JFK and Vietnam: Blinded by the Light
I am reading an interesting book, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War, by Howard Jones.
At one point, Jones asserts that “Lacking any understanding of these people, US observers attempted to explain their motives in terms that were meaningful to Westerners.” [p. 271] I believe what this means is that Westerners deal with political life – and perhaps life itself – as a series of problems, trying to solve each one with the application of expertise of one kind or another. So, for example, people in the US today conceive that there is “a gun problem,” just as in Vietnam when Kennedy was president there was “a Buddhist problem,” “an infiltration problem,” and/or “a corruption problem.”
But as Jones intimates, it is questionable how much understanding this approach, this mindset promotes. And it seems to me that while it promotes what might be called “wide understanding,” it does not promote “deep understanding.” As a result, our politicians are left with a superficial understanding of the situations they confront.
So, when the Buddhists rebelled in 1963 in Nam, JFK and his advisers were not aware of it’s meaning, of its depth or importance. As Jones puts it: “The Saigon event blindsided the Kennedy administration. ‘How could this have happened?’ the president stormed to Forrestal.” [p. 271] And “Years afterward [CIA agent] Trueheart made a revealing confession: ‘Nobody guessed the Buddhists had such an important role to play. We had zero knowledge of Buddhism.’” 
This is as much to say that JFK and his advisers has no real knowledge of Vietnam. Whatever knowledge they possessed was superficial; it lacked the depth that would have allowed the administration to understand the Vietnamese and their society. The administration did have expertise of various kinds, political, economic, social, and military but this expertise only guaranteed that they saw widely, not that they saw deeply. And lacking such knowledge, JFK and his advisers did not know, could not know what “the Saigon event,” the Buddhist revolt, meant. They were even tempted to explain it with reference to drug use among the Buddhists, the influence of the Viet Cong on the Buddhists, or with such flaccid phrases as “religious fervor,” as if that explained anything. As one person pointed out, however, “Any threat to Buddhism, especially coming from a ‘non-Buddhist minority,’ could draw ‘a more personal and spontaneous response from the ordinary Vietnamese peasant than Viet Cong political propaganda.’” [278-79]
Taking social and political phenomena as “problems” to be “solved” by the application of expertise blinds us to the context in which these phenomena occur. For example, to think that there is “a gun problem” in the US blinds us to an alternative view, viz., the US society is a violent society, that the American people are a violent people. To see a gun problem in the US is to see superficially, to confuse a symptom for a cause. It is like identifying drug dealing as our drug problem, thereby ignoring drug use, which is most often voluntary, as a deeper, more important phenomenon. By focusing on drug dealing and drug dealers, whose motives are clear to us, we don’t raise the more important issue: Why is drug use in the US so widespread? What is it about our society, about our way of being in the world that accounts for our use of illegal drugs?
So, seeing superficially as JFK and his administration did, thereby failing to know what the Buddhist revolt meant, JFK and his administration found themselves drawn to assassinations, to killings, then to full-scale war to try to solve its “Vietnam problem.” Just as politicians, domestically, embraced making war on poverty, on crime, on drugs, and on terrorists to solve those problems. And not surprisingly these domestic wars have been as unsuccessful as was the US war in Vietnam. It turns out that, contrary to what our “realists” claim, power is never enough and power devoid of understanding is quite useless.