Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Part Two
September 20, 2015
Continuing my “review” of Gordon Goldstein’s book, Lessons in Disaster, dealing the McGeorge Bundy and his role in the Unites States’ war in Vietnam, it becomes pretty clear that, as suggested in my previous post, the Vietnam War was about more than Vietnam.
For example, in the spring of 1965, preceding LBJ’s decision to escalate the war, Bundy, returning from Vietnam and a gruesome experience while there, composed a memo for LBJ that rejected a diplomatic end to the war because “The international prestige of the United States, and a substantial part of our influence, are directly at risk in Vietnam . . . any negotiated US withdrawal today would mean surrender on the installment plan.” [p. 157] Hence, Bundy proposed a sustained bombing campaign in Vietnam.
Now defining the problem as protecting “the international prestige of the United States” illuminates that the war in Vietnam represented a political problem at least as much as a military problem. And the latter was addressed in light of the former. In this light, withdrawal represented “surrender,” even if only on an “installment plan,” because it would change the United States’ position in the world, undermining “a substantial part of our influence” therein, thereby undermining as well the bona fides of those representing the established political order such as Bundy and LBJ.
So, because the military problem in Vietnam, the war, seemed unsolvable, unwinnable, the issue became how to fight a losing war without undermining the established political order, the order represented by the likes of Bundy and Johnson. Hence, what is labeled the “Fork in the Road memo,” composed by Bundy and McNamara, argued that the US had only one choice, to “apply unspecified forms of military action,” despite the fact that two simulations, SIGMA I and SIGMA II, had illustrated that such military actions would not “force a change in Communist strategy.” [p. 157]
The other option, to “negotiate some kind of settlement, presumably neutralization,” was unacceptable because the prevailing political order, the prevailing regime, in the US was premised on a rejection of neutralization as being “pro-Communist,” and this throughout the world. To embrace neutralization in Vietnam would be to undermine the legitimacy of the prevailing political elites.
So, the escalation that the US undertook in 1965 – and thereafter – was not undertaken to win the war in Vietnam. Pretty much everyone agreed that such a victory would not be forthcoming. Moreover, this escalation was not undertaken primarily to fortify the regime in Vietnam; rather, it was undertaken to fortify the prevailing regime in the United States. And to see that such fortification was necessary, it is good to recall the challenges that regime faced in the 60s from various insurgencies, such as the civil rights movement, black power, feminism, and more generally, “sex, drugs, and rock n roll.” As Bob Dylan noticed, the times they were a changing, something our politicians had noticed as well.
One chapter in Goldstein’s book is entitled, “Politics is the Enemy of Strategy.” Well, not so much. Politics is the source of strategy. But to see this, it is necessary to understand that politics is primarily about forming and maintaining arrangements of power or, as Aristotle would say, arrangements of offices, and not about what we label policy-making. Policies do get made, of course. But to understand them and the men who make them, it is necessary to understand that all such policies are subordinated to the needs of particular regimes.
And when viewed in this way, the war in Vietnam was anything but a disaster insofar as it was waged – and lost – without undermining the prevailing political order. In fact, insofar as that political order is still the prevailing one today, just so far it may be said that that war was, from a political point of view, a success.
Goldstein provides enough evidence to support the argument above. Here are two paragraphs worth quoting at some length.
“Bundy’s projections about the use of American combat troops were conspicuously, if not purposely, vague. . . . Even a failed intervention in Vietnam, Bundy asserted, would be better than no intervention at all. ‘Questions: in terms of US politics which is better: to ‘lose’ now or to ‘lose’ after committing 100,000 men? Tentative answer: the latter.’”
“The Johnson administration, he argued, should be driven not by the minimal economic or military interests at risk but rather by the principle of protecting its global credibility, the imperative not to be rendered a so-called paper tiger. Fulfillment of that objective did not require the United States to prevail in Vietnam. To the contrary, a military defeat was acceptable provided Washington lost with some demonstrable cost, perhaps even after deploying 100,000 troops. Accordingly to Bundy’s presumptive logic, defeat in Vietnam would protect American credibility globally and the credibility of the Johnson administration domestically.” [p. 167]
This also implies that “the costs” should involve sufficient deaths to American service men and women, even though these deaths would not advance the military objectives in Vietnam, to amount to “some demonstrable cost.”