No More Vietnams? The War and the Future of American Foreign Policy

Ever since the Establishment invented “bipartisan foreign policy,” Americans have been deprived of any meaningful debate of international issues at campaign time. “Irresponsibility” is the charge to be feared. So often a victim of history’s tricks, Adlai Stevenson suffered the unfair accusation in 1956 for a stand on nuclear testing which later came to be embraced by a wide consensus of Americans and was embodied in the treaty with the Soviet Union. In 1960 and 1964 the “missile gap,” policy toward Cuba, the question of a “wider war” in Vietnam were not candidly debated.

This presidential election year, it seemed, was to be different. The foreign policy establishment, described by Bill Moyers in the July Atlantic as a “custodial bureaucracy” that “has acquired its own religion with its own priesthood, canons, and rites,” was going to have to account for itself. At least it was time to discuss Vietnam without the old pious caveats against irresponsibility drowning out the critics — or so it appeared.

The debate promised to be more than a journey into inquisition. It was going to bring the country to grips with a proposition that was beginning to grow in many — though not by any means all — American minds, the suspicion that the United States had come to the end of a foreign policy era. Were we approaching a major change in the active worldwide involvement that began during the Second World War?

American failures in Vietnam, the retirement of Lyndon Johnson as President, and the rout of the Administration forces in the spring primaries were seen both as causes and evidence of an American swing away from interventionism, economic, political, and military. There was even talk of “no more Victnams” pledges in party platforms. Some very basic issues, unquestioned buttresses of a generation of American foreign policy, were about to be scrutinized by the building inspectors and, it was hoped, by some architects with fresh ideas.

Then came August. Old styles of power prevailed in Miami Beach and Chicago; no questing spirits were welcome at either convention. And on the road from Moscow to Prague, the Soviet forces that marched in to bring down Czech independence almost as certainly ended what opportunity remained for real public debate of foreign policy in America this year.

In the following pages and in a second installment in the December issue, the Atlantic offers a valid substitute for the debate that was not heard in the election campaign. It took place in June, when those who were asking what had gone wrong with American foreign policy still had the floor. The Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, founded in Ambassador Stevenson’s memory in Chicago in 1967, convened a conference with the working title “Vietnam: Lessons and Mislessons.” Participants were “carefully selected to insure a full range of exposure of differing points of view,” writes William R. Polk, director of the Stevenson Institute.

The theory, practice, and history of American intervention abroad became the focus of the often fierce debate, with Vietnam as the reference point. What has Vietnam proved to us? What does and doesn’t “work” abroad? What ought American “aid” be designed to accomplish? Is it even realistic to insist on “no more Vietnams”? Is there an American penchant for interventionism stronger than any voice of the electorate, greater than any will to kick the habit? How much can a bureaucracy learn from its mistakes? Where does the Vietnam experience leave us in our relations with the Soviet Union and China, and in our commitments to interests in the rest of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America?

The two-day conference in Chicago was barely under way when Robert Kennedy was shot, stilling the one voice that might have made inevitable a serious re-examination of policy this year. The Chicago discussions went on, however, producing in microcosm the kind of accounting the voters seemed to demand of the Administration’s Vietnam policy through the primary votes, the sort of critiques and defenses that are needed to make clear the thinking that led us into Vietnam, and the prospects for getting out. More important to the future, especially in the light of Russian intervention in Eastern Europe, the discussion examines prospects for a foreign policy that serves America in its inevitable, if transitory, world role while minimizing for it the risk of more Vietnams.

Richard M. Pfeffer, a fellow of the Stevenson Institute, organized the conference and edited the book which grows out of it: No More Vietnams? The War and the Future of American Foreign Policy, to be published later this year by Harper & Row. Historian and political scientist Sidney Hyman also contributed to the editing of the proceedings.

The Atlantic has excerpted from sections of the book. In this issue, Adam Yarmolinsky discusses limited war and flexible military response from the point of view of one who helped reshape American foreign policy along such lines from 1961 to 1965. Theodore Draper responds to Professor Yarmolinsky, and other participants in turn question both men’s positions. Then, Stanley Hoffmann challenges the way America uses its power, and Ithiel de Sola Pool offers a defense. In the December Atlantic, Samuel P. Huntington, Eqbal Ahmad, Edwin Reischauer, and James C. Thomson lead off debates on prospects for American policy after Vietnam.


Thomson (whose “How could Vietnam Happen?” appeared in the April, 1968, Atlantic) told the conference, as he told Atlantic readers this spring, that “a first and central ingredient in these years of Vietnam decisions does involve history. The ingredient 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 Dulles. . . . The increased commitment to Vietnam was also fueled by a new breed of military strategists and academic social scientists . . . who had developed theories of counterguerrilla warfare and were eager to see them put to the test. To some, ‘counterinsurgency’ seemed a new panacea for coping with the world’s instability.” Professor Yarmolinsky picks up the discussion.

Adam Yarmolinsky: Why did otherwise intelligent and humane persons persist in error where Vietnam was concerned?

No facile analogy (however often repeated) to the commitments assumed under the Eisenhower Administration is particularly illuminating. U.S. intervention in South Vietnam clearly changed not only in degree but in quality at least once and probably more than once during the KennedyJohnson Administration. Two observations, however, about the Eisenhower Administration’s experiences with respect to Vietnam may be relevant here.

First, the Eisenhower Administration was extraordinarily lucky. Its one critical decision on escalation in Vietnam — the decision not to intervene at Dienbienphu — was presented as a major step, not to be disguised as anything less. The representations of the Joint Chiefs as to the likelihood that nuclear weapons might be required were enough by themselves to alert all concerned to the gravity of the choice. Even a true believer in massive retaliation was given pause.

But, by the same token, the Eisenhower Administration in a sense contributed one of the key elements that went into the makeup of the later decisions to go up rather than down. That was the fundamentalist anti-Communism exemplified by John Foster Dulles, an anti-Communism that remained as an emotional and political factor long after it had been succeeded by a more sophisticated analysis of relationships within and beyond the Communist world.

It must be recognized that a somewhat similar attitude continued to find expression in the views of Dean Rusk, and that the Foreign Service bureaucracy provides an extraordinary — some might say oppressive — degree of continuity in American foreign policy. While the propositions of an earlier age are now stated in somewhat more sophisticated terms, there is still a large element in official American thinking about foreign policy that assumes an American monopoly on virtue and wisdom in a wicked world.

The decision to undertake even the limited amount of military assistance provided to the Diem regime immediately after the Geneva Accords was based on three factors. In descending order of importance, they were, first, anti-Communist solidarity; second, concern over the domination of Southeast Asia by the Chinese Communists and their friends; and third, concern over any shift in the locus of the iron or bamboo curtains accomplished by force.

The significant fact about these three concerns is that between Eisenhower and Kennedy their relative priorities were completely reversed. This reversal suggests the more general shift in concern from a preoccupation with ideology to a preoccupation with influence.

In addition, a series of events early in the Kennedy Administration had an important impact on Vietnam intervention issues. As Jim Thomson has said, the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation in Vienna, and the decision not to intervene in the civil war in Laos, each argued in its way for some countermove to demonstrate American firmness in the face of Soviet or Sovietbacked probes, whether verbal or physical. In some situations, timing becomes all important, and if Vietnam was the wrong place to increase our military commitment, it looked like the right time.

Another factor undoubtedly contributing to the early escalatory decision in Vietnam was, in a negative sense at least, an Eisenhower and particularly a Foster Dulles legacy. The Kennedy Administration early rejected the doctrine of massive retaliation, and with considerable relief. The realization that nuclear weapons could not be brandished as an all-purpose threat made the use of force at the non-nuclear level seem somehow less frightening. There was even a kind of euphoria about the newly expanded Special Forces, who were being trained, it was said, as much in the arts of peace as in the arts of war, and who might reduce the use of force from the level of megaton monstrosity to the level of individual human effort.

