“Changing Interpretations of the Vietnam War” by Robert J. McMahon

Reference: University of Illinois

Interpretations of the Vietnam War have departed significantly from typical patterns both during and after most of America’s previous wars. Instead of reflecting, defending, and bolstering official accounts of the war, as occurred with World Wars I and II, early historical assessments of the Vietnam conflict were for the most part highly critical of U.S. policy. The most widely read works on the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early 1970s—including those of journalists Bernard Fall, Robert Shaplen, and David Halberstam, and historians Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis—indicted government policy, often quite harshly. Those works presented a radically different version of the war’s origins. purpose, and efficacy than that offered by Washington officialdom. Only in the late 1970s, following North Vietnam’s military triumph and the extended soul-searching it occasioned throughout the United States, did a revisionist school of thought emerge. Ironically, the Vietnam revisionists mounted a belated defense of the American war effort, venting much of their anger at the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, which, they insisted, wrongly considered the Indochina war to be unwinnable or—even more egregious from their perspective—immoral.

Despite the broad agreement among early writers that the Vietnam War represented a colossal mistake for the United States, and that American policy was plagued persistently by errors, blunders, misperceptions, and miscalculations, significant interpretive differences still existed within that literature. In their influential book, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (1979), Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts identified no less than nine distinct explanations advanced by experts during the 1960s and 1970s for America’s failed intervention in Vietnam. They ranged from economic imperialism to idealistic imperialism, from bureaucratic politics to domestic politics, and from misperceptions and ethnocentrism to ideological blinders and the imperatives of international power politics. Analysts disagreed from the first, then, not just about the reasons for the U.S. failure in Vietnam, but about the relative weight of the factors that precipitated and sustained the American commitment.

Two sharply differentiated views emerged in that first wave of scholarship about the Vietnam War, views that continue to be echoed in today’s debates. The first characterizes American involvement in the war as an avoidable tragedy. American policymakers, according to this liberal realist perspective, foolishly exaggerated Vietnam’s importance to the United States.

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