What We Should Learn From Vietnam

The future of American policy in Asia will be shaped by the ways in which our leaders interpret the Vietnam experience of the last ten years. At present, three principal interpretations of America’s long involvement in the Vietnam War are contending for dominant influence. The "lesson of Vietnam," as public officials understand it, will probably ...

The future of American policy in Asia will be shaped by the ways in which our leaders interpret the Vietnam experience of the last ten years. At present, three principal interpretations of America's long involvement in the Vietnam War are contending for dominant influence. The "lesson of Vietnam," as public officials understand it, will probably be a shifting composite of these three views. All three of them assume in differing degree that the United States should use its military strength to defeat and discourage revolutionary movements in Asian countries and to contain Chinese power.

The future of American policy in Asia will be shaped by the ways in which our leaders interpret the Vietnam experience of the last ten years. At present, three principal interpretations of America’s long involvement in the Vietnam War are contending for dominant influence. The "lesson of Vietnam," as public officials understand it, will probably be a shifting composite of these three views. All three of them assume in differing degree that the United States should use its military strength to defeat and discourage revolutionary movements in Asian countries and to contain Chinese power.

I find this unfortunate, for each of the most common interpretations is so fundamentally misguided as to preclude enlightened changes in U.S. policy toward Asia in the seventies. I believe a fourth line of interpretation of American involvement in Vietnam, absent from the debate in Washington, provides a better basis for comprehending the past and planning for the future.

Three Interpretations

We still do not know how the Vietnam War will finally end, and thus we cannot know whether the outcome of the war will be generally understood as an American victory, a stalemate or compromise, an NLF victory, or indeed if there will be any consensus at all. It is already clear that the NLF and North Vietnam have scored an extraordinary success against overwhelming odds, although at a very high cost to themselves in blood and destruction. But it remains impossible to tell whether the war will eventually end because the Saigon regime collapses, because domestic dissent in America causes a rapid and total U.S. withdrawal, or, conversely, because the U.S. launches some desperate kind of re-escalation, or even because a negotiated compromise is worked out in Paris at some point. Future American policy in Asia will depend heavily on how the final outcome in Vietnam is actually perceived by policy-makers. At this point, however, it seems fair to suppose an inconclusive ending to the war with enough ambiguity to support a number of differing interpretations on who won and who lost what. We can also suppose that regardless of the outcome, a consensus will emerge around the conclusion that American involvement in Vietnam was too costly to serve as a model for future U.S. foreign policy.

Despite these imponderables, three different interpretations dominate the Vietnam debate at the present time: that the war has been

Position 1: A qualified success
Position 2: A failure of proportion
Position 3: A qualified failure of tactics.

Position 1 — that the war has been a qualified success — is the view of most professional military men and the American Right. They see American involvement in Vietnam as a proper exercise of military power, but feel that our effort has been compromised by Presidential insistence on pursuing limited ends by limited means. They criticize Washington for seeking "settlement" rather than "victory," and join the Left in condemning President Johnson for his failure to declare war on North Vietnam. They argue that our armed forces have had to fight the war with one hand tied behind their backs, pointing to the refusal to authorize bombing the dikes in North Vietnam, restrictions on targets in Hanoi and Haiphong, and the failure to impose a blockade on shipping to North Vietnam.

Even though victory has not been sought by all means at our disposal, this view does not regard the Vietnam War as a failure. In a characteristic statement, Colonel William C. Moore of Bolling Air Force Base, writing in the Air University Review, argues: "there is reason to believe that Ho Chi Minh would never have initiated action in Vietnam had he vaguely suspected that U.S. determination would escalate the war to its current magnitude. There is also reason to believe that this lesson has not been lost on other would-be aggressors." Such an interpretation of the lesson of Vietnam relies on two assumptions: first, that the Vietnam War was similar to the Korean war in which the United States may also have shrunk back from the complete execution of its mission, but in which it at least displayed a willingness to defend a non-Communist country against attack by a Communist aggressor. Position 1 sees the Vietnam War as a war of conquest by one country against another, the NLF as a mere agent of Hanoi whose role is to pretend that the war is a civil war and thereby discourage an effective response. In short, Position 1 accepts fully the view presented during the Johnson Presidency by Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow. The implication for the future is that the United States is not about to be fooled into treating Communist-led insurgencies any differently from outright Communist aggression against a friendly state.

