- Four Decades On: Vietnam, the United States, and the Legacies of the Second Indochina War Edited by Scott Laderman and Edwin A. Martini
Four Decades On is an especially apt title for this book of reflections edited by Scott Laderman and Edwin A. Martini. It is forty years since the last US combat troops departed South Vietnam. In that interval, the memoirs of participants have dominated the discourse on the “Vietnam experience” or, from the perspective of the Vietnamese, the “American experience”. The generals and colonels have passed on and the young men and women who played bit roles in this most tragic of wars are now in their late sixties and seventies. Fittingly, as the torch of scholarship is passed from participants to a younger generation, this volume begins and ends with contributions by two who were there.
Ngo Vinh Long was in the early 1970s a Harvard graduate student and unofficial spokesman for the disparate elements that collectively made up a “third force” in South Vietnam, neither Communists nor supporters of the Thieu regime. Long argues that Thieu’s harsh repression of his nationalist critics as the Americans were leaving destroyed all hope of a negotiated and pluralist end to the conflict. In Long’s memoir, the US government is cast at best as Thieu’s feckless enabler, at worst as blindly indifferent to the fate of those non-Communists who sought reconciliation with Hanoi. Ironically, while accepting the general accuracy of Long’s detailed account, it remains very hard to believe that under any circumstances a pluralistic “government of national concord” was in Vietnam’s future. We know too well how the Vietnamese Communist Party exploited and then destroyed or marginalized its nationalist rivals first while consolidating power in the north and again — as recounted, for example, by Huy Duc in his remarkable Ben Thang Cuoc and Giai Phong — in the south after 1975.
H. Bruce Franklin, a US Air Force officer during the Second Indochina War, turns a withering eye on the popular myth of US prisoners languishing in Hanoi’s dungeons long after its victory in the south. He makes a strong case that this durable fantasy delayed the Paris Accords and later posed a substantial obstacle to the re-establishment of relations between the United States and reunified Vietnam. Franklin is less convincing when he accuses Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Senator John Kerry, the State Department, the Department of Defense, etc., of pandering to [End Page 456] the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) lobby. Franklin is self-serving when he complains that a 1991 Senate committee “refused to permit [his] testimony about how the POW/MIA issue was created and used by the [US] government to legitimize hostilities against Viet Nam from 1969 on”. In fact the “Rambo syndrome” became a potent right wing issue, one that mainstream Washington sought for years to dodge, domesticate and defuse — an objective that was only achieved by enlisting Hanoi’s cooperation in a high profile search effort.
Essays by Walter Hixson and Alexander Bloom address the impact of “Vietnam” on postwar America. In a measured way, Bloom recounts post-1975 efforts by Americans to understand what “went wrong”. He traces the general collapse of belief in the fundamental decency of the US political system and, he says, in the notion “that the people of the world await a chance to replicate the American experience”. True enough, but if that is so, why has Washington blundered into disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq? Bloom does not say, but Hixson does. He finds the answer in the “successful cultural project” of repackaging “Vietnam” as a noble venture undone by poor strategy, liberal reportage and antiwar radicals.
The balance of Four Decades On features the work of a new generation of Vietnam scholars, three anthropologists, three professors of English literature and a historian. It is a mixed bag.
Scott Laderman takes on “the...