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The Big Muddy

A TIME FOR WAR: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975.\o7 By Robert D. Schulzinger\f7 . \o7 Oxford University Press: 398 pp., $35\f7

May 11, 1997|GEORGE C. HERRING | George C. Herring is the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975" and "LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War." He is professor of history at the University of Kentucky

More than 20 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam continues to haunt Americans. It is the war that never seems to go away, yet we still understand it poorly, if at all. Our memory is, at best, fuzzy; at worst, distorted. Many have embraced the myths that the defeat was self-inflicted; that the civilians would not let the military win; that we could have won if we had just fought differently; and that the national will was subverted by a hostile media and the antiwar movement.

Robert Schulzinger's admirable synthesis, "A Time for War," persuasively challenges these and other myths. A professor of history at the University of Colorado, Schulzinger surveys American involvement in Vietnam from the beginning of World War II to the collapse of South Vietnam. He has mastered the vast literature on the war. He makes excellent use of newly declassified documents from U.S., British and Canadian archives and of the private papers of government officials, congressional members and peace activists. The range of sources from the American side, at least, ensures an impressive richness of detail.

Much of what is covered here will be familiar to students of the Vietnam War, and the book does not break ground interpretively. But this up-to-date survey does provide balanced and convincing answers to what, for Americans, remain the most urgent questions. Why did the United States make such a huge and eventually disastrous commitment in an area seemingly so insignificant? And why, despite the size of the commitment, was the world's greatest power unable to impose its will on what President Johnson once dismissed as that "raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country"?

Americans are notoriously ahistoric. If asked, most would probably date their involvement in Vietnam from 1965 or, perhaps, 1961. Schulzinger properly devotes about one-third of the book to the period before 1963. He wisely reminds us how far back we must go to comprehend the origins and outcome of a war that for the Vietnamese lasted more than three decades. He skillfully traces the origins of Vietnamese nationalism to their 1,000-year struggle against Chinese rule and the roots of the more recent conflict to the communist-led Vietminh Revolution against France at the end of World War II. He follows the fateful course of American policy, from the grudging and ultimately massive and futile support for France's war against the Vietminh, to the assumption of responsibility for an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam after the inconclusive Geneva Conference of 1954, to the Americanization of the Second Indochina War under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Taking the war back to its roots is crucial to understanding its dynamics and outcome. Placing it in the context of Vietnam's unrelenting struggle against outsiders--the Chinese, the French and, finally, the Americans--helps explain the otherwise inexplicable tenacity and ferocity of Vietnamese resistance. Considering American intervention against the backdrop of the nationalist revolution against French colonialism--something rarely done at the time--makes it impossible to see the war, as it was popularly viewed then, as part of the Cold War struggle between communism and the "free world."

"A Time for War" also explains how the United States was drawn into a full-scale conflict through the process of incremental escalation. Schulzinger reminds us that for Americans, the war was never really about Vietnam itself. From Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, policymakers viewed it in terms of the Cold War.

In the early days of the Vietnam War, Americans felt compelled to support the French lest a neutral stance weaken their solidarity with European allies against the Soviet Union. Throughout the process of escalation, they saw the Cold War as a global conflict, all parts of which were interconnected. Weakness in one area might tempt Communist "aggression" in another. Hence, a persistent concern about its credibility drove the United States toward greater commitment in Vietnam.

Schulzinger also documents a widening gap among policymakers between private pessimism and public optimism. To maintain public support for an increasingly costly commitment, United States officials had to put on a happy face. In truth, they were plagued by doubts. Yet at every step, they plunged ahead because the consequences of inaction always seemed more dangerous.

Of course, no one could foresee the grim outcome. Success and prosperity since World War II had given Americans a "sense of near invincibility," Schulzinger observes. Nothing as "catastrophic as the Vietnam experience had happened before in U.S. foreign policy, so why should the doomsayers be right now?"

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