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Correspondence

May 23, 1999

To the Editor:

The Vietnam War has been over for almost 25 years. We are now in the midst of another controversial war--in Kosovo. Yet it is Vietnam that still inspires rage, for example in Stanley Karnow's recent comments (Book Review, May 16) on our new book, "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy."

Most of Karnow's criticism was focused on the person of our senior co-author, Robert S. McNamara, U.S. defense secretary for seven of the 15 years in which the Vietnam conflict rose and fell in American life. Because he alone among U.S. leaders has accepted full responsibility for his actions in those years, McNamara is the one most often blamed for the war's pain--more than Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, McGeorge Bundy or Henry Kissinger, and certainly more than the North Vietnamese, who persisted in the war despite the deaths of more than 3 million of their countrymen.

Our book--co-authored by Col. Herbert Schandler of the National Defense University and Thomas Biersteker of Brown University in addition to McNamara and ourselves--is an effort by Americans and Vietnamese to learn from the tragedy. Our objective, which seems especially important as we once again wage a war few Americans claim to understand, is to draw lessons from Vietnam and apply them to the present and future.

The Vietnam War was among the bloodiest in all of human history. It is estimated that something on the order of 3 million to 8 million Vietnamese (North and South, military and civilian) were killed. The U.S. lost 58,000. Had the U.S. lost in proportion to its population the same percentage as Vietnam, it would have lost 27 million people. Many times these numbers were wounded. In the course of the war, in addition, North and South Vietnam were nearly destroyed as functioning societies, and America was torn asunder by issues related to the war. Ironically, each principal combatant achieved its objectives: The Hanoi government reunified Vietnam under its leadership, and the "dominoes" did not fall--communism and Soviet and Chinese hegemony did not spread across Southeast Asia.

The thesis of "Argument Without End" is that the war was a tragedy for both sides. Both Washington and Hanoi could have accomplished their purposes without the appalling loss of life. There were missed opportunities, for either avoiding the war before it started or for terminating it before it had run its course. McNamara had speculated along these lines in his 1995 memoir of the war, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam." But lacking access to either former officials or documents from the Hanoi government, he could not pursue the matter further at that time.

Since then, however, this thesis has been buttressed by an analysis of formerly unavailable, newly translated Vietnamese and Chinese documents as well as six sets of discussions in Hanoi over more than three years between Vietnamese and U.S. scholars and former officials. For the first time, we believe, an understanding has begun to emerge regarding which of the decisions on each side were made on the basis of an accurate understanding of the motives and capabilities of the adversaries and which were made on the basis of misperceptions, miscalculations and misjudgments. We believe our analysis adds significantly to the historical record. On the basis of this analysis, we propose lessons that should be drawn for advancing peace among nations in the 21st century.

We believe, therefore, that history is not immune from human initiative. Does it matter whether one believes that human decisions make a difference? We believe it does, for two reasons: first, because such a view encourages us to search for missed opportunities that, if they had been grasped, would have led to a better result; and second, because the analysis of missed opportunities often points to lessons aimed at preventing missed opportunities in the future. Of course, outside pressures exist that limit actions. But leaders should lead, not succumb to such pressures.

The basic questions put to participants in the Hanoi meetings--and to readers of "Argument Without End"--were, first: In light of what now can be learned from the historical record, what U.S. and Vietnamese decisions might have been different and what difference would they have made in the course of the war if each side had judged the other side's intentions and capabilities more accurately? And second, would not a discussion of these missed opportunities, the U.S. and Vietnamese mind-sets that led to them and the lessons to be drawn from such an analysis help avoid similar conflicts?

The British historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood once wrote: "In history, as in all serious matters, no achievement is final. . . . Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves."

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