Monthly Archives: June 2015

International and Domestic Sources of United States Foreign Policy

(Another atypical blog post. A long piece on the underlying sources of U.S. foreign policy)

Over the long term, American foreign Policy has been profoundly influenced by three sets of factors: geography, political culture and state-society relations. The combination of these factors helps to account for America’s tardy emergence as a great power, its unique brand of civic nationalism, the moralistic terms in which the aims of U.S. foreign policy are often cast, the lack of consistency in American diplomacy and the hesitation the United States has often shown about accepting or adhering to multilateral commitments.

Political Geography

Geography may not be (manifest) destiny, but geographic realities do set the parameters within which a nation’s foreign policy is formulated. This is certainly true in the case of U.S. foreign policy. The role of geography has been conditioned by the relative power of the United States and the degree of external threat, producing varying policy outcomes at different points in U.S. history.

For example, geography helps to account for America’s late emergence as a great power. The relative geographic remove of the United States from other great powers permitted its leaders to pursue isolationist policies for more than a century after the founding of the republic. Surrounded by oceans to the east and west and less powerful neighbors to the north and south, the United States enjoyed a position of relative safety. The insecurities that drove other powers toward conflict with one another were mostly absent in the case of the United States. Moreover, while the nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of far-flung overseas empires by European states, the United States was instead preoccupied with westward expansion across the North American continent. This further limited America’s interest in adventures beyond its immediate neighborhood. The most ambitious external policy pursued during this period was the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to limit European influence within the Western Hemisphere.

By the first half of the twentieth century, America’s size, population and economic resources positioned it as a potential leading power. Yet policy-makers were largely content to pursue a strategy of offshore balancing. Only when territorial expansion by aggressive powers threatened to unify the resources of Europe or Asia under the control of single states did American leaders perceive sufficient threat to commit the United States to major military engagements abroad, as during World War I and World War II (Mearshiemer, 2003). Geographic isolation meant that the United States possessed the resource attributes of a great power well before it chose to use these capabilities to influence the structure of world politics.

These circumstances changed after World War II. The Soviet Union possessed the potential, if unchecked, to dominate both Europe and East Asia. With the development of nuclear weapons, moreover, geographic isolation no longer served to insure the security of the U.S. homeland. As a result, the U.S. abandoned its traditional reserve about exercising international leadership and sought to organize a broad array of alliances and institutions toward the goal of containing Soviet power around the world.

Geography has resurfaced as an important factor in the post-Cold War period. Now geography helps to explain why the end of the bipolar Cold War international system has not led to hard balancing by other states against unipolar American power. The geographic remoteness of American power – especially the buffer provided by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – has served to reassure other states against the possibility of territorial aggrandizement by the United States. Instead, the states of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa perceive greater threats arising from nearby rivals than from the distant, even if potent, military power of the United States. This has not prevented anti-Americanism from taking other forms, such as terrorism or soft balancing. But it has meant that the United States faces little prospect of traditional military balancing coalitions forming as checks to American power (Brooks and Wohlforth, 2002; Walt, 2006).

Political Culture

The American Creed, built upon individual liberty, limited government and democratic politics among other things, lies at the center of American political culture. In a country of immigrants, the Creed serves as a form of civic nationalism, as distinguished from nationalisms based upon ethnicity, religion or place (Pei, 2003; Leiven, 2004). Louis Hartz (1991) notes the “universality of the liberal idea” in America, where liberalism did not vie with competing ideologies and identities as in Europe. The universalistic character of America’s national identity has infused the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy with a pervasive moralism (Osgood, 1961; Packenham, 1973; Wills, 1973; Hofstadter, 1989). The tenets of the American Creed applied not just to a particular people or place, but could be exported to reform the institutions and cultures of other societies. In the early years after America won its independence from Great Britain, the United States was thought to serve as a “shining city upon the hill” – an exemplar from which others might learn. By the twentieth century, America’s growing power allowed its leaders to embrace a more crusading approach to spreading American ideals, as epitomized by Woodrow Wilson’s zeal for “making the world safe for democracy (Baritz, 1986).”

America’s political culture of civic nationalism has had two main effects. First, Americans have difficulty understanding the power and meaning of ethnic nationalism in other societies (Pei, 2003; Muller, 2008). While the “melting pot” metaphor may be overly simplistic, the United States has nonetheless accommodated recurrent streams of immigration with relative success. Perhaps for this very reason, overly optimistic expectations that American values and institutions could be easily transplanted abroad have been repeatedly frustrated by nationalist backlash against American efforts to remold other societies. Commenting on the uniformity of American political culture and the myopia this produces when dealing with the rest of the world, Louis Hartz (1991: 19) asked “whether American liberalism can acquire through external experience that sense of relativity, that spark of philosophy which European liberalism acquired through an internal experience of social diversity and social conflict.”

Second, many around the world have looked to the United States as a model of freedom and democracy. The dissolution of the Soviet empire, for example, was the product not only of internal strains but also of the attraction that the West in general and the United States in particular held for those within the communist world who longed for greater freedom and prosperity. Yet the moralistic rhetoric that often surrounds American foreign policy brings charges of hypocrisy abroad when American behavior, influenced by national interests at odds with proclaimed principles, inevitably departs from or even contradicts noble proclamations of U.S. intent.

State-Society Relations

Another important consequence of American liberalism has been the survival of a set of political institutions designed to disperse rather than concentrate political power and authority (Huntington, 1982, Katzenstein, 1978; Krasner, 1978; Risse-Kappen, 1993). In Europe, war and the threat of war led to the development of relatively strong, centralized states. By contrast, the deep-seated nature of American liberalism has combined with the security provided by geographic isolation to allow the maintenance of weak political institutions alongside the growth of a strong and highly organized civil society. Only with the second World War and the advent of the Cold War did the United States finally create a large national security apparatus. This large and partially insulated bureaucratic structure for national security has, however, co-existed uneasily with the underlying openness and divided character of American political institutions.

The decentralized character of the American state – the shared responsibility for foreign policy between Congress and the president, the common phenomenon of divided government, the super-majority required for treaty ratification by the Senate, the many points of access to the policy-making process and the relative autonomy of certain bureaucratic agencies – creates a fertile environment for the growth of veto players capable of obstructing unwelcome policy initiatives (Moravcsik, 2002:258-59; Patrick, 2002:18-20). The weak nature of American political institutions is exacerbated by the presence of a strong society featuring a robust and independent media, a dense array of interest groups, a competitive party system and an anti-statist culture.

Michael Mastanduno (2005: 248) points out that this “dispersal of power has an external disadvantage, in that it poses a potential constraint on the ability of the United States to conduct effective foreign policy.” Although this has generally been the case for much of U.S. history, the Cold War period was a partial exception. Cold War presidents enjoyed greater scope for the pursuit of broad national interests (as they perceived them) than presidents before or since. Despite the “weak” character of the American state, conditions of high external threat tend to reinforce the power of the president and to push decision-making authority toward the apex of the governing structure (Lowi, 1979: 128-148). Presidents face fewer constraints at home at times when international constraints are highest. International crises, for instance, tend to produce a strong “rally around the flag” effect among the American public. Although presidents did not always enjoy the domestic support provided by acute crises, the Cold War constituted a period of chronic crisis and threat – thus enhancing presidential freedom of action and more often allowing broader interests to trump special interests.

The waning of the Cold War has weakened this centralizing tendency and empowered particularistic interests. Moreover, American political institutions have become even more open and decentralized over the past three decades through a series of reforms to political parties, Congress and presidential nominating processes that were designed to render the system more democratic. Fareed Zakaria (2003:161-198) argues that these measures had the paradoxical result of further empowering highly organized special interests at the expense of the general public by weakening the aggregating role of political parties and the autonomy of office-holders.

Although the influence of public opinion on foreign policy is the subject of disagreement among scholars (Graham, 1993; Holsti, 1992, 1994; Page and Shapiro, 1992), recent studies suggest that the gap between elite and public opinion has widened in recent years. In particular, survey research shows that the public would prefer a much more multilateralist foreign policy than has been the case over the past decade or so (Aspen Institute, 2002; Kull and Destler, 1999). One study (Jacobs and Page, 2005: 376-377) finds that “public opinion – the foreign policy preferences of ordinary citizens – was repeatedly estimated to exert little or no significant influence on government officials.” By contrast, these authors found evidence that “business has a strong consistent, and, at times, lopsided influence upon U.S. foreign policy.”

The unilateralist preferences of concentrated interest groups as compared with the multilateralist inclinations of the general public may help to explain the unilateralist turn in U.S. foreign policy in recent years (Skidmore, 2005). Three types of anti-multilateralist groups play significant roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy. The first among these are the long list of special interest groups who have lobbied against particular international initiatives that threaten the interests of their members. 0il and gas companies, for example, opposed the Kyoto treaty on climate change, the National Rifle Association objected to a proposed treaty to restrict trade in small arms and anti-abortion groups succeeded for a number of years at holding hostage U.S. dues to the United Nations.

Why are anti-multilateralist groups such as these stronger in the U.S. than in most European countries and less effectively balanced by groups favoring international cooperation? One possible explanation is that, despite the global power of the United States, the forces of interdependence have cut less deeply in the U.S. than in most other countries. As compared with its European allies, for example, the U.S. is less dependent upon foreign trade and investment, less exposed to foreign media and its people are less well traveled and less well-informed about the world beyond their own borders (Johnson and Caruson, 2003). Under these conditions, the organized social forces favoring international cooperation are weaker in the U.S. than in many other countries.

Second, the military-industrial complex – proportionately larger in the U.S. than in any other advanced industrial country – often serves as a brake on multilateral initiatives that impinge upon the resources or autonomy of the U.S. defense establishment. American military leaders and their allies in the Congress and the private military-industrial sector have lobbied against a number of recent international agreements with considerable effectiveness. Military officials have opposed U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court and the Landmine Ban Treaty. Pentagon officials also opposed strengthened verification measures under the Biological Weapons Treaty and supported U.S. withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. More generally, the shift toward unilateralism in American foreign policy has coincided with the growing dominance of the Department of Defense over the Department of State in the bureaucratic competition for resources and influence. Although it is difficult to discern cause from consequence, the unilateralist turn has clearly empowered bureaucratic advocates of hard power (i.e., military force) relative to those responsible for the deployment of soft power (i.e., diplomacy). Beginning in the mid-1980s through the 1990s, both the overall State Department budget and that of the Agency for International Development suffered steep cuts. In relative terms, overall non-defense spending on international affairs equaled roughly one half of the defense budget in 1948, but averaged only 6% as much as defense spending in the 1990s (Hook, 2003:25).

A third category includes groups and individuals motivated by strongly nationalist ideological commitments. In Europe and Japan, nationalist movements were closely associated with authoritarian regimes and imperialist policies. The defeat of fascism and the collapse of imperial systems in the middle decades of the twentieth century discredited and disempowered right wing nationalist forces in these countries. In the U.S., by contrast, nationalism (often labeled “patriotism”) developed within the context of a liberal political culture centered on the shared commitment to a national creed rather than attachment to blood and soil, as discussed above (Pei, 2003). This melding of nationalism and liberalism, along with the fact that the United States has been spared the experiences of defeat in war or imperial decline, accounts for the continued potency of nationalist symbols and appeals in American politics. Nationalist ideas and movements have taken varied forms in American society ranging from isolationism to neo-conservatism. All have in common a deep sense of American exceptionalism, a strong commitment to unfettered U.S. sovereignty and an aversion to international commitments that constrain American power and freedom of action (Moravcsik, 2002: 353-357; Spiro, 2000).

The Main Currents of United States Foreign Policy

American foreign policy has been shaped by three macro-level factors: a favorable geographic position that offers relative security from external threats, a liberal political culture marked both by a civic variety of nationalism and a universalistic moralism and the development of relatively decentralized political institutions that are open to the influence of concentrated interest groups. These characteristics have, in combination, produced several underlying tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.

The internal or domestic constraints that policy-makers face are often more severe than the external constraints. The combination of geographic remoteness and great power have allowed for relative freedom of action abroad. At home, however, well organized societal groups enjoy many potential points of access and influence. Before (and even well into) America’s rise as a great power, this confluence of external freedom and internal constraint produced a policy of isolationism. Under contemporary circumstances, these traits more often give rise to unilateralism and domestic constraints on the ability of policy-makers to make or keep multilateral commitments.

The exceptions in American history have come when the U.S. faced serious external threats, as during World War II and the early Cold War. Under these conditions, authority became concentrated in the executive branch and the sense of common insecurity promoted relative domestic unity. The accomplishments of American arms and statecraft under these conditions have been impressive: victory in two world wars, the construction of a strong Western security and economic community after World War II and ultimate success in the Cold War.

An awareness of these realities influences how policy-makers go about seeking domestic legitimacy for their policies during periods when external threats are more modest. Policy-makers often find it expedient to exaggerate threats and justify policies through moralistic appeals to the tenets of the American Creed in order to lessen or escape typical political constraints at home. The politics of fear can cow critics while promises to meet the posited threat by remaking the world in America’s own image inspires support around idealistic purposes (Lowi, 1979; Trout, 1975).

The international consequences of these legitimating devices, however, may be less than desirable: the unnecessary escalation of tensions with rival states and either unrealistic expectations or cynicism abroad and at home when American actions fail to match the soaring idealism of its public rhetoric. This exaggeration of threats combined with intense moralism contributed to major missteps in Vietnam during the sixties and in Iraq in more recent years.

In general, the combination of geography, political culture and weak political institutions produces a foreign policy that has provided essential global leadership during periods of intense threat but that, at other times, is less consistent, less multilateralist and less prudent than one might hope for from a nation whose choices matter so much to Americans and peoples everywhere.

References

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Baritz, L. (1986) Backfire. New York: Ballentine Press.

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Mastanduon, M. (2005) The United States Political System and International Leadership: A ‘Decidely Inferior’ Form of Government. In G.J. Ikenberry (ed.), American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays, 5th edn. New York: Pearson Education, pp. 248-267.

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Vietnam War Lectures

The following is not a typical blog post. I have taught both in-class and on-line versions of a course on Revisiting the Vietnam War for close to 30 years. When the course went on-line, I wrote up a set of on-line lectures designed to supplement assigned readings for the course. I have collected those lectures in the post below, which is much longer than a typical blog. Note that these essays were meant for students and lack the usual academic references.

Why Did Communists Lead the Nationalist Struggle in Vietnam?

One of the more important reasons for the US failure in Vietnam was that “our” Vietnamese were never as unified, organized or dedicated as the Vietnamese communists who served as our opponents. The entire US war effort was built upon political quicksand. The South Vietnamese governments the US supported were weak, corrupt and unpopular. The US tried to compensate for this with raw military muscle. But it was not enough. We will explore this issue in depth later in the course. For now, however, it is important to examine the roots of this problem.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the communist movement in Vietnam became known as the most potent and effective opponents of French colonial rule (and, during World War II, opponents of both the French and the Japanese). In short, the communists captured the nationalist banner at a time when Vietnamese were becoming more self conscious of their nationhood and more resentful of French rule. While communist movements served as rallying points against colonial rule in many parts of the developing world during the 20th century, in most of these countries communists had to compete with powerful and well organized non-communist political groups for primacy in the anti-colonial struggle. Not so in Vietnam. While there did exist non-communist nationalist parties and groups during this period, they were far weaker than the communists and did not have the nationwide organizational structure enjoyed by the communists. Indeed, during World War II, the communists succeeded in subordinating many non-communist nationalist elements into a broad communist-led front movement called the Vietminh.

This situation meant that when the US set out to help construct a viable non-communist South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954, it had little with which to work. The US wanted to back a “third force” in Vietnam – political figures and groups that were associated with neither the communist-led Vietminh nor with the French colonial administration. But such people were scarce. The Vietminh had long since established itself as the legitimate leader of the nationalist/anti-colonial struggle. The Vietnamese that the Americans installed in power to run South Vietnam after 1954, therefore, had little legitimacy. Either they were political novices or they were tainted by past collaboration with the French. With so little local support, South Vietnamese political leaders depended heavily upon American aid to survive. This further undermined attempts to spread the notion that the South Vietnamese government was independent and legitimate. To many Vietnamese, the Americans seemed like successors to the French and the South Vietnamese government appeared little more than a thinly disguised colonial puppet regime. This was overly simplified. As we will later see, South Vietnamese leaders often ignored American advice and direction. But the impression stuck.

According to historian Gabriel Kolko, one reason that the communists captured the nationalist banner is because so much of the Vietnamese elite that might have served as leaders of a non-communist nationalist movement choose instead to collaborate with the French. The French facilitated this by bestowing land grants on cooperative Vietnamese elites, thus placing them in debt to the French. Also, the French stocked the colonial administration with the sons of Vietnamese elites, often after their return from university study in France. French missionaries helped to convert many Vietnamese to Catholicism (which had the advantage, from the Vietnamese perspective, of currying favor with the French). Vietnamese schools were forced to abandon traditional teachings and adopt European-style educational methods and themes. In short, the French designed the colonial system so as to coopt much of the Vietnamese elite and integrate them into the colonial structure. Widespread collaboration sapped this elite of the will to resist foreign rule.

In many other colonized societies, the merchant class (shopkeepers and traders) served a crucial role in anti-colonial struggles. Merchants have relatively high levels of status, wealth, education and a broad range of social contacts (through commercial dealings). These resources can be translated into political clout. In Vietnam, however, the merchant class could not play this role. In the first place, the dominant confusianist ethic did not accord the same elevated status to the commercial class in Vietnamese society as was the case in many other countries.

More importantly, however, it happens that much of the merchant class in Vietnam consisted of ethnic Chinese. The Chinese were often disliked and resented by most Vietnamese and so immigrant Chinese often lived in segregated communities, observing different customs of their own and speaking one of the Chinese dialects rather than (or in addition to) Vietnamese. During times of war and political turmoil, many Chinese migrated back to southern China, only to return during calmer times. For each of these reasons, Chinese merchants had neither the ability or willingness to lead a Vietnamese nationalist struggle against colonialism.

This left the field open to the communists, who often attracted supporters among young urban and middle class Vietnamese who rejected collaboration with the French. Many of the early leaders of the communist movement had, like Ho Chi Minh, studied in France. There they imbibed the ideals of the French revolutionary tradition and, unlike most French citizens, applied the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity to the Vietnamese situation. The French communist party, founded in 1921, was the only party in France to adopt an anti-colonial stand. Moreover, the Soviet Union made it a point to denounce the imperialism of the capitalist countries. The Russian revolution itself offered a model of how to overthrow entrenched power. Given the absence of alternatives within Vietnam itself, it is not surprising that young Vietnamese nationalists would see communism as a promising vehicle for achieving self determination for their country.

 

Ngo Dinh Diem and Nation-Building in South Vietnam

After the Geneva Accords of 1954, French influence in South Vietnam was rapidly replaced by a growing US role. But the US had limited direct experience with Vietnamese politics and politicians. As American officials sought to shape South Vietnam into a viable state that could compete with the communist North, they cast about for a leader to sponsor. The choice proved fateful. US officials settled upon a non-communist politician named Ngo Dinh Diem, who was maneuvered into the post of Prime Minister (appointed by Bao Dai) with the assistance of the CIA. A saying often heard in the State Department at the time was: “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem” (if you pronounce “Diem” correctly, it almost rhymes). Although Eisenhower would call Diem a “miracle worker” in 1957 and compare him with America’s own founding fathers, Diem ultimately proved a disastrous choice who almost capsized the ship of state in fledgling South Vietnam.

Diem possessed several qualities that recommended him to the Eisenhower Administration. Diem had served as a provincial official in the 1930s, but resigned in protest over disagreeable orders from his French superiors (thus establishing some credibility as a nationalist). He spoke English and spent time in the US. Most of all, he was known as an ardent anti-communist. In his first months in office, Diem appeared to justify US hopes. Against long odds, he crushed a number of opponents (including a major criminal network that had virtually controlled Saigon) and established a semblance of order in the chaotic turmoil that accompanied the end of French rule.

Over time, however, Diem’s liabilities came to outweigh his strengths:

  • Diem had remained aloof from his nation’s struggle to free itself of French colonial rule. Indeed, he spent a portion of the war years cloistered at a monastery in New Jersey. He took office as a relative unknown.
  • Diem was a fervent Catholic in a country that was 90% Buddhist. Remember that Catholics were often regarded with suspicion as many had been favored by the French. Worse, Diem actively persecuted Buddhist leaders, closing temples and arresting monks. By the early sixties, Buddhist monks were literally setting themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon in acts of protest and defiance of Diem and his anti-Buddhist policies.
  • Diem was no democrat. In 1955, he organized a referendum asking people to choose between himself and Bao Dai as South Vietnam’s first president. Diem won with close to 100% of the vote. More votes were cast in Saigon than there were registered voters. The election was transparently fixed, as was each subsequent vote in South Vietnam during the Diem era. Diem saw himself as a father figure to the people (his children) in the confusianist tradition.
  • This family metaphor extended to nepotism. Diem filled top posts in his administration with family members and close friends. Most conspicuous was Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who headed the secret police and acquired a reputation for brutality and corruption.
  • The most pressing issue for South Vietnam’s peasant majority was land reform. Yet Diem rejected American pleas that he implement reforms designed to create a fairer distribution of land in the countryside. Indeed, Diem reversed the land reforms that had been carried out by the Vietminh in areas they controlled during the war against the French. Land was often returned to former landlords. Also, several million Catholics fled from North to South after the 1954 partition left the North in communist hands. Diem distributed land to these fellow Catholics, ignoring the needs of impoverished peasants in the South. Along with urban dwellers dependent upon government jobs and US aid, landlords and Catholics constituted the core of Diem’s narrow political coalition.
  • In the late fifties, Diem carried out a program of arrests and assassinations against suspected communists which led to the deaths of 50,000 people.
  • The top echelons of Diem’s military forces were filled with officers who had served in the puppet army created by the French before 1954. Military promotions were based not upon competence, but upon perceived loyalty to Diem. After surviving an attempted coup de etat in 1961, Diem diverted his best forces away from the fight against the communists that had by then resumed and stationed these forces near Saigon in hopes that they might come to his aid the next time that his rule was challenged.

US officials became increasingly unhappy with Diem. He ignored their advice to fight corruption and to carry out genuine reforms that might broaden his political base of support. Yet the US was reluctant to cut off the massive aid that sustained Diem’s regime precisely because it appeared so weak. A visible weakening of US support would have emboldened Diem’s many enemies. The US feared that the resulting chaos would work to the advantage of the communists. Thus, oddly, Diem was immune to pressure despite his dependence upon US military and economic aid.

In the end, the Kennedy Administration began to planning for a clean break – a military coup that would sweep away Diem with a minimum of turmoil. US officials conspired with coup planners in Saigon over a period of months, although disagreement among Kennedy’s advisors meant that US enthusiasm for a coup rose and fell numerous times during this period. In 1963, the coup planners finally acted in the belief that they had US support. Diem and his brother were hunted down and murdered (this had not been part of the US plan – it had been hoped that Diem would agree to leave the country).

US aid continued to flow to the new government, but the political stability that US officials hoped for did not materialize. While Diem had been brutal and unpopular, he was at least strong and decisive. What followed his death was a revolving door of coups and counter-coups. US officials grew impatient (it is said that President Johnson reacted to one report of political instability in Saigon by banging his fist on his desk and shouting: “I don’t want to hear any more about this coup shit!”). With no stable government in place, the communist gained strength until, by 1964, South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, prompting the US to send its own combat troops to salvage the situation in early 1965.

The period between 1954 and the resumption of warfare in 1960 was a golden opportunity for the US and South Vietnam’s leadership to build a popular, democratic and reformist alternative to the communist North. Had a strong, well governed state emerged, the South could perhaps have fended off the communists with modest US support and without the necessity to send US combat troops. Alas, “nation-building” is not so easy, especially in a divided society emerging from a century of colonial oppression and a decade of war. No amount of US aid could compensate for the weakness of the non-communist political class in South Vietnam. When political solutions failed, the US ultimately resorted to military might. This delayed by a decade the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. But South Vietnam’s long term survival proved undoable.

U.S. Cold War Strategy

The early years following World War II confronted US policy-makers with difficult questions about the future of US relations with the Soviet Union. True, the Soviets had been wartime allies in the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany. But US-Soviet relations prior to the war had been anything but friendly. Moreover, the Soviet regime declared allegiance to a communist ideology that most Americans found repugnant and even frightening. Perhaps most important, the Soviet Union possessed by far the largest land army in Europe and stood in military occupation of the Eastern half of the European continent. The war had cost the Soviet Union dearly and left the country severely weakened (over 25 million Soviets died in the war). Yet these deficiencies were not apparent to US policy-makers at the time, who tended to exaggerate Soviet strength.

A series of disputes began to plague US-Soviet relations during and after the war. Conflict arose in places such as Iran, Greece, Turkey, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Berlin. Policy-makers were at first unsure about how to account for the difficulties in US relations with the Soviet Union. Gradually, the debate over how the US should deal with the Soviet Union came to center around four alternative strategies.

Rejecting Accomodation or Confrontation

One approach was to work toward a continuation of the wartime alliance. This had been Franklin Roosevelt’s great dream. He envisioned a world kept at peace by the combined efforts of what he called the “Four Policemen:” the US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and China. The role and composition of the United Nations Security Council was based upon this idea.

Roosevelt died before the end of World War II. His plans for post-war cooperation with the Soviet Union came to be championed by Henry Wallace. Wallace was a New Deal Democrat from Iowa (and founder of Pioneer Hybrid). He served as Secretary of Agriculture during the 1930s and as Roosevelt’s Vice President from 1940-44. Calling for a policy of accommodation, Wallace believed that the fundamental basis for good relations with the Soviet Union must be respect for legitimate Soviet security needs. This meant endorsement of a “spheres of influence” policy. Wallace considered it only reasonable that the Soviet Union would expect to retain influence over the areas of Eastern Europe from which it had expelled German armies during the war. Numerous times in history, this region had served as a staging ground for Western attacks on Russian soil. The Soviets understandably wanted a string of friendly governments to control Eastern Europe to provide a “buffer zone” to ensure Soviet security. Wallace argued that “We should recognize the fact that we have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America.”

Wallace also advocated other steps that might secure Soviet friendship, including aid for reconstruction, open trade, and joint international control of nuclear technology. From his vantage point as Secretary of the Treasury under new President Harry Truman, Wallace grew increasingly upset by the deterioration of US-Soviet relations through 1946. He blamed much of the tension on hardliners within the Truman Administration. After Wallace made a public speech in New York City blasting Truman’s Soviet policy, Secretary of State James Byrnes cabled Truman from London threatening to resign unless Truman fired Wallace and repudiated his speech. Truman did just this. With Wallace’s departure, the last remaining voice for US-Soviet cooperation was silenced.

At the other extreme were those who called for a policy of confrontation. Among these were Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who believed that Soviet foreign policy was guided by a ruthlessly expansionist ideology that called for the destruction of Western civilization. Forrestal saw little alternative to war and called for the US to “roll back” communist gains in Eastern Europe, presumably through military force. Forrestal eventually went mad, embracing an all-encompassing paranoia about the communist threat. He was removed from office and placed in mental facility. Believing that he was constantly being followed and hounded by communist agents, Forrestal leaped in despair from the fourth floor of his hospital room to his death.

Forrestal’s extreme views were rejected principally because they raised the prospect of renewed warfare so soon after the heavy sacrifices of World War II. The American people wanted a return to peace and normalcy. Yet policy-makers were nevertheless increasingly sympathetic to Forrestal’s dire warnings about the nature of the Soviet threat. They needed a strategy that would limit Soviet power and influence in the post-war world without provoking open warfare.

Limited Containment

George Kennan supplied the right formulae in 1946. Kennan was a foreign service officer and an expert on the Soviet Union. He served after the war as second in command at the US embassy in Moscow. In 1946, Kennan was asked to prepare an assessment of Soviet motives and strategy in international affairs. He composed what came to be called “the Long Telegram.” In this document, Kennan coined the term “containment,” which was to shape the basic contours of US policy toward the Soviet Union over much of the next half century. Kennan wrote: “the main element of any United States policy must be that of a long term, patient but firm and vigilent containment of Russian expansionist tendencies.”

Kennan argued that the US could not establish normal relations with the Soviet Union. Hopes for sustained cooperation were nonsense. The Soviet Union was implacably hostile toward the West and sought expansion of its influence and territory. Kennan traced Soviet aggressiveness to several sources: traditional Russian insecurity, Stalin’s megalomania and paranoia, and the doctrinaire nature of communist ideology. In any case, the Soviet Union could not be trusted to keep its word or to act in good faith.

Despite this dour assessment of Soviet motives, Kennan was not wholly pessimistic. He believed that the US and its allies were collectively far stronger than the Soviet Union, now considerably weakened by the wartime destruction. Moreover, he argued that Stalin was risk averse. The great dictator feared war with the US and would not risk actions that might provoke a military response. Instead, Stalin would continually probe for Western weaknesses, taking advantage of low risk avenues for expansion. A naive or vacillating US policy would indeed invite Soviet duplicity and aggressiveness. A firm US approach, however, would succeed in forcing Stalin to reign in his ambitions, at least for the time being.

Nothing could be done, in Kennan’s view, to save Eastern Europe from Soviet clutches. Soviet troops occupied the region and could only be dislodged through a major war. So Kennan rejected the reckless approach advocated by Forrestal. But he did argue that Soviet influence should be “contained” where possible. Meanwhile, beyond the regions ceded to the Soviets, the US should use its economic and political power to rebuild allied countries and strengthen the West.

Kennan’s concept of “containment” immediately found support throughout the government and was popularized a year later when Kennan published an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Yet the idea of “containing” Soviet power remained ambiguous in many ways. Many interpreted “containment” as a call to arms. The US had drastically cut its military spending and the size of its forces after World War II. Containment seemed to offer a rationale for expanding the defense budget once more so as to confront the Soviet Union with military resistance to any moves toward expansion.

But this was not Kennan’s conception. He believed that the Soviet military threat was overrated. His principal fear was that economic collapse and political chaos would bring communist parties to power in France, Italy and other parts of Western Europe. Thus Kennan championed the Marshal Plan, which served to rebuild the Western European economy. He also opposed the idea of sharing the atomic bomb with Russia or offering aid and trade to the Soviets. But Kennan opposed a major rearmament campaign.

For one thing, Kennan believed that there existed a tradeoff between guns and butter. Massive military spending would bankrupt the country and actually weaken the US in the long run. Also, Kennan feared that US allies would come to expect the US to carry the entire burden of protecting them against the Soviet threat. He favored the idea of burdensharing. As the economies of allied countries recovered, they should carry a significant share of the defense burden for themselves.

Most important, however, Kennan argued for what some would later call “limited containment.” In his view, the crucial US objective must be to maintain a favorable balance of power. Kennan was optimistic on this point. Of the five major industrial regions in the world capable of producing the materials needed for the conduct of modern warfare, four of these lay under US influence: North America, the British Isles, Central Europe and Japan. The only industrial region to fall within the Soviet sphere was the European portion of the Soviet Union itself. US grand strategy, in Kennan’s view, must aim at preventing either Western Europe or Japan from falling under Soviet influence (Kennan sometimes included the Middle East as strategically vital as well, due to its enormous oil resources). If this could be prevented, then US security was assured.

An important corollary of Kennan’s doctrine of limited containment was that the US should not dissipate its energies by defending regions of peripheral interest to US security. Continued involvement in small “brushfire” wars would sap US energies and test the patience of its citizens. Thus Kennan opposed US entry into the Korean and Vietnam wars on the grounds that these were not strategically vital territories. Their loss would not significantly affect the US-Soviet balance of power. Indeed, they might prove costly liabilities to the Soviet Union once integrated into its camp. Kennan also believed that nationalism was more powerful than communism. Thus he correctly predicted that communist China would break from Soviet control after some period of time. Nationalism would prevent the communist world from truly uniting its resources and energies to confront the West.

Kennan believed that in the long run containment would lead to a “mellowing” of Soviet power. Soviet ideology portrayed communism as the wave of the future. Stalin justified his harsh rule at home – and postponed reform – by pointing to tensions with the West. If the West confronted the Soviet Union with patient firmness combined with a cautious avoidance of outright war and if Soviet expansionist ambitions could be successfully limited over time, Kennan believed that the Soviet people would eventually rebel against the Soviet police state and demand greater freedom and prosperity. Once this happened, the Soviet Union would become more like a “normal” state and its foreign policy would become less belligerent. Some argue that Kennan’s prophesy was largely fulfilled when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s and set the Soviet Union on the path to reform and closer relations with the West.

Kennan’s “limited containment” strategy was followed from 1947 to 1949. This was the time when the US initiated the Marshal Plan and set aside hopes for a cooperation relationship with the Soviet Union. But it was also a period when defense spending remained modest and the US declined to intervene in the Chinese civil war, despite the victory of communist forces there.

A series of setbacks for the West, however, undermined support for Kennan’s soft version of containment. These included the aforementioned victory of the Chinese communists, the Berlin Blockade, the communist coup de etat in Czechoslovakia, the Russian test of its first atomic weapon in 1949 and, finally, the North Korean communist attack on South Korea that initiated the Korean war. Besides these international events, domestic developments also weighed in favor of a firmer US policy toward the Soviet threat. Red-baiting politicians such as Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy created a climate of hysteria at home with their charges that communist traitors and spies permeated major US institutions, such as the government, the schools and the film industry.

The Turn to Global Containment

In 1949, Paul Nitze replaced George Kennan as head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. Nitze believed that Kennan’s version of containment was not vigorous enough. He coordinated a strategic review that became known as NSC-68, perhaps the most important official document of the Cold War era. In NSC-68, Nitze argued for a tripling of US defense spending and aggressive development of the more powerful H-bomb. He also argued for a shift from “limited” to “global” containment.

In Nitze’s view, Kennan was wrong to believe that US security could be protected by simply focusing on a few regions of “vital” interest. Nitze argued that everything was vital. The US had to be prepared to intervene almost anyplace where communism threatened to spread. Nitze thus called for “global” containment.

The reasons for Nitze’s conclusions were several. He argued that US power rested largely upon its reputation. Other countries would follow us and rely upon our help only if they believed that US promises to protect them from communist or Soviet attack were credible and ironclad. If weaker countries came to believe that the US would abandon them when the going got tough, they would break from the Western camp and make the best deal they could get with the Soviets (to use the terminology we introduced in a previous lecture, Nitze feared that smaller countries would “bandwagon” to the side that they saw to be winning the Cold War). The US had to use every opportunity to strengthen its credibility and demonstrate its commitment to allies – even in places where our direct interests seemed marginal.

Also, Nitze feared what later came to be called the “domino effect.” Once one country in a region goes communist, Nitze believed that other countries would soon follow. Imagine knocking over the first in a string of dominoes standing on end. After the first one falls, the others inevitably collapse as well. This made it doubly important that the US prevent the first “domino” from falling. In East Asia, for instance, Nitze feared that the fall of Vietnam would weaken other countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc. The ultimate domino would be Japan, since eventually it would become insupportably vulnerable if the remainder of the region succumbed to communism. In Nitze’s view, so called vital regions depended upon the raw materials and markets of so called peripheral regions. If the latter fell, then the former would be endangered as well.

Nitze did not share Kennan’s fear that massive military spending might sap America’s long run economic strength. He believed in Keynesianism, which preached that increased government spending stimulated rising demand and economic growth. Nitze argued that it was the military spending of World War II that had finally lifted the US out of the Great Depression. Large increases in military spending and healthy economic growth were both possible.

A military emphasis was necessary because, in Nitze’s view, Soviet leaders were risk takers who were willing to use military force if they thought it might succeed. Only American military superiority and the demonstrated willingness to use that power could deter Soviet military expansion.

Nitze’s argument won the day beginning with the outbreak of the Korean War. US military spending did triple during the war and stayed nearly that high even once the war was over. The US exploded its first H-bomb in 1954. During the fifties, the US signed military pacts with countries across much of the globe, expanding the range of US commitments far beyond Europe and Japan. The US took the first tentative steps toward an eventual large scale military involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Global containment drove US foreign policy until the late sixties.

At that point, disillusionment toward the Vietnam War prompted many Americans to once again question the wisdom of a strategy of global containment. Richard Nixon gradually pulled the US out of Vietnam and initiated a policy of Detente (meaning “relaxation of tensions”) with both the Soviet Union and China. Nixon’s strategy was a mixture of Wallace’s and Kennan’s ideas. Detente deteriorated through the seventies, however, and was abandoned by Ronald Reagan when he entered office in 1981. Reagan initially embraced a militant version of global containment and a “second Cold War” descended over US-Soviet relations. During Reagan’s second term, however, the Administration responded favorably to the domestic and international reforms initiated by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Cold War lessened in intensity and finally ended altogether with the fall of communism across the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself into fifteen independent states.

