My mother was a teenager when she made her perilous journey to America as a “boat person.” Undoubtedly hiding from me many of the ugly realities of the Vietnam War, she instead loved to tell me the story of how American soldiers had given two dogs to my grandfather. He became so attached to them that after one of the dogs died protecting my mother from a snake, he used what little money he had for a proper burial.
For many South Vietnamese, stories like this reveal their feelings about the war. America was a friend that, for various reasons, could not prevent Vietnam from losing its chance at true freedom. South Vietnamese mourn what could have been, but appreciate Americans for fulfilling the obligations of an ally.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War has been a gift because its even-handed retelling of the war has generated renewed discussion of a turning point in world history. The reaction among academics and in the mainstream press, though, has been disheartening with scant diversity of opinion, and almost no input from Vietnamese. Typical of the response has been that of historian Andrew Bacevich, arguing that despite its strengths, The Vietnam War lacked the willingness to interpret and render moral judgments of a war that was “beyond all reason.” Bacevich contends the documentary does not go beyond the truism that the war was a great tragedy. Others argue U.S. intervention was duplicitous (Newsweek) or a crime (The Intercept).
Certainly, truisms often deflect critical reflection and assume too much. The same can be said about another Vietnam War truism: that the U.S. had no business being in Vietnam because it was not within its interests.
The truth is the Vietnam War clearly was within U.S. interests. By not fighting alongside South Vietnam, the United States’ credibility would have severely been harmed. In the region, South Korea and Japan needed reassurance that the U.S. was a credible ally, especially due to the high costs the alliance put on them. European allies also required strong signals that the U.S. could be a guarantor of security in the midst of the Cold War. Certainly, losing a war harms credibility of strength, but unwillingness to back an ally harms credibility of trustworthiness.
The U.S would have greatly benefited from having a strong democracy in Southeast Asia, especially one bordering the southern part of China. China has increasingly challenged the U.S. in the South China Sea, most notably in its construction of artificial islands in disputed waters. The U.S. presence in the region is necessary to maintain freedom of navigation, trade, security, and assurances to allies. Due to deteriorating relations with the Philippines, Vietnam has increasingly geostrategic importance. Increased cooperation between the countries in recent years to balance China suggests the relationship is within U.S. security interests.
By committing to the south after the 1954 partition of Vietnam, the U.S. tied itself to the fate of the South Vietnamese people. Moreover, the subsequent Geneva Accords were brokered by imperial powers and North Vietnam received immense support from China and the Soviet Union during the war. Vietnam’s fate was never completely up to the Vietnamese people. Detractors have bought into the myth that Western powers’ hands are clean if they just allow former colonial states to just “figure it out.”
Detractors of U.S. support for South Vietnam point to the illiberal Ngo Dinh Diem regime of the 1950s and ‘60s as evidence of U.S. political interests and lack of support for “true” democracy. However, the many protests against the Diem regime indicate the people understood what democracy was and were willing to fight and die for it. Strong democracies in Asia do not pop up overnight. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, whose democracies are so critical to regional stability today took decades to become fully free. South Korea had its first free election 38 years after the war.
Since Vietnam lacks a funhouse mirror version of itself in the North, many Americans have become complacent with how bad communists were. In a damning critique of The Vietnam War, Jerry Lembcke flippantly argues that the film is built around “a drumbeat of the Communists did this, the Communists did that—Communist aggression, Communist assassinations, Communists kill their enemy wounded,” as if these things did not occur. Such sentiments rely on strawman depictions of the war to obscure gross injustices, such as the Hue massacre and Tet Offensive.
The idea that the Vietnam War was not in the United States’ interest can be heavily tied to losing the war, something many Americans have difficulty comprehending. The geostrategic reasons for fighting in Korea and holding onto Japan were similar, but they are considered legitimate interventions because they were success stories. Strategic calculations can vary, but commitment to an ally must be steadfast.
The PBS series has been criticized for its conclusion that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstanding, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit it had been caused by tragic decisions.” The use of Agent Orange and other atrocities demand us to be critical of the U.S., but also demand that we follow through on good intentions in practice. Burns’ conclusion that we entered the war and lost our way is a fair assessment. Cynics look at this conclusion and think he is trying to whitewash U.S. atrocities, but I think the more meaningful point is that wars have a way of breaking good people, and we must be vigilant in not allowing that to happen, by understanding our interests and not running away from conflicts around the world.
The Vietnam War has profound implications today. Detractors of that long-ago conflict believe the U.S. is making the same mistake in Afghanistan and Iraq, while at the same time worrying that President Trump weakens alliances with his rhetoric and wishing the U.S. did more to protect human rights violations abroad. The Vietnam War does not give a clear answer as to what path the U.S. should take, but we cannot be so cynical as to believe that good faith is not within our interests.
Tom Le is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College.