The enthusiasm for counterinsurgency as a new

Adam Yarmolinsky, professor of Law, Harvard; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs 1965-1966; Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense 1961-1964. Theodore Draper, author of Castroism: Theory and Practice and Abuse of Power.John McDermott, associate editor of Viet-Report, author of Profile of Vietnamese History.Daniel Ellsberg, RAND Corporation consultant to the Department of Defense on Vietnam; Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs 1964-1965; member of Edward Lansdale’s Senior Liaison Office in Saigon (August, 1965 to December, 1966). Samuel P. Huntington, chairman of Department of Government, Harvard; consultant to the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State and to AID. His publications include The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics and Political Order in Changing Societies.Stanley Hoffmann, professor of government, Harvard, author of Gulliver’s Troubles.Ithiel de Sola Pool, chairman of the Department of Political Science, MIT; member of the Defense Science Board, Department of Defense; conducted research for the Defense Department in Vietnam in 1966-1967. Richard M. Pfeffer, Fellow of the Adlai Stevenson Institute, Chicago. technique was a part of the same pattern. What it lacked in specificity, it made up for in energy. A new Administration is likely to be optimistic about new ways of doing things, even of fighting wars, and Vietnam turned out to be a testing ground for these new kinds of forces and techniques. Because they were felt to be both more effective and less dangerous than conventional (or indeed nuclear) military means, it took longer to discover the limits on their effectiveness and the dangers of their use. And because there was still a strong element of paternalism in American foreign policy, the desirability of finding means for forceful intervention was not seriously questioned.

Again, several factors need to be sorted out in this latter phase of decision-making. The primary focus of these decisions seems to have been on shoring up the (or a) Saigon regime, rather than on blunting the force (or determination) of Hanoi. When all the arguments advanced in favor of initiating the bombing of the North are critically analyzed, the most persuasive one turns out to have been its effect on crumbling morale in the South. There was no enthusiasm at the level of political decision about any of the new escalatory moves. But there was at least less disinclination to examine these alternatives than to examine the alternatives on the down side of the scale. Accounts of the period make it clear that there was unanimous agreement within the government that the only course of action no longer available was to continue at the same level of force. But one senses that there was more concern with minimizing necessary escalation than with maximizing feasible de-escalation.

The pause in the decisional process because of the intervention of a presidential election was also a factor to be reckoned with. The pacific promises of the campaign, however deeply felt, were probably a less significant determinant of policy than the effect of the practical moratorium on decisionmaking induced by the campaign itself. Decisions that are postponed end up being accelerated by the accumulated pressure of events. The impact of regularly scheduled elections on the conduct of foreign affairs, as in Korea, Suez, and Cuba, is a subject deserving of separate study.

After 1965, one enters the Aeschylean stage of United States intervention in Vietnam. The character of the problem changes significantly. It is perhaps more aptly described as a manifestation of hubris than as the evolution of rational, if misguided, policy. To reverse our course — as we seem to be doing at long last — called for a change of heart at least as much as a change of mind. It is on the earlier stages, then, that one might focus in order to try to draw lessons for the future conduct of American foreign policy.

Theodore Draper: One of the points made by Professor Yarmolinsky about our progressive involvement in Vietnam is that the decisions of 1961 and 1962 were not of the same order as those of 1964 and 1965. He rejects the notion, as do I, that the later decisions were predetermined by the earlier ones. In fact, he seems to think that the difference was so great that the later ones were not even the result of a “rational evolution” but rather were a manifestation of “hubris,” which comes close to saying that they were “irrational.” As a result, Professor Yarmolinsky says, we can learn more from the earlier stages than from the later ones, and he therefore thinks it is best or more rewarding to focus on the earlier ones.

If all this is true, the trouble we got into is either too hard or too easy for us to get out of. Hubris is something you have or you haven’t. If you have it, Professor Yarmolinsky implies, your policy no longer evolves rationally, and it does not lend itself, therefore, to rational analysis or treatment. On the other hand, you may pay such a heavy price for your hubris that the shock of retribution will knock it out of you. Once it goes away, you will get back on the rational path and the worst part of the problem will be gone.

Isn’t this a too easy way out? First, I rather doubt that there was less hubris in 1961 than in 1965 or, even farther back, in 1954 than in 1965. American hubris, if that is the right word for what we are talking about, strikes me as having been a fairly permanent condition since the end of the last war. It may have gotten us into more serious trouble in February, 1965, than in, say, April, 1961, but the reason for the difference may be perfectly amenable to rational analysis and treatment.

I do not wish to go into the question whether President Kennedy would have done in 1965 the

The doctrine of limited war” . . . must be held partially responsible for palling us in.

same thing that President Johnson did. We can only speculate, and though I see no reason for not speculating on the basis of whatever evidence we have, this is probably not the place for it. Still, the issue arises because, as has so often been pointed out, so many of the key men in both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations were the same. Were they suddenly overcome with hubris in 1965? My own view would be that there was a rational evolution of policy in 1964-1965, and that, in fact, the rationale of policy was quite the same throughout this decade. That President Johnson’s decisions were not predetermined by President Kennedy’s decisions does not mean that the same theoretical premises could not lend themselves, rationally, to different practical conclusions in different circumstances.

You will note that I have just introduced a somewhat different factor: “theoretical premises.” I have done so in order to get to my main point. The Vietnam War has brought on a crisis not only of policy but of the theory behind the policy. The theory behind the policy was the result of a perfectly rational, if misguided, evolution, and I think it lends itself to what I hope will be a perfectly rational, if necessarily brief, critique.

Professor Yarmolinsky points out what at first glance may appear to be a paradox. “Massive retaliation,” that monstrous doctrine of the 1950s, saved us from large-scale intervention in Vietnam in 1954. But its successor, variously known as “limited war,” “graduated response,” or “flexible response,” did not save us from increasingly largescale intervention in Vietnam since 1961 and especially since 1965. In fact, the doctrine of “limited war” as it was worked out in the latter half of the 1950s outside the government and taken over by the government in the 1960s must be held partially responsible for pulling us in.

That something was wrong with the theory was impressed on me by reading the book Arms and Influence, by one of the most brilliant and respected of the new power theorists, Professor Thomas C. Schelling. In this book, published in 1966, Professor Schelling devoted several pages to the “reprisal” action in the Gulf of Tonkin in August, 1964. He hailed it as a triumph of “appropriate” response and as a classic example of how to wage a “limited war,” a “restrained war.” This view was, of course, not limited to Professor Schelling, and I cite his book because he is an eminent figure in the field and because there can be no doubt about his enthusiasm for the Tonkin Gulf type of operation. Yet I think few would today dispute that this action set off the entire cycle of events which led the United States to sink deeper and deeper into the Vietnam morass. In Professor Schelling’s book, however, there is only praise and celebration of the event. Something must be wrong if one of the outstanding theorists of “limited war” could not see, at least a year and possibly two later, where the Tonkin Gulf action would or could lead us.

What was wrong?

Professor Thomson, in his recent article in the Atlantic, told of the kind of thinking that went into the Tonkin Gulf operation. In the late autumn of 1964, the “air-strike planners,” as he calls them, thought that the North Vietnamese would “come crawling to us for peace talks” after six weeks of bombing. Someone asked at one of the meetings: And what if they don’t? The answer was that another four weeks of bombing would do the trick.

This, in essence, has been the source of American bafflement and frustration in Vietnam. For three years, the United States has applied increasing force to end the war on its own terms. According to the doctrine of “limited war,” the Vietnamese Communists should have realized at some point that the price was too high, and therefore, “come crawling to us.” If the policy based on the theory has failed, it is time to re-examine the theory.

The theorists of “limited war” saw clearly what was wrong with the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” which proved to be little more than a massive hoax. They saw that we were, in fact, not fighting the great apocalyptic war against Soviet Russia or Communist China, and that we needed both a military establishment and a strategic doctrine of greater flexibility and gradation for the difficulties we were getting into. The trouble with “massive retaliation,” they recognized, was that it was most relevant to one type of war only — between the “superpowers.” It was not so clear to the “limited war” theorists that their recipes of “graduated response” might be self-defeating in a war between a very great power and a very small one.

When a great power confronts a great power, military victory may or may not be “meaningful,” depending on one’s attitude toward war in general. But when a very great power, possessing weapons of indescribable destruction, confronts a very small power, what does military victory mean? What is gained if the United States proves that it is militarily stronger than the Dominican Republic or even North Vietnam? To make such a conflict meaningful, the great power has to demonstrate how little force it needs to use, not how much force it can use. Paradoxically, a great power can obtain a meaningful victory over a small power only by using a small part of its strength or at least using much less than it is capable of using. But, then, it loses some or all of its advantages as a great power; it voluntarily abstains from using its most destructive weapons or from using its more conventional weapons most destructively.

This dilemma can be overcome only by assuming that there is a relatively modest level of destruction which will not be “acceptable,” as the phrase goes, to the small power. In fact, we seem to assume that a small power cannot or will not take as much punishment as a large power. But this is precisely where great-power thinking goes wrong. Great powers tend to think of “limited wars” in terms of themselves. They think of the “limit” as what it would be, in relative terms, if they were taking the punishment or in relation to the total force they are capable of using. But neither of these senses may seem very limited to a small power. A great power may use only a very limited portion of its power but it will be enough to make a small power feel that it must fight an unlimited war or not fight at all.1 “limited war.” It takes two to fight a “limited war,” and if one refuses to play that game, the other has to go from limit to upper limit despite its better judgment that at some limit the game is no longer worth the candle.

This is especially true if the small power — or rather, its people, in sufficient numbers — is willing to die for a cause. Death is not limited, and if enough people are willing to die, they are not going to fight a “limited war.” This is the imponderable that cannot be accounted for in any theory of

In the case of the Vietnam War, victory might have been meaningful as long as it was basically conducted by two small powers — namely, South and North Vietnam — or as a civil war in South Vietnam. Until 1965, it was a war by proxies, which is the only way a great power today may engage in a war without either pitting great power against great power or great power against small power. As soon as the United States took over the main function of the war in 1965, it condemned itself to fighting either an unlimited war from the outset, and horrifying the world and its own people, or fighting a “limited war” which it could not win without exceeding the limits that would make the other side fight an unlimited war. This is the contradiction which the theorists of “limited war” never thought through.

I am persuaded that one reason, and not the least important, for our “progressive involvement” in Vietnam has been the theory of “limited war” as expounded for the past ten or a dozen years. The crucial defect of this theory has been the divorce of power and politics. It is no accident, as some people like to say, that the power theorists, limited and unlimited, have had least to say about the three interventions that have done the most damage to the United States in this decade — those in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam — and what they have mostly had to say might better have been left unsaid. These interventions posed a problem in which power and politics were inextricably tangled up, and politics has never been the strong point of power theorists. Another way of saying the same thing perhaps is that wars pure and simple and revolutions impure and anything but simple are not the same things, and revolutionary war could not be encompassed by a doctrine of “limited war.”

The policy has failed, and so has the theory. We need a new policy, and before we get it, we may have to work out a new theory. The new theory would not take as its point of departure the difference between limited and unlimited wars, both primarily military in character. It would be based on the relationship between politics and power, and thus limit the use of power to what can be usefully achieved politically.

John McDermott: In Congress a rather different but fairly systematic critique of the theory of limited war has been developed by certain rightwing members which goes something like this: the theory of limited war involves, in a sense, telegraphing in advance the increment and the successor to that increment, so that a potential enemy will be aware at any given stage of the price he will pay for not going along in the direction we desire. This telegraphing, congressmen argue, has been a major factor in the success of the North Vietnamese in devising and adjusting their defenses to American attacks and in withstanding American escalation. For example, early in 1965 air defense of Hanoi was not formidable. However, within a year after bombing began, air defenses were such as to make raids on Hanoi a very expensive proposition.

The kinds of ideas that seem likely to replace the early theory of limited war in political discussions within the Congress seem quite dangerous. For example, the theory based on one reading of the case of the Dominican intervention suggests that overwhelming force applied early in a somewhat unpredictable way is a successful alternative to the kind of failures limited war, illustrated in Vietnam, has involved.

The value of the old limited-war theories and theories of international relations was that they were in a sense predictable. You did not make huge, rather unpredictable and incalculable jumps in escalation of force. The jumps were small enough so that an adversary could judge them, could see their limit immediately, and therefore could calculate and make a rational response to it.

What is of interest in the alternative — illustrated by our Dominican intervention — is that in a great-power context it introduces unpredictability into the other side’s assessment of what we are doing and, therefore, into the other side’s response. For example, if in early 1965 instead of a slow buildup of the Vietnam escalation we suddenly had injected a million American troops and the U.S. Air Force had begun launching really very, very heavy attacks against North Vietnam, then the North Vietnamese, Russians, and Chinese might well have been very anxious and edgy as to what this might portend.

Theodore Draper: There are two points about my previous comment I should like to clarify.

First, the concept of limited war created a kind of strategic climate which, in one way or another, permeated policy-making circles. Massive retaliation tended to make policy-makers conscious of how much force they would have to use. Limited war tended to make them conscious of how little they might have to use, and if a little is not enough, it could always be increased. Escalation by what here has been called incrementalism was inherent in waging limited war.

This brings me to my second point — that any sane, decent person will prefer limited to unlimited war. The problem, however, is why the war in Vietnam has evidently gone beyond the limits of what is acceptable to many people in the United States. We started out with the assumption that there was some level of destruction that would not be acceptable to North Vietnam; we are ending up questioning what limits are acceptable to us to prevent a Communist “take-over.” The reason for the change is essentially that North Vietnam has been fighting an unlimited war. Instead of our limited war dictating their limited war, their unlimited war has forced us to consider whether we wish to fight what to us is a limited war.

In the context of theories of limited war, I should now like to pick up Mr. McDermott’s reference to the Dominican revolt and the Dominican inter-

We could easily have had another Vietnam in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

vention. His reference troubles me very much, especially if, as he suggests, we may go from the Vietnam failure to the so-called Dominican success as the precedent for another policy.

Mr. McDermott mentioned that this “success” involved flooding the Dominican Republic with American troops. It may appear that this approach led to success. But we could easily have had another Vietnam in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and if we did not, it was not due to us. We owed our good luck there to our opponent, to the man whom we decided to cheat out of victory.

I have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what happened there, and I think I can tell you this with confidence — Juan Bosch told his followers that it was unthinkable to fight American troops. On this point he would not budge, and he had enough influence so that on those occasions, and there were several, when fighting could have broken out, he held back his followers. Since then, however, he has changed his attitude toward the United States, and if the 1965 revolt happened now, we would have a Vietnam in the Dominican Republic. This was the essential reason for our success there, not the flooding of troops, and, as I say, we will not be that lucky again.

Adam Yarmolinsky: I thought Mr. Draper was going to make the point I wanted to make about the Dominican Republic, but instead, he made a different one, one with which I would take issue, except I am not sure it is very germane to the discussion.

I do not regard what we did in the Dominican Republic as a repudiation of the doctrine of limited war. I think it was politically unjustified. But it seems to me the military decisions were in the mainstream of decisions about the use of limited force. After all, what we did was to interpose forces between two warring camps, and in a remarkably effective way.

One of the few things we did right in the Dominican Republic was to follow this procedure. I don’t see this as any change in tactics.

Daniel Ellsberg: I do not really agree that it was the theory of limited war that encouraged Americans to favor our Vietnam decision in 1965. I

think it was something else, some attitudes and some expectations associated with the American way of war.

Specifically, there has been in the United States since the Second World War a widespread belief in the efficacy and acceptability of aerial bombing, and in particular, of bombing of a strategic nature, aimed at the will of the opponent via his industrial and population resources. This belief played a critical, if not decisive, role in getting us into Vietnam, in reassuring us, in giving us confidence to stay in, and then in stimulating escalation, while keeping us reassured as to ultimate success.

