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Tug of War | The Nation

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Tug of War

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According to Porter, this strategic asymmetry exercised a decisive effect on US policy in Vietnam. Persuaded that their veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Korea had brought that conflict to an end, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles concluded that the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China would go to great lengths to avoid even the prospect of a showdown with the United States. In Indochina, they exploited that vulnerability not by intervening in 1954 to bail out the French--Eisenhower resisted Pentagon pressures to do so--but by torpedoing the Geneva Accords, confident that neither of the two major Communist powers would do more than offer empty protests. Hence, writes Porter, there appeared to be "no serious downside to scrapping the elections called for by the Geneva Accords" and to creating the new client state of South Vietnam, with Ngo Dinh Diem installed as president.

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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In the near term, Eisenhower's reading of Soviet and "ChiCom" behavior proved accurate. Although Ho Chi Minh might chafe, without Great Power support he was in no position to pursue his dream of uniting Vietnam under his rule. Such support was not forthcoming. Instead, calculations of power and self-interest persuaded both Soviet and Chinese leaders to pursue "a conscious policy of appeasement of the United States on Vietnam." For the balance of the decade, the basic posture in both Moscow and Beijing was to "placate Washington and lean on Hanoi."

Intent on consolidating his hold on the Republic of Vietnam, Diem saw this tacit arrangement among the main powers as his chance to root out the Communists who had remained in the south following partition. But the ensuing campaign of repression succeeded only in inducing a violent backlash that South Vietnamese forces could not suppress. In this sense, the "war of national liberation" aimed at toppling the regime in Saigon began not at the behest of Nikita Khrushchev or Mao Zedong, or even at Ho's instigation. Porter takes great pains to emphasize that it grew out of the resistance mounted by besieged Vietminh cadres for whom comparisons of nuclear arsenals mattered less than fending off attacks aimed at their extinction. The fifteen-year struggle for South Vietnam, writes Porter, originated as "a breach in the international hierarchy of power from the bottom up."

John Kennedy inherited this insurgency in January 1961. By the time of his assassination in November 1963, America's commitment to South Vietnam had deepened considerably. Yet Porter portrays Kennedy himself as anything but the eager cold warrior. In Perils of Dominance we see a pragmatic and flexible JFK looking for ways to open up a diplomatic track and resisting efforts by key advisers like McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor and Averell Harriman to maneuver him into a full-fledged shooting war. An awareness of the Sino-Soviet split encouraged these hardliners in the belief that the United States had no need to compromise on Vietnam; any solution ought to come on American terms. Although they continued in public to depict the Communist bloc as monolithic, Administration officials knew that the reality was quite different. According to Porter, they knew too that "the USSR neither represented a revolutionary force in world politics nor exercised real control over other Communist movements." Why play for a tie when victory was there for the taking?

Porter credits Kennedy with playing a sophisticated game, using "multiple levels of deception" to outwit his adversaries, both inside and outside his Administration. Willing to settle for a Vietnam neutralized along the lines of Laos, he was nonetheless determined to insulate himself from the charge of being soft on Communism. Kennedy did substantially increase the number of US advisers in South Vietnam, but he acted primarily "to maintain a minimum of political unity in his own administration." His real aim was to begin the process of withdrawal. Yet Kennedy wanted assurances that the Pentagon was fully committed to any such decision before revealing his intentions. Overall, the President maintained a "stance of deliberate ambiguity," concealing his "real policy toward Vietnam not only from the public but from most of his own national security bureaucracy."

This is a plausible explanation of Kennedy's behavior. A second explanation, equally plausible, is that JFK was not so much sophisticated as uncertain, not pragmatic but confused. The hardliners of Camelot had no doubt about their intentions regarding Vietnam; apart from doing nothing to jeopardize his own re-election in 1964, Kennedy didn't know exactly what he wanted. By November 1, 1963, with the assassination of President Diem, it became readily apparent that the internal struggle to determine US policy in Vietnam had ended: The hardliners had prevailed.

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