Posted: March 30th, 2022

Weighing the Perspectives on Vietnam

Vietnam: Weighing the Perspectives


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According to Taylor, the view of the Vietnam War was greatly impacted by the Anti-War movement and its politics. There were “three axioms” that were popular — namely, that there was no real Communist threat, that the U.S. had no reason or business being there or getting involved, and that the war could never have been won in the first place because of the conditions of the situation and the character of the Vietnamese who were determined to oppose an outside force at any and all costs. For Taylor, real understanding of the war did not come for him until he stepped free of these axioms and assessed the war in a way that was more personal — after all, he had fought in it.


Tayler describes how he weighed his options about the war and eventually decided that it was in his interest to not try to avoid it but to embrace it. He moved to Vietnam and re-examined the fight for democracy in the South and finally remembered that the war on their behalf was a noble one. He once again believed that America had been on the good side and that the disaffected and disheartened, those who protested and viewed the war from the Anti-war perspective failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation — that America was attempting to stop a real Communist threat from spreading.


According to Buzzanco, this view of the war is incorrect because it portrays America as the good guys when in reality the U.S. was the threat: it represented imperialistic ambitions and pretensions and it was about exercising its influence in parts of the world where it had no legitimate business being. Buzzanco notes that most scholars view Kennedy as a dove when it came to Vietnam and that, had he not been murdered, he would have pulled troops out of Indochina rather than escalated the situation as Johnson did when he came to office. Buzzanco’s view is that Kennedy was not ignorant about Vietnam but that he was sensitive to America’s image in the light of Cuba. He did not want to escalate situations. His view of Taylor is that Taylor is viewing the Vietnam War from an emotional and personal perspective that really has nothing to do with the reality — which was that the Vietnamese in the North had a right to self-determine their own political course and that the U.S. would not have been “weak” for not trying to undermine these efforts but would rather have been respectful and intelligent. Buzzanco notes that the U.S. has a history of acting like a bully and thug in a other countries where it tries to exert influence and ends up supporting murderous regimes around the world all the time. This is not a sign of moral strength according to Buzzanco but rather of moral weakness and sickness.


Each author’s politics influences their understanding of the U.S. role in Vietnam to a large degree. Taylor’s politics are pro-U.S. and steeped in patriotism and nationalism. He wants to view the U.S. as a liberator, fighting the good fight on the behalf of weaker individuals around the world — except that liberals and anti-war people get in the way and make the U.S. feel bad about doing what is right because people lose their lives in the course of defending others. Buzzanco’s politics inform him to the degree that he views Taylor as being naive: Buzzanco does not see the U.S. as the defender of liberty and democracy but rather as its foe: he sees the U.S. intervening in other countries and choosing sides (choosing the side that will benefit itself ultimately) to the detriment of real persons in the country it is invading, who oppose outside intervention. For Buzzanco, Taylor buys into the propaganda that the U.S. is the good guy. Buzzanco views the U.S. as an instigator and an imperial threat to others.


The only way to disentangle the political view from the arguments is to be as objective as possible about the history and the facts of the case. When the facts are assessed and the history understood, it becomes very complicated in terms of defining “good guys” and “bad guys” because one sees the difficulty in judging one side or the other. The fact is that every side and individual involved had a reason or a motivating factor for acting as he/she did during the war. The political question only comes up when the issue of could things have gone differently or better is raised. This is when judgments are made and morality introduced from a specific viewpoint. Either the U.S. was helping the South, or the U.S. was hurting the North — or, the U.S. was simply trying to benefit itself by playing nation-builder in a part of the world that it did not want to cede to the Soviets, etc.


Essentially, the issue is not about whether the U.S. was wrong or right — it is about understanding the history of the events as they unfolded from as many perspective as possible. Thus, Ho Chi Minh’s perspective should be considered; Kennedy’s should be considered, Buzzanco’s should be considered, Johnson’s should be considered, and people like Taylor’s should be considered. Each has a view that is worth listening to because it illustrates some aspect of what was going on. But underneath this complex array is a lesson that can be learned and applied to current circumstances, especially as the U.S. gets involved in more foreign wars in the Middle East. That lesson has to do with reality — what were the real, underlying issues in Vietnam? Was the war more about U.S. imperialism? Or was it more about freedom and democracy? If these questions are unclear and the motivation for why we go to war dishonest, then problems can arise and there can be no real cultivation of a spirit of mission. People will know when they are being lied to. If a war is waged, it should be waged with every force possible so as to win it. But in Vietnam, it seems as though the war dragged on — perhaps so that the military-industrial complex (MIC) could keep on selling helicopters, as Buzzanco might suggest. Taylor would object, but is there any evidence that the MIC, as pointed out by Eisenhower, was not at work in this case and in this way? On the contrary, there is a great deal of evidence that the MIC profited handsomely from the war, which it always does (as even Gen. Smedley Butler pointed out long before the war).


Thus, it is important that we learn from our past, from our wins and losses. If these lessons push us towards being anti-war when the aims of the war are more for the purposes of profit at the expense of people’s lives than they are for the spread of ideals, then so be it. But if it is a matter of a just war, of a defense of people against invasion or for a good and noble purpose, then war should be waged with the fullest might and power that can be utilized so as to not lose the war in the end. There should be no such thing as limited warfare, because that simply prolongs the conflict and perpetuates the war machine, facilitates the War Party, and encourages the military-industrial complex to expand and profit from war. It was this that Eisenhower warned Americans about when he left office following his term as President. Did people listen? Some did, but others were still being taught that the reasons for war were noble and ideal — and Taylor comes across as one of these persons.


In conclusion, it is essential that the lessons that others have tried to teach us about the nature of modern warfare and the reasons it is conducted be heard. There is much that we can learn from them and they can enable us to view our country and its leaders in a different light. We can hold ourselves accountable to the same standards we profess to expect from all others. At the same time, if war must be waged and the cause is just — we should not be afraid to wage it definitively and swiftly.

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