In 1965, the group of men most in favor of an enlarged intervention, including the sending of ground troops, was headed by Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow. These two pointed, as early as 1961, to the essential problem of stopping infiltration. They took the point of view, rightly or wrongly, that the problem in the South would be insoluble until we were able to stop infiltration from the North, not as it was then but as it could become.

It was clearly stated by them that we must go in with the recognition, especially if we were successful in the early stages, that we could anticipate a high level of infiltration, which somehow would have to be stopped. These people, both privately and publicly, indicated there was only one effective way to stop infiltration — that, of course, was through bombing. Their recommendation for expanded U.S. involvement in Vietnam rested on the implicit assumptions that bombing would be used against the North when — as was likely — it became necessary, and that it would be effective. Kennedy may or may not have accepted this reasoning or conclusion; the record is not clear. However, given the attitudes within the defense bureaucracy and the larger American public, it would have been difficult, even for the President, explicitly to reject this “solution” in advance. Really no other proposal was ever seriously made for dealing with that essential problem.

In 1965 — when we felt ourselves in trouble in a number of ways, especially with regard to the need to demonstrate our commitment — Johnson was not prepared immediately to send troops, but one thing that came easy to an American President was a demonstration by bombing.

Recently, the former ambassador to the United States from Vietnam has expressed a plea that, despite his deep pessimism about the prospects today in Vietnam, we should not precipitously withdraw. He said he was against our immediate withdrawal even though he believed life under the Communists would be better than the continuation of this war, which since 1965 — not since 1961 or 1964, but since the bombings of 1965 in South Vietnam and since we came in there with our troops — has begun to demolish his society, to turn it into a vast zoo, a vast refugee camp. Despite this belief, the ambassador could not be for ending the war at the cost of a quick Communist victory because he felt that would encourage the North Vietnamese in their most aggressive aspects. In that case he foresaw that within five years the Vietnamese would be doing things in Thailand which would cause us then to destroy Vietnam totally.

The calling in of Americans and our subsequent bombing in North and South Vietnam have not brought success; hence the bombing in the South has gone on long enough to disrupt the society of South Vietnam probably permanently. In general, if local governments who call for American aid are in other respects acting effectively, then any bombing we may do need not last very long and the resulting damage will not be permanent. But if these governments face a strong enemy who can frustrate them and the United States and prolong the war, then the damage done by American bombs can be irrevocable.

We are talking here about lessons for us to learn about ourselves, and lessons for others — including

If you invite us in to do your hard fighting for you, then you get bombing.

those who might ask our aid in the future — to learn about us, from our experience in Vietnam and elsewhere.

The lesson which can be drawn here is one the rest of the world, I am sure, has drawn more quickly than Americans have: that, to paraphrase H. Rap Brown, bombing is as American as cherry pie. If you invite us in to do your hard fighting for you, then you get bombing along with our troops.

Many of us in Vietnam believed that we were there because we should win, and that we could win, though not by the methods we had been using. “Of course, we are against bombing.” I can hear myself, with others, saying this hundreds and hundreds of times.

I protected myself, I am afraid, from perceiving what should have been easily foreseeable — especially easy were I not American and terribly reluctant to realize it — namely, that if you bring in Americans like me, as part of a heavy U.S. combat involvement, you are going to get both strategic and widespread tactical bombing along with them, no matter how critical these particular individuals may be of it.

If you ask what will happen in Thailand if we go in militarily and face prolonged opposition, the answer is bombing.

If you ask what would have happened if the Dominican Republic had chosen to oppose us, the answer is that the Dominican Republic probably would have been heavily bombed.

Indeed, a most ominous lesson is there to be drawn by the people of nations whose leaders might call for United States military support: that such a plea — if the national leader knew that the conflict would be long and the United States military commitment great — could amount to an act of treachery against his society.

Samuel Huntington: I would like to take an entirely different approach to understanding the 1960s and our Vietnam involvement.

For reasons I gave earlier, it seems unlikely that a situation like that which developed in Vietnam will develop elsewhere in the immediate future. For other reasons, it seems even more unlikely that any situation or crisis in the future will produce a response similar to that which the United States made in Vietnam.

“I do not think the American people would be in favor of another one like that,” said Engine Charlie Wilson in 1953, referring to what social scientists at that time were describing as “the most unpopular war in American history.” In comparison with the clean-cut, all-out struggle of World War II, Korea was indeed a nasty, protracted, frustrating, dirty little war. Now, in comparison with Vietnam, Korea looks like a neat, conventional, sensible sort of war which, above all else, was fought along a regular battlefront whose progress up and down the map made it easy to judge who was winning and who losing. The frustration of Korea was that the soldiers could win it militarily, but the Administration politically would not let them. The frustration of Vietnam is that the soldiers cannot win it militarily, and the Administration cannot win it politically. The one produced an intense reaction on the right, the other an even more bitter opposition on the left. If the increases in frustration represented by the progression from World War II to Korea to Vietnam should be extended to a fourth major military involvement, the constitutional structure of the Republic could well be shaken, In any event, the almost unanimous current resolve of “No more Vietnams” appears to have good roots not only in the war itself but also in a more fundamental shift in the American approach to foreign affairs.

While U.S. involvement in Vietnam was one aspect of the broader post-war pattern of U.S. expansion I previously referred to, the trauma resulting from the war was the product of a fundamental shift in attitudes toward the costs and benefits of American expansion. The type of involvement which in the 1950s could be viewed as desirable and necessary became in the 1960s a highly dubious venture. By 1967, of course, the costs to the United States — in money and troop commitments — of the Vietnamese War exceeded those of the Korean War.

Opposition to the war, however, focused less on these material costs than on the moral and ideological issues. In comparison with the Korean War, the Vietnamese War has been a relatively limited and undestructive conflict. In one year of fighting, almost every major city in North and South Korea was virtually leveled to the ground. Up to mid-1968 the only major Vietnamese city which has received anything like this treatment was Hué. In Korea, somewhere between two and three million civilians were killed directly or indirectly by the war. The civilian suffering in V ietnam, however bad it may be, has been little by comparison. Senator Edward M. Kennedy estimates the civilian casualties in South Vietnam at about 100,000 a year, only some of which were fatalities. At that current rate, the Vietnamese War could thus go on for twenty years before the total civilian casualties (killed and wounded) in South Vietnam equaled the minimum estimate of civilians killed in Korea.

American outrage at the war thus reflected less the war than it did the impact of TV and, more basically, a fundamental change in American attitudes — official and informed — toward American involvement in international affairs. It is, of course, easy to say with hindsight that this change was predictable. It was also in fact, however, predicted. The shift in opinion on foreign policy in the mid-1960s appears to be simply the latest manifestation of a regular alternation of American attitudes

“No more Vietnams” appears to have good roots not only in the war itself but also in a more fundamental shift in the American approach to foreign affairs.

toward foreign affairs between introversion and extroversion. Using a variety of indicators, including naval expenditures, annexations, armed expeditions, diplomatic pressures, and attention devoted to foreign affairs in presidential messages and party platforms, Frank L. Klingberg has charted these alternations in mood since the Revolutionary War.2 Beginning in 1776 American attitudes toward international affairs have gone through eight alternating phases of introversion and extroversion as follows:

Introversion Extroversion
1776-1798 1798-1824
1824-1844 1844-1871
1871-1891 1891-1919
1919-1940 1940-

The periods of introversion thus averaged twentyone years, those of extroversion twenty-seven years. Writing in 1951, Klingberg confidently rejected the possibility of the United States’s then adopting the “Gibraltar” politics advocated by Hoover and Taft and predicted that the United States was “probably capable of great world leadership for another decade or more.” Extroversion still had sixteen years to run. Klingberg also suggested, however, that further in the future it was logical “to expect America to retreat, to some extent at least from so much world involvement, and perhaps to do so sometime in the 1960’s.” He was, if anything, a little too unsure of his own theory, for sixteen years later, the swing of introversion came along right on schedule. The prescience of his forecast is, indeed, quite striking. In discussing the beginning of America’s “fifth historical cycle” in the 1960s he said that “it is quite possible that the major problem of the coming period will carry heavy moral implications — as in the case of the issue of slavery following the Revolutionary period (1776-1824). The aspirations of the people of Asia and Africa could well furnish the chief issue, along with special repercussions from America’s own racial problem.” For those of us who are skeptical of statistical analyses, cyclical theories, and historical determinism, Klingberg’s forecast in 1951 of what would happen in 1966-1967 is somewhat unsettling.