The second assumption of Colonel Moore’s assessment has an even greater implication for the future because it views Vietnam as demonstrating that deterrence works in a counterinsurgency setting as well as it has worked in the nuclear setting. In Colonel Moore’s words: "This willingness to escalate is the key to deterring future aggressions at the lower end of the spectrum of war. This, I think, is why history will be kind to President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk, because if we continue to stand firm in Vietnam as they advocate, then the world will have made incalculable progress toward eliminating war as the curse of mankind." Thus, the key to the future is American willingness to escalate the conflict to high levels of destructivity — so high, in fact, that no prudent revolutionary would ever initiate a war if confronted by such a prospect. Position 1 is critical of Johnson’s war diplomacy only insofar as it failed to carry the logic of escalation to higher levels on the battlefield and at home.

This interpretation also claims that the American decision to fight in Vietnam gained time for other anti-Communist regimes in Asia to build up their capacities for internal security and national defense, assuming that the American effort in Vietnam created a shield that held back the flow of revolutionary forces across the continent of Asia. More extravagant exponents of this line of interpretation even contend, on the most slender evidence, that the Indonesian generals would not have reacted so boldly and successfully to the Communist bid for power in Djakarta in October 1965 had not the American presence in Vietnam stiffened their resolve.

Advocates of Position 1 tend to admire the Dominican intervention of 1965, where massive force was used and results quickly achieved with little loss of life. The domestic furor over the Dominican intervention disappeared quickly, mainly as a consequence of its success and brevity. Sophisticated adherents to Position 1 admire the Soviet intervention of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia for similar reasons. This model of overwhelming capability (rather than the slow escalation of capability as in Vietnam) is likely to influence the doctrine and future proposals of those who favor interventionary diplomacy.

The second position — that the war is a failure of proportion — is widely held by American liberals. They feel that the Vietnam War was a mistake from the moment President Johnson decided in 1965 to bomb North Vietnam and to introduce large numbers of American ground combat forces. Position 2 also, by and large, rejects the notion that the war was caused by the aggression of one state against another, but views Vietnam instead as an international civil war in which both sides have received considerable outside support. One of the most revealing formulations of this position is found in Townsend Hoopes’ book, The Limits of Intervention. Mr. Hoopes, who served in the Pentagon from January 1965 to February 1969, first as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and then as Under Secretary of the Air Force, explains the failure of Vietnam as the result of a loss of a sense of proportion by decision-makers at the top. He builds a convincing insider’s case that Johnson and his principal advisers were locked into a rigidly doctrinaire view of the war and hence were unable to moderate their objectives to conform with the costs in blood, dollars, and domestic cohesion. Writing of the situation prevailing in Washington late in 1967, just a few months before Johnson’s withdrawal speech of March 31, 1968, Hoopes says: "The incredible disparity between the outpouring of national blood and treasure and the intrinsic U.S. interests at stake in Vietnam was by this time widely understood and deplored at levels just below the top of the government. But the President and the tight group of advisers around him gave no sign of having achieved a sense of proportion." Such a view of the lesson of Vietnam had no quarrel with our initial objective to defend Saigon and defeat the NLF, but urged that our effort to do so be abandoned if it could not be made to succeed within a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. Many members of government during the Kennedy period who originally supported America’s role in Vietnam later came to hold similar views, concluding either that the war was weakening our ability to uphold more significant interests in Europe and the Middle East, or that the disproportionate costs of the Vietnam war deprived the country of energies and resources that were desperately needed to solve domestic problems.

Former Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, respected among liberals, has carried this kind of analysis to a more general level of interpretation: "The ‘central lesson’ of Vietnam — at least as the American public perceives it — is already quite obvious… the limited ability of the United States to control at a reasonable cost the course of events in a nationally aroused less developed nation.… I believe," Reischauer adds, "that we are moving away from the application to Asia of the ‘balance of power’ and ‘power vacuum’ concepts of the cold war, and in the process we no doubt will greatly downgrade our strategic interest in most of the less developed world." According to Reischauer, the means used in Vietnam were disproportionate to the end pursued, and, in general, a country like the United States cannot effectively use its military power to control the outcome of Vietnam-type struggles.

