With their eighteen-hour film on Vietnam airing on PBS, filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns remind us that this was a war that never goes away – in part because it was never clear at the time how it came about in the first place.
Historians today agree the war emerged from what’s called “The Cold War Consensus”, an interlocking set of assumptions guiding American foreign policy after World War II.
The assumptions were these: Communism was monolithic – no different in Vietnam than in Moscow - and sought territorial and ideological expansion into weak nations whose neighbors then fall one by one like a line of dominos. Because it could take root anywhere it must be opposed everywhere: appeasement was fatal. Moreover, as the most powerful nation in the free world the U.S. had the power and influence to prevent Communist takeovers and a moral obligation to do so. Finally, any hint of lack of resolve, let alone failure, would damage and possibly destroy American credibility in the world.
“Credibility” was the key. Once committed, the US had to pursue a policy to the end; to pull back or out would show America couldn’t be trusted.
Although the Cold War Consensus was deeply flawed, it dominated American life for more than a generation. Challenging it was tantamount to political suicide: being “soft on Communism” was at least unpatriotic, at worst treasonous.
But as American involvement in Vietnam grew, it became harder to deny that it was based on arrogant misperceptions. Over time the war became less about freedom from Communism and more about preserving American credibility while looking for an exit; each escalation defended as the measure that would hasten the end. As the charade became more difficult to sustain, both at home and in Vietnam, the U.S. finally adopted another charade to justify flight, essentially declaring that its ends had been achieved and leaving. Meanwhile, 58,000 Americans and more than two million Vietnamese died.
In Vietnam it was said that a village had to be destroyed in order to save it. One of the things we learned from Vietnam and from more recent engagements in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and which we should consider as America faces new challenges in Asia, is that the cost of maintaining credibility is often credibility itself.