Perhaps the symbolic turning point from extroversion to introversion occurred in July, 1967, when the Administration dispatched three C-130 transports and 150 U.S. servicemen to support the Mobutu government in the Congo against an uprising of white mercenaries. The reaction in Congress was immediate, intensive, and widespread, encompassing Vietnamese hawks as well as doves. Fulbright and Russell, Morse and Stennis, all attacked this action, warning that “never again” did they want us to take any action which might lead to another Vietnam type of involvement. Given this reaction to the dispatch of three transports, it seems reasonable to conclude that it will probably not be until sometime after 1984, when the Klingberg cycle has gone full circle, that the United States will again become involved in a military intervention of Vietnamese proportions.

Daniel Ellsberg: Professor Huntington says the Vietnam War has led to an unprecedented revulsion in the minds of the American public, essentially because of a cyclical change in American attitudes, which, if true, above all would imply we are in for some twenty years of similar reaction against any sort of involvement, followed by some twenty years of acceptance of any sort of involvement.

This implication is made more specific by saying that the same sort of war waged earlier, with the same consequences, would not have evoked this reaction. I believe this is wrong. If we had taken the same action in Indochina in 1954 or in 1961 that we did in 1965, we would have become involved that much sooner in the same kind of war, with the same prospects, and in turn, would have gotten very much the same reaction in the middle of the Klingberg cycle. Therefore, the notion of a cyclical change in American attitudes as the main explanation for the response is wrong. The revulsion is largely a response to this war, including, among other things, the manner we got into it, the manner we have explained it, the manner we are conducting it, and perhaps above all, our evident lack of lasting progress or prospects of success.

Speaking personally, and frankly, I must say that Professor Huntington’s analysis — insofar as it reveals his perceptions of the war and of the public’s reaction to it — distresses me very much. However, I don’t want to dwell on my reaction to his description of the Vietnam War, which I had the good fortune to witness, at times fairly close up, as a relatively “limited and undestructive” war. What I wish to explore here is the empirical question, when our government should anticipate widespread public reactions against such an involvement.

Huntington’s dismissal of the point that it could be the war itself that led to revulsion is based on a comparison with Korea, in which he suggests that the relevant differences in the wars themselves should have led to greater acceptance of the Vietnam War than of the Korean War. Therefore, he concludes, the cause of the actual lesser acceptance could not be our acts in Vietnam.

But what is the relevant difference he considers? When wc look closely, it is very simple — it is body count. In other words, the analysis here of the moral issue all comes down to the single dimension of body count. I would suggest that this is as inadequate a predictor of the public’s feeling of moral revulsion as it is a predictor of progress in the war.

For one thing, the question of the perceived stakes at issue in the war is relevant. Specifically, the Vietnam War simply is not regarded as a war of self-defense, whereas Korea virtually was: especially early in the war, which was when most of the civilian casualties were inflicted. In the summer of 1950, we had a vision of Western Europe being at stake, with satellite armies poised to profit from the example of successful aggression in Korea. This had, I suggest, great bearing on the acceptability of the infliction of damage on people who themselves were not threatening us.

Moreover, the specific operations in Korea that were causing the casualties were regarded as effective and even essential there. These same operations, such as bombing that is not in close support, Sir Robert Thompson tells us — and I feel sure he is correct — have little impact on VG strength, yet at the same time by their social and psychological effects within Vietnam strongly favor the longer-run political prospects of the VC Therefore, regrettably, we have noncombatant casualties being inflicted in Vietnam and massive refugee movements imposed by processes which qualified experts tell us are unnecessary, ineffective, and even counterproductive.

Above all else, you have the factor of perceived failure and the very low likelihood of real success in the future. Moral, as well as practical, issues will surely arise at the point when this is perceived, for everybody for whom they did not arise earlier. Here, of course, is the enormous difference from Korea.

It is simply not acceptable, in the eyes of many people, to kill as many people as we are doing in Vietnam, or even a much smaller number, when the process of violence offers as little promise of success in any terms as it does there, and especially when the stakes for the United States are no larger than they seem there. To put it simply, a great many people in the country believe that you have to have very good reasons for killing innocent people; and the reasons they now perceive for sustaining the kind of operations we are pursuing in Vietnam just do not appear to be good enough. There may be a trend in attitudes here, especially among youth; yet there would have been no lack of such people, making the same judgment, if they had been confronted with the same war ten years ago.

Theodore Draper: I would like to pursue this point. When we went into Vietnam and for a long period thereafter, the justification for the intervention had very little to do with problems of social or political reform that have occupied some of us here. The justification was that we were faced with an aggression from the North which was an extension of Communist power and/or Russian power. In other words, the aggression made the war into a quasi-great power war, and as long as the war could be interpreted as such, we were fighting not only Vietnamese but Chinese and Russians — and the latter were the real enemies.

This reasoning was once persuasive to a good many Americans and a good many people outside America. Now the reason the war has lost much of its persuasiveness is that its original justification in terms of the great power conflict has been eroded.

There is in the air a pervasive conviction or feeling that an era has come to an end. We are not so sure about the kind of era we are going into. But, somehow, there have taken place the retrenchment of American power, the retreat of Russian power, and the introversion of Chinese power. This threefold process has laid the basis of the era we are going into. As a result, we launched an action in one period but carried it out in another period, and that is where the persuasiveness of this war disappeared.


Stanley Hoffmann: The broader implications of our Vietnam experience can all be summarized in one formula: from incorrect premises about a local situation and about our abilities, a bad policy is likely to follow. Our policy in Vietnam has been exemplary in the sense of providing a complete catalogue of all the mistakes that can result from false premises.

We must learn to distinguish much more carefully between types of interventions. Each one — and each combination — has its own advantages and drawbacks, and precisely because no great power can ever abstain from intervention altogether, it is important to understand what these assets and liabilities are. On the continuum that goes from nonintervention (which, as Talleyrand remarked, is also a kind of intervention), via aid,

to military expeditions, we need marks and signs. Thus, intervention can be distinguished according to:

(1) Scope

(2) Type (military, economic, and so on)

(3) Whether it is overt or covert

(4) Whether it consists in deliveries (for instance, of advice, arms, or goods) or in denials (for instance, a suspension of aid). And one can see that it may be more advisable to support democratic legitimacy abroad by depriving unpopular or illegitimate tyrannies of our military aid than by giving such aid either to democratic insurgents or even to democratic governments whose resources could better be used in other ways.

(5) Whether the purpose of intervention is essentially negative (to avert a threat, to prevent a crisis) or essentially positive.

(6) Whether the measure is part of a strategy of competition with one’s major rivals, or part of a strategy of cooperation — an important distinction, for we may be compelled in certain cases to intervene in reply to intervention by our major rivals, whereas we would not have done so unchallenged.

(7) Whether the focus of intervention is the control of internal behavior in a foreign nation or its external conduct.

Our main experience is in the latter area: We are primarily used to contests in which “winning” means imposing our strategy on an adversary in open battle. As for affecting internal affairs, we have a great deal of experience in the realm of economic aid; we also have some experience with waging successful, swift, and superficial coups. We have much less experience with the kind of intervention in which we found ourselves ensnared on behalf of the Saigon regimes: an asymmetrical fight against a foe who obstinately refused to play our game, while being inventive and flexible enough to adapt his tactics to our presence; against a foe who succeeded in keeping the initiative even while we thought that our forays, on the ground and in the air, meant that it was ours — and in a territory and over stakes that made “winning” the gradual byproduct of military control, social change, administrative and political reform, institutional creation and organization.

