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.

By James C. Thomson
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 …

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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