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Vietnam, American Foreign Policy, and the Uses of History

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

Even before the last U. S. combat troops departed from Vietnam, Americans were struggling to learn from the longest and most divisive war in which their nation had been engaged. From that time forward, Vietnam has been at the center of every foreign policy debate. The very word “Vietnam” has become “an emotive,” Michael Howard has written, “a term for this generation as “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor” was for the last.” From the Angolan crisis of 1975 to the Persian Gulf crisis of 1987 and especially on the question of U.S. intervention in Central America, analogies have repeatedly been drawn with Vietnam. The word has evoked powerful and often contradictory images, and the lessons drawn have dictated answers to the most pressing questions. Such is the perceived power of that short, three-syllable word that when the United States first intervened in the Persian Gulf in 1987 the speaker of the Iranian parliament warned ominously of another Vietnam, obviously feeling that this was the best way to intimidate America from interfering.

It is, of course, natural for people and nations to learn from past experience, especially when it is a painful one. In this case, however, there are at least two problems. First, there is no agreement on what should be learned. Indeed, nearly 17 years after the end of U.S. military involvement, the nation is still deeply divided on the meaning and significance of the war and what should be learned from it. But there is a second and I think greater problem. In attempting to learn from the recent past, Americans on both sides of the debate have badly misused history. What I would like to do, therefore, is to survey briefly what has been learned from Vietnam, suggest why these “lessons” lack validity, and then indicate some ways we might learn more profitably from a recent, painful experience.

What Americans have learned from Vietnam to a considerable degree reflects their broader political beliefs. They have divided on the lessons—as on the war itself—along ideological lines. The battle cry of the left has been “No More Vietnams.” From the Angolan crisis of 1975 to Lebanon in the early 1980’s, to Central America, liberals and radicals have urgently warned that any form of intervention in Third World countries will lead to another Vietnam. They regard the war as at worst immoral, at best unnecessary, in any event unwinnable, and they are certain that new interventions will produce the same results. In the early days of the Reagan administration’s intervention in Central America, liberal journalist Tad Szulc warned that if the United States persisted in its present course it would become bogged down in an “endless Vietnam-style guerrilla war,” a “scenario for absolute disaster.” Reading news clippings from 1964 indicating that no troops would be needed in Vietnam and reports from 1966 that still more troops would be required, a congressman in a debate on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras raised the specter of another Vietnam: “Here we go again,” he warned. “We ought to know by now that when they send the guns it does not take long before they send the sons.”

Conservatives also cry “No More Vietnams,” but their lessons are very different Hanoi’s harsh treatment of the defeated South Vietnamese, the tragic flight of nearly a million boat people, and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia confirmed in their eyes, that, as former President Ronald Reagan once put it, Vietnam was “a noble cause.” The fundamental error was not in intervening in the first place but failing to win. The war could have been won, they insist, if American power had been used wisely, decisively, and without limit. Some conservatives indeed conclude that timid civilian leaders prevented the military from winning the war, a view that has worked its way into the popular culture. “Sir, do we get to win this time?” the hero Rambo asks upon accepting the assignment to return to Vietnam and rescue his comrades allegedly being held captive there. Thus in looking at Central America and other issues conservatives conclude that the United States must uphold its commitments and must use its power decisively and without limit to attain military victory.

In proclaiming their respective lessons of Vietnam, both sides badly misuse history. They base their conclusions on superficial historical knowledge and faulty historical reasoning. They blatantly abuse history for partisan and political motives. They appeal more to emotion than to reason. As a result, the Vietnam analogy has misled rather than guided, obscured rather than clarified.

On each side, the lessons are based on historical “givens” that cannot in fact be proven. The liberal argument that the war could not have been won is as unprovable as the conservative argument that with a different strategy the United States could have prevailed. Both sides answer dogmatically and categorically the sort of “what if” questions that can never be answered with any degree of certainty.

The historical reasoning of each side is also suspect. The liberal warning that each new intervention will lead to another Vietnam is less than convincing. Indeed, if that means a prolonged, inconclusive war in which thousands of American troops and billions of American dollars are committed, this may be the least likely outcome since Vietnam happened so recently and memories of it are so fresh.

On the other hand, the conservative effort to ennoble U. S. intervention in Vietnam on the basis of what the Hanoi government has done since the end of the war, as former diplomat Paul Kattenburg has noted, engages in the “dubious business of judging the past from the present.” Such judgments cannot help but produce wrong-headed conclusions, and in the case of Vietnam the highly emotional moral judgments offered by conservatives distort both the present and the past to reverse the moral standards applied by antiwar critics during the war itself.

In addition, liberals and conservatives base their lessons on history that is at best debatable, at worst just plain wrong. For many liberals and radicals, the Communist victory in Vietnam is a vindication of the concept of peoples’ war, suggesting that similar popular uprisings will inevitably triumph elsewhere. In fact, since World War II, popular insurgencies have lost as many as they have won, failing in Greece, Malaya, and the Philippines. Moreover, in Vietnam the United States crushed the southern insurgency in the aftermath of the Communist Tet Offensive of early 1968. The war was won not by guerrillas but by North Vietnamese regular forces in a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975. In the final analysis, the Communists succeeded in Vietnam not because of the strength of people’s war but because of the unique position they enjoyed in the political history of Vietnam, an ingredient not easily replicated elsewhere.

The • conservative argument that the unrestricted use of American power would have produced victory is equally simplistic. There is reason to doubt whether the all-out bombing campaign advocated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have forced North Vietnam to settle on American terms. The strategic bombing surveys done after World War II raise serious questions about the ability of air power to attain political goals. Moreover, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the North Vietnamese were prepared to resist, whatever the level of the bombing, even if they had to go underground. The addition of thousands more U.S. troops, invasion of enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos, and across the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam might have produced victory, however that may be defined; but they would also have enlarged the war at a time when the United States was already stretched thin. Each of these approaches would have greatly increased the cost of the war for the United States without resolving what was always the central problem—the political viability of South Vietnam. And they might have provoked Soviet and/or Chinese intervention, thus widening the war in a most dangerous way.

Finally, even if the history were good, this kind of reasoning by historical analogy is fundamentally flawed. One can find in it at least two of the methodological errors cited by David Hackett Fischer in his book, Historians’ Fallacies. First is what Fischer calls the fallacy of the perfect analogy, “the erroneous inference from the fact that A and B are similar in some respects to the false conclusion that they are the same in all respects.” To put it in plain terms, history does not repeat itself. Each situation is unique, and it is at best misleading to make superficial comparisons. Current efforts to learn from Vietnam also manifest what Fischer calls the “didactic fallacy,” the extraction of specific lessons from one historical situation and the literal application of them to contemporary problems without regard to differences in time, space, and circumstances.

To move from the general to the specific, there is a vast difference between Vietnam, on the one hand, and, say, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf on the other, and to use them analagously violates sound historical practice.

The often-cited comparison between Vietnam and Central America provides a case in point. The conflicts are, to be sure, superficially similar. In each case, the perceived enemy was a revolutionary regime that appeared to threaten the interests of the United States and the small nations to which it was allied in a region deemed critically important. In each case, significant support for the nation opposing the United States did come from its number one adversary, the Soviet Union. In El Salvador, at least, the analogy can be carried a step further. There, much as it did in Vietnam, the United States has supported an established government against a leftist insurgency with some external support in a small, underdeveloped country in a tropical region.

The differences are much greater. The conflicts occurred in very different parts of the world in different political cultures and historical settings. War originated in Vietnam in 1945 as a nationalist revolution against French colonialism. The conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador originated in response to narrowly based, reactionary regimes with varying degrees of support from the United States. Both conflicts became internationalized in their early stages. In Vietnam, however, the major “outside” power, North Vietnam, was fanatically committed to liberating its southern brethren and unifying the country and, with assistance from China and the Soviet Union, provided the bulk of external aid to the southern insurgency. Cuba and the Soviet Union provided primary support to Nicaragua, and, along with Nicaragua, have given aid to the Salvadorean rebels. Neither appears to have the same level of interest or commitment that the North Vietnamese had in Vietnam. In Nicaragua, of course, the fundamental difference is that at this stage the United States has supported the counterrevolutionary Contra insurgency against an established government, precisely the opposite of what happened in Vietnam. The conflicts were thus strikingly different, and the revolutions and wars have taken different courses.


Each situation is therefore unique, and to assume that the lessons of one time and place can mechanistically be applied to another is to be guilty of the worst kind of cultural universalism. Any effort to correct the strategic errors of Vietnam in Central America ignores the vast differences among the several conflicts and the conditions unique to each. To conclude, on the other hand, that we must reflexively abstain from any involvement in conflicts in the Third World for fear of another Vietnam is to draw on a very narrow and selective use of analogy. This is rather like Mark Twain’s cat, who sat on a hot stove lid. “She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again,” Twain said, “but also she will never sit down on a cold one.” I suppose, as an unreconstructed dove, at the gut level I sympathize with the tendency to overgeneralize. To borrow from Twain’s metaphor, more might be gained by avoiding hot stoves than by sitting on cold ones. But such a reaction, carried to its logical conclusion, eliminates the element of choice in foreign policy decisions. It reduces policy making to a set of reflexive actions that could negate American influence in areas where it might be constructive. In terms of the political debates in the United States thus far, what has been learned from Vietnam is as likely to mislead as to enlighten.

