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How Vietnam forced US to grow up

Backfire, by Loren Baritz. New York: William Morrow & Co. 393 pp. $17.95. Although the United States celebrated its 200th birthday in the summer of 1976, the fact is that it was a few years earlier, in the opening years of that same decade, that the country had finally ``grown up.''

This process of maturing had come with the realization that the US was not going to ``win'' the war in Vietnam, that a number of convictions Americans had held about their country for some two centuries must be revised, and that, like other nations upon earth, America too had feet of clay. As so often with children, this process of learning the harsh facts of adulthood was difficult and unpleasant. Indeed, author Baritz tells us, the nation has not yet, more than a decade later, learned all that it should from the Vietnam tragedy: ``Our power, complacency, rigidity, and ignorance have kept us from incorporating our Vietnam experience into the way we think about ourselves and the world.''

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Not all of us would agree with this judgment in full. It is true that Americans no longer think about themselves and the world exactly as they did before Vietnam. Doubts about the validity of some American aims and some American capacities have arisen. The division of public opinion over what role the US should play in El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, demonstrates this.

But even during the Vietnam conflict itself, America showed that it had already learned one great lesson: It refused to do what it might have been tempted to do in earlier times; it refused to bring its full, inestimable technical and military might against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. It refused to take those steps that the Soviet Union is employing in 1985 against Afghanistan, steps designed to obliterate the resistant population, the national infrastructure, local livelihood, the national conscience -- in short to terminate Afghanistan as a living entity. The nation that had put a man on the moon could have ``won'' the Vietnam war, had it put its mind to it. It is to America's honor that it refused to do so.

In describing America's pre-Vietnam concept of itself, Baritz employs the apt Biblical phrase of ``a city set on a hill.'' Although there may not be a land in the world that does not see something uniquely admirable about itself, it must be admitted that America's view of itself as ``God's country,'' combined with its enormous physical power, gave it unusual self-confidence and a particularly exalted belief in its moral blessedness. It is the theme of this well-reasoned study that this degree of self-satisfaction induced two tragically harmful results.

The first was that neither the US as a whole nor its national leaders and officials in particular had a deep knowledge, correct view, or reasonable assessment of the conditions and the sentiments of the rest of the world. This led the US to believe that it was not only possible but morally right for it to impose its own view of national rectitude on other peoples. As a result, ``The North [Vietnam] was fighting an unlimited war for the unification of their country. We were fighting a limited war to protect all humanity.'' The result was foredoomed.

The second great American mistake was its inability to sort out its true goals in Vietnam, its failure to think through clearly the methods for achieving these goals, and a general air of diplomatic ineptitude where the nonmilitary aspects of the war were concerned. Baritz writes, ``The moral and political confusions of the administrations from John Kennedy forward, etched almost 58,000 names of dead American soldiers on the Vietnam memorial in Washington.''

This book does not plow new ground. The misconceptions it underlines and the missteps it chronicles have not been ignored by either historians or the general public. The American nation instinctively sensed what had gone wrong in Vietnam and has, this reviewer believes, drawn needed lessons therefrom. What this book does do, and does extremely well, is to put the whole misadventure into logical, cohesive form. We are led step by step through the innumerable miscalculations which flowed from Washington during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. If it has one weakness, it is that it underplays the sincerity, however naive, of America's efforts to protect South Vietnam from external conquest by a totalitarian ideology, while equally underplaying the fact that, because of America's position as the recognized leader of the ``free world,'' Washington felt impelled, through the expectation of much of that same world, to take steps against aggression which less publicly committed nations could have avoided.

Joseph G. Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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