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Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam Hardcover – June 13, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Decisive military superiority, not fear of a communist planet, steered the United States into the Southeast Asian debacle, argues Vietnam historian Porter in this provocative but scholarly work. This revisionist premise-which suggests that, in the '60s, the U.S. acted as the world's lone superpower in much the same fashion as it does today-upends traditional thinking on the war's major cause. Porter also contends that successive national security advisors were determined to press these advantages despite the reluctance of their commanders-in-chiefs. These fascinating assessments are intertwined with familiar themes, such as Eisenhower's determination to avoid sending troops to aid France in its last ditch attempt at Dien Bien Phu. Johnson's advisors' use of the domino theory, the belief that the fall of South Vietnam would unleash communism throughout the region, as a political tool to convince the president and the public to press forward with escalation is one of the book's more engrossing arguments. But Porter's belief that Johnson "was never held in thrall by any Cold War doctrine... to save South Vietnam" is curious in light of the above. It also ignores strong influences shaping his subsequent actions in Vietnam: the 1949 "loss of China" to communism and the resulting McCarthyite hysteria. Nevertheless, Porter's intriguing reinterpretation of Vietnam politics is certain to stoke debate among academics.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"This will be the most important contribution to our understanding of the war in Vietnam since the Pentagon Papers. I am not exaggerating or speaking for effect. Porter challenges - by and large successfully - most of the accepted views, especially on the importance of the domino theory, the belief that U. S. policy was driven by a perception of its weakness on the world scene, and the belligerence of Johnson and, to a lesser extent Kennedy." - Robert Jervis, author of American Foreign Policy in a New Era"
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that has been known for some time in a very different light,
casting doubts not only as to how we have viewed the conflicts
in Southeast Asia, but the entire Cold War as well, right up to
the "perils" of the present American dominance
Interesting to this reader was how our real or perceived power dominance was applied to our Cold War Viet Nam decision making. It's generally assumed the stronger our military the safer and better off we'll be. But Porter shows how the perception of having the upper hand led us into danger, loss and defeat while dismissing an early option for a peaceful resolution we'd have been thrilled to accept later.
Another notable message here is that although our leaders' repeatedly claimed the domino theory meant a defeat in South Viet Nam would lead to a path of losses worldwide eventually threatening us at our borders, even our leaders didn't accept this theory. The more genuine reasons were much more political and involved "motivational bias" in which things are perceived as threats not because they actually are but because it serves interests to regard them as threats. Probably neither LBJ, McNamera and most of the NSC then believed South Viet Nam itself had value to us. What they believed was that the loss of South Viet Nam would reduce our world influence and credibility in our dominance, and have profoundly adverse domestic political consequences.
The best part of this book is not the thesis, perils of dominance. Porter tries to make the case that it was some nebulous thing, an "imbalance of power" among the superpowers, the lesser great powers and the third rate powers which led to the war in Vietnam, but the text belies the title. Individuals, presidential advisers, civilian war planners pushing for war, over and over again; cajoling, threatening, withholding vital information, ginning up the intelligence, and finally bringing a reluctant president to act on their demands -- that is how the Vietnam War happened, as I learned from Gareth Porter.
The surprising thing is that someone like Porter would give LBJ a sympathetic hearing. The shocking thing is that the 1965 war planners did not expect to win, not at the limited level of US military commitment authorized -- I found myself feeling sympathy for the US military commanders at this point. The way the best and the brightest had it figured out, "we at least had to try" to keep South Vietnam from going communist, otherwise the US would lose credibility with military allies. The enlightening thing -- truly an epiphany for me -- is that no one at the highest levels of executive power believed in the domino theory anymore. That theory was already outdated by the early 1960's. It wasn't the specter of creeping international communism that drove the war planners, it was something much more mundane.
"Neutralism" was the operative word in memorandums, policy drafts, notes of meetings on how to deal with this so-called threat. Being neutral/tolerant towards communist states; accommodation of the communist states in their neighborhood by other SE Asia states such as Thailand, strongly resistant to communism themselves but willing to have a trade and diplomatic relationship with communist China and communist Vietnam. That was what the US Cold War strategists could not tolerate and that was why US combat troops were sent to Vietnam. The chapter dealing with the emptiness of the central ideology of the war, the domino theory, is the best part of the book. Porter thoroughly mines the Pentagon Papers and recently declassified documents to make his case. I noticed that Henry Kissinger in a 2008 Newsweek book review is still flogging the domino theory so I guess it's still alive and well in some quarters, but I would like to see Kissinger confronting the plethora of primary source archival material presented by Porter.
When he is dealing with the historical record Porter is superb. The book overall lacks coherence, being spoiled by theory, opinion and defensiveness in the preface and the conclusion -- a better title would have been simply 'The Origins of the Vietnam War' and leave out the preface and the conclusion -- but in the body of the text Porter's writing is as good as "Sleepwalkers", the well-received WW1 history by Christopher Clark which I read recently.
Just as Clark does with WW1, Porter finishes his history when mobilization begins. Both writers are concerned with the political and diplomatic origins of their wars; they finish their stories where the shooting begins. Clark's history is revisionist but he camouflages this by affixing the 'sleepwalkers' label. It seemed to me there were no sleepwalkers among the 1914 European war planners -- they had concrete material goals, Alsace-Lorraine and the Turkish Straits, and they went all out to achieve those goals. Where you really do find sleepwalkers is in the 1965 run-up to the Vietnam war; the best and the brightest couldn't seem to get out of their heads.
Porter shows that this subverting of Presidential policy was going on under Eisenhower, and not only Kennedy. Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon : Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil