U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Narratives Clash: The Vietnam War as History

Editor's Note

Louis F. Cooper, the author of this guest post, is a longtime reader and commenter at the U.S. Intellectual History blog.

A couple of months after the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration’s bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. halted the bombing for five days, from May 13 to May 18, 1965.  According to an account by Townsend Hoopes (then a Defense Department official), after the bombing resumed Secretary of State Dean Rusk “explained by analogy that the pause had been a phone call to Hanoi, but that they had failed to pick up the instrument at their end of the line.”  Hoopes adds that Rusk “did not explain why we did not let the phone ring a little longer, recognizing the possibility that the NVN [North Vietnam] government might have been in the basement taking cover from our earlier raids.”[i]

The problem ran deeper than not letting the telephone ring long enough.  Hanoi did not answer the phone because at that time it had no compelling reason to do so.  The bombing was not substantially affecting North Vietnam’s ability to do what it was doing.

Four U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief aircraft of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, each drop six M117 343 kg bombs over Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder.”

At that point in the war North Vietnam was not mounting large-scale, conventional offensives; the NLF (Viet Cong) in the South, supported by the North, was carrying the brunt of the fighting.  The bombing of transportation and industrial targets in the North did not much reduce the relatively small stream of supplies that the Viet Cong required, and the North Vietnamese were able to repair damaged infrastructure very quickly.  For these reasons among others, one analyst concludes that “North Vietnam during the Johnson years was essentially immune to coercion with air power.”[ii]

The practical or strategic, as opposed to moral, problem with Rolling Thunder, according to this view, was not how it was executed, but the whole conception of the campaign: bombing could not stop North Vietnam from infiltrating supplies and men into the South, nor, at least at this point in the war, force it to the negotiating table.  James Willbanks — a soldier and historian interviewed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their documentary film on the war — put the point more bluntly when he called Rolling Thunder “the dumbest campaign ever devised by a human being.”


Willbanks’s remark points to one of the familiar subtexts of the commentary on the American war in Vietnam, i.e., how did smart people do such dumb things?  I’m not sure that’s the right question.  If one looks at the official deliberations surrounding the decisions for large-scale intervention, one might conclude that mistakes of conception are clearer in hindsight.  In 1965, only one member of Johnson’s inner circle of advisers, George Ball, opposed the crucial escalation steps.  Exaggeration of threats and overreliance on military means have been persistent features of U.S. foreign policy for at least the past seven decades, and in that light the key Vietnam decisions were not aberrations.

That said, much depended on how the conflict was framed.  Was it a civil war, or was it a case of one government trying to subvert another?  Viewed through a Cold War lens and through the prism of superficially attractive historical analogies, the conflict might have appeared to be a war of aggression, or at least improper interference, by North Vietnam, which is indeed how it appeared to most of Johnson’s advisers.[iii]  Viewed through the lens of Vietnam’s history and local circumstances, however, the framing of a civil war made more sense.  The question was important because intervention in a civil war would have been harder – although not necessarily impossible — to justify legally, geopolitically, and morally.  All the more so given that the U.S. and South Vietnam had blocked the country-wide elections promised in the 1954 Geneva accords.

Once the conflict was defined as a war of aggression by North Vietnam, it was a short step to the conclusion that the North, as part of a supposedly global wave of Communist expansion, could not be allowed to “take over” the South by force.  From this perspective, a failure to prevent it would have the gravest implications.  “I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in,” Henry  Cabot Lodge declared in July 1965.  “Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?”[iv]  Certainly not everyone accepted this very flawed analogy, but it exerted a considerable hold on many, including some key policymakers.


Of several recurring questions about the Vietnam War – was it a crime? was it just? was it necessary? – one is: was it ‘winnable’?  Once the die had been cast, if President Johnson and his civilian advisers had given General Westmoreland a precise set of strategic objectives, or exercised more oversight and direction of the ground war, would that have made a difference in the end?  What if the U.S. had paid more attention earlier to improving the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese army?  What if the U.S. in the Johnson years had used its ground forces against the sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos?  A “strategic concept for counterinsurgency” for Vietnam had been drafted in 1962, but it was never implemented; moreover, ‘pacification’ efforts worked at cross-purposes with Westmoreland’s approach and its consequences, since it was virtually impossible to win villagers’ “hearts and minds” while displacing them from their homes in large numbers and laying waste to much of the countryside.[v]

So, once the intervention decisions had been made, might a different U.S. strategy have changed the outcome?  Or was a relatively weak, corrupt government in South Vietnam, one that never really attained popular legitimacy, doomed to lose against a highly motivated, determined opponent that grasped the nationalist mantle in a country with a long history of fighting foreigners on its soil?

Though I don’t think the war was ‘winnable’, I also think Burns and Novick might have been right to put such questions, and those of the war’s wisdom and morality (or lack thereof), mostly in the background in their film.  That’s because positions on the war have become entrenched and tied to a polarized political spectrum.  A documentary with a strong thesis probably would not have succeeded in persuading anyone not already convinced of it.  It may be more effective to present some facts, intersperse them with engrossing stories told from various individual perspectives, make an effort to outline the relevant contexts, and then let viewers draw their own conclusions.  This is not to say the documentary is flawless – it is far from that – but simply to suggest that its basic approach is defensible.

The American war in Vietnam will always generate debate, both among historians and the public at large.  With the passage of time, controversy has increasingly centered on how the war is publicly remembered and represented.  By the 1980s, it was already clear that, as Paul Kennedy noted, “the memory of this conflict would continue to prey upon the public consciousness….”[vi]  Recent exhibits on the war at the New-York Historical Society and the National Archives signal a fresh wave of memorialization, as does the Burns/Novick film.

Moreover, as Roger Peace mentioned in a guest post here last summer, the Defense Department is in the midst of a multi-year congressionally authorized commemoration of the Vietnam War, and that effort has stimulated an organized response by Veterans for Peace and other groups.  Of course, debates over collective memory are often ways of carrying on political contests about the event being memorialized.  As Daniel Sherman writes in his detailed study of French memorials to the First World War dead, commemoration can be seen “as a struggle or negotiation between competing narratives….”[vii]  In the case of the Vietnam War, the contest between competing narratives, at any rate in the U.S., shows few signs of ending; a safe wager is that the last word on the war will never be spoken.


[i] Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (Norton pb. ed., 1987), p. 48.

[ii] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), p. 176.

 [iii] See Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1992).

 [iv] Lodge quoted in ibid., pp. 3, 129.  President Truman earlier used the Munich analogy in connection with the Korean War.

[v] See Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention, pp. 66ff.  Cf. Larry H. Addington, America’s War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History (Indiana Univ. Press, 2000), ch. 9.  For the case that atrocities against Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers were routine, see, e.g., Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (Henry Holt & Co., 2013). 

[vi] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), pg. 404.

[vii] Daniel J. Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 69.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Louis, thanks so much for this guest essay. During my last lecture for the second half of the U.S. history survey, I usually emphasize the long shadow/long reach of the Truman doctrine in shaping American foreign policy, and I suggest that one of the challenges of our recent/current geopolitical moment is that we are contending with the consequences of “the Truman doctrine habit” after the doctrine itself is mostly rendered moot. The spread of (Soviet) communism around the globe, the long reach of the (Stalinist) “evil empire” is certainly not driving American foreign policy, but decades of operating under the idea that this was a major threat laid the groundwork for, for example, the current crises in the Middle East.

    But as your post implicitly points out, the Truman doctrine was not some mechanism that automatically kicked in. Invoking it, acting in accord with its a priori commitments, providing military aid, propping up “friendly” governments, putting American boots on the ground if “necessary” — all this was, of course, a choice of framing.

    Why did the U.S. foreign policy and/or military establishments not choose to view the Viet Nam war was an internal matter, a civil war? That’s a question I haven’t thought through with my students, and I’m not altogether sure I’ve thought it through for myself.

    Next semester I’m teaching three sections of “U.S. since 1865,” so if you have some insights on that “why” question, they would be a timely help for me.

    • Lora,
      Thank you for the comment and question. I’ll take a crack at it, but it’s the kind of central question that a whole slice of the historiography of the war now more or less revolves around, and even if I had a complete command of that historiography, which I certainly don’t, it would be hard if not impossible to give a fully adequate answer in the space of a comment box.

      As you suggest, the Truman doctrine, though not an an automatic mechanism, did set the terms of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s view of the world, and that was certainly the case in 1965, when the crucial Vietnam intervention decisions were made. Even though the Sino-Soviet split or schism had already happened, the tendency was still to think in terms of a monolithic global Communist movement committed to world revolution via the support of ‘wars of national liberation,’ which Khrushchev had explicitly endorsed in a long Jan. 1961 speech. The dominant (though not universal) view in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment was that a firm line against such national-liberation wars had to be drawn at some point, probably sooner rather than later. As Hoopes suggests in The Limits of Intervention (p.16), the commitment to a “global struggle against Revolutionary Communism” worked against “the drawing of…careful distinctions” between interventions that were actually vital or necessary to the U.S.’s security and those that sprang from a desire to organize the world as it “should” be, i.e. from “reforming zeal and…desire for wish fulfillment.”

