Nearly 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the myth that it was a 'bad war' still passes for history.
For the past three decades conventional wisdom in America has held that the Vietnam War was a "bad war," unlike the "good war" of World War II. But an argument can be made that the Vietnam War not only was a good war but was more vital to America's interests than World War II. To pursue this argument, we need to consider several factors: America's stance at the beginning of World War II; the Cold War; the Communist threat; and the foundation on which the "bad war" myth rests.
Because of the clear dangers posed in the 1930s by the totalitarian ideologies of Germany and Japan, combined with their expansionist policies, World War II is commonly referred to in the United States as a "good war." But what did the United States do in March 1939, when Germany invaded the democratic country of Czechoslovakia? It did nothing. What did America do at the beginning of the war, in September 1939, when Great Britain and France stood alone against the Germans for their invasion of the democratic country of Poland? It issued a proclamation of neutrality. What did we do in the spring of 1940 when Germany conquered the largely democratic countries of Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and France, and began bombing Great Britain? We transferred surplus war materiel to Great Britain.
And what did we do in the spring and summer of 1941 when Germany conquered Yugoslavia and Greece, invaded the Soviet Union and Egypt, and began bombing Malta--and when Japan's mass wave of butchery in China had become known worldwide? We maintained our neutral status; we referred to Germany and Japan as aggressor nations; we instituted a trade and oil embargo against Japan; and we passed Lend-Lease legislation to aid Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
In fact, it took a direct act of war against us at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to get America involved in World War II. Even then, we declared war only against Japan. Our war with Germany came about because Hitler declared war against us. Remember, too, that our entry into WWII came after millions of Chinese, Poles, Russians, and others had died at the hands of their captors, and after millions more had been sent into slave labor. The point is: If WWII was such a compelling fight against tyranny, why didn't we enter it much sooner?
The Vietnam War, far from being an irrelevant or isolated conflict, was meaningful to the United States because of its connection to the Cold War. Our fight in Vietnam was part of America's battle against communism. Had it not been for the existence of the former Soviet Union, a Communist Vietnam would have been less relevant to the United States than Communist Cuba is to us today. However, the Soviet Union's policy of global communism, plus its massive nuclear arsenal, limited our options with the Soviets during the Cold War to the following: a head-to-head war of mutual assured destruction, a concession to communism's expansion, or showing our resolve by fighting their surrogates conventionally or covertly. In short, the Cold War could only be won or lost on the periphery--for example, in Korea or Vietnam.
Vietnam was our generation's test of resolve against tyranny. Unfortunately, America's lack of political and domestic resolve allowed South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to fall to communism in 1975, Afghanistan and Nicaragua to succumb to the same ideology in 1979, and Iran to submit in 1979 to religious fundamentalists.
Why was the threat of Soviet communism worse to America than that posed by our World War II adversaries? Specifically, Soviet ideology was dedicated to the destruction of our economic and individual freedoms. Further, because Communist ideology was based upon the broad philosophy of economic egalitarianism rather than on the narrow nationalistic and ethnocentric philosophies of our WWII adversaries, its appeal was exportable.
Other philosophical and religious differences also played a part. But there was a drastic difference between our WWII and Cold War adversaries' capabilities to inflict mortal harm on America. The Soviets had nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach our central cities within 35 minutes, or within 10 minutes if they were launched from submarines off our coast. They also had, along with their Communist allies (especially China, North Korea and East Germany), formidable conventional forces.
By contrast, the Germans in 1940 could not even cross the 22-mile-wide Strait of Dover when they were at the peak of their power and their adversary, Great Britain, stood alone. The Japanese, although they had a powerful navy that included many aircraft carriers, lacked mechanized ground forces and (like Germany) strategic air power.
Still, many Americans during the Cold War did not perceive the Communists to be as threatening as the Axis powers of WWII. Abstract threats, real though they may be, can never be as compelling as a real battle, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet ideologically and militarily the Communist threat was real, and it was worse.
To understand why our fight against communism during the Vietnam War has been portrayed for the past three decades as mistaken and immoral, we need to understand the counterculture of the 1960s. That movement, with its anti-war, anti-authority and anti-establishment views, was spawned by the unremitting conflicts of the 20th century and by the development of technology capable of inflicting human destruction on an ever-increasing scale.
