The Football Game known as Vietnam: A critique of “The Truth about the Vietnam War” – a PragerU video by Bruce Herschensohn

It’s 1972. Coach “Bulldog” Dick Nixon is marching his team steadily toward the end zone. A few more yards and the game is won. Victory is ours! Hoping to fake the Vietnamese defense, Nixon calls for a quarterback sneak. Everything is set. The snap is delivered. But wait! The quarterback freezes. What?!  Oh no, it’s just then that Nixon realizes his QB is a limp-wristed Democrat. Holy Hell! Rather than leaping into and over the defensive line, the QB appears to have retreated from it. A moment later he is blindsided by a linebacker half his size who strips him of the ball and runs 98-yards for a Vietnamese touchdown! Time has run out. The game is lost. And, the Democrats are to blame. 

Some say there’s a link between America’s love affair with football and war.  Others don’t seem to see a difference. Such is the perspective of former Nixon speechwriter Bruce Herschensohn in his PragerU video “The Truth about the Vietnam War.” A more fitting title would be “What we Wished was the Truth about Vietnam” or “The Fairytale that was Vietnam.”

Mr. Herschensohn is a skilled writer and orator. Much like Dick Cheney. You listen to him and – absent the facts or a desire to get to them – you believe what you hear. Articulate and bespectacled it’s hard to imagine Herschensohn not espousing the truth. Guys like this just don’t lie. Besides his conclusion plays to a common narrative: we lost in Vietnam because of limp-wristed Democrats – those weak-minded individuals who prefer life over death. What more needs to be said?

In under 5 minutes Herschensohn explains everything he thinks you need to know about the Vietnam War.  For those serious about learning (some) facts about Vietnam, his pitch is followed by a 5-question multiple choice quiz. Nice tidbits of information for promoting the lore of America, regardless of how incomplete. I don’t mind bias; it’s human nature. It’s not so much that Herschensohn misinforms it’s what he leaves out that is most worthy of criticism.

Reading the text of Herschensohn’s video helps to strip away the man and lets his words stand on their own. Very quickly those words crumble under the weight of history. Here are six specifics to back-up my claim.

1. In his opening sentence Herschensohn says: “Decades back, in late 1972, South Vietnam and the United States were winning the Vietnam War decisively by every conceivable measure.”

By “every conceivable measure” I presume Herschensohn is referring to the metrics created by Defense Secretary McNamara and used by General Westmoreland and his successor General Abrams. Both men famously reported that they could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Then it was realized that tunnels in Vietnam were like the ground above – unpredictable and dark. Measured by bombs dropped, land controlled, and enemies killed, our measures showed that we were winning the war. The only problem was that one key variable was missing: the sentiment of the Vietnamese people and the determination of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

2. Doubling down, Herschensohn goes on to say: “That’s not just my view. That was the view of our enemy, the North Vietnamese government officials.”

Vivid imaginations don’t need references, and Herschensohn obliges by providing none. As with the 1968 Tet offensive and attempts since to overthrow the South, the North did recognize setbacks. In 1972, they lost a significant battle about 120 kilometers north of Saigon, at An Loc. But nowhere have I found any indication that, in 1972, North Vietnam was ready to surrender as implied in Herschensohn’s statement. To the contrary, the US and its allies were scaling back in 1972 (US personnel dropped from its high of 500,000 to 133,200) while the N. Vietnamese were planning new offensives against the south.

3. Referring to the Paris Peace Accords, Herschensohn says: “What the United States and South Vietnam received in those accords was “victory.”  At the White House, it was called “VV Day,” “Victory in Vietnam Day.”

Right. Honesty was the hallmark of the Nixon Administration. If they labeled a day “Victory” by golly, it must have been one. But, nowhere in the Paris Peace Accord is a “victor” mentioned, as stated by Herschensohn. (Let’s blame the French for that.)

