Robert Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Vietnam.

Profound and perspicacious, Robert Schulzinger's A Time for War sheds a critical light on America's troubled road to and through Vietnam. Using internal government memoranda to considerable effect, Schulzinger damningly portrays a foreign policy establishment grappling with an unwinnable situation by continually falling back on wish fulfillment and denial.

For Schulzinger, the key to understanding Vietnam is historical time. "For the Vietnamese," he writes, "the fight represented the latest phase of a centuries-long, even millennial, effort to define themselves and cast out invaders. Vietnamese nationalists and revolutionaries who fought the French and Americans seemed infinitely patient, serenely confident that eventually outsiders would have to go. But for first the French, and then the Americans and their Vietnamese allies, war seemed to go on forever. The French and the Americans grew increasingly frustrated and impatient when the war did not end on their terms." (3)

The story of America's gradual, halting entry into the Vietnamese quagmire is well known -- Still, Schulzinger conveys it with care and an impressive amount of detail. When Vietnamese nationalist (and long-time Communist) Ho Chi Minh founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, he explictly invoked the principle of self-determination as outlined in the Atlantic Charter and the US Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the Truman State Department - disoriented after the death of FDR, unmindful of the strategic importance of Vietnam, concerned about Minh's Communist ties, and eager above all else to placate longtime ally France - spurned Minh's cry of nationalism, and began a generation-long search for a stable non-Communist and anti-French nationalist "third force" to run Vietnam. Over the course of the next two decades, particularly after the glaring French defeat at Dienbienphu, the US replaced France as the primary Western power in the region and became increasingly convinced of the necessity of maintaining a non-Communist government in the South. As Schulzinger puts it, only a small handful of US observers (among them George Ball and John Kenneth Galbraith), ever "questioned the principle flaw in the U.S. strategy of nation-building: The United States had embarked on the impossible task of creating a separate state and society in the southern part of a single land." (96)

Events in Vietnam proceeded from bad to worse after (a) the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc (in protest of the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem's government) drew horrified international attention to the region and (b) a US-supported coup led to the death of the enormously unpopular Diem. In the wake of President Kennedy's assassination stateside three weeks later, the Johnson administration continued to try to establish a viable government in South Vietnam that would also take the fight to their Communist foes. A watershed moment was reached after the murky events of the Gulf of Tonkin (One US destroyer, the Maddox, was fired upon by the North Vietnamese during a surveillance mission within North Vietnamese waters; another, the C. Turner Joy, shot at phantom blips on the radar two nights later) According to Schulzinger, this "provided precisely the sort of provocation advocates of a congressional resolution had sought for months" (153), and thus the now-infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was born, granting LBJ the power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."

"Between late 1964 and the middle of 1965," writes Schulzinger, "the U.S. passed the point of no return in Vietnam...By June, Johnson had taken a series of decisions that irrevocably transformed the Vietnam conflict into an American war." (154) As the South Vietnamese government and forces continued to suffer from egregious morale and as it became increasingly clear that nothing short of a full-scale ground war involving American troops would stem the Communist tide, Johnson and his advisors fell victim to the power of positive thinking. As Schulzinger puts it, "while the experience of the previous ten years in Vietnam made policy-makers pause, their successes in other places in the world in World War II and the early Cold War gave them a sense of near invincibility. Nearly all of Johnson's senior advisers in 1965 believed it was better to do something - almost anything - to solve a problem than to admit that American action would not make things better." (181)

Over the course of the next ten years, of course, the worst possible situation for American policymakers occurred. For one, "American military tactics proved ineffective in forcing the North Vietnamese to either stop infiltration in the South or negotiate a settlement with the United States." (183) While US forces tried to provoke a full-scale confrontation with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, in order to snuff them out and destroy them, the Communists - using the same tactics that had beaten the French previously - relied on guerilla warfare, small-unit skirmishes, and an elaborate network of tunnels and pathways to stymie the American offensive. Moreover, the "United States fought the war it did because it possessed abundant air power, mobility, technology, and firepower. Technology - as much as logic - drove the plan." (183) Unfortunately, these technological advantages did little to halt the kind of war the Vietnamese had decided to wage.

In essence, the North Vietnamese played the waiting game. They bet that they could outlast America as they had their previous enemies, and that eventually "the U.S. public would tire of the war more quickly than would the Vietnamese." (183) In this assessment, they were correct, particularly after the surprise gambit of the 1968 Tet Offensive shocked American public morale and drove the knife into LBJ's Presidency. By the fall of 1968, the weary US and Vietnam began engaging in peace talks - talks that were ultimately sabotaged by the maudlin indifference of President Johnson and the electoral priorities of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

As President, Nixon paid lip service to the notion of achieving "peace with honor" as soon as humanly possible, while extending the war in brutal and unconstitutional ways, including initiating a top-secret bombing of Cambodia known as Operation Menu. Under Nixon's watch, 20,000 more Americans (and 300,000 Vietnamese) died in Vietnam despite he and Kissinger's attempts to "Vietnamize" the conflict. Finally, just after the election of 1972, Nixon and Kissinger signed the Paris accords, ending "direct U.S. participation in the fighting in Vietnam...Four years of the Nixon administration had made only one change from the conditions available to the United States in 1968," writes Schulzinger. The US "had not been forced to drop it support for the government of President Thieu, but that government now had agreed to share power. The final agreement allowed the government of President Thieu a fighting chance to remain in power -- no more, no less." (304)

Within two years, it became all-too-clear that this "chance" for Thieu was not worth its price in blood. Not long after the American military began to pull out, South Vietnam - the doomed three-decade old nation-building project of American foreign policy - collapsed. The final moments of the Vietnamese conflict, on April 29, 1975, were ignominious ones for the US, as Americans and South Vietnamese mobbed the Saigon embassy in an attempt to evacuate the falling capital. The war, finally was over. As Schulzinger notes (in reference to Kissinger's invocation of Munich after the embassy events), "even at the very end Americans were not thinking about the country they were supposed to be helping. As always, they were preoccupied with something -- be it domestic politics, containment, the Cold War, or credibility -- other than what was actually happening in Vietnam." (327)

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