- Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954–1965
In late 1969 nearly 60 percent of Americans believed that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. The Democratic Party's presidential candidate in 1972, George McGovern, advocated the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon had declared that if he were elected, he would end the war in Vietnam. By April 1970 Nixon had reduced troop strength by nearly half. A year later, U.S. force levels had declined to around 50,000, and they dwindled ed to insignificant levels by the time the Paris peace treaty was signed in 1973. By March 1973, 59 percent of Americans identified the high cost of living as the most important problem facing the United States, and only 7 percent identified Vietnam. Regardless of the war's outcome, most Americans after 1968 got what they wanted: military disengagement from Vietnam. To say that the United States "lost" the war in Vietnam is less accurate than to say the country changed its priorities.
Since the mid-1970s, a split has developed among historians over whether the United States might have prevailed in South Vietnam. An orthodox school, believing broadly that the war was not winnable, argues that American idealism was misplaced: Ngo Dinh Diem, these scholars contend, was a dictator who had little popular support, particularly when compared to Ho ChiMinh. The orthodox school believes that U.S. officials failed to understand the historical appeal of Vietnamese nationalism and were wont to view Communism as a monolithic force binding together different nationalities [End Page 167] that should have been treated separately. U.S. military efforts, according to this school, were also thwarted by dysfunctional civil-military relations.
Revisionist historians have generally argued that a different military strategy might have prevented Saigon's ignominious collapse in April 1975. Harry G. Summers argued in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Presidio, CA: Novato Press, 1982) that barricading the demilitarized zone (DMZ) as well as Laotian and possibly Thai infiltration routes would have prevented guerrillas from being replaced and resupplied.William Colby in Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989) averred that the United States should have focused on pacification and counterinsurgency instead of trying to engage major enemy units, as it did in 1965 and 1966. In his view, a different military strategy applied earlier might have brought victory.
Marc Jason Gilbert and others in the orthodox school responded to the revisionists in Gilbert's edited volume, Why the North Won the Vietnam War (New York: Palgrave, 2002). An invasion of North Vietnam or Laos, they argued, would have been "worthless" because the war in the South was indigenous or at least indigenously supported. Moreover, a more aggressive U.S. strategy would have resulted in Chinese intervention. They insisted that a different military strategy (such as Colby's) would not have worked because the Saigon government was too corrupt to employ a pacification strategy early in the war and the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, was committed to a large-scale war of attrition, which precluded considering other strategies. Gilbert concludes by accusing revisionists of "choosing information selectively and ignoring what contradicts their beliefs." The revisionists, he contends, ignore "the reality of Vietnamese nationalism" and are often just right-wing ideologues.
Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965, the first of a projected two-volume history of the Vietnam War, presents itself as a major revisionist text. Its principal argument is that Diem was a legitimate nationalist leader who prosecuted the war successfully against the Communists. Diem's overthrow and assassination in 1963, according to Moyar, resulted from botched communications between Washington and Saigon, as well as the opportunism and ignorance of Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and later Henry Cabot Lodge.Moyar argues that the war effort, effective under Diem, was crippled by the ensuing political instability. Had Diem lived, Moyar contends, "it is highly doubtful that the...