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The Big Muddy

VIETNAM THE NECESSARY WAR, A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict By Michael Lind; The Free Press: 320 pp., $25

October 17, 1999|GEORGE C. HERRING | George C. Herring is a professor of history at University of Kentucky and the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975."

Americans have a long tradition of rewriting the history of their wars. Nineteenth century "revisionists" traced the origins of the Mexican-American war to a conspiracy of slave owners seeking to expand their control over the federal government. Later generations of revisionists blamed United States intervention in World War I on the pernicious influence of bankers and munitions makers and entry into World War II on Franklin Roosevelt's provoking the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

The Vietnam War has also had its revisionists but with an unusual twist. In the case of a conflict discredited long before it ended, the generally accepted view was that American leaders had intervened in a war that should not have been fought and probably could not have been won.

Thus, ironically, the first wave of revisionism mounted in the late 1970s by conservative and neoconservative intellectuals and by some former participants comprised a spirited and often passionate defense of a war that was deemed both moral and necessary and that, some argued, could and indeed should have been won. These writings provided an intellectual underpinning for the Reagan administration's vigorous waging of the Cold War. They did not persuade a skeptical public and had little impact on historical writing about the Vietnam War.

Michael Lind's "Vietnam the Necessary War" agrees with these revisionists on some key points but departs sharply from them on others, advancing arguments that are certain to provoke controversy. The Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, Lind calls himself an anti-communist liberal and, like his conservative predecessors, he has an explicit agenda: to correct what he sees as the myths about Vietnam perpetuated by academic and journalistic critics of the war that stand in the way of a vigorously interventionist foreign policy today.

A great deal is packed into these tightly argued pages, but the major points are unmistakably clear and in many cases highly debatable. Lind insists that the war in Vietnam was legal, moral and, most important, as his title boldly asserts, necessary.

He views the Cold War as World War III and the Vietnam War as one of the "proxy wars" on the Asian periphery that formed its major campaigns. He revives and takes seriously the long-discredited Cold War doctrine of a communist monolith, the notion of a tightly unified world movement directed by the Kremlin and committed to world revolution. He uses--quite selectively--evidence gleaned second-hand from scholars who have worked in newly opened Soviet and Chinese archives to try to demonstrate an absolute unity of purpose among the communist nations. He sees the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as a "charter member" of the "international communist conspiracy," minimizing the intense nationalism that most writers have seen as an essential part of his being. Ho is condemned, along with his mentors Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, as one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century.

According to Lind, the United States had to stop communist expansion in Indochina to preserve American credibility as a world leader. Otherwise, a bandwagon (rather than domino) effect might have resulted, causing numerous countries to jump on the victorious communist bandwagon and producing a "geopolitical catastrophe" for the United States.

Indeed, he concludes, this is precisely what happened. America's defeat in Vietnam set off a "worldwide Marxist-Leninist revolutionary wave, and discernible band-wagoning with the Soviet Union . . . in the mid-1970s." It was stopped only by the Reagan administration's timely and vigorous reassertion of American power that in time produced a Cold War victory for the United States.

Lind is equally firm on questions of morality and legality. Because communism is intrinsically evil, he argues, the Cold War was moral, and thus the the proxy wars that were central to the Cold War were also moral. He admits the corruption and repressiveness of the South Vietnamese government the United States supported but, he says, it was no worse than regimes the United States backed elsewhere, including South Korea and Taiwan, and it was less corrupt and repressive than its communist counterpart in Hanoi. He spends long pages seeking to correct what he refers to as "disinformation" about the Vietnam War as a way of rehabilitating it and giving it a moral foundation.

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