With ever-increasing frequency, Americans are told that Iraq is another Vietnam, usually by those accusing the Bush administration of miring the United States in a hopeless war. For most who make this comparison, the Vietnam War was an act of hubris, fought for no good reason and in alliance with cowards. But new historical research shows this conventional interpretation of Vietnam to be deeply flawed. The analogy, therefore, must be rethought.
Three journalists handed down the standard version of the Vietnam War in three bestselling tomes. The first two, David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" (1972) and Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History," (1983) each sold more than 1 million copies, while the third, Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" (1988), received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
These books have profoundly influenced almost everything else that has been written about the Vietnam War. Because of the iconic status of these journalists and the political inclinations of the intelligentsia, the three books received few serious challenges - prior to the publication last summer of my "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."
Historians such as Guenter Lewy, Lewis Sorley, and Michael Lind have also effectively contested some of the journalists' basic interpretations, and antiwar historians have produced more modest modifications, but the Halberstam-Sheehan-Karnow rendition of the war has remained dominant.
One reason for the durability of their version is that the endless repetition by other commentators produced the impression that it had to be right. Earlier, when writing a book on counterinsurgency in the latter years of the war entitled "Phoenix and the Birds of Prey," I, too, presumed that the first half of the war had been covered exhaustively. Only after many subsequent forays into archives and Vietnamese-language sources did I discover that the standard narrative of the critical early years was terribly wrong.
The books of Messrs. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow can be fully understood only in the light of the authors' actions in Vietnam during 1962 and 1963. Their writings were key elements in the drama, particularly in the summer and fall of 1963 when the US Embassy instigated a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Undermining South Vietnam's leader
During 1963, in contrast to later years, the American press corps largely favored American involvement in Vietnam. Many also believed, however, that the South Vietnamese president had to be replaced before the war could be won. Perhaps not fully aware of cultural differences, they faulted Mr. Diem for refusing to afford dissidents - and US reporters - the same freedoms they enjoyed in peacetime America.
Diem mishandled the Buddhist protests of mid-1963, they contended, by using a heavy hand instead of offering concessions. In truth, Diem did make concessions initially, but the Buddhists responded by accelerating their protests, enumerating more fictitious grievances, and demanding Diem's removal. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow largely dismissed Diem's contention that the Buddhists were infiltrated with Communist agents, yet newly available Communist sources reveal that Diem was correct.
The Buddhists' unopposed insolence in the summer of 1963 undermined the Diem government's prestige, something no Vietnamese government could afford for long. Eventually, Diem's generals recommended that the government arrest the Buddhist movement's leaders and disperse the other protesters in order to restore its prestige. Diem consented and worked together with generals in executing the mission.
But then Halberstam and Sheehan published tendentious stories accusing Diem of acting without the knowledge of the military, citing "highly reliable" - but anonymous - sources. They also published stories stating that the officer corps was upset with Diem for his treatment of the Buddhists, based heavily on information from a Reuters stringer named Pham Xuan An who, unbeknownst to them, was actually a Communist agent. …