Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 11

Vietnam and the Revival of An Anti-Imperial Mood and Movement In the United States and the Beginnings of a Thaw in The Cold War.

A paper written for presentation at an unidentified conference, circa October 1987.

William Appleman Williams. June 1970.
William Appleman Williams. June 1970.

The fashionable euphoric assertion that the United States has won the Cold War (a few generous commentators acknowledge some help from other countries) is a fascinating and revealing phenomenon. Assuming for the moment that the claim is valid, it raises enough questions to fuel several books. Among others:

One. Why, if the Cold War is won, do so many American leaders emphasize the need to maintain a policy of confrontation instead of devising ways to encourage and facilitate the changes they claim credit for having caused?

Two. What are the direct and indirect costs (political and social, as well as economic) to the United States and its allies of winning the Cold War?

Three, and most challenging and interesting of all: What nations, and what groups of people within those countries, contributed most effectively to warming or melting the Cold War?

The concept of ending the Cold War generates a far more interesting and potentially illuminating discussion than the simple question of who won and who lost - in effect, who surrendered on what terms. For, as surely we are aware, many wars have either simply petered out or otherwise ended without any formal surrender or peace treaty. One or both parties have decided to settle for less than their declared objectives; the war itself has produced changes in the outlook of one or both protagonists; or one or the other has simply decided to get on with other matters beyond armed politics. Not all cultures have taken communion at the altar of Carl von Clausewitz.

This approach opens a number of vistas worth exploration and reflection. One of the most stimulating involves the role of Vietnam in easing the Cold War. A full appreciation of that contribution depends upon a voyage that begins in the Congressional response to the Truman Doctrine and the debate over stationing the first troops in Europe, and then detours through Korea, Suez, and two stops in Cuba before arriving in Vietnam. The dynamic element in the tour is the interaction between foreign resistance to imperialism and the generally latent, but periodically consequential, American opposition to an imperial foreign policy.

President Truman's unilateral declaration on 12 March 1947 of a policy of global intervention against any opponents of the American Way, followed by the debates over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) and the stationing of American troops in Europe (1950-51), evoked all the principle criticisms of such a foreign policy that later emerged in a highly focused and militant form during the invasion of Vietnam. Equally significantly, the attacks were launched by critics of the anti-communist right as well as the non-communist Left, usefully symbolized here by Senator Robert A. Taft and then Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace.

Newspaper clipping by Terry LaBan depicting American imperialism.
Newspaper clipping by Terry LaBan depicting American imperialism. 1990.
Image courtesy of In These Times, July 1990.

Each in their different ways, Taft and Wallace raised six fundamental issues that defined the problems and difficulties of preventing, moderating, or ending the Cold War.

First, the drastic oversimplification of the outstanding issues and power relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union. The long record of American active fear of, antagonism toward, and sometimes overt intervention against communism and the Soviet Union provided fertile intellectual and political soil for the seeds of containment planted by Senior Foreign Service Officer George Frost Kennan. His now famous "Long Telegram" of 22 February 1946, and the shortened version that appeared as the "X" article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, provided a simplistic and self-contradictory analysis of Soviet behavior that divided the world into two camps - the Civilized West and the Evil Eastern Empire.

Kennan subsequently pleaded that he had been misunderstood, although at the time he never fought that battle in public. And as one who with good reason prides himself on his command of the language and its nuances, Kennan has always been hard put to explain how such sentences and metaphors as this one could be misunderstood:

"Soviet policy moves along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets some unanswerable force."

Kennan happily went public to offer his tough analysis. He never went public, at least until it was many years too late, to say that he only wanted to be firmly friendly.

George Frost Kennan.
George Frost Kennan.

Even more devastating to his analysis and policy proposal was the way he ignored the option presented by his basic assumption that Soviet behavior was motivated by "the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity." If that was true, and Kennan's entire analysis hinged upon the proposition that it was true, then an equally logical policy conclusion was to relieve that "sense of insecurity" through economic cooperation and mutual defense arrangements.

That approach has yet to be tried.

Second, the reality of confrontation around the world intensified the danger of provoking Soviet adventurism. Taft was particularly shrewd in anticipating such a response and in fearing that it would lead to armed conflict either directly or by proxy. He and others added the observation that the division of the world into Good and Evil undermined both the psychology and practice of restraint.

Third, the gross misallocation of moral, intellectual, and material resources. Neither Taft nor Wallace offered either the concepts or the idioms of "The Garrison State" or "The Military-Industrial Complex," but they and their supporters did sense that inherent dynamic in American policy and (albeit for different reasons) feared the consequences for the quality of American society and culture.

Fourth, the dissembling and outright dishonesty and lying practiced on a regular basis by the executive branch of the government toward the Congress and the public per se. Both Wallace and Taft stressed this point, and with perfect justice Taft centered his attack on Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson.

