Tug of War

Tug of War

The reality of America’s role in the cold war was far more complex and ambiguous than historical accounts suggest.


This illuminating and wonderfully subversive book is, without a doubt, the most important contribution to the history of US national security policy to appear in the past decade. Nominally, Perils of Dominance reinterprets the origins of the Vietnam War, recounting the crucial decisions made between 1954 and 1965 culminating in the commitment of American combat forces. In retracing this familiar sequence of events Gareth Porter, an independent scholar who has published on the war for more than three decades, challenges and overturns conventional explanations of how the United States blundered into that conflict. But the revisionist interpretation that he puts forward is of far more than historical interest. Perils of Dominance demolishes our most fundamental assumptions about how national security policy is formulated. Perhaps of even greater significance, it undermines the very notion of the cold war as a construct that explains the postwar era and as a source of myth used to justify actions well into the present.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the chief factor governing US policy, writes Porter, was not ideology–a fear of aggressive and monolithic Communism that seemingly left the United States with no alternative but to prop up tottering dominoes–but “strategic asymmetry.” A pronounced imbalance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, amounting from 1953 onward to “something approaching absolute strategic dominance,” freed Washington of any perceived need to exercise self-restraint and created incentives for aggressive and even reckless action. In this sense, the United States wandered into the quagmire not grudgingly or against its will but because influential officials in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations were convinced that the United States held all the cards and couldn’t lose.

Striking at the cold war’s conceptual definition, Porter dismisses the notion that the Soviet-American rivalry was a contest between two superpowers of more or less equal stature. Rather, he asserts that from the early 1950s onward the international order was “effectively unipolar.” Once the Korean War triggered the rearmament program proposed by the 1950 policy paper NSC-68, the United States quickly achieved a position of overwhelming pre-eminence. For the next decade and more, it maintained that pre-eminence, especially as measured by the currency of nuclear striking power. Porter does an especially effective job of documenting this strategic disparity, fully recognized in both Washington and Moscow (not to mention Beijing and Hanoi). Although the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, when it came to deploying such weapons effectively, they lagged at least a generation behind the Americans. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, Soviet long-range bombers were slow, vulnerable and few in number. Soviet land-based missiles were unprotected and maintained at low levels of readiness. Soviet submarines were noisy and carried short-range missiles tipped with conventional warheads. Launching a missile required the sub to surface. Soviet air defenses were porous.

Furthermore, American officials had a high level of confidence in their ability to take out the Soviet arsenal before it could do any harm. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, believed that SAC could destroy Soviet warmaking capabilities “without losing a man to their defenses.” In 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower assured Senator Lyndon Johnson that “if we were to release our nuclear stockpile on the Soviet Union, the main danger would arise not from retaliation but from fallout in the earth’s atmosphere.”

To be sure, US officials did not share these truths with the American people. For public consumption, the Red Menace remained dire. Portraying the Soviets as ten feet tall served several purposes. It enabled generals like LeMay to shake down Congress for better bombers, bigger missiles and an ever-expanding budget. It allowed ambitious politicians like Senators Johnson and John Kennedy to advertise their credentials as tough-minded statesmen keenly attuned to the threats facing the nation in a dangerous world. More obliquely, publicly exaggerating the lethality of the Soviet strike force helped the wily Eisenhower keep LeMay and other superhawks at least partially in check: By positing a relationship of mutual deterrence the President could argue against further expanding US strategic capabilities (in reality vastly superior) as potentially destabilizing. In other words, overstating the Soviet threat helped Ike fend off demands for overkill.

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.

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.

Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Oval Office even less keen on fighting a major war in Southeast Asia than his predecessor had been. But LBJ retained most of Kennedy’s national security advisers, who were more eager than ever to press what they viewed as the US advantage over the Communists. As early as December 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was promising American officials in Saigon that “we will escalate the conflict to whatever level is required to ensure their defeat.”

Persuading a reluctant President to endorse that proposition took the next fourteen months. The high points included Congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Porter persuasively depicts this episode not as LBJ pulling a fast one on Congress so much as the hardliners conspiring to circumvent Johnson’s inhibitions about bombing the north. Toward that end, the odious McNamara deliberately withheld from his President details indicating just how ambiguous the Tonkin Gulf incident had been.

After Johnson won the presidency in his own right, the hardliners ratcheted up the pressure. Again, their insistence on further escalation was driven by an unshakable confidence in US military superiority. In the fall of 1964, national security adviser William Bundy went so far as to assure Johnson that “both Hanoi and Peiping are anxious not to become involved in the kind of war in which the great weight of US weaponry could be brought against them.” The other side could be counted on to shrink from the prospect of fighting Americans.

Action was seen as having no downside, while inaction implied weakness. By January 1965 Johnson’s top national security advisers were all but taunting him for being pusillanimous. The people of South Vietnam “see the enormous power of the United States withheld,” wrote McNamara and McGeorge Bundy in a joint memo, “and they get little sense of firm and active U.S. policy.” To persist in what they described as an “essentially passive role” would “lead to eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances”–for which Johnson, not they, would take the blame. The time had come, McNamara and Bundy insisted, to “use our military power in the Far East…to force a change in Communist policy.” This time Johnson capitulated: Operation Rolling Thunder commenced; contingents of US Marines, followed by an ever swelling number of Army troops, began coming ashore.

Persuasive in its own terms, Porter’s study raises several important second-order issues. The first issue poses the question: Who exactly is in charge? The second relates to what we might call the actual sources of American conduct. A third suggests the need to recast the entire narrative of the cold war.

Depending on whether or not their own guy happens to be in office, most Americans tend either to celebrate presidential leadership or to bemoan the excesses of an imperial presidency. In either case, at least since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Americans have assumed that the occupant of the Oval Office actually runs the show–that Presidents command the loyalty of their subordinates, exercise effective control over their Administration and make decisions that others faithfully implement. Perils of Dominance suggests that this model is largely a fiction. All three Presidents considered in this study engaged in a continuous struggle to retain the reins of authority. Of the three, only Eisenhower achieved even a modicum of success. In each case, as Porter notes, “the national security bureaucracy acted as an independent power center within the US government with the right to pressure the president on matters of war and peace.”

The political competition that gets all the ink is the visible one pitting Democrats against Republicans. The competition that matters is the largely hidden one between Presidents ultimately accountable to the people and “unelected national security managers” accountable to no one. These national security chieftains constitute a sort of permanent war party. When hawking their wares, they speak movingly of their commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights. When they step away from the podium and the TV cameras, values take a back seat to considerations of power. For McNamara and the Bundy brothers in their day, as for Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in our own, the prospect of gratification lay not in husbanding power but in using it. In fevered minds, the imagined risks of inaction loom large; the benefits of action loom larger still. Applied to a world not nearly as malleable as the national security elite imagines, this logic yields not only Vietnam but also Iraq.

Finally, there is the historical period remembered as the cold war. A bipolar order, West versus East, the United States committed to a defensive posture called “containment”: Perils of Dominance calls all of these into question. Reality, this account suggests, was far more complex and ambiguous, certainly in the 1950s and ’60s but by implication in the 1970s and ’80s as well. Teasing out that more complex version of US policy in the postwar decades just might shed light on America’s transformation from defender of the Free World to militarized global hegemon. Gareth Porter has gotten that project off to an exceptionally fine start.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy