The war in Vietnam has shaped attitudes toward power projection in America right up to the present day. This is especially true for the left wing, for whom the war itself was the main factor rather than the way it ended, as it was with the right. Examining the course of the war, some came to the conclusion that American power was fundamentally malignant.
Hence a section of the left wing became entirely decoupled from the post-war consensus on containing Communism, and everywhere there were questions raised about the appropriateness of this or that American overseas commitment. There were a number of themes that were prevalent among much of the left wing, being in themselves the definition of what it meant to be 'left' on foreign policy.
Not all of these themes have immediately obvious origins in the Vietnam War, and indeed not all of them can be traced solely to it. However, Vietnam contributed more than any other factor to the general attitude of the left at the time. To some it displayed the futility of power projection, because South Vietnam had failed to become a viable entity and had eventually been overrun. Some took it to display the malignancy of American power, because in the course of this failure such tremendous damage had been done to Indochina. With the huge loss of life caused by the war, along with the domestic disquiet, it was hardly an advertisement for power projection.
The most extreme movement of the left which was energized by the Vietnam War was the New Left, a predominantly student movement centred in college campuses and especially around an organization called Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was created before the war, and declared itself in its founding statement to be in 'basic opposition' to Communism. The extent to which SDS started off as actually in sympathy with this statement is doubtful, as it had been included under pressure from its parent organization, League for Industrial Democracy.1 Another part of the Port Huron statement sounded on a theme that was more in line with how SDS proceeded to develop over the decade. The statement also claimed that the United States was 'more effective at deterring the growth of democracy than Communism' in its foreign policy.2
As the sixties went on, the New Left became increasingly radicalized. Its membership was drawn mainly from socially and economically comfortable middle-class college students, who turned against bourgeois morality and 'the system' for a variety of reasons. Berman ascribes it to a crisis of legitimacy and guilt about their social position, whereas Isserman and Kazin see it as a consequence of delayed entry into the adult world due to attending college.3 Whatever the reason for their turning away from the system, the New Left soon rejected American foreign policy along with most other aspects of American society and culture. They saw American power projection as just as illegitimate as the American class system or race relations.
The New Left itself was a highly diverse movement containing many individuals so eccentric that it is very hard to pin down its precise beliefs. For instance, the New Left’s most famous figure, Tom Hayden, remembers one individual who believed 'that ending the war would usher in a New Age'. Many members were given to millenarianism, having been involved in one struggle for so long; such an attitude was not conducive to keeping the movement together for a long time.4
However, it can be said that the New Left helped popularize a discourse that did last, which asked not primarily if a war was winnable by the United States, but whether it was moral or legitimate for America to engage in foreign wars, even if they were designed to contain Communism. The New Left had not been opposed to Vietnam because they thought it was not winnable (although they might well have believed it wasn't), but because they did not believe it was a just cause.
By the time President Ford came into office the New Left had ceased to exist as a coherent movement. Although individuals remained who were dedicated to its causes, the movement as a whole had fractured into various parts which were mainly focused on identity politics.5 Many individuals had been exhausted by the demands of protest and the hippie lifestyle. Hayden wrote in his memoirs that 'anyone who even made it through the decade with senses intact, I felt, was lucky'.6 Yet although the New Left had fractured, the ideas it had embodied lived on, although often in less extreme forms.
The left's views on power projection were much more diverse than the right, which perhaps is due to the political truism that it's much easier to come up with ideas why it’s not a good idea to do something than the reverse. Irving Kristol had once written that there was 'nothing esoteric' about American foreign policy in the Cold War, whereas most on the left felt it was a very complicated subject indeed.7 Writers such as Noam Chomsky have written a large number of complex books on the topic. Chomsky, whose publishing efforts nevertheless focused mainly on linguistics during Ford’s tenure, posits an essentially Manichean world which pits American power (fuelled by greed) against the desire for freedom of those who are affected by this power.8
Chomsky is an extreme case because, as with the New Left, he indicts all of American society and the political system rather than just this or that administration or institution. As such, his views were never likely to be taken seriously in the halls of power; this is precisely the point of his writing.
However, there was also what might be termed a respectable liberal discourse on power projection, which nevertheless differed sharply from the Ford administration and criticized it extensively. An excellent example of this discourse is found in The New Republic, a journal of politics and the arts which had been critical of both the Vietnam War and the New Left in the sixties and of Noam Chomsky in the seventies.9 The views expressed in The New Republic were not as homogenous as the neoconservative journals tended to be, but they did repeatedly sound on the same themes.
The main themes of its content on power projection are set out in an editorial two days after the fall of Saigon. 'Finally it was clear that American power had failed in its squalid mission' to 'frustrate an indigenous political and social revolution in Vietnam', it stated. Furthermore, this 'debacle should occasion a reassessment of both the purposes and limits of our power'.10
The magazine had never been enthusiastic about the American venture in Vietnam, and in January another editorial had called for the abandonment of the South's President Thieu, who they held responsible for the Communist offensive.11 There were violations of the Paris accords from both sides, but the magazine focused almost exclusively on indicting the South and portrayed the Communists as victims – victims of a regime supported by American power. This is not to suggest the magazine was pro-Communist, but it made no rhetorical or practical sense for them to display information or viewpoints that detracted from their argument.
