Maxwell Taylor
Maxwell Taylor; drawing by David Levine

It is hardly a sensational discovery that the foreign policy of the United States is in urgent need of radical rethinking. We have been living off the capital of the great innovations—containment, the Marshall Plan, and the Truman Doctrine—which, in the Spring of 1947, transformed American policy. These policies were appropriate to the challenges they were intended to meet, and they succeeded. Yet the political world has changed almost beyond recognition during the last two decades. To think and act in 1967 as though we were still living in 1947 is at best useless, and at worst fraught with great risks. Our modes of thought and action must be brought into harmony with the new objective conditions of the world: we must come to terms with our allies, with the Communist world, with the uncommitted third of the world. with nuclear power, and, finally and most importantly, with ourselves.

Our policy makers are rationally aware of these new conditions, but are unable to act according to that awareness. Two years ago, a high official of our government told me that whenever he mentioned to General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the new polycentric character of the Communist world, Wheeler would agree; but there was no trace of that recognition to be found in his policy recommendations. How can that gap between awareness and action be explained? The answer, I think, must be found in the success of the policies that were initiated in 1947. This success was limited to Europe, to which alone those policies were originally applied. Our national propensity for legalistic and moralistic abstractions turned policies, which happened to be appropriate to, and successful in, a particular political situation, into dogmas of universal validity. Reality is perceived through the distorting perspective of these dogmas, and in consequence action conforms to dogma rather than to reality. The rational awareness of empirical, fragmentary reality has thus far been unable to prevail over the coherent view of the world, however distorted, which the dogmas present. Whenever dogma has clashed with experience, dogma has tended to win out: When there has been an opportunity to apply military force against recalcitrant reality, as in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, we have done so in the name of dogma. When there has been no such opportunity, as in our relations with our European allies, we have resorted to evasive and patently unworkable devices, a kind of technological dogmatism, such as the multilateral sea borne nuclear force (MLF). Or we have yielded to the pressure of intractable circumstances, and tried pragmatically to adapt our obsolescent routines to them.

There is great wisdom in the statement of Winston Churchill:

Those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking a short view, and indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked by what they read from day to day.

However, this statement needs to be amended in the light of our current experience. Short views and natural impulses, however defective in the rational requirements of foreign policy, are still preferable as guides to foreign policy to a definite body of doctrine and deeply rooted convictions which have at best a tenuous relation to empirical reality.

GENERAL MAXWELL TAYLOR’S BOOK is a telling example of what one might call the “Wheeler syndrome.” General Taylor is one of the most brilliant and learned men the Armed Services of the United States have produced. The Uncertain Trumpet was indeed an important contribution to military theory; it paved the way for the Kennedy-McNamara strategy of flexible response. This new book, however, will be remembered only as an embarrassment. For its reasoning is casual, vague, and contradictory; its aim, to transform the lessons of Vietnam into a doctrine of countering “Wars of Liberation,” remains unachieved.

The author sets out to reconcile the dogma of communist aggression with the realities of the contemporary world. The first sentence sets the intellectual tone for the whole book:

One of the most significant political developments in this decade has been the progressive dissolution of the bipolar nuclear confrontation of the United States and its allies with the Sino-Soviet Communist bloc and its replacement by a multipolar power relationship.

Two disparate phenomena are here obviously confused: nuclear bipolarity, which still exists and continues to cast its shadow over world politics, and the transformation of the two monolithic blocs into polycentric associations.

The concept of “multipolarity” is General Taylor’s concession to the reality of polycentrism. General Taylor goes so far as to admit that “Peking and Moscow are not the only troublemakers capable of interfering with the pursuit of American objectives about the world,” and that “the purposes of the leadership in Hanoi are not always identical with those of Peking….”; he assigns Castro’s Cuba a permanent place “on our list of potential troublemakers.” He defines the “troublemakers”as follows: “Most of them are presently Communist, but this is not an essential characteristic.”


