Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam
Stripped of all pretenses, double-talk, and outright lies, two simple and stark choices face the United States in Vietnam. One derives from the assumption that in Vietnam the credibility of the United States and its prestige as a great power are irrevocably engaged, that the war in Vietnam is a test case for all “wars of national liberation,” and that in consequence the fate of Asia and perhaps even of the non-Communist world at large might well be decided in Vietnam. It follows from this assumption that the United States can only tolerate one outcome of the war: victory, and never mind that victory is bound to mean the physical destruction of Vietnam, South and North. The inevitable means to the end of victory is the escalation of the war. In the North, escalation means the unrestricted bombing of industrial and population centers; in the South, it means the commitment of what according to authoritative estimates will amount to a million American troops. Such an allout effort at victory carries within itself the risk of a military confrontation with China or the Soviet Union or both. Yet these risks are justified by the magnitude of the stakes.
The other choice assumes that the war is primarily a civil war owing to local conditions, that its global significance is remote, that, far from containing China and Communism, it opens the gates to both by destroying the social fabric of Vietnamese nationalism which is implacably hostile to China, and by casting the Vietcong in the role of defenders of Vietnamese freedom, and that in consequence the risks we are taking in the pursuit of victory are out of all proportion to the interests at stake. We should never have got involved in this war, but we are deeply involved in it. The aim of our policy must be to avoid getting more deeply involved and to extricate ourselves from it while minimizing our losses. We can serve that aim in three ways: through the offer of meaningful negotiations, something we have not yet done, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding; through the establishment of a government in Saigon that will initiate such negotiations; and through the de facto division of South Vietnam in consequence of the “enclave” policy.
Such a policy of negotiated or implied disengagement would have to be supported by a military policy of the status quo. That is to say, we would have to stop the bombing of North Vietnam and the search-and-destroy operations in the South and maintain our position in the cities and coastal enclaves we militarily control.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON appears to believe that there is a third position, that of controlled response, which he has chosen. Time and again, in private and in public, he has tried to disarm the advocates of the second position, by pointing to the differences between his policy and the first position, of which the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the most potent advocates. In truth, however, the difference between the two policies is one of degree and not of kind. Seeking a victory which cannot be obtained with the means employed, the President is compelled by the logic of his position to increase the means in order to achieve the ever elusive end. If on a higher level of commitment the end of victory still eludes him, he must increase the commitment still more in that never ending pursuit of victory. Thus the President is the prisoner of the goal he has set himself. Since he wants victory through war, he must want the means that promise victory. Since he wants victory, he must want escalation. Thus he is compelled to escalate, although he is escalating more slowly than the Joint Chiefs would want him to. The persistent escalation of the war during the last fifteen months bears eloquent testimony to that compulsion.
These elementary considerations are occasioned by an extraordinarily strange book by a former special assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. Goodwin was one of the most brilliant and responsible members of Kennedy’s intellectual circle. He has written here a highly critical account of our Vietnam policies. Yet this account is marred by a monumental lapse of taste at the beginning, a monumental abnegation of political judgment at the end, and a number of contradictions throughout.
The book starts out with a tableau which in its intellectual irrelevance and mawkish sentimentality is the kind of journalism one has come to expect from Mr. Joseph Alsop. The tableau juxtaposes two American soldiers, identified by name, stalking the jungles of Vietnam, with the opening “Eleven thousand miles away, where the Potomac broadens,” of the Vietnam hearings of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under the chairmanship of “J. William Fulbright, Senator from Arkansas, foe of civil rights, almost Secretary of State, Rhodes Scholar and backwoods politician, hero to some and demagogue to others.” Twenty minutes before the opening of the hearings, “while the first curious arrivals were claiming the scarce seats, a grenade flung anonymously through the jungle-fed night had exploded in their bunker. They were dead….”