There has been no end to that process and practice.

Fifth, the directly related usurpation of power by the White House and related executive departments in violation of the Constitution. The Presidents, from Truman forward, confronted the legislature and the public with a series of actions that, short of sustained impeachment hearings, were irreversible. Government by the fear of the trauma of impeachment is a seriously neglected aspect of American history since Truman sent troops to Korea without a Congressional declaration of war. The case of Richard M. Nixon served primarily to protect his successors. Faith in the system appears to be lowest among those who know it best.

Sixth, the deployment of American troops in volatile situations. This created less an automatic weapon than an automatic trigger. Shoot an American, and you have a war. As with advisors around the world, troopers in Korea, and advisors in Vietnam.

It is possible, though highly improbable, that the domestic understanding of those criticisms of official American policy, and its underlying outlook, would have generated a movement capable of changing received wisdom and policy. As it happened, however, the significant domestic opposition that developed emerged largely in response to the foreign resistance to the policy of global containment and the Cold War. It is useful when thinking about this interaction to remember that it was the fierce resistance by Filipinos to American conquest (1899-1902) that turned Americans away from classic colonialism towards the less obvious form of domination that came to be known as imperialism.

That kind of rethinking, or moderation, was slow to develop among Americans during the early years of the Cold War. The successful Soviet test of a nuclear fission bomb in September 1949 served primarily to intensify the confrontational approach in Washington. President Truman first responded in January 1950 with a crash program to fabricate a fusion (hydrogen) bomb. He next ordered a broad strategic study which resulted in National Security Council Report No. 68, perhaps the most militant official Western statement of purpose of the entire Cold War. The authors argued in absolute terms that the United States must impose a Pax Americana "order" around the globe, including the subversion of Moscow's authority within the Soviet Union, as well as in Eastern Europe. Indeed, while John Foster Dulles was later given the credit (and blame) for the idea, the concept of the "roll back" of Soviet influence was inherent and even explicit in NSC-68.

Harry Truman.
Harry Truman.

Truman acted on that strategy shortly after he bypassed the Congress to intervene immediately and militarily (June 1950) in the war between North and South Korea. The idea of "reuniting" Korea as an American client state was discussed as early as mid-July, and on 15 September 1950 American forces crossed the 38th Parallel and launched a lightning drive for the Yalu border with China. The massive counterattack by Chinese ground troops that forced the American (and other) units to retreat to a line just north of the 38th Parallel was both a catalyst and a cause in the development of a domestic American anti-imperialist movement.

The Chinese action was a catalyst in that it intensified and focused the vague uneasiness about nuclear weapons that had resurfaced after the Soviet bomb tests; and it was a cause because it heightened a growing opposition to the war itself. As a few observant and perceptive journalists such as Edward R. Murrow realized at the time, and some historians have recently begun to explore, the resistance to the Korean War, while neither vociferous nor demonstrative in the streets, was deep-seated and persistent in such ostensibly unlikely places as Iowa (the focus of the Murrow television documentary).

Perhaps even more important, it was infused with a deep concern about what American foreign policy was doing to the quality of life inside the United States. People wrote letters to the editor about the unfairness of asking young men to go back to war just as they were establishing themselves for the first time in civilian life. They wondered aloud about the idea that everything that went wrong in the world was caused by Moscow. They began to question the proposition that everything posed a threat to and security and welfare of Pekin, Illinois, or Moscow, Texas. In a diffused but meaningful way, the erosion of the credibility of the government began during the war in Korea.

However latent, unorganized, and unfocused, that incipient anti-imperial mood contributed significantly to the election of Dwight David Eisenhower in the presidential election of 1952. The middle class son of Kansas, graduate of West Point, the sophisticated politician and commander of Allied military victory in Europe, and a key figure in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was sensed at the time (and later by some historians) to be a thoughtful and inherently peaceful leader.

Perhaps more than any president after Herbert Clark Hoover, Eisenhower personified the central tension within American culture toward the rest of the world. That disquiet, even torment, is worth exploring as a guide to understanding Vietnam and its consequences. Eisenhower can be faulted, for example, for not offering a tightly reasoned alternate policy: say openly repudiating NSC-68. It can be argued that he finessed that issue as the fine bridge player that he was; but, in any event, he was fundamentally anti-imperial.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Dwight D. Eisenhower.

During the election campaign of 1952, for example, he squashed John Poster Dulles's talk about rolling back Soviet power in Eastern Europe. He then stopped the invasion of Egypt by Israel, France, and Britain. And throughout his two terms, he struggled to define and enforce limits on the military demand for ever more money and unusable weapons. That part of the record is unequivocal: his famous farewell address attacking the military-industrial- and educational complex because it misallocated, misdirected, and wasted human and material resources, and distorted the basic character of American culture and society, was not a last minute aberration. Those issues were central concerns throughout his eight years in office.

