After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it took on a second life as a symbol in American politics. For the radical left, the war was a symbol of the depravity of the United States and the evils of “capitalist imperialism.” For the neoisolationists and “realists” of the liberal left, the U.S. war in Indochina was a tragic and unnecessary mistake, brought about by American arrogance and an exaggerated fear of the threat posed to U.S. interests by the Soviet Union and communist China. Conservatives, too, had their orthodox view of the conflict. Conservatives joined many military officers in arguing that the United States could have achieved a quick and decisive victory in Indochina, if only the pusillanimous civilian policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had not “tied the hands” of the U.S. military and “denied it permission to win.”
One point of view has been missing from the debate over the Vietnam War. The political faction known as liberal anticommunists or Cold War liberals, identified with the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, ceased to exist as a force in American politics in the 1970s, more as a result of partisan realignment than of the Vietnam War. One group of former Cold War liberal policymakers and thinkers sought to ingratiate themselves with the antiwar leftists and liberals who were ascendant in the Democratic party after 1968. Among these were the late McGeorge Bundy and his brother William (who, as part of his campaign to rehabilitate himself, recently wrote a harsh and unfair book criticizing Nixon’s and Kissinger’s handling of the war that the Bundys had helped to begin). Former defense secretary Robert McNamara not only recanted his support for the war in his book In Retrospect but endured the abuse of functionaries of the Vietnamese dictatorship during a humiliating pilgrimage to Vietnam in 1997. Another group of former Cold War liberals joined forces with anti-Soviet conservatives, maintaining their support for the Cold War while jettisoning their prolabor liberalism in domestic politics. The number of unreconstructed Cold War liberals thus dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s, making it easy for radical leftists, left-liberals, and conservatives, in their discussions of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s, to caricature and vilify Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and their advisers with no fear of rebuttal.
Almost everything written by Americans about the Vietnam War in the past quarter century has conformed to one of the three scripts of radical leftism, anti-Cold War liberalism, or conservatism. Each of these three partisan schools has drawn attention to evidence that appeared to support its preconceptions, while ignoring evidence that contradicted them. These ritualized debates might have continued for another generation or two. But two historic developments have now [in 1999] made it possible to transcend the thirty-year-old debates about the Vietnam War.
The first development is the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, including the global collapse of communism and the realignment of world politics around the United States as the hegemonic military power. Only now is it possible to view the Cold War as a whole and to evaluate the U.S. strategy of global containment that led to the U.S. wars in defense of South Korea and South Vietnam, as well as the U.S. protectorate over Taiwan–“the three fronts,” according to Mao Zedong, where the communist bloc met the American bloc in East Asia.
The second development is the demise of the radical left in North America and Western Europe as a political force (leftism survives only in pockets in the academy and the press). [This obituary seems a little premature!] In the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendancy of the radical left in the liberal and social democratic parties of the West–the Democrats in the United States, the British Labor Party, and the German Social Democrats–caused western electorates to turn to conservative, anticommunist parties under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. The economic difficulties of Swedish social democracy, coming soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have discredited western as well as eastern Marxism and permitted the emergence of a new, more moderate center-left, variously described as “the Third Way” or “the New Center” and symbolized by President Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair. As recently as the Gulf War, which the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress voted against, foreign policy debates in the United States pitted anti-American leftists and isolationist liberals against interventionist conservatives. But the subsequent U.S.-led NATO war in the Balkans, supported by many liberals and opposed by a number of conservatives, has helped to rehabilitate the legitimacy of military intervention for many left-of-center Americans.
These developments in global politics and western politics have made it possible to write this book, which could not have been written in the 1970s or 1980s. In this book, I examine the Vietnam War in light of the end of the Cold War, from a centrist perspective more sympathetic to American, Cold War policymakers than that of their critics on the left and the right.
Lind is the author of The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (with Ted Halstead) (2001, reviewed here); Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition (1997); Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (1996); and The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (1995). I’m far less comfortable with Lind’s nationalism than I am with his anticommunism.
Finally, Lind is decidedly not for the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq.