Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth
The second myth that we embraced was that military action would be an acceptable substitute for basic political and social action. Again the lessons of the bitter and frustrating American experience in Nicaragua, Haiti and Santo Domingo in the years be-tween World Wars I and II were passed over or rejected, if ever remembered. Military force -- if sufficient in amount and ruthless enough in direction -- can suppress rebel-lions, but rarely has it produced the reform's of conditions which lead men to join the ranks of rebellion. We ventured to combine some economic and technical, aid with military support, but the rationale for military measures has prevailed increasingly as our efforts in Indo-China have persisted. The creation of SEATO in 1954 epitomizes this fu-tile faith in military power to solve the problems of disorder in politically inchoate states desperately in need of social reform.
The third myth that we followed was the "domino" theory of the inevitable loss of all of Asia and a vital threat to our own continental security if any additional part of Asia came under Communist control. This theory was the delight of Sen. William Knowland, who trumpeted it in the Senate and across the land as if it had the infallibility of Newton's law of gravity. Even President Kennedy repeated the arguments of the "domino" theory and few voices were raised to question its logic of inevitable, irresistible and sequential massive defeat once the first (additional) little domino fell against the bastions of our friends.
The domino theory overlooks the possibility of strong reaction by other nations at different points when they are confronted by new circumstances clearly threatening their security. The theory assumes that all powerful force's are, on only one side, always moving outward, and it neglects the possibility of disruptive internal forces and counter-forces moving against the presumed massive seismic wave set in motion by any little change of political status. It is a negative, fearful and mechanistic view of politics and man, but for those very reasons it finds countless advocates.
So, we took some facts and added some myths and came up with a decision -- many times reaffirmed -- to deny all Southeast Asia to communism, with military aid, and we created SEATO to do the job for us. Ten years later this queasy foundation of fact and myth finds us mired very deeply and sinking in more and more. After expending many billions of dollars and sacrificing hundreds of lives in combat or related services, after twistings and turnings of CIA undercover operations, with resulting changes of leader in some of the states, there is still no end in sight.
What could we have done that we didn't do? If it had been possible for the Republicans to have done otherwise -- or for the Democrats to have altered that policy after they took over in 1961 one would like to think that they would surely have done so. The losses of American lives, the outpouring of many billions of taxpayers' dollars and the strains on our friendship with many other nations which, have not seen the issues as we have seen them, would not normally be called assets to any political party seeking voter support. And so the American people have been told over and over that there were and still are no other alternatives but to stand on the 17th parallel (or well south of it) and fight the devils (allegedly all from the north) in the ancient battlegrounds of Indo-China. What we have done is intervene in a third civil war in Asia; China and Korea being the other two very costly interventions.
Until recently, too, we have lacked critical voices which, while not acting as "the devil's advocate," would at least ask if we ore sure that what we are attempting is the only pos-sible alternative acceptable to our people. Like McKinley and the Philippines, the vast majority of the American people in 1954 had only the vaguest notion of where Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were -- and, they cared less. Do they even now believe these areas so vital to their welfare that very extensive and long-term involvement is all that we can consider?
In due time, probably later than would have been, an optimum time for us, we will be forced to face the "unthinkable" possibility of the neutralization of all of the lndo-Chinese peninsula. Secretary of State Ruth and Secretary of Defense M'cNanara repeatedly say that no thought is 'being given to this alternative to our present massive military aid-cum-cheers-for-Khanh as our approach to the problem. The McNamara shuttle to Sai-gon carries threadbare calls for "greater resolve" and warnings of "an unforseeable end to the effort," and then the familiar and unconvincing reports of "gratifying progress" and "encouraging developments" on the Westbound run back to Washington. In the mean-time, the Vietcong strike villages and cities at will in South Vietnam and simultaneously detail spare forces to push their campaign In Laos. Recruits and military equipment are picked up in abundance from the South Vietnamese civilian and military forces.
"Why are we involved in Southeast Asia?" "Where do we go for the next ten years?" These are the questions that beg and receive no clear answers," other than "Carry on!" What was valid in 1954 is still valid in 1964 although the Asian world has changed greatly since then. At some point -- and soon perhaps - we must face up to: (1) our dubious legal position in South Vietnam, with our shooting and destroying of military forces under the thin deceit of being "advisers"; (2) the soundness of our continuing passivity toward a strong role for the UN in Southeast Asian strife, while at the same time we have pressed for UN action in the internecine fighting of the Congo, Cyprus and the Middle East; (3) a new look at neutralization of "border" areas between East and West in Asia and the established examples, both satisfactory and unsatisfactory, of neutralization in Europe and elsewhere; (4) a hard review of all our interests in Asia, eventually in conference with Communist China; and (5) abandoning the shibboleth of containing communism along artificial latitudes or longitudes. The truth is that the ideological appeal of Marxist doctrine and the reforms that communism often has espoused effectively appeal to many people around the world; and the spread of these ideas will not be stopped by military fiat. Nor will it help at all to continue the repeated plaintive lament of Secretary Rush that there would be peace in Indo-China if only the North Vietnamese and the Chinese would leave their neighbors alone. If all countries would leave their neighbors alone, it would be a very different world, but it is not realistic to expect this change in our times. To expand the war would assure only another Korea or worse, with all the possibilities of a nuclear war.
Will the new year or the post-election period see us re-examine our decade of "active defense" in Southeast Asia's Indo-Chinese peninsula? Perhaps not; it has become a habit to argue as we have for so long. Apparently only a Senator Wayne Morse can change his mind as fully as the circumstances require and still retain his following. Politics doesn't stop at the water's edge, but rather it governs all we do. Only a statesman above politics can change our course now. Events in Indo-China may not wait for our politician's to clear the November election hurdle before they can "lead" our discontented people to a new and more realistic settlement in Southeast Asia, and extricate us from a misadventure born of good motives based on some faulty calculations and expectations.