Marilyn Young. Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004. Pp. 329
Michael Lind. Vietnam: The Necessary War. New York: Free Press, 2002. Pp. 284
Vietnam Wars, Marilyn Young’s recounting of the various conflicts in Vietnam since the end of the Second World War, seems intent on establishing American culpability for the suffering of millions in what Young clearly deems an unworthy cause. In the first page of the Preface, Young spells it out for her readers: “There was no conceivable justification for the horrors daily inflicted on and suffered in Vietnam.” (Preface, xi) Young further insinuates that every thinking person realizes the validity of that statement, and then she spends the rest of the book passing every event, every personality, and every decision through the prism of her personal bias.
Young spends only 36 pages on French involvement in Indochina, downplaying the role the French had in turning Vietnam into a battleground, except insofar as they are shown to manipulate the naïve, paranoid Americans. It is the United States Young will focus on; the French are merely a warm-up act. During these early pages, Young sets the tone for her book. The Vietminh are consistently portrayed as heroic nationalists bravely fighting not just for long-denied Vietnamese independence, but also for the betterment of the Vietnamese people. Those other than the Vietminh are treated with cynicism or outright hostility.
As Young tells the story of American involvement in Vietnam, every decision seems based on careless miscalculations, irrational fears about monolithic Communism or pure xenophobia. Members of the American military establishment are made to appear bloodthirsty. The coup that led to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem is referred to the “Pentagon’s Coup” (108). One of the primary reasons given for the coup is the willingness of certain South Vietnamese generals to seek peace with Hanoi, a peace that is said to be coupled with “a thoroughgoing reform of military corruption.” (108) In this assessment, the Pentagon overthrows a government to ensure continued war and corruption. Whenever statistics are introduced, the American government’s numbers are not to be trusted. Figures supplied by the North Vietnamese are accepted without question.
Even American peace overtures, such as J. Blair Seaborn’s missions to Hanoi in 1964, are recast as an “effort to end the war in the South by threatening the North with condign punishment.” (115) When the Johnson administration chooses to gradually increase bombing raids on North Vietnam, rather than take the advice of military advisors to bomb Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” (113) , it is compared to a medieval instrument of torture. “However modern and reasonable it sounded, the logic of calibrated pressure was the logic of the rack…” (113)
Later in the book, Young connects the cost of the Vietnam War to the future improprieties of the Nixon administration, blaming Nixon for the failure of the peace talks in 1969-1972, and for all of the bloodshed occurring in those years. “…as Nixon made war in the name of peace, 15,315 Americans, 107,504 Saigon government troops, and an estimated 400,000+ DRV/NLF soldiers died in combat…one source estimated 165,000 civilian casualties in South Vietnam for each year of Nixon’s presidency.” (280) It is instructive that Young refuses to identify soldiers of the government of South Vietnam by their official name. All that opposes the Vietminh is illegitimate in Young’s eyes.
Standing in stark contrast to Young’s indictment of American involvement in Indochina is Michael Lind’s Vietnam, The Necessary War. Lind defends the American effort in Southeast Asia, saying, “…the United States was justified in waging a limited war to defend South Vietnam and its neighbors against the communist bloc.” (Preface, xiv) Lind supports his thesis in a series of essays examining different aspects of the war.
