A History of How American Culture Lead Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, by Loren Baritz, was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1998. It runs to 400 pages in paperback. Baritz has held administrative positions in numerous universities in the United States. He went to the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts in the early 1980s as Provost and served as Chancellor for a time in 1982. He is a noted historian and well respected in his field.
This book is a different sort of history from the usual in that it deals with the clash of cultures and the differences between those of the United States and those of Vietnam. Baritz shows the mindset of the American leadership, which was instrumental in leading us down the path to a disastrous war that was not winnable from the outset. In three parts Bartitz explains why it was the myths of our invincibility and our belief that a Christian god watched over all of our endeavors which convinced us to continue the war.
He quotes Herman Melville’s lines concerning the American condition (Baritz 1998 p 26). He paints a portrait of a nation lulled by its own perceptions of righteousness and how apple pie, motherhood and love of Old Glory caused us to think we had the moral right and obligation to foist our system of beliefs on others on the other side of the globe. He shows that the idea of a separate South Vietnam was a total fabrication and had ever had any basis in fact.
We intervened in a civil matter between one nation and the egos of our leaders prevented us from admitting it was all a mistake, apologizing and withdrawing with our 58,000 plus dead still alive. We failed to win because we did not understand the mind of the Vietnamese. Baritz says, “Vietnam finally won its war because it was willing to accept more death than we considered rational,” (325). We had trained a South Vietnamese army to fight like American soldiers, making them totally dependant on American supplies and materials.
Therefore, says Baritz, the South Vietnamese were never capable of sustaining the fight on their own. Baritiz’s thesis is that the entire war was doomed from the outset because the American government never understood why the North was fighting or to what lengths they would go to continue the fight. They would never have stopped had we paved the jungle and decimated them. Because of their cultural beliefs the North Vietnamese may not have been capable of stopping. The reunification of their nation was more than a holy war, it was a living, breathing tangible of what they were as a race and a nation.
It was imbedded in their psyches that losing was never an option. We never understood that they would fight to the last man standing. In proof of his thesis Baritz says that while our enemy was fighting a war of nerves, using politics and psychology to attack us, along with every other method at their disposal, including the use of women and children, America was lulled, by the idea that this country is the New Camelot, where justice and righteousness are dispensed to all, whether or not they wish to be recipients of our largess.
Baritz believes that as the winners of World War II we see ourselves as the champions of democracy, as the New Israel, as God’s chosen. Therefore we believe that with God on our side we are blessed in all of our endeavors. We became the city on a hill (29). We fought the war, Baritz says, in the classic Ugly American way, which is how we conducted foreign policy in Southeast Asia. We did not advise, we commanded, and expected them to obey, for we believed that whether or not they would admit it, all nations wish to be us.
Baritz argument is constructed in tiers, giving the read a quick insight into the oriental mind from the first page where he begins by relating the tale of Colonel Chuc who, in 1972, while in a temple in South Vietnam, was given a revelation. “…Colonel Chuc sank into a trance and received a battle plan and a magical sword from the spirit of the Vietnamese general who defeated Kublai Khan’s Mongols seven hundred years earlier” (3). That this was effective illustrates just some of the cultural differences between our two countries.
Baritz leads the reader through the American administrations from Kennedy to Nixon, and gives insight into the games our bureaucrats played with such figures as the body count of enemy dead. Though Baritz points out that time after time, when government decisions were made there was no follow-up to determine the outcome of those policies, and whether or not they were a success. Still the reader is left with the belief that much of Baritz’s argument, while sound and acceptable, is not as fully documented as it could be.
Some of what he has to say seems to be based on well- educated speculation that his ideas are positively the way things occurred during the divisive and disastrous war. His argument that the American people had no hatred of the enemy and quickly wearied of the entire operation seems too obvious to dispute, prima facie, yet how is such an assertion proven? It seems to be an assumption. Baritz’s book is an easy and enjoyable read, though scholarly in concept and execution. He appears to be emotionally attached to his subject, but this works in his favor and makes the book more believable.
I would think that while this work does not contain all of the nuts and bolts of history, it is still a valuable treatise on the cultural clashes and is gives us a lesson in cultural differences which may have escaped the minds of today’s leadership. Officials in policy-making positions should read this as a matter of course. I believe it was worth my time, and should be used in classrooms. Works Cited Baritz, L. 1998 Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press