Getting Out of Vietnam, Getting Out of Anything

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Though I didn’t realize her power when she was first publishing, Barbara Tuchman has since become one of my top three favorite American writers about history–Barbara Tuchman, Joseph Ellis and David McCullough. Ellis and McCullough are still alive, but Tuchman died in 1989.

What distinguishes them from other writers of history whom I’ve read is their astonishing ability to dramatize yet propell a narrative forward with periodic assessments that plunge right to the heart of significance. Take Tuchman’s book review of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, which I’m reading now, long after its initial publication, collected in her book called Practicing History (1981).

Kissinger, as head of President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisors and as Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, contributed enormously to the lengthy U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. As Tuchman argues, his council should have urged U.S. withdrawal far sooner than it occurred in 1975. The U.S. should have withdrawn in the early 1970s when it was clear that the U.S. could not assure that Saigon, i.e. South Vietnam could sustain itself independently. Instead Kissinger and the presidents he served opted for continued U.S. troop and bombing incursions eventually pushing the war into Cambodia with an additional 40,000 Cambodian and 19,000 American lives lost. Tuchman astutely summarizes that the U.S. stayed because its government wanted to withdraw with honor. Instead, she argues, we should have made the case that we’d done all we could for the South Vietnamese and now they needed to stand or fall on their own strength. Which she goes on to remark, is exactly what happened when North Vietnam invaded the South and Saigon fell in 1975.

Getting out when winning is clearly impossible, chosing compromise and life-saving alteration, rather than a “fight to the finish”–that I’d like to see more of. For instance, how wonderful if the various legislatures, national and state, could put down their insistence on “winning” and agree that there must be a two-pronged approach to combating the budget deficit–raising taxes on the wealthy and altering “entitlement programs” like Medicare and Social Security. Just as the U.S. government fighting in Vietnam could not “imagine” withdrawal with anything short of “honor,” meaning victory, so now we are brought to our knees by a refusal to take items from each side of the political divide and recognize that they both have an important place in addressing the inevitable: unless we make significant changes in both tax and entitlement structures, our economy will suffer short-term and long-term. Suffer so significantly that our political position may well become weakened, our vaunted ability to “rule the world” may well pass to others.

Ditto our blind, headlong path toward doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to bring a halt to fracking (which tears up forest and grassland, uses huge amounts of water, and then pumps this natural gas across sensitive acquifers–mine and your drinking water). No, no, no. We must admit we’ve exhausted this kind of energy. We must do two difficult but possible things–conserve far more than we do, and buy in big time to energy production that does not sprew CO2 into the environment.

How much longer, I muse, as I listen to Barbara Tuchman’s clear and incisive indictment of Henry Kissinger and the governments he served–how much longer before we can make the sane but difficult choices?

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