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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Revising Vietnam 


My father, who was in the history trade, said that it took forty or fifty years for the interpretation of any American presidency or epoch to stabilize. People have to die, documents have to be declassified, and -- most importantly -- we need historians who were not politically aware at the time the events in question happened. By my father's reasoning, the first decent history of the Bush 43 years will be written in roughly 2050 by a great historian who today is in the fourth grade.

Historians are revising the history of the Vietnam war right on schedule. Power Line has an interview of Mark Moyar, a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge and presently a professor at Marine Corps University. Professor Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, published by Cambridge University Press. John Hinderaker wrote that to say that the book "is revisionist would be putting it mildly." Naturally, I ordered a copy.

Mark Moyar was born in 1971, so my father would have considered him to be just about the perfect age to revise the history of the Vietnam War.

One need not be quite that young to have a view of Vietnam that departs from the version that dominates the histories written and retold by journalists and historians who were old enough to remember the climate of the 1960s and 1970s. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, has an essay (sub. req.) in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on American foreign policy that is well-worth reading for many reasons, and which includes this judgment about Vietnam:

The reason I am so focused on the Middle East is that my first close interaction with the United States grew out of the country's involvement in a previous painful struggle, that in Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1971, American leaders used to stop by Singapore after visiting South Vietnam to discuss the regional situation with me. Washington had sent in some 500,000 troops without sufficient knowledge of the history of the Vietnamese people and paid a huge price in blood, treasure, prestige, and confidence as a result.

Conventional wisdom in the 1970s saw the war in Vietnam as an unmitigated disaster. But that has been proved wrong. The war had collateral benefits, buying the time and creating the conditions that enabled noncommunist East Asia to follow Japan's path and develop into the four dragons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) and, later, the four tigers (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand). Time brought about the split between Moscow and Beijing and then a split between Beijing and Hanoi. The influence of the four dragons and the four tigers, in turn, changed both communist China and communist Vietnam into open, free-market economies and made their societies freer.

It may yet emerge, as the Vietnam generation settles into its sunset years, that the veterans of that war in fact accomplished as much in the defense of liberty than any American soldiers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, we will need a new generation of professors before that version is taught in our great universities.

For those of you who do not have access to Foreign Affairs, I'll try to write more later on Lee Kuan Yew's essay, most of which bears on Iraq.

8 Comments:

By Anonymous n.a. palm, at Wed Dec 20, 08:45:00 AM:

I, for one, am not optimistic that todays 'fourth grader' will ever learn the truth about anything, especially history. Todays education bureaucracy is rife with incompetance, mismanagement, political correctness and leftist propaganda. The only convincing theory they can imbed in youthful minds is that 'America is always wrong'.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 20, 09:45:00 AM:

I was in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. For about 12 years after the fall of Saigon, citizens in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia occasionally would bring up the topic of Vietnam during my business trips to Southeast Asia. "Why did the U.S. pull out of Vietnam?" people would ask. Interestingly, they never asked, "Why did the U.S. get involved in Vietnam?"  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Wed Dec 20, 11:07:00 AM:

This is interesting. Just the other day, my mother and I were having a discussion about the present situation in Iraq when I brought up the subject of the Vietnam War by way of making some comparison (which comparison isn't really germane to this discussion.) My mother countered by saying, "We never should have gotten involved there to begin with," which is a sentiment with which I predominately agree.

My thinking on this subject is colored by what I think I know of the antecedents of our entry into the Vietnam conflict--a subject that, frankly, not many Americans know much of--which suggests that the Vietnamese were primarily engaged in a battle for independence, and that Ho Chi Minh had initially sought help from the United States, believing our founding principles aligned with his quest for Vietnamese self-determination. Of course, time and misunderstanding brought us together eventually as enemies rather than allies, and it's perhaps at least unfortunate that we didn't back then stand up a government that could have served as a bulwark against Communism rather than by neglect encouraging one that became a perceived threat.

But this is REALLY revisionist history, I suppose, and illuminating perhaps merely as an exercise in What if?

The fact remains that by the time we became involved, the Vietnam conflict did seem--rightly or wrongly--to matter with respect to our position in the world. As I've indicated, I think the perceived threat was greater than the reality, and that is a lesson a good many people seem to want to apply to Iraq. I'm not sure the two instances are in any way comparable in that regard. I do think it's important to hold world leaders accountable to the terms of armistice and cease-fire agreements--which, obviously, opens a whole new level of discussion.

But getting back to my mother's asssertion, which I basically agree with, even if one argues that we shouldn't initially have gotten involved in Vietnam, it seems to me you can still make a reasonable moral argument for winning a war, no matter questions about its provenance, once it's been started. It seems especially the case once you have enlisted the aid and support of those who depend in turn on your aid and support, and who will most certainly suffer and likely even perish should you at some point decide, for mere expediency's sake, to withold it.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 20, 11:51:00 AM:

Call Lee Kuan Yew a "former dictator" or whatever else you like, he stands as one of the great leaders of the second half of the 20th century. He and his colleagues transformed Singapore from a third world country into a first world country in a little more than a generation. I always take his advice and opinions very seriously.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 20, 11:56:00 AM:

thank you for posting this excerpt. now let me see, how can we suppress it?  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 20, 02:53:00 PM:

"Foreign Affairs" says the essay was adapted from a speech Lee Kuan Yew delivered when accepting the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service in October 2006.

The full speech is available (pdf) at the Web site of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=awards.item&news_id=205466  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Wed Dec 20, 06:42:00 PM:

Nixon foresaw all of that (as well as the anti-terror efforts we fact today).

No More Vietnam's is the best thing I've read that takes the large view.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 20, 07:21:00 PM:

Speaking of Nixon and Lee Kuan Yew, Fareed Zakaria wrote in "Foreign Affairs" in 1994:

"'One of the asymmetries of history,' wrote Henry Kissinger of Singapore's patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, 'is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries.' Kissinger's one time boss, Richard Nixon, was even more flattering. He speculated that, had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have 'attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.'"  

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