Uses of the Past

Published December 1, 1997

The World & I

That the Vietnam War remains a bitter and divisive memory in the American psyche is dramatized by the recent furor over Robert McNamara’s mea culpa, In Retrospect, and by recently released tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s phone exchanges with Robert Kennedy and others in 1964. A quarter century after our combat troops pulled out, the Vietnam trauma continues to split the American conscience. This bitter metaphor of the past remains unsettled and unsettling.

“We killed. We died. We died for less than nothing,” cried a protester at the 1982 dedication of the long-delayed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, with its 58,196 names on black slabs. Six years later at the same shrine, President Reagan offered a different assessment: “Who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just? It was—however imperfectly pursued—the cause of freedom.”

These two dramatically opposed interpretations of Vietnam are vying for acceptance in America’s consciousness. Politically charged watershed events like Vietnam—or leaders like LBJ or Nixon—always cast a long shadow into the future. If past pivotal events have significant consequences, and they always do, then reigning interpretations of such events are no less consequential. As George Orwell put it, “Who controls the past, controls the future.”

When the collective memory is split, it bodes ill for the nation. This is especially true when a vocal elite holds a view contrary to that of the less articulate majority. And it was dramatically demonstrated by the post-Vietnam syndrome that for years all but paralyzed America from using military force abroad. After Saigon fell, Leonid Brezhnev, confident that Washington would not act, stepped up Soviet subversion in Africa and Central America and in 1979 brazenly invaded Afghanistan.

The Vietnam syndrome was partially exorcised by Ronald Reagan’s invasion of communist Grenada in 1983 and was further eroded by George Bush’s leadership in the Gulf War. But our earlier confidence and willingness to shoulder the heavy burdens of a humane superpower have not been fully restored. When the more cynical view of Vietnam gives way to a more honest and nuanced view, America will be better equipped to grapple with future crises abroad.

In significant ways the eight-and-a-half-year Vietnam War (August 4, 1964—January 27, 1973) was more agonizing than the four-year Civil War (1861—65). Both ripped the country apart and set brother against brother, father against son. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was alienated from his son David for years. Both wars made an indelible imprint on the American psyche. Selective and self-serving memories of the Civil War still stir Americans, mainly those born south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet, the outcome of the war between the states confirmed the sturdy vision of America’s founders—a strong, free, and united republic. President William McKinley asserted in 1898 that “the old disagreements had faded into history and the nation would remain indivisible forever.”


Some Americans—mainly in the upper reaches of the academy, media, and mainline churches—still insist that Vietnam was an ugly expression of America’s imperial arrogance. Our massive intervention in a small Asian country, they assert, violated our ideals of freedom and democracy. Gore Vidal has called Vietnam a “war of presidential imperial vanity” designed to feed the greedy “military-industrial complex,” a brutal extension of America’s “evil empire.”

Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar indictment in his infamous, but untypical, Riverside Church speech in New York City on April 4, 1968, a year to the day before he was assassinated. He said our minimum objective was to make Vietnam “an American colony” and “our maximum hope [was] to goad China into war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations.” Lyndon Johnson and Wall Street, he asserted, were inciting “racism, materialism, and militarism” in a “society gone mad on war.” Our government had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and “we test our latest weapons on [the Vietnamese], just as the Germans tested new . . . tortures in the concentration camps.”

King’s speech was vigorously condemned by the New York Times. Life magazine said his words “sounded like a script for Hanoi,” and White House speechwriter John Roche said King had “thrown in with the Communists.” Ralph Bunche, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Bayard Rustin, and other black leaders also censured him.

Sen. William Fulbright, who was fond of castigating the “arrogance of American power,” once said: “What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers, in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince, or a socialist commissar in some distant capital?”

During the war, I generally supported the policies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as, indeed, did the U.S. Congress through its appropriations for the war. Though an outspoken hawk, to invoke the ornithology of the day, I had reservations that went largely unarticulated at the time. I criticized religious and political leaders who impugned the motives of LBJ and Nixon, and in some circles I was ostracized for my apostasy, as was theologian Paul Ramsey. When Union Seminary’s John Bennett asked why Ramsey was so little worried about U.S. “saturation bombing with napalm” in Vietnam, Ramsey replied, “I have never understood why throat-slitting and disembowelment . . . seem to worry Bennett so little.” Such was the mood of the time.

Then and now I believe the war in Vietnam was not an expression of American imperial arrogance, racism, or greed. On the contrary, its purpose was to counter communist aggression against a weak and defenseless ally, as we had done in the three-year Korean War (June 25, 1950—July 27, 1953), where we succeeded in holding the line against the communist North in America’s first “limited” war.

