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A Requiem for Vietnam

A friend recently called my attention to a symposium on “The Meaning of Vietnam” that appeared in the June 12, 1975 issue of the New York Review of Books. Just weeks before, Saigon had fallen and the Republic of Vietnam had passed out of existence. The editors of the NYRB considered the moment opportune for some of the paper’s regular contributors—leading lights of the East Coast intelligentsia—to assess the war’s significance and implications.  

In retrospect, we may judge the effort both presumptuous and wildly premature. True, President Gerald Ford had already declared the war “finished as far as America is concerned” and was urging his countrymen to move on. It was past time, Ford insisted, for Americans to “stop refighting the battles and the recriminations of the past.”  

Yet for the people of Southeast Asia, the North Vietnamese victory did not signify peace restored. More violence and suffering were to come. And for many Americans who had served in Vietnam, along with South Vietnamese who had become Americans, “in-country” experiences were not easily shed or forgotten. The war’s adverse effects thereby continued to accumulate. Even today, especially among veterans wrestling with demons and afflicted with service-induced medical ailments, the war’s toll continues to mount. Count Agent Orange among its gifts that keep on giving.

That said, the several essays comprising the NYRB symposium are worth considering today. On an interim basis, they serve as a stand-in for a similar symposium on “The Meaning of Afghanistan and Iraq” that is unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. After all, even a nominal end to these longest wars in U.S. history is nowhere in sight.

So herewith some selected extracts from “The Meaning of Vietnam,” not without relevance to our present circumstance. Some express enduring truths. Some warn. Others miss the mark, but in interesting ways. I offer them in the hope that they might provide a basis for thoughtful—perhaps even sorrowful and contrite—reflection.

Garry Wills, journalist and historian:

Because we concentrate on ourselves, the result of Vietnam will probably be that of the Bay of Pigs—a search for some new place to prove our toughness.

Gore Vidal, author and critic:


“Isolationist” is simply this year’s code word for those who oppose the use of military force against other nations, for those who refuse to bear any burden, make any sacrifice, etc. …After 1976, I predict (being an optimist) that the word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished….

Susan Sontag, social critic:

“We” in the “[antiwar] Movement” affected public opinion, but weren’t able to affect the use of power or damage the spectacular electoral consensus for continuing a surrogate war without American deaths.

Mary McCarthy, writer:

To blame our leaders, with their professional deformations, for not rising to the occasion offered them by the war’s end, in other words for not being different from what they evidently are, is a stupid exercise…. 

There is no doubt that Germany was profoundly changed and sobered by the Nazi defeat, but it would take an atomic catastrophe, I often think, for the US to recover from the American way of life—the production-consumption cycle that has become an almost biological fact, resting as it does on rapid obsolescence and replacement. Intermittent elections add to the helpless feeling of stasis and eternal recurrence. You watch the same old candidates—Reagan, Jackson, Kennedy, Humphrey, Wallace—on your new color TV set…. But for some un-Marxist reason, the constant restyling of the objects among which we live has no effect on the political superstructure, politicians being sent to the junk heap of history at a much slower rate than cars and ice-dispensers.

Norman Mailer, writer:

Our real question is not geopolitical at all. It is whether America can improve, whether we can come to grips with industrial pollution, and the psychic pollution of high-rise and suburban real-estate overdevelopment, with automobiles and freeways, with the voids of synthetics, with the buildings of the last twenty years which have to be the worst architecture in the history of the world, with the packaging of food—it may yet prove the most unhealthy food in the history of the world—with the shriek-zones of electronics and media glut, and all of our lack of participatory democracy, yes, all of our political impotence…. We’re bombed on future shock.

Christopher Lasch, historian and social critic:

On the one hand American policy makers exaggerated their own capacity to control events by means of their overwhelming military supremacy, while on the other hand they worried excessively about the American “image” abroad, as if they themselves were not quite sure they were as tough and big as they pretended to be.

George Kennan, diplomat and historian:

The lessons of Vietnam are few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word “communism” and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.

Elizabeth Hardwick, novelist and literary critic:

There is no visible remorse about Vietnam on the part of our leaders. They speak of the “tragedy” of losing; they give the appearance of having in the end lost by way of a perplexing and questionable degree of leniency. But they are far from seeing virtue in the limitations of force brought about by processes, political and American. Those limitations alarm and so the leaders are quick to assert that we will stand by our commitments, as if it were the constancy that mattered rather than the justice, the wisdom of the commitment itself.

