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Common Sense

In response to:

The Invisible Country from the October 19, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

Miss FitzGerald’s understanding of what I said in War Comes to Long An differs considerably from my own [NYR October 19]. I would like to clarify this for the benefit of your readers.

First, Miss FitzGerald makes much of the absurdity of my policy suggestions. “He suggests that the entire communist social and political program, as he interprets it, should have been adopted by the GVN.” “This suggestion is astonishing….” “This absurdity…,” etc.

On the last page of the preface I state: “While one aim of this study is to suggest some alternate ways of analyzing conflicts such as that in Vietnam, it is not intended to suggest any alternate policies or strategies…. I consider this work principally of academic interest, to scholars and to members of the general public desiring to know more about revolutionary social movements, or about recent events in Vietnamese history.” Miss FitzGerald has misconstrued my reflecting on different possible pasts as recommending different policies in the future. Thus the alleged absurdities do not exist.

A second issue concerns what I attempted in my book. Miss FitzGerald writes: “He sees the conflict as an essentially intellectual problem amenable to an intellectual solution.” My view of my role as a scholar here was not to find solutions for the policy maker (as Miss FitzGerald continues to infer) but to clarify the structure of social phenomena. In particular I wanted to examine the strategic, organizational and policy, antecedents of the very different results in Long An achieved by the revolutionary movement and the Saigon government. I did indeed approach this as an intellectual problem, which is what it must be before it can be anything else. Why some measures were adopted and others not is, I agree with Miss FitzGerald, an extremely important question. It is not, however, the one that I addressed in War Comes to Long An.

Nevertheless, since Miss FitzGerald has raised the issue, I would like to offer a few observations. She states that “counterrevolutionaries do not adopt revolutionary strategies not because they are too stupid to do so but because it is contrary to their interests. This disregard for the facts leads Race to some odd contradictions….” I am confident that what divides us here is not whether facts are relevant to truth, but what the relevant facts are.

Miss FitzGerald and I agree that policy makers in Saigon and Washington were anything but stupid. The question is indeed, as she says, “how so many otherwise intelligent men—Vietnamese and American—managed to invent such nonsensical counterinsurgency theories and to propagate them for more than two decades.” This is a complex cognitive problem, however, and I certainly disagree with Miss FitzGerald that they did so because to do otherwise was contrary to their interests.

The “facts” from Long An indicate quite clearly that their interests would have been better served by other courses of action. Other elites, at other times and other places, have recognized this “fact,” adjusted their behavior accordingly, and survived. The “fact” is also that those I interviewed were genuinely unaware of what would have been effective measures to save themselves.

The “facts” thus seem more complex than the “simpler explanation” of self-interest proposed by Miss FitzGerald for the peculiar behavior of policy makers. What would constitute an adequate explanation is still debated at the theoretical level, not to mention at the empirical. I have offered some tentative observations, using cognitive dissonance theory, in my 1970 APSA panel paper “American Intervention Abroad: Systematic Distortions in the Policy-Making Process” (cited, incidentally, in War Comes to Long An). This is an important problem but, as I have said, simply not one addressed in my book. This was by choice, however, and not, as Miss FitzGerald implies in her review, through negligence, fuzzy thinking, or a secret desire to apologize for the powers that be.

I would also like to point out one oversight in Miss FitzGerald’s review. She states: “How [the Saigon government] has managed to survive all these years remains a mystery in his book, for nowhere does Race mention the decisive factor of American aid or discuss the impact of the American presence on the Vietnamese.” At page 195 there is a lengthy note to the effect that “there was an explicit decision that the source of support of this military machine would be the American and not the Vietnamese taxpayer,” etc. Chapter 5, titled “Ignoring the Lessons: The American War in Long An” (Miss FitzGerald quotes but the first half of the title in her review) discusses the mystery in explicit and carefully documented detail for 67 pages.

Jeffrey Race

Bangkok, Thailand

Frances FitzGerald replies:

Mr. Race is at least consistent in ignoring the facts.

I was well aware of Mr. Race’s disclaimer in the preface, and there was nothing in my review to suggest that he was recommending future strategies for the United States. But the absurdities still exist in his book, for in the process of analyzing US policies in Vietnam, Mr. Race says that the US and the Saigon government could have adopted other counterinsurgency strategies that would have worked. Specifically, on page 236 he writes, “In fact, however, this bitter dilemma [i.e., the US field officer’s choice between risking more American casualties and killing Vietnamese civilians along with enemy troops] was forced on the American command only because of its failure to adapt its strategy, organization and policies to the nature of the conflict. There was an alternative, one demonstrated by the process by which the Party [i.e., the South Vietnamese Communist Party] gained the initial victory in Long An.” Now, this is nonsense, for, as must be obvious to everyone except Mr. Race, the US troops were foreigners, and anti-Communist foreigners at that. Furthermore, the United States had actually brought about the conflict by creating and supporting a government that, according to Race himself, opposed the wishes of the “decisive majority” of the Vietnamese people. This is what I mean by the facts.

In War Comes to Long An Mr. Race’s main intellectual error is that he treats the US and the Saigon government officials as free-floating intellects that could—had they understood the situation—have revolutionized the social and economic structure of the country and developed a popular base of support such as the Party had in Long An. The trouble is that they were that structure, and they could not have changed it without abdicating their power. US aid and assistance to Saigon was—and is—the central element of that structure. Mr. Race mentions the existence of US aid in a footnote, but he does not seem to understand that—by the very fact of its existence—it prevented the Saigon government from gaining popular support. By pouring money and weapons into Vietnam the US was not only closing off all incentive the Saigon officials might have had to go to their own people, but it was hitching power in Vietnam to the pursuit of foreign goals.

The US attempt to force those officials into carrying out some measure of social and economic reform was an essay in contradiction since the only real common interest of the Saigon officials lay in perpetuating the flow of US aid and maintaining their own exclusive control over it. In fact the Saigon elite adapted very well to its situation—and it has survived better than any other group in South Vietnam. But with all the social science in the world, the US officials could not make this parasite-government work for them, for with aid the officials had no incentive to change the system of oppression, and without it they would have had no incentive to resist the revolutionaries.

The question of why the US and Saigon officials invented the counterinsurgency theories that Mr. Race so rightly debunks can, I think, be answered without recourse to cognitive dissonance theory. Suppose for a moment that the officials had understood the situation. Suppose they had said to themselves, we are fighting a popular, Southern-based struggle against economic injustice and foreign domination. In that case they would have had two choices. They could have quit and allowed the struggle to triumph or they could have done precisely what they did: invent counterinsurgency theories (such as: the Communists operate by terror alone; the revolutionaries are a tiny group of professionals that can be “rooted out” of the population) that would give moral justification to their efforts and at the same time carry out counterinsurgency strategies (such as bombing the villages and forcing the majority of the South Vietnamese into economic dependency on the United States) that both contradicted their theories and provided some form of solution to their real problem.

Not all of the deception was, of course, conscious. Many officials, American and Vietnamese, believed these theories, and for those who had little exposure to the situation it was easy enough to believe what accorded with their desires for it. But the extraordinary persistence of belief among those who faced all the evidence to the contrary suggests that self-interest played a certain role. It is, after all, much easier to deceive oneself than to lie to others en tout conscience de cause. Mr. Race might be amazed by the numbers of people who, like himself, stopped believing those theories, or even taking them seriously, once they ended their responsibility for carrying on the war. As a social scientist he might also be amazed at how many complex cognitive problems can be resolved by common sense.

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