Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, by Gareth Porter

Perils of Dominance. Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

The conventional view of American involvement in Vietnam—according to the author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam—is based on the “containment” theory and “domino” theory of the Cold War. That is, American policymakers perceived themselves as locked in a struggle with a militarily roughly equal foe (the Soviet Union, or more broadly the Soviet Union, China, and the other so-called communist nations), and they sought to contain further communist expansion by putting up a defense in countries like South Vietnam—with military force when necessary—because any country like that that flipped to communist control would weaken the ability of countries near it to withstand falling like dominoes into the hands of the communists.

This, Porter says, is simply inaccurate, and it can be shown to be inaccurate by a close study of all the available evidence, including internal U.S. government documents that have become available since the end of the Vietnam War. Certainly much of the rhetoric used in public to defend the intervention in Vietnam fit the conventional view, but what those within the U.S. government were saying to each other was very different.

In reality, Porter contends, there was no rough parity of military force between the communist and anti-communist blocs in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years when the decisions were made about whether and how to get involved in the conflict in Vietnam, and the people at the top were very aware of that, regardless of what they said in public. The Soviet Union was way behind the U.S. in nuclear weapons, and more importantly had no realistic way to launch their nuclear weapons so as to strike the U.S.—mutually assured destruction was well in the future—and China was a total mess after the communist takeover and especially after the disastrously unsuccessful “Great Leap Forward.” These years were marked not by communist aggression and American defensive reactions, but by a sole superpower, drunk with power, able to act without fear of challenge even in faraway places like Vietnam where its interests were minimal, and by policies of appeasement by the communists, who had no other realistic choice.

Perils of Dominance appears to be meticulously and thoroughly researched—over a hundred of the 381 pages are notes and bibliography—so this is not armchair, speculative history. Of course I can’t know for certain that all the sources really support what he’s saying and are not cherry picked without going through them systematically and checking them all, but based on the way the book is written and the reviews it got and such, I have a pretty high level of confidence that it’s not a tendentious or poorly researched book, and that its claims are not far off the mark. Broadly speaking, I find it convincing.

The problem I have with it, though—and maybe I’m misinterpreting the author’s thesis—is that I don’t see nearly as much disagreement, as much incompatibility, between what he’s treating as the conventional view and his own view.

He says himself that even insofar as U.S. officials knew they had a significant military edge over the communist bloc, they also perceived the communists as gaining on them and about to catch them. Their projection of when that parity would come was generally just months or a year or two away. They were wrong about that—it took much longer before the Soviets or the communist bloc as a whole was that kind of equal rival—but that’s what they thought. That’s a far cry from believing you have unchallengeable hegemony and acting accordingly.

Even insofar as they saw themselves as the heavy favorite in a hypothetical straight up war with the communists—for the very near future anyway—it doesn’t follow from that that they approached world affairs with an offensive rather than defensive mindset. They still could have perceived communism as inherently aggressive and seeking to expand at any sign of weakness or vulnerability, and so calling for a response of containment to stand up to any such potential expansion.

In those years did the U.S. really exploit its military advantage all that much to get its way in the world? Was it really on the offensive, with the reeling communists desperately practicing appeasement to try to survive?

The appeasement part strikes me as mostly accurate, but I don’t see the U.S. as having been nearly as aggressive as it could have been in pushing its advantage. Yes there were some moves against Castro’s Cuba, but they were mostly small and amateurish, when had it chosen to the U.S. could have wiped Cuba off the map with nuclear or conventional weapons. There was no war launched in Europe across the Iron Curtain. There was no invasion of China to put the Nationalists in Taiwan back in power. There was no George W. Bush Iraq War-style ultimatum to Moscow or Beijing to relinquish power in the next few days or face “shock and awe.”

