When bombing initially failed to change the enemy’s policy, the pressures on the president to commit ground troops increased. The president, a politician more interested in the mechanics of domestic reform than in foreign policy, pondered his options. To back off at this point would result in devastating humiliation for the United States, with consequences around the world that could not be foreseen but which might well be severe. To escalate the war by introducing ground troops would be to risk a bloody debacle and a political backlash. Every choice presented the possibility of disaster.
THIS IS A description of the situation that confronted President Bill Clinton in the spring of 1999, after the United States and its NATO allies began bombing Serbia with the goal of forcing Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic to agree to autonomy for the Albanian ethnic majority in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. It is also a description of the dilemma of President Lyndon Johnson in the spring and summer of 1965, when the failure of U.S. bombing raids against North Vietnam to dissuade Ho Chi Minh’s communist dictatorship from its low-level war against South Vietnam had become apparent. In each case, what was at stake for the United States was its credibility as the dominant global military power and the survival of a regional alliance–NATO in the case of the Balkan war, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in the case of the conflict in Indochina. (In fact, SEATO did dissolve, when the United States abandoned Indochina to communist conquest between 1973 and 1975.)
Both Slobodan Milosevic and Ho Chi Minh were communist dictators who manipulated the nationalism of their subjects–Milosevic in the service of his dream of a Greater Serbia dominating the former Yugoslav federation, Ho in the service of the dream of a united Vietnam dominating all of Indochina. Both Milosevic and Ho promoted their goals by supporting guerrilla terror campaigns in other countries. Milosevic armed, supplied, and directed Serb paramilitary units engaged in mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia; Ho armed, supplied, and directed Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia who waged war against South Vietnamese military and police forces and murdered tens of thousands of South Vietnamese officials and civilians. In both cases, the low-intensity wars launched by the communist-nationalist dictators produced tidal waves of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs were forced from their homes in different parts of the former Yugoslavia by Serbian ethnic cleansing. Nearly a million residents of North Vietnam fled Ho Chi Minh’s rule in the 1950s, and following the communist conquest of South Vietnam in the 1970s more than two million others risked their lives in fleeing the country. Of the two communist-nationalist leaders, Milosevic was the less tyrannical; his Serbian regime was far less repressive than the government of Ho Chi Minh. The latter was a strict Stalinist dictatorship that tolerated no political or intellectual dissent and executed more than ten thousand North Vietnamese villagers in cold blood in a few months because they were landlords or prosperous peasants and thus “class enemies,” according to Marxist-Leninist dogma.
Despite these similarities, the U.S. wars in the Balkan and Indochinese peninsulas differed in one fundamental respect. The Yugoslav War was not a proxy war among great powers. Although Russia protested the NATO war against the Serbs and supplied some limited assistance to the Milosevic regime, postcommunist Russia, truncated, impoverished, and weak in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, did not commit itself to defeating American policy in the Balkans. The situation was radically different in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union–then growing rapidly in military power, confidence, and prestige–and communist China. Despite their rivalry for leadership of the communist bloc of nations, the Soviets and the Chinese collaborated to support North Vietnam’s effort to destroy South Vietnam, to promote communist revolutions in Indochina and, if possible, Thailand, and to humiliate the United States. In the 1990s, Serbia was a third-rate military power lacking great-power patrons. In the 1960s, North Vietnam was protected from an American invasion, and equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and air defenses, by the Soviet Union and China, the latter of which sent hundreds of thousands of troops to support Ho Chi Minh’s war effort between 1965 and 1968. By the late 1970s, the Vietnamese communists, after annexing South Vietnam, occupying Cambodia, and breaking with and defeating China in a border war, possessed the third largest army in the world and ruled the most important satellite region of the Soviet empire outside Eastern Europe. At the time of the Vietnam War, the United States was engaged in a desperate worldwide struggle with two of the three most powerful and murderous totalitarian states in history; in 1999, the United States faced no significant challenge to its global primacy by another great power or coalition.
The American wars in defense of Kosovo and South Vietnam, then, differed chiefly in this respect: More–far more–was at stake in Vietnam.
SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. x-xii
“[This] is a necessary book.” –Dan Rather, CBS News
I’m going to excerpt more from this book. It challenges almost every aspect of my received wisdom about the War in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, during which time I spent 996 days in the U.S. Army–all safely Stateside. A degree of survivor guilt impels me to explore another viewpoint about why so many Americans of my generation–and far, far more Vietnamese of all ages–ended up either killed or disabled by that godforsaken conflict.