David Mozingo takes this argument one step further, recognizing the need for a perspective on Asia that is suited to the special historical and political conditions prevailing there, a perspective that might even suggest the end of a rigid policy of containment of China. "Since the Korean war," he argues, "United States policy in Asia has been modeled after the containment doctrine so successfully applied in Europe after 1947.… Washington has seen the problem of Chinese power in Asia in much the same light as that posed by Soviet power in Europe and has behaved as if both threats could be contained by basically the same kind of responses. In Asia," Mozingo continues, "the containment doctrine has been applied in an area where a nation-state system is only beginning to emerge amidst unpredictable upheavals of a kind that characterized Europe three centuries earlier.… The kinds of American technical and economic power that could help restore the historic vitality of the European system would seem at best to have only partial relevance to the Asian situation." Such a view of the Vietnam experience supports a policy that emphasizes a more specific, less abstract appreciation of how to relate American economic, military, and political power to a series of particular struggles for control going on in various Asian countries.

Among the lessons drawn from Vietnam is the futility of aiding a foreign regime that lacks the capacity to govern its society and the conclusion that certain types of intervention, if carried too far, help produce results that are the opposite of the goals of the intervener. The American failure in Vietnam is partly laid to ignorance about Vietnamese realities and partly to exaggerated confidence in the ability of massive military intervention to fulfill political objectives. This is essentially the view of Stanley Hoffmann. Again, as with Hoopes, the search is for an effective foreign policy, combined with a sense of proportion and an awareness of the inherent limits imposed on American policy. But, like Colonel Moore’s interpretation, this liberal critique does not repudiate American objectives in Vietnam. The main lesson for the future, according to Professor Samuel Huntington, who served as head of Hubert Humphrey’s Vietnam task force during the 1968 Presidential campaign, is to keep Vietnam-type involvements in the future "reasonably limited, discreet, and covert."

The third, and now dominant interpretation of the Vietnam war — that it is a qualified failure of tactics — is the one favored by President Nixon and such important foreign policy advisers as Henry Kissinger, William Rogers, and Melvin Laird. The Nixon doctrine, announced at Guam on July 25, 1969, is an explicit effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, as these leaders understand them, without altering the basic mission of American policy in Asia. The Nixon Administration is critical of the Vietnam effort to the extent that it believes the same ends could have been achieved at lesser cost in American blood and treasure, and, as a result, with less strain on American society. In his November 3, 1969 address on Vietnam, President Nixon explained the Nixon doctrine as embodying "three principles as guidelines for future American policy toward Asia": "First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments. Secondly, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense." The "central thesis" of the doctrine, according to the President, is "… that the United States will participate in the defense and development of allies and friends, but that America cannot — and will not — -conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest." (p. 19)

Thus, the Nixon doctrine backs a step away from the world order absolutism of Johnsonian diplomacy and instead advocates specific assessments of each potential interventionary situation in terms of its strategic importance to the United States and the ability of America to control the outcome. It is difficult, however, to extract much sense of concrete policy from the rhetoric of the State of the World message to Congress last February 18: "The fostering of self-reliance is the new purpose and direction of American involvement in Asia."

In practical terms, such a position seems midway between those of Colonel Moore and Mr. Hoopes: uphold all treaty commitments, give all allied regimes our help and advice, but get fully involved in a direct military way only when vital interests are at stake and when the military instrument can be used effectively, which means successfully, quickly and without losing too many American lives. "Vietnamization," as one expression of the Nixon doctrine, leaves the main burden of ground combat to Saigon’s armed forces, without any reduction in logistic support, B-52 air strikes and long-distance artillery support. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker is reported to have said that the policy of Vietnamization involves only changing the color of the bodies. Another expression of the Nixon doctrine seems to be an escalation of American involvement in Laos, increasing our covert role in training and financing government forces and staging saturation bombing raids on contested areas, thereby causing a new flow of refugees and seeking to deprive the Pathet Lao of its rural population base.

