The Vietnam war constituted a watershed event in modern American history. Not only did that conflict create bitter domestic divisions, but the ultimate collapse of U.S. policy also undermined several persuasive assumptions concerning foreign affairs. Individuals who endorsed the U.S. intervention could never again be quite as confident about America's role in the Third World or the republic's ability to project military power for ideological objectives. Antiwar activists who projected a relatively benign North Vietnamese victory, bringing unity and peace to that troubled land, had to confront equally unsettling events. The boat-people refugee exodus, combined with Hanoi's imperialist domination of Laos and Cambodia, exploded a variety of leftist myths.
Given the importance and controversial nature of the conflict, it is not surprising that many analytical accounts have appeared. Unfortunately, most books on the subject reflect ideological biases or hidden agendas, thus distorting or failing to address crucial issues. Gabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a War is no exception to this dreary record.
Kolko's stated objective is to examine the larger social and political context surrounding the military struggle in Vietnam. According to Kolko, "War is not simply a conflict between armies; more and more it is a struggle between competing social systems, incorporating the political, economic and cultural institutions of all rivals." The longer a war goes on, "the more likely that it will be determined outside the arena of arms and battles." This, he insists, is especially applicable to the Vietnam war.
A crucial element of Kolko's thesis is that the collapse of the Saigon regime in 1975 was not due solely, or even primarily, to military factors. Instead, it reflected fundamental contradictions and structural weaknesses in South Vietnamese society that were exacerbated by U.S. interference. In Kolko's view, the Vietnamese war was essentially "a contest between the U.S. with its abundantly subsidized, protected surrogate and a Revolutionary movement whose class roots and ideological foundations gave it enormous resiliency and power." The Communist Party's ability to mobilize the "masses" made the outcome virtually inevitable.
Kolko's emphasis on the social and political context occasionally produces valuable insights. He makes a persuasive case that South Vietnam's political system was an artificial and fragile creation, heavily dependent upon continued U.S. sponsorship. This aspect of his analysis serves as a useful corrective to the view, popular in conservative circles, that the Saigon regime could have endured if Congress had only provided more military assistance in late 1974 and early 1975. The problem, as Kolko stresses, ran far deeper than the spot shortages of arms and ammunition.
Despite such pertinent observations, Kolko's approach generally produces unconvincing analysis. His decision to emphasize political and social factors is useful at times, but it also leads him to understate important military considerations.
For example, he scarcely mentions Communist China's aid to the Viet Minh during the 1950-54 period. Yet that assistance was vital in the Viet Minh's triumph over the French. It is difficult to imagine the successful siege of Dien Bien Phu if the insurgents had lacked sophisticated weaponry. Even the Soviet Union's vast assistance to North Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 70s receives only minimal attention. Dedication and tenacity may have been the hallmarks of the Vietmanese resistance to the U.S. onslaught, but the batteries of Soviet-made ground-to-air missiles certainly played a role.
Even worse is Kolko's strident Marxism, a perspective that permeates the book. Jargon about "historical forces," "class struggle" and "objective conditions" is so pervasive as to annoy any reader not already imbued with the Marxist faith. Moreover, Kolko rarely deigns to justify such passages with even the most meager evidence.
His Marxist bias also impels him to view the Vietnamese Communist Party and its leadership with uncritical admiration. The party's repeatedly shifting position on the crucial issues of land ownership and distribution, for example, is portrayed as a manifestation of "flexibility," not deceit or the cynical exploitation of a gullible peasantry.
A blatant double standard is evident in Kolko's description of political repression and brutality. The execution of some 15,000 landowners in North Vietnam following the 1954 Geneva Accords is mentioned briefly and without adverse comment. Hanoi's treatment of Catholics and that group's subsequent exodus to the south is virtually ignored. Conversely, Ngo Dinh Diem's repression receives prominent attention, with Kolko labeling various episodes as deliberate "totalitarian" campaigns of "terror."
Similar distortions are evident in his analysis of American foreign policy. At one point, Kolko asserts that a prominent goal of U.S. strategy was to neutralize the potential throughout the Third World for "revolutionary nationalist regimes." This is profoundly misleading. U.S. policymakers considered all communist movements subservient to Moscow and, therefore, viewed their nationalist credentials as bogus. In retrospect, such an assumption was naive and tragically erroneous, but American officials scarcely set out to squelch movements that they conceded were nationalist in nature.
Kolko misinterprets other elements of U.S. policy, and again his Marxist bias is the apparent culprit. He repeatedly overstates the economic motives for U.S. actions in the Third World, converting what was merely one factor among many into the dominant consideration. There were numerous reasons for Washington's decision to intervene in Southeast Asian affairs, but contrary to Kolko, economic motives were not paramount.
A great need exists for a perceptive account of the Vietnam war from a solid historical perspective. Unfortunately, Gabriel Kolko has not written such a book. Given the laudatory treatment of the Vietnamese communist faction, the unrelenting hostility toward the noncommunist opposition, and the distortions of U.S. policy, Kolko could just as easily have produced this analysis in the early 1970s. Hanoi's manifest brutality and imperialist pretentions since the 1975 victory have had little impact on his interpretation of pre-1975 events. Although Anatomy of a War contains some useful, occasionally intriguing insights, it remains a disappointing, seriously flawed work.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a historian, is a foreign-policy analyst with the Cato Institute.