American Culture and the Vietnam War

“Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”

Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu

Loren Baritz has written a brilliant book called “Backfire” that analyzes how American cultural beliefs, attitudes and values shaped our involvement in the Vietnam War. One of the more interesting points Baritz makes is that Americans typically assume that everyone else on the planet wants to be like us (“Be Like Mike!). American like to think that we are the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most democratic, the most free people on earth. The early Puritan minister John Winthrop declared that the Puritans would create a new shining “city on a hill.” A “New World” built upon modern principles and free of the hatreds and prejudices that plagued the “Old World.” America would serve as a beacon of freedom and progress, attracting people from around the world to our shores and showing others the way to prosperity and happiness.

In the early years of the republic, this sense of American “exceptionalism” led to a policy of isolation. George Washington warned in his last public address as President against “entangling alliances.” The US would steer clear of cynical balance of power politics and European squabbles. Protected by two oceans, the US could afford to remain aloof from war and conflict abroad. Instead, we would focus inward on perfecting our experiment in democracy. Nevertheless, the US would enjoy a powerful influence throughout the world, not through military force or diplomacy, but through the power of example. Others would recognize our success and seek to emulate the American way. The US sought to avoid overseas engagements because to become embroiled in the conflicts and intrigues of others would inevitably corrupt us. Isolationism was designed to ensure that American remained pure and true to its principles.

Baritz points out that many societies and cultures hold similar views about their own uniqueness and moral superiority over others. The US was not different in that respect. And American exceptionalism was relatively harmless in its isolationist variant. The trouble, according to Baritz, began around the beginning of the last century, when the US turned outward to test its influence abroad. The Spanish-American War, which led to US colonial control over Cuba and the Philippines, repeated US military intervention in Latin America, US entry into World War I, and commercial expansion overseas all pulled the US out of its isolationist cocoon.

What changed during this period was not the US sense of moral superiority, but instead US power. While many societies believe theirs is the best, few hold the power to try to impose their own model onto others. Once the US had gained the size and strength to do so, it adopted a more assertive version of exceptionalism. The US began to try to remake the world in its own image, exporting democracy, capitalism and the “American way.” We assumed, in the process, that peoples around the world would welcome this superior way of thinking and living. They would gladly abandon their own obsolete traditions, beliefs and institutions to follow the American example. The principle factors standing in the way of American-style reform abroad were corrupt elites who benefited from oppressive political orders elsewhere and the ignorance of the masses, who were not yet aware of the promising alternative offered by the American example.

This “sentimental imperialism,” as some have termed it, did not reach full bloom until after World War II, when the US emerged from the war as a true superpower. The Vietnam War was one product of the American mission to control the destiny of other societies and to remake them in the image of the US itself.

Early in this term, we noted that American officials appeared rather ignorant of Vietnamese culture, values and history. This ignorance seemed to hobble US efforts to influence Vietnamese society at every turn. We made many mistakes (e.g., selection of Diem, strategic hamlet program) from which our involvement in Vietnam never recovered.

Baritz offers one answer to the question of why American officials seemed so uninterested in learning about the society to which we committed so much blood and treasure. He argues that we saw no good reason to delve into Vietnam’s history and traditions because our goal was precisely to remake Vietnam into a smaller version of the US itself. Vietnam’s own history and traditions were of no interest because they were to be abandoned in favor of our own system. And we assumed that the Vietnamese themselves would – once properly educated – happily collaborate in this transition to American-style democracy and capitalism. After all, who would not want to become like us? Not only would the Vietnamese slough off their own history and culture, but they would also resist the siren song of the communists, who offered yet a different version of an utopian future.

Notice that Baritz (unlike Chomsky, for instance) does not argue that the US was motivated by selfish motives or economic imperialism. He attributes US mistakes in Vietnam to a well meaning, but naive, misplaced and paternalistic moralism. Baritz believes that this “missionary impulse” in US foreign policy has often led to disastrous results in our history, both for the US and for others.

Garry Wills makes a similar argument in his book “Nixon Agonistes.” In one passage in this book, Wills recounts President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the Mexican revolution of 1910-12. Wilson followed the various factions in the Mexican civil war, trying to figure out which one represented the true voice of democracy. American support switched from one group to another several times. Finally, Wilson intervened by sending US marines to the port of Veracruz in an effort to decide the outcome of the conflict. Writing toward the tail end of US involvement in Vietnam with evident irony and bitterness, Wills wrote that Wilson had “arrived at that fatal recurring moment in our country’s diplomatic benefactions, the moment when it makes sense to start shooting people philanthropically, for their own good. He was ready to do Mexicans this service as we have proved, year after discouraging year, with Vietnamese, preaching democracy with well-meant napalm, instructing children with our bombs. We believe that we can literally ‘kill them with kindness,’ moving our guns forward in a seizure of demented charity. It is when America is in her most altruistic mood that other national better get behind their bunkers.”

 

US Military Strategy in Vietnam

US strategy in the Vietnam War rested upon three pillars: air power, ground operations and pacification. Here is a brief synopsis of the major objectives of each pillar and the problems encountered in each area:

Air power:

One application of air power involved the bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Aside from temporary strikes ordered against North Vietnam following the Tonkin Gulf incident, a virtually continuous bombing campaign (interrupted by several “bombing halts” intended for diplomatic purposes) began in early 1965 and persisted until the summer of 1968, when President Johnson halted bombing operations against most of North Vietnamese territory. The bombing of North Vietnam was resumed by President Nixon in late 1972.

The bombing of North Vietnam had three objectives: 1. to interdict (i.e., halt) the flow of troops and military supplies southward from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail, 2. to destroy key military and industrial installations in North Vietnam that served to support communist troops in the South, 3. to undermine morale in North Vietnam and increase pressure on Northern political leaders to negotiate a peace agreement acceptable to the US.

None of the these objectives was met. Although the bombing of staging areas in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail undoubtedly took a toll on North Vietnamese resources, the US failed to curtail the flow of troops and supplies sufficiently to cripple communist military operations in the South. Indeed, the flow of men and materials filtered into the South along the Ho Chi Minh trail increased each year of the war. There are several reasons why this objective was not met.

Communist forces were divided into two main types: National Liberation Front (NLF) forces, often called “Vietcong,” and North Vietnamese main forces. The NLF forces consisted of Southerners. Some had relocated to the North in 1954 and were sent back into the South in the early sixties. Others were peasants recruited locally to join the NLF. These units were lightly armed guerilla forces and their activities were as much political as military in nature. The NLF was relatively self reliant, surviving on captured arms, black market weapons, homemade explosives, food, clothing and other essential provided by peasants under NLF control in the form of taxes. The NLF needed little material assistance from the North.

North Vietnamese main forces came to carry a bigger share of the fighting as time went on, particularly after the Tet Offensive of spring, 1968. These units consisted of draftees recruited and trained in the North. NVA forces were more heavily armed and engaged in larger scale combat missions. Such troops were more heavily dependent upon the movement of modern military supplies from the North. Even these forces, however, managed with a far more meager logistical support system than that which supplied US forces.

The Ho Chi Minh trail was not a single road, but instead a maze of trails, usually unpaved and often hidden under jungle canopy. If one section of the trail was bombed, trucks, bicycles and men on foot were diverted along alternative routes. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were constantly at work repairing damaged sections.

The Ho Chi Minh trail was not the only route along which supplies were moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. It was not until late in the war that US intelligence agencies realized that massive amounts of materials were being shipped to a port in Cambodia called Sihanoukville and from there filtered into South Vietnam along the common border with Cambodia. Also, small fishing boats landed supplies along the Pacific coastline of South Vietnam. In general, the US found no effective way to prevent the North from getting sufficient supplies to its forces in the South.

The second main objective of the bombing campaign against the North was to destroy military and industrial installations that were key to support of communist forces in the South. The problem here was that North Vietnam was an agrarian society with only a small industrial base. The few industrial installations that existed were destroyed early in the war (though they were often repaired and had to be hit again many times). The fundamental fact was that the arms, ammunition and other military supplies that North Vietnam needed to continue the war in the South originated not in North Vietnamese factories but in those of China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam’s two principal benefactors. As long as China and the Soviet Union were free to resupply North Vietnam, no amount of bombing of the North would do much good.

The US could have bombed the rail links along the Chinese-Vietnamese border. Similarly, the US could have mined North Vietnam’s harbors to prevent Soviet ships from offloading supplies there. These options were rejected for most of the war (Nixon finally mined Haiphong Harbor in 1972) due to the risk of escalating the war to involve the Chinese or the Soviets. The US had made the mistake of pushing its military forces too close to Chinese territory in the Korean War, with the result that China entered that war – leading to a much costlier conflict. It was unknown how the Soviets might react had the US begun to sink Soviet ships visiting North Vietnam. The results might have been naval clashes with Soviet ships at sea. Or perhaps the Soviets would have retaliated elsewhere, such as Berlin. In any case, it was considered rash to risk escalating military conflict with the Soviet Union in an era of nuclear terror.

Certain other targets were spared. Hanoi itself was not directly hit until late in the war. This was mainly because the principal victims would have been civilians. US bombing was already taking 1500 civilian North Vietnamese lives per month, leading to both domestic unrest in the US and severe international criticism. As bombing Hanoi would have served no useful military purpose, it was left off of the target list. Likewise, the US did not bomb the dikes that carried waters to the rice fields of the Red River Delta, Vietnam’s bread basket. The resulting flooding would have killed many civilians, but would have had very little effect on fighting in the South. Food shortages would likely have been made up by China and the Soviet Union. And the political costs would have been enormous.

Another thing to remember is that the US did not want to destroy all of North Vietnam’s high value targets early in the air war. This goes to the third objective of the air war against the North. The US wanted to hold some targets “hostage,” in hopes that the threat of their future destruction would force compromise on Northern leaders. Once the hostage has been killed, of course, the kidnapper loses the leverage he needs to compel a ransom payment. For similar reasons, the US spared some targets until late in the air campaign.

We have no evidence that the will of the North Vietnamese communist leadership to retake South Vietnam was ever diminished by the US air war against the North. One possible exception was the Christmas bombings of 1972, which may have compelled the North to resume the negotiations that led to the Paris Peace Accords of early 1973. Even in this case, however, the North saw the peace accords as a tactical move to force final US withdrawal from the war, not as a permanent resolution to the political dispute over the future of South Vietnam. The ink was hardly dry on the 1973 accords before fighting in the South resumed again.

Some officials hoped that North Vietnam’s people would be so angered and demoralized by the bombing that they would rise up in protest and force their leaders to end the war. But North Vietnam was a communist police state, not a democracy. Open opposition or criticism against the state or party were not permitted. And we have no evidence that popular support for the war among Northerners ever wavered to any significant degree.

Indeed, the American bombing may have simply fueled popular anger against US “imperialism” and prompted the population to rally around their besieged government.

The other main use of air power was in tactical support of US ground forces in combat operations in the South. In fact, the tonnage of bombs dropped on South Vietnam considerably exceeded the amount dropped on targets in North Vietnam. Overall, the total tonnage of bombs dropped by air on both North and South Vietnam exceeded by four times the total dropped by US forces on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. Besides conventional bombs, the US also sprayed defoliant (i.e., chemicals that killed trees and bushes) across an area equal to the size of Massachusetts. The purpose of this was to deny communist forces the concealment of tree cover so that they could be more easily located. The environmental consequences, of course, were devastating and continued to plague Vietnam long after the war.

Tactical air support in the South often had devastating effects on Vietcong and NVA forces. But it also caused extensive damage to civilian communities and thus served to undermine support for the South Vietnamese government and the Americans.

The Ground War:

The ground war strategy used by American forces in South Vietnam was built around the concept of attrition. The US hoped to gradually wear down and weaken enemy forces to the point where they no longer posed a threat to the survival of the South Vietnamese government. This would be accomplished by probing for the enemy’s “crossover point.” This was the point at which the US successfully killed communist troops faster than they could be replaced. Beyond the “crossover point,” communist forces would steadily diminish in size and power.

