The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II

The debate over the lessons of the Vietnam War has gone on for so long that it is tempting to believe that there is nothing new to be said on the subject. By now, a quarter of a century after the fall of Saigon in late April 1975, the ideological positions have hardened between those who believe that the United States should never have intervened and those who argue that a potentially successful effort was sabotaged by a faulty strategy and the constant carping of the national media.

None of the three books under review here takes a position that will substantially change the nature of the debate, but they are all part of an important and useful process that will carry it beyond the stage of polemics into an era of painstaking historical analysis. As that takes place, one hopes that the simplistic assessments of the early postwar period will gradually be replaced by an understanding of the war as the deeply complex reality that it actually was.

It has long been a deeply held view in some quarters that United States intervention in Vietnam could have succeeded had the proper strategy been adopted from the outset. Seldom has this argument been put forward with greater persuasiveness than in Lewis Sorley’s A Better War. A graduate of West Point with two decades of service in the United States Army, Sorley argues that America’s failure in Vietnam can be traced partly to the inappropriate strategy adopted by Gen. William C. Westmoreland after his arrival as commander of United States troops there in 1964. By focusing on classical “search and destroy” offensives carried out by massive United States forces, Westmoreland neglected the pacification program and failed to recognize the crucial importance of training the South Vietnamese army eventually to take the lead in the war effort. The result was a rapid escalation of the war, heavy casualties on both sides, and a rising chorus of protest in the United States.

When Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Westmoreland in July 1968, he adopted a strategy more commensurate with the actual situation, engaging in modest “clear and hold” operations, building up the strength of local forces, and recognizing the importance of the pacification program. By now, however, Washington’s policy had changed. At President Richard M. Nixon’s order, United States combat troops were gradually being withdrawn while peace talks got under way in Paris. Although political and military conditions in South Vietnam improved during the early 1970s, public support for a continuation of the war had virtually evaporated in the United States, and the White House was interested solely in finding an honorable way to withdraw, an objective that was finally realized in the Paris agreement signed in January 1973. When Hanoi launched its final offensive in the South two years later, Saigon was unprepared to counter it effectively and rapidly collapsed.

Sorley makes a persuasive case that the Abrams strategy was more appropriate to the realities of the situation than was that of his predecessor, but his argument that Abrams might have succeeded had he been in charge at the outset ultimately does not convince. As he admits, ineffective leadership and a lack of self-confidence were at the root of Saigon’s problem, and there is no convincing evidence that the Abrams approach would have adequately addressed it. He also underestimates the resourcefulness and dedication of America’s adversary and the degree of support that the insurgents possessed in South Vietnam. At best, the United States might have been involved in an interminable pacification effort in South Vietnam while being faced with declining public support at home. It is not a promising recipe for success.

Few of the contributors to the editor Peter Lowe’s The Vietnam War, a collection of essays that deal with the conflict from the point of view of several of the participants, are likely to agree with Sorley’s conclusion that there was a potential “American solution” to the problem. In his exploration of the underlying dynamics of the war, the British scholar Anthony Short notes that as early as 1961, when President John F. Kennedy took office, the future collapse of the Saigon regime was already clearly in view. Yet Kennedy’s advisers tackled the problem with an astonishing degree of innocence and overconfidence. Only experience, he concludes sadly, would teach them otherwise.

In a cogent essay on the United States role in the war, the diplomatic historian David L. Anderson defends Washington’s decision to intervene in Indochina after the 1954 Geneva Conference as an understandable response to existing conditions in Asia, marked as they were by the shadow of the Korean conflict and the growing intensity of the Cold War. Where United States leaders erred, in his view, was by losing a sense of proportionality, as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s initial and limited objective of building a viable government in South Vietnam was gradually transformed into an apparently open-ended commitment to an unreliable ally. By the late 1960s, the latter had lost all credibility as an independent state. In the end, Anderson notes, Washington was never able “to translate American power and good intentions into political viability in Saigon.”

The endemic weakness of the Saigon regime is the main topic of Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on the South Vietnamese role in the conflict. Taking issue with the standard version in both Washington and Hanoi that North Vietnamese troops won the war with their big-unit offensive in 1975, he asserts that by that time the Nguyen Van Thieu government was already at the point of collapse. Anger among the local populace against the Saigon regime had appeared as early as the mid-1950s, and it was in response to that fact that Communist leaders in Hanoi had decided to adopt a more activist strategy in the South in the first place. By the mid-1970s, popular resentment at official corruption and incompetence, combined with a growing desire for peace, had cost the Saigon regime its last shreds of public support. When North Vietnamese troops launched their final campaign in 1975, he argues, the government collapsed virtually without a fight. Long’s essay serves as a forceful rejoinder to Sorley’s view that the Viet Cong lacked any significant public support in South Vietnam, although he almost certainly overstates the influence of the insurgent movement in the final years of the war.

Most of the remaining essays in the volume focus attention on the role of North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union, and other interested parties in the war. All are noteworthy for adding to our awareness of how often external factors affected the situation in South Vietnam. The sociologist Tom Wells contributes a provocative piece on the role played by the United States antiwar movement in bringing an end to the fighting. He concludes, somewhat enigmatically, that the movement both helped and hindered the process of bringing an end to United States intervention in South Vietnam.

In The Limits of Empire, Robert J. McMahon places the Indochina conflict in the broader context of United States containment policy in Southeast Asia following World War II. Containment strategy was initially adopted as a defensive measure to counter the allegedly expansionist goals of international communism, led by the Soviet Union and China. But, he argues, Washington’s fears of a spreading red tide that could eventually undercut the postwar economic recovery of United States allies in Europe and Asia, though understandable, were vastly overdrawn. In the end, the United States was saddled with an empire that it had not initially desired and could not control. After the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, the United States sensibly recast its objectives in Southeast Asia to focus on economic and commercial interests, while the countries of the region increasingly sought to control their own destiny through the means of regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

McMahon’s analysis is generally sound, and his conclusions are sensible, but there is perhaps too much hindsight in his easy assumption that there was no threat of falling dominoes in the early postwar era. Is it possible that United States containment policies contributed significantly to the emergence of the relatively stable conditions that currently characterize the region? Regrettably, he does not tell us.

William J. Duiker
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania