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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves

It is remarkable that nowhere does anyone take note of the fact that congressional support was obtained in a rather dubious fashion, and that the popular mandate was not to escalate. The obvious conclusion to draw from this history is that peace-minded people should have voted for Senator Goldwater, so that the “popular mandate” would have been less overwhelming, since evidently it was only its scale and not its character that mattered. The whole affair reveals clearly the totalitarian instincts of the planners.

To a large extent, the debate over the war counterposes the “optimists,” who believe that with persistence we can win, to the “pessimists,” who argue that the US cannot, at reasonable cost, guarantee the rule of the regime of its choice in South Vietnam. The same two positions appear in the first of the secret “Kissinger papers,” released in part in the Washington Post, April 25, 1972. The analysis of the pessimists implies “pacification success in 13.4 years,” while the interpretation of the optimists “implies that it will take 8.3 years to pacify the 4.15 million contested and VC population of December 1968.” As always the pessimists differ from the optimists in their estimate of how long it will take to beat the Vietnamese resistance into submission—nothing more.

There is a third position which, unfortunately, is barely represented in policy-making, at least according to the available documentary record: namely, that the US executive should abide by the supreme law of the land and refrain from forceful intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. It appears that successive administrations believed that Vietnam was the victim of a Kremlin-directed conspiracy in 1950, that there was “aggression from the North” a decade later, and so on. They had the legal authority to express these beliefs and to appeal to the Security Council of the UN to determine the existence of a threat to peace. That they did not do so is self-explanatory.

It is occasionally argued that appeal to the UN Security Council, as required by law, would have been futile because of the Russian veto power. The argument is clearly irrelevant. The law states clearly that “the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and shall determine what measures shall be taken. Parties to a dispute “shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation” and other pacific means of the sort that the US has always explicitly sought to avoid, in the knowledge that “premature negotiations” or any other peaceful settlement would lead to a collapse of the American position. The legal obligations of the US executive were avoided not out of concern for a possible Russian veto, but because there was no credible case to present.

The US executive had no authority to back French colonialism; to impose a terroristic regime (or even a benevolent democracy) on South Vietnam; to engage in clandestine war throughout Indochina; to introduce US forces in combat support and direct aggression from 1961 on; to carry out a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam in 1965, demolishing much of the peasant society; or later, under Nixon, to wipe out the Plain of Jars in Laos and much of rural Cambodia; to bomb Haiphong; or to carry out any of the other actions that have led to mass revulsion in this country and throughout much of the world. Had the US executive been strictly bound by its legal obligations, which in my opinion do express reasonable principles of international behavior, we would never have found ourselves in the Indochina war.


Why, then, did the US become so deeply engaged in this war? In the early period, the documentary record now available presents a fairly explicit account of rational, if cynical, pursuit of perceived self-interest. The US has strategic and economic interests in Southeast Asia that must be secured. Holding Indochina is essential to securing these interests. Therefore we must hold Indochina. A critical consideration is Japan, which will eventually accommodate to the “Soviet Bloc” if Southeast Asia is lost. In effect, then, the US would have lost the Pacific phase of World War II, which was fought, in part, to prevent Japan from constructing a closed “co-prosperity sphere” in Asia from which the US would be excluded. The theory behind these considerations was the domino theory, which was formulated clearly before the Korean war, as was the decision to support French colonialism.

It is fashionable today to deride the domino theory, but in fact it contains an important kernel of plausibility, perhaps of truth. National independence and revolutionary social change, if successful, may very well be contagious. The danger is what Walt Rostow, writing in 1955, called the “ideological threat,” specifically, “the possibility that the Chinese Communists can prove to Asians by progress in China that Communist methods are better and faster than democratic methods” (An American Policy in Asia, MIT, p. 7). Similar fears were expressed by the State Department and the Joint Chiefs in 1959 (DOD, book X, pp. 1198, 1213, 1226). The State Department therefore urged that the US do what it could to retard the economic progress of the Communist Asian states (ibid., p. 1208), a decision that is remarkable in its cruelty.

A similar concern for Chinese “ideological expansion” was expressed in the planning for escalation in the fall of 1964 (III, pp. 218, 592). Fear was expressed that “the rot would spread” over mainland Southeast Asia, and that Thailand (always “the second line of defense” and, as of mid-1954, “the focal point of US covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia,” in the wording of NSC 5429/2—see above) would accommodate to Communist China “even without any marked military move by Communist China” (III, p. 661). The “rot,” in these cases, is surely the “ideological threat.” Recall that in this period there was much talk of competition between the Chinese and the Indian models of development. In this setting, fear of Chinese “ideological expansion” gave substance to the domino theory, quite apart from any speculation about Chinese aggression or Kremlin-directed conspiracies implemented by the Viet Minh.

It is interesting that the domino theory was never seriously challenged in the available record, though its more fantastic formulations were discounted. Rather, there was debate about timing and probability. Stripped of fantasies, the theory was not implausible. Successful social and economic development in a unified Vietnam led by Communists along the lines of the Chinese model might well have posed a “threat” to other developing countries, in that peasant-based revolutionary movements within them might have been tempted to follow a similar model instead of relying on the industrial powers and adapting their pattern of development to the needs and interests of these powers.

This might very well have led to Japanese moves to accommodate in some fashion to the “closed societies” of East Asia, to a possible effect on India, ultimately even on the Middle East, as the domino theory postulated: not by invasion, which was most unlikely, but by “ideological expansion,” which was not so improbable. In the Kennedy period, Vietnam was elevated to the status of a “test case,” and, I think it is fair to say, a degree of hysteria was introduced into planning. Nevertheless the rational core of policy-making remained. Developing nations must be taught a lesson: they must observe the rules and not undertake “national liberation” on the “do-it-yourself” Chinese model, with mass mobilization of the population and an emphasis on internal needs and resources.

Possibly the threat has now diminished, with the vast destruction in South Vietnam and elsewhere, and the hatreds, internal conflicts, demoralization, and social disruption caused by the American intervention. It may be, then, that Vietnam can be lost to the Vietnamese without the dire consequences of social and economic progress of a sort that might mean a good deal to the Asian poor.

The documentation for the pre-Kennedy period gives substantial support to this interpretation of US motives. For example, NSC 48/1 (December, 1949) warned that Southeast Asia “is the target of a coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin” (this is “now clear”). The industrial plant of Japan and such strategic materials as Indonesian oil must be denied to the “Stalinist bloc,” which might otherwise attain global dominance; they must be kept in the Western orbit. Japan is the crucial prize in East Asia. Communist pressure on Japan will mount because of proximity, the indigenous Japanese Communist movement which might be able to exploit cultural factors and economic hardship, and “the potential of Communist China as a source of raw materials vital to Japan and a market for its goods.”

Japan, the document continues, requires Asian food, raw materials, and markets; the US should encourage “a considerable increase in Southern Asiatic food and raw material exports” to avoid “preponderant dependence on Chinese sources” by Japan. Analogous considerations hold in regard to India. Furthermore, these markets and sources of raw materials should be developed for US purposes. “Some kind of regional association…among the non-Communist countries of Asia might become an important means of developing a favorable atmosphere for such trade among ourselves and with other parts of the world.”

The general lines of this analysis persist throughout the Truman and Eisenhower administrations (cf. NSC 64, NSC 48/5, NSC 124/2, etc.). To cite one case, an NSC staff study of February, 1952, warned:

The fall of Southeast Asia would underline the apparent economic advantages to Japan of association with the communist-dominated Asian sphere. Exclusion of Japan from trade with Southeast Asia would seriously affect the Japanese economy, and increase Japan’s dependence on United States aid. In the long run the loss of Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, could result in such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan’s eventual accommodation to the Soviet Bloc. [I, p. 375]

We know from other sources that the US put pressure on Japan to put a stop to its “accommodation” with China, and that the US offered access to Southeast Asia as an explicit inducement to the Japanese.10 Vietnam was regarded as “the Keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike” (John F. Kennedy, 1956—the terminology is characteristic of the period).

It is often argued that US intervention was motivated by “blind anti-communism” and other errors. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between two kinds of “anti-communism.” Opposition to indigenous movements in Asia that might be drawn to the Chinese model of development is not “blind anti-communism.” Rather, it is rational imperialism, which seeks to prevent any nibbling away at areas that provide the Western industrial powers and Japan with relatively free access to markets, raw materials, a cheap labor force, the possibility for export of pollution, and opportunities for investment.

On the other hand, to refer to a “coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin” against Southeast Asia, with the Viet Minh as its agent, is indeed “blind anti-communism,” that is, pure ideology, quite beyond the reach of evidence, but extremely useful as a propaganda device to rally domestic support for military intervention against indigenous communist-led movements. The Russians behaved no differently when they invaded Czechoslovakia. They stated, and perhaps even believed, that they were doing so to protect the Czech people from the machinations of Wall Street, the CIA, and the West German aggressors. In fact, they were seeking to preserve the Russian empire from erosion from within, much as the US is doing in Vietnam.

