The Romanticism of “Realism”
November 27, 2013
The following is a quote from that foremost “realist,” Henry Kissinger: “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” [p. 150 in Ted Szulc’s The Illusion of Peace, an account of foreign policy during the Nixon administration. I highly recommend this book as an overview, a detailed overview of Nixon’s foreign policies.]
There is much that could and should be said about this quote. For example, how Kissinger reduces Vietnam, first, to “North Vietnam” and then to “a little fourth-rate power.” It should have been clear to almost anyone that with this perspective, it was utterly unsurprising that this “little fourth-rate power” kicked the butt of the United States. Talk about an underestimation of one’s enemy! And it is disguised as a “sophisticated analysis” by someone who was reputed to be extremely intelligent.
But here is something even more interesting: It wasn’t that “little fourth-rate power” that broke. Rather, it was the superpower, the United States of America, that “broke.” Or, to be more precise, it was the superpower, the United States of America that broke first. Now, when this happens, that is, when a prediction proves to be the opposite of what was predicted, it would seem to behoove the predictor to take notice and to try to reassess his or her premises. Here, we have a very “educated” man, Henry Kissinger, author of books on nuclear strategy, professor of political science at Harvard University, making a prediction or assumption that proved to be, well, just plain wrong. In fact, not only was his prediction wrong; his prediction was so wrong that the eventuality was the reverse of what he had predicted. It was not that “little fourth-rate power,” North Vietnam, that broke. Rather, it was that “great power,” the United States of America that broke first.
Now, this would, I submit, lead a modest human being to question the assumptions that led to his prediction or his supposition. But not so with Dr. Henry Kissinger. He knew, he just knew that “a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam” had “a breaking point.” He just knew this, just as he knew that a society that utilized cars was “better,” was “stronger” than one that utilized bicycles! After all, cars are “more” than bicycles, aren’t they? So, those societies with cars had to be “more” than those societies with bicycles. And the society with cars had to be able to defeat any society with bicycles. It was, in fact, unthinkable that a society that utilized bicycles, that was inundated with “peasants,” could defeat a society that utilized cars and was devoid, utterly devoid of “peasants.” This was a thought that could not be thought.
And yet, and yet, it happened. So, we should ask: What happened? That is, what actually happened? How did this happen? How can we explain this happening? But we don’t. Despite as much evidence as we need to raise these questions, we don’t. That which is unthinkable is still unthinkable…..and we go on like a leper without a bell!