Among the former doves who opposed our involvement but who came to share my general view was Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. He graciously inscribed his compelling analysis Why We Were in Vietnam (1982): “For Ernie Lefever who always knew why we were in Vietnam.”

Gore Vidal’s reference to America as an “empire” is not off the mark. By any reasonable definition we are an imperial power with imperial responsibilities. But we are also a humane people. How does a humane empire exercise its vast influence? If, as English poet John Dryden put it three centuries ago, “Empire is no more than power in trust,” America had an inescapable but ill-defined obligation to counter the Evil Empire. In the central Cold War front, we honored our trust by building a nuclear deterrent and supporting NATO.

Understandably, Kennedy and Johnson regarded Korea as a precedent for our defense of South Vietnam. As it turned out, the obvious parallels between the two were virtually nullified by profound political and strategic—but not moral—differences.


America’s Vietnam involvement over the years can be symbolized by one tragic blunder—the killing of President Diem in 1963—and one unheralded achievement: the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. The first virtually ensured our long and agonizing involvement, and the second enabled us to withdraw our combat troops.
President Kennedy, chafing under the Bay of Pigs humiliation of April 1961, decided, paradoxically, that in Vietnam we could make our power credible. He promptly launched efforts “to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam.”As a vigorous anticommunist, JFK was less troubled by the ambiguities of Vietnam than Johnson and Nixon. After the first US. military advisers were killed, Kennedy said we should either withdraw entirely or bring things to a head by a direct attack on Hanoi. He dispatched only seven thousand mainly advisory troops, however, and thus served neither course. Like a helpless spread eagle, he straddled two incompatible policies.

JFK’s most vexing political issue in Saigon was what to do about Ngo Dinh Diem, the authoritarian but able civilian president. In 1963, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman took the lead in advocating a coup to topple Diem, as in part because he regarded Diem as insufficiently democratic. Dean Rusk, however, opposed a coup because “this was not a decision for Americans to make.” Torn, Kennedy finally agreed that Diem had to go. On November 1, Diem and his brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Nhu were abducted and killed by several South Vietnam generals, and a military junta was installed in Saigon with the CIA’s help.

Johnson, who was thrust into the presidency three weeks after Diem was killed, said that ousting him was “the worst mistake we ever made.” The power vacuum created by his violent death led to protracted instability and hog-tied Washington to Vietnam’s future. LBJ might have added, in agreement with Rusk, that the assassination was a haughty intrusion into the domestic affairs of an ally—we were not, after all, an occupying power whose writ was law.

The Diem affair was a portent of our confused objectives and dizzying mismanagement of a complex mission. Were we in Vietnam to install democracy, as Hilsman and others insisted, or were we there to help an anticommunist ally counter subversion and conquest by North Vietnam?

LBJ’s agony over our involvement is documented in phone tapes released in February 1997. Six months after he took office and almost a year before he began the large-scale buildup in Vietnam, he called the war “the biggest damn mess I ever saw” and lamented: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out.”

Despite misgivings LBJ, at McNamara’s urging, augmented our military advisers with combat troops, the first arriving in Vietnam in March 1965. Eventually the number swelled to five hundred thousand. Essentially, however, Johnson pursued Kennedy’s incrementalist and self-limiting policy.

Military setbacks in Vietnam and rising protests at home came to a head in 1968, one of the most turbulent years in the nation’s history. It began with Hanoi’s unsuccessful Tet offensive, perversely interpreted by the American press as a U.S. defeat—a poignant example of a false interpretation of an event having a greater impact than the event itself. (Twisting the recent or distant past is a major tactic of political propaganda.) North Korea captured the surveillance ship USS Pueblo, Sens. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy savaged LBJ’s Vietnam policy, and finally, on March 31, Johnson suddenly announced he wouldn’t run for reelection.


After the bruising 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Vietnam was the searing issue and Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the candidate, Nixon was elected by a paper-thin margin. Far more sophisticated about world affairs than LBJ, thanks in part to Henry Kissinger’s advice, Nixon recognized that Vietnam was not a vital American interest, that is, not one worth committing ground forces to. He was determined to withdraw our combat forces, strengthen the South’s military, and thus achieve “peace with honor” But he faced insurmountable obstacles: a weak and fractured South Vietnam, increasingly shrill demands to abandon our ally regardless of its fate, and a growing reluctance in Congress to support his policies. Like LBJ, Nixon was called an imperialist, racist, mass murderer, and worse.

