America's Slip into the Quagmire

A Review of The Vietnam Wars
by Marilyn Young

Author Biography

Marilyn Young was born in Vermont around the 1930s. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard for history in 1963. Young researches US-East Asian relations and received the Ford Foundation Summer Grant in 1993 and the Berkshire Women’s History Prize for The Vietnam Wars a year later. Young is a history professor at New York University as well as the director of NYU’s International Center for Advanced Studies on the Cold War.

The Vietnam Wars isn’t the usual boring book stacked among the mountains of Vietnam War novels. It’s a story of a struggle between the United States and Vietnam, the North and South Vietnam. American entanglements in Vietnam started off slow—a sluggish disease that spread unbeknownst to the wisest politicians. Marilyn Young not only covers the full details of the Vietnam Wars, but also delves deeper into the U.S. involvement that branded the Vietnam War as a “war [that] never ends.”1 The struggle evolved from a temporary enthusiastic welcome of U.S. troops to a deepening frustration of losing the chance of peace continuously. Why didn’t America back out when there were so many opportunities to do so? How did the strongest nation “lose” Vietnam to communism? This is what Young sets out to prove: the ignorant monolithic view of communism that clouded American decisions.

The first four chapters cover the Vietnam struggle prior to direct American involvement after 1945. The hope of French removal resurfaced after 1940 when the French surrendered to Germany, only to die down again when Japan took over. Vietnam “had at no time lacked enemies” because if it wasn’t a clash with foreigners, it’d be a clash with its own people.2 The Vietnamese were already divided socially. However, due to the French presence in Vietnam, the people decided the “immediate goal was national unity for the sake of national independence.”3 The most effective of Vietnamese nationalists was the Viet Minh, which later embraced communism. Led by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh focused on self-determination for its people. A formula was derived to justify American anti-colonial ideology later in the war. Communists can “never be genuine nationalists,” therefore, because Ho placed genuine nationalism as the top priority, America was only supporting genuine nationalism.4 The NSC-68 (National Security Council) called for the containment of communism—no further expansion of USSR power. Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed that Vietnam was a “crucial domino” and that “Japan must have Vietnam as a trading partner” or else it would have to turn to other communist areas to survive.5 French failure at Dien Bien Phu ended the war for independence and opened up negotiations for the independence date. Ngo Dinh Diem, hand-picked by Americans, was chosen to lead the Vietnamese people away from communism. Diem’s goal was to win the countryside and sway the free elections over to the anti-communist side.

About halfway into the book, Young goes on to describe how the American outlook on Vietnam switched. First, the press made it possible to believe that there was “no danger of America entering the war,” and second, the “South Vietnamese were winning anyhow” against the Viet Cong.6 Based on these assumptions, there wasn’t much reason to protest the Vietnam War. Politicians also made it clear that the U.S. mustn’t appear as a “new colonial power to the population of the South” while persuading them to support the government chosen for them.7 Over in North Vietnam, situations were worsening when America finally realized that the Viet Cong controlled all “facets of peasant life in Southern provinces.”8 President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to wage a direct war with North Vietnam, and in 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson’s wish came true. The resolution allowed a supposed retaliatory attack against the North Vietnamese by bombing them—just another way to justify direct American participation in the war. George Ball, undersecretary of state, suggested the withdrawal of American troops—meaning further humiliation to the United States in the eyes of the world. The whole point of persistent bombing of the North was to “show the world American resolve.”9 The U.S. steadily increased its military presence in South Vietnam. Yet, no matter what sort of tactics the Americans employed, they “couldn’t make the South Vietnamese love the government the United States had brought to power in Saigon.”10 It was futile to force a government on a nation that desired self-determination.

The next four chapters cover 1966-1968. Direct military intervention was inevitable. Johnson adamantly refused to cease bombing in the North until Hanoi scaled down its efforts in South Vietnam. Johnson made some peace attempts, but to no avail. What originally was a Vietnamese war became an American war. Back home, the American public had been lied to about the real results of the war. Martin Luther King Jr. began to oppose the war politically. King outlined a plan for “extrication and redemption: end bombing of North and South Vietnam and set a date for withdrawal of American troops.111 Nineteen sixty-eight marked the “cross-over point” because it was when American idealism slammed against the wall of reality.12 The most important objective in this battle was to force America to de-escalate war against North Vietnam and progress into negotiating. Because the Tet Offensive was reported as an American defeat, many politicians lost heart, therefore, efforts in Vietnam decreased also. However, Tet was not a Northern victory and U.S. military effort did not slacken; instead, all forms of warfare in South Vietnam intensified.

Near the end of the book, as well as the end of the Vietnam Wars, Young covers the 1970s-1990s. Richard Nixon’s presidency, starting in the late 1960s, approached Vietnam with “secrecy, duplicity, and a ruthless attention to immediate political advantage regardless of larger moral issues.”13 Nixon came into office promising an end to the long, drawn-out Vietnam War. His ideology was to expand the war in order to end it, and he proved this theory by bombing North Vietnamese base camps along the Cambodian border. To counter the protests, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, harshly rebuked the “students, the press, and the eunuch” politicians.14 High desertion rates in the army wrecked the military. There was no longer anything to fight for—fighting for nobody’s freedom meant it was not worth fighting anymore. Poverty-stricken, the North and South were cratered with tons of unexploded bombs. America didn’t help alleviate such sufferings either. Refusal to end the embargo and open diplomatic relations only worsened the problems in Vietnam.

Marilyn Young questions why and how America ever got involved in Vietnam. According to Young, war continues to be a “primary instrument of American foreign policy and the call to arms a first response to international disputes.”15 Young has a negative view on U.S. interference in the Vietnam War. As an anti-war critic, her perspective portrays America as an invader, not as a world police that offered her hand to weaker countries. She assumes the reader already knows about the infamous American monolithic view on communism. As a history professor, Young wrote this book for students; thus, to understand her knowledge will require a basic knowledge of American ideologies regarding the Cold War. Young concludes that in the “daily, weekly, monthly, yearly progress of the war lay many of its most decisive reasons,” therefore, undergraduates will better understand this book than people with less knowledge about everyday politics and diplomacy.16 Young states that in the Vietnam War, the United States had basically been a hypocrite by negating American values at every decision it made regarding the war. America devalued herself when she “secretly and deceptively [fought] a war of immense violence in order to impose her will on another sovereign nation.”17 What America had usually stood for, the land of power and honor, backfired in the Vietnam War.

Published in 1991, Young’s book was still incomplete during the late 1980s. As Young said before, the Cold War had just ended while she was completing this book. The political perspective back then was ultra-conservative. President Ronald Reagan was committed to ideologies of a return to laissez-faire and anti-communism. Living in the presence of Reagan’s presidency, Young’s perspective was partially motivated by the anti-communism feeling that infected every American mind. It was also during this time that America interfered in the Middle East. Young didn’t want to compare the Southeast Asia problem with the Middle East or Vietnam with Iraq. Instead, Young focuses more on “how [America] approached this intervention.”18 Such a similar occurrence to the Vietnam War, the Iraq crisis coaxed a more critical outlook from Young. Her criticism of war wouldn’t have been as decisive as it would have if she was writing the book a couple years earlier. Communism did not end yet. War wasn’t the answer. As America continued to contain communism in her oppressive ways, Young wanted an end to such a play. Her book became an outcry to end American interference into other nations’ decisions. Her portrayal of how wrong the Vietnam War was became a device to warn the United States about its present status in the Iraq crisis. Her present experience gave her a fresh taste of her own developing thesis.

The reviews on Young’s book vary on different aspects. David Marr focused his point on how Young “romanticized the National Liberation Front, portraying them as if they always treated each other with care and respect, never acted brutally.”19 Marr believed that not enough of the NLF’s true horrors were shown in Young’s writing. According to Marr, she literally glorified the NLF while, at the same time, stating that at the end of a war story, if the reader “felt uplifted…then [he] had been made the victim of a very terrible lie!”20 Young acted as a slight hypocrite when describing the Viet Cong. Other than that, Marr praised Young on her discussion of the “war at home,” including foreign debates as well as domestic ones.21 Dan Scripture focused more on the layout of Young’s writing. He recommended that the book was better for undergraduates because Young’s analysis wasn’t “opaque to students.”22 Both reviewers agreed on the brevity of the 1975-1990 time periods and the misleading title. What Scripture noticed that Marr didn’t was the Vietnamese dialogue. He called it “irritating and distracting to Vietnamese readers” because Vietnamese words weren’t spelled correctly.23 While Marr called Young’s description of American involvement in Vietnam a great strength, Scripture negated it as her major weakness. Overall, both agreed that Young’s writing style was superior.

Despite what the reviewers proclaim above, Young still tipped the scale with more strengths than weaknesses. Her layout and outline of the novel was highly organized. She explained the complex diplomatic situations, along with the cause and effect of every decision. Others criticized her elaboration on U.S. involvement; however, that’s an aspect to be applauded. Unfortunately, the title is somewhat misleading because Young didn’t fully address all of the Vietnam Wars. She focused more on the internal and external struggles of American involvement instead. By doing so, Young omitted other major players (France, U.S.S.R., and China,). However, Young concentrated specifically on 1962-1972—the peak of U.S. involvement, or the “cross-over point” that became the watershed in American history.24

According to Young, the 1960s was not only a watershed in American political and cultural history but also a cold slap that shook America from its ideologies. The Tet Offensive in 1968 was a rude awakening. The United States lost to a communist region, lost to meager Viet Cong guerrillas in underground tunnels. How will the world see the grand America now? Although humiliated, America—contrary to the common belief that U.S. backed away from Vietnam in shame—“did not slacken in its aftermath.”25 This era changed American perspectives. Before U.S. intervention began, Americans were indifferent. After the war got out of hand, public view became critical. The Viet Cong had won a psychological victory—American opinion turned against the war. For the first time, mass demonstrations and protests flooded the streets. What had been kept bottled up erupted like an overflowing dam as negative opinions branded American involvement as a mistake. On the other hand, American resolution on containing communism still remained strong. This era clearly portrayed the U.S. as a persevering country—stubborn in its grip on demolishing communism and resistance. It marked a period where Americans became unwilling to tolerate differences in opinion.

Nineteen sixty-eight failed to turn itself into a learning device for future references. Bombings stopped, but warfare continued. While public views at home fluctuated dramatically in the form of protests, foreign policy remained adamant. America kept her monolithic view on communism. Only in the far future will Americans realize that forcing what they believe is necessary upon other nations will not always work. Every nation has its own desire for self-determination, and it’s wrong for another country, dominant in size and power, to “look out for,” a nation that desired U.S. involvement.26 The Vietnam Wars covers the range of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. What was done cannot be undone. Not only were lives sacrificed but also the “inflexible certainty” of foreign diplomacy—all were “dead in the rice paddies, dead on the nameless hills.”27 American involvements in a war that often seems pointless have been engraved permanently in history. America walked right into a quicksand, a quagmire, which she couldn’t get herself out of. As America sank deeper into the Vietnam conflicts, she left a wake of consequences that future Americans will see as a lesson not to be ignored.

review by Rosaleen Ly

  1. Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991, 323.
  2. Young, Marilyn 2.
  3. Young, Marilyn 8.
  4. Young, Marilyn 24.
  5. Young, Marilyn 31.
  6. Young, Marilyn 92.
  7. Young, Marilyn 92.
  8. Young, Marilyn 109.
  9. Young, Marilyn 131.
  10. Young, Marilyn 171.
  11. Young, Marilyn 200.
  12. Young, Marilyn 210.
  13. Young, Marilyn 233.
  14. Young, Marilyn 241.
  15. Young, Marilyn x.
  16. Young, Marilyn x.
  17. Young, Marilyn x.
  18. Young, Marilyn x.
  19. Marr, David G. “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 by Marilyn B. Young” (Book Review). Pacific Historical Review, 62:3 Aug 1993: 394.
  20. Young, Marilyn 329.
  21. Marr, David.
  22. Scripture, Dan. “Viet Nam Generation.” Book Review Editor.
  23. Scripture, Dan.
  24. Young, Marilyn 210.
  25. Young, Marilyn 222.
  26. Young, Marilyn 128.
  27. Young, Marilyn 328.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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