THIS BEGINNING astounds by its poor taste. More seriously, the end shocks by its abnegation of political judgment. At the end of the original piece, published in The New Yorker, the author raises the question as to how it all will end. On the one hand, the author states, “It is easy, and it would be wrong, to be apocalyptic about a conflict that is still so strictly limited and so full of hopeful possibilities for settlement.” On the other hand, he quotes “an important politician” to the effect that “he thought that if largescale war ever comes, it will come not in a burst of Strangelove madness or a Fail-Safe accident but through a long series of acts and decisions, each seemingly reasonable, but which slowly place the great powers in a situation in which they will find it impossible to back down. It will be no one’s fault.” In a Postscript, the author adds these reflections:
Comment on the appearance of this essay in its original form revealed the ending to be more confusing than I had intended. “It will be no one’s fault,” but it will be the fault of many—leaders, politicians, journalists, men and women in a hundred different occupations in many lands who failed to see clearly, or act wisely, or speak articulately. There will be no act of madness, no single villain on whom to discharge guilt; just the flow of history.
The author obviously believes the second ending to be an improvement over the first. Yet both have in common an unwarranted depersonalization of the historic process. In the first version, responsibility cannot be assessed at all; in the second, it is so widely distributed as to be meaningless. Either it is nobody’s fault or it is everybody’s fault.
The historic truth, as Mr. Goodwin must know, is different. The President is personally in charge of the war in Vietnam, and he cannot escape either blame or praise for what we are doing there. Furthermore, we can pinpoint the sources of advice upon which the President has based certain fateful decisions. We know, for instance, who, from the beginning of President Johnson’s tenure in office, has consistently urged the bombing of North Vietnam as a means to bringing the war to a quick victorious conclusion. We know that this man is today one of the President’s principal advisers. We know that if the Secretary of Defense had been as consistently wrong in his calculations as President of the Ford Motor Company as he has been in the conduct of the war in Vietnam, the Ford Motor Company would either have gone broke or he would have been fired.
Hand in hand with this refusal to place political responsibility where it historically belongs goes a tendency to exempt specifically the President from political responsibility. Time and again, the President is quoted approvingly. He gets high marks for having spoken, “with clearer insight,” of “the confused nature of this conflict,” which after all is not too startling an observation. He gets even higher marks for the “painful, consistent Presidential desire to prevent defeat while resisting proposals to enlarge the conflict beyond what the present seemed to demand.” Mr. Goodwin here throws caution to the winds, for the problematical character of the President’s policies is wrapped up in the phrase “what the present seemed to demand.” What indeed does the present demand? Does it demand escalation, however slowly applied, or does it demand disengagement? Mr. Johnson has given one answer to that question, his critics have given another. In spite of the evidence of ineluctable escalation, Mr. Goodwin finds it “significant, and heartening, that the President has not called for armed triumph…. I hope, and I believe, that the President will resist such pressure [for enlargement of the war in the North] for no one is more painfully aware than he of the immense hazards of enlarging the war in the North.”
WHILE PRESIDENT JOHNSON thus emerges as a kind of hero from Mr. Goodwin’s analysis and while others, such as the Secretary of Defense, General Maxwell Taylor, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, come in for a fair share of criticism, the villain in Mr. Goodwin’s piece is the Secretary of State. I have retained a great affection for Mr. Rusk, and there was a time when I had reason to admire his civic courage and political judgment. I am constrained to find his conduct of affairs as Secretary of State far from admirable, but I find it also inadmissible, in view of the historic evidence, to burden him with a responsibility that is not his. It is true that Mr. Rusk has gotten into the habit of talking in a mechanical legalistic and moralistic vein, reminiscent of Mr. Dulles in his weaker moments. It is also true that Mr. Rusk is far from carrying the same responsibility for the actual formation of policy which Dulles carried under Eisenhower. Exonerating the President and blaming Rusk is simply to reverse the actual historic roles.
