How Could Vietnam Happen?

"Many in government or close to it," The Atlantic noted in 1968, "will read the following article with the shock of recognition." An insider explained the bureaucratic imperatives that muzzled dissenters and kept policy makers ignorant of foreign cultures.
U.S. Army helicopters cover the advance of South Vietnamese troops during an attack on a Vietcong camp near the Cambodian border in 1965. (Horst Faas/AP)

As a case study in the making of foreign policy, the Vietnam War will fascinate historians and social scientists for many decades to come. One question that will certainly be asked: How did men of superior ability, sound training, and high ideals—American policy makers of the 1960s—create such costly and divisive policy?

As one who watched the decision-making process in Washington from 1961 to 1966 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, I can suggest a preliminary answer. I can do so by briefly listing some of the factors that seemed to me to shape our Vietnam policy during my years as an East Asia specialist at the State Department and the White House …

A first and central ingredient in these years of Vietnam … was the legacy of the 1950s—by which I mean the so-called loss of China, the Korean War, and the Far East policy of Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles.

This legacy had an institutional by-product for the Kennedy administration: in 1961 the U.S. government’s East Asian establishment was undoubtedly the most rigid and doctrinaire of Washington’s regional divisions in foreign affairs. This was especially true at the Department of State, where the incoming administration found the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs the hardest nut to crack. It was a bureau that had been purged of its best China expertise, and of farsighted, dispassionate men, as a result of McCarthyism. Its members were generally committed to one policy line: the close containment and isolation of mainland China, the harassment of “neutralist” nations which sought to avoid alignment with either Washington or Peking, and the maintenance of a network of alliances with anti-communist client states on China’s periphery …

There were other important by-products of this “legacy of the ’50s”:

The new administration inherited and somewhat shared a general perception of China-on-the-march—a sense of China’s vastness, its numbers, its belligerence; a revived sense, perhaps, of the Golden Horde …

The new administration inherited and briefly accepted a monolithic conception of the Communist Bloc. Despite much earlier predictions and reports by outside analysts, policy makers did not begin to accept the reality and possible finality of the Sino-Soviet split until the first weeks of 1962. The inevitably corrosive impact of competing nationalisms on communism was largely ignored.

The new administration inherited and to some extent shared the “domino theory” about Asia. This theory resulted from profound ignorance of Asian history and hence ignorance of the radical differences among Asian nations and societies. It resulted from a blindness to the power and resilience of Asian nationalisms. (It may also have resulted from a subconscious sense that, since “all Asians look alike,” all Asian nations will act alike.) As a theory, the domino fallacy was not merely inaccurate but also insulting to Asian nations; yet it has continued to this day to beguile men who should know better.

Finally, the legacy of the ’50s was apparently compounded by an uneasy sense of a worldwide communist challenge to the new administration after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A first manifestation was the president’s traumatic Vienna meeting with [the Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev in June 1961; then came the Berlin crisis of the summer. All this created an atmosphere in which President Kennedy undoubtedly felt under special pressure to show his nation’s mettle in Vietnam …

So much for the legacy and the history. Any new administration inherits both complicated problems and simplistic views of the world. But surely among the policy makers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations there were men who would warn of the dangers of an open-ended commitment to the Vietnam quagmire?

This raises a central question, at the heart of the policy process: Where were the experts, the doubters, and the dissenters? Were they there at all, and if so, what happened to them?

The answer is complex but instructive.

In the first place, the American government was sorely lacking in real Vietnam or Indochina expertise. Originally treated as an adjunct of Embassy Paris, our Saigon embassy and the Vietnam desk at State were largely staffed from 1954 onward by French-speaking Foreign Service personnel of narrowly European experience …

In addition, the shadow of the “loss of China” distorted Vietnam reporting. Career officers in the department, and especially those in the field, had not forgotten the fate of their World War II colleagues who wrote in frankness from China and were later pilloried by Senate committees for critical comments on the Chinese nationalists …

In due course, to be sure, some Vietnam talent was discovered or developed. But a recurrent and increasingly important factor in the decision-making process was the banishment of real expertise. Here the underlying cause was the “closed politics” of policy making as issues become hot: the more sensitive the issue, and the higher it rises in the bureaucracy, the more completely the experts are excluded … Another underlying cause of this banishment, as Vietnam became more critical, was the replacement of the experts, who were generally and increasingly pessimistic, by men described as “can-do guys,” loyal and energetic fixers unsoured by expertise …

A related point—and crucial, I suppose, to government at all times—was the “effectiveness” trap, the trap that keeps men from speaking out, as clearly or often as they might, within the government. And it is the trap that keeps men from resigning in protest and airing their dissent outside the government. The most important asset that a man brings to bureaucratic life is his “effectiveness,” a mysterious combination of training, style, and connections. The most ominous complaint that can be whispered of a bureaucrat is: “I’m afraid Charlie’s beginning to lose his effectiveness.” To preserve your effectiveness, you must decide where and when to fight the mainstream of policy; the opportunities range from pillow talk with your wife, to private drinks with your friends, to meetings with the secretary of state or the president. The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men—to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be “effective” on later issues—is overwhelming …

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