by William Pfaff
The debate over foreign policy that culminated in President Barack Obama’s address to the nation on December 1, 2009, concerns a war that began with the attack of a mainly Saudi Arabian group of politically radicalized Muslim men on New York and Washington, targets symbolic of American capitalism and alleged imperialism. These attacks, according to the group’s leader, were to punish the United States for its decision, following the first Gulf War, to establish permanent American military bases in the region, blasphemously located (in the view of Osama bin Laden and his followers) in the holy territories of Saudi Arabia.
How these attacks, and the American reaction, led to American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, so that nearly a decade later the war in Iraq remains incompletely resolved, while the United States, with NATO allies, is engaged in the war in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban movement and against those in Pakistan who harbor or support the Taliban, makes a tangled story, not to be recounted here. But it raises persistent parallels with the Vietnam catastrophe, the subject of Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Goldstein’s is perhaps the most important book yet published on the United States’ Vietnam experience, which changed the nation’s history and continues to exercise a powerful influence on American foreign and security policy.
In 1995 the seventy-six-year-old Bundy, who had served in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations as national security adviser, felt himself challenged by the controversial memoir just published by his fellow member of both those administrations, ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. McNamara had concluded that on Vietnam "we were wrong, terribly wrong," and expressed his sense of guilt for what had been done.
Bundy had since his government service refused on principle to criticize his former superiors, and invariably defended what had been American policy, its failure notwithstanding. He had remained silent on the moral issues raised by the war. The McNamara confession inspired him to reexamine his own experience.
This is where Gordon Goldstein enters. Bundy hired him as his research assistant. But as James G. Blight of Brown University says, in a review of Goldstein’s book in the online magazine Truthdig(1), the two of them — Goldstein was less than half the age of Bundy — became true collaborators as Bundy struggled with his own memories and written records in the light of the documentation and testimony provided by the younger man about the events of those years. However, Bundy died in September 1996, long before the book was drafted.
With the agreement of the Bundy family, Goldstein now has published his own book about the unfinished Bundy memoir. Blight describes it as an account of Bundy’s "personal, historical and even moral" quest for the roots of his own mistakes and culpability. While these were undoubtedly hard for Bundy to confront, they do not seem hard to identify, and are relevant today, to the extent that the present war against terror, or whatever we are to call it, has close resemblances to the cold war, of which the Vietnam War was a product.
The theory — or theories — that put the United States and the Soviet Union into the cold war were Marxism-Leninism and its later Chinese derivative, Lin Biao’s 1965 theory that the "emerging forces" of the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America constituted a "rural world." This rural world, following the precepts of Maoism, would eventually surround and overcome the "urban world" made up of rich cities and countries. Finally there was the United States’ own belief in its millenarian world role — its "Manifest Destiny" — as expressed, for example, by the State Department’s George Ball in a 1965 article (see below) on America’s exceptional destiny to exercise disinterested global responsibility.
These theories were, in effect, congruent. From the time of The Communist Manifesto’s publication it was considered by many a document of universal relevance, proposing the next step in human society’s development. Lenin and the Bolsheviks undertook to promote, through their party apparatuses, the revolutions that were supposed to break out spontaneously in such advanced industrial societies as Germany. Revolution in peasant Russia was a theoretical anomaly, and the early Bolsheviks believed their survival in Russia depended on alliance with other revolutions elsewhere: hence the Communist International was created, and Soviet state organs were commissioned to promote subversion abroad. After World War II, with the Soviet Union having become a great military power, these policies seemed an intimidating challenge to the democracies, a challenge reinforced by the fall of China to communism. To Americans, this appeared a challenge that they, as the most powerful democracy, were destined by history to meet and overcome.
The nature of the US reaction to the September 11 attacks makes apparent that the new challenge to the United States was immediately fitted into a frame of ideas ideologically parallel to the cold war (the cold war itself having just ended). The calls for a global jihad against the United States and the West heard from al-Qaeda and other radical Muslim groups — especially the fantasy of a reconstituted grand caliphate incorporating all the Mediterranean countries and then Europe itself — provided paranoid circles in the West with a replacement for the threat of Marxism-Leninism. Al-Qaeda was soon described as the new Comintern. It and related manifestations of radical jihadism were taken as a mortal and ubiquitous threat to the United States, to the West as a whole, and indeed to Western civilization. Al-Qaeda therefore had to be driven from its lair in the mountainous badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, from which its adherents could launch global terrorism and insurrection.
The threat of jihad was further enlarged in American official thought by the assimilation to it of current manifestations of political radicalism found elsewhere in the non-Western world, responsible for "disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies" — to quote President Obama’s West Point address in December — which together with the jihadists comprised what Donald Rumsfeld had, early in the affair, described as a global "insurrection." The American role as destiny’s appointed pacifier of this universal world threat seemed to be the same role it had successfully fulfilled in the cold war.
It is often forgotten that one of Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II aims, in addition to defeat of the Axis powers, was to dismantle the European empires, beginning with the British and the French. The eminent American diplomat Charles Bohlen made a postwar comment on
"the extraordinary twist of history (that) the American President morally opposed British imperialism, yet counted on the power of Great Britain — essentially powerful as the leader of a great Empire — as an equal democratic power in the postwar world. I do not believe that Roosevelt thought of his anticolonial attitude as a factor in Britain’s decline"
— as of course it was, as were a series of postwar American economic and political measures.
As for the French colonial empire, Roosevelt’s and his administration’s hostility to what Secretary of State Cordell Hullreferred to as the "so-called Free French" was reinforced by Roosevelt’s personal dislike of General Charles de Gaulle, whom he looked upon as some kind of quasi-fascist military adventurer. The postwar French effort, initially under de Gaulle’s provisional government, and after 1946 under the Fourth Republic, to recover France’s Indochina possessions simply reinforced this American view of France — and of other European empires. The Netherlands also dispatched a military force to recover its Netherlands East Indies colony, which after wartime occupation by Japan had been declared the independent state of Indonesia by local nationalists; and another of America’s wartime allies, Belgium, reaffirmed its control of most of Central and East-Central Africa.
This hostile view of imperialism, all but universally held in the United States at the time, had anticipated that the end of World War II would be followed by an overdue general decolonization. It assumed that the United States, itself born in rebellion against Britain, would be recognized as the natural ally and protector of all the newly liberated people of Europe’s Asian, Middle Eastern, and African colonies. This proved mistaken.
The cold war intervened. All of mainland China fell to the Communists in 1949. A war between North Korea and an American-led United Nations coalition began in June 1950 and legally has not ended, although a cease-fire has been observed since 1953. France resisted Communist insurrection in Vietnam, and the British another such rebellion in what then was Malaya, and like France it reclaimed its colonial position in the eastern Mediterranean. The Dutch fought the Indonesian nationalists until 1949. Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the United States became effectively the patron of the republic created that year in the south, but not (yet) its military defender.
In 1965, early in the development of the Vietnamese-American crisis, the following remarks were published by George W. Ball, then an assistant secretary of state in the administration of John F. Kennedy:
"We find ourselves in a position unique in world history. Over the centuries a number of nations have exercised world power, and many have accepted at least some of the responsibilities that go with power. But never before in human history has a nation undertaken to play a role of world responsibility except in defense and support of a world empire. . . .
(The European nations) have had little experience in the exercise of responsibility divorced from the defense of territories or the advancement of quite narrow and specific national interests. To undertake — alongside the United States — to play a role of responsibility in a world where colonial empires have largely disappeared would require them to develop a whole new set of attitudes toward world affairs."
Ball’s views did not meet much objection in Washington at the time. Modesty about American power and political virtue had never been in fashion in policy circles.
Goldstein’s book should settle for good the controversy over whether President Kennedy, had he not been assassinated, would have enlarged the war or would have withdrawn the still limited number of American troops in Vietnam. (These at the time of Kennedy’s death consisted of two battalions of Marines, sent to protect the Danang airport, and some 12,000 Americans with missions as advisers and trainers for the South Vietnamese military.) As we shall see, the evidence of the Bundy material is conclusive.
Before leaving the White House in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower had warned Kennedy of the crisis posed by the insurrection occurring in Laos, the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia. Clark Clifford attended the meeting as Kennedy’s private counsel and reported that "the outgoing President considered the fate of that tiny, landlocked Southeast Asian kingdom the most important problem facing the US." The former president said American troop intervention might even be required — a statement in contrast with the position his administration had taken at the time of Dien Bien Phu. When Paris in 1954 had asked for American intervention, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, according to French sources, had offered the French two nuclear bombs to use as they saw fit (they refused), but the position of President Eisenhower at the time was that he would not consider an American troop intervention unless he first had congressional approval and an indication of British support.
He told his staff that "without allies and associates," military intervention would be the act of "just an adventurer, like Genghis Kahn." He also recalled that he had been elected to end one war in Asia, in Korea, which could have become a total war with China, at a time when the United States had allies and a UN mandate, and that he "was in no mood to provoke another one in Indochina. . . ."
President Kennedy had repeatedly asserted privately that a guerrilla war could not be won by foreign troops, even in large numbers. Eventually foreign troops go home, he said; the guerrillas stay. No lasting "victory" is possible for the foreigners.