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April 18, 2024

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Echoes of Vietnam war examined

Students were given the opportunity yesterday to learn about what has arguably been the most controversial decision in all of American foreign policy.

As a member of the history department at BGSU, Research Professor Gary Hess spoke on the lingering effects of the Vietnam war. His presentation, titled “Explaining America’s Lost War: The Forty-Year Debate over Vietnam,” chronicled both the effects left on our society from this time, as well as the representative mind sets of “doves” and “hawks” that have evolved since the war.

Those who were not in favor of a war developed what Hess termed an “orthodox interpretation.” They felt that the situation in Vietnam was unwinnable and should have not been entered into in the first place. Some interesting book titles which have been printed over the years exemplify this historic perspective: “The Making of a Quagmire”, “Washington Plans an Aggressive War” and “The Abuse of Power.”

From the “doves” perspective, the failure of an eight-year war by the French to defeat communist insurgence in Vietnam should have been, according to Hess, “a sobering lesson in the futility of western cultures trying to fight…in the Vietnamese jungles.”

The opposing viewpoint, referred to by Hess as the “revisionist theory,” examines the various ways that the Vietnam war could have been won, if only the U.S. military’s efforts were focused in different areas. Book titles from revisionist writers sharply contrast with those from the orthodox interpretation: “Rise and Fall of an American Army”, “Lost Victory” and “A Better War.”

Some revisionists claim that the U.S. failed to recognize that this was not a war of insurgency, but in fact a war of aggression by North Vietnam. They feel that military power should have been focused against N. Vietnam for a quick and decisive victory, Hess said.

Other revisionists contend that it was a “failure of will,” or overwhelming opposition on the home front, that doomed the American military in Vietnam.

“We were not allowed to win” was an often-used quote by revisionists, according to Hess. Those who prescribe to the “failure of will” proposal have blamed a “dovish” media for misrepresenting the war, as well as the anti-war movement for chipping away at soldiers’ morale and providing strength to the enemy.

Each of these “if only” arguments by historic revisionists has had its shortcomings, Hess explained.

“President Lyndon Johnson imposed restrictions on bombing N.Vietnam, and had promised not to invade the country for fear of intervention by China or the Soviet Union,” he said.

“No one would doubt the ineffectiveness of Johnson as a war-time President or Robert McNamara as a war-time Secretary of Defense,” Hess said. “Lyndon Johnson did few things right, but the determination to avoid a large war was correctly an overriding priority.”

In regards to the revisionist theory of a “dovish” media during the 1960s and 1970s, Hess said that studies of press and television coverage during that time show a general support for the war.

“Evidence of a liberal bias [in the media] is elusive,” he said.

When asked what has made the Vietnam war the most divisive act of foreign policy in American history, Hess referenced 58,000 U.S. military deaths, as well as it being the first war brought into the homes of America through television.

He felt that the gradual deterioration of support for the war was less a matter of what people saw on the news, and more a matter of “war-weariness” for what Hess termed as an “inconclusive, drawn out war that was fought halfway around the world.”

When we fast forward 40 years to present day, Hess pointed out that the lessons of the Vietnam war play a significant role in the way citizens and politicians feel about U.S. foreign policy.

“Today’s leadership is in the hands of people who grew up during Vietnam, and were shaped by this time,” he said.

Hess wrapped up his presentation with a rhetorical question that had been both posed and answered by professional journalist David Broder. “Will we ever recover from the 1960s?”

Broder’s conclusion followed.

“The reality is that on both sides of the 1960s culture war, the wounds are so deep they cannot be forgotten or forgiven,” he said. “The only thing that can save the country…is that the boomers are now in their 60s, and another generation will eventually come to power, and the country will finally be spared of constantly refighting these same battles.”

Hess believes that it’s valuable for students to examine controversies of the past as they grow and mature in college.

“I think it’s important to get a firm grasp of the world that young people are inheriting,” he said. “An important part of the world that you are inheriting today is the war in Vietnam.”

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