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The Meaning Of Tet
A historian argues that in Vietnam America’s cause was just, its arms effective, and its efforts undermined critics back home—and that this is how things must work in a free society
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
It was not by assurances of no free elections, no private property, and no free speech to come that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had galvanized their army, but by the very Western notions of creating a “republic” of elected officials and a free press. The result was that Vietnamese soldiers in service to communism (itself a nineteenth-century European offshoot of Western utopian thinking that went back to Plato) fought as nationalists against foreigners in the mistaken hope of just that Western ideal of personal freedom and national autonomy. It is an unnoted irony of the entire Vietnamese War that those who resisted the Americans did so by falsely incorporating the promises of America. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was the official name of communist North Vietnam, did not draw its nomenclature from the traditions of Southeast Asia or the perversions of Stalinism, but from the democratic rhetoric of Greece and Rome. Yet there was never to be either a democracy or a republic in Vietnam.
In the end, the Western tradition of free speech and self-critique did not ruin America despite the ruination of its cause in Vietnam. The communists won the war and lost the peace, America’s model of democracy and capitalism going on to win adherents as never before, its reformist military emerging from the ordeal stronger rather than weaker.
It is an unnoted irony of the Vietnamese War that those who resisted the Americans did so by echoing the promises of America.
The record of Vietnam—books, motion pictures, official documents—remains nearly exclusively a Western phenomenon. Antiwar activists criticized this monopoly of information even as they themselves published and lectured in a free society and thus contributed to it. The communist version of the war, when it did appear in print or video, was received with skepticism. The American government and its critics were at times duplicitous, but rarely at the same time on the same issue. In that marketplace of conflicting accounts, most observers sensed that freedom was the guarantor of the truth and so did not look for veracity in North Vietnamese, Chinese, or Russian accounts. The American experience in the Vietnam War—whether noble or shameful—is nevertheless almost entirely a Western story.
While the manner of civilian audit, dissent, and self-critique during the Vietnam War was different from Western past practice, it was still hardly new in spirit. Jane Fonda dallied with her nation’s enemies precisely as did the Athenian rightists who fawned over Sparta in the closing months of the Peloponnesian War. Plato in a near-treasonous outburst called the great victory at Salamis a mistake that had made the Athenians worse as a people.