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The Collapse of Historical Knowledge

George Will Revises the Vietnam War

by WERTHER

As pointed out in an earlier essay, George F. Will is a columnist who specializes in misleading historical analogies. Part of this syndrome is a penchant among pseudo-erudite pseudo-conservatives to invest present events with the urgent, cataclysmic patina of the Second World War: Saddam is Hitler, the occupation of Iraq is like the occupation of Germany, an attempt to negotiate a compromise is always Munich, and so forth.

A variant on this syndrome is the sour, vindictive desire to ransack history and "make it come out right." The bookshelves groan with adverse comment on the far-Left,s revisionist history. Much of this comment is deserved: this writer has yet to see persuasive evidence that Aristotle was a black African or that James Madison learned everything he knew about constitutions from the Iroquois Nation. As of yet, however, the revisionism of the pseudo-conservative wing of the American political spectrum has received surprisingly little attention.

In truth, the self-described intellectual arm of pseudo-conservatism has for decades fairly seethed with revisionist emotion. If only Ike hadn’t been a befuddled One-Worlder, we could have driven to Berlin and the cold war could have been avoided. If only we’d unleashed Chang Kai-shek, our boys would have been victorious in Korea. [2] No doubt some are still lamenting Pickett’s failed strategy near a small Pennsylvania town.

One can, of course, posit all kinds of hypothetical outcomes if the historical facts are conveniently rearranged. Likewise, one can grind all manner of present-day political axes if one can stigmatize political opponents by making them symbolically responsible for whatever disaster the United States suffered in the past.

Mr. Will has slyly inserted this line of argument into his latest opus, an ostensible examination of the decline of newspaper readership and consumption of the elite news media generally. [3] There are many things wrong with his thesis, not least his approving citation of an "expert" to the effect that newspaper readership has declined because people respect authority less.

Contrasting glances at the Kent State University campus circa 1970 and 2005 would suggest that is not a self-evident proposition. And the large percentage of Americans of all ages who respond favorably to poll questions asking whether curtailing constitutional rights is a good idea also does not suggest the dawn of an American Age of Anarchy. The real reasons for the decline of newspaper reading are speculative, but may have more to do with the generational decline of literacy than anti-authoritarian impulses.

But Mr. Will really gives the revisionist syndrome a workout when he flashes back – so like our unlamented presidential campaign – to Vietnam. The Tet Offensive, he says, was a victory described by the elite media as a crushing defeat, and the chief Svengali in this psy-op against the American public was Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite, you see, had a "captive audience" – presumably unlike the President of the United States, who could, then as now, request air time from the networks for policy addresses.

There is something either sloppy or misleading about an argument that claims the media described Tet as "a crushing defeat" for the United States when in the same sentence Mr. Will quotes Mr. Cronkite as calling the situation "a stalemate," which is not the same thing as a crushing defeat. Apparently for pseudo-conservatives, their political opponents are not mistaken, they actually possess a malign will to see the United States defeated and wish to infect the "captive" public by hypnotic suggestion.

After thus disposing of Tet, Mr. Will careens four decades ahead and grinds his axe on the Swiftboat controversy – it’s always about Vietnam, apparently. But what interests us here is how Mr. Will raised the issue of Tet, described it as a substantive victory mistakenly assumed by the public to be a defeat, and then leaves the issue "hanging like an incubus in the air." [4]

Is it possible for a nation to win a military campaign and trick itself into believing it is losing or at least stalemated? Was the effect of this purported brainwashing campaign by Mr. Cronkite and his colleagues so profound that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger – surely made of sterner stuff than Lyndon Johnson and his Harvard boys – could not reverse the tide?

Subsequent events that stretched well into the next decade – Hamburger Hill in 1969, the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the disastrous South Vietnamese invasion of Laos in 1971 known as Lam Son 719, the North Vietnamese Easter offensive of 1972 – all suggest something like a military stalemate within the geopolitical context the United States was constrained to operate.

The United States was a country whose nuclear arms were roughly offset by those of North Vietnam’s Soviet ally. Furthermore, President Nixon – wisely – sought to bring China into a tolerably good diplomatic relationship, a geopolitical objective far more important in the long run than battlefield victory in South Vietnam. Finally, inflation and a current account imbalance partially brought on by spending on Vietnam caused Nixon to sever the last link between a weakened dollar and gold. Under those circumstances, the United States simply could not expend the military, economic, and political capital necessary to wage total war in South East Asia, quite apart from the question of whether intervention in Vietnam was ever a good idea in isolation.

And Tet did not fundamentally change that dynamic, however distortedly it was supposedly presented in the media. A generally dispassionate and well-researched book on Tet, while fully stipulating that in force-on-force terms, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were in fact defeated tactically, nevertheless comes to this melancholy judgment: "At the time, political and military leaders from Johnson and Westmoreland down blamed the Press for losing the war. The effort continued for years thereafter as leaders sought to recover prestige. But their carping obscures the fact already described that even with a fully muzzled Press, America had no viable war-winning strategy." [5]

So what does Mr. Will’s little detour down memory lane mean to us now? At some point, perhaps before the midterm elections of 2006, and very likely before the 2008 presidential election, the politicians will begin toying with an Iraq withdrawal. And then the Stab in the Back mantra will begin in earnest.

* WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia based defense analyst

[1] The Third Reich Syndrome: George Will and the Collapse of Historical Knowledge

[2] The China Lobby’s delusions were so encompassing as to invite a specific entry in the American Psychological Association,s catalogue of disorders.

[3] "Unread and Unsubscribing," The Washington Post, 24 April 2005:

[4] That is the memorable phrase of former CIA director Richard Helms before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, describing the implications of KGB defector Yuri Nosenko,s comments about Lee Harvey Oswald:

[5] Tet Offensive 1968, by James B. Arnold, Osprey, 1990.