Lessons for Nixon

The Limits of Intervention

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

Spiro Agnew
Spiro Agnew; drawing by David Levine

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…

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