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Arthur Schlesinger’s The Bitter Heritage is a short, insightful analysis of the Vietnam War’s many negative effects on both that nation and the United States.  Written at the height of the conflict (and before the Tet Offensive, which convinced many that the war was futile), the book traces the history of American involvement in Indochina and argues that what should have been a political problem became an unwise military commitment created by hubris and misinterpretation.  In addition, Schlesinger calls for a gradual withdrawal and rethinking of how to approach what by 1966 was already a quagmire.The book starts with a chapter tracing the American involvement in Vietnam, beginning in 1941, when the Japanese invaded what was then a rubber-rich French colony and Franklin Roosevelt responded by freezing Japanese assets in the United States – thus helping provoke the attack on Pearl Harbor.  While the anti-imperialist Roosevelt wanted Vietnam independent after a short trusteeship, his wishes died with him and Truman and Eisenhower both committed themselves to restoring French control, paying 78 percent of the First Indochina War’s costs (5).After the French defeat in 1954, Schlesinger maintains that Eisenhower and Kennedy both supported the corrupt, unpopular Diem regime in South Vietnam, wrongly believing it part of a greater Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and China when it was primarily a nationalist war for independence and reunification.  Hoping to maintain Western control, the United States supported Diem despite his being elitist, anti-democratic, and out of touch with South Vietnam’s large peasant population, which increasingly supported Ho Chi Minh.  (Schlesinger adds that the Hanoi government initially gave virtually no support to rebels in the south until 1960.)  As the insurgency grew, Kennedy sent in American troops as “advisors,” turning what began as a political problem into a military one that simply kept growing.  Still, in 1963 Vietnam was not a large, urgent problem.The rest of the work is Schlesinger’s analysis of what was then the present situation, as of 1966; the United States had over 400,000 combat troops in Vietnam with no end of the conflict in sight and the war escalating without viable results.  He claims that “Vietnam is a triumph of the politics of inadvertence” (31), meaning that American leadership had basically blundered into a large conflict by misreading the conflict as a simplistic Cold War matter, believing in its own propaganda that Ho was the initial aggressor (in truth, he says, South Vietnamese insurgents began the second war), and misusing its military might where political skill would have proven more effective.As a result, Schlesinger argues that the United States was actually doing far more to destroy Vietnam than to help it; he claims, “Our strategy in Vietnam today is rather like trying to weed a garden with a bulldozer” (47).  In addition, he notes that the stalemated conflict had cost the United States considerable prestige among world nations and aroused even worse anti-American sentiments.  More importantly, he claims, the Johnson administration’s efforts to stifle criticism of the war threatened to produce another McCarthyism, which would damage democracy at home, and important domestic programs were already suffering, adding that “the Great Society is now, except for a few token gestures, dead . . . [and] starved for the sake of Vietnam” (50).In addition, he criticizes the government’s failure to correctly interpret the conflict and separate it from simplistic Cold War thinking.  Policy experts of that era still viewed communism as a single creeping monolithic force controlled by Moscow, overlooking the facts that the Soviet Union and China had split over ideology and that Ho Chi Minh had no desire to be controlled by either nation.  Schlesinger views misinterpretation of history as part of the problem, noting that American leaders knew little about Vietnam’s motivations or the development of the conflict, ignoring many obvious facts or reshaping them to suit American propaganda that painted Ho Chi Minh as a new Hitler (“the good old Munich analogy,” as he dubs it [70]).  He comments,He does not offer quick fixes and does not advocate immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, citing the importance of America’s long commitment and the fact that a quick pullout would leave South Vietnam vulnerable to collapse.  Instead, he suggests gradual troop reductions, starting negotiations with the Hanoi regime, and urging the Saigon government to enact much-needed reforms to gain the Vietnamese people’s trust and keep South Vietnam a viable state.  In short, Schlesinger calls for a return to intelligent political approaches instead of simply escalating the military aspects, since the massive bombing campaigns and troop presence was not weakening North Vietnam’s will, but rather strengthening it.Schlesinger’s purpose is not simply to criticize the war, which by 1966 already appeared unwinnable and wrongly conducted, but mainly to head off domestic problems rising from public disagreement with the Johnson administration.  He is not necessarily opposed to war in general, but to a war he considers badly conducted for its abuse of American military power and retreat from using wise political strategies.  Written before the Tet Offensive (and long before the Pentagon Papers revealed the war’s once-hidden background to the American public), the book succeeds as a well-reasoned, clearly-argued case to change course and avoid not only stalemate and defeat overseas but potential disruptions and divisions at home (indeed, protests had begin but civil unrest had not yet exploded).  The Johnson and Nixon administrations did not follow his advice, but this does not detract from the book’s effectiveness as an argument for wiser use of American power, with smarter, better-informed dialogue instead of increasingly bigger bombs.  The result here is an even-tempered argument for better understanding and approaching Vietnam, rather than a hawkish rehashing of Cold War myths or a radical demand for an immediate withdrawal.The book is relevant to this course by illustrating how the United States misinterpreted the importance of Vietnam’s long war for independence.  Instead of seeing it as a colonial uprising (led by Ho Chi Minh, who was communist but not a Soviet or Chinese pawn), the United States imposed its own Cold War-driven paranoia on the conflict and insisted on continued Western domination of a nation that long chafed under and fought against outside rule.  Schlesinger tries to give his readers a sense of why Vietnam fought such a long war for independence, and he correctly shows the United States to be not a stalwart defender of democracy, but as an imperial power blind to the situation’s reality and unwilling to admit that it did more to destroy South Vietnam than to help it.  The Vietnamese overthrew the French empire and were at the time defeating the world’s largest superpower, showing both the limitations of American might and the resolve of a people determined to rule themselves.  In addition, Schlesinger does not criticize Ho Chi Minh for his communist beliefs, instead seeing Vietnam as a nation struggling for independence against two powerful nations, not as a single falling domino in the spread of international communism.From today’s perspective, this book is a useful look at how the Vietnam War’s critics sought a realistic way of ending the long stalemate and keeping American society from being poisoned by paranoia.  At the time, it was a well-reasoned appeal to persuade the Johnson administration to use a wiser strategy than escalation – an appeal that the government ignored, to its own peril.  Had Schlesinger’s warnings been heeded, the disaster and malaise that followed might have been avoided.

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