‘What Did You Do In The War, Professor?’

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How do these two experts assess the military success of the two sides? According to Kolko, the Vietnam War demonstrated the “ability of a determined, able revolutionary force to defeat immensely richer Americans.” American forces had superior firepower and more sophisticated war machines, but American forces were pinned down everywhere by the necessity to defend the large bases and enclaves that they established all over the country. The “key to [the Communist party’s] maintaining the strategic initiative was its ability to keep U.S. and ARVN forces dispersed. …” The “strategic initiative on the battlefield always rested with the Revolution … the American military to some extent always had to respond to its challenges. … by early 1967 everyone important in Washington knew from CIA and Pentagon reports that [American] strategy was failing. Indeed, the Americans won large numbers of battles, and the PLAF and the PAVN lost enormous numbers of men, but the Revolution throughout this period dominated the overall military situation.”

Pike takes a rather different view. He writes that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Communist commander, faced an enemy with three advantages, all of them the result of the “fact that American military technological development in the years since the end of the Viet Minh War had virtually revolutionized warfare. What had worked against the French no longer would work against the Americans. The three advantages of the enemy were greater use of heavy long-range weapons (naval shelling); increased use of air power (B-52 raids); and greater mobility … provided chiefly by the ubiquitous helicopter. …” By the summer of 1967, says Pike, Giap’s troops in the South “had not won a single battle of significance in nearly two years, when two years before they had been at the gates of victory. Now American firepower was eating deeply into PLAF/PAVN reserves of men and supplies. The desertion rate in the PLAF was doubling every six months. Logistics … were a nightmare as supplies were discovered and destroyed by the enemy. Morale was growing steadily worse, especially among the PLAF troops.”

These are, to put it mildly, disparate assessments of the same events. The situation might be likened to that of a historian in 1876 trying to teach a course on the American Civil War but still uncertain whether the Battle of Gettysburg was a result of Lee’s invasion of the North or Meade’s invasion of the South, whether the Union blockade really made any difference, and whether railroads and rifled weapons were of any importance.

And what have those hundred-odd academics teaching Vietnam War courses been doing to dispel confusion and increase our knowledge? Not much. As recently as June 1985 I attempted to organize a panel on the United States and the Vietnam War for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. I anticipated little difficulty. The society has more than a thousand members, including most of the leading experts on the history of American foreign relations and national security policy. In addition it would be meeting in conjunction with the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, to which hundreds of other historians belonged. The meeting would be in beautiful Palo Alto, California. The only requirement for our panel was that the papers present the results of original research, that is, research based on records, memoirs, interviews, and diaries. There were few takers. Not many scholars were doing any historical research on the Vietnam War. Lots of people volunteered to talk about the “innovative” courses they taught, about the literature of the war, the historiography of the war, and so forth. But rigorous research was scarce.

On reflection this is not so surprising, for the fact is, since the 1960s, academic historians have contributed little if anything to our knowledge of the Vietnam War. When one thinks of the books that have had a major impact on both popular and academic attitudes and approaches to the conflict—those that have done most to shape the debate about the war—works by historians are few and far between. From the books written by David Halberstam, Bernard Fall, Douglas Pike, and Joseph Buttinger in the 1960s to the books of Peter Braestrup, Jeffrey Race, Frances FitzGerald, Frank Snepp, Don Oberdorfer, and Alan E. Goodman in the 1970s to the more recent books by Truong Nhu Tang, Arnold R. Isaacs, Stanley Karnow, and Harry G. Summers, Jr., the works that have been most influential have largely been written by journalists and former participants in the war rather than by academics.

Why this extraordinary abdication by members of the historical community? Perhaps it is due to the mistaken idea that we already know all we need to know about the war. Perhaps it is due to a feeling that, despite all the professed enthusiasm for courses on the subject, the Vietnam conflict is not really a reputable topic for historians to deal with, that it is unlikely to win them academic prizes or to be discussed in learned journals. Whatever the reason, if the present trend continues, we can be reasonably confident that despite the vogue of Vietnam history courses, American historians will have little influence on how we remember the Vietnam War.