Norman Podhoretz

Why We Were in Vietnam

VTR Date: March 6, 1982

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “Why We Were in Vietnam”
VTR: 3/6/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Earlier today I was looking through the research material that I had used in 1979, 1980, and again in 1981 for programs with today’s guest, the provocative young radical, middle-aged neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine. His new book, Why We Were in Vietnam, may raise hackles, but it doesn’t raise new questions quite so much as it makes us somewhat more critical about any easy assumptions concerning El Salvador and/or any other American involvement overseas.

Norman, thanks for coming back to THE OPEN MIND. And, you know, as I read Why We Were in Vietnam, I had the feeling that there was a kind of softness – not softmindedness – but a softness and gentleness about it as you very, I think, clearly presented the argument of those with whom you disagree on the matter of the war, why we were there. And I wondered if I could just take a minute to go down to your very last paragraph for our audience. You say, “In May, 1977, two full years after the communist takeover, President Jimmy Carter, a repentant hawk like many members of his cabinet, including his secretary of state and his secretary of defense, spoke of the intellectual and moral poverty of the policy that had led us into Vietnam and then kept us there for so long. When Ronald Reagan, an unrepentant hawk called the war ‘A noble cause’ in the course of his ultimately successful campaign to replace Carter in the White House, he was accused of having made a gaffe. Fully, painfully aware as I am that the American effort to save Vietnam from communism was indeed beyond our intellectual and moral capabilities, I believe the story shows that Reagan’s gaffe was closer to the truth of why we were in Vietnam and what we did there, at least until the very end, than Carter’s opinion”. What took me so much by surprise was the statement here, “Fully, painfully aware as I am that the American effort to save Vietnam from communism was indeed beyond our intellectual and moral capabilities”. What did you mean by that?

PODHORETZ: What I tried to do in this book was to tell the story of why we got into Vietnam, and why and how we were finally forced to withdraw and what the consequences were. And to tell this story with a fresh eye after a certain n umber of years had passed and after the count, in a certain sense, has come in. My conclusion was that the conventional wisdom about the war, namely that it was an immoral enterprise, was exactly wrong. That the war was in fact a political error. An error of political prudence. That is, it was a reckless act, but that it was morally defensible. That the country, that the United States, which has been slandered all over the world because of what we did in Vietnam, is innocent of those particular charges and that the charge that can legitimately be made against the United States is that it was recklessly idealistic or quixotic in attempting to save South Vietnam from the fate which has indeed now overtaken it, namely communist domination. We see clearly from the horrors that have befallen the people not only of South Vietnam but of the other Indochinese states, Laos and particularly Cambodia, we see from those horrors clearly, as clearly as one could imagine, that the effort to save those countries form that fate was morally justified.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that you feel that this noble cause was, though innocently entered into, was right or wrong?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think it was right, morally right to wish to save South Vietnam from communism. I think that it was a mistake for the United States to attempt to do so, because the successful prosecution of that enterprise, as we also know, looking at the entire story, was beyond the resources of the kind of country we are. Now this is not, incidentally, the wisdom of hindsight. Many people in the early 60s, before the real American military commitment was made, said as much. People who thought that if we could save South Vietnam from communism as we had saved South Korea from communism, as we indeed had saved Berlin, West Berlin, and were defending the whole of Western Europe, that if this could be done it was certainly worth doing and would very much be in our interests and ion the interests of the people of the region and in the interests of the geopolitical stability of the world as it was then constituted. The question was whether we could actually do it. And I felt at the time, incidentally – I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things – but at that time I felt that it could not be done. And looking back on the story today after so many years, and reading documents that were not available then and so on, I think that judgment was clearly correct. It was a judgment made by many people, as I must emphasize, who were not against the objective, who, if we could have done it at reasonable cost they certainly would’ve favored doing it. So the real debate in that particular community of political sentiment was, could we do it at reasonable cost? And some people, including even General Macarthur, who had been the great hawk in Korea, warned against this kind of war. Eisenhower, as president, had decided not to commit American forces to Indochina at the time of Dien Bien Phu, among other reasons because he thought that this was not the kind of war we ought to be fighting or that we could successfully fight. Now, there were other people who made the same prudential judgment, even at that time, that we couldn’t do it and therefore we shouldn’t. And politics, as everyone says, is the art of the possible, and political leaders are supposed to have the judgment, the prudential judgment to know when something can be done and when it can’t be done.

