In US social memory, the Vietnam War is typically imagined to have been a civil war between two sides: South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Each side had its own military, flag, currency, capital city, and national anthem. The South called itself the Republic of Vietnam (RV) while the North called itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The United States consistently claimed when sending troops to South Vietnam that it was doing nothing more than protecting that “spunky little Asian country” (as the Saturday Evening Post described it) from North Vietnamese aggression. Many historians in the US have not thought twice about categorizing the Vietnam War as a civil war. It has seemed an incontrovertible fact, as obvious as the borders and names of the two countries on the maps of that time.
This long-standing civil war paradigm has been reinforced by widely watched pbs documentaries: the thirteen-hour Vietnam: A Television History (1983) and the Ken Burns–Lynn Novick eighteen-hour The Vietnam War (2017). The films present the US as a well-meaning ally of South Vietnam, motivated solely by the desire to protect it from communism. As the author of the companion volume to the first documentary put it, there was a “civil war between anti-communist and communist factions” and the US, because of ignorance and “misinformation,” supported the faction that just so happened to have been “unpopular” and “incompetent.”1 A retired Air Force general says in the Burns-Novick film: “We were fighting on the wrong side.” In both films, the hours and hours of footage relentlessly unspool without ever pausing for an examination of the initial premise: that the war was, at its roots, a civil war.
US writers, obsessed with drawing lessons from such an unexpected defeat, typically find fault with the US government’s series of decisions to involve itself deeper and deeper in a civil war. The critiques of US policy are by now all-too predictable to anyone familiar with even a small part of the voluminous literature. The US did not understand the weaknesses of its chosen side and kept increasing the levels of its support even when that side was going down to defeat. The US became stuck in a “quagmire.” It did not have “an exit strategy.” It provided the wrong kind of support as the technocratic hubris of “the best and brightest” overemphasized raw military power rather than a political struggle for “the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese. Not being candid with the public about the prospects of a military defeat, the government generated a “credibility gap.”