The Other North American View of “The 30-Years War in Vietnam” – the View that Will Never Change as Long as Academics only Speak to Fellow Intellectuals

In the previous post I commented on a recent essay that historian Christopher Goscha published in the New York Times called “The 30-Years War in Vietnam.” In those comments I attempted to point out the places where Goscha was basing his ideas on new scholarship.

What then is “old scholarship”?

Much of the information that people in North America understand to be “the truth” about the war years in Vietnam (1945-1975) was produced by scholars who were against the Vietnam/American war and who 1) did not know Vietnamese and 2) never did any research in a Vietnamese archive. Widely-read works such as Francis Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, and Gabriel Kolko’s Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience all fit into this category.

These books have basically imprinted into North American society various ideas about the period in Vietnam from 1945-1975 that are now taken for granted, but which scholarship from the past 30 years by scholars who 1) can read Vietnamese and who 2) have done research in Vietnamese archives has demonstrated are false.

Goscha’s essay in the New York Times “corrects” many of these falsehoods (and that essay is of course based on the scholarship of numerous scholars, including the prolific scholarship of Goscha himself), but I would argue that Goscha’s essay and the book that it is based on will not succeed in changing the way that people in North America think.

The reason why I believe this is because that article and Goscha’s book are aimed at intellectuals (or at least “educated readers”), whereas there are other people who are continuing to repeat the erroneous ideas of an older generation of scholarship in ways that can reach many, many more people, and particularly young people.

green

A perfect example of this is American author John Green’s “crash course” series of videos. Green has videos on World history and on American history. In his series on American history he covers the same period of Goscha’s New York Times article in a video on the Cold War.

I have no idea how many people read articles in the New York Times, but a day and a half after Goscha’s essay was published, just over 20 people have commented on it. Meanwhile, Green’s video on the same topic has received 1.6 million views in the past four years.

In what follows, I will comment on Green’s video in the same way that I commented on Goscha’s article. What should become evident is that Green’s video is filled with the very falsehoods that Goscha’s scholarship corrects. However, Green’s video has reached 1.6 million people. . .

What is the moral of this story? Academics need to get on YouTube (and the Internet) to spread the kind of knowledge that scholars like Goscha have worked so hard to produce.

The text below starts around 5:18 in the video where Green is talking about the declaration of independence that Hồ Chí Minh drafted in 1945. What follows is Green’s narrative:

So, this document points out that, at least rhetorically, Ho Chi Minh was fighting for liberation from a colonial power as much as, if not more than, he was trying to establish a communist dictatorship in Vietnam. But because of the Cold War and its prevailing theories, the United States could only see Ho as a communist stooge, a tool of the Kremlin. [This is all part of what is some historians refer to as the “lost opportunity” myth. The idea here is that Hồ Chí Minh was really more of a nationalist than a communist, and that the stupid Americans didn’t recognize that, and the consequence of that mistake was of course the years of warfare that followed.

This idea of the “lost opportunity” was debunked years ago by Philip Bradley (see his 2000 work, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950). More recently Alec Holcombe has shown that Hồ Chí Minh moved quickly to create a dictatorship in 1945-46 (see his long review of David Marr’s Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946) in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 11.3-4, 2016), and the fact that Hồ Chí Minh implemented land reform at the first possible moment demonstrates that his vision for the future was to create a communist society (no better place to start on that topic than Alex-Thai D. Vo, “Nguyễn Thị Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 10.1 (Winter 2015), 1-62.)

Finally, while Hồ Chí Minh was definitely not a “stooge of the Kremlin,” he was a big fan of the Kremlin, and definitely supported the Soviet call to peacefully “build socialism” around the world. That approach, however, eventually clashed with the ideas of fellow North Vietnamese communist Lê Duẩn whose thinking was more in line with Mao Zedong’s desire to export communist revolution around the world. That is the real story that people should know about. The idea that Hồ Chí Minh was “more of a nationalist than a communist” is a myth.]

hcm

Under the so-called “domino theory” Vietnam was just another domino that had to be propped up or else the rest of South East Asia would fall to communism like a row of, dominos. That wasn’t my best work. [The work of scholars like Tuong Vu and Pierre Asselin makes it clear that the domino theory was not some invention of American paranoia. The North Vietnamese communists were very enthusiastic about being at the vanguard of communist revolution, and their friends in China definitely supported that sentiment.]

Now, in retrospect, this was a fundamental misunderstanding [as the above comment indicates, no, it was not a “fundamental misunderstanding”], but it’s important to remember that at the time, people felt that they didn’t want the Soviet Union to expand the way that, say, Nazi Germany had. America’s involvement in Vietnam, like most things Cold War, dates back to World War II, but it really picked up in the 1950s as we threw our support behind the French in their war to maintain their colonial empire.

Wait, Stan, how why would we fight with the French to maintain a colonial empire? Oh right, because we were blinded by our fear of communism. Now, Eisenhower wisely refused to send troops or use atomic weapons to help the French. Really good call.

