We economists, especially those of us who have had some responsibility for educating students, have a lot to answer for. Presumably all the politicians strutting across our television screens did attend some sort of educational institution at one time. Indeed, many attended institutions of so-called higher learning. Yet somehow their economics teachers failed them.
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In watching The Vietnam War, a viewer, hearing American officials pondering options, is tempted to burst out “stop, no, make the other choice.” But those making decisions did not know how the story would turn out. They had to act with the experiences they had lived through, not those we have accumulated since, based on imperfect knowledge and the typical set of “all bad” options.
But this comes only after 100 minutes of almost unceasing negatives on the war: from a Vietnam Veterans Against the War-heavy focus on the minority of veterans who bitterly opposed to it to Jane Fonda in Hanoi, John Kerry’s Senate testimony, drug-addicted U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon Papers, My Lai, and extensive footage of South Vietnamese army (ARVN) troops retreating in Laos and initially in the Easter Offensive (although ARVN soldiers won that battle). The plurality of Americans still supporting the war, which in that period included most veterans, got little airtime. A viewer could easily ask whether Burns and Novick were describing the same country that gave Nixon an overwhelming victory in 49 states in the 1972 election.
But beyond Vietnam-specific lessons, The Vietnam War lays out in a non-didactic, illustrative manner strategic truths of great import, including for us today. The four that matter most are about containment, incremental versus major war tactics, definitions of victory, and the criticality of determination in conflict.