Administration spokesmen have held to the view that by destroying Vietnam we are somehow standing firm against Chinese or Russian aggression. As George Carver of the CIA once put it, our objective is: “Demonstrating the sterile futility of the militant and aggressive expansionist policy advocated by the present rulers of Communist China” (IV, p. 82). One searches the record in vain for evidence of this policy. The Pentagon historian observes that Chinese Communist activity in Southeast Asia appeared “ominous” to Washington in late 1964 (III, p. 267), but he cites as the factual basis only “Sukarno’s abrupt withdrawal of Indonesia’s participation in the UN,” which led to various speculations. In earlier years, there were determined efforts, always unavailing, to establish a direct link showing control of the Viet Minh by Moscow or Peking, though failure to do so in no way shook the belief, virtually a dogma, that the Vietnamese revolutionaries must be Chinese or Russian agents.

The remarkable intellectual failures of the “intelligence community” are revealed by the fact that the Pentagon historians were able to discover only one staff paper, in a record of more than two decades, “which treats communist reactions primarily in terms of the separate national interests of Hanoi, Moscow, and Peiping, rather than primarily in terms of an overall communist strategy for which Hanoi is acting as an agent” (II, p. 107; a Special National Intelligence Estimate of November, 1961). Even in the “intelligence community,” where the task is to get the facts straight—and not to proclaim that France is defending the territorial integrity of Vietnam from the Viet Minh and the “Commie-dominated bloc of slave states” (Acheson, October, 1950; I, p. 70)—it was apparently next to impossible to perceive, or at least to express, the simple truth that North Vietnam, like the Soviet Union, China, the US, and the NLF, has its own interests, which are often decisive ones.

The record makes clear that the US did not enter the Indochina war because it had discovered the Viet Minh to be Russian or Chinese agents. Nor did it repeatedly escalate this war because it found that the NLF was a puppet of the North (or of China or of Moscow). Quite the opposite was true. First came the US intervention, for entirely different reasons, and then the effort to show the dependence and control that was required for propaganda purposes, and also, no doubt, for the self-image of the policy-makers. It is, after all, psychologically much easier to destroy agents of Chinese aggression than people who had “captured the nationalist movement” of Vietnam. One form of anti-communism motivated US intervention: opposition to indigenous communist-led movements, under the assumptions of the domino theory. A second form of anti-communism was invoked to justify the intervention, publicly and internally: fear of a Kremlin-directed conspiracy or Chinese aggression—so far as we know, a figment of imagination.

Much the same has been true elsewhere: e.g., in Greece during the 1940s and in the Caribbean repeatedly. A serious defect of the Pentagon study, inherent in Secretary McNamara’s guidelines, is its failure to relate US policy in Vietnam to developments elsewhere, even in Southeast Asia. Had the historians cast a somewhat wider net, they would have discovered, as Joyce and Gabriel Kolko point out, that the domino theory was expressed by Secretary of State Marshall in 1947 with regard to Greece—in this case, the Middle Eastern countries, not Japan and Indonesia, were the “farther dominoes” that concerned him.11

They would also have discovered intriguing similarities between US intervention in Indochina and in Korea from 1945 to 1950. They might have noted that the US escalation of clandestine activities in Vietnam and Laos in late 1963 and 1964 apparently coincided with a similar escalation of attacks on Cambodia by the Khmer Serei, trained and equipped by the US Special Forces and the CIA. They would have observed that since 1948 the US has been deeply involved in Thai affairs, supporting a corrupt and at times savage military dictatorship, at first under a Japanese collaborator.

They would have determined, in short, that the US has not been a confused victim of events but an active agent, pursuing policies that were consistent with a coherent global strategy: to carve out and stabilize a system of “open societies,” societies in which, in particular, US capital can operate more or less freely. Though this is far from the sole operative factor in US policy, still it is surely the beginning of wisdom to recognize its crucial role.

It is often argued that the costs of such intervention demonstrate that there can be no underlying imperial drive. This reasoning is fallacious, however. In the first place, the “costs” are in large measure profits for selected segments of American society. It is senseless to describe government expenditures for jet planes or cluster bombs or computers for the automated air war simply as “costs of intervention.” There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit virtually no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the US economy in relation to its industrial rivals. But these general costs of empire can be said to be social costs, while, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain parts of society.

Senator Church noted in recent congressional hearings that the US has spent over $2 billion in aid to Brazil since 1964 to create a “favorable investment climate” to protect a total investment of only about $1.7 billion. This should come as no surprise to any student of modern history. In many respects, the same was true of the British empire, after the original rape of India. The costs of empire are distributed over the society as a whole; its profits revert to a few within. In this respect, the empire serves as a device for internal consolidation of power and privilege, and it is quite irrelevant to observe that its social costs are often very great or that, as costs rise, differences may arise among those who are in positions of power and influence.

