The Necessary War
By Michael Lind
Free Press. 314 pp. $25
Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
Michael Lind is a bright, articulate and argumentative writer. In Vietnam: The Necessary War he argues that the war was not a disaster but a noble undertaking which, even in failure, had many positive consequences. He concludes that the war had to be fought to preserve American credibility, could have been fought much more effectively than it was, and did not have the disastrous repercussions, particularly in this country, that many have attributed to it. Throughout, Lind finds fault with traditional criticisms of the war, insisting that it was neither so savage nor so unjustified as many have concluded.
Lind's book is undoubtedly a forerunner of Vietnam studies written by people who have little or no personal memory of the war. This makes his book particularly interesting to those of us who actually watched the war happening on the ground and felt its impact in this country. Lind was born in 1962. Even a precocious lad of that vintage was only beginning to take in big issues by 1975, when the war ended. So Lind is essentially a retrospective observer who has done a lot of homework.
He sees Vietnam as a skirmish in the bigger struggle, the Cold War, and argues that it was important to draw a line between two Vietnams to protect American interests, actual and perceived. He challenges many of the facile conclusions of war critics, then and since. He is especially harsh about those who interpreted the war as an example of American imperialism -- an attempt by an ignoble United States to thwart a legitimate, nationalist movement in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh's revolution, by imposing a corrupt alternative government in South Vietnam, then launching an immoral war to defend it. Lind's critique of the war critics on the left is often carefully reasoned and persuasive.
But like many other of the most argumentative critics of the war, he also is an ideologue. His is the ideology of a fervent cold warrior who believes that every gain by communists or their allies represented a loss for the United States and its cause, no matter how remote the playing field or how insignificant the issue. He actually calls it "the zero-sum reputational game of the bipolar world order." He implies throughout that the Cold War was a close contest that could have tipped against the West at any time. He perceives a "Marxist-Leninist revolutionary wave associated with the [American defeat in] the Vietnam war," a wave that consisted of left-wing regimes coming to power in these strategic locales: "Congo (1964, 1968), Benin (1972), Ethiopia and Guinea-Bissau (1974), Madagascar, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola (1975) Afghanistan (1978) and Grenada and Nicaragua (1979)." He writes: "All of these revolutions were inspired in part by the example of the successful struggle of the Indochinese communists against the United States." Lind interprets this list ominously; others may see it in a different light.
Of the items he lists, the Soviet-led coup in Afghanistan was surely the most significant one by far. No other item on the list belongs in its company. But Lind seems to misunderstand its significance, as he misses the significance of the American response to it. For Lind the '70s were a time of appeasement and retreat, in which Soviet communism went from triumph to triumph, each of them blamable on American failure in Vietnam.
It seems more likely that future historians will see the '70s as a time of overreaching by old men in the Kremlin who thought they were playing the superpower game. They surely were invigorated by the American defeat in Vietnam, but the adventures this led them into, particularly in Africa, made no meaningful dent on the real balance of forces in the world, nor served the Soviet Union in any way. More important things happened in the '70s, particularly the effective exclusion of the Soviet Union from the Middle East, devaluing Moscow's huge investment in Egypt and Syria to naught. Ferment began in the Soviet bloc in the '70s that ultimately brought its destruction -- encouraged by the dissidence of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov and the courage of workers in Gdansk, among many. The Afghan adventure did mark a turning point, but not in the Soviets' favor.
Lind has a romantic sense that noble motives led the United States into Vietnam. He writes, for example, that "the United States fought the war in Vietnam because of geopolitics, and forfeited the war because of domestic politics." A nice aphorism, but is it true? Didn't domestic politics -- specifically the fear of appearing "soft on communism" -- have an enormous influence on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as they weighed decisions about Vietnam? And weren't the motives of many of the war's authors -- Dean Rusk is a good example -- based on an utterly wrong perception that Ho Chi Minh was an agent of Chinese Communism?
Most important, Lind's considerable intelligence fails him when it comes to imagining what Vietnam was really like. He gets some aspects right -- for example, the fact that despite the wishful thinking of many American war critics, the South Vietnamese Vietcong actually were a creation of and a dependency of North Vietnam. He's right to argue that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were relentless, cruel Marxist-Leninists who were all too eager to cheat, lie, steal and kill to win the war.
But Lind seems to want Vietnam to have been more like Korea. He has no feel for the politics of modern Vietnam. Specifically, he doesn't understand Ho's one great advantage that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies could never trump. Ho had liberated Vietnam from French colonialists who had deprived the Vietnamese of their national identity for generations. The Communist Vietminh defeated the mighty French colonizers, a source of legitimacy and strength that they never lost. The Americans, on the other hand, were the white-skinned successors to the French. They helped restore the army the French had created, whose Vietnamese officers had actually adopted French names and passports. Those officers diplomatically resumed their Vietnamese identity when fighting for the Republic of South Vietnam, but their status among Vietnamese was always, understandably, suspect. The war, complex as it was, never lost one essential quality: The North Vietnamese were the home team, the Americans and their Vietnamese helpers were the visitors.
The great book on Vietnam has perhaps not been written, but a great book has -- Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie. Lind makes no apparent use of Sheehan's work, perhaps because it lends so little support to his view of the war. Sheehan's book has many qualities, not the least its author's capacity for accepting the complexities and contradictions of Vietnam, of its history and of the long war the United States made possible.
Lind, on the other hand, is a victim of the great urge to simplify. This reader wondered, again and again, why such an intelligent writer was so eager to draw simple, almost pure lessons from an episode that was so un-simple -- so ambiguous in itself and in its consequences. Lind has written a polemic, provocative and engaging and infuriating to read, and useful when it blows up some old myths that needed deflating. But in his conclusions he manages only to create a new myth, which isn't useful at all.
Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post, covered the Vietnam War in 1969-70.