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Twenty-Twenty Foresight

by Bruce Sharp

The Viet-Nam Reader "On Viet-Nam" by Matthew Ridgway
The Bitter Heritage by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Wider War by Donald Kirk

History is backward glance: a look at the past, with the benefit of hindsight. But hindsight is easy; it's foresight that's hard. Many of us try to predict the future. Does the present bear any resemblance to our past ideas of the future?

Any divisive event carries in its wake a torrent of predictions about its future consequences, and is not surprising that commentators of different political ideologies offer starkly different assessments. Contemporary accounts of the U.S. role in Indochina frequently reflect these partisan views -- views which were often simplistic and misguided. From time to time, however, a few voices discarded the conventional wisdom of the Right and Left, offering more nuanced evaluations of current events. The works of three of these authors -- historian Arthur Schleshinger, Jr., journalist Donald Kirk, and former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Matthew Ridgway -- are fine examples.

It is probably fair to say that all three men regarded communism as repressive, and -- unlike many on the Left -- they did not romanticize the Indochinese revolutionaries. But neither did they blindly accept the notion that the United States was pursuing a sensible strategy in Southeast Asia.

A 1967 book entitled The Vietnam Reader: Articles and Documents on American Foreign Policy and the Viet-Nam Crisis is noteworthy for its discussion of the central assumptions that formed the foundation of the U.S. strategy. Edited by Marcus Raskin (a former member of Kennedy's National Security Council) and journalist Bernard Fall, the book was published shortly after Fall was killed by a mine outside Hue.

Several of the essays demonstrate a searching, thoughtful analysis which was frequently absent from policymaking at the height of the Cold War era. In particular, an article by General Matthew B. Ridgway merits examination for its discussion of the rapidly escalating American role, and the limited effectiveness of the American air campaign.

Ridgway, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, was widely credited with resurrecting the 8th Army, when McArthur's attempt to push the Communists north of the 38th parallel left the UN forces overextended and at risk of annihilation.

In his essay On Viet-Nam (originally published in Look Magazine, April 5, 1966), Ridgway questioned the goals of the American intervention:

"Our military objective has been frequently and beguilingly described as 'victory.' This word always rings gladly on American ears. What American does not want to win any fight he gets into? It is a deeply ingrained national trait to go all out for victory, using whatever force we possess. There is, we are told, and we foolishly agree, 'no substitute for victory.' But we are not dealing with a lawsuit, a prizefight, or a football game. We live in a world very unlike the one we were raised in. We have a potential for wholesale destruction so indescribably vast that many words, including 'victory,' lose their meaning. It would hardly be counted a 'victory' if one football team were to defeat another through the use of knives; neither would we savor triumph in a 'victory' that would reduce three-fourths of the civilized world to rubble.

"With no clearcut limit upon our immediate military objective, we commit ourselves to an upward-spiraling course that may approach annihilation. If we decide to employ whatever force is needed (and no one is wise enough to estimate how much that will be) to achieve victory in Viet-Nam, do we double, then triple, then quadruple our ground forces? And if victory still eludes us, do we extend the war to wider and wider arenas? And if we still fail to eliminate all resistance, do we then use nuclear weapons?

"We cannot thus engage to achieve victory at whatever cost unless we have already announced an unlimited political objective: i.e., the complete subjection of the outside world to American domination. And I cannot see in the current situation anything to justify the setting up of so rash a goal as that. But if, in the light of their greater knowledge of the situation, our highest civilian authorities believe that something like this should be our goal, the public should be told immediately. If our policymakers do not believe in aiming for such a goal, and there is certainly no indication that they do, then a halt should be called soon to control our military buildup." (pp. 436-437)

The very real risk that a conflict in Indochina might have spiraled into a nuclear confrontation with China or the USSR is a factor that is often overlooked by modern Conservative pundits, who are fond of suggesting that the war in Vietnam could have been won, if only the US had been willing to exert the full force of American military power.

Ridgway, by contrast, argued that there were limits to what could be accomplished by brute force in the absence of favorable political conditions. The parallels between the Korea and Vietnam were limited, and while Ridgway did not believe that the US should abandon their Vietnamese allies, he argued that the extent of American involvement should be considered within a larger context:

"Many of those who have thoughtfully endorsed a widening or intensifying of the war have spoken, I believe, that they have been applying the lessons learned from Korea. But there are far more dissimiliarities between the actions than there are parallels. In South Korea, we had a workable government, led by a fiercely patriotic and powerful civilian leader whose opposition to communism was widely known and who held the allegiance of the majority of his people. We acted in concert with many nations and had been deputized by the United Nations to repel the aggressor in its name.

"Relatively little terrorist activity occurred in South Korea, United Nations personnel rode in open jeeps throughout the country without ever drawing an assasin's fire. Our power easily contained guerrilla activity, even though our forces were neither as well-equipped nor as mobile as they are in Viet-Nam. A unified military command kept both the United States and ROK armies under the direct control of the U.S. commander. In short, our line of battle was well-defined, the enemy clearly identifiable, and the political divisions were sharp.

"None of these conditions holds true for Viet-Nam today. Yet we do have a 'right' to be there, for our treaty obligation is clear and specific. I think we should take care, however, not to misread history in an effort to justify unlimited military effort. Most people will agree that we face confused, complex, and unpredictable situations. Most people will agree that each contains potential perils of great and undetermined extent.

"Confronted with such circumstances, would we not be wise to avoid further dispersion of our already overextended resources? Would it not be sound judgment to husband our strength and to refuse further far-flung commitments in our 'open-ended situation' until we can discern more clearly the shape of things to come?" (p. 438)

Responding to arguments that the conflict in Vietnam could be resolved by eliminating Communist bases in Laos and Cambodia, Ridgway again considered the lessons of Korea:

"Again, we hear talk of 'sanctuaries.' Yet the bombing of sanctuaries never turns out to be a simple matter. During the Korean war, the Manchurian bases, the so-called sanctuary, were indeed wide open to attack from the air. We deliberately refrained from bombing them, as we refrained from taking out the vulnerable Yalu bridges. The advisability of carrying this war over the border into Manchuria in this manner was considered in the highest councils of our Nation. The decision not to bomb the santucary was made for reasons that seemed then, and still seem, wise to me. Had we attacked mainland China through air raids, we would have unleashed a war of unknowable dimensions. Not one of our major allies would have approved this adventure, and the coalition formed to stop Communist aggression would have dissolved..." (pp.438-439)

Discussing the air campaign in broader terms, Ridgway accurately predicted the futility of the bombing:

"Korea also taught us that it is impossible to interdict the supply routes of an Asian army by airpower alone. We had complete air mastery over North Korea, and we clobbered Chinese supply columns unmercifully. Unquestionably, we inflicted serious damage upon the Chinese and greatly complicated their problems of reinforcement and supply. But we did not halt their offensive nor materially diminish its strength. The Chinese, like the Vietnamese, traveled light, with each man carrying his ammunition, his food, and his weapon on his back. They moved at night or on hidden footpaths and goat tracks, immune from air attack. And where we did find their concentrations and strike them, we still could not force them off the disputed ground. In Korea I saw whole sections of railroad bombed into scrap iron by aircraft, and yet the enemy rebuilt the tracks in a single night, and the trains ran the next day. After the Chinese repulsed the ill-fated advances to the Yalu, Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself expressed disillusionment with the value of tactical airpower. It could not isolate the battlefield, he said, and its effectiveness had been greatly overrated. It is easy for the civilian mind to be seduced with talk of 'easy' conquest through airpower. But the crucial battles are still won by foot soldiers." (p. 440-441)

General Ridgway understood the threat posed by Communism. But he also understood that military methods could not be divorced from other considerations:

"Finally, I want to put proper emphasis on one aspect of the whole military and political problem that tends too often to be either minimized or ignored -- that is the moral factor. In June 1955, when I was chief of staff of the Army, I had occasion to address a letter to the Secretary of Defense regarding the military defense of the United States. My conviction, pressed in that letter, remains unaltered:

Just as the ultimate and most deadly threat of communism is the destruction of the religious and moral principles which have guided man to new heights of dignity and self-respect so also do we find the same threat in the increasingly significant ignoring by our planners of the consequences of omitting the moral factor in considering the use of the immense destructive capability which now exists in the world.

"It is my firm belief that there is nothing in the present situation or in our code that requires us to bomb a small Asian nation 'back into the stone age.' While we should be prepared to pay any price in order to live up to our obligations, there must be some moral limit to the means we use to achieve victory. A victory that would require the wholesale devastation of a country by nuclear arms because it would not yield to conventional force would be the ultimate in immorality." (p. 442-443)


The Bitter Heritage Ridgway's brief essay argued persuasively against an escalation of the American role. But how did the American role become so large to begin with? This is one of the questions addressed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1966 book, The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941 - 1966.

Schlesinger's book traces the history of American involvment in Vietnam, arguing that the question of whether or not American interests were truly at stake was never properly evaluated. Instead, unchecked assumptions led to an ever-expanding U.S. role. The "Domino Theory" was accepted at face value. But was there any compelling evidence that the Indochinese states were so neatly aligned, so ready to fall, one by one?

Discussing the origins of the theory, Schlesinger notes that the development of synthetic rubber had largely ended American dependence on Asian rubber imports, mitigating the region's strategic importance. An internal rebellion in an Asian country was a very different scenario than what had transpired during World War II, when smaller countries were swallowed by external military conquest. He writes:

"Secretary of State Dulles tried to supply this deficiency by invoking the specter of China. 'There is a risk,' he said in September 1953, 'that, as in Korea, Red China might send its own army into Indochina. The Chinese Communist regime should realize that such a second agression could not occur without grave consequences, which might not be confined to Indochina.' But the prospect of a Viet Minh victory even without Chinese intervention was soon deemed almost as alarming. 'You have a row of dominoes set up,' President Eisenhower explained at a press conference early in 1954, 'you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.' So the domino theory entered the political vocabulary. Even though the biggest domino of all, China, had fallen five years earlier without starting the chain reaction, the possible fall of the less consequential Indochinese domino was suddenly invested with the most fateful consequences." (p.25)

American leaders not only failed to examine whether or not American interests were at stake: they also failed to determine whether or not their assessments of conditions within Vietnam were accurate. Even in the early days of the conflict, the official optimism was frequently at odds with what reporters could see with their own eyes. By 1963, Schlesinger writes,

"One experience after another made the newspapermen more certain that the Embassy was lying to them. They did not recognize the deeper pathos, which was that the officials really believed their own reports. They were deceiving not only the American government and people but themselves." (pp. 42-43)

Was an American role essential in containing the supposed threat from China? Schlesinger argued that it was not:

"Countries like Burma and Cambodia preserve their autonomy without American assistance... Indeed, too overt American intervention may actually have the effect of smothering the forces of local nationalism or driving them to the other side and thereby ultimately weakening the containment of China." (p. 84)

Indeed, it was ultimately the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam which led to the downfall of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia; and it was this escalation that created the alliance between the previously insignificant Khmer Rouge communists, the Vietnamese communists, the Chinese, and Sihanouk himself.

Schlesinger's analysis would prove to be prescient. Many observers were shocked when combat broke out between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians in 1977 and 1978, and between China and Vietnam in 1979; yet more than ten years earlier, Schlesinger had argued that

"In the unpredictable decades ahead, the most effective bulwark against an aggressive national communist state in some circumstances may well be national communism in surrounding states. A rational policy of containing China could have recognized that a communist Vietnam under Ho might have been a better instrument of containment than a shaky Saigon regime led by right-wing mandarins or air force generals. Had Ho taken over all of Vietnam in 1954, he might today be soliciting Soviet support to strengthen his resistance to Chinese pressure, and this situation, however appalling for the people of South Vietnam, would obviously be better for the United States than the one in which we are floundering today. And now, alas, it may be almost too late: the whole thrust of United States policy since 1954, and more than ever since the bombing of the north began, has been not to pry Peking and Hanoi apart but to drive them together." (pp. 84-85)

Hawks who advocated an escalation of the conflict derided these arguments as evidence of ignorance of the threat posed by the Communists. Like Ridgway, however, Schlesinger clearly could not be branded a Communist sympathizer. Communist doctrines could not be reconciled with actual historical events: "It is a tribute to the devotion of Marxists, if hardly to their intelligence, that they have remained so indefatigably loyal to their metaphysic in spite of the demonstrated limits of Marxism as a system of prediction." (p. 93)

Yet if the Marxists were poor historians, they were not alone. American policymakers, too, seemed to be unable to apply the lessons of history. Understanding these lessons, however, was never simple:

"History, in short, does not furnish the statesman with a detailed scenario of particular relationships or policies. Too often it equips his decisions with good rather than real reasons, holding out a mirror in which he fatuously sees his own face. This is not an argument against the knowledge of history: it is an argument against the superficial knowledge of history. The single analogy is never enough to penetrate a process so cunningly compounded not only of necessity but of contingency, fortuity, ignorance, stupidity, and chance. The statesman who is surest that he can divine the future most urgently invites his own retribution..."

"The only antidote to a shallow knowledge of history is a deeper knowledge, the knowledge which produces not dogmatic certitude, but diagnostic skill, not clairvoyance but insight. It offers the statesman a sense, at once, of short-run variables and long-run tendencies, and an instinct for the complexity of their intermingling, including the understanding that (as Rousseau once put it) 'the ability to forsee that some things cannot be foreseen is a very necessary quality.' Indeed, half of the wisdom of statecraft, to borrow a phrase from Richard Goodwin, is 'to leave as many options open as possible and decide as little as possible... Since almost all important policy decisions are speculative, you must avoid risking too much on the conviction that you are right.'" (pp. 102-103)

Advocating pragmatism over ideology, Schlesinger quotes Winston Churchill: "'The duty of government,' Churchill said, 'is first and foremost to be practical. I am for makeshifts and expediency. I would like to make the people who live on this world at the same time as I do better fed and happier generally. If incidentally I benefit prosperity - so much the better - but I would not sacrifice my own generation to a principle however high or a truth however great.'" (p. 103).

Implicit in Churchill's words is the understanding that politics is inevitably complex. Complexity, however, rarely appeals to ideologues. Discussing the manner in which both the Right and the Left gravitated toward simplistic analyses, Schlesinger describes "an ancient national weakness -- that is, a susceptibility to the conspiratorial interpretation of history":

"It expresses itself today in the notion on the right that the Communists are fomenting the anti-war demonstrations in the United States, not to mention the Buddhist protests in Saigon and Hue, as well as the theory, cherished, alas, in very high places in our government, that what we face in Southeast Asia is a premeditated system of Chinese aggression, organized in Peking, for which the Viet Cong in South Vietnam are merely the pretext and the spearhead. And it expresses itself in the notion on the left that our Vietnam policy is dictated by capitalists seeking to expand profits and markets or by generals plotting a preventative war against China. Both sides refuse to see history as it really is -- an untidy and unkempt process, in which decisions are taken, not according to master plans, but in darkling confusion and obscurity, and where ignorance, accident, chance and stupidity play a larger role than machiavellian calculation." (p. 122)


Matthew Ridgway evaluated Vietnam from the perspective of a military leader. Arthur Schlesinger viewed the country through the eyes of a historian. Donald Kirk's perspective was closer: Kirk was the man on the ground. As a correspondent for publications including the Chicago Tribune, Kirk had years of experience in Southeast Asia. In his 1971 book Wider War, Kirk never explicitly states his opinion on the U.S. role in Indochina. His analysis of the factors at play in the region, however, has held up remarkably well.

Wider WarWider War is a good study of the regional tensions at play in the Vietnam War. One needs only read as far as the Preface to see just how accurate Kirk's predictions were:

"The American public, as well as most of the rest of the world, has long harbored the illusion that the Vietnam conflict is an isolated struggle rather than a phase of a regional war. This illusion should have been shattered in 1970 by the sudden expansion of the fighting across the Cambodian frontier, but Americans still seem to view that event as only an episode, a 'happening,' and interlude, as it were, amid the battles in Vietnam.

"This book, therefore, is an attempt to delineate the "wider war" for Indochina -- the contest that began long before the entry of the first U.S. combat troops into South Vietnam, much less Cambodia, and promises to go on for some time after the Americans have left."

A number of insightful observations are sprinkled throughout the book. In particular, Kirk provides an intriguing glimpse of Sihanouk's thoughts on the eve of war. Sihanouk, Kirk writes, "minimized the danger posed by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in Cambodian jungle sanctuaries, evidently in hopes that the Vietnamese would reciprocate by disappearing after winning the war to communize South Vietnam. Indicative of his deepest fears was his maintenance of 20,000 troops, two thirds of his armed forces, along Cambodia's Thai, rather than Vietnamese, frontier." (p. 7) Later, however, he reconsidered. According to Kirk, in an article written by Sihanouk in January 1970 -- but not published until a month after his overthrow -- "Sihanouk made plain that the 'foreign masters' whom he most feared were the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, 'several tens of thousands' of whom, he said, had 'infiltrated large border areas of Cambodia, promising to leave "at the end of the war.'" (p. 42)

Kirk's portrait of Sihanouk cuts to the heart of the Prince's popularity:

"More than any other Cambodian leader, however, Sihanouk attempted to meet his countrymen, to communicate with them on all levels, to cut through the barriers separating and alienating the poor from the elite and to imbue in them a sense of participation in the country's future. The success of the prince as a grass-roots politician was due not merely to his intellectual recognition of the need for rapport with his people but to the ease and obvious enthusiasm with which he mingled with the masses. He loved to climb out of his car or helicopter on visits to remote towns and villages and chat with the first peasants he saw." (p. 73)

Yet Sihanouk was not above ruthlessness. Angered by leftist demonstrations in March 1967, he supported Lon Nol's recommendations to crush the Samlaut rebellion (in Battambang province) by force. "Hundreds of landless peasants were killed, scores of villages burned, and martial law was imposed in the province, before the rebels, estimated at several thousand, retreated to the forests in mid-April, 1967." (p. 78)

Sihanouk's image -- his womanizing, his hobbies as a saxophonist and filmaker -- contributed to the perception that he was not to be taken seriously as a head of state. In truth, however, his actions were not governed by caprice and whimsy: they were the result of cold, hard calculation. His opinions frequently put him at odds with the American government.

Citing the difference between his viewpoint and that of American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, prior to Cambodia's independence, for example, Sihanouk argued that "Independence was in a way the 'oxen' that alone would pull the 'plow' of pacification and success against the Viet Minh and Communization. For Mr. Dulles, it was just the opposite: The oxen could only be the French Army, war materiel, and American money. Each of us was convinced that the other was putting the plow before the oxen." (p. 44)

Certain that the Communists were destined to win in Vietnam, Sihanouk worked hard to remain in their good graces. Toward that end, he permitted massive amounts of aid for the Communists to flow through Cambodia. Sihanouk, Kirk writes, "proved remarkably successful at convincing correspondents, diplomats, and the like that U.S. intelligence officers had erred regarding Communist activities in Cambodia. He often sponsored junkets for correspondents through vast stretches of jungle, where they almost invariably found no traces of elusive Communist forces." In November 1967, Sihanouk invited several foreign journalists to tour Cambodia. This time, however, three of the journalists -- Vietnam correspondents George McArthur, Horst Faas, and Ray Herndon -- had been advised of the exact location of one of the sanctuaries by the U.S. mission in Saigon. Accompanied by several Cambodian soldiers, they followed a trail outside the town of Memot and came to an empty camp, "complete with huts of bamboo and thatch, a concealed truck park, an official paper with Vietnamese writing on it, and tracks leading to the frontier. The camp had obviously been abandoned within the last few hours -- or minutes." (p. 106-107)

Kirk also noted that many of the supplies for the Vietnamese communists came overland from Sihanoukville, "the main port of entry for arms bound for Communist troops in Cambodia and much of South Vietnam. Most of the goods arrived legitimately at Sihanoukville -- or the Cambodian Navy base at Ream, some 20 miles to the east -- as Chinese, Soviet, or Eastern European military aid for Cambodian armed forces. From Sihanoukville and Ream, the supplies were first hauled by the local Chinese-owned Hak Ly trucking company to Cambodian Army storage depots and, eventually, to transshipment points near the border. A Cambodian soldier rode with each truckload to ensure its safe passage through military checkpoints." (p. 107)

While many conservatives argued that the Communists were bent on dominating the entire region (indeed, the entire world), Kirk argued otherwise. The primary goal of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, even after Sihanouk's overthrow, remained unchanged: maintain the supply lines for their forces in Cambodia and South Vietnam. "An integral part of the Communist campaign, in fact, was to further weaken Cambodia's economy by obtaining easy passage to the rice-growing region around Battambang. Hanoi's objective was not to try to starve Phnom Penh but to obtain the food the North Vietnamese troops needed as it had done while Sihanouk was in power." (p. 131-132)

All in all, Wider War is a sober, balanced assessment of the situation in Indochina in the early Seventies. Could that situation -- and the subsequent destruction of Cambodia -- have been avoided? It is difficult to assess history, and even more difficult to assess a history that didn't happen. Trying to answer "what if?" in hindsight is much like trying to predict the future.

It's hard to see the future. But as Kirk, Ridgway, and Schlesinger demonstrated, it isn't impossible.


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