- Still in Saigon . . .
Soldiers leaving “‘Nam” said they were going back to the “world,” an apt description of their dystopian experience in America’s longest war. Political leaders grappling with the Vietnam “syndrome” had equal difficulty explaining the lessons of the war. Jimmy Carter tried to blame the war on an inordinate fear of communism. Ronald Reagan went after Grenada to prove Vietnam was a case of “liberal” irresolution. George Bush tried to convince the nation that he had exorcized the “syndrome.” It would never trouble us again after victory in the Gulf War, he promised. Wary, nevertheless, of the residual political fall-out, Bill Clinton gingerly—very gingerly—opens relations with Hanoi. And, finally, Robert McNamara journeys to Hanoi, to come away shaking his head at all the supposed “misperceptions” that produced so much suffering for all the participants.
Even in the early stages of American involvement, policymakers were unsure about why the war had to be fought. There were those who followed Eisenhower’s lead to argue the case for Vietnam as a vital link in the postwar political economy of Asia, guaranteeing the “new” Japan a solid place in the Free World line-up as against the supposed temptations of the now-forbidden fruit in communist China. Even before Eisenhower’s version of the domino thesis, indeed, the author of “Containment,” George F. Kennan, had told Asian experts at a State Department roundtable in 1949 that with China gone, [End Page 715] the West would have to reopen Southeast Asia to Japan—or face the loss of the designated workshop of Asia.
When Washington actually started sending troops to Vietnam, however, another explanation for why the war had to be fought stressed the matter of “saving face.” Having given its word, the United States could not bug out. And with that argument the poisonous “Munich Analogy” came into its own. Actually, as Steven Hugh Lee points out in his admirable monograph, the arguments later repeated in Vietnam had precedents in the Korean War, when possible diplomatic avenues were shut off from consideration once the “appeasement” question was raised.
The easy way to reconcile competing explanations (in their nuanced manifestations as well)—and a not untruthful one—is to say that both are subsumed into the Cold War. How is it possible to imagine a $100 billion war to control Vietnam’s destiny otherwise, without a Cold War? H. R. McMaster grants that the Cold War explains why the war was fought, but he thinks how it was fought is a very different matter. And he believes that way too much has been excluded from discussion by invoking the Cold War, just as government officials pull down the “National Security” curtain over classified documents to avoid embarrassment long years after the events.
Robert Schulzinger’s volume, the first of two planned books on the war and its aftermath, sets a high goal for itself. “I intend this book as a compendium of the current state of scholarship on the Vietnam War” (p. x). But Schulzinger will hardly settle for a “textbook” approach to his subject, for it is rich in interpretative insights as well. Vietnam, he argues, was a watershed for politics, culture, values, and the economy in fully the same way that the Civil War changed America fundamentally in the nineteenth century, and the Great Depression in our century. That assertion alone will cause some raised eyebrows.
Reading either McMaster or Schulzinger without first looking into Steven Lee’s account of how America’s informal empire in Asia was...