Eisenhower's blind spots, perhaps more accurately defined as culturally warped perceptions, were inherent in the mainstream American view of itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. That outlook emerged long before the revolution of 1776 from the confluence of the religious and secular world views treasured as life itself (along with the tally of account books) by the early settlers. The theological theme came from Matthew's witness in the New Testament - "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid" - as transcribed and focused by John Winthrop:

"Men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the Lord made it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people upon us."

The secular revelations came largely from John Locke: "In the beginning America was the world" and "Riches do not consist in having more gold and silver, but in having more in proportion than the rest of the world, or our neighbors." The great majority of Americans perceived no conflict between Matthew, Locke, and Winthrop. Echoing Locke's idea of America as the "empty slate," Thomas Paine offered the ultimate synthesis on the eve of the revolution of 1776: "We have it in our power to begin the world again." The reprise by such different leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson serves to document the consensus.

Those two powerful themes of the dominant American Weltanschauung can be summarized very simply in strategic terms. Americans conceptualized themselves and sought in practice to become a world unto themselves. That outlook had two major consequences. First, and both secularly and religiously, it externalized Evil. The primary source and cause of all trials and tribulations were to be found someplace else. Thus critics have consistently been defined as actual or potential enemies within.

Second, the crucial pragmatic or policy issue has always been tactical: how to find the most effective way of realizing the vision of being a world unto one's self. That has led to a persistent confusion among most commentators who, losing sight of the strategic consensus, have talked about the rival tactics of "isolationism" and "internationalism" as though those options defined a fundamental strategic disagreement. In contemporary terms, the isolationists have generally advocated a spheres of influence approach as providing a base for the projection of American influence. The internationalists have sought a far more politically active policy to realize the dream. In practice and theory, however, the policy of both groups has always been fuzzy around the edges; and at times they have become largely indistinguishable except for rhetorical flourishes.

The so-called isolationists, for example, anchor their policy with the Monroe Doctrine of 2 December 1823, arguing that an American bastion defined by control of the Western Hemisphere was sufficient unto the needs of securing the City Upon the Hill, defeating Evil, and saving the rest of the world by the power of example and economic superiority. Over the years, however, some isolationist theorists and practitioners redefined the Western Hemisphere westward first to Hawaii and then to China.

While the internationalists accept the Monroe Doctrine, they do so only in the sense of considering it a springboard for the vigorous extension of American power until the entire world would be shaped in the image of the United States. But, just as some isolationists edged toward that kind of globalism, so some internationalists have concluded that various parts of the world are simply beyond redemption. Over the centuries, it has been a fascinating pas de deux.

Within that idiom, the classic performers come easily to mind. John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover; Robert Taft (or Henry Wallace) and Harry Truman; or Eisenhower haunting John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. One of the most intriguing aspects of those encounters is that only Adams and Hoover displayed the confidence in America as it was to say "enough is enough" without any external or domestic pressure. Granted the role of Korea in his development, Eisenhower came close; and that is what sets him off in the post-World War II era. He blustered a bit in the Far East. He intervened in Nicaragua. He authorized planning for a Cuban intervention. But all that noted and justly criticized, he revived the idea - even the ideal and the language - that enough is enough.

Even such a thought was alien - anathema - to President Kennedy until revolutionaries in Cuba, their supporters in Moscow, and barely a handful of his advisors forced him to confront reality. And his various interventions in Cuba did evoke a vigorous, but nevertheless limited, anti-imperial outcry among some Americans opposed to his determination to transform the world into America.

John F. Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy.

To the extent that Kennedy had second thoughts about his globalism, however, they were provoked by the Cubans themselves and the Soviets. And while he did appear to comprehend the consequences of a nuclear war, that awareness did not seriously moderate his efforts to extend American power by conventional means. That is why, ultimately, the historian must remain skeptical about the speculation by his idolaters that Kennedy would have withdrawn American advisors and troopers from Vietnam. Kennedy's response to domestic critics, whether about foreign policy or domestic affairs (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr.) might generously be estimated as 80 percent pragmatic and 20 percent principle.

In any event, Lyndon Johnson kept and followed the advice of Kennedy's closest advisors. Hence the question of whether or not America would become a world unto itself was defined and ultimately decided by the Vietnamese. In the historical (and so political) sense, Ho Chi Minh took the examples of Mao in Korea and Castro in Cuba and carried them to their inherent conclusions.

It is feasible to argue that the United States could have deployed the raw conventional force to defeat Vietnamese nationalism and its indigenous vision of a better life. Hence the central question is why that force was not used; particularly because in the early years (beginning with Kennedy) the finely honed elements of a sophisticated syllogism required for such an effort seemed to be locked into place in an unanswerable logical progression.