This strategy explains why the US did not seek to hold territory in the fashion of World Wars I and II. There was no clear “front line” in Vietnam. US forces would descend upon the enemy, often via helicopters, engage and then withdraw to seek out other enemy forces elsewhere. The idea was to take advantage of US mobility and avoid tying down US forces in fixed locations. But this also meant that villages “liberated” from communist control one day were abandoned the next, allowing the communists to return. This reality demoralized US soldiers, who felt that they were risking their lives to take ground that would soon be given back to the enemy. South Vietnamese peasants also adapted to this type of warfare by giving obedience to whomever happened to be in control at a given time. It was therefore difficult to build long term loyalty among the people to the South Vietnamese government.

Communist forces often slipped away before US forces arrived. If not warned by sympathetic villagers (who might, for instance, serve as cooks at the nearby American base), the noise of the American helicopters and artillery were sufficient to announce the impending arrival of US troops.

South Vietnamese government forces (called the ARVN) were never used effectively. Once the US entered the war in a big way, the ARVN was shoved to the sidelines. ARVN forces had a poor reputation for performance in battle and were mainly used for rear area security. The ARVN improved from 1969 onward as the US withdrew its own forces under the guise of “Vietnamization” (a revealing label), but never matched enemy forces for skill and dedication.

The “crossover point” was achieved with respect to Vietcong forces. This was less because of the effectiveness of US “search and destroy” missions, however, than the fact that the Vietcong exposed themselves voluntarily to US forces by coming out in the open during the Tet Offensive. The Vietcong losses during Tet were so heavy that these forces never recovered lost strength. From that point onward, much of the fighting on the communist side was carried by North Vietnamese main forces.

The ability of the NVA to eventually replace its losses was never in serious doubt. North Vietnam’s manpower pool was sufficiently large that even much heavier losses than those imposed by US forces could always be made good (though at a horrific price).

One final note on the strategy of attrition. As a result of this approach, the measure of success in Vietnam for the US side became the infamous “body count.” To tell whether attrition was working, the US needed fairly accurate counts of the size of enemy forces and the rate at which the US was inflicting casualties on those forces. There is good evidence, however, that the US consistently underestimated the size of the communist forces. And we just as consistently overestimated the losses inflicted on the enemy. The reason for the latter error is easy to understand. Local US commanders were responsible for estimating the “body count” after each encounter with the enemy. These same commanders were rewarded on the basis of how many enemy soldiers were killed or wounded in such engagements. In other words, lower level commanders were asked to write their own report cards. Unsurprisingly, this generated exaggerated body counts. As a result of these errors in estimation, US officials were given unrealistically optimistic reports about how close the US was to achieving the elusive “crossover point.”

  1. Pacification:

Pacification involved efforts to win the “hearts and minds” (Lyndon Johnson’s phrase) of the Vietnamese peasants. The US funneled large amounts of aid to the rural areas of Vietnam in hopes of winning the loyalty of the peasants. Several problems undermined pacification. First, a key aspect of pacification was the strategic hamlet program, which involved separating villagers from their land. This was most unpopular.

Second, much of the aid targeted to the villagers was skimmed off by corrupt South Vietnamese officials. More generally, South Vietnamese officials in the countryside had a reputation for treating the peasants with contempt. One reason for this was that the officials came from the city and shared the typical urban-dwellers lack of respect for rural people. Another was that bad behavior was seldom punished by the South Vietnamese government. But perhaps most importantly, the local officials did not need the peasants and thus had no incentive to win their respect and favor. Everything that the South Vietnamese government needed came from the Americans. The NLF, on the other hand, had a much better reputation in how they treated the peasants in areas under their control (although the NLF did use terror against any peasants who actively opposed them and against landlords and South Vietnamese officials). The NLF treated the peasants with more respect because they badly needed peasant support. If peasants failed to pay taxes to the NLF, provide young men as recruits, collect intelligence and provide supplies, the NLF could not have survived.

Third, the heavy use of firepower by American forces often undid the good that was done through pacification. A road or clinic built with US funds one week might be demolished the next in an American artillery barrage.

In general, pacification was starved for resources as compared with the military effort. It was easier for US officials to see the conflict in Vietnam in traditional military terms than it was to treat it as essentially a political problem. Perhaps the root problem for the US in Vietnam was a failure to understand that there are limits as to what military force can accomplish in some types of conflicts.

Some have argued that the US fought the war “with one hand behind its back.” There is some truth to this. Certain limits were placed on the US military effort. The US did not use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Troops were introduced gradually and capped at 540,000. The US decided against carrying the ground war to North Vietnam itself. Some restrictions were placed on the air war against the North. Some of the reasons behind these limitations are explained above. Two seem most important: the US wanted to avoid acts that might lead to escalating conflict with China or the Soviet Union and US officials believed that there were limits on how large and costly a war the US public would tolerate.

From another perspective, however, the US military effort in Vietnam was hardly a token one. Two million Vietnamese on both sides lost their lives and four million were wounded. At the height of the conflict (1968), US and South Vietnamese forces together outnumbered the communist forces by somewhere between 3-1 and 5-1. The enemy suffered five to six casualties for each US casualty. The US exploded 15 million tons of bombs and shells on a relatively small country. The war cost $120 billion (in 1960s dollars). The US combat commitment stretched across eight years and the overall US involvement across an entire generation (1950-1975).

The interesting question, then, is not why the US did not do more, but why the massive effort we did undertake was not enough to bring some sort of victory?

Statistics on Decline in Military Status and Discipline During Vietnam Era

The last three years of the draft during the Vietnam era produced 145,000 successful conscientious objector claims (COs were released from military duty on the grounds of principled or religious objections to war and violence. COs were required to perform alternative service.) During fiscal year 1972, there were more COs than draftees.

By September of 1969, 65 selective service (military draft) centers had been attacked or harassed by opponents of the war. In 1969, ROTC units sustained 323 assaults.

During the five peak years of the war, military desertion rates increased by 400%.

From 1965 through 1976, the military documented 551 “fragging” incidents that resulted in 86 deaths and over 700 injuries (The term “fragging” referred to fragmentation grenades, which troops sometimes tossed into the tents or barracks of officers. The term came to refer to any violent attack on superiors, including shootings. Fragging were often a consequence of soldiers resistance to orders that would place their lives at risk.).

The Tragedy of Cambodia

Throughout the Johnson years, US military officials were frustrated by the fact that North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops enjoyed “sanctuaries” from which they could prepare for attacks on US and ARVN forces in South Vietnam and to which they could retreat after an engagement or to recover. North Vietnam itself was a sanctuary of sorts. The US, of course, bombed targets North of the 17th parallel, but did not carry out significant ground operations there (small infiltration teams were sent across the border to gather information and conduct sabotage). The most significant sanctuary was in Cambodia, which shared a long border with South Vietnam.

Cambodia, ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was officially neutral in the Cold War. Historically, Cambodia had suffered repeated invasion and domination by the Thais to the west and the Vietnamese to the East. Cambodians learned to survive by appeasing their powerful neighbors and playing enemies off against one another.

During the war, the North Vietnamese used Cambodian territory along the border with South Vietnam as a base area for transporting supplies south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and north from the port of Sihanoukville. Later in the war, the NVA/NLF located its overall command center for the war in Cambodian territory. Sihanouk quietly acquiesced in this violation of Cambodia’s neutrality, largely because his country was too weak to resist.

Like Laos and Vietnam, a communist movement also arose in Cambodia – called the Khmer Rouge (KR). The KR, however, was pitifully small and weak through much of the sixties. As late as 1968, the KR consisted of only a few hundred guerrillas operating in remote mountainous regions. As part of the implicit deal with Sihanouk that permitted them undisputed movement in Cambodian territory, the North Vietnamese denied aid and assistance to the KR. Also, the Vietnamese communists and the KR leadership followed different ideological versions of communism, differing over important doctrinal questions.

Early in his presidency, Nixon recognized that domestic opposition to the war in the US would continue to grow unless the US combat presence diminished. He therefore moved to a policy called “Vietnamization.” This basically meant the provision of massive aid and training to the ARVN so that the South Vietnamese could gradually take responsibility for the bulk of combat operations as US troops were steadily withdrawn. Nixon understood that a dwindling US military involvement in the war would encourage the enemy and tempt the North Vietnamese to simply wait until the US was gone. He therefore searched around for policies that would offset the perception of weakness caused by US withdrawal.

Nixon tried a number of things to bring additional pressure on the North Vietnamese. He began to seek “détente” or a relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union and China and urged each to bring pressure on North Vietnam to compromise in negotiations. Nixon also tried what he called the “madman theory,” leaking the story to the North Vietnamese that Nixon was a bit unbalanced about the Vietnam War and was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. In 1972, Nixon resumed intensive US bombing of North Vietnam in hopes that this would break the will of Northern leaders.

Among these efforts to compensate for the slow motion withdrawal of US troops, Nixon revisited the issue of denying sanctuary to NVA troops in Cambodia. Johnson had rejected US air or ground operations in Cambodia, despite military advice, because he worried about domestic and international reaction to a perceived widening of the war. Nixon got around this problem by initiating a “secret” bombing campaign against NVA targets in Cambodia in early 1969. The bombing was “secret,” of course, only to the US public. The NVA knew they were being bombed, but they did not protest because to do so would be to admit that their forces were operating in Cambodia, something they had always denied. The Cambodian government knew that its territory was being bombed. But it did not want an open confrontation with the US over this issue and had long ago lost control of this region to the NVA in any case. So, amazingly, the bombing campaign lasted for a year before it became public.

In the spring of 1970, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol. Lon Nol was pro-US and very anti-communist. He began to conduct military operations against NVA forces. Sihanouk’s policy of tacit accommodation with the North Vietnamese was tossed aside. The US probably did not directly sponsor the coup that overthrew Sihanouk, but it welcomed Lon Nol and his hard line policies toward the Vietnamese communists. The US began to funnel large amounts of aid to Lon Nol and, with his approval, launched a major combined US/ARVN invasion of Cambodia on April 30 in hopes of destroying the NVA base network and infrastructure in Cambodia.

The US invasion of Cambodia brought back to life the previously waning anti-war movement. Major demonstrations took place in many US cities and hundreds of US campuses had to be closed early due to unrest. National Guard troops were called in to Kent State University in response to vandalism and arson there. In a confrontation on the campus green, four students were killed by live fire and a number of others were wounded.

Congress set a time limit on the US presence in Cambodia and the troops returned to South Vietnam by the end of the summer. Militarily, the operation had modest results. Large amounts of weaponry and equipment were destroyed and NVA units scattered. The NVA required six months to a year to fully recover from this blow. But the invasion of Cambodia had no decisive impact on the war in South Vietnam.

It did, however, have tragic consequences for Cambodia. The North Vietnamese had tolerated Sihanouk and denied assistance to the KR while he was in power. Once Lon Nol took control and began to fight against the North Vietnamese presence with US and ARVN support, the North Vietnamese retaliated by providing substantial aid for the first time to the KR, in hopes of toppling Lon Nol and bringing a friendly government to power. The NVA was also forced into the interior of the country, weakening Cambodian government control over areas that were previously uncontested. The air and ground war in Cambodia created massive numbers of displaced refugees who fled the fighting. After the coup, Prince Sihanouk, who was far more popular among ordinary Cambodians than Lon Nol, fled to Beijing, China and declared his alliance with the KR. This gave the KR a legitimacy that they could never have attained on their own. The combination of North Vietnamese assistance, chaotic conditions in the countryside and the blessing of Prince Sihanouk allowed the KR to grow and expand at an accelerating pace. By 1971, the KR posed a serious threat to the government of Cambodia. Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, actually fell to communist control before Saigon in the spring of 1975.

Many observers worried that the victory of communists in Vietnam would bring a blood-bath against their defeated enemies. The Vietnamese communists were indeed brutal. Tens of thousands of former military and civilian officials associated with the South Vietnamese government were sent to “reeducation” camps. Most were released within a few weeks or months. But up to 10,000 remained in confinement for years. South Vietnam was quickly absorbed by the North and a rigid communist system was imposed. A combination of circumstances – the destruction from the war, the abrupt withdrawal of US aid, the counterproductive economic policies of the communist authorities and the renewed involvement of Vietnam in wars in Cambodia and with China within a few years – all combined to send Vietnam into a downward spiral in terms of the standard of living of its people. By the early eighties, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries on earth. In excess of one million Vietnamese fled the country on rickety boats (among these were ethnic Chinese who lost their role as merchants under communism and who were persecuted once the war with China broke out in 1979; also, urban dwellers who had previously depended upon employment supported by US aid).

