Magazine article The American Conservative

Did Reagan Win the Vietnam War?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Did Reagan Win the Vietnam War?

Article excerpt

American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, Christian G. Appy, Viking, 396 pages

Had you asked my parents to identify the events that shaped the America of their time, they would have answered in unison and without hesitation. The Great Depression and World War II, which both experienced at first hand, cast their shadow over everything that followed and never lost their salience.

Pinpointing events that shaped the America of our time is more complicated. Our era has included its fair share of ostensibly momentous episodes, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Operation Desert Storm but also including the Clinton impeachment, the Bush v. Gore election standoff, the events of 9/11, the Global War on Terrorism, and the Great Recession. One after another, they come and then go. And once gone, they shrink in significance, even if still lodged in memory. Looming large in the moment--remember when Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf was compared to George Patton and the Lewinsky scandal ranked alongside Watergate?--the passing of even a handful of years cuts them down to size. They are not so much forgotten as subsumed.

For today's young person, the Vietnam War lies as far in the past as Teapot Dome and the Scopes "Monkey trial" did for me when as a young soldier I deployed back in 1970. In other words, we're talking about pretty ancient stuff.

In American Reckoning, Christian Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, makes a strong case that even if Vietnam qualifies as pretty ancient stuff, it still matters a great deal. This year marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. combat troops arriving in South Vietnam, along with the start of Rolling Thunder over the north. But there the war sits, like some undigested lump caught in the nation's gullet, stubbornly refusing to be subsumed. For better or worse, we live in its dark shadow.

Appy divides his book into three parts, devoting one each to reflecting on why we fought, how we fought, and what we have become as a consequence. Although the first two parts are insightful and instructive, anyone familiar with the historiography of the war will find few real revelations. Even so, crossing this well-trodden ground makes for painful reading. Appy writes with bite, anger, and outrage. To absorb his account is to imbibe those sentiments.

As to why, arguments offered up by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, broadly supported by members of the political elite, that preserving South Vietnam constituted a vital U.S. national security interest--all the claptrap about domino theories and fighting in Southeast Asia to keep the Reds from invading California--have with the passage of time become simply incomprehensible.

Rising above all other egregious deceptions, at least in my mind, is the fact that American leaders knew then that the myth of monolithic communism was just that--a politically expedient figment of fevered imaginations. In reality, the Vietnamese hated the Chinese. For their part, the Chinese loathed and mistrusted the Russians. True, all three viewed the United States as an antagonist. Yet as President Nixon shrewdly if belatedly--perhaps even cynically--demonstrated, it lay within Washington's capability to alter such perceptions. As a great power, the U.S. had options that it could exercise, given political leadership of sufficient wit and boldness. is fact retains considerable relevance in the present moment, with warmongers among us insisting that absent a recommitment of U.S. combat troops to Iraq ISIS will soon overrun all of Europe en route to creating a global Caliphate. As to how, the more closely you examine the methods devised for prosecuting the Vietnam War--search-and-destroy combined with brutal but ineffective bombing--the more it becomes apparent that U.S. efforts were all but doomed from the outset. Having considered the range of possibilities available to them, civilian and military leaders chose the one least likely to yield success: a protracted war of attrition fought in a faraway land about which most Americans knew little and cared even less. …

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