The Lesson That America Did Not Learn From Vietnam

Dirk Spijkers/Hue, Vietnam

The memory of the Vietnam War shows no sign of losing any of its tremendous significance for American foreign policy-making and the commentariat. This may seem strange. U.S. Army General William Odom believed the Vietnam episode was a great mistake—America’s costly pursuit of Russia’s national interests in Southeast Asia—but saw Iraq as by far the bigger disaster, the worst strategic defeat possibly in American history. It’s also the more recent debacle. Anyone younger than fifty or so is likely to believe the same; it’s bizarre that there seems to be more attention still focused on Vietnam than on Iraq.

And it may be supposed that the disproportionate interest in this war exists only because the main channels of media and of foreign policy thinking in the country are still dominated by the Baby Boomer generation. It is well-known that the Vietnam War went a great way to the construction of their identity and self-understanding. This may be so, and yet, in the final analysis, the focus on Vietnam isn’t excessive or misplaced.

Vietnam is a supremely instructive example in how American foreign policy has been locked into a path-dependent pattern of failure that continues to our day. But the specific character of this failure isn’t what either the mainstream left or the right generally imagine it to be.

The two main narratives about Vietnam correspond roughly to the pacifist left, the non-interventionist left, and the center-left of various persuasions on one hand—the liberal and progressive mainstream—and to the mainstream right on the other. The former believe that Vietnam was both unwinnable and unjust. Their arguments vary. They insist sometimes that Vietnam was not a vital American national interest; they add that the client South Vietnamese Diem government supported by the United States was not able to command the loyalty of the people, and was therefore fated to lose to a native revolutionary insurgency.

Sometimes, by the same reasoning they use with Fidel Castro and Cuba, they claim that Ho Chi Minh was merely a Vietnamese nationalist who was turned communist by misguided American aggression; other times, they repeat Soviet-sounding talking points about American capitalist, pro-colonialist and imperialist aggression against incipient socialism and people of color. They mix these arguments, as the situation demands, with others that refer to incompetence in military strategy and tactics. They call the soldiers in the war the agents of military-capitalist oppression, at other times rubes, at other times draftee victims. The Vietnam War is a source of many formulas they use to understand other conflicts and wars in our time, especially if the administration is Republican: “quagmire,” “McNamara,” and so on.

The narrative on the right is usually that the military, or certain parts of the military, won the war, but that the politicians and the high brass lost it, and that this loss is to be blamed in part also on the leftist media and on the selfishness of the student protesters. These “revisionists,” who oppose the “orthodox” view sketched out above, point to the many military victories that were, however, turned into political and strategic defeats through the exaggerations of a media suckered—or worse—by the public-relations genius of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese commander.

Of these examples, the Tet Offensive seems to be most significant: it was in fact a great military victory by American combat units fighting professionally and with great elan in the most difficult circumstances. But the chaos and pandemonium with which such a general offensive was portrayed by a hysterical or complicit press soured the war-weary public to the conflict, which Giap had bet on. Such views are very common throughout the conservative press, and especially in the articles of Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson also makes an excellent argument for this point of view in his book Carnage and Culture.

Recent books and documentaries on Vietnam, as well as the latest historical research, all promote one or the other of these two narratives with only minor variations. Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, and H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam are examples of books on Vietnam that have made recent appearances in the national press, albeit for different reasons. President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser, H. R. McMaster, a highly successful tank commander in the 1991 Gulf War, also made his name partly through his book, where he criticizes the military of the time for not standing up to civilian leadership to oppose a badly-conceived war strategy. Although published some time ago, the book gained recent notoriety because of McMaster’s own role in convincing President Trump to extend the war in Afghanistan.

Many in the military and veteran community commented on the peculiarity of McMaster’s own actions as National Security Adviser, compared to the arguments advanced in his book. Max Boot’s work is a favorable biography of American spy Edward Lansdale and received positive reviews in Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, and America’s legacy press and foreign policy establishment. Although McMaster’s and Boot’s books offer different views, both could be argued to fall into the revisionist camp, arguing that the conflict was either winnable with a different military-political strategy, or at the very least could have been made less costly.

