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 of the world, but that the United States had a greater degree of choice at any point in time than was in reality the case.

This emerges particularly, I think, if one examines the history of American policy toward Indochina in the 15 years before President Kennedy took office. Indochina had been on the American horizon ever since the Japanese conquest of it in 1941, and Roosevelt's attempts, during the Second World War, to evolve a future for it that would avoid a return of French colonialism are well known. But between 1942 and 1954 France could exert a degree of leverage on American policy which was a result of the fact that the United States had become a global power. Washington needed the goodwill of first Vichy and later de Gaulle in defeating the Axis powers in the Mediterranean and then in Europe. And in the postwar years the key position of France-geographically, in creating a system of military and diplomatic containment against the Soviet Union in Europe, and politically, in relation to the German question-put the United States in leading strings to French policy elsewhere in the world. Acheson has been blamed for succumbing to French pressure for armaments to resist the Vietminh in 1950 and thereafter, and his memoirs show the reluctance with which he succumbed to it. But given what seemed to be the frailty of the European balance of power, he had little choice. France did not lose her power to influence American policy until the failure of the European Defense Community in 1954 forced or enabled Dulles to develop an independent American relationship with Germany.

By that time the French position in Indochina had collapsed, and one may legitimately ask why the United States became and remained so preoccupied with resistance to communist penetration in an area where it had few economic and no direct strategic interests. Clearly the answer is in part ideological: the determination that communism should not undermine "free Asia" or overstep what Walt Rostow, who reflected a potent strand of liberal ideology, always referred to as "the World War II truce lines." But it was also closely related to an earlier decision, namely that Japan could not be held in thralldom for a generation and must be permitted to resume her independence, at least as an economic power. Economic stability for Japan meant access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia; denial of them raised specters of resumed Manchurian or other adventures. The connection between the future of Japan and that of Southeast Asia was a matter of common agreement in Washington in the mid-1950s and was explicitly recognized in the National Security Council paper on the consequences of the Geneva Conference, which stated that "the loss of Southeast Asia would imperil retention of Japan as a key element in the off-shore island chain."1

Moreover, to the extent that Western policy in Southeast Asia during the 1950s represented the attempt to apply a containment strategy to an area for which it was unsuited, it was not of American inspiration alone. Although the "domino theory" emerged under that name in Washington in 1954, the concept was formulated by Britain's High Commissioner for South East Asia, Malcolm Macdonald, a strong friend of Asian nationalism, at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Commonwealth, in Colombo in January 1950, when he warned of the effect that infiltration from China into Indochina would have on the security of Thailand and Burma. Even earlier one can find Dutch, French and even Indian adumbrations of the same theme. The Australian and New Zealand governments were extremely concerned after the Korean War about the possibility of communist infiltration in Southeast Asia, and exerted pressure on the United States to do something about it; the concurrence of both Australia and New Zealand in American policy in the area did not change until the early 1970s. Eden and Dulles might dislike each other, and might disagree on the feasibility of military intervention in Vietnam in 1954 or about trade with or recognition of China. But the British (who were particularly concerned about the future of Malaya) and the Australians (who were particularly concerned that Indonesia might come within a communist sphere of influence) had the same basic concern with the containment of communism in Southeast Asia, which lasted in the British case until about 1966 and in the Australian case until considerably later.

I do not mean that the United States could not have resisted the pressures or entreaties of its allies if it had chosen and if there had been a settled official and political consensus in the 15 years after VJ-Day that under no circumstances should it dabble in the politics of Southeast Asia. In hindsight, the European balance does not now seem to have been so precarious in the late Stalin or post-Stalin era as it seemed then. But given the fact that the Western alliance in the Truman and Eisenhower years was a coalition in which the United States was as dependent on its major allies for bases and other facilities as they were on it for economic and strategic support, it would have taken a bold act of policy to ignore their views about Southeast Asia, especially as they coincided with its own. By deliberate acts of policy, alternative trading partners could have been developed for Japan, in Latin America for instance. All I would suggest is that America's original preoccupation with Indochina was a normal outcome not merely of ideological perspectives or a sense of global responsibility but of earlier decisions about her relations with other countries.


