A Time for War

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Robert D. Schulzinger. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.



In A Time for War, Robert Schulzinger presents a comprehensive political history of the Vietnam War from its beginnings in 1946 after World War II to its end with the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam in 1975. During WW II the Japanese had occupied Indochina, taking control away from the French. Once the Japanese were defeated, France sought to reassert control. While the US opposed renewal of European colonialism, it did not want to weaken France as it sought help in rebuilding Europe and opposing the Soviet Union. When full scale war broke out between the French and the Vietminh, the US gradually increased support for France as the need to oppose Communism outweighed other considerations. As Schulzinger says, "Yet the government took fateful steps toward involvement because officials considered alternative courses of action even more perilous." (p. 43) This attitude continued for twenty years as the US was sucked into a war it did not want but could not find an acceptable way to avoid. Vietnam became the quintessential "tar baby."

After the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954, the Eisenhower administration began to look for ways to oppose the Communists in Indochina. Schulzinger quotes Eisenhower as saying, "The loss of Indochina will cause the fall of Southeast Asia like a set of dominoes." (p. 67) The Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into North and South, and the US began supporting the government in the South of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem proved an unpopular and incompetent leader who alienated Buddhists and other groups, while relying increasingly on US aid to fight the Communists. Eventually, his shortcomings caused his downfall, and he was killed after a military coup in 1963. A series of governments followed Diem, and each one was supported reluctantly by the US, just as it had supported Diem, because it could find no acceptable alternative.

Under President Johnson a series of escalation steps, including bombing of North Vietnam and introduction of American combat troops, led to increased US involvement, with each escalation matched by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Johnson wanted a negotiated end to the war and could not understand why the North Vietnames would not yield to the pressure of American firepower. He simply did not understand the patience and determination of his opponents. As Schulzinger says, "For Ho Chi Minh and the other revolutionaries of North Vietnam, however, there was nothing Johnson could offer short of an American departure from Vietnam that would satisfy." (p. 173)

Tit for tat escalations continued until the Tet offensive in January, 1968, demonstrated the continued strength of the Vietcong and North Vietnames despite the presence of massive American forces and decisively turned public opinion against the war. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 election, and Nixon won with a promise to end the war with a "peace with honor." Under Nixon the war continued for another four years with no tangible progress. A peace agreement was finally reached in 1973, but it was a sham peace that only delayed the inevitable triumph of North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975, and the last Americans evacuated Saigon in a humiliating climax to a twenty year struggle.

Robert Schulzinger believes the Vietnam War was a ‘watershed event for American politics, foreign policy, culture, values, and economy in the 1960s’(p.ix) and that it affected the United States as strongly as the Civil War and the Great Depression. The war caused social upheaval, as the antiwar movement gained momentum, culminating in demonstrations and riots and finally the shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970. Increased inflation was an economic consequence of the war. As Schulzinger says, "The main impact of the war was divisive and fragmenting." Americans felt misled, and "a "credibility gap" opened between what government officials said and what the public believed about the war in Vietnam." (p. 217)

Schulzinger is not as critical as some other writers of US leaders during the war. Whereas David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest accuses political leaders of deception and devious motives, Schulzinger finds that officials may have used incorrect assumptions but were basically honest and well-intentioned in their prosecution of the war. Schulzinger finds, "In the fall of 1964, most important decision makers firmly believed that the costs to the U. S. position in the Cold War competition with the Soviets and China of a communist victory in South Vietnam far exceeded the costs of greater U. S. involvement in the war." (p. 162) As the war escalated and the US became more and more deeply involved, there remained an unchanging belief that "the prospect of a communist victory was intolerable." (p. 163)


Mary Linhart

From the very beginning, the government of South Vietnam was not a satisfactory ally. By discussing the early years of Vietnam relations, Schulzinger sheds light on why there was such difficulty with the South Vietnamese government. A central problem for the United States was ‘how to foster an independent Vietnamese government’ and at the same time provide aid, advice and funds that were ‘likely to make it more dependent on American charity.’ (48) Had the South Vietnamese been able to organize themselves there would have been much less need for American military presence. Even as early as 1965, ‘the war became an increasingly American affair.’ (170) American officials ‘wanted to strengthen the independence and spirit of the government of the Republic of Vietnam but everything they did made it behave more like a vassal of the United States.’ (170) The attitudes of Nixon and Kissinger described by Berman demonstrate that by the end of the war Americans were still struggling with the South Vietnamese leadership.

Beyond the battlefield, the war affected virtually ‘every institution in American life: universities, Congress, the presidency, the Democratic Party, the armed forces, labor unions, religious organizations, and the mass media.’ (215) Schulzinger believes that ‘at the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war most Americans trusted their leaders.’ By 1968, ‘a sizeable portion of the public no longer believed that government officials waged the Cold War properly.’ (215) There was a credibility gap. Despite the vociferousness of the anti-war advocates and general dissatisfaction with the war, according to Schulzinger, no more than 25% of Americans favored immediate withdrawal.

