Mencius Moldbug recommended a number of books in this post, and I’ve just gone through a few of them. First was Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers. I read in its preface that it was part of a two-volume effort. The first covered the clash of religion and politics from the French Revolution to the Great War. The second, titled Sacred Causes, was continued the story through the 20th century and the War on Terror. Liking what I read of Earthly Powers I got it’s companion as well. I was disappointed to find that the closer to the present Burleigh went the less his writing was like history and more like an especially snarky editorial from the Daily Mail (UPDATE: Apparently that was not a fluke). I still recommend the first volume. Read the second if you have a large appetite for Catholic apologism (though he makes an exception for Northern Ireland). He apparently wrote a very well regarded history of the Third Reich, so if you want his take on that aspect of the 20th century you are advised to check it out. He admits to have tired of writing about Nazis since then.
As I read both of those I switched back and forth with Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken, which covers America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1954 through July of 1965 and the introduction of large numbers of American combat troops deemed necessary to save South Vietnam. On beginning it I found that it was also part of a two-volume history. I would have liked to read the next volume right after, but unfortunately it hasn’t been written yet. Mencius Moldbug also recommended Hilaire du Berrier’s Background to Betrayal for a contrasting view, but the reach of John Birch Society affiliated publishers is a good deal less than a just and loving God would demand, thus proving his nonexistence. Hilaire was a South Dakotan son of French Huguenots who adopted monarchism early in life and served as an aide to Vietnam’s Emperor Bao Dai. His work serves as a defense of the Emperor and the French colonialists that criticizes Diem. That could serve as a valuable corrective, as Moyar holds the French and the colonial-era officials that had served under them (and were weeded out by Diem over time) in contempt and much of his book reads like a hagiography of the late Vietnamese nationalist. I personally didn’t care that Ho Chi Minh only pretended to have never married while Diem was the real deal, but Moyar seems to have found that very important. The closest he comes to admitting a failing on Diem’s part is when Moyar notes that he had intentionally fragmented the intelligence services and that impeded their effectiveness. It’s possible he had a good reason for doing so, but no explanation is given and I don’t think Moyar considered it all that important.
Moyar is openly revisionist, though at least this book does not take the old Rambo “do we get to win this time” tack as it doesn’t focus on American soldiers. He has a lot of “orthodox” histories in cross-hairs. One of them is America’s Longest War, which I had lots of complaints about (including the title, offering the war of independence as a longer war that was truly America’s) when I wrote a book report on it years ago for a high school history course, though I don’t remember much about it today. His thesis was that Vietnam was vital to American interests and could have been saved. Optimally his hero, Diem, would not have been overthrown and assassinated in a military coup and would have continued his successes in crushing the Viet Cong and strengthening his government, assuring victory in a relatively short time-span. After his overthrow the U.S could have sent ground forces to the Ho Chi Minh trail to block infiltration rather than just bombing it to little effect, blockaded and mined North Vietnamese (and also possible Cambodian) harbors to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Cong and also possible crippling the enemy’s economy, as well as very heavy airstrikes against the North much earlier in the war to show them we meant business.
As an isolationist, I have a much narrower view of America’s interest. I have further disagreements with the author though. South Vietnam did in fact fall to the communists (along with Laos and Cambodia), but the dominoes stopped short. It seems doubtful to me that Japan or Australia were ever in any serious threat of falling to the red tide, especially if the U.S had encouraged the former to scrap the anti-military clause of its imposed constitution and rebuild its old strength. The largest prize up for grabs was the extremely populous archipelago of Indonesia were Sukarno was indeed a problem threatening to get worse, but he was removed from power from Suharto as early as 1965, followed by tremendous massacres that quashed the communists. Perhaps other southeast asian nations would have fallen if the U.S had given up on Vietnam. But considering the great importance Moyar places on the U.S backing down and disheartening anti-communist allies, didn’t being kicked out of Saigon while refugees tried to grab onto our helicopters serve as a larger loss of face than anything that preceded it and should have provided an impetus to further communist gains?
