War started (the infamous Students for a Democratic Society was created by the Port Huron Statement in 1962). Many of them — including members of the influential Indochina Peace Campaign — continued to coordinate directly with Hanoi after the American military pullout in 1973.

Most retrospectives spend little time on what happened after the 1968 Tet offensive, with the implication that the war was lost by then. In reality, the Tet offensive was a massive military and political defeat for the communists, who had wrongly expected the South Vietnamese people to rise up and support the offensive. In addition, President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program that began in late 1969 enjoyed great success. Military critics of the war such as Col. David Hackworth, who had four years on the ground in Vietnam, still maintain that if South Vietnam had survived a few more years, the young leaders who had come of age on the battlefield under American tutelage would have been unbeatable.

While it is correct to say that the American people wearied of an ineffective national strategy as the war dragged on, they never ceased in their support for South Vietnam’s war effort. As late as September 1972, a Harris survey indicated overwhelming support for continued bombing of North Vietnam (55% to 32%) and for mining North Vietnamese harbors (64% to 22%). By a margin of 74% to 11%, those polled agreed that “it is important that South Vietnam not fall into the control of the communists.”

The 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which earned both the American and North Vietnamese negotiators the Nobel Peace Prize, are largely ignoped by present-day commentators. If we were to treat these accords as a binding international agreement between two still-existing governments, Hanoi would be held accountable for having taken South Vietnam by “other than peaceful means,” and for failing to uphold its promise of internationally supervised free elections.

The humiliating end result of the communists’ final offensive in early 1975 is usually placed on the shoulders of a supposedly incompetent South Vietnamese military. Little mention is made of the impact our “Watergate Congress” had on both its inception and success. This Congress was elected in November 1974, only months after Nixon’s resignation, and it was dominated by a fresh group of antiwar Democrats. One of the first actions of the new Congress was to vote down a supplemental appropriation for the beleaguered South Vietnamese that would have provided $800 million in military aid, including much-needed ammunition, spare parts and medical supplies.

This vote was a horrendous blow, in both emotional and practical terms, to the country that had trusted American judgment for more than a decade of intense conflict. It was also a clear indication that Washington was abandoning the South Vietnamese even as the North Vietnamese continued to enjoy the support of the Soviet Union, China and other Eastern bloc nations. The vote’s impact was hardly lost on North Vietnamese military planners, who began the final offensive only five weeks later, as the South Vietnamese were attempting to adjust their military defenses.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in April, 2000. RTWT – highly recommended.

Vietnam's 'Dark Years'

John Kerry was wrong. The Vietnamese do understand democracy.

Brendan Miniter reviews what we’ve learned from the Vietnam experience:

In March, Le Quoc Quan returned to his native Vietnam after finishing a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. He was promptly arrested and charged with planning to overthrow the government. The charges make sense in the communist country: His fellowship focused on how to peacefully spread democracy. Under pressure from the U.S. he was released on Saturday.

Today, President Bush will meet with the president of Vietnam, Nguyen Van Dai, at the White House. High on the agenda will be the Southeast Asian nation’s record on human rights. America’s military efforts to stop the communist takeover of South Vietnam ended in defeat more than 30 years ago. The result was what many Vietnamese call the “dark years,” a period of oppression and economic stagnation that lasted until the mid-1980s. But now something interesting is happening. America is once again waging a campaign for freedom in Vietnam, only this time with “soft power” and bipartisan support.

…Thirty years on, will we be haunted by a similar history in the case of Iraq? That will depend on how many on Capitol Hill remember what we left behind in Vietnam and resolve not to leave something similar behind again. In the coming months, we’ll likely see who has learned from our history and who seems to want to repeat it.

The "worst ever"?

Historian Mark Moyar is author of “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965”. The cases he cites demonstrate how different history looks when access to the archives is opened, and historians tackle the study who had no political investment at the time. In 25 years or so we’ll learn the true history of Bush and Iraq.

,,,Of course, the reason Mr. Carter, and others, rank President Bush at the bottom is the Iraq war. Mr. Carter himself did not get the country into a war during his presidency, likely because he lacked the fortitude. If we want a useful comparison with presidents who did get us into a difficult war, we need look no further than the two men who put the United States into its last protracted conflict, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kennedy commands much admiration among the literati, in part because his Vietnam decisions have been misunderstood. Four-and-a half decades after Kennedy dramatically deepened America’s commitment to South Vietnam, we are just now learning critical facts about his actions. This alone might cause us to beware of sweeping pronouncements about a president and his place in history while he is still in office.

New evidence shows that Kennedy reluctantly allowed Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to instigate the disastrous coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, the event that did the most to draw the U.S. into the war. Lodge, a liberal Republican, favored a coup because Diem was not handling South Vietnamese dissidents the way an American politician would. During October 1963, in violation of presidential orders, Lodge secretly encouraged a group of South Vietnamese generals to revolt, igniting the conspiracy that produced the coup three weeks later.

Lodge did not notify Washington of his actions, but one week before the coup, top administration officials caught wind of it. Although Kennedy was incensed, he did not stop Lodge. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy had appointed Lodge, a prominent Republican with presidential aspirations, to be ambassador to Vietnam to shield himself from Republican criticism if the situation in Southeast Asia worsened. But this maneuver shackled Kennedy. The president couldn’t fire or rein in Lodge for fear that in 1964, a presidential candidate Lodge would accuse him of mismanaging the crisis. Like too many Democrats today, Kennedy put a higher priority on undermining Republicans than on advancing America’s interests abroad. The coup went ahead and the South Vietnamese went from winning the war to losing it because of the ineptitude of the new rulers.

Historians have always heaped blame on Lyndon Johnson for Vietnam, but not always for the right reasons. Like Kennedy, Johnson assigned a higher priority to his re-election than the good of the country. In the late summer and fall of 1964, fearing that warlike behavior and words could erode his lead over Barry Goldwater in the polls, Johnson rejected the military’s recommendations for powerful retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Portraying himself as the candidate of peace, he said that he would not send American boys to do what Asian boys could do for themselves.

We now know, thanks to new sources from the communist side, that Johnson’s conduct in the summer and fall of 1964 convinced Hanoi that the Americans would not intervene if North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. This deduction, combined with the deterioration of the South Vietnamese government, led the North Vietnamese to invade the South at the end of 1964. The invasion in turn compelled the United States to begin sending hundreds of thousands of combat troops to Southeast Asia.

President Bush obviously made decisions on Iraq that have had unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. We know he received some inaccurate intelligence and that some of his subordinates provided faulty advice on how to deal with post-invasion Iraq. But we are far from knowing all of the information that was available to him or the full content of his discussions with his advisers. At this point, it appears that the Iraq war resulted from decisions that the president sincerely believed would benefit the U.S. and the peoples of the Middle East. If that is what history concludes, President Bush won’t be considered the “worst” American president — he will certainly deserve more respect than war presidents who undermined the American cause by putting re-election before the national interest.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Global War Against Terror Can Be Won

Don’t miss this speech by the first Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, on receipt of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service: The Global War Against Terror Can Be Won. A transcript of the speech is available as a PDF.

There is much wisdom in this address. One small example shows the grasp of the limitations of the American political system:

The administration has set out to spread democracy in the Middle East. In the long run democracy can prevail, but the process will not be easy. Given the US constitutional framework of mid-term elections every 2 years and Presidential elections every 4 years, it is not realistic to expect any American administration to stay long enough in Iraq for democracy to take root.

Later, on Iraq and Vietnam:

…The conventional wisdom in the media now is that the war in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. Conventional wisdom in the 1970s assumed that the war in Vietnam was similarly an unmitigated disaster. It has been proved wrong. It bought the time and created the conditions that enabled non-communist East Asia to follow Japan’s path and develop into the four dragons (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), followed by the four tigers (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines). Time brought about the split between the Soviet Union and China, and that led to China attacking Vietnam when it attacked Cambodia and thus broke the domino effect of communist victory in Vietnam. The four dragons and four tigers in turn changed both communist China and Vietnam into open market economies and made them freer societies. If the unexpected developments of war in Iraq are addressed in a resolute, not a defeatist manner, conventional wisdom, now pessimistic, will again be proved wrong. A stabilised Iraq, less repressive, with its different ethnic and religious communities accepting each other in some devoluted framework, can be a liberating influence in the Middle East.

