Remembering Korea, Understanding Vietnam

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The fiftieth anniversary last week of the publication of The Pentagon Papers led me to think back on what I thought I knew about the US war in Vietnam and when I thought that I knew it. I was surprised at how vigorously stories of the Korean War bubbled up in my memory.

I was 22 when I first visited Saigon, in 1966. I was serving at the time on an aircraft carrier, the USS Kearsarge, then steaming around the Tonkin Gulf.  I flew down for a week, ostensibly seeking to get the ship’s name in the papers; my private purpose was to have a look around. I returned to Saigon in July 1968 and this time stayed for two years, the first year as an enlisted correspondent for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the second as a civilian stringer for Newsweek magazine.

I had been born in 1944, at a time when my father was stationed in the US Army Air Corps in England. Stories of America’s foreign wars were a big part of my youth.  I played Korea war games in excavations for houses under construction nearby. (We threw imaginary grenades at one another, then counted to ten before shouting “new man” and throwing more.) At night I listened to Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower; and Senators Robert Taft and Joe McCarthy. I was riveted by all 26 episodes of Victory at Sea. I heard radio broadcasts of Viet Minh bugle calls during the fall of the French fort at Dien Bien Phu on the Laotian border.

By 1956, Vietnam seemed just another country, like West Germany and South Korea, that had been divided after World War II. Indeed, the Soviet Union that year proposed admitting South and North Vietnam separately to the United Nations.

I was eighteen in 1962, when South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated with American complicity; twenty in 1964 when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred; twenty-one in 1965, old enough to recognize carnival buncombe, when the first US Marines stormed ashore for wire service photographers at China Beach, Da Nang. I had already read Graham Greene’s  The Quiet American in 1966, but my belief in the validity of South Vietnam as a sovereign nation survived that visit.

Not so the events of 1967, a year I spent in Lakehurst, New Jersey, reading about the war. The bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, wasn’t working; neither was the buildup of 380,000 US troops. In the autumn,  anti-war protestors marched on the Pentagon, an upwelling of dissent described a year later in compelling detail by Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History.

By the Tet holiday in 1968, when 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers staged surprise attacks the length and breadth of the country, it became unmistakable that the account of the war that Washington had been giving was wrong; it was clearer still when American forces invaded Cambodia and Laos in 1970.  South  Vietnamese forces were hurled back when they sought to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail in southern Laos in 1971.

When The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, and Fire in the Lake: The  Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, by Frances FitzGerald, appeared, both in 1972, magisterial as the books were, they seemed somehow anticlimactic.

The publication of The Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and, soon after, The Washington Post, and other newspapers, dramatic as were the event and the legal battles with the Nixon administration that followed – the burglaries and all that – played no role in changing my mind about much of anything connected with the war. I like to think that my opinion changed about the same time that Robert McNamara launched the project (on June 17, 1967) that four years later were revealed as The Pentagon Papers themselves.

Looking back, particularly through the prism of The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over The Pentagon Papers (1972), by Sanford J. Ungar, the episode seems the beginning of a different story, about something else.  About what? A new degree of rivalry between newspapers’  authority and that of other institutions crept into the picture in those years. Reading Elizabeth Becker’s essay in the Times’ special section last week, I was struck by her dismissal as “lies” of various government assertions contained in the documents. Given that it hasn’t been easy to learn to routinely apply that word, as noun or verb, to various statements by President Trump, I was disappointed that Becker didn’t search for slightly less emphatic locutions with which to describe utterances by previous public officials she considered misleading or false.

Another book that I first read in 1972 (it had been published ten years before) has, more than any other, changed my thinking about the wellsprings of the Vietnam War. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, was strictly concerned with the nature of change in scientific communities.  But the book  introduced the word “paradigm” to discussions of how opinions form and change in communities of all sorts; and today a term originally borrowed from grammar has come to mean an exemplar, a set of shared convictions all but taken for granted until circumstances somehow argue successfully for a change.

General Maxwell Taylor was one of President John F. Kennedy’s principal advisers on Vietnam and an architect of US intervention there. Later he became President Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador in Saigon. Not long before his death, in 1987, Taylor told author Stanley Karnow that the war there had been “both a blunder and a lesson.”

“First, we didn’t know ourselves,” Taylor told Karnow. “We thought that we were going into another Korean War, but this was a different country. Second, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies. We never understood them, and that was another surprise. And we knew even less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh?  Nobody really knew.  So until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It’s very dangerous.”

The relative successes of the Korean War were the paradigm that explains to a considerable extent America’s entry into the Vietnam War. So how were the lessons of the disaster in Vietnam forgotten so quickly in order to become enmeshed in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001? – doubts about American judgement, fetters on American credibility, the limits of American power?

That is a story for another day.