The one valid lesson we might therefore draw is to view all historical lessons with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is, I think, much wisdom, if also obvious overstatement, in historian and former policy-maker James Thomson’s admonition that the central lesson of Vietnam should be never again to “take on the job of trying to defeat a nationalist anti-colonial movement under indigenous communist control in former French Indochina,” a lesson he quickly—and redundantly—added, of “less than universal relevance.”

Does this mean then that history has nothing to teach us, or, more specifically, that the Vietnam experience sheds no light on today’s problems? Obviously, for me, a professional historian to take such a position would be foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst. History in general, and the history of American involvement in Vietnam, in particular, have much to teach us. But like any fine-tuned instrument, they must be used with care.

To learn from an historical event, it is necessary to look beneath the surface, to go beyond the general outcome of success or failure and examine its component parts. In the case of Vietnam, in-depth analysis of how we got there and why we failed can be instructive in its own right. Such analysis will not yield explicit lessons that can be applied uncritically to other, seemingly similar events, but it can provide enlightenment and perspective and even suggest certain cautionary principles that can help us make decisions in other areas. When compared to similar components of other events and indeed to “lessons” provided by competing analogies, it can be even more instructive.

Numerous points might be made. Let me suggest just a few. The mindset that got us into Vietnam—a set of attitudes and assumptions also used in the 1980’s to justify intervention in Central America—bears close analysis. From the early 1950’s until at least the mid-1960’s, we viewed the conflict in Vietnam as an integral part of our larger Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. This assumption was based on a view of the world that was simplistic and fundamentally flawed. Vietnamese nationalism, not international communism, was the driving force behind 30 years of war in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants were Communists, to be sure, and throughout the conflict the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China aided the Vietnamese Communists. But the Vietnamese initiated the struggle in 1946 to secure independence from France, and they continued the war to achieve their age-old nationalistic goals of unifying the country under one government. To a considerable degree then, local forces explain the origins and peculiar dynamics of the conflict in Vietnam.

Our misperception had profound consequences. By wrongly attributing the war to world communism, we drastically misjudged its origins and nature. By intervening in what was essentially a local struggle, we placed ourselves at the mercy of local forces, a weak client in South Vietnam and a determined adversary in North Vietnam. What might have remained a local conflict with primarily local implications was elevated into a major international conflict with tragic consequences for Americans and Vietnamese. Vietnam thus suggests the centrality of local forces in international crisis situations. These forces will necessarily vary in each situation, but the point should be clear: we ignore them at our own peril.

Vietnam also suggests the pitfalls of incrementalism. The massive intervention of 1965 stemmed from a series of small, steadily expanding commitments over a period of nearly twenty years. From the decision to provide military aid to the French in 1950 to Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, the United States enlarged its involvement slowly, step-by-step, until it had committed a half million troops and billions of dollars. At no point did policy makers foresee the ultimate costs of the war. Each decision seemed harmless enough, and the consequences of doing nothing appeared more ominous than those of escalation. Yet each step made extrication more difficult, and in time the extent of the investment already made became an additional and compelling argument for further escalation. This process makes clear the hidden dangers of small, seemingly harmless commitments.

At each stage, moreover, policy makers appear to have taken success for granted. From the first U.S. commitmentto South Vietnam in 1954, expert assessments of the chances of success were pessimistic, but policy makers somehow persuaded themselves that everything would work out. “In the lands of the blind, one-eyed men are king,” Dwight D. Eisenhower told his National Security Council in October 1954, by which I think he meant that because of the purity of its motives and the superiority of its methods the United States could overcome the unfavorable odds. In 1963, during one particularly heated debate among John F. Kennedy’s top advisers, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked why, if the situation were as bad as reports seemed to indicate, the United States did not simply get out of Vietnam. The “question hovered for a moment, then died away,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, “a hopelessly alien thought in a field of unexplored assumptions and entrenched convictions.” Throughout its history, the United States has enjoyed an unparalleled record of success. Americans came to take success for granted, falling victim to what an English scholar has called “the illusion of American omnipotence,” the belief that they could accomplish anything they set their mind to, that, the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take awhile. Vietnam makes clear—and this is one reason it was so traumatic for this country—that the United States, like all nations, can fail. In making difficult decisions, policy makers must take this harsh reality into account. They should be wary of committing the nation in unfavorable circumstances. They might revert to the old rule of European diplomacy not to intervene unless the people to be supported show a capacity to stand on their own.

