In 1971, a US Navy veteran of the Vietnam War testified before Congress, telling senators why he turned against the war. The soldier charged that people were dying because of America’s pride won’t let it admit that “we have made a mistake” by going into Vietnam.
“We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” said the veteran, John F. Kerry, who now serves as Secretary of State. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” We might also ask, as we mark the 50th anniversary of America’s entry into the Indochina war: How do we think morally and spiritually about a mistake that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and roughly one million Vietnamese combatants and civilians? The Congressionally mandated guidelines for commemorating the Vietnam War are unhelpful.
They order no critical reflection on how and why America entered into the war. Perhaps this kind of thing is to be expected of the government, but allowing the official story to bound our thinking about the meaning of the Vietnam War robs us of the chance to understand how catastrophic pride can be, and how consciousness of this fact of human nature can spare America deadly follies like Vietnam in the future. Of course we must honor the service of Vietnam veterans, many of whom had no choice but to fight in the unpopular war. We all know that they came home bearing physical and psychic wounds, injuries compounded by the loathing with which many on the homefront greeted them.
This was wrong. The nation has, blessedly, learned from that mistake. But honoring the service and sacrifice of the soldier does not require honoring the cause – and in fact, can serve to retroactively justify that cause, against all evidence. Those soldiers, living and dead, were victims of the hubris and pride of the American leadership, which, in a democracy, ultimately means the hubris and pride of the American people. As early as 1963, senior US government leaders knew that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime was unlikely to prevail against the communist-nationalist insurgency, but did not want to accept it. After the Kennedy assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, to South Vietnam to assess the situation. He came back with a dark report, and recommended doubling down on US assistance to the Saigon government.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked a US Navy intelligence-gathering ship in the Gulf of Tonkin – an attack repeated two days later. President Johnson requested and got a near-unanimous Congressional vote authorizing escalation of the war. Even though the Johnson administration knew within days of the alleged attack that it probably hadn’t happened at all, it publicly maintained the fiction that the communist North Vietnamese fired first. For an administration that wanted to ramp up the Vietnam War, it was a useful lie.
But a lie it was. Over the next decade, US military and civilian leaders told themselves and the American people one lie after another about the war and American chances for victory, until finally there weren’t enough gullible people left to lie to. By the time John Kerry made his 1971 statement before Congress, 60 percent of Americans believed it had been a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. Later that year, The New York Times would publish the classified Pentagon Papers, which revealed that every American president going back to Harry S Truman had deceived the US public about the country’s involvement in Vietnam.
Let’s be crystal-clear: Anybody who thinks the Vietnamese communists were the good guys is lying to himself. Try that line out on one of the Boat People refugees, or a survivor of North Vietnamese re-education camp. But we don’t have to think of America’s enemies in Vietnam as a force for good to grasp the spiritual nature of our folly there. It is rooted in the American belief that liberal democracy is God’s plan for mankind, and that the United States is God’s instrument for spreading this conception of liberty to the world. America’s foreign policy hubris, and pride, come from believing that all people in the world of goodwill want what we want – this, despite our own worldview coming down to us from Anglo-Protestant sources – and our confidence that the application of American power can remake the world in our image.
Vietnam was a mistake for America not because the Viet Cong were righteous, but because in our fallen world, the Viet Cong were inevitable. Our leaders believed what they wanted to believe, for reasons both noble and vicious, and they told us what they wanted us to hear – and we believed them. It will not be a victory for truth, for honor, for history, or for the spiritual edification of the American people if we obscure the deep wounds those lies (including self-deception) gouged into the American body politic.