The Indochina War and World Politics

Courtesy Reuters

This article is adapted from the manuscript of a chapter in a forthcoming book of essays, Legacy of Vietnam: The War, American Society, and the Future of American Foreign Policy, to be published for the Council on Foreign Relations by the New York University Press in the fall of 1975. The volume, edited by Anthony Lake, will include reflections by 23 individual authors on various domestic and international aspects of the war.

Sir Lewis Namier, the great British historian of a generation ago, used to warn his students of the danger of trying "to argue with history": of abstracting, that is, one event or sequence of events in a historical epoch in an effort to determine how world politics would have been different if it had not occurred; the past is a seamless web, he used to argue, of interrelated developments whose individual strands cannot be unraveled and examined separately. One does not have to be a historical determinist to accept the soundness of this view, and a great deal of the "oh, if only" historiography that now surrounds the American involvement in Indochina seems to me to be based on fallacious abstractions of parts of the national decision-making process at isolated points in time over the past quarter-century. The blow to American idealism which the protracted brutalities of the involvement occasioned, the damage which military and political failure in Vietnam may have done to American influence, are only aspects of a larger process of change; and the new structure of power relations in the world would not, in my view, be radically different if the United States had never become seriously involved in Indochina, or even if it had been able to impose a peace settlement upon the area between 1964 and 1973. Much of the American literature of mea culpa is an aspect of what Dennis Brogan first called "the illusion of American omnipotence," the belief that prevailed for nearly a generation, not only that American policy was all-determinant in molding the map

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