November 1, 2009  

Vietnam’s distorted legacy

This summer, we lost two icons of the Vietnam War: Robert McNamara, its steward, and Walter Cronkite, its chronicler. In remembrance, commentators have repeated narratives about the men that twist the war’s legacy and suggest the wrong lessons to our current policy.

Obituaries and columns on the former defense secretary describe a brilliant executive who placed too much faith in numbers as he misapplied industrial might to a primal struggle. In his 1995 memoir, McNamara atoned for the sins of his country. But this was too late for many critics, throughout the political spectrum, who impugned his motives and his morality.

If we lost anything from McNamara’s public silence, we also gained much. McNamara strongly expressed his doubts about the conduct of the war within cabinet discussions and memos, and his loss of faith in the conflict led President Lyndon Johnson to lose faith in him; in late 1967, the secretary announced his departure from the Defense Department. A public critique in 1968 by McNamara might have increased pressure on the president to shift course, though its effect during the noise of an election in which Johnson did not run is debatable. Additionally, McNamara’s alternative of negotiation became the course of the new Nixon administration. Moreover, a denunciation by a recently departed cabinet member would have fed a dangerous tendency. In appointments, presidents balance loyalty and integrity, which are sometimes in tension. If the public expects hasty assessment by former officials, wary presidents will always choose loyalty, to the country’s loss. It’s healthier for the republic if secretaries keep their criticizm within the administration, following McNamara’s example.

For Cronkite, the reviews are kinder. He earns a spot in the media pantheon not only because of his reputation for objectivity, but because restraint made potent his occasional displays of emotion, skepticism or opinion: his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, his role in the investigation of the Watergate crisis and his analysis of the Vietnam War. During the evening news of Feb. 27, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Cronkite declared the war “more certain than ever … to end in a stalemate.” Most accounts of this episode are favorable, portraying Cronkite as a defender of the public against a government that had misled for too long. Cronkite recalled in 2006 that “the editorializing that I did on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and I think helped speed the end of that war… that I’m proudest of.”

Commentators echo the anchor’s assessment and cite it as the turning point for domestic support for the conflict. However, Cronkite’s famous broadcast reflected, rather than inspired, loss of public support for U.S. involvement in the conflict. Polls show a steady erosion over the decade of major American involvement, from more than two-thirds in favor to more than two-thirds against, and Tet had a negligible effect on the slide.

Whatever the reasons for the distorted legacies, they serve not so much as analyses of the two men’s roles as an obituary for our war in Vietnam. The dominant account assumes that McNamara’s discomfort with his doubts, ineffectual in their private conveyance within the Johnson administration and three decades tardy in their public declaration, prolonged the killing. Meanwhile, Cronkite’s candor mercifully accelerated a doomed endeavor. A loud alternative claims that victory was primarily a function of American political will, and that Cronkite’s betrayal and McNamara’s uncertainty were the most powerful symbols of its absence. The first theme seems to assume that simply because we lost, defeat was inevitable; the second, that greater effort would have guaranteed triumph. Neither is true.

Success wasn’t impossible, and in the half-decade following Tet, the prospects for South Vietnam brightened. The huge communist losses during Tet and successive offensives, the progress of South Vietnamese forces and governance (particularly at the local level), and the change in American leadership and strategy all contributed to the gradual improvement. Vietnamization reduced Saigon’s dependency on the U.S., Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland, and population protection provided an alternative to enemy body count (although some subordinate commanders remained wedded to attrition).

Nor was weak American will solely responsible for defeat. Hawks maintain that widening the war geographically and intensifying its means might have forced communist surrender. This assumes a limit to the enemy’s resolve, but in what the communists depicted as a three-decade war of national survival against a series of foreign powers (Japan, France, then America), such a ceiling was quite high and likely unattainable for a democracy that aspires to the ideals of jus in bello.

Ultimately, the war in Vietnam was one of attrition, though the dynamic wasn’t manpower devoured by firepower, but rather one nation’s endurance sapped by another’s commitment in a competition for the endorsement, or at least acquiescence, of the native population. The North Vietnamese leadership perceived American public support as the superpower’s center of gravity, and waged war against it through its regular forces and guerrillas. Although Tet failed in its goal to spur mass rebellion throughout the south against the Saigon government, and its immediate effect on American opinion was minor, the offensive did fit into the larger communist strategy that ultimately succeeded.

Of course the American leadership realized that, without support at home, any war would fail, especially a seemingly interminable counterinsurgency with questionable stakes and increasing costs. But while losing domestic support will guarantee defeat, only native support in theater can secure victory in a counterinsurgency. The U.S. preached hearts and minds from the early stages of the war, but practice lagged policy. The strategic shift of South Vietnamese and American forces to protecting the southern population, a big step toward gaining their cooperation, was late. It did help dampen the insurgency, but not before the patience of the American public had expired and Congress forbade further assistance. U.S. forces withdrew, the communists violated the Paris accords and the capital fell to a conventional invasion by the North Vietnamese Army in 1975. Might an earlier change from “search and destroy” to “clear, hold and build” have preserved American support and earned native confidence in time for Saigon to right itself and repel the North? Perhaps.

The human mind and the national psyche see individuals, like Cronkite and McNamara, and discrete events, like Tet, as determinative. But history is less punctuated and more complicated. Although our wars today have more differences than similarities with the Vietnam War, its specter grows when our current prospects dim. It does have relevant lessons, positive as well as negative, for the military and partner agencies, administration and congressional leaders, and for the public. Better to search for those and their complexity than repeat simplistic dueling narratives that blame excessive or inadequate devotion for our country’s enduring defeat.

HENRY NUZUM retired this year from his position as chief of staff for strategic capabilities with the Office of Secretary of Defense, Policy. He lives in Dubai and works in offshore marine services.