America in Vietnam

Perhaps one of the historian’s most difficult tasks is to devote his attention to history which has recently ceased being current events. To address a very inflammatory issue still hotly debated makes an attempt at the definitive study almost impossible. Yet, Guenter Lewy boldly presents what his publisher calls “the first systematic analysis of the course of the war, American strategy and tactics, the travail of Vietnamization, and the causes of the final collapse of Vietnam.” In justification of this claim, political scientist Guenter Lewy informs the reader in his preface that he is the first scholar to make use of classified defense information which had been unavailable until the passage of President Nixon’s Executive Order 11652, of March 8, 1972, granting access to qualified researchers. Lewy’s use of these documents as well as virtually every important book on the subject is attested by over fifty pages of footnotes to the eleven chapters, epilogue, and appendices which make up this book. The lack of a bibliography detracts only slightly from his scholarship.

The book is neatly divided into two major sections: the first six chapters detail the course of America’s involvement in the conflict; chapters seven through eleven attempt to analyze the legality of this involvement. Lewy’s analysis of the history of American involvement is certainly less controversial than those chapters which attempt to assuage the sense of guilt still lingering in the American conscience. In fact, the latter chapters tend to cast suspicion on Lewy’s objectivity as a historian. The apologetic nature of the latter chapters casts doubt on Lewy’s presentation of the factual account, upon which his analysis of guilt ultimately depends.

The first six chapters present a minutely detailed summary of the gradual escalation of United States involvement, from its inauspicious beginning during the Cold War when most of America’s attention was directed to Korea, to its ultimate conclusion. Lewy convincingly puts the entire American mission into the context, often forgotten or overlooked, in which Vietnam and Korea were considered interdependent battlefields in the struggle against international Communism. While the United States was committing troops to Korea in 1950, no one seriously questioned the ten million dollars in aid sent to Saigon for what was essentially a French war burden. By the time of the fall of Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954, United States aid had passed the billion dollar mark. In retrospect, each escalation of money and manpower appears to be a logical step taken by the United States in an increasingly out of control situation in which the country did have a minor stake. Lewy recounts the frustrations precipitated by the ambiguous Geneva accords: South Vietnam’s refusal to hold elections and North Vietnam’s use of this failure as justification of its insurgency. Lewy uses recently declassified documents to argue that North Vietnam had planned its course of action from the very beginning.

Lewy’s thesis that the armed struggle was planned in Hanoi in 1959 by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party is based, he says, on “captured documents and the testimony of defectors familiar with internal party directives.” In this, as in most of his analyses, Lewy relies heavily on these “captures documents” and United States government files. He often cites “well informed” historians who reach similar conclusions, but is less convincing in discounting those he considers uninformed and/or biased.

In the crucial Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, Lewy finds no duplicity on the part of President Johnson’s administration. He argues from the record that although congressional debate was short and perfunctory, Congress was aware of the full impact of the document. He quotes Senator Fulbright as saying that Congress “would authorize whatever the Commander in Chief feels is necessary.” Lewy charges Senator Fulbright with inconsistency in later charging that the administration used deception. It is Lewy’s conclusion that the subsequent escalation of the conflict was not originally intended, but that the threat of retaliation was thought to be a sufficient deterrent. As to America’s entrance into the war in March of 1965 as a cobelligerent, Lewy maintains that the decision was not made until February, and he gives as justification that “the southern insurgency was never a spontaneous uprising but from the beginning was a deliberate campaign, directed and supported from Hanoi.” To back this claim he cites the United States Department of State’s “Working Paper on the North Vietnamese Role in the War in South Vietnam,” and calls the “confirmed counts” of 28,000 North Vietnamese infiltrators into the south “a very conservative figure.” One would have more faith in Lewy’s sources if he would give some evidence of their reliability besides that they are “carefully researched and documented,” and they are “based on captured documents.” In most cases where he disagrees with other war analysts Lewy presents their case briefly and answers it with the assertion that subsequent information found in official United States documents disproves them. Although he admits frequent instances in which official policy differs from the actualities in Vietnam, he seems to have implicit faith in the official documentation.

From the time the United States was involved with...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Christian Century. XCVI, January 24, 1979, p. 83.

Commonweal. CVI, February 2, 1979, p. 54.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, September 1, 1978, p. 991.

Library Journal. CIII, September 1, 1978, p. 1642.

New York Review of Books. XXV, December 7, 1978, p. 19.