Why were we in Vietnam?

One of my daughters made it to the finals of the Minnesota History Day competition at the University of Minnesota in the winter of 1999. Her presentation was devoted to William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. It wasn’t a sexy subject, but I thought her presentation at least had the virtue of accuracy.

I spent the whole day with her as she made it from the initial round to the semifinals and the finals, each time to my surprise. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if she hadn’t made it into either of the successive rounds. The competition was respectable. The presentations were good. It was difficult to distinguish among them by quality.

When the winner was declared, however, I was not happy. The winning presentation, as I recall, addressed the allegedly virtuous effect of television news on our involvement in the Vietnam War. Having followed the events recounted in the presentation as they unfolded in real time and read up on the history subsequently, I thought the presentation was flatly wrong. It made me wonder if it would be possible to understand the era without having lived through it.

Watching Victor Davis Hanson’s PragerU short course on the war (video below) elicited a flood of memories, of which that was not the only one by any means. I recalled the North Vietnamese Army tanks rolling toward Saigon in the spring of 1975. I thought that they contradicted one or two of the key talking points I had been taught by the antiwar crowd in the heyday of the movement against the war.

I also recalled the death of my cousin by marriage (Captain) Arthur Pfefer in the fifty-third week of his deployment, on July 25, 1969. Artie was one of the 58,000 Americans lost in the war. What a waste.

The video also prompted me to recall a May 2009 conversation with Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness about the war after his talk at the Minneapolis Club as a guest of my friend Kirk Kolbo a few years back. He expressed disgust over the constraints under which we had fought. Given the constraints, he didn’t think we should have been there.

Dr. Hanson attributes JFK’s decision to make a stand against the Communists in Vietnam to the fear that other dominoes would fall in Southeast Asia. JFK’s decision proved incredibly consequential as it was amplified by LBJ’s massive commitment of troops. In researching the Weekly Standard column “The Kennedy-Khruschchev conference for dummies,” I came to the conclusion that JFK’s disastrous performance at the conference influenced his decision. He wanted to show Khruschchev that he wasn’t made of marshmallows.

PragerU posted the video this past May. It illustrates some of the many virtues of Dr. Hanson’s approach to history, including his ironic view of history’s twists and turns. The video was brought to my attention by Ed Driscoll, writing here yesterday at InstaPundit. Ed was anticipating the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary that kicks off on Monday. I should add that Dr. Hanson’s forthcoming history of World War II is to be published on October 17.

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