Yet however inept and brutal, Vietnamese communist leaders were not madmen. There was no blood-bath in Vietnam. The same could not be said of the KR leadership in Cambodia. The KR was led by a man known as Pol Pot. The KR wanted to create a kind of agrarian utopia, based in part on Maoist versions of communist doctrine and the KR’s twisted mythology about Cambodia’s golden age of the past.

As they swept through Phnom Penh, the KR emptied the capitol city of its citizens, forcing urban dwellers to march to the countryside on foot. Once there, these urbanites (considered parasites by the KR), were expected to begin farming the land, even though they were provided with no tools, shelter or instruction in farming. Intellectuals were scorned by the KR, who considered them carriers of diseased Western ways of thought. Wearing eyeglasses was enough to brand one an intellectual and to bring certain death. The country’s name was officially changed to “Kampuchea.” The KR declared “Year Zero” and a new calendar as they sought to erase the past and create a radically new social order. Virtually all contact with the outside world was cut off.

Some sense of the regime’s fanaticism can be glimpsed by considering the words of the new national anthem:

“Bright red blood which covers towns and plains

Of Kampuchea, our motherland

Sublime blood of workers and peasants

Sublime blood of revolutionary mean and women fighters!

The blood changing into unrelenting hatred

And resolute struggle,

On April 17th, under the Flag of the Revolution,

Free from slavery”

The KR did carry out a blood-bath. At least 150,000 people considered ideological suspect by the KR regime were directly murdered, some in the fields where they worked and others in death camps. The KR’s policies led directly to a horrific famine. No one knows how many Cambodians died during the KR era, but estimates range between 1 million and 3 million.

The KR soon came into conflict with their Vietnamese neighbors. The KR claimed that certain border areas controlled by Vietnam were rightfully Cambodian (or Kampuchean). After several border attacks and failed negotiations, the Vietnamese launched a punitive raid against KR forces along the border. The Vietnamese withdrew after a short time, hoping that the KR had gotten the message. But KR violence along the border persisted. So in 1979 the Vietnamese communist government invaded Cambodia and overthrew the KR, placing a puppet regime controlled by Vietnam in its place. This brought an end to the KR’s reign of terror in Cambodia. Also, the Vietnamese, unlike the KR, allowed Western aid missions to enter Cambodia and bring an end to the famine conditions there. Ironically, then, it was another communist regime that freed Cambodia from the insanity of the KR.

By this time, however, tensions between Vietnam and China had grown out of control. Since the early sixties, China and the Soviet Union had been fierce rivals, despite their common Marxist roots. After victory in 1975, the Vietnamese communists leaned toward the Soviet Union, fearing domination by their huge Chinese neighbor (and traditional enemy). To counter the Soviet influence in Vietnam, the Chinese began to aid the Khmer Rouge, hoping to hem in Vietnamese influence in Southeast Asia. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the KR, the Chinese responded by attacking Vietnamese forces along the Northern border area between their countries later in 1979. The war was brief but intense. It only underlined the fact that communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia brought not unity among communist forces and further expansion, but instead fraternal bloodletting and conflict.

Ironies abound. Once Vietnam installed its favored regime in Cambodia, the KR retreated to the border area to the west, alongside Thailand. Two other smaller non-communist rebel movements also arose in the 1980s to fight the Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia (remember that the Vietnamese and Cambodians are traditional rivals – as much as most Cambodians welcomed the overthrow of the KR, they also resented the continuing presence of the Vietnamese).

These three rebel groups – the KR and the two non-communist organizations – formed a political and military alliance. The US provided a modest amount of aid to the two non-communist groups under the Reagan Administration. Since the KR was the far stronger party in the alliance among these groups, the US aid indirectly strengthened the hand of the KR. Also, the US continued to recognize the KR as the official representative of Cambodia in the United Nations. It did so not (obviously) out of any respect or affection for the KR, but simply because the US opposed any expansionist tendencies shown by the Soviet-supported Vietnamese regime, even its occupation of Cambodia in place of the murderous KR.

Things get even stranger. George McGovern ran as the Democratic Presidential nominee in the 1972 elections on an anti-war platform. But in the late seventies, McGovern considered the genocidal policies of the KR such a moral affront that he advocated international military intervention to save the Cambodian people (this was prior to the Vietnamese invasion). So a leading dovish liberal who opposed the war ended up calling for renewed US military intervention in the area while a conservative Republican Administration ended up indirectly aiding the most murderous and radical communist movement in the world. Strange world.

How does the story end? The Vietnamese finally withdrew from Cambodia. The United Nations organized elections. Pol Pot finally died and the KR has self destructed. Cambodia is not exactly a democracy today, but it is relatively peaceful.

Interpreting US Policy toward Vietnam: Quagmires and Stalemate Machines

In the latter stages of US involvement in the Vietnam War, a fascinating debate took place among informed observers (some of whom had been participants in the policy-making process) over the following question: How could the responsible officials of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations – a group that David Halberstam dubbed “the best and the brightest” of their generation – have formulated and pursued a set of policies toward Vietnam that culminated in such a disastrous failure? In other words – what could they have been thinking?

The debate focused on the pattern of piecemeal escalation that marked the growing US involvement in Vietnam during the sixties. Arguably, the policy of gradual escalation brought the worst of both worlds. The US could have pulled out of Vietnam at anytime up until Johnson committed ground troops in 1965. Even after that fatal step, a more serious diplomatic effort might have brought some sort of negotiated settlement before the costs of the war escalated so high and domestic turmoil grew out of control. On the other hand, some argue that a more forceful military effort, a quicker pace of escalation and the removal of limits on the use of force might have brought some sort of meaningful victory. Neither of these policy options was attempted. Policy-makers rejected either withdrawal or decisive escalation (e.g., sending ground troops into North Vietnam).

Instead, policy-makers in the Kennedy and Johnson years choose a middle-of-the-road approach. The US escalated the use of force enough to maintain a stalemate in Vietnam and avoid losing (for a decade, at least), but did not do enough to win (assuming that a purely military victory was possible in such a war – a big assumption). The result was the longest, most controversial military engagement in US history, ultimately ending in the fall of South Vietnam to the communist enemy. If we accept this way of framing the issue (one could challenge various aspects of the above account), then the question that must be answered is: Why?

One answer was provided in a 1967 book titled “The Bitter Harvest” and authored by noted historian Arthur Schlesinger. Schlesinger was a friend of the Kennedy family and served as an advisor to John Kennedy during his presidency. Schlesinger compared Vietnam to a quagmire. A quagmire is a wet, muddy swamp. Once you take the first step into a quagmire, you get sucked down a slippery slope against your own will. Once in, there is no way out. Schlesinger argued that officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations basically stumbled blindly into the Vietnam quagmire without understanding where the US commitment would ultimately lead. US escalation proceeded through a series of small steps. No single step seemed terribly consequential.

Policy-makers, not realizing that they were in a quagmire, believed that they could reverse course at any time. More importantly, each succeeding step toward war and beyond was taken in the optimistic belief that a little more effort – a bit more aid, a few more troops, a slight escalation of the bombing campaign – would prove sufficient to turn things around and force the enemy to sue for peace on terms acceptable to the US.

Also, each step of escalation was viewed as significant more for its psychological impact than its military effect. The North Vietnamese communists knew that they lacked the power to literally defeat the US. Their only hope was that the US would quickly weary of the conflict and withdraw. Each step toward escalation was meant as a signal to the North Vietnamese that this hope was in vain. Once the enemy understood American resolve, they would give up their effort to conquer South Vietnam.

Schlesinger argued that policy-makers lacked foresight. They never intended to engage the US in such a large, lengthy and costly conflict. Had they understood beforehand how much the war would grow and how heavily involved the US would become, they never would have proceeded down this path. Vietnam just wasn’t that important to the US in strategic terms. Once the process of escalation began, however, it was difficult to stop. Policy-makers fell into an “investment trap”: having invested so much already, at each point along the way, it seemed reasonable to risk a little more to try to make things turn out all right.

In Schlesinger’s view these tragic miscalculations were based upon poor information and a flawed understanding of the Vietnam conflict. Policy-makers engaged in wishful thinking. They placed too much stock in overoptimistic reporting from the field. Top advisors were reluctant to bring bad news to the president, fearing that they might be blamed and wishing to be considered good “team players.” American officials know little about Vietnam’s history or culture. They did not understand the determination and willpower of the enemy – thus the vain search for Hanoi’s “breaking point.” They underestimated the fighting skill of the VC and NVA as well as the enemy’s ability to match US escalation (see James Thomson’s piece in the Rotter book for further analysis of the factors that led to miscalculation – although Thomson’s argument differs from Schlesinger’s in important ways, the two explanations are complementary in many respects).

In other words, America’s Vietnam policy was a product of mistakes, miscalculation, ignorance and lack of foresight. The roots of these problems lay in the flaws of the decision-making machinery itself. The bureaucracy failed to perform its mission of providing accurate information and advice to the president. This breakdown was abetted by psychological and cultural barriers to better understanding of the Vietnamese and of the type of conflict in which we were engaged.

Note that this diagnosis of what went wrong deflects moral blame away from Kennedy and Johnson themselves. The real source of the problem lay in the broader bureaucratic and advisory system. Kennedy and Johnson meant well. They genuinely believed that their policies would work and were constantly surprised and disappointed when they led instead to stalemate and failure.

This interpretation of “what went wrong” was shortly challenged by both Leslie Gelb and Daniel Ellsberg in pieces published in the early seventies. Both Gelb and Ellsberg had served as Defense Department officials during the sixties and both helped to compile the famous “Pentagon Papers.” The Pentagon Papers were a secret history of US decision-making with respect to the Vietnam conflict up through 1967. This history included hundreds of selected official documents prepared as part of the policy-making process as well as a narrative history written by the team of Defense Department officials given the task of preparing the Pentagon Papers (including Gelb and Ellsberg). Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the preparation of this history of US policy in 1967, before he was removed from his post by President Johnson but after he had already developed serious doubts about the wisdom of US policy in Vietnam. Basically, McNamara hoped that the Pentagon Papers could help him understand what went wrong and why.

(A digression: The Pentagon Papers were ultimately leaked to the press and to the congress by Ellsberg in 1970. The New York Times published lengthy excerpts from this study. The Nixon Administration tried to prevent the Times from publishing these materials, but the Supreme Court sided with the Times. Nixon also attempted to prosecute Ellsberg for disclosing classified information, but that prosecution was also rejected by the courts. Nixon ordered his aides to arrange a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to dig up damaging personal information that would publicly discredit Ellsberg. No such information was found, but the break-in ultimately became public and was cited as one of the grounds for the impeachment charges against Nixon. This is one of several connections between Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that destroyed the Nixon presidency.)

Gelb and Ellsberg reached similar, though slightly different conclusions about the sources of US policy toward Vietnam. Their arguments stand in sharp contrast with Schlesinger’s interpretation. Ellsberg argued that policy-makers during the Kennedy and early Johnson Administrations basically followed two rules:  (1) do not lose South Vietnam to communism, and (2) do not involve the U.S. in a large-scale ground war in Asia.  Each rule drew upon recent precedent.  The “loss” of China to communism in 1949 led to bitter domestic recrimination, charges that Democrats were “soft of communism,” and a wave of McCarthyite hysteria at home.  On the other hand, the public would not, it was believed, readily tolerate another ground war similar to the Korean engagement, which had become increasingly unpopular as it went on.

The perceived domestic costs of either extreme – withdrawal or unrestrained escalation – steered Kennedy and Johnson toward the middle.  As long as it proved feasible to do so, each president did enough to avoid losing South Vietnam to communism but avoided the direct commitment of U.S. troops and air power that many military advisers insisted would be necessary to bring victory.

By 1965, the deteriorating political and military situation in South Vietnam cut this middle ground from beneath Johnson’s feet.  The minimum necessary to stave off defeat breached the preexisting upper boundaries of escalation – direct U.S. troop involvement could not be avoided.  Even once this line had been crossed, however, troops were introduced in a gradual, controlled manner and Johnson sought to delay reinstatement of the military draft or the introduction of higher taxes to pay for the war.  As both Kennedy and Johnson anticipated, public support for the war waned over time as U.S. losses mounted.  Upon taking office in 1969, Richard Nixon responded to these domestic pressures by seeking to reestablish a stable middle ground: “Vietnamization” gradually reduced troop levels even while prolonging U.S. efforts to prevent a communist victory.

Ellsberg refers to this as a “stalemate machine.” Policy-makers acted in a calculated manner to avoid losing (for as long as possible), but understood that their policies could not bring victory. Stalemate was a conscious choice, not a product of overoptimism or miscalculation.

Gelb echoes Ellsberg’s account of the domestic constraints on US policy. He adds two sets of international constraints as well. Withdrawal was ruled out because policy-makers actually believed in the domino theory. They felt that the international consequences of a communist victory would be of serious harm to US interests. They also feared that the US would lose credibility with its allies if we allowed the communists to win in Vietnam without a fight. Our friends would fear that the US lacked the will to defend weaker allies. With their confidence in the US shattered, US allies in Europe and Asia would shift their policies accordingly by attempting to appease the Soviet Union, in hopes that conciliation might better insure their survival than standing up to possible Soviet aggression without the benefit of US support. For these reasons, as well as fears of a right-wing domestic backlash, Kennedy and Johnson were unwilling to walk away from the Vietnam conflict.

On the other hand, Kennedy and Johnson feared the international risks of major escalation. An invasion of North Vietnam – or other assertive steps such as bombing the rail lines leading from China to North Vietnam or mining the North Vietnamese harbors where Soviet supply ships docked – raised the possibility that China and or the Soviet Union would intervene more directly on North Vietnam’s behalf or retaliate against US interests elsewhere in the world. In an age of nuclear weapons, the US preferred to keep the Vietnam conflict limited and to avoid the risks of superpower war. These considerations, when coupled with expected domestic resistance to a bigger war, prompted policy-makers to reject military options that might hold a realistic prospect of victory. Instead, they stuck to a middle path that resulted in stalemate.

Gelb and Ellsberg both suggest, then, that policy-makers observed strict upper and lower boundaries on US policy toward Vietnam. Gradual escalation and the resulting stalemate were seen as less risky than either of the more extreme alternatives – withdrawal of decisive escalation. This leads to a rather shocking conclusion: the US was not really trying to win the war, only to avoid losing for as long as possible. Moreover, this was the policy that the public preferred as well, at least until the costs of the war began to escalate around 1967. Until this point, public support for our policy in Vietnam remained strong. The public neither wanted to see another country fall to communism nor wanted a big war in Asia. Kennedy and Johnson tailored their policies to fit these public preferences.

Gelb and Ellsberg reject the argument that policy-makers were blind and shortsighted, as Schlesinger suggests. In their account, policy-makers were generally pessimistic. They recognized that present policies were unlikely to bring victory. They understood that the next small step along the ladder of escalation would not be sufficient and that more steps would be necessary at later points just to maintain a stalemate.

Gelb and Ellsberg also reject the idea that the bureaucracy was to blame. They credit the CIA, for example, with fairly accurate and realistic appraisals of how the war was going. While some channels of information may have been flawed or overly optimistic, Kennedy and Johnson enjoyed multiple sources of information. Overall, top officials had a reasonably accurate understanding of their policies present and future consequences.

Schlesinger’s analysis leads to the conclusion that Vietnam might have been avoided had the design flaws in the decision-making machinery been recognized and corrected. Gelb and Ellsberg instead argue that the “machine” – the civilian and military bureaucracies – did exactly what top policy-makers asked it to do: avoid losing Vietnam for more than a decade. If asked to produce victory, the machine might have accomplished that also. But this was never the game plan. Gelb and Ellsberg deny that any of the “fixes” often suggested for improving the performance of the bureaucracy would have made any substantial difference to US policy in Vietnam.

Gelb and Ellsberg also reject the idea that US policy in Vietnam was basically a big mistake. They view US policy as quite deliberate. The outcome was what was intended. Not because this was the outcome that policy-makers preferred. But because policy-makers did not perceive a genuinely good outcome – victory – as politically feasible. Kennedy and Johnson felt that they were faced with a choice among evils. They chose the least bad among a set of terrible options.

How, according to Gelb and Ellsberg, did US policy-makers expect the Vietnam engagement to end? Surely they did not believe that a stalemate could be sustained indefinitely. Ellsberg does not clearly address this question. Gelb does so, but not in a very satisfying way. Gelb argues that Johnson hoped that the US could outlast the Vietnamese communists and that the enemy would ultimately settle for a negotiated end to the war. The problem with this argument is that Johnson never really appeared to negotiate in good faith. US proposals appeared designed more as public relations stunts than as ideas that could possibly be viewed as an acceptable compromise by the other side.

Another point Gelb makes is that each president basically expected to pass along the problem of how to end the war to his successor. Or perhaps neither Kennedy or Johnson had a clear idea of how the war could be brought to an acceptable conclusion (given their resistance to either withdrawal of decisive escalation). Their policy choices were driven by immediate constraints, not a long range strategy.

How could the failure in Vietnam have been avoided? Gelb and Ellsberg are unclear on this point as well. Their arguments portray US policy as a product of structural constraints beyond the control of any US president. Gelb does suggest that Vietnam could have been avoided had US policy-makers been willing to question many of their ingrained Cold War beliefs and assumptions (e.g., the domino theory) and had our presidents exercised the leadership to educate the public about the dangers of excessively zealous forms of anti-communism. Seen in light of the political climate in the US during the fifties and sixties, however, such a recommendation seems far-fetched. Prior to Vietnam, a president who seriously challenged the Cold War consensus might have been tarred and feathered.

The Anti-War Movement

The topic of the Vietnam War still generates passion, even for students today who were mostly born after the war was over. In teaching about Vietnam, however, I have found that the anti-war movement is often more controversial than the war itself. Some students identify uncritically with those who protested the war. Other students respond in harshly negative ways to the anti-war movement, as well as to those who “dodged” the draft during the Vietnam era. Perhaps surprisingly, many students who are themselves critical of US policy toward Vietnam – and thus agree with some of the anti-war movement’s arguments on substantive grounds – are nevertheless offended by the perceived radicalism and lack of patriotism of the anti-war protesters.

The first thing to note is that Vietnam was hardly the first unpopular American war and the movement against the Vietnam War was not the first time that organized opposition to US intervention abroad arose in the US. Vietnam is often contrasted with World War II – a war which drew the strong support of most Americans. But it was World War II, not Vietnam, that was unique. Most wars in American history have sparked significant opposition. Even in the case of World War II, congress and the public largely opposed President Roosevelt’s efforts to provide American aid to Britain between 1939 and 1941 as the British faced Nazi Germany largely alone. Isolationist sentiment remained strong. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that mass support for US entry into the fighting emerged.

World War I was widely unpopular. Large scale draft resistance and large public demonstrations took place. After the war, congress held hearings that blamed supposedly greedy weapons manufacturers for US entry into the conflict. Support for US policy in the Korean War declined steadily as that conflict wore on. A “Ban the Bomb” movement in the 1950s challenged the nuclear arms race. There has long existed strains of anti-militarist and anti-imperialist thinking in American society.

Nevertheless, the Vietnam War era was different in that the anti-war movement was larger, more vocal and more militant than in past wars. This is partially due to the fact that the large wave of “baby boomers” reached college age around the time of the war and that more young Americans were attending colleges and universities than ever before. This created a large youth cohort with the time, resources and knowledge to serve as the critical mass of a broader movement. It is also significant that the Vietnam war coincided with the civil rights and counter-culture movements. The combination of the three colored the politics of this period.

What needs underlining is that the anti-war movement was much broader and more diverse than is commonly understood. There were three main branches to the movement. Most numerous were the liberals. These were people whose politics were generally mainstream. Most originally supported the war but became disaffected as the fighting went on. We have to remember that John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and the many of the Democrats in the congress who voted overwhelmingly for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution were good liberals. They supported the Cold War consensus that rationalized US involvement in Vietnam.

Over time, however, many liberals began to question the war. Robert Kennedy, orginally a hawk on Vietnam, briefly ran on an anti-war platform for President in 1968 before his assassination. William Fulbright, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who helped ushered the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress in 1964, came to oppose the war and held public hearing in the Senate that led ultimately to the withdrawal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Another prominant liberal was Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose strong early showing in the Democratic primaries in 1968 helped convince Johnson not to run for reelection. Many young liberals flocked to the banners of McCarthy and Kennedy in 1968 and later supported George McGovern’s anti-war candidacy for the Presidency in 1972.

Liberals did not oppose all wars. Nor did they advocate radical changes in American society. They remained anti-communist and had no sympathy for the Soviet Union, China or the North Vietnamese. As mentioned above, most liberals began as supporters of the war (and many never stopped supporting the war – witness Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President and the Democratic party nominee for President in 1968). But many abandoned support for US policy in Vietnam sometime after 1965.

The grounds for liberal opposition to the war varied. Some simply came to believe that the war was unwinnable or that the costs were too high given the limited stakes. Many came to question the truth of the domino theory, which served as a key rationale for US involvement in Vietnam. Some came to believe that the conflict in Vietnam was really a civil war rather than a case of external aggression, thus undercutting another rationale for US involvement. In general, many liberals came to view US involvement in Vietnam as a “mistake.” US intervention in Vietnam was well meaning, but ill advised.

Liberals generally favored a negotiated settlement that would allow the US to withdraw gracefully from Vietnam. Many called for a neutralist solution or a coalition government in the South. Liberals also demanded a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and limits on the escalation of US troops and combat involvement. They rejected a purely military solution to the war.

Liberal opposition to the war focused on electoral politics. Liberals sought to elect anti-war candidates to the presidency and to the congress. They also wrote letters to government officials, signed petitions, held teach-ins on college campuses, prepared letters to the editor of the local newspaper and turned out for peaceful marches against the war. They rejected violence and sought to project a responsible image so as to appeal to the broadest possible coalition.

A second branch of the anti-war movement had its roots in longstanding pacifist and religious peace movements in American history and society. Quakers and Mennonites were well respresented in this wing of the anti-war movement. Pacifists – often motivated by religious beliefs – rejected not just the Vietnam War, but all war as a solution to international conflict. Such groups have protested against every American war in this century. Pacifist opponents did not care so much how the US disengaged from Vietnam, but simply that we find some way to stop the violence, death and destruction.

Pacifists constituted the core of the early anti-war movement, although their presence became less significant as the movement grew and came to include other strains and elements. Pacifists often choose dramatic ways to get their message across – hunger strikes, candlelight vigils, mass marches and non-violent civil disobedience (e.g., laying across railroad tracks to stop troop trains, sit-ins, destroying draft files, etc.). Pacifist opponents to the war were inspired by the non-violent tactics and philosophy of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Some pacifist groups sent medical aid to the injured on both sides of the conflict. Pacifist groups often counseled draft resistance. The more principled publically repudiated the draft, thus placing themselves at risk of jail, rather than find some bogus medical excuse or other popular ways to dodge the draft without consequence to oneself.

A third branch of the anti-war movement consisted of what was broadly referred to as the “New Left.” These were radical groups, often with socialist sympathies, who were motivated not simply by narrow opposition to the war itself, but by a much broader critique of the flaws of American society, including racism, materialism and class inequalities. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the best known group in this category, but there were many others. The “New Left” sought not just to end US involvement in Vietnam, but to bring about fundamental changes in all aspects of American society and politics. SDS, for instance, called for “participatory democracy” that would directly empower average people and take power back from the narrow elite that SDS believed actually controlled the country.

Radical opponents of the war differed from liberals in that they felt that US policy in Vietnam was more than simply a “mistake.” Nor did they reject all war of violence in principle, as did the pacifists. Instead, radicals saw the Vietnam War as the latest example of American “imperialism,” a pattern of intervention in other (usually poorer) parts of the world designed to serve the economic interests of large corporations and their political allies. Some (not all) radicals not only rejected US intervention in Vietnam and the explanations given for that intervention, but actively supported or sympathized with the other side, the Vietcong and/or the North Vietnamese.

Radicals favored a more militant approach to opposing the war. They participated in marches and acts of civil disobedience. But some also engaged in violent tactics, such as burning down ROTC buildings on college campuses or fighting in the streets with police. Some radicals wanted to shut down the military machine through tactics of disruption and thus raise the costs of ongoing US involvement in the war. If conditions grew bad enough back home, perhaps the US government would have no choice but to end the war and bring the troops back.

The three groups described above represented different wings of the organized opposition to the war. Far larger were the numbers of Americans who belonged to no organized anti-war group, but who opposed US policy. These voices showed up in public opinion polls, which documented growing disillusionment as time passed, reaching a majority against US policy in 1969. The general public’s opposition to the war was less ideological than the groups discussed above. Most could not be described as “liberals,” “pacifists,” or “radicals.” Many turned against the war on pragmatic grounds: it was increasingly costly, it was tearing the country apart at home and US policy appeared to be failing.

Ironically, many who expressed opposition to the war also expressed disdain for the organized anti-war movement, which was often viewed as too militant and confrontational. This reaction was fed by media coverage of the anti-war movement, which tended to focus on the more colorful and sensational elements and to ignore the many professionals, older people and women pushing baby carriages who turned out for anti-war marches.

The most important thing to note about the anti-war movement is that it was never monolithic. The movement was broad and diverse. It had roots in American history. And its legacy is still contested.

Public Opinion and the War

Consider the data on public opinion toward the Vietnam War gathered in the following two surveys:

Question: “In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?” (Yes answer means respondent agrees war was a mistake; No answer means respondent does not consider war a mistake.)

August, 1965:  Yes – 24%    No – 61%    No opinion – 15%

December, 1967:     Yes – 45%     No – 46%    No opinion – 9%

August, 1968:    Yes – 53%    No – 35%    No opinion – 12%

May, 1971:     Yes – 61%    No – 28%    No opinion – 11%

Question: “People are called “hawks” if they want to step up our military effort in Vietnam. They are called “doves” if they want to reduce our military effort in Vietnam. How would you describe yourself – as a hawk or a dove?”

December, 1967:     Hawk – 52%    Dove – 35%    No opinion – 13%

March, 1968:     Hawk – 41%    Dove – 42%    No opinion – 17%

November, 1969:     Hawk – 31%    Dove – 55%    No opinion – 14%

Why Did Communists Lead the Nationalist Struggle in Vietnam?

One of the more important reasons for the US failure in Vietnam was that “our” Vietnamese were never as unified, organized or dedicated as the Vietnamese communists who served as our opponents. The entire US war effort was built upon political quicksand. The South Vietnamese governments the US supported were weak, corrupt and unpopular. The US tried to compensate for this with raw military muscle. But it was not enough. We will explore this issue in depth later in the course. For now, however, it is important to examine the roots of this problem.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the communist movement in Vietnam became known as the most potent and effective opponents of French colonial rule (and, during World War II, opponents of both the French and the Japanese). In short, the communists captured the nationalist banner at a time when Vietnamese were becoming more self conscious of their nationhood and more resentful of French rule. While communist movements served as rallying points against colonial rule in many parts of the developing world during the 20th century, in most of these countries communists had to compete with powerful and well organized non-communist political groups for primacy in the anti-colonial struggle. Not so in Vietnam. While there did exist non-communist nationalist parties and groups during this period, they were far weaker than the communists and did not have the nationwide organizational structure enjoyed by the communists. Indeed, during World War II, the communists succeeded in subordinating many non-communist nationalist elements into a broad communist-led front movement called the Vietminh.

This situation meant that when the US set out to help construct a viable non-communist South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954, it had little with which to work. The US wanted to back a “third force” in Vietnam – political figures and groups that were associated with neither the communist-led Vietminh nor with the French colonial administration. But such people were scarce. The Vietminh had long since established itself as the legitimate leader of the nationalist/anti-colonial struggle. The Vietnamese that the Americans installed in power to run South Vietnam after 1954, therefore, had little legitimacy. Either they were political novices or they were tainted by past collaboration with the French. With so little local support, South Vietnamese political leaders depended heavily upon American aid to survive. This further undermined attempts to spread the notion that the South Vietnamese government was independent and legitimate. To many Vietnamese, the Americans seemed like successors to the French and the South Vietnamese government appeared little more than a thinly disguised colonial puppet regime. This was overly simplified. As we will later see, South Vietnamese leaders often ignored American advice and direction. But the impression stuck.

According to historian Gabriel Kolko, one reason that the communists captured the nationalist banner is because so much of the Vietnamese elite that might have served as leaders of a non-communist nationalist movement choose instead to collaborate with the French. The French facilitated this by bestowing land grants on cooperative Vietnamese elites, thus placing them in debt to the French. Also, the French stocked the colonial administration with the sons of Vietnamese elites, often after their return from university study in France. French missionaries helped to convert many Vietnamese to Catholicism (which had the advantage, from the Vietnamese perspective, of currying favor with the French). Vietnamese schools were forced to abandon traditional teachings and adopt European-style educational methods and themes. In short, the French designed the colonial system so as to coopt much of the Vietnamese elite and integrate them into the colonial structure. Widespread collaboration sapped this elite of the will to resist foreign rule.

In many other colonized societies, the merchant class (shopkeepers and traders) served a crucial role in anti-colonial struggles. Merchants have relatively high levels of status, wealth, education and a broad range of social contacts (through commercial dealings). These resources can be translated into political clout. In Vietnam, however, the merchant class could not play this role. In the first place, the dominant confusianist ethic did not accord the same elevated status to the commercial class in Vietnamese society as was the case in many other countries.

More importantly, however, it happens that much of the merchant class in Vietnam consisted of ethnic Chinese. The Chinese were often disliked and resented by most Vietnamese and so immigrant Chinese often lived in segregated communities, observing different customs of their own and speaking one of the Chinese dialects rather than (or in addition to) Vietnamese. During times of war and political turmoil, many Chinese migrated back to southern China, only to return during calmer times. For each of these reasons, Chinese merchants had neither the ability or willingness to lead a Vietnamese nationalist struggle against colonialism.

This left the field open to the communists, who often attracted supporters among young urban and middle class Vietnamese who rejected collaboration with the French. Many of the early leaders of the communist movement had, like Ho Chi Minh, studied in France. There they imbibed the ideals of the French revolutionary tradition and, unlike most French citizens, applied the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity to the Vietnamese situation. The French communist party, founded in 1921, was the only party in France to adopt an anti-colonial stand. Moreover, the Soviet Union made it a point to denounce the imperialism of the capitalist countries. The Russian revolution itself offered a model of how to overthrow entrenched power. Given the absence of alternatives within Vietnam itself, it is not surprising that young Vietnamese nationalists would see communism as a promising vehicle for achieving self determination for their country.

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Reflections on a Recent Visit to China

Along with my co-leader, Kirk Martin, I recently led a group of Drake students on a 17 day educational trip to China (May 22-June 7, 2015). Under the title of “Pursuing the Chinese Dream,” the theme of the trip was political, economic and social change in contemporary China. We visited Shanghai, Gui Lin and Hong Kong. Following are a few reflections based upon our experiences.

The Chinese Dream

In his inaugural address to the National People’s Congress in 2012 Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the idea of the “Chinese dream,” which he identified with growing national power and prosperity. But what does the Chinese Dream mean to regular people?

We asked dozens of people we encountered: “What does the Chinese dream mean to you?” Some interviewees dismissed the Chinese dream as meaningless political rhetoric or as abstract philosophizing. Others focused on practical matters: “money,” “owning a house,” “getting into a good university.”

Only one elderly man in People’s Park (Shanghai) ventured in a political direction. As his conversation with a group of foreigners drew a growing crowd, his voice rose and became more theatrical in his praise for the Communist Party and all that the Party had brought the people. Mr. Patriot, as I will call him, reminisced about the hunger and poverty of his youth before gesturing to the opulence of the world-class city surrounding us. He predicted that China would surpass the US in the next decade while comparing Xi Jinping’s intelligence favorably to that of Barack Obama. When praising the party and its leaders, Mr. Patriot occasionally nodded in the direction of another elderly man, who may have been a retired party official. The onlookers seemed amused by Mr. Patriot’s fervor and his boldness in speaking so bluntly to foreigners. We later asked our young guide whether all Chinese were so optimistic and satisfied with Communist Party rule. She replied that “Young people do not speak that way.”

To what degree Mr. Patriot was playing to his audience and how much was sincere is hard to judge. There is no question that people of Mr. Patriot’s age have witnessed extraordinary positive changes over the past 35 years and his pride in China’s rise on the world stage is shared by many Chinese people. What is particular about patriotism in China, however, is how often love of country is conflated with loyalty to the Communist Party. The party makes every effort, of course, to join the two sentiments. And yet China is not synonymous with a particular ruling apparatus and the former will survive long beyond the lifespan of any political party. As our guide intimated, not all Chinese people, particularly the young, conflate party and country so directly as Mr. Patriot. Yet there is no denying that, for the time being, nationalism and patriotism serve as potent sources of legitimacy for the ruling party.

June 4th Vigil

It had been four years since I last attended Hong Kong’s candlelight vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre of June 4th, 1989. Back then, the atmosphere was appropriately solemn and respectful, but there was also an air of hopefulness. On the outskirts of the crowd, political activists energetically recruited supporters and attention. This year, however, the feel was quite different. There were many fewer booths near the park entrance. The police presence was much heavier this year. The crowd seemed tense. From the stage, the speakers appeared angrier (judging by tone, since I was unable to understand their Cantonese). Indeed, six university student leaders burned copies of the Basic Law from the stage, a defiant and controversial act.

Crowd estimates varied wildly, as usual, but most observers judged the numbers down from recent years. Indeed, counter-events were held elsewhere in Hong Kong (one of the largest was held at the University of Hong Kong) by “localist” groups who criticized the continued focus on June 4th – an event, in their view, that occurred in another era and another country – at a time when Hong Kong’s own democratic aspirations and autonomy lay in the balance.

For many years, the annual June 4 event represented a hope that the democratic aspirations of the students who filled Tiananmen in 1989 might yet transform China, perhaps sparked by Hong Kong’s own example of relative freedom. Today, however, young Hong Kongers are less concerned with the fate of political reform on the mainland than with Hong Kong’s own frustrated expectations for local democratic accountability. Hong Kong youth increasingly resent the various ways that China’s influence is changing their city. They seek not only free elections but greater autonomy from mainland control.

From their perspective, the June 4th vigil is increasingly anachronistic and out of sync with their own political feelings and aspirations. This annual commemoration may fade in coming years, or at least serve as a source of contention rather than unity among Hong Kongers.

Urban Villages

Despite China’s enormous cities, urbanization has come later to China than to many developing countries. Fearing that a mass exodus from the countryside would overwhelm urban planners and lead to both massive slums and social unrest, as has been the case in many African and Latin American countries, China’s rulers used a system of residential registration to deny rural immigrants many rights and social services reserved to those born in the cities. In the early years of economic reform, officials also encouraged the development of Town and Village Enterprises in hopes of dispersing industrial jobs more evenly to smaller cities. Even so, China’s rapidly growing cities attracted up to 200 million rural migrants seeking prosperity in urban China.

Now authorities have shifted course, seeking to manage the movement of 350 million Chinese from rural areas to new and existing cities over the coming decades. Western sociologists have often emphasized the stark dividing lines between rural and urban in this evolving landscape. Where the city ends and the countryside begins, a bright line separates urban and rural experiences.

Professor David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong has recently published a new book titled Dragons in Diamond Village that challenges this received wisdom. His study examines what he refers to as urban villages. Many new and expanding cities have not (yet) erased previous rural entities but instead have risen around rural villages, leaving the latter as low-rise islands surrounded by new high-rise architecture. Urban villages often retain a distinct social and political structure (e.g., elected village chiefs), along with collective land rights that, in legal terms, cannot easily be bought out by private developers.

The original villagers have been augmented by rural migrants. Villagers have added space to their dwellings for the purpose of renting to migrant workers, who have few other housing choices in urban environments subject to rising real estate prices. The resulting villages range in population from 10,000 to 60,000 people. Large cities may encompass more than 100 such villages.

The land on which these villages stand is, in many cases, worth a great deal – but only if the village is demolished and the land sold-off. Crooked village leaders often collude with party officials and urban developers to do just this. Bandurski documents one such case (among many) in Guangzhou. Villagers themselves mounted public protests of land sales that enriched corrupt officials while providing little compensation to displaced residents. In this instance, the villagers achieved a limited victory of sorts when their crooked village chief fled China with his riches when it become clear that he would soon be targeted by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Still, without independent courts to guarantee their collective land rights, villagers understand that such victories are temporary at best.

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