Much of Lind’s essays examine Cold War geopolitics, and he goes to great lengths to debunk liberal assumptions. Of Ho Chi Minh’s “superficial” communism he says, “In reality there was (emphasis original) an international communist conspiracy, and Ho Chi Minh was a charter member of it.” (1) Lind continues to treat Ho harshly throughout the book. For example, Lind belittles Ho’s nationalism, focusing instead on his connections to Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Lind declares Ho to have “seized power” in August 1945, rather than proclaiming independence for Vietnam, which is the way in which Marilyn Young recounted the same event. (7)
In discussing North Vietnamese land reforms, Lind equates Ho Chi Minh with Stalinist barbarism. “…Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were cruel and doctrinaire disciples of Stalin and Mao.” (236) Lind condemns certain Vietnam War scholars for overlooking the implications of this event. “The attempt to explain away the mass murder in North Vietnam that accompanied ‘land reform’ in the 1950s constitutes one of the most shameful chapters in the sorry history of the American intellectual left.” (151) In Vietnam Wars, Young downplays the event, blaming the deaths on local issues and congratulating the communists for trying to “correct its abuses.” (50)
In The Necessary War, Lind refers to the Cold War as “The Third World War,” and calls Southeast Asia a theatre of that war. Lind discusses that theatre in terms of a “trip-wire” strategy on three fronts: South Korea, Taiwan and South Vietnam; a communist incursion on any of these fronts thus triggering an American military response. (75) Lind also writes about American credibility and the “bandwagon effect”. In short, Lind states that American allies and neutrals needed reassurance regarding American ability and willingness to challenge the communist bloc militarily. If this reassurance had not been given, American credibility would have suffered, and nations might have felt compelled to seek accommodation with the Soviet Union. This notion he refers to as the “bandwagon effect.” (49-55) In the zero-sum game of Cold War geopolitics, enduring a limited war in Southeast Asia preserved American credibility and preempted the “bandwagon effect.” As a result, a limited American war in Vietnam had its own intrinsic value.
While Lind has no criticism of the decision to fight in Vietnam, he has much to say about the way in which the war was conducted. He says that in a limited war, there are four possible outcomes: to win well, to win badly, to lose well or to lose badly. Lind suggests that the United States, finding itself constrained by reasonable fears of Chinese or Soviet intervention and a broadening war, might have simply settled on a strategy that allowed itself to “lose well.” That is, to draw out the conflict with a minimum of casualties, until a point was reached that domestic support was no longer sustainable for the war, and then to withdraw gracefully, having made a statement of honor. Lind suggests that the likely number of war deaths that can be tolerated is probably around 15,000 – 20,000. This, he thinks, is an acceptable investment in American credibility. (78-79) Lind is highly critical of both the way in which the war was conducted, and the militarists who insisted that the war might have been won if there had been no restraints placed upon the Pentagon.
In examining these two books, it is not only the perspectives that stand in opposition, it is also the method of scholarship that each writer employs.
In The Vietnam Wars, Marilyn Young, a professor of history at New York University, demonstrates consistently poor scholarship in her deeply flawed work. One of the enduring mysteries of her book is the parade of sources whose qualifications are never revealed. Often these individuals provide compelling evidence and quotes, or are referred to by name. “…as Jeffrey Race has observed…the most careful historian of the land reform, Edwin Moise…” Why people such as these are to be considered as experts is never made clear. In addition, Young must place great value on footnotes, as she uses them so sparingly. A typical chapter, such as Chapter Four, contains about 30 footnotes in 28 pages, which is wholly inadequate to assure the reader of the quality of scholarship in the work.
Young dwells upon every failure of the Diem regime for many pages and the individuals responsible are excruciated; failings military and otherwise by the communists are quickly explained away. The motivations of successive American administrations are mocked or questioned; the motivations of Ho Chi Minh’s regime are ennobled. Adding to the biased flavor of the book is an illustration section that is entirely given over to Communist propaganda images. As the reader labors through Young’s treatise, there is little doubt of her view of the world.
Lind’s conservative leanings are also evident in The Necessary War, but the reader finds comfort in both his scholarship and his willingness to dispute both sides of the Vietnam debate. Far more consistent in footnoting, an average chapter contains nearly 80 footnotes in just over 30 pages. Even more reassuring to the student of history, nearly all of Lind’s sources are well placed, highly credentialed individuals or persons with direct firsthand accounts to contribute. Of great importance is also that Lind’s views occupy a reasonable middle ground between hawks and doves that might yet allow America to accept Vietnam for what it was, learn its lessons and move on. As a student of the Vietnam War, I find Lind’s arguments to be far more balanced and reasonable, perhaps offering the promise that America might yet learn how to lose well, preserving its resources and credibility for another day.
Marilyn Young’s book, on the other hand, is a search and destroy mission, moving through the underbrush of history, looking for defenders of Cold War strategy with the intent of rooting them out and eliminating them. Of this type of scholarship, I for one, have had enough.