A Critique

These three positions identify the present boundaries of serious political debate in the United States. It is likely that the early seventies will witness a struggle for ascendancy between the advocates of the liberal view (Position 2) and the advocates of the Nixon doctrine (Position 3). Extending the doctrine of deterrence to counterinsurgency situations (Position 1) could gain support if the political forces behind George Wallace or Barry Goldwater gained greater influence as "a third force" in American politics or significantly increased their already strong influence within the Agnew-Mitchell wing of the Nixon Administration.

Position 1 accepts "victory" as the proper goal of the American involvement in Vietnam and regards the means used as appropriate to the end of defeating the insurgency in South Vietnam, whether that insurgency is viewed as a species of civil war or as an agency of North Vietnamese aggression. In contrast, Position 2 shifted away from victory as a goal and moved toward the advocacy of some kind of mutual withdrawal of foreign forces and toward some effort to reach a settlement by non-military means once it became evident that the means required for the more ambitious goal were so costly in lives, dollars, and domestic support. Position 3 specifies the goal of the involvement as obtaining conditions of self-determination for South Vietnam and its present governing regime, a position that seems to imply an outcome of the war that is close to total victory; however, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether the real goals are not more modest than the proclaimed goals. In any event, Position 3 regards the means used to have been unnecessarily costly, given the goals of the involvement, and accepts, at least in theory, the desirability of a non-military outcome through a negotiated settlement of the war.

Position 1 seems to interpret Vietnam as a qualified success and to favor, if anything, a less constrained military effort in the future to defeat any Communist-led insurgencies that may erupt on the Asian mainland in the 1970’s. As with strategic doctrine, the deterrence of insurgent challenges rests on the possession of a credible capability and on a willingness to respond with overwhelming military force to any relevant challenge.

Position 2, which is much less tied to an over-all doctrine, views the post-Kennedy phases of the Vietnam involvement as a clear mistake and argues for a much greater emphasis on non-military responses to insurgent challenges. This position also seeks to limit overt intervention to situations in which its impact can be swift and effective. Position 2, therefore, depends on having a fairly secure regime in power in the country that is the scene of the struggle. It also emphasizes keeping a sense of proportion throughout such an involvement, either by way of a ceiling on the magnitude of the commitment or by way of a willingness to liquidate an unsuccessful commitment.

Position 3 is midway between the first two positions in tone and apparent emphasis. It develops a more globalist strategy, emphasizing that the U.S. has far-flung treaty relations with Asian countries and that it is important to our over-all pre-eminence in world affairs and the continuing need to resist Communist pressures that these commitments be honored. The merits of the particular case are thus tied to a global strategy, but there is an effort to shift more of the burdens of response to the local government. What this means in those cases where the government cannot meet these burdens, as was surely the case in Vietnam all along, is very unclear. What happens under Position 3 when self-reliance fails? The prevailing response to this question may well determine the central line of American foreign policy in Asia throughout the 1970’s.

Both Positions 2 and 3 look toward Japan as a more active partner in the development of a common Asian policy. President Nixon’s decision to return Okinawa to Japan by 1972 arises out of this hope for sharing the geopolitical burdens of the region with Japan in the mid and late seventies.

What is most surprising about these three positions is the extent to which they accept the premise of an American counterrevolutionary posture toward political conflict in Asia. To be clear, however, this espousal of counterrevolutionary doctrine is applicable only in situations that appear to be revolutionary. Where there is no formidable radical challenge on the domestic scene, as in India or Japan, the American preference is clearly for moderate democracy, indeed the kind of political orientation that the United States imposed upon Japan during the military occupation after World War II. However, where an Asian society is beset by struggle between a rightist incumbent regime and a leftist insurgent challenger, then American policy throws its support, sometimes strongly, to the counterrevolutionary side. As a result, there has been virtually no disposition to question the American decision to support the repressive and reactionary Saigon regime provided that support could have led to victory in Vietnam at a reasonable cost. In fact, the last four American presidents have been in agreement on the political wisdom of the decision to help Saigon prevail in its effort to create a strong anti-Communist state in South Vietnam, thereby defying both the military results of the first Indochina war and the explicit provisions on the reunification of Vietnam embodied in the Geneva Accords of 1954. Positions 1 and 3 share an acceptance, although to varying degrees, of the basic postulates of "the domino theory." Position 2 is least inclined to endorse the image of falling dominoes, and some of its adherents (such as Donald Zagoria in China in Crisis) indeed argue that the prospects for Communism need to be assessed on a country-by-country basis, and the success or failure of Communism in Vietnam or Laos will not necessarily have much impact upon the prospect for revolution in other Asian countries.

