Losing the War

Robert Dallek

  • A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan
    Cape, 861 pp, £15.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 224 02648 8

Americans struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. The country’s longest and only losing conflict invokes painful memories of wanton killing, government lying and moral degeneration that seem for removed from the nation’s other 20th-century wars. The films Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War present images of brave Americans overwhelmed by the brutality and senselessness of the struggle. Although American battlefield losses in World War One, Korea and Vietnam were roughly comparable and far less than in World War Two, the 58,000 dead in Vietnam seem to weigh more heavily on the country’s conscience. The respectful curiosity of visiting Americans at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, or at a Normandy cemetery I have observed, is pallid alongside the emotional reactions one sees at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.

American grief about the war is mixed with enduring feelings of frustration and anger. Similar feelings remain about Korea. Like Vietnam, it was a ‘limited war’ which fell short of stated goals. The preservation of South Korea was better than the total loss of Vietnam, but less than the ‘liberation’ of the whole Peninsula which American military forces aimed to achieve when they ventured north of the 38th Parallel. Moreover, we entered the Korean and Vietnam Wars without the kind of public debate that prepared Congressional and mass opinion for national sacrifice and made World Wars One and Two popular crusades. In this respect, however, Korea was more understandable to Americans than Vietnam. The Korean decisions were more the consequence of circumstances than choice. The North Korean attack on the South and subsequent retreat above the Parallel following MacArthur’s September 1950 landing at Inchon demanded policy directives that could not wait on public reactions. Nevertheless, the Truman Administration paid a high political price for proceeding without a well-developed national consensus: battlefield losses and domestic inflation largely destroyed Truman’s hold on the public, strengthened the appeal of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism, and undermined public tolerance for rational debate about foreign policy. The Korean War was an object lesson in what little patience Americans had for a limited war and how essential it was to prepare the nation for the frustrations of a conflict in which wise statesmanship barred the Government from doing more than it did.

America’s leaders learned exactly the wrong lesson from Korea. If the public and the Congress had limited capacity to understand and accept a limited war, the nation’s elected and appointed executive officers aimed to hide unpleasant decisions and realities from them. From 1961 to 1965, when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations expanded US commitments in Vietnam, the realities of what we were doing and the difficulties confronting us were muted – partly to discourage public debate and inhibitions on executive freedom to make policy, and partly out of the delusion that political and military experts knew how to fix the problem before its cost in blood and treasure agitated public questions. As the journalist David Halberstam emphasised in 1972 in The Best and the Brightest, the experts were less than wise. More important, the making of far-reaching overseas commitments without a Congressional and public consensus was a formula for political failure at home and for military defeat abroad.

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