One of the best recent reviews of the current state of Vietnam research, as well as its outsized place in American public consciousness, can be found in Mackubin Thomas Owens’ “The Vietnam War Revisited” in the Spring 2018 issue of the Claremont Review. Owens, a Vietnam veteran, is in this piece responding to a ten-part documentary that aired on PBS last year, Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. This documentary predictably presented the orthodox view of Vietnam as both unwinnable and unjust, from a liberal or center-left point of view. Owens criticizes the documentary for not discussing or debating the alternative revisionist views of the war. To this end, Owens presents several books, some relatively recent, which make the case that Vietnam was winnable with a different military strategy.

Owens makes a convincing case that the “small war” counterinsurgency approach favored by the Marines was abandoned early in the conflict in favor of the Army’s and General Westmoreland’s strategy of “war of big battalions,” and that this contributed to the disasters that followed. The Marines had experience fighting counterinsurgencies in Haiti, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, and this approach was far better suited to counter the North Vietnamese military-political struggle than the one the military actually pursued up until at least 1968. Owens presents the argument of historian Lewis Sorley, namely that after 1968 the approach finally shifted to a counterinsurgency model and that, guided by new officials—General Creighton Abrams, Ellsworth Bunker as the new ambassador, and William Colby at the CIA—America largely succeeded in stabilizing South Vietnam and winning the struggle. Sorley “contends the real cause of U.S. defeat was that congress and Richard Nixon’s administration threw away the successes achieved by American and South Vietnamese arms.” Owens claims that too much attention has been given to the early years of the conflict, and not enough to the later years of the war, after 1969, when the military-political strategy changed and the tide turned to America’s favor.

And yet, Owens says early in his piece that “nothing illustrates the orthodox-revisionist divide more than the respective treatments of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem,” America’s client leader in Vietnam, who was installed in 1954 and assassinated in 1963, twenty days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In fact, the problem of Diem is key to understanding the tragedy of Vietnam. And to know what really happened, it’s important to turn to sources ignored by the two main narratives and camps presented so far, to an older view and a set of facts not taken into account in this debate, which have been hitherto largely absent from public discourse on foreign policy.

An Alternative View, and Vietnam Before America

Hilaire du Berrier’s Background to Betrayal: the Tragedy of Vietnam and James Burnham’s The War We Are In both contain a kind of foreign policy thinking that can’t be found any longer in either the popular or academic press, and present arguments and facts that, however much one may disagree, nevertheless deserve a hearing. This must be so, if only because the two orthodox and revisionist narratives presented above on Vietnam actually represent the two main points of view found today applied to other conflicts by the American foreign policy, military, and intelligence establishment.

The flaws of these two main points of view have led to the the manifest failure of this bipartisan establishment’s interventions in Libya, Syria, Yemen, no less than in Iraq and Afghanistan. This failure is one of the great causes of the political convulsions of our time: the proliferation of failed states, costly disasters abroad, the migrant crisis, and the populist backlash both in America and Europe. A different way is necessary, and to this end, alternative views must be recovered. The information both Berrier and Burnham give on the conduct of American foreign policy in their time is especially troubling and forces one to think of parallels to our own.

Hilaire du Berrier, born Hal du Berrier in 1906 North Dakota, seems to have been a man determined to live out the escapades and adventures of a modern-day knight. He was a volunteer pilot for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie against the fascist Italians, for the Spanish crown against the communists in the Spanish Civil War, and later in the service of Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam against what he saw as the same enemy. He was also briefly a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Shanghai and in Vietnam was involved at multiple levels of negotiation and intrigue, both before and during the regime of Diem. Fluent in Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and several other dialects, Berrier was uniquely positioned to become a go-between for the camps of the French, the Vietnamese Emperor, and the various American factions. He thereby gained strong, first-hand knowledge of the events and especially of all the people involved in the American adventure in Vietnam.

Background to Betrayal was published in 1965, the year generally acknowledged to be the start of wide-scale military hostilities Vietnam, but Berrier’s conclusion is that by this time there was nothing that could be won. The war was already lost before it started. Diem and his brother Nhu, with American largesse and logistical support, erected a police state that systematically attacked and destroyed, not the communists, but the traditional anti-communist, monarchist and nationalist factions of South Vietnam. This is the really shocking and unusual argument of Berrier’s book, that through the incompetence but especially through the willful subversion of America’s own intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps, the United States destroyed its own allies and promoted the benefit of its enemies. It’s a pattern we see repeated again and again in our own day; and the how and why of Background to Betrayal, a book brimming with facts and with names named, is therefore supremely instructive for those who want to understand the otherwise puzzling behavior of the American foreign policy establishment in our time.

The story of American involvement in Vietnam does not begin with the installation of Diem as a client leader of South Vietnam, but with active American support for Ho Chi Minh during World War II. The first phase of American involvement, Berrier reminds us, consisted of an alliance with the Soviets against colonialism: since 1940 America had supported Ho Chi Minh as a supposedly nationalist leader who would oust the French and fight off the Japanese. In fact, Ho Chi Minh’s  forces never seriously engaged the Japanese, and Ho Chi Minh himself was a well-known communist agent in the area: he had attended Moscow’s Orient University and was “sent to China in 1925 with Borodin, the agent charged with the communization of China. Ho was arrested in Hong Kong in 1931 and was later expelled as head of the bureau of the third international, which was entrusted with the preparation of Communist revolutions in Southeast Asia.”

This is the man that the American OSS, the precursor of the CIA, threw its weight behind: Berrier names the OSS agents and journalists who, aware of Ho Chi Minh’s past in Hong Kong and his ties to international communism, nevertheless promoted him in the 1940s and provided him with both logistical support and armaments. Berrier lists furthermore the principal names of journalists and donors who formed an alliance of socialist sympathizers behind the Vietnam-American Friendship Association, incorporated in New York, and tasked with promoting Ho Chi Minh and his cause to the American public. The continuation of this program in 1954 after the French pullout from South Vietnam was the promotion of the Diem regime.

It may seem strange to conservatives and their friends to think of Diem, for so long sold as a faithful Catholic and a fiery anti-communist dictator and ally of America, as a man in fact first promoted by the American far-left, possibly with direction from Moscow. But that appears to be the case. Diem’s brother Nhu, the man who with his wife actually ran the nation from 1954 on, was a labor leader in Vietnam and a member of the international socialist left labor movement. The socialist pro-Ho Chi Minh society named above morphed into The American Friends of Vietnam, which supported Diem and retaliated with smear campaigns and ostracism against anyone in the American government or press who questioned the choice of new leadership in Vietnam.

The first articles supporting Diem appeared in 1954 in the New Leader, the main press organ of the AFL-CIO. Until at least 1959 and in fact up to 1961, Diem’s chief backers were an alliance of the liberal elite supported by the international socialist left: his chief proponent in America was Joseph Buttinger, an Austrian-born socialist activist. Diem’s police forces and propaganda establishment inside Vietnam were trained at a Vietnam program at Michigan State University, run by one Professor Wesley Fishel, promoted to the American public by the same AFL-CIO. Fishel’s friend, Russian-born Wolf Ladejinsky, was running land reform in Vietnam under Diem, after having been evicted from a similar position in Tokyo for corruption. The same organs of the international socialist left both inside America and France, as well as their subsidiaries in Vietnam under Diem’s brother Nhu, worked to promote these men to America.

Most troubling is that Diem’s government was throughout its tenure deeply infiltrated by communist agents. Ministers of various departments were well-known “ex”-Vietminh—most significantly Kieu cong Cung and Albert Pham ngoc Thao, who ran Diem’s secret police and intelligence apparatus, respectively. The former had been Ho Chi Minh’s chief of staff, and the latter had been Ho Chi Minh’s intelligence chief in the south before a “conversion.” These men brought all their North Vietnamese lieutenants with them into South Vietnam and Diem’s regime. At no point did they confront communism, as is now widely believed by the main narratives briefly described at the beginning of this article. All their efforts predictably went into dismantling any existing anti-communist and traditionalist factions at the time in South Vietnam.

That they successfully denounced some of these anti-communist and traditionalist factions as “communists” to a clueless American political class and public, with considerable help from elements in both the CIA and the State Department, should be no surprise: even in our day we can see how easily al-Qaida can provide “informants” and “defectors” who manipulate the CIA and the might of the United States into attacking their enemies, sometimes for years on. In the United States, Albert Pham ngoc Thao, who turned a considerable U.S.-funded police state on the anti-communist factions of South Vietnam, was promoted to the American public as a staunch anti-communist crusader by journalist Joe Alsop.

It’s only mainly after 1961 that the liberal establishment turned against Diem and tried to wash its hands of the Vietnam affair, when it was clear the experiment was going wrong. And it is also around this time that Diem became a favorable figure for American conservatives, who reflexively rallied to defend what the left started to attack, a pattern that traditional and mainstream conservatives in America have continued to repeat into the present.

Both orthodox and revisionist historians who promote the two mainstream narratives recognize many of these facts, but tend to explain them away or downplay their importance. Mackubin Thomas Owens recognizes that the problem of Vietnam hinges on the question of whether it was right for America to support Diem in the first place, and defends Diem’s regime by claiming that he efficiently dealt with “organized crime” that had long plagued Vietnam. What this may have to do with the task for which America supported him in the first place—fighting communism—is not clear. But actually, the fact that Diem made fighting “organized crime” his first task is the very core of the problem.

What is called “organized crime” was in fact a loose coalition of semi-secret societies, parties, and sects that had been, prior to 1954, extremely effective at fighting the communists and keeping them out of South Vietnam. These included the Binh Xuyen—what could come closest to the label of “organized crime,” although they also had the features of a political party and an army—and the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects. Whatever their faults, such organizations were staunchly anti-communist and were the only factions capable of carrying out successful underground counter-insurgency work in South Vietnam. Prior to their destruction by Diem with the help of the CIA, they had successfully kept the Vietminh out of the South Vietnamese countryside and society.

By contrast, at no point—neither during Diem’s regime, nor during the time after 1968 when the American strategy supposedly shifted to a “counterinsurgency” strategy—were the other, non-native efforts to keep the communists out of South Vietnam ever effective. Both Owens and Boot, and to some extent also many orthodox historians, sometimes repeat that Diem was the only viable and effective anti-communist force in Vietnam, but this is simply not true: it’s based on the false belief that hamlets reported by American officials in the region as pacified or cleared from infiltration were actually so.

Berrier documents in detail how every night control of these villages was relinquished; communist guerrillas entered the village, carried out courts and judgments, and patrolled the area freely. American control of the hinterland outside Saigon was illusory, much like the illusion of control in the Afghan countryside today. By night, the enemy rules, and this is what matters, because the average villager knows they can’t be protected in the long run, and often in the short run. Then, as now, America and its local clients controlled at most a limited area of the capital city, and had to expend endless treasure and force to preserve even this.

The troubling trend that runs throughout this failed policy, where it is not to be attributed to pro-communist elements within America’s establishment, amounts to an arrogance and incompetence which placed the attempt to revolutionize and reform Vietnamese society ahead of the goal of fighting communism. This is the motive that can be attributed to men like Edward Lansdale, Lieutenant General O’Daniel, and Senator Mike Mansfield, some of Diem’s and Nhu’s principal supporters in the 1950s. They made the elimination of traditional Vietnam their first task. The erection of a new society based on enlightened principles and liberated from traditional obscurantism, monarchy, and colonial heritage became the first goal and the main experiment—the fight against communism was not their main concern, or was wrongly assumed to be identical to this act of “nation building.”

But Vietnam had already been a nation with a long history. Its Emperor Bao Dai, without whom Vietnamese identity previously had had no meaning, and the various sects and secret societies Diem and Nhu’s supporters targeted, were its principal institutions. Its long-standing relationship with France and Europe was another pillar of the society that couldn’t be removed without the direst consequences for the struggle against Marxist-Leninism. Contrary to popular belief, communism had made no inroads into South Vietnam prior to French withdrawal in 1954—a withdrawal that had been planned already by the clique around communist-supported French President Pierre Mendes-France for a year before the disaster at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent collapse of French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel’s government in 1954.