McGeorge Bandy, a belated convert to Position 2 (after an earlier allegiance to the moderate form of Position 1), gave up on the war because its burden was too great on American society. Nevertheless, he took pains to reaffirm the wisdom of the original undertaking: "I remind you also, if you stand on the other side, that my argument against escalation and against an indefinite continuation of our present course has been based not on moral outrage or political hostility to the objective, but rather on the simple and practical ground that escalation will not work and that a continuation of our present course is unacceptable." Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has said: "The tragedy of Vietnam is the tragedy of the overextension and misapplication of valid principles. The original insights of collective security and liberal evangelism were generous and wise.” Actually, adherents of Position 2, while sharply dissenting from the Vietnam policies of both Johnson and Nixon, still maintain the spirit of an earlier statement by McGeorge Bundy, made at a time when he was rallying support for Johnson’s air war against North Vietnam: "There are wild men in the wings, but on the main stage even the argument on Vietnam turns on tactics, not fundamentals."

Unfortunately, from my perspective, these so-called wild men still remain in the wings, if anything, further removed than ever from the center of the political stage, for positions 1, 2, and 3 all affirm the continuing wisdom of two American objectives in Asia: first, to prevent Chinese expansion, if necessary by military means, and second, to prevent any anti-Communist regime, however repressive, reactionary, or isolated from popular support, from being toppled by internal revolutionary forces, whether or not abetted by outside help.

The Excluded Fourth Position

There is another interpretation which has been largely excluded from the public dialogue thus far. It repudiates our present objectives in Vietnam on political and moral grounds. It holds, first, there is no reason to believe that China has expansive military aims in Asia; second, even ff China were militarily expansive, it would not be desirable or necessary for the United States to defend China’s victims; and third, there is neither occasion nor justification for aiding repressive governments merely because they follow anti-Communist policies. I favor this fourth position for several good reasons. There is no evidence that China needs containing by an American military presence in Asia. Of course, countries in the shadow of a dominant state tend to fall under the influence of that state whenever it is effectively governed. This process is universal and has deep historical roots in Asia. But there are important countervailing forces.

First, China is preoccupied with its own domestic politics and with principal foreign struggles against the Soviet Union and Formosa. Second, many of the countries surrounding China have struggled at great sacrifice to achieve independence, and their search for domestic autonomy is much stronger than any common ideological sentiment that might tempt Asian Communist regimes to subordinate their independence to Peking. Third, China’s foreign policy may often have been crude and ill-conceived, but it has rarely exhibited any intention to rely on military force to expand its influence beyond its boundaries; its uses of force against India, Tibet, and the Soviet Union have been to support its claims to disputed territory, and its entry into the Korean war seemed motivated mainly by a reasonable concern about danger to its industrial heartland.

The evidence thus suggests that the American effort to contain China in Asia is a determination to contend with a paper tiger.

More significantly, the multifaceted conflicts in Asia cannot be comprehended in abstract or ideological terms. Asia is undergoing a two-phase revolution that began as a struggle against colonialism during World War II and will continue for at least another decade. The first phase represented the struggle to reacquire national control over the apparatus of government by defeating foreign rule. This struggle is largely completed. In most parts of Asia the colonial system has collapsed and foreigners have been removed from power. But in several Asian countries, including South Vietnam, the native groups allied with the colonial system have clung to political power, stifling social progress and economic reform. Thailand, although never formally a colony, continues to be governed by a traditional elite that is ill-inclined to initiate the reforms needed to build a society devoted to the welfare of its population as a whole.

