ANATOMY OF A WAR; Vietnam, the United States And the Modern Historical Experience.By Gabriel Kolko. Pantheon. 628 pp. $25.
GABRIEL KOLKO made a name for himself in the 1960s as a revisionist historian, laying the blame for the cold war on a consuming postwar American drive to impose its economic and political order on the world. Unfortunately for Kolko, Professor Robert James Maddox took the time to review his documentation (in The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War) and found that he had made pervasive use of factual inaccuracies and blatant misinterpretations of sources. In Anatomy of a War, Kolko applies those same skills to the Vietnam era.
In fairness, the author does give clear warning of his intentions. He is, he says in the introduction, "acutely aware that I shall in no way be able to thank adequately all those who shared a common experience and cause." Among those he is unable to thank adequately are Nguyen Co Thac, the present foreign minister of Vietnam; Hoang Minh Thao, People's Army Chief of Staff, and Hoang Tung, chief propagandist for the Vietnamese Communist Party and editor of the party daily.
With such a dedication, readers can have no illusions about the book's objectivity. (What would one think about a historian who dedicated a book on American foreign policy in the 1980s to George Schultz and Caspar Weinberger?) But they might still expect a well-argued critique of America's involvement in Vietnam based on a reasonable assessment of the facts as they are known today. God knows there is enough to be critical of in American decision-making and conduct without manufacturing anything.
The left hardly needs to rely on mythology to present its case. If only someone had pointed out that simple fact to Gabriel Kolko before he undertook this exquisitely tedious compendium of refried '60s polemics and current-day party line agitprop. As it is, Kolko has done a disservice to scholars of both the left and right. A decade after the war, they deserve a clear field on which to debate, not one layered over with invective, hyperbole and distortion.
Entering Kolko's Vietnam, one leaves behind the subtle, complex colors of reality and finds himself in a mythic realm where good is always good, evil always evil and no rational person can doubt the outcome of their struggle. On the one side is the United States, "the major inheritor of the mantle of imperialism in modern history," in Vietman because of its ambition "to guide and integrate the world's political and economic system."
On the other side we find a communist party making "remarkable and often unique efforts on behalf of a revolutionary morality and personal socialist values," a party that "was, after all, a group of mortals who possessed many of the weaknesses of humankind, but also a great share of its all too rare strengths." "One could ask," says Kolko, "little more."
Apparently confident that this breathless moralizing tone suffices to give the reader a politically correct feel for the war, Kolko proceeds to a remarkable series of falsifications. It would take a book to discuss them all; here I will only note two of the more egregious:
The National Liberation Front. According to Kolko, the Vietnamese Communist Party was totally candid about the fact that it had created the NLF. It "never sought to conceal the relationship of the Party to the NLF."
The facts. The party surreptitiously created the NLF specifically to provide an ostensibly southern, noncommunist political umbrella to (in Fatherland Front President Ton Duc Thang's words) "unite all forces that can be united and rally all forces that can be rallied." Accordingly, the Front leadershiptured prominent noncommunist nationalists, its program emphasized South Vietnamese independence and democratic freedoms, and both the Front and Hanoi denied the accusation of northern control as long as they plausibly could.
The NLF was indeed relatively successful in mobilizing support from a wide variety of southern oppositionists who hated Diem and his successors and wanted the United States out of their country. Perhaps more significant, the Front effectively disseminated the idea abroad that the war was being fought by the Saigon dictatorships against a reform- minded, indigenous coalition of southern guerrilla freedom fighters. This concept gained wide currency in the West and became a significant factor in generating anti- war sentiment.
Of course since its triumph, the party has been busy magnifying the role of communist ideology as a factor in the victory and denigrating the patriotic nationalism that motivated so many Vietnamese and of which the party took full advantage. But to myknowledge this is the first time the line has appeared in a purportedly serious book published in the West.
The Tet Offensive. According to Kolko, the "primary objective (of the 1968 Tet Offensive) was to influence the United States". It was a "process of educating the Americans." In this context, the party was supposedly prepared to absorb serious losses as long as it could "smash American illusions."
THE FACTS. According to General Tran Do, deputy commander of North Vietnamese forces in the South, "We didn't achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. . . . As for making an impact on the United States, it had not been our intention -- but it turned out to be a fortunate result." (Quoted by Stanley Karnow, in Vietnam: A History, page 545.)
In 1985 every specialist on the period knows that Tet was a military disaster for the revolution. It failed to precipitate the political chaos hat was its objective and virtually destroyed the southern Vietcong as a fighting entity. It became the turning point of the war only because of its profound, though incidental, effect on American public opinion. Kolko distorts the event to enhance the stature of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which it is his purpose to portray as the cutting edge of history's irresistible revolutionary tide against imperialism. Tet was indeed a communist victory -- with immense ramifications for American strategic thinking. Falsifying what happened in the service of anti-American ideology is hardly necessary.
As with Tet and the NLF, Kolko's interpretations of Vietnamization, Cambodia, atrocities, the bombing of North Vietnam, and the Paris peace talks are without balance and replete with distortions and plain mistruths -- including the canard that "numerous" North Vietnamese cities were "systematically destroyed" by the U.S. Air Force.
But the sorriest dimension of this book is not Kolko's obsession with the heme that in Vietnam "the United States committed countless dark deeds." It is his inability to regard the Vietnamese Communist Party as anything other than a wellspring of noble social values and moral purity. One does not have to believe that the United States came away from Vietnam with clean hands to understand the meaning of a million-and-a-half refugees, or to see that today Vietnam is one of the world's most frightening police states, or to question the seven-year Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia and Laos.