POLITICS NOVEMBER 2, 1968
It has become fashionable among scholars, retired public officials, and politicians to admit that our involvement in Vietnam has not been a success. It has also become fashionable to turn from this admission of failure to the post-Vietnam future without pausing to ask what accounts for that failure. It is more important, so it is argued, to end the war than to discover what led us into it. To bury the past and get ready for the future is taken as a manifestation of both positive and patriotic thinking. In many cases this attitude is no doubt self-serving; for the Vietnam ship is obviously sinking, and in consequence many members of the crew jump overboard and frantically swim to shore, making it appear that either they were never aboard or were only doubting and unwilling mates. Yet on closer examination this attitude reveals itself as an organic element in the political pathology that is responsible for the disaster of Vietnam.
When a government composed of intelligent and responsible men embarks upon a course of action which is utterly at variance with what the national interest requires and which is bound to end in failure, it is impossible to attribute such persistence in error to an accident of personality or circumstances. Nor is it possible to make such an attribution when the preponderant weight of public opinion—political, expert and lay — for years supports such a mistaken course of action. When a nation allows itself to be misgoverned in such a flagrant fashion, there must be something essentially wrong in its intellectual, moral and political constitution. To lay bare what is wrong is not an idle exercise in ex-post-facto fault-finding. Rather it is an act of public purification and rectification. If it is not performed and accepted by government and people alike, faults, undiscovered and uncorrected, are bound to call forth new disasters, likely to be different from the one in Vietnam, but just as detrimental.
Such an examination of the roots of the disaster promises to be particularly illuminating when the call to lift the burden of the war emanates from Mr. McGeorge Bundy, one of the chief architects of our Vietnam policy. Mr. Bundy’s address of October 12, 1968, at DePauw University, on which The New Republic commented last week, is distinguished from other “revisionist” documents by the characteristic self-assurance with which it defends the decisions of 1965 to enter the war in full force while asking for their revision now. Mr. Bundy offers us ten basic propositions.
1. The avoidance of defeat in southeast Asia justifies the ‘65 decision “to stand and fight in South Vietnam.”
2. This decision has been “validated” by events in the area.
3. We do not need to lose what we have gained by a new course of action.
4. “The right goal now is to lift the burden of this war as we now know it.”
5. We cannot “continue with annual costs of $30 billion and an annual rate of sacrifice of more than 10,000 American lives,” for this burden prevents us from moving “forward effectively with other great national tasks,” nor can we “accept the increasing bitterness and polarization of our people.”
6. “It is not right for Asia that it [the war] should go on as it is going, and the people of our own country simply will not support the current level of cost and sacrifice for another period of years.”
7. We cannot expect a military solution since the American forces have been able to “prevent defeat” but not to “produce victory.” Thus only two alternatives are left: a negotiated settlement or “a gradual but substantial reduction in the level of our own military effort there.”
8. “We should be ready for a compromise well short of victory in which the eventual outcome would remain to be settled by the people of South Vietnam.” In the absence of such a compromise, our government “must decide that it will steadily, systematically and substantially reduce the number of American casualties, the number of Americans in Vietnam, and the dollar cost of the war.” But we will “keep at least 100,000 troops in place for years.” These changes are “possible” and will not jeopardize “the basic purpose of our forces in Vietnam—the purpose of preventing defeat.”
9. The reduced American effort “can stimulate increased self-reliance” among the determined anti-Communists in South Vietnam.
10. This program offers a “way down—but not surely the way out … Now we should cut back—but we need not and should not give up.”