And the Geneva Accords were supposed to set up elections to reunite North and South, which had been divided after WWII [that’s not entirely accurate, but. . .], but then we didn’t let that happen. [Here we have this erroneous but widely-held idea in a lot of writings on this period that America had complete power to determine events in Vietnam. This is an Orientalist view, in that it does not recognize Vietnamese agency.]

diem

Because sometimes democracies don’t vote for our guy. Instead, the U.S. began supporting the repressive, elitist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem as a bulwark against communism. Diem was a Catholic in a majority Buddhist country and his support of landowners didn’t win him any fans. But he was against communism, which was good enough for us. [While Diem had his faults, this passage does not recognize his long history as a prominent nationalist, and the fact that with the assistance of his brother he had established a political base of support, and that in the 1950s he was able to bring the South under control by eliminating various power bases, such as that of the Cao Đài and the Bình Xuyên.]

The first major involvement of American troops, then called advisors, began in the early 1960s. Technically, their role was to advise the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, also called ARVN. It was doomed. How did they not know this was doomed? Let’s fight for “Arvin.” Against this guy. You are scary. Seriously.

Anyway, pretty quickly this advising turned into shooting, and the first American advisors were killed in 1961, during John Kennedy’s presidency.

However, most Americans consider Vietnam to be Lyndon Johnson’s war, and they aren’t wrong. The major escalation of American troops started under Johnson, especially in 1965 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This is one of the great incidents in all of American history. So, in August 1964, North Korean patrol boats [??? I hope this is just a mistake. Of course it was North Vietnamese patrol boats] attacked US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a result Johnson asked Congress to authorize the president to take “all necessary measures to repel armed attack” in Vietnam, which Congress dutifully did with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

So why is this one of the great incidents in American history? Because the whole patrol boats attacking warships thing? That didn’t happen. None of that stuff happened except we did actually go to war. Now, in retrospect, this seems like a terrible idea but it was very popular at the time because to quote the historian James Patterson, “Preventing Communism, after all, remained the guiding star of American policy.”

[And what he is leaving out here is that in late 1963 Lê Duẩn essentially executed his own “coup” in the North and gained full power, and with that power he launched the North on a drive to retake the South before the Americans could intervene (see Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965).]

stripes

Wait a second, did I just say to quote historian James Patterson, like the crime novelist? Oh it’s a different guy apparently. That’s a bummer. He doesn’t write his own books because he’s so busy with his secret career – being a historian. So, the number of American troops began a steady increase and so did the bombing. The frightfully named Operation Rolling Thunder began in the spring of 1965. And in March of that year two Marine battalions arrived at Danang airbase authorized to attack the enemy. No advising about it.

But, Johnson didn’t actually tell the American public that our troops had this authorization, which was part of a widening credibility gap between what the government told Americans about the war and what was really happening. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble. By 1968 there were about half a million American soldiers in Vietnam. . .

[So much of what John Green says comes from the “old scholarship” of the anti-war scholars who did not read Vietnamese and who never conducted research in Vietnamese archives. And yet, his ideas have been viewed 1.6 million times. Again, the moral of this story? Academics have to make their ideas present on YouTube (and the Internet) if they want their ideas to be known.]

5 thoughts on “The Other North American View of “The 30-Years War in Vietnam” – the View that Will Never Change as Long as Academics only Speak to Fellow Intellectuals

  1. From what I know today it’s astounding that this viewpoint is out there. But growing up at that time it was a powerful component of ideology of people that one would like to think were the good guys. They wanted to end war, shut down the Pentagon, end imperialism. At the extreme edge some would have liked to have given Communism a try. The first crack in that view came with Susan Sontag’s reportage about her stay in wartime Hanoi. She wanted to believe the story – America as blood thirsty imperialists, Vietnam as single-minded, spontaneous, moral patriots – but she found a lot of the rhetoric hard to swallow. A Manichean outlook is often the easiest approach for any side of a debate, but there is plenty of good and evil on all sides.

    • A manichean outlook is most of the time quite wrong in appraising historical events but in the case study of the Vietnam war , it applies: according to my (biased) opinion ,the USA has absolutely not a single straw of legitimacy in intervening in Vietnam :
      _ Asia does not in any way belong to the USA
      _ the successive Saigon regimes too didn’ t have a single veneer to legitimacy .The State of VN was a puppet created by the French colonialists for their benefit to dampen the Vietminh influence; the successor Diêm regime had a still smaller powerbase ,limited to the Quisling Catholics , which were the water bearers for the French conquest
      _ the Vietminh have taken over with high colors the mantle of VN independance ; under asian eyes , their Dien bien phu victory was actual proof of their right to hold the ” mandate of heaven ”
      Trying to redeem the US and the Saigon regime by the North Vietnamese Lê Duân’s agency is rather effete and a little bit obnoxious . Whether Lê Duân purged its internal opponents , neglected North VN interests , pursued war to deflect from internal problems is irrelevant ;
      he does what he wants in his country
      To make things clearer , let’s recall the French ( under Napoleon III ) Mexican intervention; it’s a fitting analogy to the Vietnam war : then the US would be the equivalent of Lê Duân

