The Magazine

No More Vietnams

This time, let's finish the job.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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THOSE WHO THINK that "no more Vietnams" means that cowardice is the better part of wisdom don't know their Vietnam history either. There are many important lies in circulation about Vietnam, like counterfeit $50 bills that keep resurfacing. Those who held these views during the war itself weren't liars; in most cases they were telling the truth as they understood it. But decades later, it requires an act of will to keep one's ignorance pristine.

Lie #1: We were wrong to fight the Vietnamese Communists in the first place; they only wanted what was best for their country. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz summarizes Vietnam after the Communist victory. He quotes the liberal New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, outspoken critic of the war, on its aftermath. "What Vietnam has given us instead of a bloodbath [is] a vast tide of human misery in southeast Asia." He quotes Truong Nhu Tang, minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government that ruled South Vietnam after the Americans were ordered by Congress to run away: "Never has any previous regime [previous to the Communists] brought such masses of people to such desperation. Not the military dictators, not the colonialists, not even the ancient Chinese overlords." Prominent South Vietnamese were thrown into prison and tortured with revoltingly inventive cruelty. Virtually the whole South Vietnamese army and government were herded into concentration camps. Tang fled Vietnam in 1979, one of untold thousands who put to sea in crowded, rickety boats. Anything to get free of Communist Vietnam, the workers' and peasants' paradise, Fonda-land by the Sea. In Vietnam, as everywhere else on earth, communism was another word for death.

Lie #2: The Vietnam war was unwinnable. We had no business sending our men to a war they were bound to lose. The Communist Vietcong launched their first major coordinated offensive in January 1968--the "Tet offensive." "Tet was a military disaster for Hanoi," writes the historian Derek Leebaert. "Intended to destroy South Vietnamese officialdom and spark a popular uprising, Tet ironically had more of an effect in turning South Vietnam's people against the North." But America had been fighting ineffectively. In May 1968, Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as supreme American commander in Vietnam and U.S. strategy snapped to, immediately. With Abrams in charge, the war "was being won on the ground," writes the historian Lewis Sorley, "even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress." The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson commented on America's "Christmas bombing" campaign of 1972, which devastated the North: "You had won the war. It was over." American anti-warriors insisted on losing it anyway.

Lie #3: As the American people learned the facts, they turned against the war and forced America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Actually, Americans continued to support the war nearly until the end. The 1972 presidential election was a referendum on the war; "Come home, America!" said the antiwar Democrat George McGovern--and he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Of all U.S. population segments, 18-to-24-year-old men--who were subject to the draft, who did the fighting--were consistently the war's strongest supporters. "It was not the American people which lost its stomach," writes historian Paul Johnson, "it was the American leadership."

Lie #4: The real heroes of Vietnam were the protesters and draft-resisters who forced America to give up a disastrously wrong policy. If this was heroism, it was dirt cheap heroism. While college students paraded and protested and whooped it up, America's working classes bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding, and dying. Around 80 percent of the 2.5 million enlisted men who fought in Vietnam came from poor or working class families. They lacked the law-breaking and draft-evading skills that their better-educated countrymen could draw on. And they lacked the heart to say no when their country called. Reread Norman Mailer's gorgeously written yet (like the smell of marijuana) faintly disgusting Armies of the Night, about a massive antiwar march on the Pentagon. You will learn or relearn all about the passionate ingenuity of left-wing lawyers fighting for clients they admired--who were innately superior to the law but scared of the consequences when they broke it.