Vietnam: Shadow and Substance

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

The comment on our policy in Vietnam most frequently heard in Washington in the summer of 1965 consists of two questions: How did we ever get into this mess, and since we are in it, and cannot get out through negotiations, what can we do but stay? These questions deserve an answer; for the answers will shed light upon the nature of our policy in Vietnam. They will show that we have consistently confounded the shadow of national power with its substance, the prestige of the nation with the actuality of its power, ephemeral public reactions with the stability of the national prestige, the prestige of policy-makers with the prestige of the nation. We are here in the presence of a central misunderstanding of the nature of foreign policy and, in consequence, of a persistent dilettantism in trying to cope with the problem of Vietnam. This central fault in our thinking is responsible both for our general predicament and for our day-by-day failures, and it provides a common explanation of certain glaring deficiencies in a foreign policy otherwise inexplicable.

The prestige of a nation is its reputation for power. That reputation, the reflection of the reality of power in the mind of foreign observers, can be as important as the reality of power itself. What others think about us is as important as what we actually are. Thus all nations, and especially those active in foreign policy, must see to it that the mental picture other nations form of their power at least represents faithfully the actuality of their power, if it does not excel it.

It is at this point that the policy of prestige must guard against two pitfalls. If it exceeds that actuality by too much, prestige will become bluff, and a policy based upon such a misreading of reality will fail, as did Mussolini’s in the Second World War. On the other hand, prestige that makes a nation appear to be less powerful than it actually is reduces the influence the nation might in fact exert. The impotence of the United States in the inter-war period is a case in point. Thus wisdom lies in seeing to it that the shadow that a nation’s power casts in the form of its prestige is neither too large nor too small, but always retains a rational relationship to the substance of power. It is here that our policy in Vietnam is at fault. It illuminates the peculiar immaturity of our relationship to power by erring both ways: it claims both too much and too little in view of the substance of our power.

The prestige of a nation is not determined by the success or failure of a particular operation at a particular moment in history. Quite the contrary, it reflects the sum of a nation’s qualities and actions, of its successes and failures, of its historic memories and aspirations.…

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