By McGeorge Bundy
The United States dramatically escalated its participation in the Vietnam War in the 1960s, expanding its military presence from a few hundred advisers to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. “We no longer doubt that we should have extensive policies—and take extensive actions” in theaters across the world, the former U.S. national security adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967. Despite the war’s costs, he added, “it is right to persevere—in the interest of the Vietnamese, in our own interest and in the wider interest of peace and progress in the Pacific.”
The political scientist Hans Morgenthau, writing later that year, interpreted events differently. Caught up in Cold War logic, the United States had “intervened massively” even though “the communist threat to American interests from Viet Nam is at best remote,” he argued—and despite the fact that “both the need for intervention and the chances for successful intervention are much more limited than we have been led to believe.”
As the prospects of military success for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies looked increasingly bleak, essays in Foreign Affairs assessed possible ways out, including Samuel Huntington writing on the status of negotiations and Vu Van Thai, former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, on the regional implications of a settlement. In 1969, shortly before he became U.S. national security adviser, Henry Kissinger advocated a measured exit strategy, to avoid unleashing “forces that would complicate prospects of international order.” The same year, the former secretary of defense Clark Clifford issued a more urgent call for a U.S. withdrawal. “Meaningful victory” was out of reach, he wrote, and continuing to fight would only “prolong the suffering of the Vietnamese people.” It took four more years for the last U.S. troops to depart Vietnam, however, and another two for the South Vietnamese government to fall. The question of what lessons the United States should take from its failed intervention has not ceased to occupy Foreign Affairs contributors in the half century since.
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