Small Wars Journal

Vietnam War History: Orthodox Versus Revisionist

Sat, 03/09/2019 - 7:56am

Vietnam War History: Orthodox Versus Revisionist

James McLeroy

The orthodox academic historiography of the Second Indochina War is less an empirical search for objective truth than a dogmatic defense of politically correct "truthiness." In contrast to objective truth, "truthiness" is the subjective perception of reality that its believers want to be true, regardless of any contrary evidence or logic. Their wish is thus father to their thought.

In orthodox academic dogma, the "Vietnam" War is a mere sub-set of 20th Century diplomatic history, rather than a main subject of 20th Century military history. According to the 1960s orthodoxy, revisionist historians are defending a shameful history of U.S. political ignorance, military incompetence, and imperialist immorality. Orthodox historians reject the revisionist distinction between a U.S. political defeat in America and a U.S. military defeat in Vietnam. They also reject the revisionist military focus on the vulnerability of North Vietnam's economic infrastructure to U.S. conventional, non-nuclear weapons and tactics.

For true believers in the academic orthodoxy, the term "anti-war" does not mean opposition to the Communist war of conquest against the Republic of Viet Nam (RVN). It means righteous left-liberal opposition to the U.S. role in an "unwinnable" war to defend the corrupt, repressive RVN regime from the "mostly nationalist" VC forces and their "mostly nationalist" NVA allies. They claim the war began as a small-scale, patriotic, indigenous, revolutionary insurgency and evolved into a large-scale, conventional, international war due only to U.S. intervention.

The primary literary, journalistic, and entertainment sources of the orthodox academic dogma are: The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955); Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall (1961); The Making Of A Quagmire by David Halberstam (1965); Fire In The Lake by Francis Fitzgerald (1973); Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow (1983); Anatomy Of A War by Gabriel Kolko (1985), and The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich (1986). After 1967, the orthodox academic dogma was constantly propagated by the left-liberal "anti-war" journalism led by the New York Times newspaper, Time magazine, and CBS television news. The most influential "anti-war" films were Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now (1978), and The Deer Hunter (1978).     

Revisionist historians think the war was the calculated implementation of a North Vietnamese strategy based on Mao's three-stage model of Communist revolutionary warfare in China. The first-stage was a VC guerrilla and terrorist insurgency. The second stage was semi-conventional, mobile VC/NVA warfare. The third stage was conventional, modern, positional NVA warfare.

Revisionists think the war was not primarily an indigenous insurgency or a civil war. It was the incremental invasion of the RVN by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and its subordinate Viet Cong (VC) indigenous forces controlled by the Politburo of the "Democratic Republic" of Viet

Nam (DRV) in Hanoi. Revisionists think the low-level VC violence and terrorism in the first phase of the war were a contest of insurgent versus counterinsurgency forces, but the major combat of the war was primarily a contest of NVA and VC against U.S. and RVN effective firepower.

From 1965 to 1972, the NVA and VC forces lost all the major battles against the firepower of the combined U.S. and RVN forces. In 1968, the main VC forces were annihilated as a strategic threat to RVN sovereignty, and in 1972, the RVN forces with U.S. logistics and air support alone defeated the invasion of 14 conventional NVA divisions. By 1973, the U.S. and RVN forces had effectively won the internal war against the VC and NVA forces in South Vietnam.

The NVA were not capable of invading the RVN again until 1975, two years after all U.S. forces were withdrawn. They then conquered it conventionally with no concern for RVN governance or rural "hearts and minds." They could do so only because: 1) in 1974, the Congress radically reduced or prohibited essential combat support for the RVN forces, and 2) in 1974, the Soviet bloc nations gave the NVA more, and more effective, firepower than the RVN forces had. If the Congress had not abandoned South Vietnam in 1974, there is no military reason why the RVN forces with the same U.S. logistics and air support they had in 1972 could not have defeated the NVA invasion in 1975 the same way they did in1972.

