An Interview with Professor Christian G. Appy About the Legacy of the Vietnam War
(Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the author of the book “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.” The book is an effort to capture the history of the war from all sides and give a final say on the legacy of Vietnam. Some reviewers have called it the only book on the war you need to read. Despite being in the busy season of final exams, Professor Appy was kind enough to answer our questions about Vietnam and how the war is still with us today.)
DaRK PaRTY: Was the Vietnam War a mistake for the United States and did we "lose" the war?
Christian: U.S. intervention in Vietnam was more than a bad mistake. I believe it was fundamentally wrong — contrary to our constitution, international law, our highest ideals regarding democracy and national self-determination, and waged in a way that made the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians inevitable. Moreover, U.S. policymakers privately understood that our policy was failing but
chose to prolong the war anyway. No president was willing to risk being called a loser. Clearly the U.S. lost in Vietnam (though Nixon and
Kissinger tried to sugar-coat the result by getting out before the final
DP: What were the major differences about the Vietnam War from conflicts like World War II and the Korean War?
Christian: Word War II was, in my view, a just war against real and dangerous threats. It had overwhelming support at home and by allies abroad. And it achieved its objectives. However, the means used – firebombing and nuclear weapons – can and should be evaluated separately from the justice of the cause.
Whether the U.S. should have intervened in Korea is much-debated, and the U.S.-backed government of South Korea was clearly dictatorial, but there was sufficient South Korean opposition to North Korea to allow a major U.S. intervention (at enormous costs on all sides) to preserve a permanent, non-Communist South Korea.
In Vietnam, there was powerful support (in the South as well as the North) for the effort to overthrow the U.S.-backed government
and reunify the country. U.S. military power could temporarily prevent a Communist victory but it could not break the will of their opponents to continue fighting for their objectives. Indeed, in many ways, the more we bombed, the more their will was strengthened.
DP: There a sense among some quarters that the U.S. didn't fight Vietnam to win. Where does this thought process come from?
Christian: The idea that we didn’t fight to win in Vietnam emerged even while the war was being waged. Many hawks believed we should have launched an all-out attack on North Vietnam (with a ground invasion and even more bombing). LBJ feared this would result in direct Chinese intervention (as in Korea). That said, we dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam (the nation we claimed to be saving), making it the most heavily bombed country in world history. I do not believe an even more ruthless war would have gained political legitimacy for the South Vietnamese government and that is, I think,
the only meaningful definition of victory in Vietnam (the creation of a self-sufficient, truly independent South Vietnam).
DP: Why did it the United States take so long to realize it couldn't win the war and finally decide to pull out?
Christian: Kennedy, LBJ, and Nixon all believed the loss of South Vietnam to Communism would be an intolerable blow to U.S. (and their own!) credibility and prestige. None was willing to risk the charge of being soft on Communism or the first president to lose a war. Yet some historians believe that any of them might have pulled out without jeopardizing their political futures. Of course that’s unknowable since Kennedy was killed, LBJ massively escalated the
war and then pulled out of the 1968 election, and Nixon continued the war until after his re-election.
DP: Are there parallels between Vietnam and Iraq and, if so, what are they?
Christian: Vietnam and Iraq are vastly different countries, but there are some extremely important similarities in U.S. policy. Here are some: Both wars were waged on the basis of false premises and grossly exaggerated threats; both wars were fought against relatively small nations that policymakers linked (with false or unconvincing evidence) to a global menace (communism/terrorism); both wars were fought without calls for national sacrifice; in both wars U.S. leaders claimed—implausibly—that the U.S. had no self-interest in fighting; in both cases, military means undermined every effort to “win hearts and minds;” in both wars insurgents were largely supported by, and indistinguishable from, civilians; in both wars U.S. leaders continually proclaimed “progress” in the face of endless bad news; and both wars were prolonged long after they were opposed by a majority of Americans.
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Labels: 5 Questions, Christian G. Appy, History, interview, Vietnam