John K. Fairbank, China scholar:

Many “lessons” are being drawn from Vietnam, most of them profoundly culture-bound. Ignorant of Buddhism, rice culture, peasant life, and Vietnamese history and values generally, we sent our men and machines to Saigon. Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.

Geoffrey Barraclough, historian:

No one threatens a United States which looks after its own concerns; but a United States which throws its weight around and tries to make the world an “American world” is in for trouble….

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "A Requiem for Vietnam"

#1 Comment By Otto On February 6, 2018 @ 11:17 pm

“I offer them in the hope that they might provide a basis for thoughtful—perhaps even sorrowful and contrite—reflection.” How does that square with surveys that state 75% of VVs said they were proud to serve in Vietnam and 65% said they would do it again?
Plus are you proud or ashamed that you served in Vietnam?

#2 Comment By Youknowho On February 7, 2018 @ 12:57 am

And the Vietnam war ended. Saigon fell, and the Communists ruled.

The world did not come to an end. Vietnam began to grow and change as an unified country, life became better gradually, and they even forgave the Americans…

But Americans did not get any wiser.

#3 Comment By Cesar Jeopardy On February 7, 2018 @ 2:49 am

Ignorant of the depth of our ignorance seems very true. And we never seem to learn.

#4 Comment By Hexexis On February 7, 2018 @ 10:05 am

Kennan: “no substantial American strategic interest at stake.”

I don’t really wanna be a kvetch on this point, but I doubt that any one of our party of influence-peddlin’, public personae would know an Am. strategic interest if it gnawed off a face & sent blood a’spurtin’ from the jugular.

It’d be just, “Wayyy, lemme make my point! Arrrawgh!!”

#5 Comment By sherparick On February 7, 2018 @ 11:43 am

Otto comments are worth noting because I would expect that totals would have been close to 100% for WWII and 90% for Korea.

The Vietnam war is estimated to have cost 3.4 million lives, military and civilian, 3.3+ million being Vietnamese, North and South. [1]

Meanwhile, 40 years later, [2]

It probably best with wars to follow Jesus’ counsel, and let the dead bury the dead and not hold grudges.

#6 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 7, 2018 @ 11:54 am

Unfortunately it seems that the wrong lessons were learned in the aftermath of Vietnam. Thus the US finds itself mired in quicksand that is the Middle East and even that doesn’t seem to be enough for the American warmongers.

#7 Comment By Youknowho On February 7, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

Alas, one of the downsides of being a rich country is the amount of stupidity you can afford. And the downside of never having been invaded is thinking of war as a spectator sport.

So yes, the US may have learned nothing from Vietnam.

#8 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 7, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

The last contributor, Barraclough, hit a home run.

Alas, to paraphrase a popular 70s song, we’re “In trouble again…naturally.”

#9 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 7, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

Kennan and Barraclough.

#10 Comment By Jon On February 7, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

But the drum beats on. Four types of persons we worship outside of our churches: (1) movie starts (2) lead singers (3) athletes and (4) soldiers. The last item on this list are deemed heroes who sacrifice part if not their entire lives.

In effect, we worship murderers and like the Canaanites of old in the Valley of Hinnom pass our children between pillars of fire as offerings to the war god Moloch. Yes, they are our children fore the majority of soldiers are young.

#11 Comment By Jon On February 7, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

Movie starts should read movie stars.

#12 Comment By bacon On February 7, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

@Otto – It is possible, even common, to do one’s job and later feel neither pride nor shame. I went to Viet Nam in 1966. I was an infantry (later military police) lieutenant and Viet Nam was where the job was. I think I am a better person for having been there in the sense that I learned things, many of them hard, bad things, that would otherwise have taken decades to learn, if ever, and those lessons provided a steadying effect in my life as I got older. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that year, beyond the satisfaction of having done the job I signed up to do. I do have an appreciation of having “seen the elephant”, to borrow a term from an earlier war.

#13 Comment By Professor Nerd On February 7, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

What’s more, America somehow made itself the “victim” in the Vietnam War, as if they had invaded us.
I wonder how many people saw that coming.

#14 Comment By doug On February 7, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

It’s been said well before the Civil War that “Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States.”

One wonders if/when He tires.

#15 Comment By ROB On February 8, 2018 @ 12:09 am

I served but not in Vietnam. I am proud of that service. I never met anyone who served who was not proud of his or her service. I expect I would be prouder if my orders had sent me to Vietnam.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 8, 2018 @ 1:57 pm


these people don’t make policy. However, we see their advocacy alive and well in:

— Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Ukraine and others to follow.