Yet once these concessions to empirical reality have been made, the author proceeds as though they did not exist. What General Taylor has in mind is not the dissolution of the Communist bloc into its national components, but rather its splitting up into “the Soviet bloc and the Chinese bloc.” We are confronted not with individual nations, to be dealt with on their merits, but with two blocs instead of one. From page seven onwards, we hear of nothing but “Communist expansion,” “Communist intention,” “Communist attitude,” and so on. All cases of what the author calls “subversive aggression” show the same pattern attributable to communism.

We recognize it [the guerrilla war in South Vietnam] as the same tactic employed in the civil war in Greece, in the Huk insurrection in the Philippines, in the guerrilla warfare in Malaya, and during parts of the Chinese civil war.

Thus the dogma of Communist uniformity, which is at the very least a blood relation to the Communist monolith, if not just a particular aspect of it, obliterates the awareness of empirical diversities.

GENERAL TAYLOR ASSIGNS to the United States the task of frustrating “wars of liberation.” He recognizes that such a war

is essentially a threat to weak governments and thrives on poverty, social injustice, and all similar conditions which encourage popular discontent. Since these are conditions present in many if not most of the emerging countries, we are evidently talking about a very large number of possible target countries where a “War of Liberation” may be undertaken under conditions favorable to its success.

As far as the author is concerned, the ubiquity of the conditions conducive to revolution casts no doubt upon the dogmatic assumption that these revolutions must be attributed to the ubiquity of the Communist conspiracy. However, the author draws another conclusion from this empirical statement: “We need to be selective in opposing these revolutions. That selectivity should be based upon an enlightened appreciation of the nature of our essential interests.” Here are some of the standards we ought to apply:

There may be good reasons to use our resources to resist a trouble-making power which commits aggression against a weak and friendly state if the subversion of that state would be a significant gain to the troublemaker or a significant loss to us. Even then, we should have a reasonably accurate and encouraging estimate of the chances of success before we act. We cannot afford to stake our world standing on a lost cause or on one with unduly high risks of failure.

This thought leads to a third lesson, the degree to which the effectiveness of the United States in opposing a troublemaker is limited by the character of the local government which we wish to assist. We have learned from our Vietnam experience how great a disadvantage it is to work with an ineffective local government unable to utilize much of our assistance….

The obvious lesson of this experience, I believe, is the need to take careful account of the political situation within a country before the United States commits itself to assist it. We must be sure that there are reasonably able leaders with whom we can work, who are cooperative, and who have an attitude like our own toward the problems which we are to resolve in common. We should be slow to rush into situations where there is no likelihood of governmental stability for the indefinite future. Some of the emerging countries we have been considering, in Africa for example, are in such a state of ferment that it is unreasonable to expect a leadership to emerge in the short run which will be capable of staying in power long enough to use effectively such aid as we might be inclined to provide. We must be philosophical and recognize that turbulance will be a rule for a long time in a large number of these new countries and be slow to back individuals and the parties which, at best, are poor bets in the short term.

It seems to follow inevitably from this empirical analysis, if it is as sound as I think it is, that our intervention in Vietnam does not meet these standards. However, this is not General Taylor’s conclusion.

At this point, I have often been asked whether in the light of the demonstrated political weakness of South Vietnam, I now thought that the United States had made a mistake in 1954 in becoming involved in the defense of that country and in continuing to support it in the subsequent years. I have no hesitancy in saying that I believe our government did the right thing….

We must remain involved in South Vietnam “until we have exposed the myth of the invincibility of the ‘War of Liberation’ and have assured the independence of South Vietnam.” If the principle of selectivity supports our intervention in Vietnam, is there any intervention against a “War of Liberation” which could not be so supported? Thus dogma triumphs again over reality, and selective intervention becomes identical with indiscriminate intervention.


