WHY WE WERE IN VIETNAM by Norman Podhoretz

WHY WE WERE IN VIETNAM

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Neoconservative ideologue Podhoretz, a no-nonsense hawk (The Present Danger), thinks that we have never had a debate on the morality of the Vietnam War; and he means to initiate one. His own position is never in doubt, though the basis of his judgment is unusual, even unique: the war was moral because it was fought to free the Vietnamese from communism, and because (the unique part) we persisted in fighting it even when we could not win. The war was not only moral, therefore, but altruistic and heroic. The argument goes like this: after World War II, two potential anticommunist policies opened up--""liberation,"" associated with MacArthur; and containment, articulated by George Kennan and adopted by Truman. Eisenhowever ended the Korean War on the basis of a containment policy doomed to failure in Asia. The succeeding commitment of troops to Vietnam was therefore politically reckless but morally justifiable. (Any fight against communism is morally justifiable.) Subsequent American presidents--Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon--sought to execute the war ""on the cheap."" The alternative, liberation policy (which Podhoretz equates with an economic and political, not purely military, approach) consequently went by the hoards. But in executing the war cheaply, in adding troops reluctantly, those presidents did not make the moral case to rebut their critics; instead they retied on excuses involving American honor or the US reputation. The field was thus left to the opposition--made up of procommunists (writers Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag. and Frances Fitzgerald, among intellectuals), of anti-anticommunists (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Rovere, Dwight Macdonald), and of anti-Americans (Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg), all of whom denied the war any moral basis from the US side. For his ""facts,"" especially the disputable ones, Podhoretz relies on Guenther Lewy's intensely debated and much-criticized America in Vietnam. (It's Lewy who is Podhoretz's authority for the alleged reality of the Tonkin Gulf incident, for one thing.) Podhoretz's notion of morality is also questionable, given his justification of US disregard of the 1954 Geneva agreements on the holding of elections in supposedly-temporary South Vietnam: ""The point was to prevent the Communists from taking over the whole of Vietnam. If in the name of democracy, elections had been forced on Diem and the Communists had won, the result would have been not the extension of democracy to the South but the destruction of any possibility of a development in the direction of democracy there."" Whether or not this touches off a ""debate"", it won't be greeted in silence.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster