Old imperialists egged on the new

A Companion to the Vietnam War - All the Way with JFK?
June 13, 2003

The medievalist Denys Hay remarked that American historians are keen on historiography because, in light of the brevity of their nation's history, they have to fall back on writing books about each other. He would have been amused by the following statistic about a mere moment in time, the years of America's longest war. The catalogue of the Robarts Library of the University of Toronto, one of North America's leading research repositories, indicates that it contains 3,209 books on Vietnam, a 19 per cent increase on 1993. Are historians telling us new things about the Vietnam war, or are they yet again making a meal of historiography?

Certainly, there is no imminent danger of consensus. A Companion to the Vietnam War is a general work that makes only fleeting and incidental reference to the part that Britain played in Southeast Asian history. Yet, as its title suggests, the emphasis is very different in All the Way with JFK? Britain, the US, and the Vietnam War , an academic work by Peter Busch, who studied at the London School of Economics and is now a German-language broadcast journalist. He sets out to "shatter" the "myth" that Britain "washed its hands" of American policy in Vietnam, as well as the notion that Britain pushed for peace as the Kennedy administration defiantly escalated the war. He notes that in 1954 prime minister Winston Churchill resisted the American suggestion that Britain should join in an effort to rescue the French at Dien Bien Phu, and points to the contrast between this wariness and London's conduct during the Kennedy years, when it lent succour to the corrupt and oppressive Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam.

Busch thinks that the Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Wilson governments encouraged what he depicts as a foolhardy military escalation by Kennedy, a policy that ultimately left President Lyndon Johnson the choice between ignominious retreat and disastrous war.

He believes that the British policy stemmed, in part, from the Malayan Emergency mindset. Having knocked back the communist insurgents on the Malaya peninsula in the 1950s, the British thought it would be a good idea to repeat the exercise elsewhere and that they had just the recipe. They installed in Saigon and "marketed" in Washington DC the Emergency veteran Robert G. K. Thompson, who duly instructed the enraptured Americans in his time-warped version of the elements of counter-insurgency.

British aims were, in Busch's view, less cynical than strategic. London's goal was to persuade the Americans that the UK and US should defend "western" interests in tandem. British military commitments in Malaysia gave a perhaps convenient reason not to send troops to Vietnam, but there was still an expectation of a quid pro quo - Britain would support the American war in Vietnam and the US was supposed to put reciprocal pressure on Indonesia. American assistance over Indonesia would reassure the Australians and New Zealanders that Britain was determined and able to defend them. In the event, the Americans did not play ball, and the British policy did little to enhance the "special relationship".

Some of Busch's emphases are questionable or refreshing, depending on your point of view. There is a detailed biographical sketch of Diem, but the British ambassador Lord Harlech, a close friend of Kennedy and a vital link between the president and British prime minister Macmillan, is identified only in a minimal manner. The author utilises his research in Commonwealth country archives to suggest an antipodean policy input. In reality, the roles of New Zealand and Australia are probably more significant for their assertions of independence of thought and for their development of national identity than for any impact on US policy on the Vietnam war.

More seriously, Busch makes a tactical error of quixotic proportions in postulating and then attacking the "myths" of British peaceful intentions and diplomatic isolationism. His particular windmill is an article in the winter 1995 issue of Diplomatic History by Arthur Combs, at the time of publication a doctoral student at the LSE.

It is possible to make one's reputation by challenging the interpretation of a great historian but surely not by questioning the judgement of a PhD student. Busch cites Combs, and Combs alone, as his authority for identifying a myth that the British washed their hands of Vietnam and wanted peace there. Historiographically, this is thin gruel. In any case, Combs' article is not about the 1960s. It concentrates on the years 1954-56. Furthermore, he takes a sensible view, writing that "the tragedy in Vietnam was not made entirely in America, but its character from 1954 onward was largely determined by American political realities". As this suggests, British policy on Vietnam in the Kennedy years may have been more important as an illustration of London's post-imperial dilemma than for its impact on Washington. There is, in fact, good reason to forgive the paucity of reference to Britain in A Companion to the Vietnam War .

This book, edited by Marilyn B. Young of New York University and Robert Buzzanco of the University of Houston, is part of the Blackwell Companions series. It is an enterprise with liberal guidelines. The volume under review contains chapters on specialist themes. Christopher E. Goscha's contribution on the technical and military contributions of Japanese deserters, 1945-50, and Kenton Clymer's article on the break in US-Cambodian relations in 1965 (which originally appeared in Diplomatic History ) are of an excellent academic standard, but neither is, as it were, "companionable" in the sense of being of general interest.

The absence of any unifying template makes for a variety of approaches. A broad-sweep introduction by Stein T?nnesson places the war in historical context, reminding us that for the Vietnamese the confrontation with the Americans was just one in a long series of wars. He offers the reflection that the 20th century was tragic for millions of Asians yet also a time of modernisation and of population expansion - it was not the "dark night" experienced by Europeans.

The first part of the book is about the Vietnamese but it contains no contribution by a Vietnamese author. Still, the essays are instructive.

Examining communist morale and educational levels, David Hunt suggests that Vietnamese peasants knew about the Sino-Soviet split. William Duiker gives us a synopsis of his biography of Ho Chi Minh, mediating delicately between the notions that Ho was a Marxist-Leninist drone and that he was inspired by the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Karen G. Turner's essay on women fighting for the communist side is a corrective to Orientalist and masculinist essentialism. Of the 170,000 Youth Brigades workers who toiled to repair the heavily bombed Ho Chi Minh Trail, 70 per cent were women. Far from being demoralised by the presence of female soldiers in battle, male warriors valued their participation. But Turner is a realist, noting that the generals back in Hanoi were less enlightened; that the seared heroines of battle found it difficult to find husbands when they left the army; and that the current westernisation of Vietnam has turned the clock back for women by generating mass prostitution.

Among the essayists on the American side of the war, Edwin Moise exemplifies the benefits of an encounter between statistics and a first-class mind. He argues that a comparison of Kennedy's defence-spending projections for the 1960s with Johnson's expenditure suggests a need to revise the former's reputation for restraint and the latter's for profligacy. Lloyd Gardner is thoughtful and witty on Richard Nixon's failure to do a De Gaulle, and give up his Algeria as a bad job. Bruce Franklin supplies a useful and updated synopsis of his 1993 book on the political mythology of the prisoners-of-war, missing-in-action issue.

John Prados' essay on the veterans' anti-war movement in fact and memory epitomises the weaknesses and strength of the Companion . The facts are there, but memory creeps in only as an afterthought and as an embellishment to the title. While some essays have brief bibliographies and others have notes, this one has a four-page bibliographic essay. One wonders why there is a further 21-page bibliography at the end of the book but at the same time admires the authority with which Prados guides us through the sources and literature on his own theme.

Students on my course "America and the Vietnam war" have for years voted with their feet, or rather their parents' Visa cards, for Robert J. McMahon's thoroughly organised compilation, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War . Even if it comes out in paperback with a lower price, A Companion to the Vietnam War will not rival Problems. But in spite of its anarchic features, it contains stimulating and readable essays.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is professor of American history, University of Edinburgh.

A Companion to the Vietnam War

Editor - Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco
ISBN - 0 631 21013 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00
Pages - 514

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