H-Diplo/ISSF is honored to publish a very special forum on “Audience Costs and the Vietnam War.” The foundation for the forum is two original essays on the topic by Marc Trachtenberg and Bronwyn Lewis. Richard Betts, Robert Jervis, Fredrik Logevall, and John Mearsheimer then offer their own thoughts on both the theoretical and historical issues raised by the authors. We believe these essays, as well as the commentaries, will be of great interest to both political scientists and historians.
Perhaps only Douglas Porch, with his encyclopedic knowledge of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) and his broader military expertise, could have written this book. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a magisterial examination across time and space of the history of COIN. It is intended to dispel the myths propagated around it as a kinder, gentler form of warfare waged for the benefit of all involved. An eminent military historian, Porch is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has been writing about revolution, insurgency, expeditionary warfare, military empire building, the role of the military in domestic politics, great power war, and related issues for more than 40 years.
H-Diplo has assembled a very impressive interdisciplinary (and international) lineup for this roundtable; all four reviewers provide, in my opinion, excellent analysis. Each of them finds much to praise about the book under review, in particular Ted Hopf’s fascinating historical account of Soviet political culture during the first thirteen years of the Cold War and how it shaped, and was shaped by, elite conceptions of Cold War foreign policy. All of them have some criticisms, primarily methodological ones about Hopf’s employment of International Relations (IR) positivist theorising in the book. In this introduction I will briefly summarise the four reviews and then offer a couple of concluding points.
Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer prize-winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam has understandably sparked renewed interest in and debate over the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam. As Lloyd Gardner and other historians have argued, the heart of Logevall’s book is his analysis of the crucial events of 1954. In sharp contrast to the image of President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a generally restraining force fighting off those who were committed to intervention, such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Logevall argues that the President’s words and deeds “suggest a man who was fully prepared to intervene with force under certain circumstances and who sought to maintain his freedom of maneuver for whatever contingencies might arise.”
Why do key Southeast Asian states seem to cleave to the perception that the United States is a benign and stabilising force in the region, in spite of its debatable record during and after the Cold War? In Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power, Natasha Hamilton-Hart demonstrates that the ruling regimes in these countries disproportionately support U.S. preponderance because they managed to consolidate domestic power with the economic and political resources that accompanied U.S. support during the initial stages of national development during the Cold War. Education, professional training, and experience subsequently sustained these cognitive biases within the policy elites.
Thomas Christensen has written an important book in which he examines several key episodes during the Cold War in Asia, including the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954–55 and 1958, and the Vietnam War. In Worse than a Monolith, Christensen uses these Cold War flashpoints to test and refine existing theories of alliance politics and coercive diplomacy, arguing that a state’s use of coercive forms of diplomacy, including containment and deterrence, is hampered when one’s adversaries are divided. Christensen finds ample fodder for this argument by focusing Worse than a Monolith on looking at America’s efforts to contain the “revisionist” communist alliance during the Cold War in Asia. Disagreements between Moscow and Beijing often caused the two to try to outdo each other in supporting revolutions such as the one in Vietnam, and from the perspective of America’s policy makers, this made the communist alliance “worse than a monolith.” Christensen’s thesis is intriguing. I am interested to know whether during the Cold War, leaders on one side or the other expressed the view internally that they were bedeviled by their adversary’s inability to control its “troops.”
In the following exchange Dan Reiter defends his argument that democratic states win most of the wars that they fight primarily because they choose which wars to engage in more carefully than authoritarian states do. This is called the “selection effects” explanation because democracies are selecting which wars to fight and which to avoid. Here, Reiter is replying to previously published criticism by Michael C. Desch and Alexander Downes that detailed examinations of several historical cases that Reiter cites do not in fact support his arguments. Desch and Downes respond and then Reiter has a rebuttal. They primarily debate both how historical evidence should be interpreted and how their hypotheses should be evaluated in the 1920 Russo-Polish War, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1982 Lebanon War, and the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War.
James Lebovic’s book, The Limits of U.S. Military Capability: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq, provides the basis for a rich and topical debate, not only about America’s capacity to intervene effectively in unconventional and asymmetric conflicts, but also about Afghanistan, the recent intervention in Libya, and more broadly about questions of power and primacy.
Mark Phillip Bradley’s central purpose in Vietnam at War is to offer his readers “a sharp departure from prevailing narratives in the West, which have until recently rendered the Vietnamese invisible in the making of their own history.” It is difficult to imagine a scholar better suited to this task than Bradley. A gifted writer, very comfortable working in American, European and Vietnamese archives, Bradley is the author of the highly acclaimed Imagining Vietnam & America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950. In a field that constantly debates the proper balance to be struck between American, Vietnamese, and international actors—a divide that Christoph Giebel captures in the distinction between “Viet Nam Studies” and “Viet Nam War Studies”– Imagining Vietnam & America is a rare work of scholarship that seamlessly integrates cultural and diplomatic history from multiple perspectives.
Andrew Preston and Gordon Goldstein provide two very different looks at National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s role in the decision to escalate America’s war in Vietnam. Preston hones in on Bundy’s Cold War worldview, inherited largely from his mentor Henry Stimson, and his efforts to concentrate power in the National Security Council, which put him in a critical if not decisive position to shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam during the years in which Washington made the decisions for war. In doing so, Preston challenges what he sees as too great an emphasis on presidential decision-making in extant literature on the war’s escalation. Goldstein, on the other hand, working largely from interviews and conversations conducted with Bundy just before the latter’s death, writes a sympathetic account of Bundy’s involvement in the war’s escalation. While certainly not uncritical, Goldstein’s conclusions often align with Bundy’s, especially in highlighting the paramount responsibility of the commander-in-chief to accept or reject his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for war or peace unilaterally. Goldstein’s contribution, it seems, is less in explaining why Bundy advocated the policies he did or even the weight those recommendations carried with the president, and more in illuminating how the former national security advisor made sense late-in-life of his involvement in the critical decisions to wage war in Vietnam.