— the very idea that anyone might not consider
having a uterus the sole qualification for the

— that unrestricted immigration might is an
american value

— That deplorable citizens should sit down and
shut up because the small minority of artistic
and intellectual geniuses have the country well
in hand — as evidenced by the income gap in
which the top 10% attend $20,000 dinners of
special access extolling why the choice to
engage in same sex behavior is the same as
heterosexual behavior and warrants marriage —
flying in the face of more than 1 million years
of relational dynamic history.

But then I live in a world in which 1 plus 1 equals as opposed to whatever my enlightened Brown, Radcliffe . . . University deems is truth. Where women are equal until it’s time to put their toe to heel in the wars they are now demanding be fought in the name their view of democracy.

As for needless murdering children in the womb — I have no doubt of their response,

“They had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

#17 Comment By No Slack On February 8, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

When (ever) will we think that we are being guided by Providence?

#18 Comment By Charlieford On February 10, 2018 @ 10:45 am

Garry Wills–“Because we concentrate on ourselves, the result of Vietnam will probably be that of the Bay of Pigs—a search for some new place to prove our toughness”–had it right. That very spring was the Mayaguez affair in which the Ford administration opted for (abysmally planned and implemented) force over diplomacy because Henry Kissinger thought America needed to “look derocious,” and 41 Americans lost their lives as a result (three of them after being abandoned on the field of battle).

#19 Comment By Larry McNeill On February 10, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

Ignorance is the plague of the 21st century, if not for all time past, present, and future; violence is but a symptom of that ignorance. Our leaders, military and political, wield swords forged of ignorance and shields forged of arrogance. Still, although we have historically layed play blame for America’s problems on politicians, the true blame lies with the indifference of the citizenry which has squandered the opportunity and privilege of self rule and settled for the illusion that acquisition and retention of wealth is what it means to be an American. “Don’t bother me with politics, I’ve got my hands full!”

#20 Comment By Nelson On February 10, 2018 @ 11:55 pm

Garry Wills, journalist and historian:

Because we concentrate on ourselves, the result of Vietnam will probably be that of the Bay of Pigs—a search for some new place to prove our toughness.

Indeed. The funny and/or sad thing is Vietnam is now rather pro-US. War is a big loser for us, while patience is a winner. Yet, consistently, we prefer war to patience. And like day follows night, no matter how many foreign places we bomb, we exclusively focus on what it means for us, rather than what it means for them.

#21 Comment By Stephen Martinek On February 11, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

You-know-who has it right. Ironically enough. Vietnam is among the most promising emerging markets and an increasingly popular destination for FDI and joint ventures. Heng Sang index was up nearly 50% last year and GDP growth is consistently strong.

The commies took over and not only did the world not end, the economy at least appears to be trending in the right direction.

So much meaningless sacrifice to achieve so little. The whole enterprise was great human tragedy. Personally, I find it as appropriate to apologize to veterans as to thank them.

#22 Comment By Gerald O’Hare On February 11, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

Mostly shortsighted thinking here. The Korean War and the Vietnam war drained the resources of the USSR. Thus causing the collapse of the USSR. If you remember the USSR was a significant threat to the USA and world peace. Without those two wars we would still have half the world, or more, under Soviet domination.

NOW WE LIVE IN A MUCH DIFFERENT WORLD. We have our own abundant sources of energy and we are much better able to live well without worry from a global threat. North Korea, the Russian Federation and even China are too limited to destroy us. Nuclear weapons are a zero sum game. You attack us and we eliminate your country from the planet. This is why nobody uses nuclear weapons. Terrorists can at best make a small device without a delivery system but government can and they know that nuclear war is a suicide measure.

For the first time in our history we can disengage from the crazy parts of the world. Just engage in trade and commerce with nations that are rub by sane people. Our goal should be establishing a type I civilization that science talks about. The use and control of all the energy on the planet without force or violence.

#23 Comment By Tim DiMasi On February 11, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

The USS Midway Museum attracts just under 1.5 million guests per year. The average age of our docent corps, mostly veterans, hovers around 70. Interesting and predictable is how “Vietnam” is perceived. To many of us it is a war. To the vast majority of guest it’s a country.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 13, 2018 @ 9:01 am

“Mostly shortsighted thinking here. The Korean War and the Vietnam war drained the resources of the USSR. Thus causing the collapse of the USSR. If you remember the USSR was a significant threat to the USA and world peace. Without those two wars we would still have half the world, or more, under Soviet domination.

I think it is rather inappropriate of you to interject cold war realities to people spent their youth telling the only side looking to avoid a fight to,

“Give peace a chance.”