      To frame the situation in 1965 as ‘Vietnam is basically a civil war, and anyway its outcome is not going to have a direct, substantial impact on U.S. security or that of its key ‘free world’ allies’ would have required, among other things, (1) bucking the mindset of a “global struggle,” (2) examining whether the supposed ‘lessons’ of the ’30s (appeasement and Munich) and other supposed historical parallels were actually applicable, and (3) an implicit admission that the U.S.’s “reforming zeal” and its ability to shape ‘the developing world’ in its image had limits, probably fairly sharp limits. The version of modernization theory then prevalent in the U.S. academy and the assumptions that ‘change and development are easy’ and can always occur through gradual, non-revolutionary means (on which see, e.g., R. Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World) made such an admission unlikely. If the key U.S. policymakers had been able to critically examine their assumptions and look clearly at the local situation or the regional situation (the Indonesian Communist Party had been destroyed in a spate of mass killings *before* the U.S. intervened on a large scale in Vietnam), the decisions might have been different.

      I’ll leave it at that for now. Btw for those who might be wondering, the subtitle of the post is a riff on Louis J. Halle’s The Cold War as History (1967), a book that, despite sharing a first name with the author, I haven’t read, but the title of which has stuck with me.

  2. For me, the mysteries/ambiguities/opaqueness of the Vietnam War have come to be encapsulated in an exchange about the war between a vet and his daughter several years after the conflict had ended. The girl whose class had recently studied the war asked her father: “Were we the good guys or the bad guys?”

    The father took several moments to think about his answer and said” “Both.”

    And why not?

    The country was already stuck in the throes of Catch-22 when the report came from Vietnam that an American unit “had to destroy a village to save it.”

    Remember that Milton had told us that good intentions are not enough. So when we got involved in Vietnam, were we doing a good thing that really was evil? Or did our evil intentions ultimately do some good for someone? Is down up? Is up down?

    Was it all one big lie?

    Maybe it was.
    It might have been a lot of other things, as well, such as a means to get rich while cynically draping one’s self in patriotism? (Nothing new there.) Paying off political debts. Was it the path to manhood or spiritual renewal for Americans? (You know like Hawkeye back in the wilderness of Vietnam battling the natives like he did in Upstate New York.)? Or is “history hard to know,” as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “because of all the hired bullshit.” Those agendas can be killers sometimes, I hear.
    In reference to the war/Rolling Thunder, the question is posed: “How did smart people do such dumb things?” Well maybe they weren’t so smart after all. You can’t assume that just because someone has reached a certain status that it was granted on the basis of intelligence. Neither is it valid to think that because someone is capable of doing one thing well that he or she is automatically the master of all things.

    Arrogance is another function of stupidity and based on Townsend Hoopes’ comments it is clear that some had it in spades.

    Hoopes adds that [Dean] Rusk “did not explain why we did not let the phone ring a little longer, recognizing the possibility that the NVN [North Vietnam] government might have been in the basement taking cover from our earlier raids.” Somehow I don’t think these men were that fearful.

    Hoopes’ position smacks of the arrogance of power and the racist belief that our large beef-eating troops could beat those little rice-eating bastards in 6 months. This is pure ignorance and shows how lacking any foundation was to Hoopes’ way of thinking compared with George Ball’s informed opinion on the matter of sustained strategic bombing (Rolling Thunder) in Vietnam. He knew how ineffective it had been used against Nazi Germany (a country much more industrialized than North Vietnam). This he knew from his work as the director of the U.S Strategic Bombing Survey in London beginning late in World War II. Of course the one man who knew what he was talking about was ignored.

    Yes, it was difficult to stop the flow of supplies early in the war on the Ho Chi Minh trail considering we were using airplanes and they were using bicycles to a great degree. Later in the war when the trail had been enlarged and improved were trucks used to a greater extent.

    Victory was poorly defined, and we were never given a picture of what it would look like. We were to use the body count as a measure of success. Taking and holding territory was meaningless. This meant we would kill and kill and kill some more until the North gave up. But the North said that they would take 10 KIA for each of ours and we would tire of the war first and leave. Achieving victory, such as it was, also was hampered by the fact that we were prepared to fight the previous war – World War II – hence the reference to Munich.

