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Lessons for Nixon

The Limits of Intervention

by Townsend Hoopes
David McKay, 245 pp., $5.95

The United States may have yet to lose a war, but it is an illusion to believe that it has never suffered defeat. Vietnam is our third in Asia, as Castro’s Cuba is our second in Latin America. In his book, The Limits of Intervention, Townsend Hoopes tells us that Johnson, after campaigning as a peace candidate in 1964, ordered combat troops into Vietnam in 1965 because he did not wish to become “the first American President to lose a war.” Nixon nine months after his election said the same thing to Stewart Alsop of Newsweek, to the joy of Brother Joe.

But Vietnam is not the first example of the limits on our power to intervene. The Chinese Nationalists were driven off the mainland despite a small army of American military advisers, arsenals stocked with American arms and several billion dollars in aid. In the Korean war, primitively armed Chinese Communist “volunteers” pushed us back from the Yalu to the 38th Parallel and reoccupied North Korea even after we had completely crushed the North Korean armies and levelled just about everything above ground. In the perspective of Asia, these were victorious stages in the ebb-tide of white imperialism, which began with Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905. In the perspective of American policy, China, Korea, and Vietnam are warnings that we cannot add Asia to Latin America as our imperial sphere of influence.

Even in the contiguous areas of Latin America, we have not had everything our own way. Long before the Green Berets and the CIA, US Marines and operatives, whether governmental or from US big business, dominated the political life of Central America and the Caribbean. Yet Mexico was a series of defeats for the military-economic warfare an earlier generation of American anti-imperialists called gunboat and dollar diplomacy. From the bombardment of Vera Cruz in 1913 under Wilson to the world-wide blockade we imposed on Mexican oil under FDR, we were unable to stem the successive stages of a nationalist and peasant revolt that seized—and kept—millions of dollars in US land and oil properties. Fidel was not the first to defy Yanqui Imperialism and get away with it. Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy—at the Bay of Pigs—had to swallow the bitter pill of political-military defeat, and did so rather than gamble on longer and wider war. Nixon will be in good company if he has to do likewise in Vietnam.

The adjustment to reality is always painful, the recovery from illusion is never smooth, and relapses are normal. Hoopes spells out the process brilliantly in his account-from-within of how Johnson was finally led to de-escalate the war, and then began to regret it, as Nixon seems to be doing now. His memoir is given added value because Hoopes is a defector who had two decades of intimate association with the buildup of the military juggernaut which has come a cropper in Vietnam. “I too,” he writes, “was a child of the cold war.” In 1947-48 he was assistant to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the military’s chief outpost on Capitol Hill. He went from there to the Pentagon, as an assistant to James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, a fanatical cold warrior. He stayed on in the Pentagon as young man of all work for his three successors, Louis Johnson, General Marshall, and Robert Lovett. In 1957 he became secretary to the Military Panel of the Rockefeller Brothers Special Study Project and, with Henry Kissinger, he was a principal draftsman of its report on military policy. He calls this “the pioneering effort” to replace massive retaliation with “the concept of graduated deterrence and flexible response.”

This was also, though he does not say so, a blueprint for the military requirements needed to police the world and protect American business and other interests against a wide range of threats, in a time of revolutionary turmoil. Symbolically and practically it came naturally from a study project set up by the Rockefeller Brothers, for it was tailored to the needs of the private empire Standard Oil and Chase Manhattan administer. For them it made no sense to have a muscle-bound military machine which could only threaten a universal nuclear Doomsday when somebody made a pass at their oil wells in Peru.

They finally got from the Democrats what the economy-minded Eisenhower Administration denied them. Under Kennedy and McNamara the armed forces were reshaped to meet the varying levels of violence required for a Pax Americana and it was under McNamara that Hoopes returned to the Pentagon in 1965 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, i.e., No. 2 man in the Pentagon’s own little State Department. This gradually, and his story shows how and why, became infested with doves while the State Department under Rusk remained a nest of hawks. He then moved up to Under Secretary of the Air Force during 1967-69. Thus his return to the Pentagon coincided with Johnson’s decision to Americanize the Vietnam war and he stayed on under Clark Clifford and helped to turn that policy around. It is quite a conversion when a man of this background describes the Vietnamese war as the beginning of the end for the Pax Americana, though he phrases it less bluntly—

as the probable high watermark of America’s tidal impulse to political military intervention in the period following the Second World War.

He sees the war also as marking the end of “a doctrinaire anti-Communism, a social evangelism forming around the idea of American-financed economic development in the Third World and an unquestioning faith in the ultimate efficacy of military alliances and of US military power.”

