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America’s Longest War

In America`s Longest War, George Herring provides what is, on the whole, a balanced and objective treatment of the Vietnam War, giving an even-handed account that tries to be fair to all shades of opinion and avoiding bias in any particular direction. It is a commendable effort that provides a wealth of information about a very complex war. There is a grim timeliness to Herring’s second chapter, “Our Offspring: Nation Building in South Vietnam.

” Herring argues, convincingly, that South Vietnam was never a nation of its own. From the outset, it was an American creation, supported by ever-increasing amounts of material and later military aid. The result was unfortunate. With a scant understanding of Vietnamese history or culture, the United States tried to build a nation based on our view of how the world should work. Between 1954 and 1961, America managed to avoid a crisis in Vietnam, although the difficulties were clearly building.

When the crisis came, the key weakness was the lack of legitimate leadership for the country. What leadership there was, the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, fell prey to sectarian violence. Tragically, this “lesson” of the War in Vietnam remains unlearned. Herring’s account of the situation in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration recalls the grim situation in which Vietnam first came to the forefront of the American conscience, with the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk on the streets of Saigon.

American media provided film and photo coverage of these grim suicides, and the American people recoiled in shock when Madame Ngu, the sister-in-law to the South Vietnamese President, dismissed such acts as “barbecues” and offered to provide matches and gasoline to any Buddhists who needed them. Many of President Kennedy’s defenders argue that had he not been assassinated, Kennedy would have extricated the United States from Vietnam, trying to add an additional laurel to the crown of their fallen hero. Herring finds this argument weak.

On the day he was shot, Kennedy gave a speech on the need for the United States to stand by its commitments to developing countries, warning that “we dare not weary of the test. ” He had been elected by calling the nation to address the crisis with communism more aggressively than Eisenhower had done. and it is little more than speculation that he would abandon Vietnam. Herring declines to accept such speculation. One of the most critical periods in the Vietnam War was January-February, 1968, when the Vietcong and North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.

From a military standpoint, this offensive was a major defeat for the Communist forces. They anticipated that their coordinated series of attacks throughout the country would ignite a popular uprising against the government of Nguyen van Thieu. This uprising never materialized, and in seizing and trying to hold fixed positions such as cities and towns, the Vietnamese communists tied themselves down, foregoing the tactical opportunity to retreat and avoid combat against superior forces.

As a result, from a purely military standpoint, the offensive was a failure, and the communists sustained very heavy casualties in their efforts. From a political standpoint, however, the offensive was a stunning success. Coming as it did, close on the heels of a major campaign by the administration to convince the American public that the military was close to winning the war in Vietnam, the Tet offensive destroyed the willingness of the American people to commit ever greater numbers of American servicemen to a war in which they could not see a legitimate American interest.

In recounting this offensive, Herring goes into detail on the efforts of all sides, including the efforts of the Vietnamese communists to position themselves for the attack, the diversionary effort at Ke Sanh, and the strategic goals of their offensive. Further, he breaks down the idea that there was anything monolithic about the response of American officials to the offensive. General William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, quickly reported that the attacks had been thwarted and sought additional troops in order to escalate attacks on Vietnamese communist forces throughout the region.

The intelligence community felt that Westmoreland had underestimated the enemy’s capabilities, something Americans had done many times before in Vietnam. General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, wanted to use Tet as a compelling argument for mobilizing American military reservists to active duty. Walter Cronkite, responding to the initial attacks, voiced the sentiment that swept through the American public, yelling at a staffer, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.

” Americans recoiled at the brutal senselessness of the war when television aired pictures of a South Vietnamese officer putting a revolver to a cringing suspect’s head and pulling the trigger, and thought an American officer spoke with chilling accuracy when he said of a Vietnamese town, “We had to destroy the town to save it. ” As Herring notes, American and South Vietnamese troops responded quickly, aggressively, and effectively, fighting communist units wherever they found them and beating them, often inflicting very heavy casualties.

Further, Herring states with no hesitation that the Vietnamese communists in Hue murdered upwards of 3,000 civilians during their relatively brief occupation of that city. He also explains the shock that the American public suffered. Throughout 1966 and especially in 1967, American forces had been fighting an ever widening war. They had inflicted heavy casualties on enemy forces, to the point where in late 1967 the administration had repeatedly assured the American people that the war was being won and that victory would soon be ours.

Tet forced the military to acknowledge that it would need additional troops to continue the war, so many that a calling up of the reserves would be unavoidable, and this just as the 1968 presidential primary campaigns were getting underway. For many Americans, it was too much. The American public turned against the war in Vietnam. On February 27, Walter Cronkite made a statement on the CBS evening news that has been much publicized since then. Herring quotes the critical part of the broadcast in full, showing that Cronkite offered a balanced report:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggests that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only reasonable, yet unsatisfactory conclusion. To this day, many of those who regret the outcome of the war in Vietnam blame Cronkite for turning America against the war, insisting that if he had not turned the American public against the war with this statement, the United States would have ultimately won the war.

Although he does not expressly address these claims, Herring shows that Cronkite was hardly alone in his view that Vietnam had become a stalemate. Leading newspapers throughout the country were rasing serious questions about this. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled Secretary of State Dean Rusk for eleven hours over a two day period about the progress of the war. Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating plunged over twelve points to stand at 28 percent.

All of this suggests that Cronkite’s remarks were merely one piece in a mass of public discontent that turned the nation against a war that few could argue convincingly was being won. Another critical juncture in Vietnam was the end of the war. The United States was able to negotiate a cease-fire, and while neither the North Vietnamese or the South Vietnamese were willing to adhere to it in good faith, the United States arranged the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and for the withdrawal of all American military forces from South Vietnam.

The government of South Vietnam proved unable to stand on its own, collapsing in the spring of 1975. Herring is able to call the United States to look ahead, without the bitterness that many books on Vietnam show: A successful American adjustment to the new conditions requires the shedding of old approaches, most notably of the traditional oscillation between crusades to reform the word and angry withdrawal from it. To carry the “Never Again” syndrome to its logical conclusion and turn away from an ungrateful and hostile world would be calamitous.

To regard Vietnam as an aberration, a unique experience from which nothing can be learned, would invite further frustration. To adapt to the new era, the United States must recognize its vulnerability, accept the limits to its power, and accommodate itself to many situations it does not like. Americans must understand that they will not be4 able to dictate solutions to world problems or to achieve all pf their goals. Like it or not, Vietnam marked the end of an era in world history and of American foreign policy, and era marked by constructive achievements but blemished by ultimate, although not irreparable failure.

Perhaps the biggest fault about this book is that it is merely a survey. Barely 300 pages, it is only about half the size of many of the leading studies on Vietnam, and, for anyone who wants to dwell on this war in detail, it lacks the detail of other, longer studies. Herring partly corrects this with a bibliographical essay. This is another example of his balance, as the works here appear to be chosen entirely for the qualities of scholarship and writing that they offer rather for any particular bias of the work.

The Vietnam War ended with the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. The wounds of the Vietnam era continue to fester in the United States, and this difficult has only been worsened by more recent American military exploits in the Gulf War, which would ostensibly put the ghosts of Vietnam behind us, and the 2002 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with ongoing attempts to compare that incursion to and to distinguish it from the war in Vietnam.

Many of the statements about Iraq show a questionable understanding of that war. Herring notes in his bibliographical essay that the literature on Vietnam is already massive, and is growing. For anyone wishing to have a sound and balanced introduction to that war, this book is an excellent beginning.


Herring, George. America’s Longest War: The United states and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

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