It never occurred to these geniuses that only side ignoring the possibilities of peace were the n. Vietnamese. The idea that I should look back or up to their sage words of wisdom is blighted by the realities of their adventures of war to advance tanning salons as as global human right and they are content to kill, men, women and children to impress it.

though, the idea of having “half the world” elicits a squint at the implication, I am not sure I buy.

#25 Comment By Charlieford On February 13, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

Note to whoever moderates the comments: Please consider tightening-up the settings a little.

#26 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 30, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

It is not surprising that George Kennan, the dean of US realist foreign policy, criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Kennan argued that the United States had little vital interest in the region. He put forward the wisest and most succinct comment of the NYRB Symposium (just 32 words):

“The lessons of Vietnam are few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word ‘communism’ and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.”

Another of George Kennan’s realist insights were his comments about large-scale Mexican immigration to the Southwestern United States. In 2002 Kennan said that there were “unmistakable evidences of a growing differentiation between the cultures, respectively, of large southern and southwestern regions of this country, on the one hand [and those of] some northern regions. [In the former] the very culture of the bulk of the population of these regions will tend to be primarily Latin-American in nature rather than what is inherited from earlier American traditions … Could it really be that there was so little of merit [in America] that it deserves to be recklessly trashed in favor of a polyglot mix-mash?”

Indeed, 13 years after Kennan’s death in 2005 (at the age of 101) his views on US foreign policy and US immigration policy are still at the heart of raging national debates.

#27 Comment By b. On April 30, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

I appreciate the attempt, but I find this phrasing, oft repeated, offensive:

“Even today, especially among veterans wrestling with demons and afflicted with service-induced medical ailments, the war’s toll continues to mount.”

Even today, among the Vietnamese which were, intentionally and systematically – instead of “accidentally” – targeted with violence and Agent Orange, the war’s toll continues to mount, especially among civilians and their children.

There are probably a number of US military personnel that died in Vietnam or survived who suffered not from Agent Orange but from Napalm and White Phosphorous and other “agents” in the US arsenal of chemical warfare. The US might have “gassed its own people” in some way or the other, but, in Vietnam, this would have been by accident.

There were also US soldiers killed by their own, by accident, or “fragged” with “extreme prejudice”, and there are probably veterans whose “demons” were born in one of these acts of desperation or the other.

Yet, if “more violence and suffering were to come”, it certainly was not a devastation wrought in immaculate conception, and in no way separate or merely equal to the suffering of the soldiers that brought so much of it, and set the stage for the remainder.

But of course I might be misreading this phrasing.

Maybe you are indeed referring to all veterans of this war, including VietCong and NVA regulars, who surely are “wrestling with demons and afflicted with service-induced medical ailments” all of their own?

If so, maybe we can then, at long last, count the civilians in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia among the “veterans” of this war, those that “suffered as they must” while governments on all sides failed their people first, their soldiers second.

#28 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 30, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

““The lessons of Vietnam are few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word ‘communism’ and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.”

You might want to look up civil war as Mr Keenan apparently doesn’t subscribe to the definition.

Vietnam was not a civil war. Its easy to give in to the Vietnam we lost nonsense. But in either case, our choice to defend S. Vietnam did not have much material benefit for the US. I don’t think there is any question. There’s not much evidence that the US sought material benefit.

Our involvement in Vietnam was one of the few sincere humanitarian pro democracy engagements of the period in which the benefit would have been to the S. Vietnamese.

This last section of the narrative has all of the insight of finding sand in a clam shell. Sure, if you are lax in enforcing immigration laws for whatever reason, there’s a good chance the said immigrants finding it profitable will outpace the native population, especially true if the the native population finds it inconvenient and profitable to be lax in enforcement.

I would refer that we have more backbone than Dr. Keenan.

#29 Comment By Kent On April 30, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

I tend to believe that the American people, if given a choice, would end all of these military debacles at once. However, the American people do not have a political system in which they are given a choice.

I know that in my voting district, we vote about 60% Republican. One Republican, a hawk, has won every election for the last 12 years. A Democrat cannot win the district. And the few anti-war Republicans who attempted to run could not garner enough money to put together a decent campaign.

The issue is how our political system is set up. Not the American people.

#30 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 30, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

The Vietnam War broke the US Armed Forces in Vietnam. Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” a study that appeared in “Armed Forces Journal” on June 7, 1971. Here are a few excerpts:

“The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous….Intolerably clobbered and buffeted from without and within by social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race war, sedition, civilian scape-goatise, draftee recalcitrance and malevolence, barracks theft and common crime, unsupported in their travail by the general government, in Congress as well as the executive branch, distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public, the uniformed services today are places of agony for the loyal, silent professionals who doggedly hang on and try to keep the ship afloat….