HEFFNER: And yet, in the book, and as you conclude, you’re not so much talking about resources, military, productive resources.

PODHORETZ: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not talking…

HEFFNER: You say it was indeed beyond our intellectual and moral capabilities. What did you mean by that?

PODHORETZ: Yes. Well, the intellectual and moral capabilities focus on the way in which the debate on the war as it proceeded after we got involved acted to make whatever military means might conceivably have led to a victory impossible. Now, I actually believe – it’s hard to prove – that nothing military we could have done would have led to the kind of conclusion we were seeking. I don’t think the war was actually winnable in our terms, even through a different military strategy. And I’m very critical, incidentally, of the military strategy we adopted in Vietnam in its own terms. But I also think that what the story reveals is that the state of opinion, the kinds of arguments that were, seemed plausible and had gained currency, and the particularly the moral debate over the war, and this moral debate escalated along with the escalation of the military involvement, revealed that this was a country that was not for better or worse prepared to do the kinds of things that might conceivably have made a victory possible.

HEFFNER: Do you think the same thing is true today?

PODHORETZ: Well, again, one of the things I think you learn when you study an episode like Vietnam is that the local and particular characteristics of every given problem of every given country are decisive. Vietnam in some political sense very much resembled Korea. Here was a country split in half between a communist north and a noncommunist south. And effort was made in each case by the north to unify the country and to extend a communist regime to the southern half. In the case of Korea, the military effort mounted by the United States’ allies and in aid of the South Koreans to prevent that succeeded at very great cost. The situation in Vietnam looked very similar to the people in the Kennedy administration for example, who decided to go in. But what was different was the geography, the local political conditions, the way in which the aggression was being mounted. In this case it was through a guerrilla movement which appeared to be an indigenous rebellion in the south rather than a case of external intervention from the north. All of these created problems that made the chances of victory in Vietnam much more remote than they were in Korea. So even if you applied the lesson of Korea to Vietnam, you went wrong because not enough account was taken of the local conditions.

Now, if you ask me about the present, although I think we were right to go into Korea, that we were wrong – I mean not morally wrong, but politically wrong – to go into Vietnam. I think that the question of El Salvador, for example, is a question that has to be decided on its own merits. And in terms of the, again the chances for success – Now that’s assuming that you agree with me that it is desirable to prevent El Salvador from becoming a Marxist, Leninist, or communist state linked up in this case with Cuba, Nicaragua, and ultimately the Soviet Union. A lot of people think that’s a matter of indifference or that it would even be a desirable outcome. But those who agree that it would be desirable to prevent that outcome have to now ask themselves, can we at reasonable cost achieve the objective? And that question can only be answered by a careful examination of the local conditions as well as the state of American public opinion. In other words, the resources that we have to bear are not merely hardware; they never are. They have to do with national will. They have to do with the ideas that are in circulation. They have to do with the moral assessment that people make of the enterprise.

HEFFNER: What do you think about our national will and our moral assessment, not just of that particular enterprise, but of the notion that we have a place, someplace other than within our own borders?

PODHORETZ: Well, if I understand your question correctly, what do I think of the case of El Salvador?

HEFFNER: No, no, no.


HEFFNER: I’m asking you what you think that moral tone is for this country at this time.

PODHORETZ: I think the moral tone these days is very much bedeviled and confused by the unresolved issue of Vietnam, which is one of the reasons I would like to reopen the debate of Vietnam. I think that…

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t it be better to bury that part of it?