This is especially true because in a larger sense Vietnam suggests that the ability of great powers to dictate solutions in small, “backward” countries has drastically declined. Throughout much of the 19th century, the great powers used a variety of methods to dominate smaller nations. Even in the early days of the Cold War, the United States contained insurgencies in Greece and the Philippines and overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala with relative ease and at little cost. Increasingly, however, the ability of large nations to impose their will on smaller nations has diminished. The power of smaller nations has grown relative to that of the larger, and their leaders have learned how to use the force of nationalism to resist great power encroachments. The rivalry between the superpowers in turn limits their ability to manipulate smaller nations. Soviet aid was crucial to American failure in Vietnam, and American aid was a vital factor in Soviet failure in Afghanistan. These two situations dramatically indicate the new limits of power. At the very least, as political scientist Thomas Schelling has suggested, they herald the “end of an era in which we could believe that a great industrialized power is bound to win when it fights a small, poor, backward country.”


The way in which the United States used its power in Vietnam also yields instruction and perspective, if not outright lessons. That American strategy was fundamentally flawed goes without saying. American policy makers assumed that the gradual increase of military pressure against North Vietnam would persuade its leaders to stop supporting the insurgency in the south and at the same time avert the dangers of a larger war with the Soviet Union and China. “I’m going up old Ho Chi Minh’s leg an inch at a time,” LBJ assured George McGovern in his inimitable fashion. If nothing else, the results make clear the difficulties of fine-tuning the application of military power in this fashion.

A fatal error was to underestimate the enemy. Americans rather casually assumed that the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese would know better than to stand up against the most powerful nation in the world. In the Johnson White House, Bill Moyers has written, “There was a confidence—it was never bragged about, it was just there—that when the chips were really down, the other people would fold.” Years later, Henry Kissinger could still confess great surprise with the discovery that his North Vietnamese counterparts were “fanatics.” Since our goals were limited and from our standpoint more than reasonable, we found it impossible to understand the total, unyielding commitment of the enemy, his willingness to risk everything to achieve his objective. We ignored the oldest and most fundamental rule of warfare: know your enemy.

The way in which we dealt with our client state in South Vietnam can also teach us a great deal. First, seemingly paradoxically, the deeper our commitment grew, the less leverage we had to get that government to take the actions we considered necessary for its survival. The more deeply committed we became, the less inclined we were to risk the collapse that would likely follow the withdrawal of our support.

Moreover, the way in which, after July 1965, we assumed primary responsibility for the war in Vietnam induced a sense of dependency on the part of the South Vietnamese whose independence we were professing to defend. Tragically, the dependency we unwittingly nourished persisted long after we had tired of the war. The South Vietnamese could not believe, one of their diplomats once told me, that having invested so much in their country we would not defend it. To the very end, therefore, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they clung desperately to the belief that we would come back and rescue them. Even when a nation or government is worthy of our support, we do them no favor to provide the support in a way that undermines the self-sufficiency that should be the object of our assistance.

There is, I think, a larger and more important point regarding the basic morality of such support. The South Vietnamese were the real losers of a long and bloody war. We lost a great deal of blood and treasure, our pride, our “perfect” record in warfare. They lost everything. In the light of this experience, we should ponder long and hard the morality of making a commitment to a people that at some point we may not be prepared to see through. Referring to the casual, almost whimsical, way in which the United States has offered and then withdrawn support to the Nicaraguan Contras, the lineal descendants of the South Vietnamese, Contra Leader Donald Castillo has asked: “have you been aware that you’re playing with the life and blood of a people and a country?” It is a telling question that we should ask ourselves repeatedly when facing such decisions.

Vietnam also suggests the essentiality and basic fragility of public support for major foreign policy ventures. Military intervention cannot be sustained in the American system without public support. Yet dissent in war is as American as apple pie—it is not an aberration. And Korea and Vietnam make clear that the longer the war and the higher American casualties the more public support is likely to erode. Even in World War II—the good war—and the one American war in which support was broadly based and dissent inconsequential, General George C. Marshall accurately perceived that public support could not be held indefinitely. The crucial ingredient in holding support may be success on the battlefield, and Vietnam certainly demonstrates that without clear signs of success public support will be difficult to sustain. At the same time, without public support, it may be impossible to do what is necessary to achieve success. There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Certainly leaders cannot take public support for granted, as the Johnson administration appears to have done at the outset of the war. Nor are secrecy and subterfuge of the sort used by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger a viable alternative. In the final analysis, it probably boils down to a simple but repeatedly ignored proposition: the only sustainable policy is one that can be successfully articulated and defended in public debate.