But this does not provide an answer to the central question: To what extent was the American involvement in Indochina, during the period when decisions were made about it unilaterally in Washington, a prime factor of change in the nature of the international system? First, a point of definition. One can argue that American policy toward Indochina has been made more or less unilaterally ever since 1954, despite nominal consultation with SEATO or other allies during the earlier years; Britain, for instance, was hardly consulted about the decision to abandon the attempt at Vietnam-wide elections in 1955 and 1956 which the Geneva Conference called for, though she was the co-chairman of the conference. American relations with Diem were entirely bilateral throughout. But since the situation in Vietnam was relatively quiescent in the later 1950s, and the situation in Laos, the focus of crisis in 1960-61, was stabilized by a multilateral agreement in 1962, I think we are justified in limiting ourselves principally to the period between Kennedy's encouragement of the overthrow of Diem in November 1963 and the uneasy armistice of 1973, the period of deepest U.S. involvement.

Certainly, if one compares the structure of power and influence in the world then and now, the contrast is a very striking one. In 1963 the United States was not only the most powerful state at every level on which state power is exerted but also the most magnetic society. It had a superiority over the Soviet Union in strategic weapons of the order of ten to one, and Kennedy had recently used that margin of strength with skill and prudence to settle the Cuban missile crisis. It produced nearly half the world's wealth; it was the major source of development aid; it was the forcing house of innovation in almost every aspect of science and technology. Its policy decisions were central not only to those of its 40-odd allies but of many formally non-aligned countries as well. Though it was clear that its racial problems had become more serious with the urbanization of the black minority, the United States was still the world's greatest experimental society: it had led the world in the expansion of higher education; and there seemed to be a flexibility in its approach to new social problems which older societies could not match.

The Soviet Union had just suffered a major reverse over Cuba and was heading into an internal political crisis. The Sino-Soviet dispute was reaching the height of its first phase, which arose from conflicting ideological views and national interests (as contrasted with the tensions arising from the border crisis and from security considerations in 1969). China exerted only a limited influence in parts of Southeast Asia and little elsewhere. De Gaulle had vetoed Britain's first application for entry into the European Economic Community, which had itself progressed little further than the removal of various internal trade barriers. To virtually all the West European countries the NATO relationship was more important than the Community. Japan was only just beginning to become an economic power in her own right.

Twelve years later only parts of this landscape are still recognizable. True, the United States is still the world's most powerful state at every level of material power. But the Soviet Union has achieved "parity" in the number of strategic weapons it deploys (which includes numerical superiority in land-based missiles), even though the total of nuclear warheads the United States controls is still larger than that of its "adversary partner." The Soviet Union is also a global power in the sense that it was not ten years ago, with an ocean-going navy and alliances with India, Egypt, Iraq, and Somalia. Equally important, China is now a full member of the international community, has taken her seat in the U.N. Security Council, has a strategic force in the process of building, and has identified the Soviet Union as her prime adversary. As a consequence of American initiatives between 1969 and 1972, there is now a triangular political relationship between the United States, the Soviet Union and China, in which developments in the relations of any two of the partners affect the relations of each with the third.

The United States remains the core power of the system of alliances which it constructed in the early period of the cold war, in Europe, in Asia, and with the Latin American states. Among other things it has a virtual monopoly of strategic power, for the size of the British and French nuclear forces remains small, their future in doubt. Moreover, the possibility that allies like Japan or Germany might assert their independence by becoming nuclear powers is still a fairly remote one. The United States still stands, therefore, in the same central relationship to its major allies as it did a decade ago.