PODHORETZ: On the contrary. You know, I say in the preface to this book that within hours virtually of the last, of that last helicopter leaving the roof of the embassy in Saigon, the debate on Vietnam which had obsessed this country for so long disappeared, and was consigned to what I call the forensic equivalent of an unmarked grave. Now, there is no way a nation, or for that matter an individual, can brush aside, repress, refuse to look at an experience as big and as wounding, as traumatic as Vietnam was for us. And we have yet to confront it. There are certain emotions that are left over from the past that have not been critically examined. I try to examine many of those. Vietnam has been turned into a kind of mindless symbol of American horror. And yet the fact is that when you look at what happened in Vietnam and in Indochina generally as a result of the American defeat, the kinds of evils that have occurred there, especially the auto genocide in Cambodia where the most monstrous political crimes in history, certainly in this century, the Auschwitz of Asia as it has been called, when you look at those consequences which flowed directly from the victory of the communist forces that we were trying to resist in Indochina, you have to say that the term “Vietnam” can no longer adequately symbolize this notion of some self-evidently wrong or bad or vicious or evil or immoral enterprise undertaken by the United States. So however this reexamination were to come out, obviously I would wish it to come out in the way that I see the issue, and I wrote a book setting forth a fairly complex view. But however it were to come out, it would be healthier to look at it and examine it again than to allow it to remain buried and to haunt us in distorted and hideous shapes that don’t actually correspond to the realities of the experience.

HEFFNER: Unless of course today we’re no more capable of perceiving what the realities of the experience were and…

PODHORETZ: Well, I don’t believe that. Obviously if I did believe it I would not have written the book.

HEFFNER: You think we’re ready now to engage in this debate again?

PODHORETZ: Well, I have to say that from some of the early responses to this book, you characterize me as gentle, and some of the people criticized in this book have not at all seen it as gentle and have responded very ferociously indeed to the book. And it’s entirely possible that this indicates that at least some members of the intellectual community are not ready to look at the issue again. As a matter of fact, they as much as have said that there’s something dangerous in trying to reopen it, and it should remain closed, and it’s settled, that there’s nothing further to say about it. Well, I think that’s bizarre, especially coming from intellectuals.

HEFFNER: Especially because you don’t like what’s been said about it, right?

PODHORETZ: Well, no. I think that the notion that the experience as large and as complicated as Vietnam can be closed for discussion as though the final word had been said about it is ridiculous on the face of it. I mean, the final word is almost never said about anything in history, let alone something as heated and as unassimilated as Vietnam.

HEFFNER: You know, that brings me back. Each program we’ve done in recent years I keep going back to the article you wrote, I guess, it was in Harper’s, on the culture of appeasement.

PODHORETZ: Uh hum. 1977 I think that was. About five years ago.

HEFFNER: Okay. And you raised questions: “Or is it perhaps the opposite which is true? Have we, that is, been plunged by Vietnam into so great a fear of communism that we can no longer summon the will to resist it?” How do you answer your question?

PODHORETZ: The answer is, I hope not.

HEFFNER: I know. “Hope”. What’s the answer in what you perceive to be overall the reality of the situation?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’m pessimistic. And obviously that question is not quite a rhetorical question, but it tends to suggest an affirmative answer. I think there is an enormous danger that we have been incapacitated. The reason I say it’s an enormous danger is that I believe, as I’ve said to you before on this program, that the world is faced with a menace of Soviet imperialism, and that if the United States along with its allies, but principally the United Sates along with its allies but principally the United States, refuses to undertake a responsibility for holding back the spread of Soviet power, the totalitarian system it carries with it in its wake, that this curse will engulf the whole world, including us ultimately. So this is not only a serious issue, it is perhaps the most serious issue that can possibly confront us. And I am given, as I have been accused by some critics, to almost apocalyptic speculations. On the other hand, I think that common sense leads one into an apocalyptic frame of mind in these circumstances. So I hope we have not been incapacitated. I took the election of Reagan a year or so ago as a sign that large numbers of people in this country, certainly a majority of people, were not ready simply to lie down and die as it were from the point of view of the Soviet threat. And I still think that there is a healthy political culture to be called upon and built upon by the right kind of leadership in this country. I would like to contribute to the development of that political culture. A book like my book on Vietnam is meant as a contribution to such an effort.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied in the time since President Reagan was first elected that he has demonstrated again to your satisfaction this willingness to learn the lessons of why we were in Vietnam?

PODHORETZ: No. I’m very disappointed in the performance of the Reagan administration. Deeply disappointed. I think the Reagan administration has been very weak in its response to the opportunity that has been presented by the Polish crisis. I think it has been confused and misled in its policies in the Persian Gulf. And I think that it has been hesitant and uncertain in confronting the danger of Soviet expansionism and the spread of communist totalitarianism in the Caribbean.

