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How we lost Vietnam
Question of the Day
TO OPPOSE ANY FOE: THE LEGACY OF U. S. INTERVENTION IN VIETNAM
Edited by Ross A. Fisher, John Norton Moore, Robert F. Turner
Carolina Academic, $50, 618 pages
REVIEWED BY ILYA SHAPIRO
A president elected on promises to avoid foreign entanglements in general and "nation-
building" in particular feels obligated to deploy troops to a hostile foreign land where America has been securing a precarious geopolitical stability for over a decade. Though the engagement was to be short in duration and limited in scope, insurgents pursuing asymmetrical warfare force the United States to change mission parameters and maintain a prolonged presence.
While we will not know for a long while the final outcome of President George W. Bush's decision to enter Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein -- let alone be able to pronounce on the administration's overall conduct of the war on terror -- critics have long been making parallels to Vietnam, and always in the sense that Vietnam was a foreign policy failure.
Whether these parallels are apt, or go beyond the most superficial stylized similarities of the previous paragraph, I will leave for another day. What is more telling is that the specter of Vietnam haunts us still.
Though three decades have passed since that country fell to the communists, and though we have been enmeshed in another (increasingly unpopular) war for nearly three years, politicians and political analysts continue hearkening to America's involvement in Southeast Asia.
The Vietnam War has influenced policy ideas and political alignments, historiography and international law scholarship. And so, 30 years after the last American helicopter left Saigon, fresh thinking on "what it all means" is still, remarkably, in order.
"To Oppose Any Foe," a compilation of essays by University of Virginia law students (stemming from seminars taught by two of the editors, John Norton Moore and Robert F. Turner), is just such a rethink.
(Full disclosure: The third editor, Ross A. Fisher, was a classmate of mine at Princeton, though he was a history major and I studied international relations.)
From the American military's role in preserving global security in the 1960s and '70s, to the failure of the Paris Peace Accords, to the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, the book provides novel historical analyses of the salient issues of the day. As would be expected from a group of lawyers, it also presents exegeses of the legal advice given to foreign policy teams at the beginning of the Vietnam War and the reshaping of the command responsibility doctrine after My Lai.
Appropriately, "To Oppose Any Foe" ends with an application of the lessons of Vietnam to America's aborted intervention in Somalia. The most fascinating contribution to the collection is the first one.
Mr. Fisher's own revisionist account of America's involvement in the overthrow of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, a prelude to our wholesale entree into what had essentially been a post-colonial civil war.
Mr. Fisher provides compelling evidence that Diem's American critics were so convinced that the war against the communist north was unwinnable under Diem's leadership because of his "authoritarian" nature that they ignored facts to the contrary (such as support in the countryside and progress against the Viet Cong in spite of overplayed Buddhist protests). George Ball, for example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk's deputy, called Diem "more a Tammany tiger than a disciple of Thomas Jefferson."
Moreover, Mr. Fisher contends, an anti-Diem cabal led by Averell Harriman, the under secretary of state for political affairs (number three at Foggy Bottom), effectively managed to green-light a coup when more senior officials (including Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, CIA head John McCone, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor) were unavailable to give President Kennedy their (tempering)advice, and just when a more foresighted ambassador, Frederick Nolting, had been replaced by old Kennedy rival Henry Cabot Lodge.
This was the same Harriman who, while now thinking himself quite realistic in evaluating internal Vietnamese affairs, had earlier shown his profound naivete in trumpeting a "fingertips feeling" that the Soviets would police the Ho Chi Minh trail to prevent Viet Cong infiltration from Laos.
Lyndon Johnson removed both Harriman and his protege Roger Hilsman shortly after taking office, but the damage had been done. As Mr. Fisher convincingly argues, the "skillful bureaucratic maneuvering [of the Diem antagonists] thwarted the wishes of their superiors" and led to "the gravest error that the Kennedy Administration made in its policy toward Vietnam."
That error (the Diem coup) was emblematic of the convoluted run-up to the Gulf of Tonkin and set the stage for the controversies that raged throughout the war, and that have continued into the accounts written in its aftermath.
In presenting its novel challenges to the conventional wisdom about Vietnam, "To Oppose Any Foe" has something for everyone, from the historian and historically-minded layman to the military strategist and legal scholar. That there can exist such opposing views is certainly a parallel to the scholarship developing around our current war. Let us hope that the practical legacy of Iraq, both for the people of that nation and for American policy, will not be similarly comparable to that of Vietnam.
Ilya Shapiro, a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS Daily.com.
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