His work Empire started the trend: it's fine to argue that the British Empire really was about civilizing and liberation after all, if you like--there's an interesting, subtle case to be made along those lines if one is careful and precise enough to control the terms and ground rules under which it is made. But doing so as a scholar, even for a larger public audience, ought to entail a certain amount of intellectual respect for an absolutely gigantic body of careful, historically precise scholarship that argues otherwise both in terms of specifics and generalities. Ferguson simply ignores a generation of historians outright, as if they never existed. This is something that really bothers me about the conservative complaint that the academy is"politicized": it seems to permit some scholars to then utterly, cavalierly ignore work that is disciplinarily very solid, careful and balanced, and to avoid the hard work of actually making a reasoned case for one's own point of view in relation to the existing scholarship and the complexities it lays on the table.
This is all the more evident in Ferguson's op-ed. It's fine to argue that perhaps the Vietnam War was really fought on a matter of principle, and that contesting the spread of Communism turns out to have been important. There's a good, valid, interesting and often quite subtle argument to be made along those lines, one I'm certainly prepared to think about respectfully, even in the necessarily compressed form that an op-ed takes. Ferguson barely even pauses to offer this as a line of reasoning, however, and simply pronounces it self-evidently, obviously true.
What strikes me as frustrating is that he proceeds to strengthen the claim by way of a counter-factual: that had the US stopped North Vietnam from seizing South Vietnam, South Vietnam would today be like Thailand. This conjecture sums up pretty nicely why most scholarly historians hate counterfactuals. I don't: I think they're fascinating and essential to the work of history, and am trying to think about how to do them well, with rigor. In this case, Ferguson scarcely pauses to set up his counter-factual by trying to look at the two decades of Thai history that preceded US intervention into Vietnam in comparison to the same two decades of history in Vietnam--surely an essential part of the counter-factual, and one that throws quite a few monkey wrenches into the works. Throw in South Korea, southeastern China, Singapore, and Cambodia, and the comparative logic of the counterfactual becomes even more complicated. Then and only then do you get to the real political and moral question about how much better or more desirable Thailand really is today.
A lot of work, but doable in an op-ed--especially if you forgo a lot of hired-gun roughing up of John Kerry, which the piece wallows in.