Friday, 9 September 2005
The March of Folly, Part 1
I was at a thrift store last week and as usual was rooting around in the books. There I found The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman. I knew of Tuchman as a writer of popular history (and that this garnered her the kind of reputation among historians that popularizers generally suffer). The title was intriguing and the premise -- an examination of governments pursuing "policy contrary to self-interest" -- was interesting. And the book, hardcover, was a buck-fifty. Sold.
After reading about Troy, whose policy decisions are, literally, the stuff of legend, I turned directly to the section on Vietnam. My understanding of the Vietnam conflict has always been somewhat weak. I grew up in the latter days of the war, but I certainly did not experience the immediacy of being there (I turned 18 the last year we had to register for the draft), although I know people who served. The Vietnam war was too fresh and too painful to bear much examination during the time I was a student, and possibly because I had not been there, I did not share the passion some people have to read everything about it. However, the Tuchman book seemed like an interesting way to fill this gap in my education.
Tuchman spends about 150 pages recounting the sorry history of how the U.S. got involved, initially assisting the French after World War II, and then of course shouldering the burden of preventing the "dominoes" of Southeast Asia from falling to Communism. (And we know how that came out, don't we?) Her analysis, though detailed, is eminently readable. But it is not a happy read, and she certainly makes her case that the whole sordid business was a shining example of capital-f Folly. The book was published in 1984, which was only about 10 years after the U. S. had finally pulled out, but about 40 years after America's initial involvement. It's impressive to me that Tuchman could have had such excellent hindsight so soon after the event, although I suspect that she did not spend only 10 years forming an opinion of the conflict.
As I was reading, I found many passages that seemed particularly to illustrate her thesis. Many passages. So I'm going to post a bunch of citations here. In fact, there are so many that I'm going to split them across multiple posts. I sympathize that the postings are long, but what the heck. If they don't interest you, just move along.
So herewith various extracts from The March of Folly. May these postings not prove to be my own folly. The numbers are page numbers for the 1984 hardback edition. (First edition? Possibly.) The chapter titles are Tuchman's.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. 
The New Look had taken over military strategy [...] the new weapons offered a means to make prospective American retaliation a more serious threat and war itself sharper, quicker, and cheaper than when it relied on vast conventional preparations and "outmoded procedures." 
What level of perception, what fiction or fantasy, enters into policy-making? What wild flights soar over reasonable estimates of reality? What degree of conviction or, on the contrary, conscious exaggeration is at work? Is the argument believed or is it inventive rhetoric employed to enforce a desired course of action? 
[As Eisenhower attests in his memoirs] "Our main task was to convince the world that the Southeast Asia was was an aggressive move by the Communists to subjugate that entire area." Americans "as well as citizens of the three Associated States had to be assured of the true meaning of the war." The hypnosis, in short, had to be extended and war's "true meaning" conveyed by outsiders to a people on whose soil it had been fought for seven years. The need for so much explaining and justifying suggested an inherent flaw which, as time went on, was to widen. 
Creating the Client 1954-60
The American government reacted not to the Chinese upheaval or to Vietnamese nationalism per se, but to intimidation by the rabid right at home and to the public dread of Communism that this played on and reflected. The social and psychological sources of that dread are not our subject, but in them lie the roots of American policy in Vietnam. 
The [Joint Chiefs of Staff] concluded in an unambiguous memorandum of August 1954 that it was "absolutely essential" to have "a reasonably strong stable civil government in control" and that it was "hopeless to expect a United States training mission to achieve success" unless the nation concerned could effectively perform all functions necessary to recruitment and maintenance. They foresaw "a complete military vacuum" if French forces were withdrawn and, if the United States took over, an unwanted American "responsibility for any failure of the program," and they judged in conclusion that the United States "should not participate." 
A free expression of voters' will was obviously not to be expected on either side, nor could it have been otherwise in a country devoid of democratic experience. As a solution for Vietnam's civil conflict, the election -- supposed to have been supervised by a powerless International Control Commission -- was never more than a charade devised at Geneva as a desperate expedient to allow temporary partition and cease-fire.