Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A couple of years ago I made the argument (on an obscure personal web page) that:

When we departed in 1973, only Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to communism. But what if we had departed ten years earlier, or never gotten involved?

By 1973, there had been two crucial changes. First, Suharto had come to power in Indonesia, and massacred hundreds of thousands of communists, not only ending the communist threat there, which had been a serious one, but also causing Indonesia to align with the West, whereas the previous ruler, Sukarno, had been inclined to side with the Soviet Union. Thailand had been strengthened by ten more years of participation in SEATO. India, which, like Indonesia, had been inclined to lean towards the communists rather than the west, had also fought a war with China—and accepted American help. The "dominoes" were more resistant to falling. Second, the Sino-Soviet split had taken place (there had even been a war between Red China and the Soviets), and then Nixon had showed up in China and "triangulated" the Soviet Union. This transformed the global balance of power, so that it no longer threatened to tip decisively against us.

Vietnam became a Stalinist state, complete with gulags, secret police, and wretched economic policies, and in Cambodia there was a horrific genocide which killed one-quarter of the population of the country. If three dominoes fell after 1973—South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—how many might have fallen if we had pulled out in 1963? Thailand? Indonesia? If the balance of power had shifted decisively towards the communists in southeast Asia, would that have given more confidence to India's huge Communist party to take over? A flood of totalitarianism might have swept over Southeast and possibly South Asia. From Indonesia, might communism have jumped to Australia? The Australians were afraid of this; that's why they fought side by side with us in Vietnam to the end. (Even if this is conceded, admittedly, one may maintain that American security would not be affected; but allies matter.)

If the domino theory was valid, that opens up the possibility that Vietnam may not have been a mistake at all. Maybe we didn't even lose. Granted, the regime we were defending fell, but we held the line long enough that the spread of communism in Southeast Asia was checked, and long enough for the global communist threat to be weakened because of internal divisions. It was a costly holding action, with which we bought time to render that difficult battlefield irrelevant; then we got out. This logic does not imply that Vietnam was the best option we had: maybe it would have been better to make our stand in Malaysia and Thailand, for example. And to be sure, when we began to defend Vietnam, we planned to save it, not sacrifice it. But in the great global chess game against the Soviets, we had sacrificed a pawn to save the queen, and arguably we captured a rook in the meantime.

Now Fouad Ajami makes a similar case:

Nowadays, more and more people despair of the Iraq venture. And voices could be heard counseling that the matter of Iraq is, for all practical purposes, sealed and that failure is around the corner. Now and then, the memory of the Vietnam War is summoned. America had lost the battle for Vietnam but had won the war for East Asia. That American defeat had brought ruin to Vietnam and Cambodia, but the systems of political and economic freedom in Asia had held, and the region had cushioned the American defeat, and left a huge protective role for American power.

When it comes to argument, the hawks have plenty of ammo left. But then, the doves have always appealed more to emotion and prejudice than to reason.


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