Vietnam: An Unnecessary Book

Vietnam: An Unnecessary Book

Vietnam, The Necessary War
by Michael Lind
The Free Press, 1999 314 pp. $25

Michael Lind has written five books and edited another in just four years. Vietnam, The Necessary War makes that count at least one too many. This book will likely destroy Lind’s reputation among serious students of the war and its domestic implications. It will certainly bring him no new admirers among that war’s many millions of honorable opponents.

Politically and ideologically, Lind is unclassifiable. He began his career as an employee of conservative and neoconservative publications, only to denounce their intellectual leaders in highly conspiratorial terms. Next, he careened from left to right, publishing one day in the Nation (where I recruited him) and the next in National Review, and virtually everything in between. At one moment he is denouncing Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol for cozying up to the anti-Semitic crank Pat Robertson. Turn around, and he is viciously attacking David Halberstam, Garry Wills, and Michael Walzer for being dupes and apologists for communist dictators. Currently Washington editor of Harper’s and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation, Lind is a seemingly limitless font of ideas and observations. Many of those that appeared in his first book, The Next American Nation, were quite brilliant. The ones that appear in Vietnam, to put it charitably, are not.

Lind’s argument is as follows: he admits that Vietnam itself was of “no intrinsic value” to the United States. But the war was “necessary,” nevertheless “to demonstrate America’s credibility as a military power and a reliable ally to its enemies and allies around the world.” Hence, U.S. political and military leaders “should have imposed an informal limit on the number of American lives it was willing to spend” in order to “preserve the military and diplomatic credibility of the United States” in the global cold war.

Reading this book, which features a bright red globe with a sinister hammer shadowed across it, it is hard to believe that Lind has been alive for the past thirty years, much less studying the history of the Vietnam War. Yes, he is able to find some recently unearthed intra-party communist braggadocio to support his thesis, as well as a few conservative historians who share some of his broad biases. But in his rush to exonerate the Johnson administration for its callous lies and strategic misjudgments, he has apparently missed out on some of the most fundamental lessons of the past quarter century.

As implied by the book’s lurid cover, Lind’s vision of the cold war is vintage 1965. He speaks of “the lessons of Munich” as if they were universally agreed upon and applicable across all boundaries and cultures. He resurrects the domino theory, though he calls it the “bandwagon” effect. (“After t...