U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Narratives Clash: The Vietnam War as History

Editor's Note

Louis F. Cooper, the author of this guest post, is a longtime reader and commenter at the U.S. Intellectual History blog.

A couple of months after the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration’s bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. halted the bombing for five days, from May 13 to May 18, 1965.  According to an account by Townsend Hoopes (then a Defense Department official), after the bombing resumed Secretary of State Dean Rusk “explained by analogy that the pause had been a phone call to Hanoi, but that they had failed to pick up the instrument at their end of the line.”  Hoopes adds that Rusk “did not explain why we did not let the phone ring a little longer, recognizing the possibility that the NVN [North Vietnam] government might have been in the basement taking cover from our earlier raids.”[i]

The problem ran deeper than not letting the telephone ring long enough.  Hanoi did not answer the phone because at that time it had no compelling reason to do so.  The bombing was not substantially affecting North Vietnam’s ability to do what it was doing.

Four U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief aircraft of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, each drop six M117 343 kg bombs over Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder.”

At that point in the war North Vietnam was not mounting large-scale, conventional offensives; the NLF (Viet Cong) in the South, supported by the North, was carrying the brunt of the fighting.  The bombing of transportation and industrial targets in the North did not much reduce the relatively small stream of supplies that the Viet Cong required, and the North Vietnamese were able to repair damaged infrastructure very quickly.  For these reasons among others, one analyst concludes that “North Vietnam during the Johnson years was essentially immune to coercion with air power.”[ii]

The practical or strategic, as opposed to moral, problem with Rolling Thunder, according to this view, was not how it was executed, but the whole conception of the campaign: bombing could not stop North Vietnam from infiltrating supplies and men into the South, nor, at least at this point in the war, force it to the negotiating table.  James Willbanks — a soldier and historian interviewed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their documentary film on the war — put the point more bluntly when he called Rolling Thunder “the dumbest campaign ever devised by a human being.”

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Willbanks’s remark points to one of the familiar subtexts of the commentary on the American war in Vietnam, i.e., how did smart people do such dumb things?  I’m not sure that’s the right question.  If one looks at the official deliberations surrounding the decisions for large-scale intervention, one might conclude that mistakes of conception are clearer in hindsight.  In 1965, only one member of Johnson’s inner circle of advisers, George Ball, opposed the crucial escalation steps.  Exaggeration of threats and overreliance on military means have been persistent features of U.S. foreign policy for at least the past seven decades, and in that light the key Vietnam decisions were not aberrations.

That said, much depended on how the conflict was framed.  Was it a civil war, or was it a case of one government trying to subvert another?  Viewed through a Cold War lens and through the prism of superficially attractive historical analogies, the conflict might have appeared to be a war of aggression, or at least improper interference, by North Vietnam, which is indeed how it appeared to most of Johnson’s advisers.[iii]  Viewed through the lens of Vietnam’s history and local circumstances, however, the framing of a civil war made more sense.  The question was important because intervention in a civil war would have been harder – although not necessarily impossible — to justify legally, geopolitically, and morally.  All the more so given that the U.S. and South Vietnam had blocked the country-wide elections promised in the 1954 Geneva accords.

Once the conflict was defined as a war of aggression by North Vietnam, it was a short step to the conclusion that the North, as part of a supposedly global wave of Communist expansion, could not be allowed to “take over” the South by force.  From this perspective, a failure to prevent it would have the gravest implications.  “I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in,” Henry  Cabot Lodge declared in July 1965.  “Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?”[iv]  Certainly not everyone accepted this very flawed analogy, but it exerted a considerable hold on many, including some key policymakers.

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Of several recurring questions about the Vietnam War – was it a crime? was it just? was it necessary? – one is: was it ‘winnable’?  Once the die had been cast, if President Johnson and his civilian advisers had given General Westmoreland a precise set of strategic objectives, or exercised more oversight and direction of the ground war, would that have made a difference in the end?  What if the U.S. had paid more attention earlier to improving the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese army?  What if the U.S. in the Johnson years had used its ground forces against the sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos?  A “strategic concept for counterinsurgency” for Vietnam had been drafted in 1962, but it was never implemented; moreover, ‘pacification’ efforts worked at cross-purposes with Westmoreland’s approach and its consequences, since it was virtually impossible to win villagers’ “hearts and minds” while displacing them from their homes in large numbers and laying waste to much of the countryside.[v]

So, once the intervention decisions had been made, might a different U.S. strategy have changed the outcome?  Or was a relatively weak, corrupt government in South Vietnam, one that never really attained popular legitimacy, doomed to lose against a highly motivated, determined opponent that grasped the nationalist mantle in a country with a long history of fighting foreigners on its soil?

Though I don’t think the war was ‘winnable’, I also think Burns and Novick might have been right to put such questions, and those of the war’s wisdom and morality (or lack thereof), mostly in the background in their film.  That’s because positions on the war have become entrenched and tied to a polarized political spectrum.  A documentary with a strong thesis probably would not have succeeded in persuading anyone not already convinced of it.  It may be more effective to present some facts, intersperse them with engrossing stories told from various individual perspectives, make an effort to outline the relevant contexts, and then let viewers draw their own conclusions.  This is not to say the documentary is flawless – it is far from that – but simply to suggest that its basic approach is defensible.

The American war in Vietnam will always generate debate, both among historians and the public at large.  With the passage of time, controversy has increasingly centered on how the war is publicly remembered and represented.  By the 1980s, it was already clear that, as Paul Kennedy noted, “the memory of this conflict would continue to prey upon the public consciousness….”[vi]  Recent exhibits on the war at the New-York Historical Society and the National Archives signal a fresh wave of memorialization, as does the Burns/Novick film.

Moreover, as Roger Peace mentioned in a guest post here last summer, the Defense Department is in the midst of a multi-year congressionally authorized commemoration of the Vietnam War, and that effort has stimulated an organized response by Veterans for Peace and other groups.  Of course, debates over collective memory are often ways of carrying on political contests about the event being memorialized.  As Daniel Sherman writes in his detailed study of French memorials to the First World War dead, commemoration can be seen “as a struggle or negotiation between competing narratives….”[vii]  In the case of the Vietnam War, the contest between competing narratives, at any rate in the U.S., shows few signs of ending; a safe wager is that the last word on the war will never be spoken.

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[i] Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (Norton pb. ed., 1987), p. 48.

[ii] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), p. 176.

 [iii] See Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1992).

 [iv] Lodge quoted in ibid., pp. 3, 129.  President Truman earlier used the Munich analogy in connection with the Korean War.

[v] See Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention, pp. 66ff.  Cf. Larry H. Addington, America’s War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History (Indiana Univ. Press, 2000), ch. 9.  For the case that atrocities against Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers were routine, see, e.g., Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (Henry Holt & Co., 2013). 

[vi] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), pg. 404.

[vii] Daniel J. Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 69.

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