McNamara maintains that US policymakers made the wrong decisions in 1964 and 1967, because they looked at Southeast Asia through the lens of the Cold War. With reference to decisions made in 1964, McNamara writes:
“We saw a world where the Hanoi-supported Pathet Lao continued to push forward in Laos, where Sukarno appeared to be moving Indonesia even closer to the Communist orbit, where Malaysia faced immense pressure from Chinese-supported insurgents, where China had just detonated its first atomic device and continued to trumpet violent revolution, where Khrushchev and his successors in the Kremlin continued to make bellicose statements against the West. In light of all those threats, we viewed unconditional withdrawal as clearly unacceptable” (1996:157-58).
“[If the United States were to seek neutrality] in Southeast Asia, Laos would almost certainly come under North Vietnamese domination, Cambodia might exhibit a facade of neutrality but would in fact accept Communist Chinese domination, Thailand would become very shaky, and Malaysia, already beset by Indonesia, the same; even Burma would see the developments as a clear sign that the whole of the area now had to accommodate completely to Communism. . . .
In the eyes of the rest of Asia and of key areas threatened by Communism in other areas as well, South Vietnam is both a test of U.S. firmness and specifically a test of U.S. capacity to deal with ‘wars of national liberation.’ Within Asia, there is evidence—for example, from Japan—that U.S. disengagement and the acceptance of Communist domination would have serious effect on confidence. More broadly, there can be little doubt that any country threatened in the future would have reason to doubt whether we would really see the thing through. This would apply even in such theoretically remote areas as Latin America” (Robert McNamara, Memorandum to the President, January 7, 1964; quoted in McNamara 1996:106-7).
“The loss of South Vietnam and Laos to the Communists would be profoundly damaging to the US position in the Far East, most especially because the US had committed itself persistently, emphatically, and publicly to preventing Communist takeover of the two countries. Failure here would be damaging to US prestige, and would seriously debase the credibility of US will and capability to contain the spread of communism elsewhere in the area. Our enemies would be encouraged and there would be an increased tendency among other states to move toward a greater degree of accommodation with the Communists. . . . Aside from the immediate joy in North Vietnam over achievement of its national goals, the chief effect would be upon Communist China, both in boosting its already remarkable self-confidence and in raising its prestige as a leader of World Communism. Peiping has already begun to advertise South Vietnam as proof of its thesis that the underdeveloped world is ripe for revolution, that the US is a paper tiger, and that local insurgency can be carried through to victory without undue risk of precipitating a major international war. The outcome in South Vietnam and Laos would conspicuously support the aggressive tactical contentions of Peiping as contrasted with the more cautious position of the USSR. To some degree this will tend to encourage and strengthen the more activist revolutionary movements in various parts of the underdeveloped world” (Board of National Estimates of the CIA, Memorandum to CIA Director McCone, June 9, 1964; quoted in McNamara 1996:124-25).
“The present attacks . . . are no isolated event. They are part and parcel of a continuing Communist drive to conquer South Vietnam . . . and to eventually dominate and conquer other free nations of Southeast Asia” (Secretary of State Dean Rusk, prepared statement before a joint executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, August 6, 1964; quoted in McNamara 1996:136).
“I am convinced that it would be disastrous for the United States and the Free World to permit Southeast Asia to be overrun by the Communist North. . . . I am also convinced that everything possible should be done to throw back the Hanoi-Viet Cong aggression. . . . Negotiation as a cover for the abandonment of Southeast Asia to the Communist North cannot be accepted” (Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Memo to the President, February 23, 1965; quoted in McNamara 1996:173).
“The integrity of the U.S. commitment is the principal pillar of peace throughout the world. If that commitment becomes unreliable, the communist world would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to a catastrophic war. So long as the South Vietnamese are prepared to fight for themselves, we cannot abandon them without disaster to peace and to our interests throughout the world” (Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Memo to the President, July 1, 1965; quoted in McNamara 1996:195).
US policymakers had sufficient understanding to be aware that something was breaking that was a threat to the established world-system. But confused by the anti-communist discourse, they never really understood the force that they confronted. They did not understand that the government of South Vietnam was a puppet regime that represented foreign interests, and it therefore could never become a viable force in defense of democracy. As McNamara later wrote, “We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We saw in them a thirst for—and a determination to fight for—freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country” (1996:322). And US policymakers never understood “the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values” (McNamara 1996:322).
Ideological distortions, then, influence not only the people, but also key policymakers in the centers of power. What is the corrective to the distortions of ideology? How can we overcome the pernicious influence of ideology in the political culture? How can the people arrive at an understanding of the right course of action that is not distorted by the interests of the powerful? I have maintained in previous posts that the key is cross-horizon encounter, in which we listen to persons with other horizons from other cultures and intellectual and moral traditions, take seriously their understandings, and permit ourselves to become aware of relevant questions that previously had been blocked from our consciousness. With respect to the structures of domination of the world-system, the key is encounter with the movements that have been organized by the oppressed, by the colonized peoples, by workers, peasants, women, and indigenous populations and ethnic minorities, and with the intellectuals who speak in their defense and in defense of nature. I have maintained that cross-horizon encounter was behind the insights of Marx, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Ho Chi Minh. I have argued that taking seriously the understanding of the Third World movements can enable us to formulate an historical-philosophical-social scientific understanding that is universal. (See the following posts: “What is personal encounter?” 7/25/2013; “What is cross-horizon encounter?” 7/26/2013; “Overcoming the colonial denial” 7/29/2013; “Domination and ideology” 3/31/2014; “Reunified historical social science” 4/1/2014; “Universal philosophical historical social science” 4/2/2014; “We can know the true and the good” 4/3/2104; “How can knowledge be reorganized?” 4/4/2014; “Wallerstein, Marx, and knowledge” 4/14/2014; “Universal human values” 4/16/2014; “An alternative epistemology” 4/17/2014; “Ho encounters French socialism” 5/5/2014; “Ho reformulates Lenin” 5/7/2014).
If we come to understand the Third World movements through personal encounter, we are led to the conclusion that, from the vantage point of democratic values and universal human values, the Third World socialist and national liberation movements should be supported, not resisted or attacked. This would take us in an entirely different direction with respect to US foreign policy. Instead of seeking to maintain US hegemony in an unsustainable neocolonial world-system, placing us in conflict with the peoples of the earth, we would seek to cooperate with the movements and governments of the Third World, working in solidarity to construct a world-system that would be more just, democratic and sustainable and less characterized by wars and military interventions. A US foreign policy of North-South cooperation, proposed in the 1980s by Jesse Jackson, is in the long run the foreign policy most consistent with the interests of the people of the United States.
McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. 1996. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, communism, ideology, Cold War