For the administrations Mr. Bundy has served, the crucial issue has always been: Who shall govern South Vietnam, the Communists or their opponents? This issue can be interpreted in two different ways, one narrow and short-range, the other broad and long-range. It can mean the prevention of a Communist take-over, or it can mean, in the words of President Johnson, favorably quoted by Mr. Bundy on another occasion, “the independence of South Vietnam and its freedom from attack,” that is, the defeat of the Vietcong and of North Vietnam. If one takes the former interpretation as the measure of our success or failure, then the United States has been successful; for it has prevented the Communist take-over of the government of South Vietnam, which appeared to be imminent at the beginning of 1965. Judged by the latter interpretation, the United States has failed; for South Vietnam’s “freedom from attack” has not been achieved, and its “independence” can be maintained only through the presence of a half million American troops. In other words, the distribution of military and political power that threatened the existence of the Saigon government at the beginning of 1965 still threatens it today. If we were to reduce our military presence to the level of four years ago, the Saigon government could not maintain itself in power. Our massive intervention has not decisively affected the overall distribution of military and political power unfavorable to the Saigon government, which distribution our intervention was intended to reverse.
By espousing the narrow interpretation of our goal, Mr. Bundy can justify our intervention and claim success for it. But by doing this, he cannot justify the kind of war we choose to fight, and at the same time advocate the reduction of our armed presence to a minimum of 100,000 men. For if 100,000 men will be sufficient to keep the Saigon government in power in the near future, why weren’t they sufficient at the beginning of 1965 when hardly any organized units of the North Vietnamese army were south of the demilitarized zone? Either we have wasted, during the last four years, our human and material resources on a monstrous scale in order to achieve a result that could have been achieved much more cheaply, or the 100,000 men whose presence Mr. Bundy ultimately envisages in South Vietnam will not be sufficient to keep the Saigon government in power. Mr. Bundy’s argument either damns the war as we fought it as an appalling extravaganza, or it prepares us for defeat.
In truth, it is not only Mr. Bundy’s logic that is at fault, but also his historic recollection. The whole conduct of the war—search and destroy, pacification, the massive bombing of Vietnam, North and South—is of course intelligible only if one assumes the broad interpretation of our goal. That interpretation was indeed the one supported by our policy makers, Mr. Bundy included, who in 1965 spoke of “victory” and not the mere prevention of defeat, before the inevitability of failure had become obvious, albeit not acceptable even to President Johnson. What the Administration wanted until recently and for which it sacrificed annually 10,000 American lives (and uncounted Vietnamese lives) and spent $30 billion a year was not to keep the Saigon government just barely in power, but to win the civil war for the Saigon government by destroying the Vietcong as an organized political and military force. By now making it appear that what we wanted all along was nothing more than the avoidance of defeat, one can offer the avoidance of defeat as the equivalent of victory.
MR. BUNDY’S POSITION is also vulnerable to pragmatic considerations. The gradual reduction of the American presence to a minimum of 100,000 men is predicated upon two assumptions, both dubious in the extreme: that the Vietnamese, North and South, will not take advantage of our greatly weakened military and political position in order to expel the hated foreigner from the national soil, and that the Saigon government can substitute its own strength for that to be withdrawn by the United States. The later expectation has been the mirage we have followed into the Vietnamese jungles since 1965, however obvious it should have been from the outset that a government overwhelmingly composed of men who sided with the French against their own people, supported in the main by the landowners and the urban middle class, infiltrated on a massive scale by the Vietcong, and being able to govern only with the bayonets of a foreign army of occupation, simply cannot compete with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong for the allegiance of the people of South Vietnam. No amount of American advice, money, and weapons has been able to overcome that handicap, and none is likely to do so.
But regardless of these prospects, will the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, committed as they are to national liberation, allow an American army of 100,- 000 men to install itself in South Vietnam in virtual permanence, withholding control of military bases and major cities from them? If they do not and we don’t escalate our military effort again, either, at best, the war will go on indefinitely and South Vietnam will become an American Ireland, or, at worst, America will be defeated. Even under the best of circumstances, the wound which the Vietnam war has opened in the body politic of America will then not be closed, but only narrowed; the life blood of America will continue to flow out of it, but in smaller driblets; and the infection of the body politic will spread more slowly, but as inexorably as before. Mr. Bundy’s design stands in the same relation to President Johnson’s conduct of the war, as that conduct does to Goldwater’s plans of 1964. As Johnson did more gradually what Goldwater wanted to do, till the futility of the enterprise became obvious to all, so—in the teeth of the obviousness of that futility—Mr. Bundy suggests doing on a lower level of military effort what Johnson has been doing. In other words, he approaches the future with the same modes of thought and action which proved so disastrous in the past; only he does so in a lower key.
WHAT WORRIES MR. BUNDY really is not the futility of the war but its cost and the unwillingness of the American people to continue bearing that cost. It is primarily fur this reason that he advocate;, the deescalation of the war. That argument raises a fundamental philosophic issue. If our waging war in Vietnam serves a vital national interest, as Mr. Bundy still maintains, is it permissible to support this interest with less than wholehearted effort, let alone jeopardize it, in order to satisfy the aspirations for reform and mollify popular moods at home? These reforms will avail us nothing and the popularity of the government will be short-lived if in consequence of the dcescalalion of the war the security of the United States is imperiled. If the people are unwilling to bear the burdens the security of the country demands and if the government is unable to impose them, then America will not, and ought not, to remain a great power. A nation which refuses to accept the primacy of foreign policy over domestic politics has doomed itself.
This is the conclusion to which Mr. Bundy should have been led by his premise, and that was indeed the conclusion he drew in January 1967 when he wrote that “Retreat in Vietnam is not the road forward at home.” He now maintains that partial retreat in Vietnam—from victory to the defense of the Saigon government—is the road forward at home. Let me say bluntly that it is the road to disaster on the installment plan at home and abroad. At best, it will not liquidate the war but only draw it out indefinitely on a lower level of military effort. In consequence, it will do nothing to relieve the malaise at home but will only deepen it by calling forth expectations sure to be disappointed. Mr. Bundy now neglects what he once perfectly understood and put into practice, viz. that the narrow and broad interpretations of the American objective in Vietnam—the prevention of defeat and victory—are interconnected: in the long run the former cannot be had without the latter, and decreasing our military effort without complementary efforts on the part of our friends and enemies must greatly diminish the chances for preventing defeat.
Mr. Bundy’s plan suffers from the same disability that frustrated the policies pursued by the Administration of which he was a member: to try to gain a national objective without taking the risks and bringing the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. to will an end without willing the means. From 1965 to March 31, 1968, we wanted to defeat the Vietcong, but not at the risk of war with the Soviet Union or China nor through the commitment of a million American men, which military authorities then deemed necessary to achieve that purpose. What Mr. Bundy now proposes partakes of the same defective mode of thought, compounded by an even greater disproportion between means and ends. Instead of preventing the Communists from taking over the government of South Vietnam by defeating them, we arc told that we shall achieve that goal by defending the Saigon government with a drastically reduced military effort. What Mr. Bundy has never understood and what he cannot now admit without discrediting the policies which he devised and supported so prominently and defended so strongly in the past is the untenability of the basic premise upon which our Vietnam policy, past and present, as well as Mr. Bundy’s proposal rest: that our military intervention was justified in 1965 because a vital national interest was at stake. If you believe that you cannot liquidate the war without victory, then you cannot liquidate it M all, since victory is not in sit. If, on the other hand, you believe that our military intervention in 1905 was a blunder and that, once (he blunder had been committed, the issue before us was not how to continue the war to victory, but how to liquidate it as quickly and advantageously as possible, then you have n(i real problem in liquidating it now. You will simply see to it that a genuinely civilian government is established in Saigon, which inevitably will make it its first order of business to come to an understanding with She Vietcong, That government would use the presence of our troops as a bargaining counter in the negotiations, after the completion of which it would thank us for our assistance and bid us farewell. The terms of settlement would be none of our business, and we could not be blamed for them.
Things are naturally more complicated for men who bear the responsibility fur this misadventure and the evils, domestic and international, attendant to it. They cannot be expected to liquidate the war, nor is their counsel, so false in the past, worth listening to now. The best they can do for the country that they have served so ill is to allow wiser men to try to repair the damage they have caused. That is also (he best they can do for themselves. As a Latin proverb has it: “Si tacuisses,, philosophus mansisses,” which, very freely translated, would read: If you had only kept silent, you might still pass for a statesman.
This article originally ran in the November 2, 1968 issue of the magazine.