Published on 3/25/2009
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This was a first.
On Tuesday evening I sat in the Blaustein Hall at Connecticut College
and listened to author Mark Moyar describe some of the conclusions he
had reached about the Vietnam War based on his own research. I've
listened to numerous historical lectures, but this was the first time
I was listening to a historian describe something they never
experienced but I did, albeit indirectly.
Moyar, who was addressing the Southeastern Connecticut Committee on
Foreign Relations, delivered his points with the emotional detachment
of an academic whose knowledge of the era comes from the documents he
reviewed. A professor at the United States Marine Corps University,
Moyar was born in 1971. That year Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon
Papers, a top-secret summary of U.S. participation in the Vietnam
War, to the New York Times. They revealed how much the government had
been lying and keeping from the people the carpet bombing in Laos
and Cambodia, the U.S. backing of the violent overthrow and murder of
South Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Diem. The administration of President
Nixon stopped publication for a time, but the freedom of the press
prevailed when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the news media.
I had my first stirrings that I might want to go into politics, or journalism.
I was too young, barely, to experience the war firsthand, but an
older brother was drafted, served, and was forever changed. When the
war ended with the chaotic fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, I was a
freshman in college. I greeted the news with mixed emotions relief
that a war that had so divided the country was over, sadness that so
many died in a losing cause.
Moyar could not know, at an emotional level, the anger among the
young about the military draft for that unpopular war or how bitter
and deep was the divide between those who opposed the war and those
who supported it. For me "Vietnam" causes a visceral reaction, for
Moyar and his generation of historians it is an academic pursuit.
He is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954-1965."
Well researched, it is revisionist history. Moyar's controversial
conclusions include his belief that that a quick Vietnam defeat would
have caused a series of neighboring countries to fall to the
communists. In other words, his research backs the "domino theory,"
dismissed by the vast majority of historians. He defends Diem, seen
my most historians as a ruthless despot, and describes him as an
effective, transitional leader. Supporting the coup against Diem was
a key reason for eventual U.S. defeat, Moyar contends in a unique
take on the war. He dismisses Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David
Halberstam as a dupe of the communists and blames his reporting for
undermining support for the war and encouraging the overthrow of
Diem. The communists also manipulated Vietnam's Buddhist monks, whose
peaceful protests brought world attention to Diem's religious
persecution of them, argues Moyar.
It makes for fascinating reading. But I don't buy it. The war was a
mistake. The soldiers served bravely, but their sacrifice was
unnecessary. The Buddhists were persecuted. The news reporting was
courageous and largely accurate. The dominoes did not fall.
Yet it is interesting that having been part of history, even if
indirectly, I now get to read about it from someone who wasn't.