One of the odder things about the lapse of judgement we call human folly is that sometimes it gets like a curse. It is as if some person, place or thing were doomed to attract human idiocy, becoming the locus of bad judgement after bad judgement.
Vietnam was arguably the worst assembly of bad judgements in our nation’s history. And it is true that Vietnam is the great scar upon our national psyche. But what I find fascinating is the sheer duration of this particular curse of misjudgment . . . because we are still making misjudgments about Vietnam. The lessons from that war shape our policies to this day, nearly twenty years after the fall of Saigon. Problem is, much of the history that built those lessons never happened.
What are some of the great truths that we are supposed to remember and learn from? How about “America simply can’t stand a long war.” Sound familiar? Or how about, “The press turned America against the war.” “The sixties kids were angry, rebellious, anti-establishment. Their anti-war demonstrations betrayed the troops.” “If the politicians hadn’t held the military back, we would have won.”
Those “events” have passed into folk history. They are not seriously questioned. They have passed into the infallibility of “Everybody Knows.” Only problem is, every single one of them is false to what actually occurred.
Let’s start at the top. “Americans cannot stand a long war.” Now the Civil War lasted an agonizing four years. So did World War II. Those were long wars. But a close look at Vietnam shows just how short they really were.
The first American combat death in Vietnam occurred in July of 1959. Saigon fell in 1975. That is long enough. But to measure from the absolute limits is to cheat a bit. However, even if we drop the extremes, we still have quite a span.
By 1962, when President Kennedy headlined our presence, there were 11,300 “advisors” fighting and dying there. The next year the number reached 23,000. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution came in August, 1964. In 1968 we hit the peak of 536,000 troops. (As an aside, it was not until that year, with Eugene McCarthy’s presidential candidacy, that the anti-war movement moved mainstream.) By the end of 1972, our troop levels had dropped to 24,000, about where they had been at the end of 1963.
The numbers just don’t support what “Everybody Knows.” The truth is that the American people not only endured a 10 year undeclared war, but through most of that time the majority of them supported it.
What about the second, “The press turned America against the war”? This is gospel to our military and was used to justify the stifling press coverage of Granada, Panama and the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, this particular “lesson” has been researched. There have been a number of studies done about the nature of the press coverage versus the public’s opposition to the war. Every one, including two by the Pentagon, has shown the same thing: The press lagged behind the public in opposition to the war.
When you think about it, this makes sense. Nothing breeds sympathy like shared risks and the best correspondents were in the field with the troops. I well remember the heavy, breathy voices of correspondents on nightly TV narrating fire-fights they and the troops were going through. The other part of the press corps were the party-line sycophants who reported the “Five O’Clock Follies” from Saigon (The Light-At-The-End-Of-The-Tunnel folks). At home, even as late as 1968, after Tet, the worst Walter Cronkite said was that he feared the war was not winnable.
Taking the next item, those sixties kids did not come out of the conformist fifties angry, rebellious and anti-establishment. Fact is, we who grew up in the shadow of World War II and Korea were dewy-eyed innocents, believing absolutely in our government and the essential virtue of our country. I remember in the mid-sixties, when the first anti-war folks started passing out stuff on campus, most of us regarded them as long-haired kooks (this was in the Bay Area, that incubator of radicals). We laughed at them when they said crazy things like, “The government is lying about how we got into this war”, “We aren’t really winning” and “The FBI is investigating us.” We knew that our government did not lie. And we thought they were paranoid (as well as pretty egotistical) to imagine the FBI would bother investigating them.
We gradually came to realize that the government was lying to us . . . virtually every day. (By 1971, when the Pentagon Papers were published, the whole country knew just how much the government had lied to get us into and keep us in the war.) It shattered our naive faith, leaving us confused, angry, lost. It was just icing when we discovered that the FBI really had been investigating those long-haired kids.
The sense of betrayal turned us around as totally as only idealists can be turned. We did become angry, rebellious and anti-establishment. But we never (at least none that I knew) saw the troops themselves as our enemies. All of us were too close to the Draft for that. We knew those soldiers were us, in the most real way possible. Our opposition was designed to save them (and us). The real treachery, we believed, would be to passively leave them there to kill and die. We were totally anti-military and pro-soldier.
The last claim, that if the generals hadn’t been held back they would have won the war, is the dumbest of them all. Vietnam was the nadir of American generalship. Not because we lost, but because our professional soldiers never realized how they were losing . . . they were fighting the wrong war. As far as I can tell, they still haven’t noticed.
The North Vietnamese were communists. It was part of their training and dogma that their only true goals were political ones. Military victory and defeat were meaningful only insofar as they affected their movement’s political goals.
Our generals, on the other hand, came from a proud tradition that kept the military and the political rigidly separated. As military men, they were trained to avoid the political at all costs. Politics was a dirty business better left to the politicians. They were simple soldiers and proud of it. They would fight a purely military war, in the process ignoring the kind of war the enemy was fighting.
Except for a few bombing targets in North Vietnam, what the generals asked for in their single-minded pursuit of military victory, they received. The records of the period are rife with generals telling politicians that if they could only get a few more ships or a few dozen more planes or another 100,000 men, victory was assured. They always got what they asked for, but somehow victory did not follow.
American politicians were trained in the logical corollary of the American military. Having turned the soldiers loose, they treated the affair as purely military, leaving the political for after the war. Because of this odd dichotomy, there was no real attempt to craft a national strategy (like having the military restrain the Northern soldiers while the politicos crafted a viable alternative government down South). Instead, the South Vietnamese government was left to be more and more corrupted by American money and be less and less of an alternative to the disciplined North.
Our military won victory after meaningless victory against people to whom military defeat was irrelevant. The Northern true believers patiently allowed us to kill something like 1,000,000 of their fellows while political victory drew nearer and nearer.
Colonel Harry Summers, the military historian, likes to tell of how, after the war, he said proudly to a North Vietnamese officer, “You know, you never beat us in the field.” To which the Northerner replied, “That may be true . . . but it is also irrelevant.” Summers calls it the shortest strategy course he ever attended.
Folly, indeed. But what really scares me is that many of the people who repeat these “lessons” of history watched the true events unfold. Many were actually captured on film or on paper flatly proving that what they are now saying is nonsense. But they go on saying it. Perhaps they find the power of “Everybody Knows” simply too great to challenge.