Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Victory or Defeat?
September 19, 2015
This is a review of sorts of a book entitled Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein. As the title indicates, Goldstein, who was working closely with Bundy immediately prior to the latter’s death, sees the Vietnam war as a “disaster” for the United States and wonders, as many others have as well, how such a disaster could occur while intelligent people such as McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy brothers, Robert McNamara, Roger Hilsman and others were at the helm of state. As one characterization of these men has it, there were “the best and the brightest” and yet the result was a disaster.
So for Goldstein the question is, “How did the Vietnam disaster happen?” Of course, this question assumes that that war was a disaster and this seems like an all too plausible assumption. However, as poised this question and this assumption might serve to obscure that war and its purposes. In fact, it can be argued that from a political point of view, as distinguished from a public policy point of view, the Vietnam War was a success. It succeeded in fortifying the established political order, a political order that continues, at least in its essentials, to this day.
Goldstein, like so many others, treats the Kennedys, Bundy, and LBJ as primarily policy makers, not as politicians. And of course this leads him to ask: How could these intelligent men embrace a policy that led to a “disaster” in Vietnam? But in asking this question, Goldstein subordinates the political context to the policy-making context, assuming that these officials were more concerned with the latter than the former. They were primarily concerned with finding a policy that would “work,” that is, bring victory, in Vietnam.
However, these assumptions are questionable because, with good reasons, politicians always subordinate policy-making to politics, even to the point of embracing a “disastrous” policy like that evident in Vietnam when it is necessary to ensure political success. For when such a phenomenon occurs, even what is originally perceived as a “disastrous” policy can be redeemed.
From a political point of view, the Vietnam War was successful in that, as conducted, in served to perpetuate the prevailing political order. In 1964, LBJ was elected in a landslide over Barry Goldwater, a conservative who challenged the prevailing political order. In 1968, after LBJ had decided not to seek re-election amidst significant civil unrest over the war, Richard Nixon was elected president and then re-elected in a landslide in 1972 over the insurgent challenger, George McGovern, despite the fact that Nixon had prolonged the war for four years and even expanded it. And, eventually, after the interim presidency of Gerald Ford and the one term presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan was elected president while proclaiming that the Vietnam War was so far from a disaster, that it was a “noble cause.” And Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, illustrating as well as anything could that the Vietnam War had been redeemed. And another part of this redemption took place when President Clinton helped to redeem Richard Nixon as a “statesman,” both before and after the latter’s death.
The strategy employed in Vietnam, by both Republicans and Democrats, proved to be successful in preserving and even fortifying the established political order and this despite significant challenges from “the right” – Goldwater – and from “the left” – George McGovern. A policy-making perspective obscures such a political perspective by which – as Aristotle noticed a long time ago – all established political orders, “regimes” in Aristotle’s lingo, are inherently unstable and constantly subject to change. Politicians are aware, by virtue of being politicians, of this inherent instability and, insofar as they are part of the established political order, seek to preserve the existing order because it is their source of power and prestige and because it seems to be the best available arrangement of power. Others, not part of the established political order, seek for the same reasons to change, to “overthrow” as people like to say now, that established order and assume power themselves.
Politicians and the “loyal” bureaucrats or experts that serve them could not afford to look at the Vietnam War simply through policy-making eyes. Because they had to be concerned with preserving the prevailing order, they subordinated policy-making to politics in this sense. Confirmation of this is the sacking of Robert McNamara, who was deemed “disloyal” and expendable, when he allowed his assessment of the existing policy a failure control his advice to LBJ. From a strictly policy-making perspective McNamara was correct; but from a political perspective, this policy-making perspective had to be suppressed.
In other words, the war in Vietnam could be lost, provided it was done in a way that preserved the prevailing political order at home, definitely a tricky proposition given how often lost wars lead to changes in such orders, e.g., in Germany after World War I and in the Soviet Union after Afghanistan. Hence, even while giving up on victory, LBJ could abnegate power for the sake of peace, thereby displacing the other peace movement, the “radical” peace movement that hated the United States. And Nixon would say he was pursuing “peace with honor,” implying that the US had put up a noble fight to achieve an honorable peace, made possible by such “honorable” men as himself and Henry Kissinger, men who were to be contrasted favorably to those “long-haired, hippie radicals” in the streets causing unrest and undermining the war effort.
So, from the vantage of the prevailing political order, it is quite plausible to say that the Vietnam War was a success. And this helps explain what Goldstein takes for the blindness he saw in McGeorge Bundy and others who took us down the path to war in Vietnam. But they were not blind. They were waging, as politicians are wont to do, a political battle for hearts and minds. Only that battle was focused not so much on Vietnam as on the United States. And it was, or so it seems to me, victorious.