The atrocities committed by Diem inflamed the population against America and drove them into the hands of the communists. For example, the ethnic cleansing campaign carried out against the Vietnamese montagnards, previously long protected by the French, and the final assault on the nationalist Dai Viet party that had never accepted Diem, no less than the persecutions of Buddhist traditions and holidays. By the time of Diem’s assassination—very popular with the Vietnamese public—Vietnamese society was at a breaking point. The Diem regime was almost never secure throughout the period 1954-63, but at every moment depended on vast sums of American money and on continual repression. Its only attempt to legitimize itself consisted in socialist fulminations against the monarch of Vietnam and against the specter of European and French colonialism, a task with which they were amply helped by America’s intelligence services.

Max Boot’s hero Lansdale makes a rather peculiar appearance in Berrier’s book: to the French, he was known as the promoter and instigator of riots and possible massacres against European civilians, via anti-Western leaflets distributed by the Diem regime at crucial points in its tenure. Even Diem’s targeting of “organized crime” had nothing to do with corruption as such: the real reason the most powerful of these secret societies, the Binh Xuyen, was targeted, was that it remained loyal to the emperor Bao Dai. As Berrier says, “[I]t is part of the phenomena of American liberalism that any anti-western demagogue hard-pressed for victory to hold up to his people has only to attack a king to enjoy American approval and recognition. Nasser’s invasion of Yemen is a ready example.”

What, then, can explain why America came to support its own enemies in Vietnam? How could the United States, at great expense in treasure and lives, come to support a government like Diem’s, whose security services were under Vietminh control and which never made the slightest attempt to confront the North Vietnamese or communism, but focused all its attention on consolidating power, destroying traditional Vietnam, and eliminating any European presence in Southeast Asia? Berrier’s answer is prescient:

A senseless, stupid crusade against colonialism, agreed upon by Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran, led us up to our waists in the quagmire of Indochina. Determination to replace the allies we were ousting drew us in the rest of the way. A one-hour carrier-based airstrike could have destroyed Ho chi Minh’s decimated army in March 1954, saved the beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu and changed the course of history. But there was a virus in the bloodstream of America that desired a Vietminh triumph. The story of Indochina is the story of the decline of the West. Only an informed public, such as America did not have on November 4, 1964, will bring the victory at the polls which alone will eradicate the virus and prevent many more Indochinas to come.

James Burnham and the Third World

A counterargument to the general claims made above exists ready-made in American foreign policy lore: the idea of Arthur Schlesinger’s that after World War II the task of the United States abroad was to promote a “vital center,” an alternative to the authoritarianism of both right and left. This sounds good on paper, and is very similar although not identical to a strategy sometimes used during the Cold War to promote the non-Marxist-Leninist left as a counter to the ideological campaign of the Soviet Union. In many cases, it was preferable and even necessary to side with dissident leftist movements in this or that theater, in order to introduce confusion and chaos into the enemy camp, or simply because this or that country may have been already on the path of leftist reform, and it became necessary therefore to make sure that it would be a non-Soviet type of leftism that triumphed.

This counterargument to the case made by Berrier is not defensible in light of the specific evidence he gives throughout the book of active subversion on the part of elements in America’s establishment to promote the Vietminh and Ho Chi Minh, a Moscow-trained Soviet agent; or in the face of the eventual outcome in Vietnam, which was after all not a success of pitting left against left, but a communist victory and a failure from which America still apparently hasn’t recovered. And as Berrier predicted, many more Indochinas did come, and some very recently, the American victory in the Cold War notwithstanding. Accounts like Berrier’s, based on exposing the people and operational structures used by the international left to promote its various causes, explain the events of our time better than any theoretical or game-theoretical political science tract. In particular, such accounts explain the otherwise puzzling pattern of America’s supporting its own enemies and the reasons why it systematically dismantles its potential friends.

James Burnham, the most hawkish of Cold Warriors, provides further support for Berrier’s general argument. Burnham provides a wealth of examples of how America shot itself in the foot by putting the struggle against authoritarianism and colonialism before the need to fight communism, and in many cases siding with communism against the former. In his book The War We Are In,  a collection of his articles on geopolitics and foreign affairs written for National Review in the 1950s and 60s, he documents at length the liberal establishment’s blunders in Africa, Asia, and South America, when they sided with America’s enemies and destroyed traditionalist factions friendly to the United States. A couple of examples will suffice, but his book is replete with facts that dispel any notion that the liberal establishment’s promotion of international socialism and assault on traditional institutions since the 1950s or even before has any innocent explanation.

In the summer of 1961, the Kennedy Administration voted against Portugal in a United Nations resolution on the matter of Angola and Mozambique, at that time Portuguese colonies. This was despite the fact, as Burnham points out, that Portugal was a founding member of NATO; that its colonies in Africa provided material and military support faithfully to America, including control of major river systems and vast new airbases to counter Soviet attempts in sub-Saharan Africa and in the south Atlantic; that it had been in Africa for over four hundred years; and that its colonies were for the most part peaceful and well-integrated: Burnham reminds us that more than any other colonial power, Portugal had promoted the idea of a racial democracy and a policy of integration. Nevertheless, the Kennedy brothers “vote on Angola with Khrushchev, Sukarno and Toure, and against Salazar and de Gaulle, because they wish to slick up the ‘Public Image’ of the U.S., as the Image of a soap or an election candidate is slicked up by the Madison Avenue pros. With its Image transformed to that of ‘anti-colonialist leader,’ the U.S. will win the World Election.”

While this event, typical of the actions of the liberal order even in our own time, can be attributed to ideological blindness, vanity, or incompetence, far more troubling is Burnham’s discussion of the Kennedy Administration’s response to events in Peru in the summer of 1962. In the wake of an inconclusive election where the vote split three ways, with no candidate getting even a third of the total, Peru’s military stepped in and created a caretaker government to prevent what, in a Latin American context, would inevitably lead to social breakdown. Kennedy and his brother within a day moved to denounce, to cut off aid and all other ties to Peru, and to work with Latin America’s leftist regimes to bring down the new government in Lima.

This in itself is par for the course: in our own time, the Obama administration similarly moved against the coup that General Al Sisi carried out in Egypt against America’s enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and earlier against the military in Honduras when they removed (in an entirely constitutional framework) the leftist and anti-American Manuel Zelaya. The pretext for such condemnations is of course that the coup and the new regime is “anti-democratic,” but, as Burnham points out,

[T]his is the same Administration that is pouring food, arms, machines and hundreds of millions of dollars into the lap of the communist dictatorship in Yugoslavia, the communist dictatorship in Poland, the one-party pro-Eastern dictatorship in Ghana (and a dozen other African nations), the Arab socialist dictatorship in Egypt, the anti-Western Arab terrorist regime in Algeria, etc. But none of these governments is anti-communist or ‘of the Right.’ The iron law of the Liberal ideology asserts itself: The real enemy is always to the Right! Il n’y a pas d’ennemi a gauche!

Despite Burnham’s noticeably ideological perspective, his analysis is worth considering. That much the same ideology dominates the liberal consensus of our time is obvious. American allies in Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines are denounced by both liberal and neoconservative pundits and officials for relatively mild measures they take to protect their borders, sovereignty, and national culture. By contrast, largesse and deference are given to brutal dictatorships in China and the Gulf States, and to corrupt, violent, and ethnocentrist regimes in much of Africa, even though these states pursue much more aggressive versions of the same policies.

Nor is it hard to understand from Burnham’s point of view why, during the last thirty years, America has consistently sided with international Sunni Islam in every theater: with the Chechens against Russia, with the Albanians, Turks and Bosnians against the Serbs and Macedonians, with the Pakistanis against India, with the Saudis and their allies against secular regimes in Iraq and Syria, with Islamist militias against a Gaddafi who had reached a rapprochement with the West and whose presence was holding back mass migration from sub-Saharan Africa which contributed to the migrant crisis; and with Muslim pressure groups in Europe supported by local American embassies. For, as Burnham noted, Marxist-Leninism wasn’t really an ideology or an economic system, but a competing civilization system, and this role is somewhat taken up by Sunni Islam in our time.

In this understanding, the liberal consensus will always ally with the anti-Western faction abroad, even as it tries to appropriate the label of “the real West,” descent from the Enlightenment, and so forth. The focus on ideology and mythologies about doctrines and rights is itself to a large extent a ruse meant to obscure concrete political and historical realities: as Burnham points out, nobody a few centuries from now will understand European withdrawal from Africa in the 1960s as a story about rights or liberation. They will see it for what it is, retrenchment and retreat of a civilization in the face of threat and aggression from another, with the aid of a complicit fifth column at home.

Like Berrier, a great virtue of Burnham’s approach is that he actually names names, and goes into the details of how American foreign policy is actually baked, of who the players are. The 1962 coup in Peru and the subsequent chaos is itself shown to be the result of boneheaded meddling, despite Burnham’s distasteful caricatures:

No one should be surprised to discover at the center of the Peruvian farce a cluster of pedigreed ideologues bred in the kennels of Americans for Democratic Action. As field commander in Lima, masquerading as ambassador, there was James Loeb, one of the initiators of Americans for Democratic Action, long-time ADA co-chairman, all-out civil righter, welfarer, racial integrator, co-exister, Red China recognizer, etc. etc. Back at headquarters was a yipping yardful of his litter-mates: Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walt Rostow, Richard Goodwin, Chester Bowles and the other ribbon-winners of the self-entitled Non-Communist Left (NCL). What the NCL wants for Latin America—as for Africa, Asia and, why not, for Europe and North Africa too in good time—is, in substance, Castroism without quite so close a link to Moscow or quite so many killings…In Peru they put our money—and plenty of it—on Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, chief of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, a typical NCLer with a typical background of past communist connections and bloodshed…the money, intrigues and threats with which the U.S. backed Haya were probably a main reason why Haya did so much worse than expected in the June 10 election.

In the named election, Haya, the “non-communist left” choice of this group inside America’s diplomatic corps and intelligence agencies, ran far behind the candidate furthest to the right in the capital district of Lima.

Many other similar examples from Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia are given by Burnham and to some extent also by Berrier, who mentions the length to which American “non-communist” labor leaders worked with elements in the American liberal political establishment to destabilize traditional governments in, for example, Tunisia and then possibly Morocco, in addition to his well-documented case of Vietnam.

Burnham of course was the farthest thing possible from an “anti-interventionist”—he advocated intervention even in the nations of the Warsaw pact. Both he and Berrier are the toughest of Cold Warriors. It’s possible that looking at foreign policy in terms of abstract ideologies or schools of thought has limited use.

A peculiarity of contemporary American political life should in conclusion be remarked on. It’s worth noticing what happens in conversation or debate, in person or in the press, when anyone ever tries to shift the subject away from discussion of abstract political and foreign policy ideologies and schools—”interventionism versus noninterventionism,” “realism,” “democratic peace theory,” and so forth—to concrete questions of who and whom. If any party wishes to talk not of ideals and philosophy, but about who actually is making the decisions in American government, or any foreign government, which organizations are pressuring them, who was their teacher or mentor, who are their associates, and so on, the response from the usual voices in public discourse is quite vehemently negative.

And yet despite its unpopularity, the greatest insight comes from precisely the type of history and inquiry carried out by Burnham and Berrier, which seeks to find who made the crucial and misguided decisions, what their motivations were, who they worked with.

While there are many people on both the left and the right who are genuinely motivated by ideological commitments or beliefs about justice, that is not how the key decisions end up being made. From these accounts of the actual details of decision-making, it appears that the much-promoted debate over principle, over abstractions like “interventionism” and so on, is a shadow-play on the wall, distracting us away from investigation of the individuals, societies, and organizations involved at crucial decision-making positions and moments.

This detail-oriented paradigm of investigation, privileging concrete case studies over grand abstractions, is necessary to build the more coherent worldview we aim for at Palladium. And necessary, ultimately, for America to avoid a future of “many more Indochinas to come.”

Costin Alamariu holds a PhD in political science from Yale University. You can follow him at @costin_eats.