The Distorted Legacy of Vietnam

Vietnam may have been mismanaged but it is time to reappraise the need to intervene.

American soldier during Operation MacArthur in South Vietnam, November 1967
American soldier during Operation MacArthur in South Vietnam, November 1967

As far as the Vietnam War is concerned, conventional wisdom is dominated more by ideological perception than historical fact.

The proponents of the “soft power” doctrine might call it “soft victory.” A victory practically in name only was what the socialist bloc could claim in Southeast Asia. For the nineteen years of its duration, the conflict in Vietnam took countless lives and left the country’s economy in shambles. This was a conflict desired only by the socialist countries which therefore owe some explaining in regards to their “victory.”

However brutal the South Vietnamese regime may have been, it did not interfere with communist operations north of the 17th parallel. It also abstained from engaging in the same Maoist inspired grand projects that Hanoi invested in, much to its later disillusionment.

In short, the onus of belligerence falls entirely upon the North Vietnamese and their Chinese and Soviet patrons.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was certainly a scapegoat but the war did not start in 1964. It began a decade earlier with extensive subversive operations by North Vietnamese forces in Southern territory. 1964 was an excuse to expand counterinsurgency operations to the North so as to prevent rather than only responding to the communists’ insurrection in rural South Vietnam.

Had the United States not intervened, the desertion of its ally in need would have brought grave consequences with it.

As in any conflict, there were faults on both sides. Certainly the United States could not have escalated the war to the point that they did. Such a massive deployment directly by a superpower was completely disproportionate and may ultimately have been ineffective.

But as far as calling it a “defeat,” the caveats are endless.

First of all, it was not a military defeat by any standard. Every single major conventional military operation launched by the North was crushed by American and South Vietnamese forces. Vietnam was not better off economically with Hanoi’s victory — quite the opposite.┬áThe war cannot even be said to have brought stability to the region since communist Vietnam would go on to fight wars with China and Cambodia.

Why then does public perception insist that Vietnam was a catastrophe when in fact the “saviors” of that country were a curse in disguise?

The Vietnam War had many layers — there was a military conflict, an ideological struggle, a cultural challenge and of course a political dimension to it all.

America lost the political battle but it performed well in the other fields. It won militarily — that is, until Congress pulled funding for the South Vietnamese forces — and the ideological contest ended up vindicating America in the long term. Vietnam’s current generation of leaders would make a point to pride themselves on being even more nationalist and capitalist than their noncommunist predecessors. But the cultural battle was lost. Not because this war was more wrongful than any other but because it was being fought by conscripts who had no wish to die for another country other than their own.

Eventually the protest generation of the 1960s learned the bitter truth of their ideals. As it turned out, the Chinese, Cuban, Korean, Soviet and Vietnamese utopias were actually dystopias of the worst and most repulsive kinds while the right-wing dictators may have been the lesser of two evils in the story.

One of the original soixante huitards themselves, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student organizer in France in 1968, admits today that the “movement” suffered a resounding political defeat. Indeed, it failed to develop any credible political alternative having managed only to relay the “spirit of ’68” to a number of social reforms.

The knowledge that the public possesses about the Vietnam War is that of the politically correct version of history. Hollywood crystallized this version through its very unique postmodern yet American lens. Through such motion pictures as Apocalypse Now, Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, Hollywood conveyed a simple but powerful message — the Vietnam War was immoral. Of course the soldiers in World War II pillaged and massacred as much as the ones in Vietnam but because the Second World War was a good and righteous one, they are usually depicted as heroes. How could they not have been when they were fighting the Nazis?

But it is important to understand why the immorality of this particular war is of supreme relevance. This was America’s largest ever defeat and for a messianic nation, a glitch in the Manifest Destiny, a flaw in the Empire of Liberty, an anomaly in the Great Society, has to have moral implications. America is an exceptional nation because it is formed by immigrants from other countries who, by obtaining citizenship get not just an identity factor but an ideology as well. America’s success is due not to circumstance but to fortitude of principles and when the city upon a hill fails, the cause of the failure can only be justified by a temporary lapse of faith in the ideals of democracy and freedom.

The question we must ask ourselves now in the twenty-first century is, if the main opponents of the war admit to their political defeat so many years later, why do we allow the specter of moral defeat to remain with us?

It is unquestionable that Vietnam was a traumatic war which was mismanaged from the start of the intervention right up to the folly of blind escalation. But is it not time to reappraise the need to intervene?

The West’s lingering normative primacy and its interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and other places could use some empirical learning from the Vietnam debacle — certainly in terms of only intervening when core interests are at stake (unlike Libya), of not engaging into state building exercises (as in Afghanistan), of not fearing the use of force if needed (Somalia) and of maintaining a favorable balance of power at all times (Iraq).

Finally, we in the West might want to learn something from the renaissance of the Asian civilizations. From Pyongyang to Hanoi, Westerners are viewed as “paper tigers” because they cannot stomach long wars — it is a cultural trait more than a political fault.

Very often Western negotiators will experience intense frustration with their North Korean counterparts because they keep looking for a final logical outcome to the six party talks while the Koreans perceive it as a continuing process.

This is the attitude the West ought to have in regards to war. The pursuit of a state’s interest is a never ending enterprise. The war in Vietnam was mishandled not because it was morally erroneous to intervene but rather because the interests at stake did not warrant the deployment of an entire army and a fleet.

Simply put, the proponents of the “domino theory” were wrong — ideologies do not spread like infections and every ideological fight isn’t a “moment of truth.” American interests in Indochina did not end with the fall of Saigon but they can only be understood today if we take the war as part of a process.