What Herschensohn fails to mention is that to increase his odds of being elected, Nixon (in an apparent act of treason) went behind the back of President Johnson to convince South Vietnam’s President Thieu to pull away from the 1968 peace talks initiated by Johnson. Nixon was a shrewd politician and knew that the continuation of the war would make his hawkish stance more favorable to the electorate. He was right and handily beat the dovish Hubert H. Humphrey in November.

Of course, the Nixon Library argues this never happened but disclosures since the war indicate otherwise. Specifically, in 2013 declassified tapes from the Johnson administration suggest that the FBI recorded Nixon aid Anna Chennault telling the South Vietnamese ambassador to “just hang through the election.” Also, notes from Nixon’s future Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman taken during a phone call with Nixon on October 22, 1968, corroborate the argument that Nixon was working to derail the peace talks.

As evidenced by the Watergate affair, we know how important winning was to Nixon. Breaking the law and putting more American soldiers in their grave was a risk he accepted without hesitation or regret.

4. Herschensohn says: “The U.S. backed up [its] victory with a simple pledge within the Paris Peace Accords saying: ‘should the South require any military hardware to defend itself against any North Vietnam aggression we would provide replacement aid to the South on a piece-by-piece, one-to-one replacement, meaning a bullet for a bullet; a helicopter for a helicopter, for all things lost — replacement.’”

This is an interesting interpretation of the Paris Peace Accord but, as Herschensohn likely knows, inaccurate. Article 7 of the Accord, says that the piece-for-piece replacements would be conducted on a “periodic” basis and under the supervision of the “Joint Military Commission” which was made up of the “two South Vietnamese parties” to the Accord. Who were these two parties? The South Vietnamese government that the US supported, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, the former Viet Cong, our enemy. So, under the Paris Peace Accord both parties would have had to agree to and supervised the replacement of arms, helicopters, etc.

Would anyone have thought such an agreement would work? John Negroponte, who was a member of the negotiation team, said during a 2015 discussion on the Vietnam War at the Nixon Library, that the Peace Accord was essentially a “withdrawal agreement.”

Aside from the political mandate to bring the war to an end, disguised as “Vietnam Victory Day,” the Paris Peace Accord laid the foundation for blaming political opponents when things fell apart. Decades later, Herschensohn is still cashing in on the political capital created by Nixon.

5. Next, in his trail of distortions, Herschensohn says: “in 1974 the Democrats won a landslide victory for the new Congress and many of the members used their new majority to de-fund the military aid the U.S. had promised…”

The 94th Congress (Jan 1975 – Jan 1977) did not defund Vietnam but, on a bipartisan basis, rejected President Ford’s request for an additional $1 billion in funding. Our Congress was not as divided in 1975 as it is today. For example, the House Arms Service Committee voted against going forward with legislation by a vote of 21 (16 Democrats; 5 Republicans) to 17 (11 Democrats; 6 Republicans.) While the Democrats were in the majority they, like the Republicans, were split on providing more funds to Vietnam. It was not just the Democrats who voted against Ford’s requests as Herschensohn implies, but members of both parties who were likely doing a much better job in 1975 of listening to the constituency than they do today.

Up to this point, as noted in Ford’s April 10, 1975 address to Congress, the US had spent $150 billion in Vietnam. In all probability, another billion dollars would not have made a difference and would have done nothing to reverse the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam.

6. Referring to Senator Fulbright angst over the loss of Vietnam, Herschensohn fails to mention, despite blaming principally the Democrats for losing Vietnam, that Fulbright was a Democrat. Also, Fulbright chaired hearings on the Vietnam War in 1966 and wrote a book that year The Arrogance of Power in which he criticized the Vietnam war.

As hard as accepting our defeat in Vietnam is for some, consider that a defeated Vietnam would have made it much easier for China to flood into southeast Asia. The very reason we went to Vietnam – to stop the spread of communism – could have resulted in the opposite of what we hoped to achieve had we succeeded in defeating the Vietnamese. Our loss, while at a tremendous cost, may have been a mixed blessing.

Vietnam was fighting for independence, not out of love for communism, but out of love for country. A motive every American can understand and appreciate.

 

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