Friday, August 7, 2015

John Kerry in Vietnam

The Secretary of State is in Vietnam to celebrate the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries:
Standing here today, I'm reminded of conversations I've had recently with people who talk almost casually about the prospect of war with one country or another. And I'm tempted to say: 'You don't have the first idea of what you're talking about'.

For sure, there are times when one may have no choice but to go to war, but it is never something to rush to or accept without exploring every other available option. The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and stemmed from the most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision.
The Vietnam War was a horrible tragedy that happened mostly because powerful people cared more about other things than what was actually happening in Vietnam. The United States supported France's return to Southeast Asia after World War II because de Gaulle made that his price for joining NATO. Hardly anyone in the U.S. thought that was a good idea, but in 1945 NATO seemed more important. The French stayed for a decade because de Gaulle thought maintaining the colonies was essentially to restoring France's sense of its own greatness. Once the French pulled out and the new national boundaries were drawn, the U.S. supported the south because we wanted to oppose communism everywhere in the world. Once that stand was taken, no American leader could abandon Saigon without paying a huge political price. (Pretty much the same thing goes for the Russian and Chinese leaders on the other side.) Obviously the story was more complicated than that, but to me the saga shows the bad things that happen when people think abstractly about big words like freedom, or principles like loyalty to allies, instead of asking what is really happening and what might be done about it.

1 comment:

David said...

I think you're basically right, especially about the original US support for the French. I would make this slight change: it seems to me that the issue had less to do with abstraction vs. what was really happening, than gambling on an easy way out. That is, my impression of the internal US government discussions in 1964-5 is that they understood pretty clearly what has happening on the ground, at least to the extent that they were pretty clear the Saigon government had almost no political support (as well as being pretty clear that the US had no important interests at stake other than "credibility" and that the American public's support for intervention would be limited). Aware of this, they nevertheless decided to intervene, gambling that, if we show that "we mean business," mostly with a bit of bombing, the North would back off. And at first the Hanoi government was terrified, because they thought we were going to make a landing in the Red River Delta, and they had no way to oppose that; once they realized we were just trying to scare them with bombs, their confidence returned.

The parallel with the war party's thinking on Iran, it seems to me, is obvious. It's the old gamble that "if we show them we mean business," they'll back down. Since by "mean business" the American public thinks of saber-rattling and a few bombing raids, and not a decade of bloody war with high taxes and a return to the draft (that is, since we don't actually mean business), the folly of this is clear.