THIS CONFLICT between dogma and reality not only spoils General Taylor’s arguments, but it also impairs his understanding of reality and involves him in blatant contradictions and incongruities. In defense of the bombing of North Vietnam, General Taylor says on page 26: “The South Vietnamese have no illusions as to who is hurting them—it is Hanoi and the Hanoi leadership.” Here we are in the presence of the dogma of “Communist subversive aggression,” which explains the war in the South as the result of a Northern conspiracy. On page 38, however, he argues against the advocates of all-out bombing of North Vietnam in these realistic terms:

That is the opposite of the get-out alternative and I would say almost equally unacceptable. I often ask the proponents of this alternative what would happen if Hanoi were suddenly to disappear. Suppose everything of value in the North were destroyed; we would still have over 200,000 armed guerrillas in South Vietnam who would still have to be accounted for in some way. For food they could live off the land without supplies from the North. If they avoided contact with large military forces, they could husband their weapons and ammunition stocks and maintain for a long time a low level of sustained depredations and terrorist activity. If they were determined to carry on the war, if their morale did not collapse at this disaster in the North, they could conceivably remain in action for the next ten years, or the next twenty years, and we might still be tied down by this vast guerrilla force.

But finally, dogma triumphs, without any reference to reality, in this dismissal of the risk of escalation:

I personally have never felt that this danger of possible escalation is something that should make us timid or reluctant to do the right thing. There seems to be a conclusion, borne out in our past relations with the Communist world, that one never provokes Communists to do anything—they will do what suits their purpose in their own time, when it is to their interest. They will not withhold doing us a bad turn because we are nice to them. Hence, when one expresses concern about attacks by the Vietcong on our shipping at Saigon if we mine the port of Haiphong, it carries no weight with me, because the Vietcong have been trying to damage the port of Saigon for years and have recurrently attacked shipping there. They will continue to do so regardless of what we do to Haiphong.

There is nothing unpleasant in the South that the Vietcong can do which they have not already done. They have no reserve bag of dirty tricks which they are holding back. As time goes on, they may find ways to do worse things to us, but their action will not be delayed because they have had any reluctance to use all their resources against us. Hence, I would not worry too much about “provoking” them.

Here the dogma conceives of the enemy no longer as a group of human beings reacting as you and I would react, but as static monsters doing evil to the full, like dragons spewing fire, regardless of what we are doing. What is disturbing is not that such things can be said, but that a man of real substance can say them without being aware of their absurdity. William Graham Sumner noted that “the amount of superstition is not much changed, but it now attaches to politics, not to religion.” That the sense of reality even of some of the best of us in being drowned in the murky waters of dogmatic superstition is part of the price we must pay for our involvement in Vietnam.

WHEN ONE OPENS Senator Fulbright’s book, one enters a healthier intellectual world. Before I read the book. I read a number of reviews of it. With one exception, they were all extremely unfavorable, using the occasion to take the author to task for his political opinions rather than giving a critical analysis of the book. One academic reviewer suggested that the book ought to be called “The Arrogance of Pride” and that Senator Fulbright ought to resign the Chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he berated the Senator for having removed Senator McGee from that Committee because of his support of the Vietnam War—a complete fabrication as I could ascertain from Senator McGee himself—and for having questioned the psychological condition of the President—and assertion not borne out by anything I read in the book. It illustrates the suggestive force of this kind of character assassination, perpetrated by different people over a period of time, that I expected to find in this book the embittered and cranky outpourings of a lonely dissenter, inferior to the books Senator Fulbright had written before. I found something rather different.

This is by far the best book Senator Fulbright has written. It is one of the few really good books written on the current foreign policy of the United States. It is always knowledgeable, sophisticated, and fair; and frequently it is profound and wise as well. It shows the qualities of a first-rate political mind and the dedication to the common good of a noble public servant. There is in the book no trace of that bitterness Senator Fulbright must sometimes feel, and has a right to express. The polemics, extremely restrained, are concerned with the issues only. The arguments are imbued throughout with a mellow philosophy which both enlightens and moves.

It is a striking comment on the moral climate of contemporary America that Senator Fulbright must devote forty-odd pages to proving the proposition that senators, intellectuals, and citizens in general have a right to criticize the foreign policy of their government. He does this brilliantly under the heading “The Higher Patriotism.” It is characteristic of the American nation, in contrast to other nations, that no fundamental examination of its foreign policies is possible without having first settled, explicitly or implicitly, the question of what the American “purpose” in the world is supposed to be. For America is the only nation which is not held to be the result of historic forces—dynastic, religious, ethnic, or geographic—be yond the control of its citizens; it has been created and has continuously maintained itself through an act of will by those who wanted to become and be Americans in order to achieve a particular purpose. What constitutes the individuality of America as a nation, then, is the American commitment to the achievement of such a purpose. Senator Fulbright juxtaposes two different conceptions of the American purpose: the humanism of Lincoln with the crusading spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, the American example with the American Empire. Rejecting the crusading imperialism that has sometimes characterized our history, he conceives of the American mission as the incarnation of an idea—which I have called “equality in freedom.”