External Evil centered in Moscow was extending its tentacles through China into Vietnam and thence into places yet unknown and uncounted. That threatened the American City Upon the Hill in mundane economic respects, such as denying the economic resources and trade routes of Southeast Asia essential to preserving the world for democracy. Perhaps most ironic of all, Southeast Asia had to be reserved for Japan's development into democracy lest that country turn to China and perhaps even Russia to meet its economic needs. And, finally, America's great technological superiority would make it possible to defeat the backward peasant revolutionaries (Gooks became the word) without the kind of casualty reports - and economic costs - that would provoke serious domestic opposition. That seemingly unsinkable argument foundered on five interconnected reefs and shoals.

First, and most obviously, overconfidence in the effectiveness of conventional technology. There are two principal ways to defeat a decentralized and extremely self-conscious political and military economy. One is to persuade its citizens to defect by offering them a more attractive alternative. The other is to destroy their environment. Both were tried; both without success.

Second, and one thinks here of the white invading Europeans using the first strategy against Native Americans, the United States failed to offer the majority of Vietnamese an option that inclined them to become a downside, downscale suburb of The City Upon a Hill. The Vietnamese had learned the reality of that alternative from centuries of experience with the Chinese and the French.

Third, the idea of destroying the environment of the revolutionaries was such a blatant contradiction in rudimentary pragmatic terms that even some Cold Warriors recognized the futility of that approach early in the conflict. Again, similar to killing Native Americans to save them from savagery. The survivors on both sides would be brutalized.

Fourth, and here we return to the example of the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the century. The Vietnamese simply refused to accept the American Way. As many in the Philippines still do. Perhaps this was the crucial factor. The simple saying "NO" by the Vietnamese forced an ever increasing number of Americans to confront the harsh truth that the imperial war might well be destroying the very idea of a City Upon a Hill in the name of saving the world.

Fifth, and wholly neglected by such strange preachers as David Horowitz and John Updike, is the dynamic interaction between the anti-imperial movement and the ever more militant struggle against White imperialism toward Afro-Americans within The City Upon a Hill. Consider these events:

  • October 1945 - February 1946: President Truman declines to answer letters from Ho Chi Minh.
  • May 1950: The United States gives aid to sustain the French Empire in Vietnam.
  • December 1955: The Afro-American boycott of the city bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerges as a leader.
  • September 1957: Eisenhower sends federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • February 1960: The Afro-American Sit-in Movement begins in Greensboro, North Carolina.
  • May 1961: Kennedy expands the direct American intervention in Vietnam.
  • August 1963: 200,000 Afro-Americans and white supporters rally for "jobs and freedom" in Washington, D. C. King makes his "I Have A Dream" speech.
  • September-November 1963: Kennedy approves and supports a military coup to depose South Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem is murdered.
  • November 1963: Kennedy is assassinated.
  • February 1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson begins bombing North Vietnam.
  • February 1965: Afro-American leader Malcolm X is assassinated.
  • March 1965: The Selma March led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • August 1965 - April 1968: Racial violence erupts in most large cities beginning with Los Angeles and culminating after the assassination of King (who publicly opposed the Vietnam War in 1967) with riots in 125 cities in 29 states.
  • April 1970: President Richard M. Nixon intervenes in Cambodia.
  • May 1970: The National Guard kills four students at Kent State University who were protesting the intervention in Cambodia.
  • July 1974: The House of Representatives votes a bill of impeachment against President Nixon.

Even that brief chronology makes it clear that the social movements popularly and superficially subsumed under the negative and dismissive phrase "The 1960s" were characterized by two important features. First: the activity began in the mid-1950s and continued into the mid-1970s. Second: it was based upon a broad critique by conservatives, as well as radicals, of the domestic, as well as foreign, policy realities of the City Upon A Hill. The protesters were demanding that the United States honor its avowed principles. Indeed, they were acting on the questions asked by Taft and Wallace back in the 1940s.

Thus, as one considers the judgments of the soul-wringers like Updike and others more nearly irrational like Horowitz, it is wise to recall the evaluations of America's persistent crusades offered by two thoughtful conservatives.

John Quincy Adams, 1821:

"America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.... She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.... She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."

James Reston, 1958:

"This is a time for searching criticism, all right, but for criticism of the whole society."

And so, in conclusion, let us acknowledge our debts to the Russians, the Chinese, the Cubans, and the Vietnamese. Most particularly, perhaps, to those we called in anger and frustration "Gooks in black pajamas." The demands for justice at home, and the pragmatic consequences of the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68, would ultimately have produced some kind of protest movement against such distortions, even degradation, of American ideals and practice.

As it happened, however, the Vietnamese gave us a chance to save ourselves.

It may be true, as Prince Otto von Bismarck is reported to have remarked, that "God looks after fools and the United States." It is also said on equally high authority, that the Lord's patience is not inexhaustible.