Gerard J. DeGroot. A Noble Cause: America and the Vietnam War. Modern Wars in Perspective. England and New York: Longman, 2000. xvi + 391. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-582-28717-4.
Reviewed by John McNay (Department of History, Raymond Walters College, University of Cincinnatinati )
Published on H-War (December, 2000)
Gerard J. DeGroot's A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War is part of a series published by Longman called Modern Wars in Perspective. The goal of the series is "to go beyond traditional campaign narratives to examine the causes, course and consequences of major conflicts, in their full international, political, diplomatic, social and ideological contexts." DeGroot aims to do just that by ably covering the chronological political and diplomatic developments of the war, as well as by offering chapters on the anti-war movement and on cultural aspects of the war in American society.
DeGroot's objective in writing this book was to create a new synthesis regarding the understanding of the war. As part of this approach, he argues that much of the work on the Vietnam War has been focused on small parts of it with the result that the "big picture is missing." DeGroot then seeks in his study to create a new understanding regarding the entire war, from its roots in the French colonial period to the present day, since he notes that the struggle over interpreting the war continues.
His analysis is rooted in an interesting and original historiographical essay at the beginning of the book. DeGroot expresses strong opinions about a great number of the histories of the war. He concludes, for example, that one of the best studies is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History. Despite the fact that Karnow's book has become dated, he says that many Vietnam historians find themselves returning again and again to Karnow after reading other flawed attempts at synthesis. With all due respect to Karnow's fine book, I am uncertain that many historians would admit to returning to Karnow, especially with such excellent books of the war available as George McT. Kahin's Intervention, George Herring's America's Longest War and Robert Schulzinger's A Time for War, three books that DeGroot acknowledges as fine broadly-conceived studies of the war. DeGroot is sharply critical about those he believes have not written good histories.
About Loren Baritz and his book, Backfire, DeGroot writes that "the book ultimately reveals that there are few scholars who are adept at both military and cultural history. Baritz is not one of them." Marilyn Young's book, The Vietnam Wars, is the "moral relativist's approach" and Young's "lively, engaging style provides camouflage for the shoddy, slanted analysis." James Carroll's American Requiem "demonstrates that one does not need to get one's evidence straight in order to win a National Book Award and climb the bestseller lists."
While DeGroot's sometimes ascerbic style entertains, many such observations are often left to stand with little evidence offered for such sweeping pronouncements. On the positive side, they often cause the reader to think and to reconsider preconceptions. The reader may decide that DeGroot has it wrong, but nonetheless it has been thought-provoking.
In another instance, DeGroot writes that it was a good thing that America lost the war and that America and the world is a better place because of the defeat. DeGroot believes this because "Vietnam brought to an end an era in foreign policy when the American people assumed automatically that they were both totally virtuous and absolutely powerful. Because, afterwards, victory no longer seemed automatic, the US has been more careful in its exercise of power; Vietnam was a great illuminating failure." Again, this is done largely through assertion rather than evidence. It is, of course, possible to argue the opposite case. Vietnam began within the context of the heritage of the Korean War and in the context of Sputnik. Far from feeling all powerful, it is just as easy to argue that Americans felt endangered and insecure and that prompted an unwarranted effort in Vietnam to make a stand against the communists. It would be easier to argue that it would have been better if the war had never taken place. In any case, the most common foreign complaint these days about American foreign policy is that the United States is arrogant and listens to no one. Hardly the image of a nation tempered by defeat. Finally, if it was such a great illuminating failure, the illumination seems have failed to penetrate many American minds since the war^s meaning is still being debated.
DeGroot's view of the war seems to be formed by his own background, which he explains in the opening pages. DeGroot was born in 1955 in San Diego and claims he was either blessed or cursed with a vivid memory. Among those early memories is the well-known image of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk on the street in Saigon in 1963. Similarly, the execution photo of a communist guerrilla on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive is a milestone of his past, he writes. While he was in college and twenty years old, draft numbers were drawn but no one was actually drafted that year. "Vietnam is part of me," he writes. DeGroot left the United States in 1980 to do postgraduate work in British history at the University of Edinburgh and has lived in Scotland ever since. He says that many of events of the aftermath of the war have been for him something that "exists in another country, far away."
In this vein, DeGroot is primarily a historian of Britain in the twentieth century. His previous work includes the well-received Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War, as well as biographies of Douglas Haig and Sir Archibald Sinclair. DeGroot has also written about the student protest movement. "My great regret about the progressive specialization of history, which has occurred during my lifetime," he writes in Blighty, "is that historians appear to have lost the ability to communicate. They have created for themselves myriad magic circles into which only those who speak the secret language are admitted." In his effort to correct this situation, one of the strengths of A Noble Cause? (as well as Blighty) is that it is well-written with a minimum of jargon and should be easily accessible for lay readers and not just specialists.
Another quite interesting aspect of the book is that it was written virtually without using archival sources and is based almost entirely on secondary sources. Some of DeGroot's most quoted works include William J. Duiker's Sacred War and Eric Bergerud's Dynamics of Defeat and Red Thunder, Tropic Lighting. Rather than use the Foreign Relations of the United States series for an occasional documentary reference, DeGroot does dip into Robert McMahon's reader, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War a few times. Historians who have labored away in the archives for years to produce a book may find this somewhat disconcerting. The blurb on the back of the book gets around this issue by saying that the book deploys "a wealth of primary quotation." Of course, in fairness, DeGroot starts out with the premise that there has been an enormous quantity written about the war and it is time to create a synthesis of the war from the published research.
Despite his American birth, DeGroot brings to his examination of the war and American policymakers what seems a distinctly British perspective. Mainly this is an asset for DeGroot, and explains his sharp perspective. Sometimes, however, it leads him astray. A general thrust of his critique of American policymakers, for example, is that they were naive in their decisions. While the British have no corner on this particular criticism of American policy, naievete has surely been the favorite British critique of American foreign policy. Yet, in so arguing, I believe DeGroot underestimates the complex problems facing those who were making the decisions as well as the decision-makers themselves. Perhaps if DeGroot had based his work on archival sources he would have come to a greater appreciation of the problems facing policymakers, and the personalities of those individuals as they wrestled with these issues.
But American naivete is not DeGroot's favorite target in the book. He saves his strongest critique for those who believe that there is some way that the war could have been won. While, at least among historians, he may be beating a dead horse, it is important the point continue to be made that in many ways the Vietnam War was not winnable. Bernard Fall, the French journalist and political scientist, was an early expert on the war and argued persuasively in the early 1960s that without a strong political base there could be no victory in Vietnam for the French or the Americans. He was right. And, as DeGroot also clearly points out, growing American aid to the Saigon government simply undercut its political legitimacy. DeGroot particularly targets the work of Harry Summers as a leading proponent of the argument that the war could have been won militarily. But Summers' book, On Strategy, which DeGroot calls "pure bunk," was published nearly twenty years ago. He also targets Andrew Krepinevich's book, The Army and Vietnam, which was published nearly 15 years ago. As DeGroot himself points out, many historians have demolished the Summers thesis and he does so one more time.
Further, it is possible to question some of DeGroot's interpretations. For example, about the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, DeGroot writes that the French loss "underlined the limits of American power" because of the vital U.S. aid that made Dien Bien Phu possible. Yet, if that is what Dien Bien Phu meant, it seems that everyone, especially the Americans, missed it. Americans were heavily criticized for choosing to abandon the French because it was widely believed (probably wrongly) to have been in their power to rescue the French. While it seems valid to argue that the defeat at Dien Bien Phu should be recognized as an American as well as a French defeat because of the vast aid given the French, nevertheless the defeat did not underline the limits of American power so much as it undermined the trust of France in the American alliance. After Dien Bien Phu, Americans were all the more convinced that what happened to the French could never happen to them. Far from recognizing the limits of American power, Americans believed that if only the French had given them more control of the war, it could have been different. More context on this situation could have been gained had DeGroot consulted Herring and Richard Immerman's article "Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu: 'The Day We Didn't go to War' Revisited" (Journal of American History, 71, Sept. 1984, 343-63).
DeGroot's chapter entitled "A Grunt's Life" is one of the strongest in the book. It provides excellent relevant material about the soldiers who served in Vietnam. He makes the point that, contrary to general belief, African-Americans did not suffer disproportionately in the war, since they represented 10.6 percent of active duty military, 12.5 percent of combat deaths, but just 13.5 percent of the total population. More accurately, service in Vietnam reflected discrimination against, "the young, the under-educated, and the poor." College graduates enlisting in the army had a 40 percent chance of being sent to Vietnam, the high school grad, a 65 percent chance, and the drop out, a 70 percent chance. Far from being the dope-crazed social rejects as they have frequently been characterized, DeGroot argues that the American army in Vietnam was the "best-educated force America has ever sent to war." As DeGroot recounts, however, morale within the army began to break down as the war hopelessly dragged on.
Another strength of the book is that DeGroot makes a conscious effort to include the Vietnamese side. His chapters on "The Vietnamese Ally" and "The Vietnamese Enemy" are excellent pictures of the political/social context and military efforts for both adversaries. He provides useful analyses of the Peoples Army of North Vietnam, the People's Liberation Armed Forces, and the Army of Vietnam. On the Communist side, he provides a great deal of evidence of the professional abilities, bravery and commitment to the Revolutionary cause. "But admiration for the revolutionaries," DeGroot writes, "should not lead to admiration of the revolution. There was, in truth, little romance to the communist struggle. It was formidable, but in a cruel, cold-hearted, despotic, and often cynical way." On the other side, DeGroot carefully lays out the many problems with the performance of Saigon's Army of Vietnam.
Overall, DeGroot has written a lively and worthwhile commentary on the Vietnam War. He has left the door open for a more nuanced synthesis of the history of the war. The book would be useful in undergraduate courses but especially for graduate students who with greater background would be able to evaluate some of DeGroot's assertions, explore those issues, and place the book in greater perspective of studies of the Vietnam War.
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John McNay. Review of DeGroot, Gerard J., A Noble Cause: America and the Vietnam War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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