The first revisionist challenge to the orthodox academic portrayal of the totalitarian Leninist ideology of Ho Chi Minh's DRV (North Vietnam) was Robert Turner's Vietnamese Communism (1975). The first book labeled "revisionist" by the orthodox academic historians was America In Vietnam by Gunter Lewy (1978). The first military challenge to the academic orthodoxy on the war was Strategy for Defeat by U.S.G. Sharp. It detailed how a genuinely strategic air campaign against the DRV could have ended the DRV's physical capacity, regardless of the Politburo’s fanatical will, to continue its aggression against the RVN at any time, as it briefly did in 1972.

Since 1978, nine books and a key magazine article have advanced the revisionist arguments: "How To Lose A War" by Robert Elegant (1981), On Strategy by Harry Summers (1982), The Key To Failure by Norman Hannah (1987), Vietnam At War by Phillip Davidson (1988), Lost Victory by William Colby (1989), A Better War by Lewis Sorley (1999), Vietnam: The Necessary War by Michael Lind (1999), The Myth Of Inevitable U.S. Defeat In Vietnam by Dale Walton (2002), Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar (2006), and The Vietnam War Reexamined by Michael Kort (2018). Lind is only revisionist in his geopolitical justification of the U.S. defense of the RVN.

Many revisionists believe that most of the objections of orthodox academic historians to the revisionist options for defeating the Communist forces are based on military ignorance or anti-U.S. military prejudice. Their objections are "strawman" arguments against artificially simplistic

reductions or distorted exaggerations of one or more of the revisionist arguments. Orthodox academic historians reject all the revisionist arguments as "conservative counterfactual speculation."

Is it "conservative counterfactual speculation" to factually state that the DRV's ability to effectively conduct its war in the RVN was directly dependent on the supplies it constantly received from mainly from the Soviet bloc nations? Is it counterfactual speculation to factually state that: all the Soviet bloc supplies came to the DRV in ships; that if the DVR ports were closed, the Soviet bloc supplies could not reach the DRV; that without those supplies, the DRV could not long maintain its war against the RVN; and that the U.S. Navy always had the ability to close the DRV ports with air-dropped mines, as it did in just one day in December, 1972?

Is it counterfactual speculation to factually state that after the NVA's disastrous Tet battles of 1968, the U.S. Army had the ability to conduct a multi-divisional airmobile invasion of the eastern Laotian Panhandle to destroy the essential NVA base areas there and in Cambodia; that with their air mobility, artillery firepower, and airborne firepower those U.S. divisions had the ability to capture or kill thousands of NVA troops in their Laotian and Cambodian base areas?

Is it counterfactual speculation to factually state that the bases and choke points on the NVA's Laotian road network could have been destroyed by U.S. Army and Navy engineer units with the protection of several U.S. divisions; that with the DRV ports mined, the DRV bases in Laos and Cambodia destroyed, and the railroad from China into the DRV constantly bombed, the NVA would not have been able to quickly reconstruct their Laotian and Cambodian road networks and base areas after the withdrawal of the U.S. airmobile divisions.

Is it counterfactual speculation to factually state that it was critical for the DRV to protect its basic industrial infrastructure from total destruction by a genuinely strategic U.S. air campaign; that the U.S. Air Force and Navy were always capable of conducting such a campaign, briefly did so in 1972, and could have done so at any time before then; and if they had, the DRV could not have continued to provide essential materiel and personnel support for its forces in the RVN, Laos, and Cambodia; that with no major supplies, reinforcements, or exterior bases for the DRV forces, the superior U.S. ground forces would have soon killed or captured the remaining NVA and VC forces in the RVN?

Ultimately, the dispute between orthodox and revisionist historians of the Second Indochina War is not about debating points, but about permanent differences of basic value systems and perceptions of historical reality. The epistemological dispute between their opposing concepts of historical truth -- objective truth versus subjective "truthiness" -- may be endlessly analyzed, but probably never fully resolved.


About the Author(s)

James McLeroy was an Army Special Forces Officer in I Corps, Vietnam, in 1968. He recently co-authored a history of a battle in that war in which he participated titled BAIT: The Battle Of Kham Duc. It will be published later this year by Casemate Publications and will be included in the Vietnam War Series of the Association of the United States Army.