I think Diem did a pretty impressive job and should be commended, but I was skeptical toward many of the claims made for him. The Viet Minh were no slouches, having booted out the French before attaining their own state, confounding American forces and then toppling the South Vietnamese government after which they overthrew Pol Pot and fended off a Chinese invasion (though Moyar dismisses those who placed importance on tensions between the Soviets, Chinese and North Vietnamese communists earlier in the war). I don’t think Diem’s victory was assured. There were a number of coup attempts before the final one which Diem was lucky to survived. If he had dodged that bullet it’s quite possible a later one would have gotten him. Moyar also likes to dismiss the claims that Diem was unpopular, but when expression of dissent is limited (obviously self-serving though portrayed as the only thing them gooks understand) to armed uprisings it’s hard to gauge. He is also contradictory in asserting that Americans misjudged the Vietnamese for thinking they’d like liberalizing reformers that concede to demands when they really respected authoritarian strong-men who cracked down on dissidents, and then later faulting the Americans pushing for reforms by saying the Vietnamese don’t respond well to bullying rather than friendship and accommodation. It seemed to me his analysis of the Vietnamese character places great weight on whose ox is being gored.
The book did succeed at least in convincing me that ambassador Lodge was a major tool. Kennedy was an idiot to appoint him and not remove him. Lodge’s behavior may best be analogized to an inmate who wages his own private war with the institution through flinging and smearing his feces everywhere. It’s not some great political coup to appoint the possible Presidential nominee of the opposing party to a position if he thinks he can act without any constraint due to political fallout and may even relish causing problems for you. Lodge did at least learn he was mistaken in the later part of his time in Vietnam and I wonder if he ever issued any sort of mea culpa. I have argued with Mencius and others whether the State department can be said to be waging a civil war with Defense or even to have the capacity, and Lodge would be their best example. While not a career pin-striped Foggy Bottomer (he was actually the first Senator to resign his seat and serve in the Army since the Civil War, and after returning resigned again to serve with distinction and single-handedly capture a four-man German patrol) he can be clearly seen as a rogue ambassador acting against the direct orders of his President, as well as those in the CIA and military that tried to keep him in line. I don’t know what power he had though. Ambassador Durbrow well before him repeatedly echoed the same idiocies only to be ignored, after him Taylor pushed for more sensible courses of action on the head of state, coup-formenting generals and militant Buddhists all to no avail. I similarly argued over the power of reporters, especially the New York Times. A claim I find incredible is that the Vietnamese trusted the NYT and even took it to indicate the position of the U.S government, even as it reported dissension among Vietnamese generals it supposedly influenced that (according to Moyar) they would have known to be non-existent and contradicted itself in its coverage of Vietnam in different articles right next to each other. The administration should certainly have been able to make its position known so people wouldn’t assume it was something else, even if they had to resort to publicly announcing it. That would have gotten the message to benighted orientals that the media may hold different from the government rather quickly. Getting the administration’s point of view across to select officials would admittedly be difficult when your ambassador disobeys your orders and lies repeatedly, but this was discovered soon enough that he could have been neutralized. I sometimes wonder why he was not removed by another American through a bullet to the brain as the Vietnamese were doing to inconvenient officials, but at the least sending someone to perform his responsibilities seems to me an obvious move.
It occurs to me that there isn’t a definite “formalist” position on the coup against Diem. In hindsight it clearly worked out terribly, but “don’t make the mistakes” is hardly helpful advice. On the one hand replacing a civilian leader with a shaky hold on power with the military that actually wields power through force of arms is in accordance with formalising informal property (and Mencius has in fact called on many coups in both America and England as well as the post-colonial world, which he expects will improve things). On the other hand it is rebellion against authority that results in disorder, which should be a definite no-no for any goodthinking reactionary.
I was really annoyed when Moyar scoffed at Thomas Schelling’s game theory. There is no quote from Schelling anywhere, and his portrayal of it seems completely contradictory to the one I read in Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Most of Pinker’s explanation is about how irrational behavior was evolutionarily adaptive because obstinate irrationality can make sense in game theory, with removing the steering-wheel in a game of chicken being such a perennial example I would have expected anyone whose heard of game theory to be familiar with it. Moyar thinks Schelling was an ivory-tower academic egghead limited to thinking in civilized rational behavior and failing to appreciate “that men often act irrationally” and can effectively deter by “brandishing a broadsword and howling a battle cry”. I’ll say with a high degree of confidence that Moyar has not actually read Schelling or made himself familiar with what game theory actually says.
Seeing as how Vietnam actually did fall to no great loss to America, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal that Moyar’s advice in hindsight was not taken. Does that mean it’s pointless to even discuss it? I wouldn’t say so. I don’t expect anything I say here to really change anything important, and so I feel free yack about things that are irrelevant but interesting.