Conventional wisdom in America has long held that the Vietnam War was a “bad war,” unlike the “good” Second World War. 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, consider several factors: America’s stance at the beginning of World War II, the Cold War and the Communist threat, and the foundation on which the “bad war” myth rests.
Because of the clear dangers that the totalitarian ideologies and expansionist policies of Germany and Japan posed in the 1930s, 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 nation of Czechoslovakia? It did nothing. What did this country do at the beginning of the war, in September 1939, when Great Britain and France stood alone against the Germans because of their invasion of democratic Poland? We 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, the Netherlands, 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 atrocities in China had become known worldwide? We maintained our neutral status, referred to Germany and Japan as “aggressor nations,” instituted a trade and oil embargo against Japan, and 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 the United States 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 that war came after millions of Chinese, Poles, Russians, and others had died at the hands of their captors, and after millions more had been made slaves. The point being, if World War II was such a compelling fight against tyranny, why didn’t we get into it a lot sooner?
The Vietnam War, far from being an irrelevant or isolated conflict, was meaningful to the United States because of its greater connection to the Cold War. Our fight in Vietnam was part of the United States’ battle against Communism. Had it not been for the existence and ideology of the Soviet Union, a Communist Vietnam would have been of less concern to the United States than Communist Cuba is today. But the Soviet Union’s policy of global Communism, combined with its massive nuclear arsenal and conventional forces, limited our options against the Soviets during the Cold War to the following: A) a head-to-head war of mutually assured destruction, B) a concession to Communism’s expansion, or C) a demonstration of our resolve by fighting Communist surrogates, conventionally or covertly. In short, the Cold War could be won or lost only on the periphery––for example, in Korea or Vietnam.
Why was the threat of Soviet Communism worse to U.S. interests than that posed by our Axis enemies in World War II? Specifically, Soviet ideology was dedicated to the destruction of our economic structure and the individual freedoms inherent in that structure. Further, because Communist ideology was based on the broad philosophy of economic egalitarianism rather than on the narrow nationalistic and ethnocentric philosophies of our World War II enemies, its appeal was exportable.
Other philosophical and religious differences also played a part. But there was a drastic difference between our World War II enemies’ and our Cold War adversaries’ ability to inflict mortal harm on the United States. The Soviets had nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach our central cities within thirty-five minutes, and within ten minutes if they were launched from submarines off our coasts. Our Cold War rival also had formidable conventional forces, augmented by those of its Communist allies (especially China, North Korea, and East Germany).
By contrast, the Germans in 1940 could not even cross the 22-mile-wide Strait of Dover when at the peak of its power and when its enemy, 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.
To understand why our fight against Communism during the Vietnam War has been portrayed for more than three decades as wrongheaded and immoral, we need to understand the counterculture of the 1960s. That movement, with its antiwar, anti-authority, 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,” 1914–18; World War II, the “great war for democracy,” 1939–45; the first atomic bomb explosion, 1945; the Berlin blockade, 1948; the first hydrogen bomb explosion, 1949; the Korean War, 1950–53; and the launch of Sputnik, 1957, which seemingly demonstrated Soviet ability to deliver ICBMs worldwide against undefended populations. Add to these the Berlin Wall Crisis, 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 1963; the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, 1964, which brought America directly into the Vietnam War; the widespread race riots of 1967; the Tet Offensive, 1968; and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968.
At worst, some of these events threatened all humankind; at best, they led idealistic young Americans to lose faith in their parents, their government, their society, and the institutions of science and commerce. Frustrated and discouraged with everything, many of them viewed the demand placed on their generation to wage war in distant Vietnam as evidence of society’s progressing madness.
As these individuals became increasingly alienated, contemptuous, hostile, and paranoid regarding American social structures, they withdrew from society to form a counterculture, in which they rejected traditional values such as respect for marriage, their elders, authority and rule of law, and capitalism; the work ethic; delayed gratification; patriotism; and conventional Western religions. Adherents of the counterculture expressed their contempt for, or at least disinterest in, these values and institutions by embracing values, dress, music, and moral codes that defied and mocked traditional society. By the time of the Woodstock music festival in August 1969, the counterculture’s character and spirit had reached full maturity.
Many members of the counterculture professed to oppose the war on moral grounds. Many also saw themselves as having a higher level of consciousness and humanity than those who served. As antagonists against traditional American values, they embraced our enemy’s argument that we were the “imperialists,” whereas the VC and NVA were the “liberators.” A loathing of our military was thus a logical extension of easy rationalizations.
Politically, the counterculture embraced the left. Of particular relevance is the counterculture’s subsequent ascendancy in certain occupations, for example, in film, music, academia, and journalism. These enormously powerful and influential social institutions have an ongoing bias of portraying Vietnam protesters (themselves) as motivated purely by moral and ethical considerations. They assert that their actions took courage and that they shortened the war and saved American and Asian lives.
Counterculture voices grow shrill when citing the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. troops at My Lai in 1968. Yet their silence is deafening in response to the murder of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians by their own Communist countrymen, or the ill treatment of U.S. prisoners of war, or the Communist massacre at Hue.
Worse, many of these voices have revised history with their pronouncements that our military in Vietnam did nothing noble or decent but was dedicated only to depravity and insanity. Witness such films as Coming Home,The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Taxi Driver.
At this late date, we Vietnam vets don’t need sympathy, a parade, or another monument. What we could use, though, is a bit more of the truth. And fortunately, it is within our power to accomplish that much.
First, we must have faith in our own Vietnam experience, during which we witnessed many decent men bravely and honorably performing their duty. Second, we must be proud of our fight against the tyranny of Communism. Third, we must recognize that when the war is viewed inaccurately, all our battles in Vietnam are trivialized. Fourth, we must be aware of how 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 wherever the opportunity presents itself.
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 and revising the history of the Vietnam War weren’t even there. George Orwell wrote, He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.Have not our past, and the meaning of the deaths of fifty-eight thousand of our comrades, been controlled by others 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 Patrolling magazine, 75th Ranger Regiment Association, Spring 2011, 28--60.