Senator Fulbright then proceeds to examine the fundamental problems of American foreign policy. He sees America as an “unrevolutionary” power in a revolutionary world. He examines the nature of the revolutions with which America must come to terms, both philosophically in the form of communism, and geographically, in Asia and Latin America.

HIS CONCRETE PROPOSALS for new policies are presented to answers to two basic questions: Which objectives are vital for the United States to pursue in its relations which other countries, and which are only desirable; further, which objectives can be pursued with the power at the disposal of the United States, and which cannot? It is obvious that in performing this task the author has greatly profited from the hearings that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held on his initiative. Thus he is able to connect everywhere proposals for concrete new policies with fundamental insights into the objective nature of the issues. His eight-point proposal for peace in Vietnam is the culmination of an incisive and lengthy discussion of the psychological problems which the conduct of foreign policy inevitably raises, and of the issues, seen in historic and contemporary perspectives, which Asia presents the United States.

It is hardly necessary for me to point out that I do not suscribe to all of Senator Fulbright’s philosophic propositions and policy proposals. Obviously, the philosophic issue is more complex than it appears in the author’s presentation. The crusaders do not deviate from what Senator Fulbright regards as the true mission of America. They too, say in effect that they want to achieve “equality in freedom” at home and abroad. What distinguishes them is the resolution to impose the message of that mission upon an unwilling world, if need be with fire and sword, thereby corrupting and perverting it.

As to policy itself, I shall point only to two major disagreements. I do not believe that a settlement of the Vietnam War can be based upon the principle of national self-determination. That principle is an outgrowth of Western individualism, meaningless in the context of the area dominated by Chinese civilization, of which Vietnam forms a part. For that civilization, political action is the application of supposedly objective moral principles to concrete circumstances, not the result of free individual choice. In a political world governed by immutable objective laws, the individual has no freedom of choice. He can comply with those laws and succeed, or he can deviate from those laws and fail. In consequence, the future of Vietnam will be determined by the actual distribution of military and political power in the country and not by legal principles transplanted from the West into an alien, moral, political, and social context.

The other disagreement concerns Senator Fulbright’s philosophy of foreign aid. The projection of the relationship between the rich and the poor, within a national society, to the international scene appears to me to be fallacious, on practical and moral grounds. The rich have the responsibility to alleviate the conditions of the poor within a national society, for two reasons: they are in good measure responsible for the existence of poverty, and they are capable of remedying it. Neither reason applies as a matter of principle—although it may do so, to a certain degree under certain circumstances—in the relations between rich and poor nations. Some nations are poor largely because their cultures stand in the way of economic development, as in India. Others are poor because the powers-that-be have a vested interest in the perpetuation of poverty, as in much of Latin America. Whatever another nation, however rich and benevolent, may do, will at best alleviate, but cannot eradicate, economic distress, because it must try to manipulate the symptoms but cannot attack the root causes of that distress.

Yet when all is said and done, we remain in the presence of a moral and political document of the first rank. I remember very vividly the discussion I had with Senator Fulbright more than ten years ago. I tried then to persuade him to set up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a kind of counterfoil to the Department of State, making visible the standards of sound foreign policy as against the official ones. He dismissed that idea as personally unattractive and politically unfeasible. Now circumstances have compelled him to assume that position, which he still cannot find attractive, but which he finds now impossible morally to shun. When I left him after that discussion, I thought of him as a Roman Senator during the last days of the Republic: wise, selfless, devoted to the common good, and doing his duty with the knowledge that in all likelihood it would avail nothing. In a different political configuration, I still think of him so today. This book exemplifies what Senator Fulbright means and does for the foreign policy of the United States.

This Issue

April 6, 1967