    Typically America’s solution to any problem is to throw more at it. More training, more equipment, more advisors, more American troops wouldn’t have made a bit of difference in the outcome.

    I do believe that the war was something that was sought and not something we bungled into. One can measure that in the short distance between NSAM 263 and NSAM 273.


    • Thank you for the comment.

      On the question of racism and its connection to U.S. attitudes/policy: it played a role, though I suppose the details can be debated. Heather Stur, in a 2013 review of Nick Turse’s book (link below), mentions “racist contempt for both ally and enemy,” though U.S. soldiers and officers sometimes also expressed admiration for the tenacity and fighting skill of their opponents. (Stur also mentions her and others’ work on “the links between military machismo and sexual assault by U.S. troops against Vietnamese — and American — women.”) The Burns/Novick film tried to thread the needle, and not altogether successfully, on the question of how U.S. soldiers conducted themselves, but a close viewer would probably come away with the conclusion that many U.S. troops did not commit atrocities but a substantial number of others did, in circumstances (dehumanization of the enemy; young men in nightmarish situations; emphasis on body count, etc.) that facilitated/encouraged/’incentivized’ such behavior. The film also mentioned in passing, if I recall correctly, that only 20 percent of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were in combat roles. The 20 percent sounded low to me, as I would have guessed it was maybe more like a third of the force at least (though of course the U.S. force in Vietnam had a lot of people in logistics, intel, administrative, ‘pacification’ and other roles that did not usually involve combat).

      Stur’s review is here:

      Now, about Townsend Hoopes: I don’t think you’re right. There are a couple of passages in his book that are somewhat ethnocentric, but he was not a racist. He was Undersecretary of the Air Force in the closing years of the Johnson admin, and The Limits of Intervention is an absorbing memoiristic account of the reappraisal of policy that led to Johnson’s March ’68 decision for a partial bombing halt and not to seek re-election. The book was originally published in ’69. There is a short-ish Wikipedia entry on Hoopes that gives a brief biography and background, as well as some relevant links.

      • I think racism would be prevalent in a situation in which the enemy is referred to as dinks, gooks, zips, zipper heads, slopes, etc. After all, it’s easier to kill when your enemy is perceived as subhuman.

        The racial divides among Americans showed up more prevalently later in the war when black and whites segregated themselves from each other when they were out of the field. On operations, however, things were different when survival mattered most

        This, of course mirrors the situation back home with the appearance of black radicals and identity movements, race riots, and the appearance of personalities such as H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, and Stokeley Carmichael who preached a much different doctrine than the Rev. King.

        Things had become much more politicized and minority groups figured out three were fighting and dying in numbers disproportionate to the percentage of the overall population they represented.
        Remember what Ali said on refusing to serve in the United States Army:
        “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
        “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
        American troops did often give the NVA credit as soldiers because they deserved it. Remember they were stuck with the ARVN.

        As for Hoopes’ remark that Rusk “did not explain why we did not let the phone ring a little longer, recognizing the possibility that the NVN [North Vietnam] government might have been in the basement taking cover from our earlier raids,” it smacks of racial contempt for the little yellow men cowering at the power of the white man. I can’t read it any other way.

        This is all I need to know about Hoopes: He graduated from Phillips Academy before attending Yale University, where he became a member of the Skull and Bones society.

        Actually it was 10 men to keep one in the field.

        The first part of pacification was military, the second was nation building.

        As far as bombing goes, I think you need to determine the difference between tactical and strategic bombing before evaluating the success of “bombing.” When assessing purpose and success. What Kissinger and Nixon ordered in Linebacker was strategic bombing.

        The joke about bombing North Vietnam back to the Stone Age was that they were already in the Stone Age. Military targets were soon destroyed in the North or else saved by strategies such as dispersing oil and gas around the country, etc.

  3. Postscript on U.S. bombing: as Pape argues, its effectiveness depended to a large extent on North Vietnam’s strategy. Bombing was not, on the whole, v. effective during the Johnson years, but when N. Vietnam switched to conventional offensives later in the war (such as the ’72 Easter Offensive), bombing in that context was effective. And Nixon and Kissinger had no qualms whatsoever about ordering it, given their policy of an agonizingly slow, “honorable,” and of course, very costly (in lives) U.S. departure.

  4. Andrew C. Parker —

    I’m not going to respond to all the points in your last comment. Just one or two things.

    On this:
    Actually it was 10 men to keep one in the field.