We must learn in particular to distinguish between two kinds of interventions: on the one hand, marginal ones (which does not mean unimportant; they can be decisive) that allow a threatened society to deal with its problems in a way that strengthens its cohesion but does not jeopardize its autonomy and self-respect, and on the other, interventions that are so massive that they are counterproductive, either because they weaken the assisted partner (by spreading corruption, disrupting his administration or his economy), or because that partner lacks the institutional ability and social cohesion without which our intervention will be in vain.

There is no substitute for area expertise, historical knowledge, and the kind of informed judgment that allows one to separate a hopeless case from a

. . . most striking in Vietnam is our way of turning that intricate contest . . . into a test of our resolve, competence, and moral and material superiority.

merely difficult one. There is, in this respect, at least one clear message from Vietnam: when a regime that is oppressive, or ineffective, or both is faced, not with an ordinary insurgency, but with a movement that is both superbly organized and capable of mounting, in the areas it holds, an effective government and a social revolution, the chances of reversing the trend are very poor. It would be as foolish to mistake every rebellion for a genuine social movement as it is to mistake every political leader for an authentic force. The key issues are those of the roots, the organization, the appeals. We must learn to distinguish movements that are broad, effective, and legitimate from pseudo-movements. Once again, the ability to discriminate is a prerequisite of policy. This ability requires in turn a social science more interested in asking the key questions of historical sociology than in collecting swamps of data.

A second imperative is to re-examine critically the limits of our power. This does not mean indulging either in an orgy of self-doubt or in a repudiation of an ungrateful outside world that resists our good intentions. It means assessing several factors more realistically.

First, we must more realistically assess the limits in the present international system of the kind of power that we have in greatest amounts: military and economic, The new conditions of the use of force, the rise and strength of the nation-state, the heterogeneity of the system all reduce considerably the direct ability of any major power to shape the world according to its wishes. There is an excess of the power to deny over the power to achieve gains. In other words, our greatest impact comes through creating conditions in which the forces on which we count — the defenders of the status quo or the champions of moderate reform — can work. Our forms of help — military deterrence and various kinds of assistance — cannot succeed in denying all enemy gains, for they are neither capable of preventing him from exploiting at our expense (and through similar techniques of assistance, ranging from military to diplomatic) regional interstate disputes (as in the Middle East), nor capable of transforming an internal situation as hopeless as Vietnam. Moreover, when our deterrence and assistance succeed in consolidating nonCommunist regimes, there is no guarantee that these regimes will use their own power in ways that will please us, as we found out in various parts of the world.

Second, we must more realistically assess the specific limitations that our history, our style, and our institutions impose on our effectiveness. It is imperative that we know ourselves better. To be sure, one could argue that our massive resort to technological power in Vietnam results precisely from our exploitation of what we know to be our greatest asset. But this has to be weighed not only against our ignorance of local realities that vitiated this asset but also against our neglect of some serious psychological weaknesses of our own: an overbearingly self-confident approach to complex problems; a tendency to reduce them to mere issues of management, without questioning the realism of the ends and therefore the adequacy of the means; an optimism that makes us believe that a superficial, often verbal, community of values with foreign elites entitles us to be their guides and enables us to solve their problems; an activism that conflicts with the needs for prudence and patience, and often reduces our associates to the position of subordinates and makes them resentful of our protection and of their dependence; an underestimation of the way in which other people’s history and customs condition their reactions to present issues; a lack of understanding of social revolutions, of the kinds of violent movements that develop when there are no procedures for peaceful change and that often are not led by the kinds of elites with whom Americans are comfortable. This lack of understanding results from our own inexperience with such revolution, and makes us reserve our sympathies to non-Communist, purely nationalist, elites.

What has been most striking in Vietnam is our way of turning that intricate contest (in which, by our own admission, we are not fully in control even of our side) into a test of our resolve, competence, and moral and material superiority. This is an old, and not a disgraceful feature. But precisely because of its importance in our makeup, it should make us careful about getting involved. At least we should be careful to get only in confrontations that are so essential as to justify this heavy investment of our pride, if not only in confrontations we can win, so as to avoid the self-lacerations of defeat (this would not be a very realistic imperative).

A third imperative, following from the first two, is precisely to redefine more carefully our national interest in the international competition. We must then learn to establish a hierarchy of interests. We must be guided by the following considerations.

One, not every part of the world is of the same importance to us. An area’s importance depends largely on two sets of factors — the intrinsic importance of the country or region for us, due either to resources, population, political influence, or (as in the case of Israel or South Korea) abundance and intimacy of ties with us; and also its importance to our main adversaries.

Two, even in countries or areas that are important to us, we may have a hierarchy of concerns. Whereas one could argue that in all such instances we have an interest in preserving them from outside aggression, the scope of our interests beyond this must vary from case to case. In particular, a prudent foreign policy must beware of turning into a major stake the internal control of a highly unstable polity that we are badly equipped to preserve and reform. A prudent foreign policy must avoid total identification between the United States and any foreign government, both for the latter’s sake and for our own, for we know that our capacity to control does not grow along with our involvement. The closer the identification, the smaller our freedom of maneuver and the greater the risk of our becoming the blackmailed victims of our ally, yet also the higher the likelihood of his losing his national legitimacy. We must learn to remember that even when the domestic milieu becomes the battlefield of international politics, it is foreign policy that we wage. To remind ourselves of the foreignness of foreigners is to realize not only that we have, quite properly, less control over them than over the men and goods of our national polity, but also that what may be in their national interest (such as certain kinds of “political development”) is not necessarily either in our interest or a proper concern of our foreign policy. This is not “neo-isolationism”; it is the art of distinguishing the essential from the irrelevant. It is blind activism, or overinvolvement, not the ordering of one’s interests, which breeds an isolationist reaction.

In Vietnam, although a Viet Cong victory was important to Peking as a test of its doctrine, such a victory was never tantamount to Peking control. Therefore, the area itself should not have been deemed essential to us to begin with. Moreover, the nature of the threat there was such as to justify a deliberate effort on our part to minimize the importance of domestic control, and to concentrate our efforts on the external aspects.

There is one final lesson from Vietnam that ought to be remembered when the issue of intervention arises again. In international affairs, the normative requirements of political order and the normative requirements of ethics do not always coincide: not all moderate international systems, not all world empires have been based on or have dispensed justice. But it is both the moral duty and the political interest of statesmen to avoid policies that compound political and moral error, political inefficiency and ethical ugliness. In Vietnam, our political and our moral roads, paved with good intentions, have led to hell.

Ithiel de Sola Pool: What Stanley Hoffmann has offered us is for the most part a declaration of political faith. Each of us will agree with some parts and disagree with others. But the main factual content of the argument is a single prediction stated as a fact. The prediction is of the failure of the American effort in Vietnam. He has frequently used the word failure to describe the American situation there, supplemented by uses of such synonyms as fiasco, disaster, and tragedy.

Perhaps I misinterpret Professor Hoffmann. Perhaps by failure he means something other than military defeat. Perhaps he means only that we have not achieved our goals easily and quickly, as we hoped and expected. Perhaps he means that we are paying an inordinate price for our goals. In that sense we certainly have failed, and more in the United States than in Vietnam.

The agonizing political lesson that racks this country is a failure of our political system. It has thrown into some question the stability of government in the United States, the capacity of our political system to govern effectively, the basic commitment of the American people as payers of the costs of our national goals. These are the things of which we usually accuse the Vietnamese.

But let us not exaggerate the gloomy performance of our political system, disappointing as it may be. There is no evidence that either the government or the majority of the public are ready to withdraw abruptly in disarray from Vietnam. The passionate critics would like to believe that the curtailment of bombing and the beginning of the Paris talks represent a reversal of Administration policy and a decision to accept defeat. Since they did not believe the President earlier when he said he wanted negotiations and a political settlement, they are forced now to perceive him as reversing his course. I cannot read the mind of the President. But as a supporter of the Administration’s basic policy, I feel the negotiations are a culmination we have long desired. I feel no sense of any major shift in policy. To negotiate at this point despite the continuation of the war is a logical course in pursuit of our goal of a political settlement that will assure a non-Communist South Vietnam.

