Coulddaa, Shoulddaa, Woulddaa…

May 2, 2005

Yesterday’s NYTimes Op-Ed page contained another salvo in the continuing war over the Vietnam War, which ended 30 years ago. Still trying to get it right…This piece was in the ‘revisionist’ mold, i.e. we could have won the war, we were winning the war, but we didn’t know it, and we lacked the resolve to win it. I’m not a scholar of the conflict, so I can only evaluate the piece in light of what I know from my study, and from my particular point of view. From this vantage point, it is a curious work of analysis.

Oddly, the article (“The War We Could Have Won”, by Stephen Morris) devotes nearly half of its space to discussing how the USSR viewed its fractious North Vietnamese allies – they didn’t get on well. The Soviets had contempt for them, and thought that they couldn’t and wouldn’t beat the United States. They fought with the North Vietnamese communists on all sorts of issues. So much for the threatening monolith of international communism, a major justification for our involvement. Dominoes anyone?

Strange that the author puts so much stock in the intelligence estimates of the Soviet Union. These are the same guys who later invaded Afghanistan to create their own Vietnam situation. Yet he claims that the US defeat in the war egged them on to fight that proxy war. Are they a reliable indicator of anything? He says that it is only because the USSR collapsed that Vietnam has changed so much from what it was…uh yeah? Some people knew the USSR would collapse (George Kennan, Senator Moynihan) and they opposed the war partly because they knew the overall rationale was bogus. Morris has a strange way of looking at history because it always supports his argument.

And what is his argument? Basically, it’s that the US could have prevailed militarily. That seems to be the common revisionist stance, but so what? Sure, if we had not “tied one hand behind our backs,” we could have bombed the north into the stone age, we could have risked a greater war with China, we could have, should have…The point is, why were we in a war when we were not willing to go all out? What about the old chestnut, “war is politics carried on by other means?” That is the real question, not whether we could have beaten the other side to a pulp if we had been willing to incur the consequences. Obviously we were not willing, and a good thing too, because it wasn’t worth it, so why were we there in the first place? This question is not hinted at by Morris.

The author also implies that Nixon’s polices were working, that the South Vietnamese government was reforming, etc. Perhaps there were land reforms – I don’t recall – but when? Too little, too late. President Thieu evacuated with a jet loaded with gold bullion – that was our gallant democratic ally. The predicted bloodbath never happened. Yes, Hanoi was a communist dictatorship, and now it is morphing into a Chinese-style dictorship cum economic engine, but the South was an impoverished realm ruled by an utterly corrupt and detached elite. Absent the supposed world push for communist domination, not very different from some of our best friends in the world.

Morris implies that the “air support” we gave the South was all that was needed to keep the North at bay indefinitely. How much support? B-52 runs ad infinitum? How long would that be necessary? I find it hard to square with the images I recall of the South Vietnamese army cutting and running before the marching North in 1975. The North didn’t have air support – why did the South collapse as soon as our planes were withdrawn?

Once again, the larger questions are never asked, and the opinion piece as it is appears to this reader to be an attempt to rewrite history by focusing on a very narrow topic that is irrelevant at this point.