Legacy of the Cold War in Indochina

President Lyndon B. Johnson greets American troops in Vietnam, October 1966. U.S. Information Agency

A Question recently posed by a distinguished colleague is central for anyone who earnestly seeks to understand how an entire generation of American political leaders, with the best will in the world, pushed the country onto the slippery slope that led ever downward into the engulfing morass of Indochina. The question is this: "Why did so many intelligent, experienced and humane men in government fail to grasp the immorality of our intervention in Vietnam and the cancerous division it was producing at home, long after this was instinctively evident to their wives and children?"

As a nation we are still only beginning to address this prickly and uncomfortable question. The New Left has of course long since rendered its own verdict: namely, that the entire leadership was venal, and was moreover acting within the compulsions of an imperialist system. For those, however, who still value reason and believe in factual, proportioned discourse as the most reliable road to approximate truth, the question is serious and compelling; ultimately it is inescapable. While we remain at some distance from a complete answer, it seems certain that an important part of the answer lies in what has been called the cold-war syndrome and in its ramified legacy. Every American over 40 (especially those between 40 and 60) shares involuntarily in this legacy, to a greater or lesser degree, because the cold war was the pervasive reality of the years in which that generation came to its political maturity. By cold war I mean, of course, the highly charged and dangerous power struggle that billowed up out of World War II between a monolithic communist structure directed by Stalin and a rather more loose, hastily reassembled coalition of nations led by the United States.

There is a tendency today, especially among younger people, to denigrate the Stalinist threat, to discount the challenge and the perils it presented, and by various efforts at historical revisionism to conclude that the cold war was an unnecessary happening provoked by American imperialists

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