Wednesday 04 November 2009
George Kennan, former ambassador to the
I can't remember how many times I have said that the
The reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, "How can you blithely acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our NATO allies withdraw our troops?" While the "inevitable chaos" part is open to doubt, the question itself is a fair one.
By way of full disclosure, my answer is based largely on the fact that I asked the equivalent question 43 years ago regarding a place named
As a young Army infantry/intelligence officer turned junior CIA analyst in 1963, I was given responsibility for reporting on Soviet policy toward
I should have listened to my brother Joe at Princeton, who tried to help me see that it was mainly a civil war in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese had ample reason to hate both the Russians and Chinese (and now us), and that the "domino effect" was a canard.
Joe was openly impatient to find me such a slow learner - so susceptible to the Red-menace fear mongering of the time.
Enter George Kennan
If my studies of
Early in the Vietnam War, I was delighted to discover one Sunday morning that Kennan had written a feature article on
What Kennan wrote on
It was December 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the Outlook section - George Kennan calling for a major reality check on our involvement in Vietnam, and arguing for what he called a "simmering down" of our military adventure there as "the most promising of all the possibilities we face." He wrote:
"I would not know what 'victory' means.... In this sort of war, one controls what one can take and hold and police with ground forces; one does not control what one bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of all contingencies that anyone should come to us on his knees and inquire our terms, whatever the escalation of our effort....
"If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation - to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale."
Kennan was harshly critical of those asserting that the
Kennan's prescription of "simmering down" involved letting negotiations begin "quite privately and without elbow-jogging on our part, by our friends and others who have an interest in the termination of the conflict ... We must be prepared, depending on such advice as we receive from them, to place limited restraints at some point on our military efforts, and to do so quietly and without published time limits or ultimatums."
Kennan's bottom line:
"The most disturbing aspect of our involvement in
His article was no academic exercise.
A companion Outlook front-page piece by the
Roberts reported the prevailing thinking that, given Hanoi's obduracy, "the United States will have no alternative but to pour in more and more manpower, to widen the bombing in the North and to intensify the military struggle in the South." Chalmers continued:
"Thus, as an increasingly bloody year draws to a close, as mounting casualty lists appear ... the President faces momentous decisions. What should he do?"
Noting that there was "confusion over the aims of this war," Roberts asked:
"What should he [President Johnson] tell his fellow Americans? How can he prevent the loss of the consensus he so far has had on the war? How can he restrain the increasingly vocal war hawks? ... Is the
Roberts added that:
"Looking back, it is evident that both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson upped the ante bit by bit without really telling the American public where it [the war] was heading.
"That process continues today as Mr. Johnson merely says ... that the United States 'will supply whatever men are needed to help the people of South Vietnam resist aggression.'"
Does anyone see any parallels to
Johnson was not about to be the first US president to lose a war - but, succumbing to the Greek tragic flaw of hubris, he became exactly that. The result: Not only were two to three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops killed, but also his Great Society bit the dust.
Fortunately for seniors like me, Johnson was able to sign Medicare into law (on July 30, 1965) before the bottom fell out. Most of the other promising reforms his administration had in mind became unsung casualties of that ill-conceived war.
And, as costly as
Shortly after his
Kennan minced few words:
"There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives....
"Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country, and particularly not in one remote from our shores, from our culture and from the experience of our people.
"This is not only not our business, but I don't think we can do it successfully.... Vietnam is not a region of major military, industrial importance. It is difficult to believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be determined ... by what happens on that territory....
"Even a situation in which South Vietnam was controlled exclusively by the Viet Cong ... would not, in my opinion, present dangers great enough to justify our military intervention."
Kennan concluded his Senate testimony with a familiar quotation from John Quincy
Kennan added: "Now, gentlemen, I don't know exactly what John Quincy
And to us here today.
Death Via Invincible Ignorance
More than 55,000 of the eventual 58,220 American deaths in
Can we not learn from history? Kennan (and John Quincy
And it is a pity that
Is this not the lesson to apply to deliberations on
It is incumbent on them to make a stab at coming up with better alternative policies, but - as in George Kennan's case - this is not a prior requirement.
Great powers can mitigate the effects of great mistakes, especially if they have the good sense and humility to reach out for help. But the key decision to halt a futile course can - and must - be made as soon as its futility is clear, even if the details of a more promising alternative policy remain to be worked out.
I think Kennan was right in his December 1965 article in proposing a multilateral path toward a solution in
As Sonali Kolhatkar suggested Monday in Foreign Policy in Focus, if the
"If the United States were to take the lead in regional talks between Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China to address the Pakistani government's fears of a hostile regime in Afghanistan, it would go a very long way toward undermining the Taliban."
Helicopters Down; Hawks Up
By way of footnote: After an American Chinook helicopter was shot down over Iraq on November 2, 2003, killing 16 US troops, I was reminded of a similar guerrilla attack on US forces in Pleiku, Vietnam, on February 7, 1965.
President Johnson seized on the Pleiku incident to start bombing North Vietnam and to send 3,500 marines to South Vietnam with orders to engage in combat (beyond the earlier advisory role for US troops), marking the beginning of the Americanization of the war.
When the Chinook went down in
Suffice it to note that Rumsfeld's comment reminded me of Pleiku and spurred me to write an article exactly six years ago right after the helicopter crash in
It seems an appropriate day, then, to remind ourselves that when choppers go down, hawks go up in influence. Two more helicopters went down just last week. So, for what it may be worth, let me state the same judgment today regarding
The war in
Quick, somebody please tell President Obama.
This article has been previously published on Consortiumnews.com.
Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was an analyst at the CIA for 27 years, and is on the Steering Group of VIPS.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs