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Who Set Up the Dominoes?

Author: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs
May 14, 2000
The New York Times

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For many if not most Americans over 40, the Vietnam War was a life-defining trauma. For nearly all under 40, it is just another bit of history. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is closer to the Great Depression than to the Nasdaq 100, and a generation raised on immaculate interventions like Haiti and Kosovo can be forgiven for finding it incomprehensible that nearly 60,000 Americans died to shape the destiny of some fetid jungles halfway around the world.

This amnesia offers historians both an opportunity and a challenge: to tell us how such events could have happened, and to help us understand what seems past understanding. David Kaiser's ''American Tragedy'' is the latest attempt along these lines, following a number of others over the years. A professor at the Naval War College, Kaiser has worked his way through the archives and emerged with an impressive account of what he terms ''the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.''

The book is a detailed narrative of the war-related decisions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, tracing American involvement from the late 1950's to the dispatch of ground troops in 1965. All the familiar elements of the story are here -- the early crisis in Laos, the hapless military advisory mission, the choices of 1964-65 that Americanized the war -- along with some new tidbits as well, like a transcript of John F. Kennedy's private post-mortem on the 1963 coup against the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Kaiser shows us one official after another stumbling forward toward the edge of the abyss. Ambassador Frederick Nolting and Gen. Paul Harkins, the senior Americans on the ground in 1962-63, come off particularly poorly, as do Gen. Maxwell Taylor (in his role as a successor to Nolting) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Although Kaiser's study is really a collection of trees rather than a picture of the forest, it does have a simple general thesis: Kennedy good, Eisenhower and Johnson bad. The Eisenhower administration made a commitment to sustain a non-Communist South Vietnam by any means necessary, he argues, which the Johnson administration followed through on several years later. Kennedy's team was on board too, but the doomed prince of Camelot himself was a freer and more skeptical spirit: ''We shall never know what Kennedy would have done with respect to Vietnam had he lived to serve a second term, but it is clear that the Vietnam War would have begun three or four years earlier than it did had he taken his subordinates' advice to send troops.''

Kaiser's Kennedy is not someone ready to ''pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty,'' but rather a leader with ''the wisdom to recognize tasks whose costs would inevitably outweigh any possible benefits, and who had refused to begin that war again and again.'' In the crunch, we are led to believe, such a realist could hardly have failed to recognize what the author states as an incontrovertible fact -- that ''the United States never had any chance of achieving its objective of an 'independent, non-Communist South Vietnam' at a remotely acceptable cost.'' Johnson, in contrast, navely ''accepted the premises of the policies that had been developed under Eisenhower'' and took the country into a disastrous war, while lying about it to boot.

There is something to be said for the notion that Kennedy was reluctant to authorize major military operations, even more for the idea that the war was unwinnable at a reasonable cost. And Kaiser is not alone in seeing lost opportunities for withdrawal or the change in presidents as a crucial turning point. But there are arguments against these positions as well, especially against the implication that Kennedy would have walked away from South Vietnam had it begun to collapse on his watch rather than on his successor's. Unfortunately, Kaiser scoffs at the official rationale for the war rather than engaging it, so the reader never appreciates the full weight of history pressing down on the bureaucrats whose endless memorandums are so dutifully noted.

Invoking Thucydides, Kaiser claims to recount not simply the immediate causes of the war but the long-term ones as well -- which he dates back to the mid-1950's. A better student of the Greek master, however, would almost certainly take a broader and deeper view, locating the true roots of the conflict not in ''the policies the Eisenhower administration adopted toward Southeast Asia after 1954'' but in the structure and nature of the postwar international system.

The end of World War II, he might note, left the United States and the Soviet Union glaring at each other across the rubble of a world in turmoil. As these proud and suspicious champions of competing ideologies consolidated their hold over their respective spheres of influence, areas still in dispute became flash points for recurrent cold war crises. From Berlin to China, Iran to Korea, the giants struggled to get and keep the lead in what quickly became a global contest for power and prestige. In such a world everything seemed connected to everything else, with momentum driving all. Only this context -- which Kaiser largely ignores -- explains why honorable and intelligent people could convince themselves that propping up unsavory regimes in obscure former European colonies was of a piece with, say, the creation of NATO; only this explains why a man like Eisenhower could honestly believe, as he put it in 1959 during an address at Gettysburg College, that ''the loss of South Vietnam . . . would set in motion a crumbling process that could, as it progressed, have grave consequences for us and for freedom.''

But if containment and the domino theory give us the ''why'' of American policy toward Vietnam, they have little to say about the ''when'' or the ''how.'' Kaiser makes much of what one might call a ''Kennedy exceptionalism,'' but in fact the change in presidents never altered the basic plot of the Vietnam story. The central objective of every administration from Truman's onward was remarkably similar -- keep the South from falling to the North or its proxies -- and each did what it felt necessary to achieve that outcome. What varied over time was not the goal but the means required -- which were dictated, in turn, not by the American government but by the weakness of its South Vietnamese ally, the strength of the enemy and the deteriorating situation on the ground.

None of the administrations of the 1960's could bring themselves to face the toughest question about the war, whether to accept the true costs of victory or defeat. By gradually increasing the scale of the American effort, officials hoped, the Communists could be persuaded to cease and desist. So more troops were sent and more bombs were dropped, while at the same time the fighting was kept within strict limits to avoid domestic unrest or a general war with China. (This last concern reflected the lessons policy makers drew from their experiences in Korea, another topic Kaiser barely mentions.) In the end it was the United States that broke first, pulling out for good in 1973 and allowing the South to fall to a conventional invasion from the North two years later.

Kaiser is right to argue that the American military's preferred strategy and tactics were ill suited to the task at hand (at least during the first two-thirds of the war), and probably even right more generally that ''South Vietnam was not a place to confront the Communists successfully.'' But his book does not help readers see why it took unusual insight and courage to appreciate the latter point at the time rather than in retrospect, nor why such a consistent if mistaken policy was followed for so long by so many.

At the height of the cold war, few in the United States found it easy to accept that in this case discretion was the better part of valor. The French example was not enough; swollen with power and self-confidence, we had to learn the lesson ourselves, at a terrible cost. The real tragedy and irony of Vietnam, as an earlier study famously noted, was that at every step along the way American leaders took not the extreme but the centrist course. The system worked, and the result was failure.

Gideon Rose is Olin senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the senior editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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