      Excerpts from [Vietnam War: Was U.S. Military Intervention in Vietnam Justified?
      History in Dispute, 2000 From U.S. History in Context ]
      [The timing and extent of Northern “intervention” in South Vietnam was irrelevant since there was never a persuasive case for regarding South Vietnam as a separate state from North Vietnam . The Geneva accords were no basis of legitimacy for the Diêm regime , anyhow neither the US nor Diêm recognized them . On the contrary , the accords tacitly endorse the Vietminh take over of the whole of Vietnam from the hands of the French
      Furthermore the Vietnam War was a moral failure: the US failed the criterions of a ” just war “in three respects:
      _ the just-cause principle mandates that wars be fought only for unambiguously moral purposes, such as self-defense, the maintenance of international order, or, in certain extreme cases, the upholding of basic human rights in another state : the Vietminh fought in self defense for the unification and independance of their homeland
      _ the principle of proportionality requires that the good that may reasonably be expected to emerge from war must outweigh the evils of war itself. An alternative formulation of the same principle holds that a war must have a reasonable chance of success at a cost commensurate with the true stakes of that war . The US inflicted devastating damages on the land , the fauna and the flora , damages still continuing to this day
      _ the core principle of “jus in bello” is that war must never be made on innocent civilians or noncombatants. Perhaps the worst feature of the Vietnam War was that its conduct amounted to a massive—indeed, properly considered, a criminal—violation of this principle. The “strategy” of the American war effort was one of attrition: General William C. Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, stated, “We’ll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations.” Because of the use of massive, inherently indiscriminate firepower, together with the fact that the enemy successfully blended into the general populace, those who “bled” inevitably included more than a million North and South Vietnamese civilians.]

  2. dustofthewest, in some ways I think all ideas are ego-centric. Everyone wants to think that s/he is smarter than other people. The view of the war in this video is the one created by the anti-war/Baby Boomer generation, and it is based on the ego-centric desire to demonstrate that they are smarter than others, and in their case, one of the main dichotomies was between themselves and authority figures. So in the case of the US government, everything it does is bad, and that makes the egos of the people who think that way feel good.

    The problem, like you point out, is that reality is more complex. So I think the way that people of our generation soothe our egos is by showing the complexity that the anti-war/Baby Boomer generation missed. And at the end of the day, more complexity is always going to get closer to reality/the truth. So the pursuit of knowledge is still ego-driven, but it’s better that egos are being driven to show the complexity of the past/reality.

    Why would a young guy like John Green follow the ideas of the anti-war/Baby Boomer generation? Because that’s what he was raised on (as were you and I), but he hasn’t made the effort to learn/see more. As you know, there are many people in American society like that. The influence of the Baby Boomer generation has been immense in that way.

  3. This is a really nice analysis of why the study of the Vietnam War is so incomplete and in my view so inaccurate. I grew up reading those books written by Western, anti-war scholars and I was never satisfied with their conclusions. Since my family was from South Vietnam and fought on the losing side, I always thought the baby boomers’ view on the war was so out of this world. I agree that a lack of real understanding of the Vietnamese language was always a major impediment to understanding the complexity of a people and their society.

    The funny thing is I was looking recently at the requirements for graduate studies for European history at UCLA and it dawned on me that the school requires graduate students to have formal education in a European language to be admitted into the History department for graduate studies. If a historian can’t read, write or communicate in the language of the society he is studying, then how on earth is his conclusion offers any kind of understanding and knowledge?

    How come not enough people criticize this point about the orthodox view of the Vietnam war? None of those baby boomer historians have any knowledge of the Viet language!

    • Thanks for the comment!! By this point there are essentially two worlds of scholarship in English on the Vietnam War. There is a huge body of scholarship that relies on English-language sources, and there is a smaller body of scholarship by authors who use Vietnamese-language sources. It is not the case that “none of those baby boomer historians have any knowledge of the Viet language.” It’s just that the number of historians of that generation who do know Vietnamese are far smaller than the number of people from that generation who have written about the Vietnam War.

      As for your comment about language requirements, yes, I agree. At present, this is how it works: If you go to a university to get a graduate degree in Vietnamese history, you do need to know Vietnamese. For the Vietnam War, however, it is acceptable to go to a graduate program in American history (since the war can be viewed as part of the history of US foreign relations, etc.), and then there is no requirement to know Vietnamese (although these days there are people who do know it).

      The thing that has long bothered me, however, is that nowhere is there a requirement for someone who studies pre-1920s Vietnam to know classical Chinese, even though that is the language of the sources. If you go to a US university, that is not a requirement, and if you study in Vietnam, that is not a requirement either. Somehow everyone seems to think that it’s ok to use modern Vietnamese translations of sources that were originally written in another language – classical Chinese. To use your comparison with European history, this would be totally unacceptable.

      So yes, the study of Vietnamese history has long suffered from “language problems,” and it will continue to do so for a long time to come. . . ;(

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