The accepted wisdom that the Vietnam War was a mistake rests on two assumptions, Mark Moyar, the director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History, writes in The New York Times, first that the war was unnecessary, and second that the war was unwinnable. He sets out to refute both.
The first case — showing that the war was indeed necessary — seems to me to be the hardest to make. If we enter a war of choice — which Vietnam was, since by no stretch of the imagination were we under an existential threat — and essentially lose it and are no worse off geopolitically than if we'd never entered — how can we possibly say the war was necessary?
Those who claim the war was unnecessary do so by trying to discredit the domino theory that was used to justify the war. Ho Chi Minh was much more of a nationalist than he was a Communist, so he had no interest in using a victory to spread Communism throughout Southeast Asia. And, in fact, the dominoes did not fall when the Communists claimed their victory in Vietnam.
But the critics, Moyar says, ignore what was going on when President Johnson made his fateful decision in 1965 to insert ground troops into the country:
In fact, in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, anti-Communist leaders were warning that South Vietnam's fall would cause all the Southeast Asian dominoes to fall, and were offering to commit troops to the anti-Communist cause. Suddenly, the domino theory looked far more plausible.
[. . .]
Ho Chi Minh was a doctrinaire Communist who, like his Soviet and Chinese allies, adhered to the Marxist-Leninist view that Communists of all nations should collaborate in spreading the world revolution. By the time of Johnson's decision to deploy ground troops into South Vietnam, Ho and his allies were nearing their objective of turning all of Southeast Asia Communist, and they most likely would have succeeded had the United States bailed out. American intervention made possible an anti-Communist coup in Indonesia and the self-devastation of China's Cultural Revolution, and it bought time for other Asian dominoes to shore up their defenses.
But even if the domino theory was right — and I'm not sure it can be proven one way or the other in retrospect — that is not ipso facto evidence that going to war was the right thing to do. As mentioned, we were under no existential threat, so the case for war had to rest on the claim that it would be in the nation's long-term interests somehow. How much in fact would a Communist Southeast Asia have hurt us? What was the cost to prevent it, and was it worth it? What else did we ignore while concentrating so much on that tiny corner of the globe? In imagining 'what if" futures, we over-rely on past chains of events to the point where we completely miss how things might change. Today, we are friends with Vietnam and "normalized with Cuba," and we're trying to leverage China to do something about North Korea. Iran wasn't even on anybody's radar in 1965.
We can respectfully disagree, but it seems to be that, on balance, war with Vietnam was not necessary. We had plenty of other options we should have explored.
But the war was winnable, and that can still bring anger, even rage, bubbling up in some of us to this day. And it would have been won with better strategic decisions:
The most momentous blunder was the decision of the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to foment the coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, which wrecked the South Vietnamese security apparatus and led North Vietnam to initiate a huge invasion of the South. Another mistake was Johnson's decision to not insert American ground forces into Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a move that would have transformed the war and reduced the need for American forces.
And in 1967, the Johnson administration made the biggest blunder of all by deciding not to put the nation on a war footing — to not sell the war, not make the case to the American people that it was a necessary war:
The lack of public enthusiasm for the war, administration officials now realized, was encouraging the enemy to believe that the United States would eventually abandon its ally, and therefore North Vietnam had no reason to desist.
“The administration made a deliberate decision not to create a war psychology in the United States,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked that October, because it was “too dangerous for this country to get worked up.” Johnson, Rusk and other officials had feared that war fever would undermine the domestic programs of the Great Society and heighten tensions with the Soviets. But now, Rusk conceded, “maybe this was a mistake; maybe it would have been better to take steps to build up a sense of a nation at war.”
In the absence of presidential cheerleading, American public support for the war declined over the course of 1967. As administration officials had feared, the apparent weakening of American resolve hardened the determination of the North Vietnamese to persist. Hanoi rebuffed every American overture for peace negotiations, anticipating that the coming Tet offensive would destroy what remained of America's will.
In other words, the public's turn against the war was not inevitable; it was, rather, the result of a failure by policy makers to explain and persuade Americans to support it.
When Johnson inherited the war from President Kennedy, it seems to me he had two honorable courses he could have pursued. One would have been to say it wasn't worth the cost and bring the troops home, early, before our losses in blood and treasure became so horrendous. The other was to suck it up and commit to winning the war as quickly and with as few casualties as possible. He did neither. He chose the one most dishonorable course: He kept us committed to the war but not to winning it. He played political games with American lives. He just fooled around with war.
That's the one lesson some of us still carry from Vietnam: You do not fool around with war. You do not enter one unless it is the very last option you have, until you have exhausted all other possibilities. But once you have let slip the dogs of war, you are in it to win it. The only way to end the war is to declare victory.
And that's the one lesson American leadership seems not to have learned. It's just as hard to make the case for going into Iraq as it was for going into Vietnam. But once in the war, it was just as important to win it as it was in Vietnam. Going with a "soft footprint" and courting disaster was a conscious decision by President Bush, corrected only when someone who had studied history came up with the surge. And not building on that turning point so we had a shot at winning was a conscious decision by President Obama.