Vietnam was our biggest war of intervention. It cost easily a $100 billion. It tied down close to 800,000 men in and around Southeast Asia. It cost more casualties than any war except the Civil War and the two World Wars. It is not strange that the disillusion should also have momentous dimensions, though this has only begun to dawn on the principal actors and even on some of the dissenters, who still regard Vietnam as no more than a blunder.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the experience is that the bigger and more diverse a nation’s military establishment the bigger and more diverse the troubles it will get that nation into. Iceland may be indignant over what is happening in Southeast Asia but it is fortunately helpless to do anything about it. Johnson got into Vietnam when and because we were ready to get in. “By 1965,” Hoopes writes, “McNamara’s prodigious labors to strengthen and broaden the US military posture were about completed…US ‘general purpose’ forces were now organized to intervene swiftly and with modern equipment in conflicts of limited scope, well below the nuclear threshold.”

The Rockefeller Brothers report on military policy had recommended the reorganization of the armed services into functional commands, which combined naval, air, and army contingents. One such was to be a strike command, framed for swift and distant interventions. Accordingly STRIKECOM—another of those Pentagon acronymic monsters—had been set up, directly under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and ready at the President’s hand, like the thunderbolts of a new Jove.

This new military capability, Hoopes writes,

had been designed precisely to arrest or restore those deteriorating situations in the world where important or vital US interests were judged to be engaged, to deal with ambiguous subversion-aggressions characterized by little warning and a low silhouette, to blunt national liberation wars.

(How antiseptic it all sounds in the vocabulary of the Pentagon!) Hoopes continues, “To a rational activist like McNamara, with a very thin background in foreign affairs, it seemed entirely logical to employ a portion of this immense US power if that could arrest the spreading erosion in South Vietnam.” In retrospect what McNamara lacked was not a firmer background in foreign affairs, but in human and political understanding. To McNamara the outcome seemed certain. “Surely,” as Hoopes explains, “the use of limited US power, applied with care and precision, but with the threat of more to come, would bring a realistic Ho Chi Minh to early negotiations.” How do you quantify for a computer the irreducible logic and power of men willing to die?

So the means lay at hand for Johnson’s natural pugnacity, and we plunged into the quagmire. What I want to suggest here is that one may deduce from the experience some fundamental axioms of statecraft and history. One is that a large military establishment must justify its existence by finding work to do. The other is that nations which have spent huge sums on a large military establishment will react to complex economic, social, and political problems by trying to solve them with force. What’s the good of all those billions spent on such highly perfected military instruments if you don’t use them? So if you have a STRIKECOM, you are bound sooner or later to have a Vietnam.

Hoopes’s disillusion began early. At the end of 1965 he sent a memorandum to the late John T. McNaughton, then his superior as Assistant Secretary of State for International Security Affairs, which showed an insidious skepticism. He expressed his doubts about the view held “by Lodge, probably Westmoreland and maybe McNamara” that the Viet Cong would just “fade away” when they realized they could not win, making negotiation unnecessary. This is still Secretary Rogers’s favorite bedtime story, as it was Rusk’s. Hoopes thought the USSR and China too deeply committed to allow the US any such clear-cut victory. He had the temerity to suggest that were the situation reversed and 150,000 Chinese Communists in Mexico, “it seems reasonable to believe the US would be determined to fight for decades and even generations to expel them.”

Such objectivity was downright subversive, but it began to spread. By the spring of 1967 McNaughton came back from a White House conference on the war to tell him acidly, “We seem to be proceeding on the assumption that the way to eradicate the Viet Cong is to destroy all the village structures, defoliate all the jungles, and then cover the entire surface of South Vietnam with asphalt.”

Hoopes recorded a similar satiric comment in late 1967 from the famous Major Be, a South Vietnamese officer who got himself fired because he really tried to win “hearts and minds” to the detriment of province chiefs more interested in getting their rake-off from “pacification.” “Everyone is a Communist,” Major Be said of the methods used to “pacify” the villages. “Using the police way, every Vietnamese [in the countryside] would have to be killed and our villages repopulated with Americans.” There was nothing wrong in Southeast Asia which could not be cured by removing Vietnam and the Vietnamese.

Later that year, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the futility of bombing the North, McNamara jolted Johnson into complaining, “that military genius, McNamara, has gone dovish on me.” He found himself promoted to head of the World Bank, although its directors had just voted to keep George Wood in office for another year until the end of 1968. “The most Byzantine of American Presidents,” Hoopes comments, “had given McNamara a fast shuffle, and had gauged his man’s character, inner ambivalence and fatigue well enough to be confident that he would go quietly and suffer the indignity in silence.” Thus do men put their loyalty to their bureaucratic team over their loyalty to their country.

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