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Preface to The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990

by Marilyn B. Young

WHY ARE WE IN VIETNAM? Through a decade in which the United States was divided perhaps more deeply than at any other time since the Civil War, the question became a refrain, the inquiring voices more and more discordant and demanding. In the end, "Why are we in Vietnam?" was no longer a question but an accusation addressed beyond the war to the nation's very identity.

There were many explanations offered and these will unfold over the course of the book. At first we were in Vietnam for the sake of stability in France, which held the American plan for European security and recovery hostage to its colonial war in Indochina. We are also there to provide Japan with Southeast Asian substitutes for the China trade the United States had embargoed. In the largest sense, the United States was in Vietnam as a crucial part of the enterprise of reorganizing the post-World War II world according to the principles of liberal capitalism.

Each of these explanations explains something, and together they add up to a pretty fair account of things; indeed in retrospect, the war does not seem so inexplicable after all. But over the years of contention, the question came to demand more than an explanation, a justification. When an interviewer posed it late in the war to former national security adviser Walt Rostow, he fumed: "Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?" Though the question was hardly "silly," the interviewer may not have been "really" asking it, for by then those who so queried public officials were sure they knew the answer: There was no conceivable justification for the horrors daily inflicted on and suffered in Vietnam.

While this book discusses the standard explanations and justifications, it interprets the "why" as "how." How did we get to Vietnam? How did we keep expanding the war, and how did we get out? Paralleling the development of the question "Why are we in Vietnam?" from inquiring about motives to denouncing the acts of war, I have come to believe that in the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly progress of the war lay many of its most decisive reasons and irrationalities.

Official justifications for the war changed with the political season, although the climate was always that of the Cold War. As I was finishing this history of the Vietnam-American war, the Cold War was, astonishingly, ending. There is no way to know what this will mean for the next era of world history. But events in the summer of 1990 suggest that peace with the Soviet Union has not necessarily lessoned the American propensity to wage war elsewhere. The Iraq crisis is the post-Cold War era's first approach to war. It would be simply foolish, as this book goes to press in August, 1990, to attempt any analysis of the crisis or to speculate about its outcome. But in its progress it has already raised old specters.

Why are we in the Middle East? As of now, President Bush and his administration have told us that we are there to control the source of "our" oil and through that to protect our very way of life. They have invoked Munich and transcendent principles of territorial integrity. I do not suggest any comparison between Southeast Asia and the Middle East or between Vietnam and Iraq. But we had better look very closely at how we approach this or any other intervention. Watching the Iraq crisis unfold as I read the galleys of this book seemed to provide it with a new, harsher, and unwanted conclusion: that war continues to be a primary instrument of American foreign policy and the call to arms a first response to international disputes.

We have been at war since the end of World War II. The Vietnam War itself has not ended. As of this writing, the U.S. still declares Vietnam an enemy nation, prohibits or restricts travel, trade, humanitarian aid, and exchange visits by U.S. citizens, and exerts heavy pressure on its allies to discourage any constructive relations with Vietnam. The ongoing war in Cambodia that came to an uneasy truce in July 1990 received U.S. support throughout. One way the Vietnam war might at last end, and the post-Cold War peace begin, would be for an American president to acknowledge, as a Soviet foreign minister did with respect to Afghanistan, that the United States invaded Vietnam against our stated values and ideals and that it did so secretly and deceptively, fighting a war of immense violence in order to impose its will on another sovereign nation. Otherwise only the name of the country changes, and Americans will continue to ask, "Why are we in Vietnam?";

Marilyn B. Young
Union Village, Vermont
August, 1990

Copyright 1991 by Marilyn B. Young
HarperCollins Publishers, New York

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