David Halberstam on Vietnam

March 3, 2018

Reading David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, brought a lot of memories of that time in the l960s back to me. The book was published in 1971 and then again in 1992 with a new introduction. I have read quite a lot about Vietnam, but had never read this book. I saw a reference to it recently and wanted to read it.  

Clearly, if one wants to understand the Washington decision-making side of the war, I believe this is the best book to read. It is an impressive accomplishment. Halberstam had been reporting on the war for years. He made something like three-hundred interviews of those policy makers and others involved just for this book. I would love to use this book in a course on war and decision making or even a course in American government. But it is a long book and I am not sure if students would seriously read such a book today. Most of them probably would not. It takes some effort. But if they did, they would learn a lot more than they do from most courses.

Reading around a hundred pages a day, my eyes started to get tired. It brought back a hell of a lot of memories and fleshed out much of what I knew about the era. I found the book fascinating and hard to put down.

Personally, I was determined that I was not going to go to Vietnam and shoot peasants who were in rebellion against the feudal agrarian system that was still in place. I had always thought that they were right to revolt against their exploitation. The US was not just pursuing a failed policy. The US was on the wrong side in the war. The US should have supported Ho Chi Minh, in my view. Even a few policy makers in Washington realized this. That is also a fascinating fact.

I was the exact right age to be sent to Vietnam in 1963. But I wanted no part of it. I could never see any point in that war, except to make profits for the war corporations. And careers for the generals. I got a deferment to go to the university until I graduated in 1968. That was not fair to the guys who did not go to a university, but I took advantage of it.  After I graduated, the draft board was after me at once. Johnson still wanted more men in Vietnam.

The French had ruled the country for decades. Then after World War II, the British allowed for them return to the country. This was a historical mistake. The French fought the same kind of war as the US and lost. There was no way that I was going to be a part of that. Even if one did not believe that it was evil and immoral, totally unethical, it would be the height of folly and stupidity. I could see that, but what about those in Washington? Well, actually some of them could see it too, as Halberstam shows, but still, they could not keep from going to war and then they kept escalating the war wider and wider for years and years. They kept being sucked right down into the maelstrom. Even those who realized that it was complete folly went along. This was true of even Robert McNamara after 1966. It turned into a terrible disaster for both the US and Vietnam.

1966 was the year that the US actually lost the war. McNamara didn’t have a clue at that time. He was wrapped up in mountains of statistics. He was a corporate management guy coming from being the head of Ford in the 1950s. Technology should do the trick.

Most didn’t know the war was a lost cause for the US Empire until many years later, of course. Even nations cannot stop history. The war was political and historical. I would say that it was an event of historical necessity. Part of a larger historical dialectic. The country moved to communism until the l990s, but then in a dialectical process, moved to today’s capitalist system under the name of communism or socialism. It is almost a mirror image of what happened in China on a larger scale. Globalization is also part of the dialectic.

This does not mean, of course, that the revolution which the US was trying to prevent, was wiped out. The gains of the revolution were not all lost. They are enveloped in the development of the country today. When I was in Vietnam in 2006, I surprised that most young Vietnamese do not think much about the war today. Not the way Americans who grew up in the 1960s do.

Men (and women) make history. This is an old Marxist truism. George Plekhanov. But as the Marxists always argued, they do not make history in just any way they like. Machiavelli could have agreed. There is fortune, fortuna. The historical situation did not allow the Washington policy makers to make history in just any way they liked. Those in the White House were unlucky. The war practically killed President Lyndon Johnson. Maybe it did in a slow fashion.

For John Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson, there was the l950s legacy of McCarthyism. They had to be anti-communist for political reasons. The Democratic Party had been accused of “losing China.” They could not afford to “lose Vietnam,” because of domestic politics. Somehow Americans could not see how such hubristic concepts revealed that the country was a global empire, believing that it owned countries and could “lose” them.

Vietnam never attacked the United States. The United States attacked Vietnam. The enterprise of the US Empire was to stop a revolution from happening in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, in the jargon of official Washington and the US military. It was probably not possible, even if the US had sent twice as many men. Even a million or more, as the Joint Chiefs suggested at one time in 1967.

What is also interesting is that very few Americans see clearly that the US is still doing the same thing under a different name. David Petraeus and his counterterrorism models do the same thing as the US tried to do in Vietnam. Just a different terminology is being used. Afghanistan. Stopping a revolution. All the other wars. The so-called global war on terrorism. Just another version of an empire trying to stop history from unfolding. Stopping the undoing of colonial history. Now it is drones to stop the historical process. Politically, it still sells.

Trillions of dollars are printed and poured down the rat hole while killing many thousands of people and piling the debt on the increasingly impoverished population of the United States. Profits for arms corporations and banks, the corporate ruling class. Whether the US Empire will really collapse soon, as Johann Galtung has suggested, is a larger question. But global opinion largely has it correct. The greatest threat to global peace and security, and even life itself around the globe, is the United States of America.

I clearly remember those days in 1965 and 1966 when I was a student at the university. Every morning, the news in the papers just got worse and worse. More and more soldiers being sent to Vietnam. More coming home dead. It was coming to my time to graduate in 1967 and I was certain that I was going to be sent to Vietnam too, if I didn’t do something about it.

I would have loved to go to Vietnam, but not to shoot peasants.

Perhaps never before had people had such hope for those bright people in the White House. John Kennedy, Robert McNamera, McGeorge Bundy. The generals, Maxwell Turner, William Westmoreland in Vietnam. Kennedy started by sending “advisors.” Several thousand. By 1964 after Johnson had become president, pressure was being put on the White House to send combat troops. Once that began, it continued to all go down-hill. Or one can say up-hill from the perspective of those who wanted revolution in Vietnam. The US army eventually collapsed.   

This very significant book brings out many aspects of the United States that should help Americans understand the problems with American war culture and US imperialism today. The sickness of anti-communism from the McCarthy era. Racism. Ethnocentrism. The arrogance of Americans when they go abroad. The deep underlying gut-feeling in the US culture that Americans cannot learn anything from other people. That is, anything that would help them. Some sick notion that they somehow have the God-given right to rule over others. To rule the world.

One sees many parallels to today’s folly in Washington when reading this book. One realizes that not much was learned. Or if anything was learned, it has been forgotten. McMaster, in the White House at this time in 2018, wrote a revisionist book accusing the generals of not doing their duty in Vietnam. Of not “winning.” Still trying to erase history. This just gets more people killed.

The effect of the Vietnam War is not yet over. Americans still die of health effects such as exposure to agent orange. Vietnamese still die from this poison and dioxin. In the same way, much of the Middle East has now been polluted with depleted uranium weapons which will continue to kill people even after the wars end there.

But so far, there is no sign of them ending. It is likely there will not be as long as there is an American Empire.  

Whatever you do, read this book. It is the best way I know of to learn and understand how the US Government really works and how war policy is made. Unfortunately, it will not inspire confidence or make one happy. But it is a lesson worth learning.

March 3, 2018

Izmir, Turkey     

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