Consider, for example, World War I, "the war to end all wars" in 1914; World War II, "the great war for democracy" in 1939; the first atomic bomb explosion in 1945; the Berlin blockade in 1948; the first Hydrogen bomb explosion in 1949; the Korean War in 1950; and the launch of Sputnik in 1957, which seemingly demonstrated Soviet ability to deliver ICBMs worldwide against undefended populations. Add to these the Berlin Wall Crisis in 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963; the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, which brought America directly into the Vietnam War; the widespread race riots in 1967; the Tet Offensive in 1968; and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
At their worse, some of these events threatened mankind. At best, they led idealistic young Americans to feel powerless and to lose faith in their parents, their government, their society and the institute of science. Frustrated and discouraged with everything, many of them viewed the demand placed on their generation to wage war in Vietnam as evidence of society's continuing madness.
As these individuals became increasingly alienated, contemptuous, hostile and paranoid regarding every American social structure, they withdrew from American society to form the counterculture, in which they repudiated traditional values such as respect for marriage, elders, authority, the rule of law, the work ethic, delayed gratification, patriotism, technology, Western society and Western religions. Adherents of the counterculture expressed their contempt for these values and institutions by embracing values, habits, demeanor, attire and music that made a mockery of traditional society. By the time of the Woodstock festival in August 1969, the counterculture's character and spirit had reached full maturity.
The counterculture came mostly from the middle and upper class strata of American society, particularly the youth in Ivy League or large urban universities. That segment of society had the financial resources and influence to attend college and receive draft deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam. More than 30,000 of them sought temporary refuge in Canada and Sweden. Thousands of others burned their draft cards in defiance.
Members of the counterculture rationalized that they were against the war on moral grounds. They also believed they had a level of consciousness and humanity that was not shared by those who served. In their certainty and self-righteous zealotry they became moral exhibitionists. They also became blinded to different perspectives or civil discussion.
As antagonists against American values, they embraced our enemy's argument that we were the "imperialists" and the VC and the NVA were the "liberators." Their loathing of our military was a logical extension of their rationalizations. Members of the counterculture did not agonize over the loss of American soldiers. Rather, they showed their contempt in many different ways for those who served in their place. These ranged from waving the enemy flag and burning ours, to harassing veterans and their families.
Politically, the counterculture embraced the left. Of particular relevance is the counterculture's subsequent domination of certain occupations: Hollywood, the media and academia. These enormously powerful and influential social institutions have a vested interest in portraying Vietnam protestors (themselves) as motivated only by moral and ethical considerations. They assert that their actions took courage, and that they shortened the war and saved American and Asian lives.
Members of the counterculture are vociferous when speaking about the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese by American troops at My Lai in 1968. Yet their silence is deafening in response to the murder of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians by the Communists, or the plight of our prisoners of war, or the Communist massacre at Hue.
Others try to absolve their past by claiming that everyone in our generation was part of the counterculture. Worse, many of them justify their actions by bombarding the American public with propaganda that our military in Vietnam performed nothing noble or decent, but was only dedicated to depravity and insanity. Witness movies such as Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon.
Sadly, still other perpetrators of the Vietnam War myth exist in the ranks of veterans––that small but conspicuous minority who, even today, can still be found wearing fatigues and ready to cry on anyone's shoulder about the horrors of Vietnam and how it destroyed their lives. Although this group has not been researched in any scientific manner, reports suggest that many of them were never in combat (see Stolen Valor, by B.G. Burkett). This group unwittingly aids the left's desire to portray the war as immoral and Vietnam veterans as dysfunctional. Not surprisingly, Hollywood and the media has generally focused on this minority.
More than 30 years have passed since the peak of the Vietnam War. At this late date we don't need sympathy, a parade or another monument, but we do need the truth. Fortunately, it is within our power to accomplish that goal.
First, we must have faith in our own Vietnam experience, during which we witnessed many decent men honorably performing their duty. Second, we must be proud of our fight against the tyranny of communism during the Cold War. Third, we must recognize that all our battles in Vietnam are trivialized if the war is erroneously viewed. Fourth, we must be aware of why the Vietnam "bad war" myth came into existence and why former members of the counterculture have a vested interest in keeping that fiction alive. Last, we must challenge this myth whenever we have the opportunity.
None of these tasks should prove too difficult to accomplish, for we who served in the Vietnam War are privy to the truth. The vast majority of those who are distorting the facts about the Vietnam War were not. Author George Orwell once wrote, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." Have not our past, and the meaning behind the deaths of 58,000 of our comrades, been controlled long enough?
Robert C. Ankony, PhD, is a sociologist who writes criminological, firearms, and military articles for scientific and professional journals and special- interest magazines. He served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam and is the author of Lurps: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, revised ed. (Landham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2009); Nominated for the Army Historical Foundation’s 2006 and 2009 Distinguished Writing Award.
Originally published in Vietnam magazine, August 2002, 58--61.