After formal independence is won, the second phase of Asian national revolutions involves continuing struggle against the residues of the colonial system, including the more informal patterns of domination that result from American donations of military equipment, foreign aid, and political and economic advice. Most governments in Asia today are composed of conservative forces that hold onto their positions of power and privilege with the aid of such donations and advice, usually at the expense of their own people. Therefore, the second phase of the revolutionary struggle involves wresting political control from traditional ruling classes and instituting a mass-based program of land reform, education, public hygiene, and economic development. In most of Asia, aside from India, the United States is allied with regimes that are trying to hold back this second surge of the revolutionary impulse that has swept across the Third World to crush the colonial system.

Position 4 accepts this analysis of political conflict in Asia and would adjust American policy accordingly. First of all, it seeks accommodation with China through a flexible compromise of outstanding issues, including the future of Formosa. What is implied here is the removal of the American military presence from the area, especially the withdrawal of the Seventh Fleet and the elimination of our military bases on Formosa. Such a course would leave the outcome of the Chinese civil war, which has not yet been fully resolved, to the contending forces on both sides. It would encourage the possibility of negotiations between Peking and Taipei as to the governance of Formosa, perhaps allowing for semi-autonomous status within the Chinese People’s Republic, with guarantees of a measure of economic and political independence for the island.

An American accommodation with China would help the United States handle an increasingly competitive economic relationship with Japan in the 1970’s and give Washington more bargaining power in relation to the Soviet Union. More importantly, accommodation with China could make it possible to proceed more rapidly with arms control and disarmament, to denuclearize world politics, and to resist pressures to proliferate weapons of mass destruction to additional countries.

Position 4 favors as well a total abandonment of America’s counterrevolutionary foreign policy. This would mean renouncing all treaty relations with governments that are repressing their own populations and holding back the forces of self-determination. Clearly such a revision of policy would require the renunciation of American treaty obligations to promote the security of the regimes now governing South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Korea, Formosa, Thailand, and the Philippines. The only commitment that should be reaffirmed is our obligation under the U.N. Charter to resist overt military aggression of the Korea-type. Position 4 would imply an end to large-scale military assistance and covert interference in the affairs of Asian countries. Civil strife is likely to occur in several Asian countries and dislodge present governments, but to the extent that it tends to reflect the true balance of political forces within these national societies, it would be beneficial for the welfare of the population and for the stability of each country and the region. At present, several regimes are being maintained in power only through a combination of domestic oppression and American support.

There seems virtually no prospect for the adoption, or even the discussion, of Position 4 during the 1970’s unless major shifts in American political life occur. Only extraordinary domestic pressure, fueled perhaps by economic troubles at home and foreign policy setbacks abroad are likely to produce a change of leadership and a change of world outlook in America.

Yet in historic retrospect, it is important to appreciate that Position 4 once was dose to being our foreign policy. Its rejection by today’s American leaders is not an inevitable outcome of U.S. policy in Asia after World War II. Franklin Roosevelt was opposed to restoring the French colonial administration in Indochina at the end of the war. If Indochina had been allowed to become independent after the Japanese left, Ho Chi Minh would dearly have emerged as the leader of a united Vietnam, and perhaps of a united Indochina. In his initial Proclamation of Independence of September 25, 1945, Ho Chi Minh explicitly referred to the French and American Revolutions as the main sources of inspiration for the Vietnamese struggle for national independence. The Communist response was not altogether enthusiastic — the Soviet Union initially withheld recognition from Ho Chi Minh’s Republic of Vietnam, and in 1947, Maurice Thorez, the Communist Vice-Premier of France, actually countersigned the order for French military action against the newly proclaimed Republic. As O. E. Clubb points out: "In 1945 and 1946 the Ho Chi Minh government looked mainly to the United States and Nationalist China for foreign political support." In the period since World War II anti-colonialism probably would have been a better guideline for American foreign policy in Asia than anti-Communism. And even now it would make better sense. It would work better because it accords more closely with historic trends in Asia, with the dynamics of national self-determination in most non-Communist Asian countries, and because it flows more naturally out of America’s own best heritage and proudest tradition.

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