[This review was published in the Spring 2003 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 103-7.] 

 

Book Review

 

Vietnam, The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's

            Most Disastrous Military Conflict

Michael Lind

Simon & Schuster, 1999 

 

            Michael Lind has written a fascinating and instructive book.  It is most specifically about the Vietnam War, but Lind takes care to place the war, as he should, in the context of world strategy during the Cold War.  It is a strength (but also a weakness, for reasons I will explain) of the book that Lind has "followed his mind where it leads," seeking to touch on all facets of the still-continuing debate over the war.          

            He would almost certainly not agree, but it is at that "macro" level that this reviewer sees the weakest parts of his book: (a) his discussion of the long-standing debate between "minimal realists" and "maximal realists" about international affairs, and (b) his tying into the thinking advanced by several social theorists that American attitudes and policies about military and world affairs has largely reflected the differing orientations of a long-existing ethnic regionalism in the United States.  The weakness comes from the reductionism that is inherent in the positions of both types of "realists" and of the "regionalists."  Each focuses on a certain thing, albeit valuable in itself, while ignoring much else that is pertinent.  This follows the antiseptic pattern of a fair portion of modern social theory, which formulates abstract cubby-holes that substitute, then, for a direct examination of the world in its complexity. 

            Lind describes himself as a "centrist" with regard to the Vietnam War.  But no label captures his thinking adequately, since his is too independent a mind to be neatly encapsulated. 

            As one might expect a "centrist" would, he repeats certain shibboleths from today's conventional wisdom in the United States, which is left-liberal. 

            He argues, for example, that the "China hands" whose advice led to the surrender of China to Mao in the late 1940s weren't Communist agents, as Senator Joseph McCarthy saw them, but just "gullible dupes."  This suggests, naively in light of the intellectual history of the 1920s and 1930s, that there was a distinction that was really meaningful between those members of the American intelligentsia who were active Communists and the many who for so many years simply carried on an impassioned love affair with "the Soviet experiment." 

            One of the odder manifestations of Lind's centrism is his opinion that the state-induced famines in the Soviet Union in 1932-33 and in China during the Great Leap Forward from 1958-62 were simply the "unintended consequences" of "socialist economic policies."  It is hard to believe that the starvation of several million people goes unnoticed by those who by deliberate policy put and then hold those millions in that position.

            Lind's mental independence leads him, however, to a great many valuable insights that are by no means simple reflections of the left-liberal worldview.  These insights are so numerous that a brief discussion of some of them doesn't fully do the book justice:

            1. The view is often voiced that President Nixon's rapprochement with Mao in 1972 was an outstanding stroke of foreign policy acumen – a high point in Nixon's presidency that was overshadowed only by his later disgrace.  Lind is courageous enough, though, to see through this, and to declare the rapprochement "morally questionable."  Mao, Lind knows, had already proved himself one of the great butchers of all time.  Lind points out, too, that the rapprochement did not bear the fruit of causing Mao to stop Red China's abundant support of the Communist "proxy war" against the United States in Vietnam.

            2. Unlike many, Lind has a realistic understanding of the nature of Soviet Communism (subject to what we noted above about his equivocation over the state-induced famine).  He doesn't accept the idea that Communism was a noble experiment that was warped out of shape by "Stalin's gangsterism or Mao's egomania"; rather, he sees, as has become evident in recent historiography, that it was precisely Lenin's doctrines that produced the horrors.

            3. The fact that Lind is, in the main, undeceived about the nature of Communism and does not join in the common double standards regarding it causes him to dissect a number of "myths about Vietnam disseminated by the radical and liberal left."  One of these was that Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese patriot whose Marxism was a thin veneer.  The truth, Lind says, is that Ho was "both a nationalist and a doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist."  He points out that in the 1920s Ho was "a founding member of the French Communist Party"; that Ho once served as an agent of the Comintern; that Ho lived in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; and that in the 1940s he was a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

            4. It has been argued that Ho Chi Minh was "the only legitimate nationalist leader in Vietnam."  Again, Lind confronts this with the facts: "At the end of World War II, a number of Vietnamese nationalist factions were independent of Ho's communist-controlled Viet Minh front group."  These groups were extinguished when "during the purges that began in March 1946 and peaked in the summer, thousands of potential leaders of non-communist Vietnamese nationalism were murdered."

            5.  Another myth is that Ho Chi Minh was a Tito-like Communist who sought an independent and neutral role in the Cold War.  Lind says, though, that "there is no evidence that Yugoslav-style neutrality was ever considered by the North Vietnamese communist elite."

            6.  The argument is made that South Vietnam violated international law when it refused to take part in national elections in 1956.  Lind notes, however, that the 1954 Geneva Accords calling for such an election were "denounced by the South Vietnamese government and not signed by the United States."  At the time of the agreements, the nation of South Vietnam was already recognized by thirty governments, so that it was presumptuous indeed to say that France's consent to the agreements was tantamount to approval by South Vietnam. "None of the major parties in the Vietnam War," in fact, including North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the United States, "endorsed the Geneva Agreements."

            7. At all times before the Communist victory in 1975, a picture was painted of the unique corruption and illegitimacy of whatever government was in power in South Vietnam.  This reviewer has always felt that this criticism was more than ordinarily vicious.  Lind tells us that "between 1959 and 1961 the number of South Vietnamese officials who were assassinated rose from twelve hundred to four thousand per year."  One wonders what would happen to social order and to government in the United States or any other civilized country if thousands of its mayors, city commissioners, and the like, were systematically killed.

            8. Barbara Tuchman, the prominent American historian, was among those who argued that the United States missed many "opportunities" to "be on good terms" with Ho Chi Minh.  Lind discusses each of these in turn, finding them without merit.

            9. Other "myths" that Lind dissects: that the Vietnam Communists were serious about a proposed coalition government; that the Viet Cong were a spontaneous rebellion against misgovernment; that it was foolish for the United States to have been concerned about "the dominoes falling" if the Communists won in Vietnam; that Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia was brought on by U.S. actions, such as by the "frenzy" caused by American bombing; that Nixon "expanded the war" by his incursion into the Cambodia sanctuaries; that American veterans were emotionally affected more than were veterans of other wars; and that John F. Kennedy intended to pull out of Vietnam.

            Although he deconstructs all of these myths from the left, Lind also takes issue (or appears to) with what he calls "the praetorian critique" from the right.  This is the view that the war could have been won if President Lyndon Johnson had not closed the door on a winning strategy.  Lind sees the various strategic suggestions as having run the risk of a wider war with China and/or the Soviet Union.  It seems that his criticism is somewhat equivocal, however, since he himself argues that the United States should have severed the Ho Chi Minh trail and then permanently stationed "tens of thousands of U.S. troops" along a demilitarized zone (such as in Korea) to "deter a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam."  This seems like another version of the praetorian critique.

            Readers will find the book a valuable source for facts of major importance that few people know.  For example, he says it is "one of the most shameful chapters in the sorry history of the American intellectual left" that "the mass murder in North Vietnam that accompanied ‘land reform' in the 1950s" was minimized or explained away.  He says that "between 10,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese were summarily executed for being of the wrong class category."  And how many readers will have known that "the North Korean invasion [of South Korea] of 1950 was preceded by a guerrilla war between 1945 and 1950 in which an estimated hundred thousand Koreans were killed"?

            It would seem that there is no end to the reading we must do if we are to discover even the most elementary facts essential to understanding the events of the past century.  Lind's book is a good place to start.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Dwight D. Murphey