Effective intervention — and I predict there will be a number of effective interventions in foreign crises in America’s future — requires exactly the combination of moral stance and political understanding that Professor Hoffmann has identified.

The immediate problem for American policy in Vietnam is to reduce a nation’s suffering: how to check killing, terror, and oppression that arise from many sources. Given the double and triple binds of the historical heritage, there is no easy answer even to that immediate problem. Certainly there is no easy answer to the long-term problem of how far, where, and when America should commit itself in the future to involvement in securing international peace and stability. It is the duty of scholars to look objectively and soberly at the various contradictory aspects of reality, not to produce rhetoric in which broad generalizations conform to people’s abhorrence of dissonance by portraying the bad as all bad and the good as all good. Vietnam can look that way only from 12,000 miles away.

The recognition of the complexity of reality brings me to a point which Stanley Hoffmann makes superbly and forcefully. It is a powerful plea for the importance of knowledge as a basis for action. The high point of his remarks is an attack upon the platitudinous application of broad slogans of policy without knowing the actual facts of the situation. As he says, “From incorrect premises about a local situation . . . bad policy is likely to follow.” “There is no substitute for area exper-

There has been too much ignorant wisecracking in the press about the figures being collected on the progress of pacification.

tise, historical knowledge.” Unfortunately, at the time our basic Vietnam policies were set, “our understanding of South Vietnamese society was poor, the expertise at our disposal limited. In such circumstances, we tended to distort our analysis by reducing South Vietnamese uniqueness to elements that seemed familiar and reassuring — to features that we had met and managed elsewhere.” The true Vietnam experts that this country had in 1965 could be counted on one’s fingers. Moreover, as James Thomson points out, these experts were not called in by the makers of policy, and the more critical the decision the less so.

Hoffmann’s powerful plea for local knowledge instead of platitudes is unfortunately faulted by an irrational distaste on his part for numbers. Many of the things we need to know are matters of amount. How many of the Vietnamese people sympathize with the Viet Cong or with the government? Where is major corruption to be found? What is the rate of inflation? What are the rents that are truly paid? Many of Hoffmann’s statements are quantitative. He describes, for example, villagers “torn between identification with the Viet Cong which they respect but fear and identification with a regime for which they have no respect.” Some peasants certainly feel that way, but how many? Are they 20 percent, 40 percent, or 60 percent? Are they found everywhere or mostly in some regions? The answers to such questions cannot be dismissed as “swamps of data.” Fortunately, the United States government is not a totally know-nothing organization. Late, but better than never, it has started putting itself in the position to answer questions like that.

There has been too much ignorant wisecracking in the press about the figures being collected on the progress of pacification. The usual remark (Hoffmann has a more vivid one) talks about running the war with computers. As every high school graduate knows, any measurement has a margin of error. I happen to have a pretty good notion of the margin of uncertainty in these particular figures and of how much effort is being made to reduce it. I also know how much better our knowledge is now than it was before we had these admittedly approximate figures. But that is only part of the point. The important point is that the collection of data, far from mechanizing the war effort, is humanizing it.

Before the Hamlet Evaluation System was instituted, the typical American District Adviser had very little contact with the hamlets in this area. He advised the District Chief and had no pressing requirement to get deeply involved with what was on the minds of the villagers. Today he must fill out a monthly report which he can do readily only by getting to the hamlets and talking there. The results have been extraordinary, not in producing magic numbers, but in giving the Adviser a sense of his problem.

This is simply one example of the vital importance of applied social science for making the actions of our government in foreign areas more rational and humane than they have been. Right now the anti-intellectuals, and Senator Fulbright astonishingly enough with them, are trying to deny policy-makers the capability to learn what they need to know if they are to avoid the disease of overgeneralized reaction that Stanley Hoffmann so well identifies. Without social science area knowledge to correct their instinctive clichés, our military officers are likely to march us into futile battles and our foreign policy makers into repeated crises, like the Redcoats who marched according to their rule book against the embattled farmers of New England.

That has been the lesson of every recent intervention crisis. We marched into the Bay of Pigs

A democracy cannot choose war as an instrument of policy.

because those area experts who did know were not consulted. In the Dominican intervention we succeeded, and successes are seldom questioned. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter in retrospect is that we did not know at the time who was on what side. Both our civilian and our military authorities needed good political analysis more than they needed anything else.

Our need for better social science knowledge can perhaps be identified as the first lesson of Vietnam. The second concerns the conduct of war by a democracy. Mankind, regrettably, has not yet reached the point of rejecting war totally. But a democracy in the present era cannot deliberately choose war as an instrument of national policy. The people in a democracy will not fight willingly for long unless they believe that combat is forced upon them by an aggressive enemy. Pearl Harbor and the North Korean invasion of the South were signal events to which the American public could and did respond. There has been no such event in Vietnam. The lesson looks clear for revolutionists or aggressors seeking to impose their will on a foreign country: the lesson is to act covertly and gradually. It would be naïve to think that the experience of Vietnam precludes an American military response to future overt dramatic aggressions against our allies. Our response, however, may well be timid if the provocation is not obvious.

To the American government, the lesson is that it must find effective ways of responding to limited disruptions by means short of war. We have learned, for example, that divisions of troops are not very effective against undergrounds, and we will have to learn how to use police and intelligence operations.

Our worst mistake in Vietnam clearly was to initiate the bombing of the North. Before that started, it was my view that the United States as a democracy could not stand the moral protest that would arise if we rained death from the skies upon an area where there was no war. After the bombing started, I decided I had been in error. For a while there seemed to be no outcry of protest, but time brought it on. Now I would return to my original view with an important modification; namely, time. Public reactions do not come immediately. Many actions that public opinion would otherwise make impossible are possible if they are short-term.

I believe we can fairly say that unless it is severely provoked or unless the war succeeds fast, a democracy cannot choose war as an instrument of policy. Any other sort of war will destroy the cohesion of the democratic community that wages it.

A third lesson in Vietnam is more specifically American. It is that the politics of this country will continue to be polarized between an isolationist impulse to avoid involvement in other people’s problems and an internationalist impulse to promote our own values in the world. We are likely to oscillate dangerously between these extremes. Professor Huntington’s remarks identify this oscillation as a lawful cycle, like the business cycle of old.

I wonder, however, whether we have not reached the end of such a regular cycle. Time alone will tell whether major exogenous events will push the pendulum dizzily one way or the other.

Right now it is fashionable to say that the American public will accept no more Vietnams. Perhaps that is a partial truth for the moment, but it would take only another catastrophe that occurred because we sat on our hands and avoided intervention to push the pendulum back the other way. Whatever the last catastrophe was shapes the direction of the public’s indignation at the incumbent Administration. Just as the fall of Czechoslovakia oriented us toward the Marshall Plan and NATO, and as the fall of China shaped our response to Korea, and as Cuba conditioned us to act in the Dominican Republic, so a passive acceptance after Vietnam of some Communist take-over elsewhere, or even there, would be the prelude to a revived activism in American policy.

In the long run, it seems to me sure that the isolationism that has been so rampant in the McCarthy campaign and in the anti-Vietnam protest is a transient thing. It is transient for two reasons. The first reason is that American money and armed power have been a major stabilizing force in the world. If we cease using them, it is fairly predictable that the result will be a catastrophe somewhere and with that will come the revival of the internationalist impulse. The second reason is surer though more remote. It is nuclear proliferation. Treaty or no treaty, there are many in this room who will live to see several underdeveloped countries with the means to launch nuclear war. The United States, I predict, will not stay passive in the face of such a threat. When we come to realize that we can live in safety only in a world in which the political systems of all states are democratic and pacifically oriented, the immediate lessons of Vietnam — whether of success or of failure or a combination of the two — will recede into a dimly remembered image.