    The source that the most popular search engine seems to like on this question (which doesn’t mean it’s the best source, of course) says the 10-to-1 ratio was a general rule and that it varied over time. (The same source is a bit vague on the percentage who saw combat at any point, saying it was likely less than 30 percent.) But there’s no point in quibbling as I think we’re not really disagreeing on this point.

    As for “all” you need to know about Hoopes: I’d remind you of the old saw that you can’t judge a book by its cover — someone who was a product of those schools at that time would have likely emerged with certain views, but that does not mean he was imprisoned by them. My impression is that he was a believer in the prevailing Cold War consensus who began to develop doubts about the Vietnam policy — and by his own account by the end of 1965 he had come to the conclusion that the policy was misguided. That was, I think, a trajectory that some others, both in and out of the government, traveled. As for the particular quote at the beginning of the post and its interpretation, I’ll let people make up their own minds.

  5. Orwell’s remark about false beliefs bumping up against reality on a battlefield come to mind. Racism may have played a part in Vietnam, but under-estimation of the enemy is very common. It’s hard to know which way the logic runs – whether policymakers go to war because they think (falsely) that they can win, or whether they persuade themselves that they can win because they see the war as necessary or inevitable. Maybe both. A relevant observation is Clauswitz’ remark that actual fighting is to war as cash settlement is to business – that is, it is not until the fighting starts that one’s true creditworthiness becomes apparent.

    In the case of Vietnam, the really interesting question is why, once the poor state of US military credit had become apparent, did the US persist? When special forces and military assistance failed, bombing started. When that failed, marines went in. Then the US army. Then the war was expanded to Laos and Cambodia. Cutting losses, in war as in business, seems to be the hardest decision of all.

    • Peter,
      It’s good to see you here.

      I agree with the gist of your comment. It took the shock of the Tet Offensive to start a serious re-evaluation of policy. The Marines, operating in the northern part of S. Vietnam, pursued a somewhat different strategy and with somewhat more success than the Army did in the other parts of the country, but Westmoreland claimed later that he didn’t have enough men to implement a more counter-insurgency-oriented strategy in the rest of the country. I tend to view issues like these as secondary, since even a ‘good’ strategy can’t really salvage a bad overall policy (see Petraeus/Iraq, for instance).

      Cutting losses is difficult; but Nixon’s approach from 1969-73 shows how not to do it, IMO.

      p.s. For those who haven’t had enough of the Vietnam War, Max Boot has a roughly 600-page book on Edward Lansdale — not a household name, but an important figure — coming out in January. (I’m not a particular fan of Max Boot, so this should not be construed as an advertisement, just a notice. But there’s also no point in pre-judging the book before it’s been published.)

      • RE: Max Boot has a roughly 600-page book on Edward Lansdale — not a household name, but an important figure — coming out in January.

        Landsdale is of interest for many things than than Vietnam. Cuba. JFK’s murder. Philippines, anyone who wants to know more about the CIA, an attempt to bamboozle JFK and to maneuver himself into the ambassadorship to S. Vietnam. (Lansdale was sure that he and his backers had won. Everyone believed it and there the mater died. killed by JFK.

        A very interesting fellow. But you usually are if you have worked for OSS, CIA, Air Force, U..S. Army.

        World War II
        Hukbalahap Rebellion
        First Indochina War
        War in Vietnam (1954-59)
        Operation Mongoose
        Vietnam War

    • War is built on the dead; as many of them as there are. Politicians will say we cannot let the dead die in vain while families say the same thing out of a sense of duty that is misused and misdirected. Corporate leaders can now (cynically) keep the money coming into their pockets and honor the brave fallen.

      re: “In this case, the sides had very different ideas about what would be a win.”

      that’s because each side was fighting a different war.

  6. For those interested. the thesis of Geoffrey Blainey’s The Causes of War is that policymakers choose war when both sides think that they can “win” (for whatever value of winning each holds) – a situation that arises when either the definitions of winning are widely divergent or the measures of applicable power each is using are incommensurate. The anthropologist Jacob Black-Micheaud took a similar line in Feuding Societies – feuds become active not so much because of specific happenings (a cause can always be found) so much as differing perceptions of where the balance of relative power lies. The outcome of the war or the feud settles the issue for a time.

    In this case, the sides had very different ideas about what would be a win, and also very different views on the forms of power applicable (War Comes to Long An is very good on how the local VC saw survival of their hold on the peasantry as essentially a win). The same could be said of the Second Gulf War.

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