Our Vietnam

Michael Herr’s justly celebrated book of war reportage, Dispatches, ends with the words: "Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there." It is one of those enigmatic lines you might admire until some teacher requires a three-page interpretation. In truth, only a small fraction of Americans had literally been to Vietnam and most of them were GIs who might as well have been on another planet for all they were told, or allowed to experience, of that foreign culture. Some had to "hump the boonies" out in "Indian Country," slogging with heavy packs from one grid coordinate to another in search of vaguely defined enemies before returning, if they were lucky, to a nation they had begun to call "The World." Others were stationed on large, fenced-in bases that imported so much asphalt, refrigeration, and rock ’n’ roll they might have been mistaken for minimum-security prisons somewhere in Southern California if it weren’t for the terrible humidity and the occasional sapper attacks. No wonder, years later, many veterans had to study maps to find out precisely where they had once been sent to take lives and risk their own.

Herr, of course, was not being literal. By the time Dispatches was published in 1977, Americans had long regarded Vietnam not as a country so much as a metaphor for war-a war so disastrous and divisive and apparently endless that it did not seem hyperbolic to suggest that it had spread back across the Pacific to every American town and that everyone, at least politically and emotionally, had "been there."

Since the war, "Vietnam" has become even more Americanized. If you punch it into an Internet search engine you are flooded with sites about the American fallout from the war. To find something about Vietnam you’re better off searching under "Vietnamese." For the past quarter century an astonishing portion of our public discourse about America’s longest war, and first foreign defeat, has focused on whether American prisoners are still held captive in Vietnam, whether our political leaders dodged the draft or "served their country," and whether or not we have kicked the "Vietnam syndrome" (as George Bush insisted after the Persian Gulf War). Those debates, and others like them, have required such a high dose of fantasy, mythology, amnesia, and trivialization that even dozens of new scholarly books on recent American culture have not yet sorted it all out. Needless to say, most of our public invocations of "Vietnam" have taught us virtually nothing about Vietnam or the war we fought there. And just when it seemed that Bill Clinton’s historic trip might be the occasion for a new sort of media coverage of Vietnam, the contested election in Florida buried the story.

After all of that, it is a surprising pleasure to read A.J. Langguth’s Our Vietnam. A professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, Langguth covered the war for the New York Times in the mid-sixties and returned briefly on assignment in 1968 and 1970. During the past decade he has traveled to Vietnam five times to gather material for this book. He’s a smart, savvy, and rather sly old hand. This long, detailed history, he suggests, is merely a "straightforward narrative" of the American war in Vietnam, an old-fashioned effort to tell a story without pretense or polemic. And so, on the surface, it is, taking us one year at a time, chapter by chapter, through such a long historical tunnel you begin to wonder if the book, like the war, will ever come to an end. But unlike American policymakers, Langguth persuades us that the cause is worthy and our effort will be rewarded.

Part of what keeps us reading is Langguth’s eye for colorful anecdotes and his refreshing whimsy. While many historians marshal every detail to advance an interpretation, Langguth frequently pauses for little asides and vignettes that have no obvious instrumental value but nevertheless immerse us more deeply into historical reflection. Given his idiosyncratic additions to the major events, it is astonishing how much nuts-and-bolts history gets delivered, and how engagingly.

In addition to his narrative skill, Langguth succeeds precisely because he does have a point of view. Though not polemical, Our Vietnam clearly holds Washington almost wholly responsible for creating and prolonging the war. As one story builds on another you begin to feel the full weight of this vast American failure. U.S. intervention in Indochina emerges as an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning (excepting only that moment in 1945 when the U.S. briefly allied itself with the anti-French Viet Minh).

Langguth’s history resides primarily in the centers of political power. Most of the drama occurs among officials in Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi, with side trips to Beijing, Moscow, Paris, and Phnom Penh. But Langguth makes enough forays into the jungle to remind us of the bloody consequences of all those meetings, dinners, task forces, consultations, fact-finding missions, and briefings. American officials were constantly flying "out there" to Saigon as if a few days of personal contact with the war zone might somehow turn the tide. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once sent two men to Vietnam on a Friday and told them to get back to Washington by Monday with a brief in hand.

While much of the detail is soon forgotten, one of the themes to emerge most strikingly is the failure of U.S. policymakers to act courageously on their deepening pessimism about the war. Almost all of these men harbored private reservations about the capacity of America to prevail in sustaining a permanent non-Communist regime in South Vietnam. At one point or another, a surprising number produced memoranda laying out their doubts. But more significantly, Langguth shows how the culture of power, cold-war orthodoxy, and a desperate need to demonstrate individual and national strength, subsumed and transformed all internal dissent. A man would whisper his doubts, look to his colleagues for reassurance, wait for the fever to pass, rejoin the team, and within a matter of weeks, days, or even minutes endorse yet another round of American escalation.

A few American officials resigned in disgust, but without public protest. Only Daniel Ellsberg sacrificed his career in government, not only by speaking out against the war, but by giving the New York Times seven thousand pages of classified documents that showed American leaders had lied to the public about the war all the way back to the 1940s. Ellsberg had first-hand exposure to the deep gulf between private skepticism and public optimism. In 1966, for example, he accompanied McNamara home from Vietnam. By then McNamara was privately persuaded that the war was unwinnable. Just before the plane touched down in Washington, he told Ellsberg, "I say things are worse than they were a year ago." The plane landed and McNamara walked briskly to a group of reporters gathered around a podium. "Gentlemen," he said, "I’ve just come back from Vietnam and I’m glad to be able to tell you that we’re showing great progress in every dimension of our effort."

There was virtually no bottom to the capacity of American war managers to justify their actions. When Nixon forced his aide Bob Haldeman to resign in 1973 he tried to ease the blow by saying: "Just remember you’re doing the right thing. That’s what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi."

While Langguth makes clear in his title that his main focus is on "our Vietnam," what the Vietnamese call the "American War," we learn more about the Vietnamese here than in any other major survey of the topic. Relying on profiles of several dozen figures, he introduces us to Communist Party leaders in Hanoi, northern generals who fought in the South, southern revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front, diplomats who negotiated in Paris, the men who ran the American-backed government of South Vietnam, and the various non-Communist southern factions that posed, in their own way, as many problems for Saigon as the guerrillas.

The Vietnamese we meet are not anonymous victims, or fanatical ideologues, or spineless puppets, but complex individuals. Their voices add immeasurably to our understanding. For example, at one point the Americans were once again pressing Vietnamese diplomat Xuan Thuy to guarantee some concession if the United States were to stop the bombing of North Vietnam. He said that if the United States ceased the bombing, Vietnam would gladly promise not to bomb the United States.

That kind of saucy defiance did not amuse Henry Kissinger. To Richard Nixon he described the Vietnamese as "just a bunch of shits. Tawdry, filthy shits." But for real tawdry filth you could not do better than Kissinger’s endorsement of the Christmas bombing of 1972-the most concentrated bombing attack of the war. Langguth convincingly demonstrates that its only purpose was to bolster the confidence of South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu who had refused to sign the peace agreement worked out in Paris. Hanoi and Washington had already agreed on every significant detail. The bombing did nothing but kill more people. When negotiations were renewed, Kissinger returned to Paris, looked his Vietnamese counterparts in the eye, and said, "It was not my fault about the bombing."

Twenty-six years after the war, we are finally beginning to realize that to understand "our Vietnam" we have to learn more about the Vietnam we could not control. Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, A.J. Langguth has been there, and we are all the wiser for his effort. 

Published in the 2001-02-09 issue: 

Chris Appy is the author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking).

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