Saturday, December 23, 2006

Revising history: Vietnam (yes, again)

Dean Esmay has linked to my second post on Cronkite and Tet, and a commenter there named "mikeca" called what I had to say "revisionist history."

His comment was identical to one he posted on this blog as well, which I now reproduce here in full:

This is conservative revisionist history and rationalization.

According to the new history, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were defeated in Tet and we had the war won. Only the media, and Walter Cronkite snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Totally wrong. Before Tet the US government was saying that the war was winding down. Tet showed that the enemy was far from defeated. In fact it was clear that if the US had not had 500,000 men in Vietnam, the South would have been overrun. More than half of the Americans killed in Vietnam came after the Tet offensive was over.

What Tet showed was that it took 500,000 American service men in Vietnam to keep the South Vietnamese government in power, because the South Vietnamese people did not really believe in their government. The fact that the South Vietnamese military and government collapsed like a house of cards as soon as the US left, shows just that. The US was just propping up a corrupt and incompetent government.

Cronkite talked with lots of government and military officials off the record. Many of them told him of their doubts about the situation in Vietnam. The US government knew the South Vietnamese government was probably a hopeless cause. The US could keep the South Vietnamese government in power by keeping 500,000 men there forever, but that effectively made South Vietnam a US colony. The American people eventually realized that while the US could keep the South Vietnamese government in power forever, we could not make the South Vietnamese people support that government.

You can rationalize all you want. Try to blame the Democrats in congress, try to blame the media. The facts are there are limits to what can be accomplished with military power, even overwhelming military power. If you fail to learn that lesson from Vietnam, perhaps you will learn it in Iraq.

The following is based on a reply I posted on Dean's World. I decided to highlight it here-and expand on it--because I think mikeca's comment is an excellent example of the sort of argument often mounted when there's an attempt to portray the Vietnam War in a way that contradicts the original MSM version of the truth.

First I want to say that rationalization is most assuredly not my motive. In fact, if I were trying to rationalize, I actually would have a vested interest in holding onto the original viewpoint of the war that mikeca expresses. After all, I protested that war, and was relieved when we pulled out and it was over. If I were going to rationalize my own role in things, I'd be with mikeca all the way (and see this for a lengthy discussion of how those who were against the war tend to use rationalization when they decline to take responsibility for its aftermath).

Second, I want to say that my post is revisionist history, but not in the way mikeca means the term. "Revisionist" often is used to refer to history rewritten falsely as propaganda, such as by the Soviets. That's the sense in which mikeca is using it, of course, only in this case--as he writes-- it would be "conservative" revisionist history.

But sometimes that "first draft" of history--such as the Vietnam War as perceived in real time and told in the MSM--cries out for revision, as in "to revise." To look at again with fresh eyes and new information, and to question whether the standard viewpoint of the time was correct. Here's another definition of revisionist history, the one I'm using (a revised one, as it were):

In its legitimate form (see historical revisionism) it is the reexamination of historical facts, with an eye towards updating historical narratives with newly discovered, more accurate, or less biased information, acknowledging that history of an event, as it has been traditionally told, may not be entirely accurate.

So to mikeca and those who agree with him, I suggest that they read Braestrup's The Big Story on what happened during Tet (including the incorrect MSM evaluation of it), a book recommended in my Cronkite post. Or read this shorter Bishop discussion and review of Braestrup's book.

If you've read Part II of my Cronkite/Tet post, you will see that I briefly summarized some of the myths Braestrup's book challenged, as discussed in Bishop's article. Here, though, I'll spotlight one in particular, since it reflects on mikeca's contention about the sanguine war predictions of the US prior to Tet:

Misconception: There had been no warning of a coming offensive. Actually, the press ignored cautions expressed by General Earle Wheeler and General William C. Westmoreland in December and January.

Braestrup concluded that the press had made a two-pronged error: minimizing US military warnings before Tet that something big was still in the works, making it seem as though they were far more falsely hopeful than they actually were, and then maximizing North Vietnamese/Vietcong victories during Tet.