“While no senior officer (especially one on active duty) can openly voice any such assessment, the foregoing conclusions find virtually unanimous support in numerous non-attributable interviews with responsible senior and midlevel officers, as well as career noncommissioned officers and petty officers in all services…To understand the military consequences of what is happening to the U.S. Armed Forces, Vietnam is a good place to start. It is in Vietnam that the rearguard of a 500,000-man army, in its day (and in the observation of the writer) the best army the United States ever put into the field, is numbly extricating itself from a nightmare war the Armed Forces feel they had foisted on them by bright civilians who are now back on campus writing books about the folly of it all.

“’They have set up separate companies,” writes an American soldier from Cu Chi… ‘for men who refuse to go out into the field. It is no big thing to refuse to go. If a man is ordered to go to such and such a place he no longer goes through the hassle of refusing; he just packs his shirt and goes to visit some buddies at another base camp. Operations have become incredibly ragtag. Many guys don’t even put on their uniforms any more…. The American garrisons on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons from us and put them under lock and key…. There have also been quite a few fray incidents in the battalion…’ ‘Frag incidents’ or just ‘fragging’ is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs. With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from Senator Mike Mansfield’s Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 (209) have more than doubled those of the previous year (96). Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units. In one such division . . . fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week….

“In 1970, the Army had 65,643 deserters, or roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions. This desertion rate (52.3 soldiers per thousand) is well over twice the peak rate for Korea (22.5 per thousand). It is more than quadruple the 1966 desertion-rate (14.7 per thousand) of the then well-trained, high-spirited professional Army….Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr, Chief of Naval Operations, minces no words. ‘We have a personnel crisis,’he recently said, ‘that borders on disaster.’. . .”

#31 Comment By Rossbach On April 30, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

Ironically, the end of conscription, post-Vietnam, has provided the government with the ability to wage wars of choice around the world by making them invisible to our civilian population. Because our kids aren’t forced into these conflicts, we tend not to know or care what happens “over there”.

I am not advocating a return to conscription. I would rather see a return of a congress that is again willing to take some responsibility for decisions on war and peace.

#32 Comment By Clark Slade On April 30, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

When I was growing up, before I was ordered to Viet-Nam, I heard my conservative elders say communism was inferior but would prevail because of aggression. How droll that it collapsed of it’s own weight because it really was inferior. Korea and Nam didn’t weaken it, the hubris of expansion attempts after Nam followed by the satellite dish and the VCR sent the USSR to the precipice. Again, how droll that the conservatives (of that time anyway) were so sure that the West was so pink and impure (or were they really not so sure of the pertinency of their ideas after all) that it couldn’t stand up to Stalinism on the merits. This national conservative fear and self-loathing continues to this day with panic at the very idea of brown people being capable of constituting a free American identity.

#33 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On May 2, 2018 @ 1:25 am

The end of the Draft was the end of civilian restraints on, or concern about, military actions of any kind. I’ve seen amputees from the gulf wars in rehab. Nobody except their family and friends care about their sacrifice. Politicians from both parties, pandering to their voters, will not even tax the people enough to pay for the wars. The public would rather let other people’s sons and daughters lose life and limb rather than give up money to pay for the war. What really brought about the end of the Vietnam War was Johnson raising taxes to pay for it.

#34 Comment By Cynthia McLean On May 2, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

“A sincere, humanitarian pro-democracy engagement?”
Give me a break, like most wars it was about $$$, power and national ego. I go with Geoffrey Baraclough and John K. Fairbank, both historians, that the US was both stupid and arrogant — ignorant of language, land, history, religion, values and culture, denying the Vietnamese their very humanity.

#35 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On May 3, 2018 @ 1:37 am

I believe Bacevich lost a son in the Viet Nam war so it is difficult to respond to him. Do we really care what a bunch of intellectuals thought about that war? Contrary to George Kennan’s quote above, the strategic interest of the US was to protect JAPAN! Yes, Japan. The Vietnam War was fought to protect Japan and the Asian Tiger nations as difficult as that may be to fathom by most Americans. The U.S. may have lost the symbolic Vietnam WAr but indisputably won the battles as Capitalism took off in Asia afterward (but not in Vietnam) — a story that has been interpreted in terms of American retreat instead of Capitalism’s expansion.

#36 Comment By sylviane dungan On May 3, 2018 @ 3:56 am

it is very refreshing to read intelligent, aware , honest voices in this wilderness-America should start valuing morals and education above money power and its arrogance and hypocrisy- That might make America really great one day-