November 24, 2002
IF THE DOMINOES DIDN'T FALL, WHY WAS THE DOMINO THEORY WRONG?How We Won In Vietnam (Viet Dinh, December 2000, Policy Review)
The argument that our involvement in Vietnam was a mistake rests ultimately on the assumption that the democratic alliance was unnecessary to defeat communism or that the alliance would not have unraveled had America not intervened in Vietnam - in other words, an assumption that the grand strategy itself was ill-conceived. But let us remember that the grand strategy ultimately worked. Vietnam, despite the military defeat, was a demonstration of U.S. credibility and resolve in the larger global struggle against communism. It was a demonstration that, in the final analysis, may have contributed to American success in the Cold War or, at the least, prevented our failure.
To be sure, U.S. withdrawal from and cessation of assistance to South Vietnam, which precipitated the communist victory in 1975, sorely tested the value of the American commitment and accordingly the strength of the Western alliance. Hanoi's victory in Southeast Asia led the American people and U.S. allies to question the United States' willingness or institutional political ability to "pay any price, bear any burden" to fight communism. These were uncertain times for those relying on the United States. But those who would look to the outcome of the war to argue that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was unnecessary bear the burden of showing, counterfactually, that a U.S. failure to respond to the situation in Vietnam as early as Kennedy's administration would have had no impact on the collective alliance against communism. At the time, Charles de Gaulle and other European leaders were openly questioning the value of guarantees from America to act against immediate self-interest by fighting communism in situations that did not pose a direct threat to American security. If 58,000 American lives, billions of dollars, and decades of domestic turmoil still did not erase doubts about the U.S. commitment, imagine how those doubts would have been expressed had the United States blithely ignored a call on its guarantee. And, let us not forget, the policy of appeasement prompted by war-weary malaise of the 1970s did not win the Cold War. Vigilance during the 1980s did, a point relevant to current United States-Vietnam policy to which I will return.
Recognizing that Vietnam was not an isolated defeat but rather part of an honorable and ultimately successful struggle for freedom and prosperity gives due credit to the contribution of our principal ally during this struggle, the Republic of Vietnam. It refutes the notion that South Vietnamese were mere pawns for or puppets of the United States - a charge frequently made by antiwar protesters in order to portray U.S. intervention as unjust. Nothing could be further from the truth. The South Vietnamese fought the war and sought U.S. help because they believed in the same principles of freedom and democracy for which America was the beacon. They included the hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese, my father's family among them, who constituted the one-way exodus from the north when the country was partitioned in 1954 - driven from their homes by fears of communist rule and the hope of a good, free life. Those hopes led the South Vietnamese to fight for what remained of their homeland and, in the case of a quarter million of them, to give their lives to the cause.
More important from the U.S. perspective, this recognition also validates the sacrifices of American soldiers who fought, suffered, and died for the same cause. Such validation, nay, honor, is natural for any country that sends its young to war, but has long been withheld by people mired in antiwar ideology and confused by protest rhetoric. Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, a combat marine in Vietnam and an expert chronicler of the soldier's experience, poignantly made the point in a Wall Street Journal essay on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the war's end:
"[H]istory owes something to those who went to Vietnam, and to the judgment of those who believed the endeavor was worthwhile. We can still debate whether the war was worth its cost, but the evidence of the past 25 years clearly upholds the validity of our intentions. This proposition may sound simple, but to advance it is to confront the Gordian knot of the Vietnam era itself."
The evidence of the past 25 years to which Webb refers is indeed the best illustration that the United States, despite the military defeat, prevailed in the larger struggle for a future of peace and prosperity through democratic capitalism. Days after the fall of Saigon, Stanley Hoffman wrote in the May 3, 1975 issue of the New Republic: "In this respect Vietnam should teach us an important lesson. On the one hand Hanoi is one of several among the poorest nations in the world that have tried or will try to create a collectivist society, based on principles that are repugnant to us, yet likely to produce greater welfare and security for its people than any local alternative ever offered, at a cost in freedom that affects a small elite." Tell that to the millions of Cambodians who lost their lives in the killing fields as a sacrifice at the altar of one-step collectivism. Or to the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, my father among them, who were sent to "re-education camps" after the war, where many of them perished. Or to the families and relatives of South Vietnamese considered suspect by the Hanoi government and thus deprived of access to the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. Or tell it to the millions of Vietnamese, my family among them, who found communist persecution unbearable and took to the high seas in a diaspora of anything that floated.
Most relevantly, tell that to the people of Vietnam who lived under communist rule throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of welfare and security, what they got was repression of all basic freedoms; dire poverty caused by central economic mismanagement and official corruption; and a government so bellicose that, during the early 1980s, it continued to build up its military even as its people suffered the most severe drought of the country's recorded history.
It would be wise for us to keep the brutality of the communist regime in mind as we confront Vietnam's wavering efforts at economic liberalization. For a casual apologist or a strict isolationist, the response would be easy, if misguided. But those who believe in change through constructive engagement must walk a tightrope to ensure that our efforts serve our ultimate goals - a free people and free market democracy governed by the rule of law, a Vietnam which enjoys the peace and prosperity we have helped to secure elsewhere in the world.
Assistant Attorney General Viet D. Dinh is a future Supreme Court Justice, hopefully the next one, though folks may want him to get some experience on the bench before taking that step. Nothing will speak more eloquently of the unique nature of America, the source of our greatness, than the elevation of a man born in Saigon in 1968, at the height of the war, to one of the most powerful positions in our country. What can have been ignoble about our effort to help the South Vietnamese secure such a society for themselves? Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2002 6:57 AM