The strangeness of this book is most clearly revealed in its discussion of the substance of our Vietnamese policies. Mr. Goodwin strongly favors the local containment of China on the mainland of Asia. While conceding that “Geography is important,” he is particularly hostile to the idea that China, like other nations in other continents, might have a legitimate sphere of influence in Asia, from which another power could try to exclude her only at the risk of war. This is of course the Administration position pure and simple, and Mr. Goodwin marshalls with considerable skill and eloquence arguments in support of it. At the same time, he demolishes the more extravagant legal claims and historic analogies of the Department of State.
I AM HERE CONCERNED not with the merits of the Administration’s and Mr. Goodwin’s position but with the inner consistency of Mr. Goodwin’s arguments. The military policies which successive administrations have pursued around the periphery of China derive from the basic position Mr. Goodwin shares with the Administration. The war in Vietnam, seeking to contain Communism and, through it, China, forms an integral part of these military policies. Seeking to contain China and denying her a sphere of influence on the Asian mainland, the Administration is consistent in waging war in Vietnam. Mr. Goodwin, however, is not consistent. After advocating the containment of China and denying her a sphere of influence on the Asian mainland, he concludes that “the bedrock vital interest of the United States…is to establish that American military power, once committed to defend another nation, cannot be driven from the field. It is not to guarantee South Vietnam forever against the possibility of a Communist takeover.” In consequence, he argues forcefully against “victory” as the objective of the war and calls instead for limited objectives defined as “standoff.” These objectives, he thinks, “have largely been accomplished.” It is consistent with this definition of our military objectives that Mr. Goodwin opposes a further escalation of the war in the North and even favors “to slow down or halt the present bombing of the North.”
Thus Mr. Goodwin, while embracing the basic philosophy of the Administration, ends up advocating the policies of the opposition. Yet, by doing so, he involves himself in two further contradictions. On the one hand, he opposes the pursuit of victory and the extension of the war in the North. On the other hand, he favors the continuation of the war in the South much as the Administration does. He sounds very much like a spokesman for the Administration when he says,
We are under attack, and withdrawal is impossible and unwise. Here we must commit the forces needed to hold our positions, erode the enemy ranks, and clear guerillas from the countryside. The objective, however, should be not to crush the Vietcong in pursuit of an unlikely surrender but slowly to retake key areas of the country, mile by painful mile. Neither manpower nor money nor energy should be spared in the top-priority program of pacification.
It remains a mystery how such an outcome, which is a limited victory rather than a standoff, could be achieved by limiting the war to the South and without stopping the supply of men and materiél coming from the North.
MR. GOODWIN, in accord with the Administration, foresees “a long, bloody, inconclusive war of attrition, until returning sanity brings a political settlement.” What form would a political settlement take? Here we are in the presence of still another contradiction. Mr. Goodwin is convinced that no such settlement is possible without the active and independent participation of the Vietcong. As to the content of such a settlement, he deems it “unlikely we will permit any government to come to power which would inflict on us what some would see as the ‘humiliation of requesting our withdrawal.” In the Postscript, however, he sees a chance,
that a new government, while continuing the battle, will begin to make contact and carry on discussions with the leaders of the Vietcong, preparing the ground for their own negotiated solution. It would be well if we supported a government stable and self-confident enough to carry on this process. If there is to be a negotiated peace, it is more likely to be shaped between Vietnamese on both sides, than among the United States, North Vietnam, and China. Such a result would flow from the almost forgotten truth that this is, or at least should be, an Asian war whose course and resolution is determined by Asians.
If this be the nature of a negotiated settlement, it is virtually inconceivable that the withdrawal of our military forces would not be part of it.
What can account for these contradictions, surprising in an author so superbly equipped? They are the result, so it seems to me, of the author’s ambiguous political position. If the author were a detached intellectual he could have written either a straightforward critique or defense of our policies in Vietnam. If the author were a member of the Administration he could have written a straightforward defense of these policies. Yet Mr. Goodwin is neither. On the one hand, he is a former member of this Administration, residually loyal to it, and he may well be a member of another Administration to come. On the other hand, he assumes in this book the role of an intellectual with a critical mind of his own. The combination of these two positions is bound to be psychologically revealing but politically calamitous.