Vietnam provides a veritable catalog of what not to do in the raising and handling of troops. The draft law used throughout much of the war imposed most of the burden on the lower classes and permitted the middle and upper classes to escape service. Aside from the obvious inequity of such a system, the draft increased class divisions and, by freeing the children of the elite, encouraged complacency about the war until the nation was deeply committed. The services early decided that no one should serve more than 12 months in Vietnam. This arrangement had disastrous effects on unit cohesion and individual morale. Above all, if the nation goes to war again, it must make adequate provision for the return of its fighting men to civilian life. The way in which Vietnam veterans were thrust back to an ungrateful homeland with no time for decompression and little assistance in readjustment was not only callous but disgraceful and left scars that may never heal.

These “lessons” may or may not be useful, depending upon the specific circumstances of the individual situations we confront. But there is another—and final—lesson that does, I think, have universal validity. Moving from the specific back again to the general, Vietnam also demonstrates the value—indeed the necessity—of history in making and implementing foreign policy decisions. What is so striking now, especially looking back on the early years of our involvement, is our abysmal ignorance of Vietnam and the Vietnamese. Not much information was even available. The eminent China scholar John Fairbank has recalled that when the crisis emerged in the early 1960’s he went to the Harvard library to consult books about the area. He found almost nothing, and what he found was under the designation of French colonialism. To cite another small, but revealing, anecdote, I recently ran across a document in which a top U.S. official observed in the mid-1950’s how difficult it would be to build an army in an area—Vietnam—without any military tradition. This person was apparently quite ignorant of Vietnam’s 1000-year struggle against the Chinese and Mongols and its defeat of the fearsome Genghis Khan, of the Trung sisters and other legendary heroes, of the Vietnamese generals who, centuries before Mao Tse-tung and Vo Nguyen Giap, pioneered the art of guerrilla warfare.

We also ignored the more recent experience of the French in their war in Vietnam between 1946 and 1954. The First Indochina War probably appeared irrelevant because, we felt, the French had pursued selfish, colonial goals and we did not, or because, as Edward Lansdale once put it, the French went “from glorious defeat to highly glorious defeat while being highly articulate on how to win a war.” The French, it was said, had not won a battle since Napoleon. They couldn’t build the Panama Canal either. Yet close examination of the French war from 1946 to 1954 might have given us important clues as to how the Vietnamese would deal with us and might have alerted us to certain problems we would face in responding to their strategies.

If nothing else, then, we can conclude that rather than employing false and misleading analogies, decision makers and the attentive public might better use history to enlighten themselves about the areas and peoples with whom they must deal. This is particularly important, Ernest May and Richard Neustadt have recently argued, in cases where we are dealing with people “whose age, sex, race, nationality, or beliefs are different from our own.” In their book, Thinking in Time, May and Neustadt even provide a rather complicated scheme for what they call “placement,” attempting to understand adversaries or potential adversaries or even allies by studying the historical and cultural context from which they come.

I cannot resist finally making an appeal for history that moves beyond the specific case of Vietnam. Like no other discipline, history can provide that essential perspective without which understanding is impossible. This can take several forms. At its simplest level, it involves nothing more than taking an issue or problem back to its beginnings to determine how we got to where we are. It is striking how infrequently this is done in internal discussions on policy problems, and the media, which is notoriously myopic and ahistorical, provides little help. Historians themselves are at least partly at fault, for they tend to write for each other rather than trying to reach a broader audience. Yet to act without such perspective can be deadly. History is essential to clarify the context in which contemporary problems exist.

At a still deeper level, it involves understanding the larger processes of history, what May and Neustadt call “seeing time as a stream,” looking at contemporary issues with a sense of past, present, and future, being sensitive to continuity and change, having that rare ability to “see the future as it may be when it becomes the past—with some intelligible continuity but richly complex and able to surprise.”

Nations, like people, have long memories, and Vietnam will continue to exert a powerful influence on American attitudes toward foreign policy until some other cataclysmic event takes its place. It is important, then, that we study it and learn from it. But we must keep in mind that history does not prescribe explicit lessons, and we must be aware of the many pitfalls and the false trails down which it can lead us. We must also recognize, as Michael Howard has observed, that the “true use” of history is “not to make men clever for the next time” but “to make them wise for ever.”


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