Criticism of American allies was central to the liberal critique of American power projection. During the Vietnam War the left had criticized the South as dictatorial, and The New Republic continued to portray South Korea in the same light. When Ford set off on his Far Eastern trip in late 1974, the magazine went so far as to describe President Park as 'totalitarian' and worried that the principal beneficiary of his visit to Korea would be 'the Park government', which of course was precisely the point of the trip.12
The magazine clearly worried about the moral implications of the presence of American troops in the South, protecting as they were an unsavoury regime. Although not sympathetic to North Korea, the magazine tended to carry material critical of the South; clearly they did not consider the automatic response to Communist aggression to defend the victim. The projection of American power had a moral dimension and not just a practical one.
The magazine never mentioned the Panmunjom incident, as at the time it was focused entirely on electoral politics rather than foreign policy. However, it did critically examine the Mayaguez incident. According to contributor and former NSC staffer Roger Morris, the incident 'does not seem a reassuring demonstration of the force option in international politics'.
The power option was in his opinion invoked before diplomacy had been given a sufficient opportunity, which he argued would actually undermine American credibility rather than strengthen it as Kissinger claimed.13 This argument is predicated on the view that American power was not a solution to international crises, and that power had to take a back seat to other methods of solving problems.
America as an ordinary country
This view was gaining in popularity in the aftermath of the oil shock and the Vietnam War. Its buzzword was 'interdependence'. The oil shock was taken to prove that America was reliant on other parts of the world and their whims for its security and prosperity, and the corollary that co-operation rather than brute force was required to solve international problems.
While commentators on the right wondered about military intervention in the Persian Gulf, The New Republic's solution to the oil crisis was for America to learn 'to make do with less oil, and use what it can get more intelligently'.14 The United States had to learn to coexist with other nations of the world and to accept imperfect outcomes in its foreign policy; it could not employ force everywhere and shape the world exactly how it would have liked.
This may sound like a platitude. However, the point was that the world was becomingly increasingly inhospitable to American military force as a problem-solving device. Compromise and co-operation were required more than ever. This problem was addressed in a book edited by Richard Rosecrance in 1976 entitled America as an Ordinary Country.
He argued that America had to accept a position not as what we would now call a hyperpower, but as the 'first among equals' in the international community. He also noted that the use of American force in counter-insurgency warfare, the type most likely to be fought in Asia, was 'practically ruled out'.16 The implications of this for American policy in Asia were expounded in a later chapter in the volume.
The author, Kenneth Hunt, recommends a trimming back of American commitment in the Asia-Pacific region. This was necessary due to 'a legacy of disenchantment and congressional jaundice'.16 Surveying the problems of Asia, he sees the solution to everything from the two Chinas to the two Koreas as lying in political solutions. He advocates finding such solutions so that American forces can be removed from their 'exposed' positions in the region.17
As he looked back on over a decade of bloody warfare in Asia, it is easy to imagine why he decided avoiding it was for the best. The protest movement likely helped convince him that there would be no 'social consent' for new wars in the region, his conclusion being that there was hence no use troops being there.18
Rosecrance summed up the respectable left-wing view on power projection in the concluding chapter of the book. A 'characteristic of future world politics is the increasing obsolescence of military solutions to international problems', he said. 'As issues become more interlinked, the use of force at a particular point can more easily disrupt the overall system of agreements but can offer nothing in its place'. Force could only be destructive, not constructive.19
The destructive capacity of American power in Vietnam seemed to confirm this, and the reaction to the Mayaguez incident, which was seen as a frustrated lashing out by the United States, served as warning that the lesson had perhaps not been learned by policymakers.
Force would have to be cut back, restricted in its uses, and its legitimacy and applicability in any given situation would have to be carefully considered. This was especially true in Asia, the scene of American power’s lowest point in recent years. Unlike the New Left, liberals believed that they could bring about a change in America’s foreign policy by working within the system; indeed, they often believed that the increasingly interlinked nature of world politics would force acceptance of their views.
They believed history and reality were on their side. Force had failed in Vietnam, proved malignant during the Mayaguez incident (which was perceived as a failure), and was shoring up a dictatorial regime in South Korea. They thought the U.S. needed to abandon force and become 'a balancer, peacemaker and intermediary, not military leader and autocrat'.20 Otherwise it would only become immoral and ineffectual as it lashed out angrily at an increasingly intractable and complex world.
1. Paul Berman, A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (London, 1996), 66 - 7
2. Ibid., 46
3. Berman, Utopias; Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, 'The Failure and Success of the New Radicalism' in: The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930 – 80 ed. Fraser and Gerstle (Princeton, 1989)
4. Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (London, 1989), 461
5. Berman, Utopias, 100 - 122
6. Tom Hayden, Reunion, 460
7. Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (London, 1995), 90
8. Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York, 2004), 144 - 52
9. On Chomsky see a review of Chomsky's Peace in the Middle East? in The New Republic, 19/10/74, 21 - 8
10. The New Republic, 3/5/75, 3
11. The New Republic, 25/1/75, 7 - 8
12. The New Republic, 9/11/74, 3 - 4
13. The New Republic, 14/6/75, 9 - 12
14. The New Republic, 5/10/74, 3 - 5
15. Richard Rosecrance, 'Introduction' in Rosecrance, America as an Ordinary Country (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976), 11, 17
16. Kennth Hunt, 'America in the Far East: Political & Military Dimensions' in Ibid., 138
17. Ibid., 147 - 50
18. Ibid., 144 - 7
19. Rosecrance, 'New Directions' in Ibid.