You may wonder why I am so focused on the Middle East. My first close interaction with America was when she was involved in a painful struggle in Vietnam. I was invited to Washington in 1967 because an Assistant Secretary of State had been reading my speeches when I warned my neighbours that the Americans won’t be there forever and we had better put our houses in order. He thought the message should be said in Washington and New York. I benefited from that visit. I got to know America, spent a term in Harvard, got to know of American multi-nationals. That led the blossoming of the Singapore economy. 40 years later I am invited to this august institution to receive your accolades at a time you are similarly in a dilemma, how to find an honourable exit from something the US had not expected. Once you are in, you have to see the problem through so that you will not do yourselves and the world irreparable damage.

Whoever wins the midterm elections, or the next Presidential elections in 2008 will face a very different world. By then, you will have not just Iraq but also Iran to contend with. It will not be an easy world to live in. It could be a seminal event like the collapse of the Soviet Union because a change in the power balance in the Gulf, and with oil at stake, the future of the world will take a different course. I hope you will understand why I chose to encourage Americans to take a more positive and optimistic view of the future.

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.

True history

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…

Here are some wise words from Tigerhawk, commenting on the emergence of one of the first true histories of the Vietnam War:

Historians are revising the history of the Vietnam war right on schedule. Power Line has an interview of Mark Moyar, a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge and presently a professor at Marine Corps University. Professor Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, published by Cambridge University Press. John Hinderaker wrote that to say that the book “is revisionist would be putting it mildly.” Naturally, I ordered a copy.

Mark Moyar was born in 1971, so my father would have considered him to be just about the perfect age to revise the history of the Vietnam War.

I wish I had access to Foreign Affairs so I could read the Lee Kuan Yew article.

UPDATE: I found the speech from which the article was taken: Global War Against Terror Can Be Won, A Speech by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service.

The Tet analogy

An excellent analysis of President Bush’s comment on the Tet analogy.

Tet, however, was not a military disaster for the United States. Quite to the contrary, history has revealed that the Tet offensive was in fact a crushing defeat for the Viet Cong, and effectively required that the Communists conquer the South by invasion from the North, rather than by civil insurgency. The Viet Cong were only able to turn a military disaster into strategic victory by persuading the American media that the United States was mired in stalement. With the domestic political support for the war fading fast, the United States decided to withdraw from Indochina, even though it would take Nixon and Kissinger another four years to accomplish it.

Scott Johnson adds his commentary, referencing The Big Story, the definitive book on how media reportage helped North Vietnam take over South Vietnam:

If journalism were a profession, Peter Braestrup’s 1977 book Big Story would be required reading in every journalism school. Braestrup’s long subtitle is a little dry: “How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington.” But his analysis was memorable. Braestrup showed that the press blew the story of the Tet offensive, portraying a major American battlefield victory as a disaster.

Scott includes a very useful comment by reader Mario Fante, which references the Robert Elegant essay “How to Lose a War – The Press and Vietnam”

I once spoke with Peter Braestrup years ago back when he was at the Library of Congress. He helped me with my Master’s policy paper on military-media relations by recommending a couple of sources that I found very useful – one of which he strongly endorsed, and which your readers may find haunting for its prescience of current media distortions of the war on terror and in Iraq.

…This article is required reading alongside Big Story, and makes much the same argument, but has the virtue of being much shorter, and a faster, more compelling read.

My advisor (a friend of Braestrup’s who set up the call), knew Elegant, and told me how much writing this piece cost him among “the brotherhood” of the media, who shunned him, and damaged his career (he’d since recovered).

I’ve just read the Elegant essay — it is now in my archives for future reference — recommended.