Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tet Offensive (1968): Weigel pt. 3

From George Weigel's provocative essay in First Things on "six moments" from the 1960s that continue to have tremendous impact on today's politics and society.

The American war in Vietnam spanned the entire decade of the Sixties. The American war over Vietnam continues to this day, as President Bush found out last fall when he used the Vietnam analogy to warn against the likely consequences of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq....

To judge by the bludgeoning the president took, you’d have thought he committed blasphemy. Which, in a sense, he had—for if there is any conviction on the left today that resembles the most stringent interpretation of biblical inerrancy among certain Protestant fundamentalists, it’s the left’s commitment to its narrative about Vietnam.

That narrative, according to historian Arthur Herman, rests on four theses.

The first holds that an America obsessed with communism blundered mindlessly into an internal Vietnamese struggle in which no vital American interest was at stake. That obsession led the United States to fight a war against an indigenously supported native guerrilla movement for which the U.S. military was unprepared (the second thesis); so American forces resorted to barbaric tactics and then lied to the American people about them.

According to the third thesis in the canonical narrative, a losing struggle in the fetid jungles of Vietnam destroyed American troop morale and discipline; this disintegration led to rampant drug abuse, the murder of unpopular officers, atrocities like the My Lai murders, and a generation of physically and psychologically scarred veterans. Finally, in the fourth thesis of the left, America’s failure led to desirable effects, such as the reunification of Vietnam; and if atrocities happened after the communist takeover of South Vietnam and Cambodia, well, those atrocities were triggered by our meddling in affairs that were none of our business.

The Vietnam fundamentalists of the left have a serious problem, however, for the last decade’s worth of work by historians using primary-source materials from former Vietcong and North Vietnamese figures suggests that each of these four theses is wrong....

The Tet Offensive of January 1968 was the point at which the liberal canonical account of America’s Vietnam, which was already shaping American journalism, began to have a marked impact on policy. Lyndon Johnson, taking Walter Cronkite’s misreporting of Tet seriously, lost heart; the Democratic party largely abandoned the war that John F. Kennedy had begun; public opinion, shaped by what now appears to have been some of the worst reporting of the television age, turned decisively against the war. Today, no responsible historian considers Tet anything other than a colossal military defeat for North Vietnam and the end of the Vietcong as a major force in the struggle for Vietnam’s future....

The point is that the canonical narrative continues to distort the worldview of many of those charged with responsibility for our national security....here is a question for...anyone seeking the awesome burden and responsibility of the American presidency at this moment in history: With whom do you stand on the question of Vietnam and its relationship to our global responsibilities today? Do you stand with the fundamentalists, impervious to evidence? Or would the new, evidence-based historical-critical approach to understanding America’s war in Vietnam shape your thinking about American responsibilities in the ­twenty-first-century world?


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