From the outset, Nixon was aware of key strategic differences between Korea and Vietnam, a point he made obliquely in his January 1970 State of the World message. In it he insisted that America should not commit combat troops to any foreign conflict that (1) is confined to a less-than-vital region and does not threaten the balance of forces in that region; (2) is largely internal and does not threaten the integrity of neighboring states; and (3) does not involve significant combat troops of a major adversary power.

To which could be added: (1) military intervention should not jeopardize America’s capacity to defend vital interests elsewhere; (2) the mission’s goals should be clearly defined and attainable; and (3) the intervention should enjoy congressional and public support. Under these criteria, Vietnam did not qualify for U.S. combat forces, so Nixon decided to withdraw them while simultaneously providing noncombat military assistance to Saigon, a position I publicly supported at the time. In 1970, 1 wrote that “recent history suggests that the Third World in the near future will present few crises that require direct U.S. combat involvement, though the need for noncombat military assistance is likely to persist for a long time.”


While withdrawing our troops from the South, Nixon energetically pursued a cease-fire with Hanoi, but the communists, aware of mounting protest in America, showed lit, tle interest in a settlement. Finally, in May 1972, after Hanoi had rejected out of hand U.S. proposals at the Paris peace talks, Nixon ordered stepped-up bombing raids against military targets around Hanoi and Haiphong. But Hanoi would still not agree to what Washington—and Saigon—regarded as a reasonable settlement. To force Hanoi to come to terms, Nixon on December 14 ordered renewed bombing in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. The eleven-day assault, known as the Christmas bombing, propelled criticism of Nixon’s policy to a fever pitch. The elite media—the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and the three big TV networks— portrayed Nixon as a monster.

The Times said that “civilized man will be horrified” by “the world’s mightiest air force mercilessly pounding a small Asian nation,” adding that North Vietnam might yet be bombed “back to the stone age,” but perhaps at the price of America reverting to a “kind of stone age barbarism.” The Post called the raids “the most savage and senseless act of war ever visited over a scant ten days” and charged Nixon with “carpet bombing . . . downtown Hanoi with B-52s and “hitting residential centers and hospitals.”

During the eleven days there were tons of bombs), but no civilian areas were targeted and few were hit. And there was no “obliteration bombing” such as that visited on numerous German and Japanese cities in World War II—which had evoked no American media condemnation. According to Hanoi’s own count, 1,318 civilians were killed, very few compared with the figures for the lethal fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden. The North Vietnamese were not so much hurt as surprised—and impressed. Would Nixon attempt to flatten Hanoi? As it turned out, the Christmas bombing achieved its immediate goal—persuading Hanoi to return to the negotiating table in Paris. Three weeks later, on January 8, 1973, both sides signed a cease-fire agreement and America’s combat operations in Vietnam came to a halt.

But that celebrated scrap of paper, which earned Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho a joint Nobel Peace Prize, did not bring peace to Vietnam. The murderous war dragged on for two more years, and in April 1975, Hanoi’s flag was raised over the presidential palace in Saigon. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and the communist bloodbath began.


An authentic verdict on Vietnam must take into account our objectives as well as widespread misperceptions, flawed tactics, and, most important, the consequences for Southeast Asia and the world. Invoking the classic just war doctrine, were our ends just, our means just and proportionate, and did the consequences advance or set back the chances for peace and freedom?

From the outset, our ends were just. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon sought to defend South Vietnam against conquest by Hanoi, which was actively supported by the Soviet Union and China. Their intentions were in harmony with our commitment to freedom. America went into Vietnam, said Podhoretz, “for the sake of an ideal,” to “make the world safe for democracy.” The charges of imperial arrogance by Vidal, King, Fulbright, and others, whatever their motives, are without foundation.

Critics of Vietnam could have made a better case by pointing to some of the misconceptions that clouded the tragic enterprise. Nixon put his finger on one of the most fundamental errors—the assumption that Vietnam was a vital American interest. Unlike the Korean peninsula, located in the vortex of three great powers—Japan, China, and Russia—South Vietnam was clearly less than vital to the United States.

This strategic confusion was reinforced by zero-sum assumptions of the Cold War that grew out of George Kennan’s containment doctrine, a sound concept that had worked in Europe and Korea. We not only contained the Evil Empire but, without firing a shot, forced it to surrender its Central European colonies.

As leader of the free world, Washington felt it had to move against communist encroachment everywhere, a kind of undifferentiated political stance that, if carried to its logical conclusion, could have exhausted the patience and resources of the mighty United States, as indeed a protracted Vietnam War threatened to do.