Yet, even in NATO, the relationship between the United States and its allies has become one of primus inter pares rather than one of dominance. American military power continues to be decisive because of the integrated military system upon which European security rests, and the close link between conventional and strategic deterrent power. But the level of the American military commitment is now a matter both of debate in Washington and negotiation with the Soviet Union. And in East Asia the change-now that Vietnam has completely fallen-seems likely to be marked. Almost certainly the American military presence will be removed from mainland Southeast Asia, and probably reduced in the Philippines, perhaps in Korea as well. Basic American alliance commitments in East Asia may remain (though that with Taiwan may soon be wound up), but the effect of the measured American withdrawal-foreshadowed by the Nixon Doctrine of 1970-will be to leave America simply a strong Pacific power, as she was in the earlier twentieth century, and not the dominant one that she has been since the Korean War.

And on other planes of power than the military, the structure of inter-allied relationships has changed profoundly. The principal allies now exercise considerably more initiative than they did a decade ago, whether it be the West German government's Ostpolitik, Japan's development of her own relationships with both China and the Soviet Union, or the European Community's relations with the African and other developing states. And the contrast is even more marked in economic and monetary relationships. The United States began to have an overall adverse balance of payments as early as 1958, but it was not until 1964 that other countries began significantly to accumulate surpluses of dollars. By 1970 the American balance of trade was in deficit, primarily with Canada and Japan, and three devaluations of the dollar between the end of 1971 and the middle of 1973 have made it certain that the Western monetary system will have to be reconstructed, if it is to be reconstructed at all, on a different footing from that which has obtained since 1946, in which the U.S. dollar has been its basic currency. Japan has been for several years the world's third strongest economic power; the enlarged European Community has a combined GNP of $750 billion. To cap these difficulties, a major increase in American overseas investment to take advantage of lower wage levels in Europe and elsewhere has not only increased balance-of-payments difficulties but disrupted domestic employment in some areas. Finally, the United States is becoming less and less self-sufficient in raw materials, most particularly in oil, for whose supply it has become increasingly dependent on the Persian Gulf states, even though Europe and Japan are even more dependent still.

So marked has been the change in the structure of world politics over this period, so changed is the position of the United States, that it is not surprising that the fact that this process coincided with frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful intervention in Southeast Asia should make many Americans feel that Vietnam-its cost, its slaughter, the domestic tensions it created, its ultimate failure-was the prime cause of their change of fortune.


What a great nation perceives to be a fact is itself an important determinant in international politics; I shall return at the end to this point and to its profound implications for the present and future. But if one sticks to the process of change on the world scene that has occurred over the past decade or so and assesses underlying causes as a historian might do, a strong case can be made that the effect of Vietnam upon the most basic elements of transformation has been either marginal or at most indirect. It is generally agreed that the greater pluralism of the international system in the mid-1970s by contrast with the mid-1960s has resulted from a convergence of two motive forces in particular: first, the Sino-Soviet conflict, which has made each of the mainland powers identify the other as its principal adversary, and thus move to make limited accommodations with the United States and other centers of power; second, the ending of American dominance within the non-communist world, most particularly in her alliance systems-at every plane of power except the strategic-and a consequent redefinition of American interests.

I am not an expert on the Sino-Soviet dispute, but it seems to have a quality of inevitability which is more than simply the product of hindsight. Once the fears generated in the Chinese leadership by MacArthur's handling of the Korean War had subsided, once it became clear that the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the China Sea was not a prelude to an American invasion, the conflict of interest between two states that are hostile for reasons of geopolitics and race began to assume an ideological form. And the first signs of this occurred as early as 1958 or even 1956, while the American involvement in Indo-china was still quite small. One can, of course, argue that the growing American presence there after 1962 or so, plus the tendency of both Kennedy and Johnson to treat China and the Soviet Union as equally hostile powers, at least in Indochina, created for about six years a synthetic unity of action between Moscow and Peking. Though the Chinese have no great respect for the North Vietnamese, whose leadership was more interested in relations with Moscow on military and other aid, they could not ignore the possibility that a large American military force near their southern border might be the prelude to an American onslaught on China herself, in which case they would need Soviet assistance. In other words, the Vietnamese involvement of the United States had the effect of delaying the time when Moscow and Peking would begin fully to develop containment strategies around the world vis-à-vis each other.

One can also argue that the Vietnam conflict, by reinforcing a hostile and threatening image of China in the eyes of large parts of the Administration, the Congress, and the public (though clearly some people in the Administration, notably the CIA, always doubted the real influence of Peking on Hanoi), delayed the moment when, in the interests of her security, China could put out feelers to the United States for an improvement of relations, and prevented the United States from exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift to improve its bargaining position with Moscow. But this argument can only be applied to the early and mid-1960s, because after 1966 the onset of the Cultural Revolution, whose inner springs were primarily domestic, really closed Peking to intercourse with the outside world until 1969.

Finally, one can argue that Vietnam delayed the opening of serious discussions between Washington and Moscow on détente, strategic arms control, European security or the Middle East; and by delaying them made it harder to achieve serious progress or to align superpower interests. This is a more substantial point. It was clear throughout the second half of the 1960s that the Soviet interest in trade and technological collaboration was rising, and that a political price could have been explored if the United States had been able to devote sufficient time and diplomatic effort to it. Many Europeans were also convinced that the muted American reaction to Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a consequence of Johnson's preoccupation with Vietnam. He often seemed like a hunter caught in his own trap, anxious to stabilize and improve superpower relations or to take other broad initiatives, yet obsessed with the next day's bombing targets in a remote corner of Asia.

Yet there are strict limitations even on this argument. The summit at Glassboro in 1967 made clear that the Soviet leaders were not prepared for serious arms-control negotiations until their strategic armory was larger, nor for discussions on the Middle East while it seemed that they had the whole radical Arab world in thrall. Their approach to European security questions changed markedly after the Prague summer. It was the re-entry of China into the international system, not American frustration in Vietnam, that changed the name of the game.

And by the time the great-power relationship had become a triangular one that included China, there was an agenda of Soviet-American business to be disposed of which had only an indirect relation to Vietnam. For one thing, the Soviet attainment of parity in strategic weapons was a consequence of decisions taken in Moscow after the Cuban missile crisis, though continuing tension in Southeast Asia may have created an incentive to keep the program going, even when its cost rose. From what has been published about the SALT negotiations between 1969 and 1970, it is clear that rising congressional resistance to defense expenditure as a whole, which was a direct consequence of Vietnam, did have a bearing on American negotiating positions about the mutual abrogation of ABM systems. But what really gave the SALT negotiations their impetus was technological developments, the ABM itself and the multiple warhead, which had been under development for over a decade. Certainly Vietnam and the rapid increase of American defense costs from 1965 onward made the United States anxious to stabilize the strategic confrontation with the Soviet Union. But this was a political as much as a fiscal calculation, which went back to Robert McNamara's early days in the Defense Department before serious expenditure on Vietnam had started.

This brings one to the other principal motive force of change, the redefinition of the American role in the world. The first point to make is that the present situation-in which Japan and the European Community are important economic, and increasingly important political, actors in an international system that is in general more plural in nature-is one that the United States was nominally anxious to bring about ten and even twenty years ago. There may be an unresolved ambiguity in American policy in that the United States wishes its allies to assume more initiative and a greater share of the general burdens of the West in such things as development aid or conventional military power but is most reluctant to devolve any strategic responsibilities on them, or recently even to treat them as serious coalition partners on issues such as the Middle East. Yet no American administration has committed itself either to the goal of a bipolar world or to permanent dominance within its alliance systems in the way that the Soviet Union has and still does. But the way in which a more plural or polycentric system has come into being was not of American choice, and Vietnam did have an important, if indirect, bearing on the course of events.

It is true that Charles de Gaulle was a phenomenon quite independent of his time. It is also true that Gaullism, as an attitude of mind that gathered weight not only in France but in other countries in the 1960s-Romania, for instance, or India or Iran-was a reassertion of nationalism in an era of greater strategic stability than the cold-war years, so that middle powers felt greater freedom to assert their autonomy. But carnage in Vietnam, an area which the French felt they understood better than the Americans-though with little reason, for it had been the most neglected of all French colonies for two generations-helped give a national basis to de Gaulle's personal defiance of American leadership, and made it harder for governments like those of Britain, Germany or Italy to defend their continued acceptance of that leadership. Vietnam certainly widened de Gaulle's personal influence in the world beyond the borders of France.

Elsewhere in Europe as well as in Japan, Vietnam aroused popular opposition, though originally this was intense only with the student generation. It also made governments uneasy that they might become embroiled in an Asian conflict in which they had no interest. Ironically, it is clear from the Pentagon Papers and other sources that one of the prime reasons why Kennedy and then Johnson, together with Dean Rusk and in particular Robert McNamara, argued that first the Vietcong, and later North Vietnam as well, must be defeated at almost any cost, short of the use of nuclear weapons, was the maintenance of the credibility of American guarantees to the allies of the United States. Yet neither the European NATO countries nor, as far as I can see, Japan felt that their security was in a real sense enhanced by American persistence in honoring a self-engendered promise to a small Asian ally. Germans in particular tended to feel that Vietnam was distracting the attention of Washington from both the risks and the opportunities developing in Europe as the Sino-Soviet conflict made the Soviet Union more edgy about its position in Eastern Europe and readier to contemplate accommodation with the West. If the British were concerned about the risks of American failure in Vietnam, this was largely because of their own interests, in Malaysia and Singapore, and not from acceptance of arguments about the credibility of American strategic guarantees. The British role at the apogee of the Vietnamese conflict is not a shining one: growing reservations about American policy and fear of its consequences, coupled with a reluctance to stand up to the United States on the issue, because the position of sterling was at that time so dependent on the support of the dollar. But though Vietnam may have diminished European confidence in the American decision-making process, it did not affect the conviction of European governments that the Atlantic Alliance was essential to their security.

Very naturally, the impact of Vietnam has been much greater in Southeast Asia and Australasia than in Europe or Northeast Asia. Since 1973, and now more clearly after the dramatic denouement in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Thai can hardly rely on their American alliance through SEATO. They, with Malaysia and the Philippines, are already moving to establish ties with Peking, and in general the nations of Southeast Asia are bound to search for a policy or norm that accepts the area as one accessible to the influence of all the major powers-provided that none tries to claim a hegemonial position-in place of an American-led system of containment directed against the mainland powers. Australia and New Zealand will join in this concept, even though the ANZUS alliance will probably retain some contingent importance for them.

Economic historians may well argue for some time how significant a role the Vietnam War played in weakening the external economic and financial position of the United States. Clearly, from 1965 onward the fact that defense expenditure rose rapidly but that there was no significant increase in taxation contributed to inflation in the United States, and this tended to drive American investment overseas toward cheaper labor markets and weakened the competitive position of American exports and ultimately of the dollar. Japan also profited directly from American procurement there for Vietnam. But it seems to me that the weakening of the American economic position was primarily due to more rapid advances in Japanese and European, than in American, productivity during the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as to the refusal or inability of first the Johnson and then the Nixon Administration to place controls on overseas investment, and only secondarily to any economic distortions that may have been caused by the war in Vietnam.

Finally, there is a factor that is nonetheless real for being impossible to measure accurately, namely, diminishing respect for the United States as a society on the part of Europeans, Japanese, Latin Americans, Asians, even Russians. Certainly, the student unrest to which the war gave rise played a part in this, though such unrest had its counterpart in many other developed countries for quite different reasons-the overcrowding of the Japanese and French universities, and the antiquated structure of authority in the German universities, for instance. The eruption in the 1960s of many domestic issues in the United States-increased racial tension, concern with the decay of the cities, greater awareness of poverty and welfare problems-was a consequence, it seems to me, not of Vietnam but of some twenty years' preoccupation, on the part of elites and those controlling the purse strings in Congress, with foreign rather than domestic issues. Vietnam simply exacerbated problems that would have risen to the top of the agenda at that time in any case; and it was not Vietnam alone but a host of other external commitments which made it impossible for the Administration to switch its focus when the issues changed. Undoubtedly the costs of Vietnam cut sharply into funds available for Great Society programs. But even if these programs had been fully funded, there would have been a heavy proportion of failures-even the wealthiest society cannot wipe out deep-seated problems in the space of a few years.


The most lasting international consequences of Vietnam-and not only for Americans-may well be on Americans' perceptions of themselves, of the world, and of the proper role of the United States in it. The fact that a conflict which lasted for nearly a decade, killed 55,000 Americans and over a million Vietnamese, and represented the first palpable failure of American arms in the history of the Republic, happened to coincide with the emergence of a number of endemic domestic problems and a loss of American strategic and economic predominance, has had the consequence of reinforcing the view of many Americans that the world is an ungrateful place. The fact that the American involvement was liquidated by a President whose interests were in international affairs, and that he was returned to office by a landslide in 1972, partly because the Vietnam War had itself created severe disarray within the Democratic Party, may have simply delayed political expression of a fundamental change in public priorities, rather than averted it; the present Congress shows marked tendencies in the direction of downgrading all effort abroad, and the trend seems to go beyond the impact of the new "Class of 1974" or even of the recession.

One must be careful, however, to recall Namier's dictum. How much of the current decline of public confidence in Washington is really a consequence not of Vietnam but of Watergate, or of the sudden elevation to the Presidency of a mild man who has neither the gift nor the taste for exercising its authority and powers on a broad front? How much is it a consequence of the accidental conjunction of domestic recession and debacle in Indochina?

One can also argue that the completeness of the recent debacle wipes the slate clean, that the self-deception of the years of striving for "peace with honor" between 1969 and 1973-involving the invasion of Cambodia and the bombing of Haiphong-or of the phony armistice of the past two and a half years, were as damaging in terms of American political and moral self-confidence, if not of lives, as the earlier war years. Logically, the American polity should now be ready to address its enormous ingenuity, energy and humanity to the transformed agenda of world politics, to the negotiation of the new multilateral armistices or nonaggression pacts that will be needed to govern access to food, energy and raw materials, to order trade and monetary relations, to control North-South as well as East-West conflict.

But the concealed consequences of wars often linger in the public consciousness long after the dead are buried. And I am haunted by that famous quotation from Max Weber: "Interests (material and ideal), not ideas, dominate directly the actions of man. Yet the 'images of the world' created by these ideas have very often served as switches determining the tracks on which the dynamism of interests kept the action moving." The Vietnam War may have been such a switch point in the whole public conception of the nature of American society, and of its relationship to other societies. Unlike the Civil War, which left simply a void of grief and anger in a country whose external relations were still quite limited, the Vietnam War may lead-especially in a period when the United States is in a more competitive position, strategically with the Soviet Union, economically with Europe and Japan-to a harsher definition of American interests. It could also lead to a gradually pervading sense of national pessimism based on the belief that the United States is simply a big power, with as much capacity for harm as good, like other big powers in history, and not the distinct and buoyant civilization that it has been during most of the first two hundred years of the Republic's history. I do not say this must be so, and as someone who regards America as his second home I hope I may be wrong. But it will take a span of remarkable domestic leadership in politics, in the universities, the states, and the cities, to restore the self-confidence, the social generosity, and the breadth of view that since Roosevelt's day have been associated with the word "American."


1 United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967 (The Pentagon Papers), Washington: GPO, 1971, Vol. 10, p. 732. This document is not included in the unofficial Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers.

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