HEFFNER: Norman, if the Reagan opponents certainly would not to your satisfaction meet those challenges, and if the president and the Reagan administration has not met those challenges, is that an indication that once again that we’re not morally ready and therefore should not participate in any effort to stop aggression elsewhere in the world?

PODHORETZ: Well, that’s about the most difficult question you could have asked me.

HEFFNER: That’s why I asked.

PODHORETZ: And I congratulate you and I commiserate with myself in having to deal with it in such a short compass. My answer to the question is that we cannot know what we’re capable of in advance. This is true for example of peoples in wartime. I’m not suggesting we’re about to go to war. But people and nations, and again, even individuals, in critical situations, and in conditions of emergency very often surprise themselves and everybody else by rising to the challenge. The British for example, in 1939 had been acting for some 20 years in such a way as to convince Hitler that they would never fight. And he was amazed when in the end they decided not to surrender, as the French did, but to resist. We ourselves amazed the world with prodigies of productivity in World War II. And there are many examples of peoples rising to challenge. I think that this country is fundamentally healthy, fundamentally healthy. And I think that in response to an intelligently perceived challenge, it would in fact rise to the occasion.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that make the decision that I question you about something more or less of a crapshoot?

PODHORETZ: Well everything is a crapshoot in politics and certainly in life. I mean, you are very often faced with two equally undesirable alternatives.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you’re going to put your bet on a number, and that’s the number I’m asking you to put your bet on. And that’s what I’m asking you to do. And you’re saying “maybe”.

PODHORETZ: No, on the contrary. I’m saying that we have no alternative but to try to resist. If we fail to resist, I think we will doom ourselves ultimately to the loss of our liberties, to the destruction of our civilization.

HEFFNER: But wasn’t that the answer given early on in Vietnam? We have no alternative?

PODHORETZ: No, excuse me. That was not the answer given in Vietnam. The debate over Vietnam was three-sided. There were some people who said, “We have to do this”. There were others who said, “We don’t really have to do this. It’s not in our vital interest. And what’s more, we will be better off from the point of view of our overall power and geopolitical position if we don’t do it”. There are certain challenges you cannot meet. And if you’re wise you don’t confront such challenges. There are other challenges that you have to meet. I myself would say – and I mean, I’m not trying to evade the issue of El Salvador at all – I myself would say that if the United States is incapable of preventing another outpost of Soviet imperialism from establishing itself along our very doorstep, it will reveal itself as not just a crippled giant in the old Nixon phrase, but as entirely impotent. So that’s one major difference between El Salvador and Vietnam. I think El Salvador is in our vital interest. I don’t think Vietnam was, although, as I keep saying, I think that the, from a moral point of view – and I stress the moral issue because the war finally was debated more in moral terms than in any other – from a moral point of view, we were right to wish to do what we failed to do in Vietnam. It would have been a good thing to do if we could’ve pulled it off. And we are not the kind of nation which was capable of pulling that particular enterprise off. Our leaders should have known that. I mean, what I fault them for is not what they wanted to do, not their analysis of the situation, not their conduct of the war, all of which I think are not only defensible but even admirable; I fault them for a failure of prudential judgment.

HEFFNER: Would prudential judgment today, in your estimation, take us into El Salvador?

PODHORETZ: It might. It might. Yes, under certain circumstances.

HEFFNER: Do you think the intellectual community which you write about in a large part of this book…


HEFFNER: …would join in in that conclusion?

PODHORETZ: No. Not the whole intellectual community. A certain segment of it would.

HEFFNER: Well, I meant, by and large, the same people who were in such great opposition to Vietnam.

PODHORETZ: Well, no, because, you know, there are a lot of people who’ve shifted positions over the last 20 years. It’s been a kind of political musical chairs going on in this country.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve been one of the people who have shifted politically.

PODHORETZ: I have. I have. And I’ve written, as you know, a whole long book about my political changes. They’re no secret. I have, oddly enough, shifted less on the issue of Vietnam than on some other issues. I mean, my views…

HEFFNER: You know something? I’m going to have to say those views are going to have to wait until the next program we do to bring you back, because believe it or not, our time is up.

PODHORETZ: Oh, well.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Norman Podhoretz, talking about Why We Were in Vietnam, just to be published by Simon & Schuster. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.