In the nuclear age the world has become a small place. In various ways we will all become more alike, and more like America as we know it today. People everywhere want some aspects of American culture, such as automobiles, TV sets, refrigerators, and Coca-Cola. Vietnam illustrates this trend too. Other aspects of our value system such as participant politics, civil liberties, social mobility, pragmatism, and a pacific orientation are also spreading, but less readily and universally. Were it not for the nuclear threat, the world might well remain heterogeneous in these respects. However, in the era of technological change, on the edge of which we now stand, American policy-makers will not be able to view with indifference aggressive dictatorships with nuclear arms, no matter how small or remote they may be. Vietnam, therefore, is not likely to be the last case in which this nation finds itself trying to cope with dangerous armed ideologies in countries far from our area of normal concern and at the potential cost of much American sacrifice. The lesson we must learn is how to cope with such situations by better means than contests of firepower.

Richard Pfeffer: Professor Pool’s professed faith in social science moves me to return to a point Professor Hoffmann touched on a number of times. It is not simply that civilians must bear a large portion of the blame for this war; more particularly, it is social scientists who must bear a large portion of the onus.

I find a striking lack of recognition of the real limitations and deficiencies of social science in Professor Pool’s remarks, and more generally, even in a work so critical of American social scientists as the one edited by Irving Horowitz on Project Camelot.3 Almost everyone contributing to that book, with few exceptions, still maintains a kind of hubris about the capacity of social scientists both to understand and manipulate.

Stanley Hoffmann: What strikes me most in reflecting on the Vietnam experience (and temporarily I will gladly withdraw the word “failure” if it annoys Professor Pool) is that it is, at least to me, a symptom of a kind of generalized intellectual failure, and here I will use the word.

We have two kinds of explanations around this table — conceptual ones and organizational ones.

I would not minimize the role of bureaucratic momentum or inertia, but one can exaggerate this element, and thereby conceal from one’s own eyes the intellectual failure itself.

When all of the institutions, agencies, and organizations end up making the same kind of mistake, then it must be for reasons going a bit beyond bureaucratic organization. It is perfectly true that success for each agency became the fulfillment of its own norms, but what is interesting is to try to understand why those norms were set up. Here one has to go back to elements of intellectual history or of American political style.

It seems, for instance, that there has first of all been a failure to understand the change in the nature of the international system. In our approach to international affairs we have had very much an expectation of symmetry, an expectation that the adversary would play according to our rules. And, we have voiced discontent when he did not.

I have one last point in reply to Professor Pool. He objected to the word “failure.” The only question I would ask him is, how much more evidence do you need? In particular, many of the things which you mentioned, such as the election of village officers, are strictly quite irrelevant. What would be relevant would be evidence that pacification is now undertaken by the villagers themselves with forces of their own — that these people are successful in protecting their own areas against the Viet Cong. I see no evidence of this. As for believing that we still can accomplish this today, I would say, well, unfortunately there is a war going on which makes this very difficult, and what makes it even more difficult is that the kind of war we are running is quite counterproductive.

Ithiel de Sola Pool: This discussion reminds me in some way of arguments about laissezfaire in the history of economic thought. Like the proponents of laissez-faire arguing against planning, some of those here who criticize the American role in the world make the underlying assumption that the nature of the state and its bureaucracy is such that rationality cannot be expected of it — that no matter what the government does, it is going to be wrong, and therefore, the best thing to do is to abandon its international functions.

As in the economic field, there is a great deal of sense to this argument. But most of us have recognized that in fact large-scale governmental economic policy is going to be with us, and while we may want to reduce it in some ways, we do have to face the problem of maximizing public rationality whenever governmental economic action proves necessary. The same thing applies to the role of the U.S. government as a stabilizing force in international affairs. Since policy will often be less than perfectly wise, we would like to avoid unnecessary involvement, but unless we accept the necessity of some governmental involvement abroad we will have a chaotic and dangerous world. We must learn to be as wise as possible in these involvements.

I question the notion of a basic incapacity of government to learn. There are examples of governmental learning in the economic held. Our government has learned how to maintain a stable economy. Albert Wohlstetter gave a very good example of learning in the political held when he pointed to the improvements during the past eight years in our management and control of strategic nuclear weapons. We have also learned to function overseas relatively effectively in such fields as public health and in certain aspects of agricultural change.

In relation to major issues, such as the nuclear one and the economic one, however, it is unfortunately true that we tend to learn only when we become desperate. It takes a great depression or a war or something of that kind to make us learn. Hopefully, if we can get out of the present mood of self-flagellation about our performance in Vietnam and begin to get more concrete and specific in the lessons we learn, then Vietnam may prove to be another event that leads us to that kind of creative desperation.

What is it that we must learn from the Vietnam experience? We must be specific about the problem of how to influence political outcomes in an environment where conventional military means are ineffective or are excluded to us. Here I would like to reinforce the point Mr. Ellsberg previously made in relation to bombing. In general, we have to find ways of coping with international problems that minimize the use of force. That, of course, means that we have to be skilled in the use of other instruments of influence available to us. The instruments we must use better are largely money, propaganda, political organization, and intelligence.

The notion that we will be able simply to watch the world go by without feeling massively threatened by some of the things that happen seems rather shortsighted. We need to learn to cope with genuine threats, and neither acquiesce to them nor respond with inappropriate military devices.

Stanley Hoffmann: First of all, let me say that if any effort at drawing critical lessons from Vietnam is going to be denounced as self-flagellation, then I do not see much hope for American policy.

I was interested in Professor Pool’s argument. It made me wonder whether the distinction between domestic politics and international affairs has been clearly understood. A government has a certain amount of control over the elements of the national economy, but it has much less control over what happens abroad. It seems to me this is one area (among others) in which national borders make quite a lot of difference. I am struck by how little attention we have paid to this particular phenomenon: our devaluation of borders, of the national fact. What has struck me most in our Vietnam experience is the constant and permanent overestimation of chances of success. We have always adopted the most optimistic reading of the

We still know very little about what we can manipulate.

realities. I am afraid that we may be doing just the same in the future if we switch from massive military intervention, which we are beginning to recognize as counterproductive, to massive intervention for political development — which is good old American activism all over again.

In that area, as in international relations in general, the more we understand political processes, the more — not less — uncertain we should get about possibilities of control. The fact is that we still know very little about what we can manipulate. This is especially true when one is dealing with foreign governments.

As I indicated earlier, it seems to me that as Americans (whether we are political scientists or statesmen) dealing with problems of social cohesion and political organization abroad, we approach them with one hand tied behind our back (because we are not colonial masters) and with the other hand full of the wrong tools: tools that have worked only for us.

We should ask ourselves what it is we ought to feel threatened by. I, for one, may feel threatened by nuclear proliferation in some cases, but not necessarily in all. However, I do not think the American national interest is threatened by all the millions of domestic disorders which are going to take place all over the world.

We have been talking about the alienness of China and Southeast Asia as an excuse for not intervening in the future. But, in thinking of American policy toward France in World War II and since, I cannot feel very much more optimistic about the possibilities of intervention in more “familiar” areas either. One certainly ought not to lapse into isolationism, but we should redefine very seriously the kind of things we ought to feel threatened by and the kind of things we really can do to cope with these threats.

  1. This may be demonstrated by one of the reasons given to demonstrate how moderate the United States has been in Vietnam. Professor Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley recently argues that “while we certainly have bombed North Vietnam extensively, we have it within our power, and you know this, to eradicate North Vietnam from the map. The fact that we have risked American lives over months and months in an effort to avoid that kind of total mass destruction of this country, is one indication that Goliath has placed certain limitations upon his power” (The New Leader, February 26, 1968, p. 14). Presumably this act of self-denial on the part of the United States should have persuaded North Vietnam to place certain Limitations upon its power. Thus “limited war” is defined, in this view, as anything short of eradicating North Vietnam “from the map,” There may be some horrible kind of logic to this from the viewpoint of total American power of destruction, but it totally ignored what effect this self-imposed “limitation” would have on North Vietnam. A “limitation” defined as short of what it would take to eradicate North Vietnam from the map would be well within the limits of what would force North Vietnam to fight an unlimited war.
  2. “The Historical Alternation of Moods in American Foreign Policy,” World Politics IV (January, 1952).
  3. The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship Between Social Science and Practical Politics. Irving Lewis Horowitz, editor, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1967.