Even had Vietnam been a vital interest, domestic political considerations prevented our military leaders from taking the war to the enemy. LBJ feared that bombing military targets deep in North Vietnam would provoke massive Chinese intervention, as in Korea. Had we early on done such bombing, mined Haiphong’s harbor, and moved in with ground forces, the war might have ended years earlier and with far fewer American and Vietnamese casualties. Further, in Vietnam (unlike Korea, where we fought a conventional war) we were forced into unfamiliar guerrilla operations. Despite pressure from superhawks, no president seriously considered using nuclear weapons in either conflict.

After Nixon withdrew our combat forces, the outcome for the South was bleak. Following the disastrous murder of Diem, Saigon never regained cohesive leadership and became increasingly dependent on its patron. Furthermore, the South was no match for the near-fanatic devotion of the communists and their skillful appeal to xenophobia. As the drama moved toward its climax, LBJ’s dark apprehensions and Nixon’s stark realism were vindicated.

The final moral and political test of policy is consequences—what happened and what didn’t happen. If we and our South Vietnam ally had prevailed, or even held the line at the 17th parallel, a million or more lives might have been saved and tens of thousands of boat people spared the anguish of homelessness. The fall of Saigon in April 1975 precipitated the Cambodian holocaust, in which the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated one million people out of seven million. The tragic bloodbaths there and in Laos, and the purges and concentration camps in South Vietnam, confirmed the much- maligned domino theory.

In 1980, sociologist Peter Berger, repenting for his earlier opposition to U.S. involvement, said that “the peoples of Indochina have, since 1975, been subjected to suffering far worse than anything . . . inflicted upon them by the United States.” Podhoretz added that the “moral soundness” of our “imprudent idealism” has been “overwhelmingly vindicated by the hideous consequences of our defeat.”

Hanoi’s “victory over American imperialism” in Indochina was hailed in Moscow and Beijing and bolstered their flagging faith in the inevitable triumph of Marxism. And the American Left—from Jane Fonda and Susan Sontag to Ramsey Clark—savored its victory. The United States was humiliated, though we were still widely respected abroad.


The most vociferous critics of our Vietnam involvement are profoundly wrong. By cynically accusing America of waging a racist, imperialist, and thoroughly unjust war against a poor and darker-skinned people, they gave comfort to the brutal regime in Hanoi that had massacred thousands of “landlords” and other civilians and abused American POWs. The critics indicted not only three presidents but the American military establishment as well. Some charged that an evil “military-industrial complex” was running the country for its own selfish ends. Others, like the protester at the Vietnam Memorial, while not necessarily ascribing unworthy motives, still insist that Vietnam was a total waste of lives and treasure.

Taken together, these criticisms provoked a paralysis of American power more dangerous and immoral than the alleged arrogance of American power, because it encouraged Soviet expansion in Africa and Central America. For some Americans, Vietnam became a part of a larger culture of shame, guilt, and even self-flagellation that erupted in flag burning and ideological attacks on our traditional institutions.

While I acknowledge the negative consequences of our involvement and defeat, there were nevertheless three largely overlooked contributions to peace and security—and freedom.

1. Johnson’s and Nixon’s firmness under relentless domestic pressure reassured our allies around the world. An America that would not cut and run in far-off Vietnam would hardly abandon its key allies in Europe and the Pacific.

2. Our steadfastness in Vietnam strengthened nationalist forces elsewhere in Southeast Asia determined to prevent the communists from taking over—notably in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, all of which are still free and independent.

3. Holding the line in Indochina as long as we did led to a balance of power favorable to the states in the region and to us, a point repeatedly emphasized by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Last December, he said that “by fighting and negotiating with the North Vietnamese, [the United States] enabled Southeast Asia to get its act together.” Without America’s intervention, today’s “flourishing East Asia” would not have been possible.

The two diametrically opposed interpretations of Vietnam sketched here continue to vie for ascendancy and legitimacy in the American psyche. Until the issue is resolved, we will suffer from a kind of historical schizophrenia. To be healthy and courageous in facing the external world, we need to forge a more cohesive national memory of Vietnam approximating that of our three victorious wars of this century—World War I restored peace to Europe, World War II stopped Nazi and Japanese conquest, and the Korean War prevented the North from overrunning South Korea.

If the cynical view, which ascribes unworthy motives for our involvement and fails to acknowledge any positive consequences, captures America’s memory, our future as an effective leader of the free world will be jeopardized.

If, however, the more positive and nuanced view prevails—our cause was eminently just, though imperfectly pursued—America will be better prepared to accept its heavy imperial burden. Our involvement had both tragic and ironic elements, but in the final analysis, it advanced stability and freedom in the world. Perhaps most important, Vietnam helped us better understand our limitations by dispelling what author Denis Brogan once called “the illusion of American omnipotence—and, I would add, the illusion of American innocence.

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