Viewing the Vietnam War in Three Ways

The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and traumatic events in American history. In the 21st century, Americans still bitterly argue about the war. For instance, in the 2004 presidential election, the Vietnam-era military service of both major candidates turned into a serious campaign issue. Like everyone else, historians continue to debate the war.

Among those historians who study the war, three distinct schools of thought exist about Vietnam.

Making a tragic mistake: The liberal realists

This group agrees that the war was wrong, but on pragmatic, not moral, grounds. They argue that, from the start, the war wasn't winnable for the United States. The U.S., they believe, fought the good fight against Communism, but would have been better served to expend its resources elsewhere in more vital areas of the world. To the liberal realists, Vietnam was not worth the loss of so much American life and treasure. The most prominent liberal realists are George Herring, Neal Sheehan, and Stanley Karnow.

Seeing America as the real villain: The New Left

These historians, mainly left-wing radicals known as "New Leftists," argue that the United States was morally wrong to fight the war in Vietnam. They view America as an imperialist power that was intent on dominating the third world, mainly for economic reasons. The United States, they argue, was the true aggressor, injecting itself into a civil war, slaughtering innocent people, and behaving like an imperial bully. The most enduring New Left Vietnam War historian is Gabriel Kolko, who wrote that Vietnam resulted from an attempt by the American ruling class to control capitalist markets in Asia.

Losing a noble war that politicians screwed up: Conservative revisionists

This group of historians believes that the war was morally right, a noble crusade against ruthless Communism, but that American political and military leaders committed terrible blunders that undercut this worthy cause. They maintain that the war was quite winnable but that the limited war policy prevented the soldiers from securing victory. Many of these historians even argue that the U.S. side was winning in the early 1970s, only to be undone by antiwar politicians here at home. Harry Summers, Lewis Sorley, Bruce Palmer, Phil Davidson, and Andrew Krepinevich are examples of conservative revisionists.

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