The Vietnam history you haven't heard
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.
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. The stories were not true.
Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow would play crucial roles in events that fomented the coup that removed Diem on Nov. 1, 1963. Their anti-Diem information, much of it from ill-informed or agenda-driven sources, gave Diem's opponents in the US government the reasons they needed to remove what they considered to be an ineffective allied government. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge accepted their reports, spurring him to incite the coup.
Because the war went very poorly for the South Vietnamese after Diem's overthrow and assassination, the three journalists soon faced accusations that they had helped wreck the South Vietnamese government. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow skillfully produced a defense, one they have maintained to this day.
By taking a few pieces of evidence out of context, they asserted that the South Vietnamese war effort had been wrecked before Diem's death rather than after it, something that they had not claimed at the time. They were thus able to convince the American people that Diem had ruined the country and that the press had been right in denouncing him.
A multitude of previously untapped American and Vietnamese Communist sources show that the South Vietnamese war effort actually was thriving until the very end of Diem's life.
Diem's armed forces hurt the Communists far more seriously than Americans have been led to believe. So, too, did his poorly understood "strategic hamlets," fortified South Vietnamese communities stocked with government cadres and militiamen.
When the war became unpopular in America during the late 1960s, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow stopped expressing support for the US defense of South Vietnam. They ridiculed the principal American rationale for war – the so-called domino theory, which predicted that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the fall of the other countries in the region. When many of the dominoes did not fall after South Vietnam fell in 1975, they held it up as proof that they were right.
Implicit in their argument was the assumption that Asia's international politics were essentially frozen in time between US intervention in 1965 and the end of the war in 1975. But the policies and capabilities of China and many of the region's other countries changed dramatically during that decade, and in considerable measure as a result of American intervention in Vietnam.
A variety of old and new sources from the communist side confirm what most Southeast Asian leaders knew then: In 1965, China and North Vietnam firmly intended to collaborate in knocking over the dominoes once they finished off South Vietnam – an ambition they no longer had in 1975.
The military leaders of Indonesia, the most important Southeast Asian domino, informed the US in February 1965 that their future willingness to stand up to the pro-Communist President Sukarno and the massive Indonesian Communist Party would depend upon America's actions in Vietnam.
"President Johnson should learn to use his power and should hit North Vietnam hard," said General Marjadi in explaining why American inaction was discouraging the generals from taking a firm anticommunist position. "The prize for victory in Vietnam is all of Asia. Asia respects power, and has no respect for weakness or for strong people afraid to act." Indonesian generals later said that US intervention inspired them to oust Sukarno and work to destroy the Indonesian Communist Party in late 1965.
These are just a few of the numerous cases where the writings of Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow got it wrong. The record shows they were wrong, as well, to portray North Vietnam's revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, as a xenophobic nationalist who put national interests ahead of global communism's interests. They were wrong to accuse America's military leaders of employing faulty military tactics. And they were wrong to claim that the US could not have won the war.
So, has Iraq become another Vietnam? For all the apparent similarities – and differences – it is much too early to tell. For all the books on the Iraq war, many critical facts are not yet known. As with Vietnam, it may take 40 years or more to uncover them. Most important, we do not yet know how Iraq will end. Ultimately, it was the contest of wills – not predestination – that determined the outcome of the Vietnam War. A similar contest will determine whether Iraq is one day remembered as another Vietnam.
• Mark Moyar is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."