As far as the South Vietnamese people's lack of support for their own government went, it was actually during Tet that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong learned the South Vietnamese wouldn't support the North, if given the choice. The North had expected a great many South Vietnamese to join them during Tet, but it didn't happen:

..the NLF apparently did expect large sections of the urban populace to rise up in revolt. With a few exceptions, this didn't happen. South Vietnam's city dwellers were generally indifferent to both the NLF and the Saigon Government but the VC clearly expected more support than it actually got.

I've never indicated that Walter Cronkite singlehandedly lost the war, or that the task would have been easy otherwise. But it would have been a lot easier if the truth of Tet had been told at the time, and if Cronkite hadn't taken it on himself to be judge and jury of the war effort. The point is not that, but for Cronkite, the war would have been over after Tet--it most certainly would not have. The point was the mischaracterization of Tet by our own media, and Cronkite's sudden switch to agenda-driven opinion journalism.

And now for that South Vietnamese government which, according to mikeca, "collapsed like a house of cards after the US left."

In this post I discuss the drawdown in troops known as "Vietnamization." Take a look at this diagram, featured in that post. You'll notice that by early 1972 there were very few US combat troops in Vietnam; by August of 1972 they were all gone.

Read this article on the fall of South Vietnam, and note that the ARVN was not doing half badly several years later (late 1974), until the US Congress pulled the plug on them and left them with sharply diminshed funds to pay their troops or to arm themselves. That was the turning point, not the much earlier departure of US combat forces. The financial betrayal occurred at a time when there were no longer any US fighting forces in Vietnam, and had not been for years (here's a history of that shameful episode). Meanwhile, the North saw its golden opportunity, fully and generously funded by its Chinese and Soviet allies.

Here are some of the details of how it happened:

In May 1973, Congress voted to cut-off all funds for military action in Indochina, including air support. Having deprived Saigon of U.S. firepower, Congress then cut aid to South Vietnam in [December] 1974, resulting in shortages of fuel, spare parts and ammunition. A month after this Congressional action, the Hanoi Politburo decided to launch a new invasion in 1975. The Soviets increased their military aid to Hanoi, building a heavily armed force that the abandoned Saigon government could not stop. When President Gerald Ford asked Congress for an emergency grant of funds to rush ammunition to South Vietnam on April 10, 1975, he was turned down.

The author of these words, William R. Hawkins, believes that the antiwar Left of the Vietnam era could not tolerate the idea that the South Vietnamese might actually hold off the North; this would contradict some of their most dearly cherished notions. And so, even though there were no longer any American combat soldiers at risk there, funding (which at the time was very modest) had to be cut off; the South had to be abandoned so that the North could win and vindicate the Left.

I'm not quite that cynical; I'm not at all sure that was the motivation. But reading the Hawkins assertion certainly gave me pause, I have to say. Because that's the sort of mindset I see all too often today regarding Iraq--a need on the part of many on the Left to have us fail there, in order to prove themselves right. I'm not saying that's true of everyone on the Left, but it most definitely seems to be the sentiment of a significant portion. And I think one can detect what may be a trace of that sentiment in the final paragraph of mikeca's comment:

The facts are there are limits to what can be accomplished with military power, even overwhelming military power. If you fail to learn that lesson from Vietnam, perhaps you will learn it in Iraq.

If we don't "learn it in Iraq"--if our Iraqi endeavor were to ultimately succeed on some level--it would call into question some of the most deeply and long-held notions of the Left. That can be a very upsetting experience.

Did Vietnam show "the limits" of "military power," "even overwhelming military power," as mikeca contends? For political and PC reasons, as well as fear that the conflict would escalate further, we never did unleash our full and overwhelming military power. And it's indisputably true that, when we cut the ARVN's funding, we not only were not using our military power, we were not even allowing them to use their military power--which was certainly less than overwhelming.

But back to Tet and the MSM, the topic of my original post: Braestrup (who was a seasoned war reporter and Korean war veteran, and who did exhaustive research on Tet for his "revisionist" book, considered the definitive text on the subject) wrote:

Rarely has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.

Braestrup also called the coverage of Tet by the MSM "press malpractice."

And so it was. Sounds like a history that might cry out for just a bit of revising, doesn't it?

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