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.

Another factor must be noted: as the Vietnam controversy escalated at home, there developed a preoccupation with Vietnam public relations as opposed to Vietnam policy making. And here, ironically, internal doubters and dissenters were heavily employed. For such men, by virtue of their own doubts, were often deemed best able to “massage” the doubting intelligentsia … Incidentally, my most discouraging assignment in the realm of public relations was the preparation of a White House pamphlet entitled “Why Vietnam,” in … 1965; in a gesture toward my conscience, I fought—and lost—a battle to have the title followed by a question mark …

As a further influence on policy makers I would cite the factor of bureaucratic detachment. By this I mean what at best might be termed the professional callousness of the surgeon (and indeed, medical lingo—the “surgical strike” for instance—seemed to crop up in the euphemisms of the times). In Washington the semantics of the military muted the reality of war for the civilian policy makers. In quiet, air-conditioned, thick-carpeted rooms, such terms as systematic pressure, armed reconnaissance, targets of opportunity, and even body count seemed to breed a sort of games-theory detachment …

There is an unprovable factor that relates to bureaucratic detachment: the ingredient of cryptoracism. I do not mean to imply any conscious contempt for Asian loss of life on the part of Washington officials. But I do mean to imply that bureaucratic detachment may well be compounded by a traditional Western sense that there are so many Asians, after all; that Asians have a fatalism about life and a disregard for its loss; that they are cruel and barbaric to their own people; and that they are very different from us (and all look alike?). And I do mean to imply that the upshot of such subliminal views is a subliminal question whether Asians, and particularly Asian peasants, and most particularly Asian Communists, are really people—like you and me. To put the matter another way: would we have pursued quite such policies—and quite such military tactics—if the Vietnamese were white? …

Crucial throughout the process of Vietnam decision making was a conviction among many policy makers: that Vietnam posed a fundamental test of America’s national will. Time and again I was told by men reared in the tradition of Henry L. Stimson that all we needed was the will, and we would then prevail. Implicit in such a view, it seemed to me, was a curious assumption that Asians lacked will, or at least that in a contest between Asian and Anglo-Saxon wills, the non-Asians must prevail. A corollary to the persistent belief in will was a fascination with power and an awe in the face of the power America possessed as no nation or civilization ever before. Those who doubted our role in Vietnam were said to shrink from the burdens of power, the obligations of power, the uses of power, the responsibility of power. By implication, such men were softheaded and effete.

Finally, no discussion of the factors and forces at work on Vietnam policy makers can ignore the central fact of human ego investment. Men who have participated in a decision develop a stake in that decision …

In the course of these years, another result of Vietnam decision making has been the abuse and distortion of history. Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, and Far Eastern history has been rewritten by our policy makers, and their spokesmen, to conform with the alleged necessity of our presence in Vietnam. Highly dubious analogies from our experience elsewhere—the “Munich” sellout and “containment” from Europe, the Malayan insurgency and the Korean War from Asia—have been imported in order to justify our actions …

There is a final result of Vietnam policy I would cite that holds potential danger for the future of American foreign policy: the rise of a new breed of American ideologues who see Vietnam as the ultimate test of their doctrine. I have in mind those men in Washington who have given a new life to the missionary impulse in American foreign relations: who believe that this nation, in this era, has received a threefold endowment that can transform the world. As they see it, that endowment is composed of, first, our unsurpassed military might; second, our clear technological supremacy; and third, our allegedly invincible benevolence (our “altruism,” our affluence, our lack of territorial aspirations). Together, it is argued, this threefold endowment provides us with the opportunity and the obligation to ease the nations of the Earth toward modernization and stability: toward a full-fledged Pax Americana Technocratica. In reaching toward this goal, Vietnam is viewed as the last and crucial test. Once we have succeeded there, the road ahead is clear. In a sense, these men are our counterpart to the visionaries of communism’s radical left: they are technocracy’s own Maoists. They do not govern Washington today. But their doctrine rides high.

Scholars have long argued about whether President Kennedy would have extricated the United States from Vietnam had he seen a second term. But there is no disputing that he entangled us further in the region. Kennedy’s men, “the best and the brightest,” drove the nation into its greatest military humiliation. Why did the United States slip into a land war in Asia? James C. Thomson Jr., an East Asia expert who had served in the White House and State Department as the war was revving up, conducted an autopsy.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.

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