The 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 30th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State University generated a round of reflection on the origin and meaning of the Vietnam War. Much of it treats the Vietnam War as a series of errors and misjudgments on the side of America.
There is certainly truth in that; this explanation, however, does not go deep enough. The war was not an accident; it arose from the fundamental grand strategy the United States pursued after World War II. If Vietnam was a mistake, then the grand strategy was in error. On the other hand, if the grand strategy worked — and in retrospect it seems ultimately to have done so — then Vietnam as a war was inevitable.
One of the most important and forgotten concepts of the era is the notion of credibility. The Johnson administration argued that the war was a test of the credibility of American guarantees and will power. To the extent that the notion is remembered, it is treated as an American neurosis. It was, in fact, both the root cause of the decision to escalate the war and a rational and defensible principle. Paradoxically, it also meant that the United States would be defeated in the war.
Who was America trying to impress by a demonstration of its credibility? It was not so much Ho Chi Minh as it was Charles de Gaulle. U.S. strategy in the Cold War was an attempt to encircle first the Soviet Union, and then the Soviet Union and China together, with a string of American allies. The objective was the creation of a barrier against expansion while also forcing Moscow and Beijing to distribute their forces on multiple geographically diffuse fronts, decreasing their ability to concentrate for an attack. Very early on, the United States created alliances that stretched from the North Cape of Norway to Hokkaido in Japan.
The United States had guaranteed the security of these countries, but the guarantees contained built-in ambiguities:
1. Since allied countries shared borders with the communist powers the allied territories would be by necessity the battlegrounds.
2. The primary responsibility for defense would fall to local forces, at least early in a war.
3. The United States would supply equipment and station forces — by themselves insufficient to repel invasion.
4. The United States promised to rush reinforcements to any country under attack in time to head off occupation.
5. In the case of Europe, American policy treated an attack on allies as an attack on the United States — triggering a nuclear response made necessary by NATO's lack of forces to repel an initial attack before additional U.S. troops could arrive.
The entire alliance system depended on allies having confidence in points four and five. If allies did not believe the United States would place its own forces — or the United States itself — in harm's way, then the rationality of points one, two and three was dubious in the extreme. This set of calculations affected all the allies. But none felt the impact more than the West Germans and NATO.
In the 1950s, Eisenhower's doctrine of massive retaliation was less a nuclear strategy than a response to alliance concerns about the credibility of U.S. guarantees. Eisenhower did everything he could, doctrinally and operationally, to convince the Europeans that the U.S. commitment to Europe was absolute and automatic; U.S. reinforcements would be sent instantly and nuclear weapons would be used automatically if needed to halt a Soviet attack. Stationing U.S. forces in Europe was as much a political attempt to convince the Europeans of a massive U.S. response as it was a military necessity.
The problem with all the guarantees, of course, was that they meant nothing. Whether Washington would live up to its commitments would not be known until the moment it was necessary to honor them. The doctrine was clear, but no one — not even the Americans — actually knew what a sitting president would decide at the critical moment. Thus, there was a deep uncertainty embedded in the alliance structure that revolved around the credibility of American guarantees.
The Soviets attempted to exploit this uncertainty by generating periodic crises in Europe and elsewhere; the goal was to demonstrate the essential unreliability of American guarantees. Berlin was the archetypal example. The Soviets forced massive U.S. exertions to defend a strategically irrelevant asset. For the Americans, credibility became an indivisible entity. Failure to honor any commitment — regardless of its marginality — could unravel the alliance.
The Soviets naturally probed at this fault line. The fault line emerged as a fundamental issue in Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s, following the election of Charles de Gaulle as president of France. De Gaulle argued that the European dependence on American guarantees was dangerous. De Gaulle was completely anti-communist, but his view was that each nation pursues its own national interest. He argued that at the moment of truth, the United States would certainly not risk Kansas City to defend Frankfurt or Marseilles.
Europe, he argued, would have to develop its own nuclear deterrence independent of the United States and an armed force independent of the United States. If independence meant that Europe would have to reach some political accommodation with the Soviets, this was not only acceptable, but desirable. It would create a balance of power between the Soviets and the Americans, increasing European power.
Ultimately, de Gaulle's arguments were not persuasive because the United States managed to maintain its precious credibility through the Berlin Airlift and successive crises in Greece, Turkey, Korea and Iran. The foundation of credibility was disproportionality. Nuclear war for the defense of Europe was, by definition, disproportional to U.S. interests. In turn, any sign of proportionality would immediately destroy the value of the guarantee — and unravel the alliance.
Both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson approached the Vietnam question from a standpoint fundamentally unconnected to Vietnam itself. They were far more concerned with what the Germans, Italians, Turks, Iranians and Japanese thought about American will than they were with the particulars in Vietnam. Vietnam wasn't about Vietnam; it was about the credibility of American guarantees to other much more valuable allies.
Many allies opposed the war. But, paradoxically, had the Americans said that Vietnam just wasn't worth it, everyone would have wondered whether they were worth it. Thus, Vietnam was no accident. It was rooted in the grand strategy of the American alliance system. The main purpose of the American intervention was to demonstrate the Kennedy principle, which was that we would bear any burden in fighting the communists.
The problem we encountered in Vietnam was a massive disproportion of interest. The North Vietnamese were pursuing fundamentally important geopolitical interests that could have been attained directly from the war. The United States was pursuing fundamental geopolitical interests that had nothing to do with the war. The North Vietnamese were engaged in total war, aided materially by the Soviets and Chinese, who both saw an opportunity to undermine American strength. For the United States, total war made no sense.
The amount of effort expended far exceeded the American interest in Vietnam — but was completely insufficient to achieve victory. Victory could not be achieved by a purely defensive war. Washington needed forces sufficient to threaten the survival of the North Vietnamese regime. A force capable of that would have to have been orders of magnitude greater than what was deployed — and would have completely unbalanced the U.S. strategic posture.
In hindsight, many would argue that the United States should have conceded Vietnam. In order to make this case, it is necessary to argue that in 1963, the United States would have had to announce that it was withdrawing support for the Saigon regime — and that this would not have destabilized its alliance system. In reality, Gaulist sentiment in Europe would have grown and tremors would have gone through the allies. Such an announcement would have undermined the American record of disproportionate commitments to its allies.
This was the central dilemma. And here is the kicker. It was ultimately easier to be defeated in Vietnam, having given it a massive, disproportionate effort, than to have declined combat or withdrawn without defeat. Defeat raised questions about judgment, strategy and competence. It did not raise questions about the willingness to defend allies. It did not threaten the grand alliance by raising questions of credibility.
Far from being a miscalculation, a misunderstanding or a mindless show of machismo, the war was an unintended but almost inevitable consequence of a rational strategy that ultimately worked. If the grand strategy made sense, then Vietnam was a war that had to be fought. If the grand strategy could have been abandoned, then Vietnam could have been avoided; history ultimately, though, might have been far different. This is, of course, small comfort to the war's many victims; the logic of history, however, is rarely kind.