Congress both developed and mirrored public opinion throughout the war years. Senator Fulbright conducted televised hearings in 1966. As Berman shows, George McGovern was party to the McGovern-Hatfield amendment that would ‘accomplish what negotiations had failed to yield: an end of the war by December 31, 1971. (93, No Peace, No Honor Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam) At the beginning of 1973, ‘both houses of Congress were on record opposing further U.S. participation in the War.’ (303) By the last months of the Nixon administration, Congress was asserting its power with the War Powers Act. The Communist world was fully aware of the weakness of American resolve and recognized that time was on the side of the patient North Vietnamese.

Schulzinger’s book is packed with information. In some sections, every sentence recounts a different event in the story of the Vietnam War. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is difficult to get a sense of over-riding themes and arguments. It would be desirable to have more information about Soviet thinking.

Schulzinger, like Halberstam, sees George Ball as one of the more prescient officials. Lyndon Johnson appears to have used Ball as a sounding board for alternatives that contrasted with those of most officials. In 1964, Ball even suggested a ‘covert probing of a deal with the Viet Cong element.’ (163) Schulzinger says, ‘in retrospect, of course, Ball was right.’ (163) Schulzinger believes that especially in the early years of the war, for most officials, cold war considerations and concern about the ‘prospect of a communist victory’ were ‘intolerable.’ (163)

In his discussion of Ho Chi Minh, Schulzinger describes a committed nationalist who had been trained in the Soviet Union and ‘expected the Communist Party to lead a revolution in Vietnam.’ (10) Like Halberstam and Berman, Schulzinger reveals his admiration for the tough and enduring North Vietnamese. He compares the hardships and privations of the North Vietnamese soldiers who were expected to fight until the end with that of American soldiers serving one year terms of duty. He believes the American military leadership should have been more willing to fight on North Vietnamese terms, that is compete against guerilla warfare. Schulzinger believes American faith in technology was of doubtful value in this kind of warfare. An argument could be made that the United States was constrained in the fight by its own policies. The United States was unwilling to be aggressive partly because of fear of Chinese intervention and eventually because of American public opinion.

Schulzinger says the war was not worth it. He asserts it is ‘hard to see the investment in Vietnam had anything much to do with the demise of the Soviet Union.’ (335) In observing a televised conference on Vietnam, it is obvious that even today’s historians have an emotional investment in the war and antipathy towards the unappealing public personalities of Johnson and Nixon. (Even intellectuals give credence to the possibility that Kennedy would have ended American involvement. Perhaps this is a reflection of his attractive personality and the tragedy of his death.) The Vietnam War demonstrates that international leadership carries tremendous responsibility, not only in matters of politics and economics but in matters of morality and principle. It is important to evaluate motivations and actions in the context of a world where there was a Cold War and terrifying nuclear competition.

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Schulzinger sees the war in Vietnam as a logical outgrowth of the Cold War competition between the US and the Chinese and Soviets. He says, "Had American leaders not thought that all international events were connected to the Cold War there would have been no American war in Vietnam." (p. 329) American leaders never considered the possibility that the communist insurgency in Vietnam might be an indigenous uprising against the vestiges of French rule rather than part of an international conspiracy and/or that the South Vietnames might be better off under Ho Chi Minh than the incompetent government of Diem and those that followed. Belief in the domino theory led the US into a costly and ultimately unsuccessful war.

Schulzinger does not comment on Soviet reactions as the US was drawn deeper into the war in Vietnam, But if the war was truly part of the Cold War, the Soviets must have had a role. John Gaddis in The Cold War opines that the Soviet leaders were not happy about the Vietnam War escalation because they had hoped to improve relations with the US after the Cuban missile crisis. However, Gaddis says, "Once the war in Vietnam began, though, they felt obliged to support the North Vietnamese." (p. 133) Schulzinger comments, "In the aftermath of the Cold War, it is hard to see that the investment in Vietnam had anything much to do with the demise of the Soviet Union." (p. 335)

US leaders knew from the beginning that the war would not be easy and constantly sought ways to end it, but their belief that US credibility was at stake kept them from withdrawing support from the ineffective South Vietnamese governments. who became increasingly dependent on US aid to survive. As Schulzinger says, "To prevent vulnerable nations from falling like dominoes to communist insurgencies and to show that such revolts would fail, the Uniter States embarked on nation-building in South Vietnam." (p. 329) Schulzinger asks the question, "So, was the war in Vietnam worth it - for the Americans or the Vietnamese?" He answers, "The immediate response is: Of course not." (p. 335) For the US the war produced 58,000 deaths and many thousands wounded, years of inflation, social unrest, and a lingering distrust of government institutions and officials. For the Vietnamese the war caused 3,000,000 deaths, 15,000,000 refugees, physical devastation, and a very poor economy. Vietnam was united under an oppressive communist regime, but the dominoes did not fall.

Schulzinger's book is well researched with a wealth of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. He makes extensive use of manuscripts and other primary sources to back up his arguments. In contrast, David Halberstam's book, "The Best and the Brightest", has no footnotes and constitutes more of a biased political diatribe than an historical account. In contrast, Schulzinger presents a more balanced account and supplements his basic political history with helpful details about military, social, and economic aspects of the conflict.

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