It should also be noted that planners cannot unerringly calculate costs in advance. They cannot begin all over again if plans go awry. Though the planners of the past twenty-five years might not have undertaken the effort to dominate Indochina had they known the consequences, they did not have the luxury of advance knowledge. On the assumptions of the domino theory, in its more realistic versions, the original calculation was not an unreasonable one, whatever one may think of its moral basis or its status in law. As I have indicated, I personally think it was deplorable on such grounds, but that is a different matter entirely. Furthermore, it is my impression that by the early 1960s other and more irrational factors had come to predominate, a matter which is of some interest in itself, but which I will not explore here.12

At one crucial point in the planning to escalate the war in 1964, William Bundy raised the question whether it would be possible to carry out the preferred escalatory option “under the klieg lights of a democracy” (III, p. 648). I think he was quite right to raise this question, though not exactly for the reasons he gave. Secrecy and deceit are essential components of aggression. The visibility of the American war of annihilation in South Vietnam was undoubtedly a factor in turning much of the population to protest and resistance, much to the credit of American society. The social costs of empire alone, in a healthy democracy, would impede imperial planners. But a system of centralized power, insulated from public scrutiny and operating in secret, possessing vast means of destruction and hampered by few constraints, will naturally tend to commit aggression and atrocities.

That is the primary lesson of the Pentagon history, though we hardly need this valuable and illuminating record to establish the danger of a situation foreseen by Thomas Jefferson when the nation was founded. There has, in the past generation, been a peculiar inattention to foreign policy on the part of the public. Government secrecy has been a contributing factor, far outweighed, in my opinion, by the intense indoctrination of the postwar period that has rendered the public inert until quite recently. It comes as no surprise, under these circumstances, that Jefferson’s prediction was fulfilled. If citizens “become inattentive to the public affairs,” he wrote, then the government “shall all become wolves.” Successive administrations did “become wolves,” international predators, architects of one of the most horrendous catastrophes of modern history.

What is worse, perhaps, very little has changed. Even many opponents of the war pretend to themselves that others are to blame for the catastrophe of Vietnam. In a strong editorial statement against the war, the New York Times editors wrote:

This is not to say that Americans, including the political and military commands and the G.I.’s themselves, did not originally conceive their role quite honestly as that of liberators and allies in the cause of freedom; but such idealistic motives had little chance to prevail against local leaders skilled in the art of manipulating their foreign protectors. [May 7, 1972]

Once again we have the image of the American political leadership, noble and virtuous, bewildered and victimized, but not responsible, never responsible for what it has done. The corruption of the intellect and the moral cowardice revealed by such statements defy comment.

Whether the US will withdraw from Vietnam short of true genocide and perhaps even the serious threat of international war is, I am afraid, still an open question. There is, unfortunately, sufficient reason to suppose that the same grim story will be re-enacted elsewhere.

  1. 10

    For discussion and references, see my At War With Asia, pp. 33-36.

  2. 11

    The Limits of Power (Harper & Row, 1972), p. 340.

  3. 12

    Hannah Arendt has discussed a variety of irrational factors, as revealed by the Pentagon Papers, in her essay “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” New York Review, November 18, 1971, and now included in her recent book Crisis of the Republic (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). A case can be made for her view that these were significant factors, but primarily in the 1960s. In the earlier period, the documentary record, particularly as presented in books 8 and 10 of the government edition of the Pentagon Papers, gives a rather different picture. For a more detailed discussion of this matter, see my article on the Pentagon Papers in the Partisan Review (Summer, 1972).

    By 1965, questions of long-term motive became somewhat beside the point. We were there. Period. John McNaughton stated in early 1966 that “The present US objective in Vietnam is to avoid humiliation. The reasons why we went into Vietnam to the present depth…are now largely academic.” (IV, p. 47).

    A word might be added about the claim, now frequently expressed, that “radicals” (unspecified) argue that the US fought in Vietnam to secure offshore oil. Though I know of no one who has proposed this, it has been argued—quite correctly, I believe—that the oil discoveries in the region gave an added reason, at some point which cannot be specified with precision, to maintain control of coastal regions of Indochina, and that hopes for oil investment play a part in plans for “economic Vietnamization.” There is, in fact, an interesting literary genre devoted to the refutation of nonexistent arguments attributed to “radicals”: e.g., the “Marxist argument” that capitalist societies need war to survive, or the “revisionist argument” that the United States is solely responsible for all postwar international tensions, etc.

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