I suspect the author is correct that the U.S. did not really believe that the communist bloc—in the short run—was a viable military rival, but I don’t see that its behavior was all that different from if it had. It still seems to me to have been mostly on the defensive, intervening in places like Iran and Vietnam to try to stop another country from ending up in the communist bloc, rather than aggressively acting and threatening so as to flip already communist countries to the anti-communist bloc.

Like I say, maybe I’m misinterpreting something in Porter’s thesis and he’s really not saying anything I disagree with. But let’s move on to hit a few random points that stood out as interesting to me.

The author depicts the military and foreign affairs bureaucracy, including at the Cabinet level, as consistently to the right of—more hawkish than—the three Presidents in office during these years. That is, had they had their way, we would have jumped into the Vietnam War sooner and more fully, and would likely have involved ourselves militarily in plenty of other areas as well.

That’s what a lot of the book is about—the delicate matter of Presidents having to defy their own team, and get away with it. Often they had to be very tactful, send mixed messages, and delay decisions, rather than openly come out on the anti-war side. The last thing any of them wanted was mass resignations from military and foreign affairs professionals citing an intolerable refusal on the President’s part to stand up to the country’s enemies.

In one striking passage, he quotes Kennedy’s statement at a White House meeting that one more Bay of Pigs type incident—a foreign policy failure where the President is perceived as having been too weak to follow through on what needed to be done against the communists—would destroy him politically and make it impossible to be reelected in 1964, while two more such incidents would lead to a coup that would end our present form of government.

Most of us think of the U.S. system as highly stable and likely to last for decades and centuries more with only minor tinkering, and we think of the President as having a great deal of power within that system, especially over the executive branch at least. But reading things like this makes one wonder. These Presidents had to deal very carefully with disagreements within their own branch of government, and Kennedy regarded an out-and-out overthrow of the present government as very few steps away at any given time.

In connection with this, I think about the widespread hatred of Obama on the right, and how its couched not just in terms of policy disagreements but as opposition to a regime that’s fundamentally illegitimate and somehow contrary to the Constitution. It’s not uncommon for their rhetoric to go beyond calling for voting his party out of power or even impeachment, to calling for defying the law and even armed rebellion.

Most of that is laughably silly—the ranting of birthers and gun nuts and such with a dubious relationship with reality—and on the part of many of its Republican, media, and corporate instigators it’s not even sincere, but it’s probably a mistake to dismiss it too quickly. In present circumstances the extremist rhetoric doesn’t amount to much—there’s no chance you’re going to turn on the TV today and learn that Obama has been arrested and martial law instituted—but change the circumstances even modestly and things could get out of hand pretty quickly.

When instead of saying “We oppose some aspects of the health care law because they’re contrary to our financial self-interest,” you say, “Obama is not a legitimate President, this health care law is being imposed on the nation in a dictatorial, unconstitutional manner, it takes away our freedoms, and it’s unpatriotic not to combat it by any means necessary” that’s more politically effective in the short run, but you are really playing with fire.

Eisenhower is depicted as having been mostly successful in standing up to the hawks in his administration on Vietnam, but not entirely. America did not jump into the conflict whole hog during those years, but certainly plenty of incremental steps toward intervention were taken, including supporting the blatant violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords that called for an election to determine Vietnam’s fate.

Kennedy fought the same internal battle in his administration, and similarly took certain reluctant steps toward war without really committing to it.

It was under Johnson that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam really got going in earnest, but he too stood against that as long as he could. His escalation of the war was a compromise with the hawks, giving them far less than they wanted, and stalling giving them even that much for as long as he deemed it politically feasible.

It’s not that Johnson was a true believer in the war. He knew that the communist bloc was nowhere near as strong and unified as the hawks told the public, he knew how corrupt the South Vietnamese government was, he knew that a lot of what was being said in favor of an increased U.S. military involvement was dishonest, he knew that committing all these resources to Vietnam and generating the political controversy that was sure to follow would put his beloved Great Society reforms at risk, and he knew that a quick victory was unlikely and the U.S. could get mired in Vietnam indefinitely. He just eventually came to believe that “losing” the rest of Vietnam without putting up a fight would be even more disastrous for him politically.

There has long been a great deal of controversy over what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam had he lived. Some historians think the timing and nature of increased U.S. military involvement would likely have been about the same under Kennedy as it was under Johnson. Others, mostly Kennedy supporters, contend that he intended to pull out of Vietnam, and that had he lived there would have been no Vietnam War as we know it.

The latter theory is espoused by many Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs, and it comes up often as a key part of their theories of the assassination. That is, there were numerous sworn enemies of Kennedy in the military and in government who contended that he had foiled their efforts to take over Cuba by not properly supporting and following through on the Bay of Pigs invasion, and they weren’t about to let him get away with ruining their plans for Vietnam, so they arranged his assassination.

The author comes down squarely on the side of those who contend that Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Vietnam. He concludes from all the internal documents of the Kennedy administration that the President had already set in motion the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, and that he would have stood up to the hawks and not let them have their war, even if he would have delayed some of his moves until safely past the 1964 election.

Porter does not discuss the way many people tie this to the assassination. So in effect his book offers substantial support for one of their contentions, but that support is implicit rather than explicit, and he doesn’t address the other components of the common conspiracy theories one way or the other.

I don’t know how plausible it is that leading figures would have participated in such a plot to assassinate the President, not to mention gotten away with it to the extent that only a comparative handful of fringe figures realize what they did, but one of the things that struck me about the book were the examples of surprising insubordination in the military and executive branch in the run-up to the Vietnam War. Just because the President ordered something, that was no guarantee that it would be done. Messages might fail to be passed along, or be only passed along in incomplete or misleading ways. Unauthorized public statements might be made. Intelligence might be fudged. Etc. Loyalty to the President and the law was far from absolute.

It’s a little chilling to read how the use of nuclear weapons was seriously contemplated during this historical period. I suppose that’s not surprising, but it’s long been treated as dogma that nuclear war is “unthinkable,” when in reality it has always been quite “thinkable.”

Then again, it’s also worth noting that as scary as it is to realize that that option was considered, in the end it was always rejected, even during those years when—as the author points out—the U.S. was very confident in its military superiority and its ability to act with impunity.

Given the Vietnam War, and all the U.S. overt and covert actions all over the world during the Cold War it’s hard to think of the Americans as having significantly restrained themselves, but in fact, as I noted above, they did far, far less than they could have. Would other countries have been “restrained” even to that degree had they been in a similar situation of military dominance? Is there something about the American people, or the American system, or the individual characters of the men who occupied the office of the Presidency, that saved the world from a massive world war, possibly a nuclear war? What if instead Mao had enjoyed that degree of military superiority?

Perils of Dominance is a well-argued, intelligent, thought-provoking work of history on a very important subject. It would certainly be too dry and academic for many readers, but for those who are interested in the Vietnam War and are willing to dig down into some of the minutiae to better understand it, it is certainly worthwhile.

One final point this book made me think about: The policy debates, the negotiations, the calculations, etc. about Vietnam were largely based on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the major powers. Whether events and decisions were shaped by a perceived Cold War military equality as the conventional view would have it, or by an awareness on all sides of a massive U.S. military superiority as the author contends, there was an assumption that the future of Vietnam was up to foreign powers.

The U.S. thought that the key to foiling the guerrillas fighting against the South Vietnamese government was to deal with the puppetmasters in Moscow or Peking, or possibly Hanoi, rather than the puppets. But although the U.S. was pretty successful in forcing appeasement from the puppetmasters, those pesky puppets wouldn’t cooperate. Cutting off or reducing outside support for the rebels in the South Vietnamese villages and jungles angered them, frustrated them, made their existence that much more miserable, and increased their casualties, but what it didn’t do is get them to give up their fight or switch sides.

In the end it also didn’t prevent them from winning.

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