The “Who Lost China?” Game
June 5, 2015
I am currently reading a book entitled, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reflection, by Ken Hughes. In one part of the book, Hughes discusses what he calls “The who lost China” game; a game played by Republicans who wanted to blame the loss of China on the Democrats. Of course, Hughes points out the Democrats also played the “who lost X” game, e.g., charging that the Republicans lost Cuba.
Hughes is aware that there is something amiss here, because as he points out: While “the Democrats may have had more facts on their side [regarding China],” these facts proved to be meaningless given “the genius of such rhetoric.” [p. 38] For some reason, Hughes suggests, there seems to be no way to respond and successfully defend oneself against “such rhetoric.”
Hughes is correct because “the genius of [this] rhetoric” is that the question is a set up, much like the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” The set up works as follows.
The question assumes that conducting foreign policy is like playing a game, say, a baseball game. In a baseball game [or any game for that matter], there are established rules, that is, approved ways to play the game. And these rules help to determine winners and losers. So, the question implies, first, that there are established and accepted rules by which American foreign policy is conducted and implies, second, that if these rules are followed then victory will follow. Whoever “lost,” say, China, obviously did not implement the rules that guide or should guide US foreign policy.
But another implication, perhaps the most important implication of the “who lost X” rhetoric, is that it suggests, but without openly stating it, that the way the US “plays the game” of foreign policy is how that “game” should be played. Hence, the question “who lost X” deflects attention away from a more basic question, viz., the question of the worth of US foreign policy as it conducted by the establishment. This is a question that never gets raised.
And because it never gets raised, it is assumed that it need not be raised. As a result, the problem or issue becomes one of competence, how well or poorly a politician or a party played the game. And of course if some nation or war was “lost,” it is irrefutable that whoever was “in the game” was incompetent. This is why the Democrats’ attempts to refute the charge that they “lost” China by amassing facts failed and had to fail to be persuasive. Once they bought into the rhetoric of “who lost China,” they were bound to seem incompetent, as were the Republicans for their failure to prevent or overthrow the Communist regime in Cuba.
However, once the question of the worth of “the game” the US is playing is raised, the issue is no longer simply one of competence. And this changes almost everything. For example, the question of how competent the US was in conducting its foreign policy in, say, China is less important than the question of the kind of foreign policy the US was practicing in China. To begin with a simple question: Was US foreign policy in China “realistic?” Because if that policy was not realistic, then whether it was competently carried out or not is unimportant. And if it were not realistic, why was it adopted? That is, what assumptions made it seem realistic? And what is the worth of those assumptions that underlie US foreign policy?
But these more basic issues, more basic questions all disappear, as it were, when the question is raised, “Who lost China?” Or “Who lost Vietnam?” Or “Who lost Iraq?” The “who lost” question makes it seem as if the only ingredient lacking for the US to have a successful foreign policy is competence. And so we can go on thinking that if only we could find competent managers, say, like Henry Kissinger, or if we could only find the right bureaucratic arrangements, then all would be well. But it could well be that incompetence is not the problem. It is not how we conduct foreign policy but the kind of foreign policy we are conducting that needs changing.