JFK and the Delusions of Power
May 6, 2013
I have just finished reading a very interesting book, The Secret War Against Hanoi by Richard H. Shultz – no relation – about the large covert war that the United States waged in Vietnam against the north and Hanoi, its capital. It is interesting because it illuminates in various ways the shortcomings of the United States’ attempt to intervene in Vietnam to “save” what it called the nation of “South Vietnam.”
This covert war did not begin with but was given much impetus by the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960. As Shultz says in several places, Kennedy “made it clear to the National Security Council that if Hanoi could foster a guerilla war in South Vietnam, he intended to do the same up North.” [p. 334]
Now, Shultz analyzes the shortcomings of United States’ policies and action but it is evident that from the beginning Kennedy was deluded as to the situation he faced. Note that in the quote above, which Shultz has summarized from declassified documents of Kennedy’s administration, that, first, Kennedy equates North and South Vietnam. That is, Kennedy takes it for granted that there is a “South Vietnam” and that it is the equivalent of what he labeled “North Vietnam.” Of course, Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese did not think this way, no more than Americans spoke of a “North United States” or a “South United States” during the Civil War. And the Americans did not even have a history that was equivalent to that of Vietnam.
Another way to put this is to say that Kennedy thought it was possible, despite thousands of years of Vietnamese history and repeated attempts over those centuries to preserve Vietnam’s independence, to create two Vietnams, one “North” and one “South.” And, similarly, Kennedy thought that he could create “a guerilla war” in the “North,” just as Ho Chi Minh had created such a war in the “South.” That is, the existence of “a guerilla war” in the “South” had little to do with conditions there and almost everything to do with what Ho Chi Minh had willed. So, Kennedy would then will such a war in the “North.” And, as Shultz points out, what is even more delusional is that Kennedy thought this could be done quickly!
But is this not just typical of the delusions of many, if not most, American politicians? If we want to have a New Deal, we can have a New Deal. If we want to eradicate poverty, or crime, or drug use, or terrorism, then we can eradicate these phenomena – that is, if we will it and carry through for once we will do it. And here it must be said that Shultz, in his analysis, falls into this way of thinking. If only Washington and the politicians there had not gotten in the way of this covert war, everything would have been different In fact, perhaps the United States could have “won” that war. After all, it is all about will power, is it not? Or perhaps it would be better to say that it is all about the will to power.