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A nation must think before it acts.
In this issue—and as always—Orbis is pleased to offer an array of insightful and informative articles to our readers. We begin with reflections on the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln by the great Lincoln scholar, Allan C. Guelzo, who observes that while we today laud Abraham Lincoln for the wisdom, humility, and prudence he exhibited during the war to preserve the Union, it was his fundamental reverence for the rule of law that remains the shining mark of his statesmanship, indeed the statesmanship of any democracy.
Next, the renowned naval historian, John Maurer of the Naval War College, draws parallels between the contest for naval mastery during the Great War and today, in that the United States now faces the same sort of challenge from China that Great Britain did from Germany in the period leading up to the conflict. The stakes at risk for the United States in today’s contest are just as high as they were a century ago for Britain. Defeat at sea would wreck American global leadership in the twenty-first century just as surely as it would have meant the collapse of British power in the twentieth. What, then, can we learn from past struggles for sea power and America’s entry into the First World War that offers guidance for understanding our current strategic predicament?
Our third article by Mamuka Tsereteli addresses Russia’s quest for leadership within the post-Cold War European order. The author argues that Russia is attempting to change “realities on the ground” by limiting the sovereignty of the countries in what it considers to be its sphere of influence and preventing its penetration by Western hard and soft power
Andrew W. Marshall, the first Director of Net Assessment for the Department of Defense, and Abram N. Shulsky, a longtime defense analyst, examine the case of the Soviet Union in describing the difficulties associated with determining the sustainability of command economies and totalitarian regimes. The fact was that the U.S. intelligence agencies were never able to determine with any degree of certainty the real size and health of the Soviet economy. Since the United States undoubtedly will continue to face adversaries in the future with similarly opaque command (or mixed command and free market) economies, the problem is likely to arise again. The authors, based on their assessments of failures in the Soviet case, offer some suggestions to improve the assessments of the size and health of such opaque economies.
Artyom Lukin and Liudmila Zakharova note that Russia’s relations with North Korea are often ignored in the West. In fact, Russia maintains a range of economic links with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which taken together, constitute substantial leverage that Russia can exercise over North Korea, when and if it chooses to do so. The authors focus on the economic dimension of the Russia-North Korea relationship.
Peter Campbell examines the claim that in cyberspace, the offense holds the advantage at both either the tactical or the strategic level. Turning to two unexpected sources—official statements of U.S. Army doctrine and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War—he concludes that a defensive doctrine has clear advantages over an offensive one.
Tianchi Wu notes that the utility of land power is not diminishing, but that the traditional employment of land power, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, has tended to exhaust domestic political will necessary to sustain it over time. He argues that the answer to the dilemma of land power, however preliminary, focuses on time and lies at the nexus of strategy and cost.
Kim Cragin and Ari Weil examine a recent innovation by the Islamic State (IS) in its global campaign of terrorism: the use of virtually planned attacks, which are a response to U.S./allied successes in reducing the ability of IS to send foreign fighters home to conduct attacks against the West. Historically, virtually planned attacks in Europe and the United States have not been as successful as those executed by foreign fighters. But attacks in Southeast Asia may provide a forewarning of what is to come.
Karl E. Nell contends that the disengagement of U.S. leadership in recent years has not only emboldened the world’s worst actors, but it also has enabled the emergence of non-state groups such as the ISIS, which threatens a new and ominous trend in international affairs—the pursuit of sovereign authority by transnational violent-extremists. The author proposes the “Doctrine of Contingent Sovereignty,” the idea that the privilege of sovereignty remains contingent upon adherence to accepted international norms of behavior. Such a doctrine provides the requisite tools for bolstering the legitimacy of weakened states while simultaneously affording the necessary freedom-of-action for the United States to secure its vital national interests
And, finally, in our book review, Ben Silberstein reviews two books exploring North Korea; and Thomas Cavanna assesses two books on China.
On February 1 of this year, the Foreign Policy Research Institute sponsored a panel on Vietnam, titled “The Vietnam War: “Beyond Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Documentary.” It featured several veterans of the conflict who were asked to respond to four questions: 1) Why did you serve?; 2) What were the U.S. objectives in the war?; 3) What do the American people fail to understand about the war?; and 4) What were the consequences of your service? I was honored to participate along with FPRI’s Walter McDougall, as well as board member Michael Novakovic, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam.
Here were my responses to the queries. Regarding the first question, I, like many others of my generation, served because we thought that was what we should do when our country called. We were emulating our fathers. The question reminded me of an Jim Webb’s observation in the 1980s. Webb, who was awarded the Navy Cross for valor in Vietnam and wrote the acclaimed Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire, and who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan and most recently as U.S. Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, noted that those who came of age during that war are more properly regarded not as a generation but as an age group, permanently divided by different reactions to a whole range of counter-cultural agendas, most importantly the personal ramifications of the war itself.
The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance or protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.
Unfortunately, the reason that so many of us went to Vietnam out of a sense of patriotism and obligation has been obscured by the fact that those who largely opposed the war were somehow designated as the spokesmen for the Vietnam “generation.”
As to the second question, the U.S. objective in fighting the Vietnam War was to prevent the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia. Today, many observers denigrate this cause, but at the time, the struggle between Western liberalism and communism was a feature of the geopolitical landscape. There was a purpose to the war, even if the strategy to achieve it was flawed. Vietnam’s geographic position and cultural strengths made it, as David Halberstam wrote years ago, “one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to United States interests.”
The situation in Asia after World War II—the destruction generated by the war and the sudden end of European colonialism—made the region vulnerable to the spread of communism and the domination of the region by the Soviet Union and/or China. In 1950, the partitioned country of Korea exploded into war when the communist North invaded South Korea, with the Chinese Army joining the effort six months later. Subsequently, communist insurgencies erupted in Indochina, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The insurgency in Indonesia led to a Chinese-sponsored communist coup attempt, which was put down in 1965.
Ho Chi Minh was a Soviet-trained communist, who had quickly consolidated his anti-French power base just after the war by assassinating the leadership of competing political groups that were both anti-French and anti-communist. The Korean War armistice of 1953 permitted the Chinese to shift large amounts of sophisticated weaponry to Ho Chi Minh’s army, contributing to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the partition of Vietnam in 1954.
As it had done in both Europe and Asia after World War II, the United States sought to contain the spread of communism. The country fought a war in Korea to prevent a communist takeover of the peninsula. It supported the Chinese nationalists after their expulsion from mainland China. U.S. support for South Vietnam—recognized in international law and diplomacy as an independent sovereign entity possessing the right of self-defense against external aggression—was no different. Furthermore, the U.S. intervention was in keeping with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which recognizes the right of collective self-defense. As signatories to the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, the United States pledged to defend South Vietnam from external aggression.
The third question requires the most extensive response. The axioms of the dominant narrative, reinforced by the Burns-Novick documentary on the war, are well known: that Southeast Asia in general, and South Vietnam in particular, were not vital strategic U.S. interests; that the “domino theory”—the belief that the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists would lead to the collapse of other non-Communist regimes in Southeast Asia—was false; that the South Vietnamese government was hopelessly corrupt and since it did not command the allegiance of the South Vietnamese people, it was always destined to lose a civil war to the indigenous Viet Cong; and that Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a Communist. The American soldiers who fought in Vietnam were largely reluctant draftees whose lives were ruined by the war.
But here are some correctives. Far from being an army of unwilling draftees with an overrepresentation of minorities, two-thirds of those who served—and 73 percent of those who died—were volunteers. With respect to minorities, African-Americans com-prised 13.1 percent of the age group, 12.6 percent of the military, and 12.2 percent of the casualties.
In addition, a 1980 Harris poll of Vietnam veterans revealed that 91 percent were proud of their service to their country, 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.”
Most Americans persist in the belief that Vietnam was a civil war, again a view to which the Burns-Novick documentary subscribes. But North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam, just as certainly as North Korea invaded South Korea. The North Vietnamese and their American supporters dismissed U.S. scholars of Vietnamese communism such as the late Douglas Pike who long ago made this claim.
Yet, in 1983, General Vo Nguyen Giap and Vo Bam admitted that indeed, the 15th plenum of the Lao Dong party decided in 1959 to begin the armed struggle against the Saigon government. To support this decision, the North Vietnamese built the “Ho Chi Minh” Trails through Laos and Cambodia, in violation of those countries’ neutrality, over which men and supplies moved long before the decision was made to land American combat units in 1965. The admission by Giap and Bam, in fact, confirms the U.S. claim in justification of its action in Vietnam.
Finally, most Americans are not aware of revisionist scholarship that casts the Vietnam War in a different light, even suggesting that the United States, far from being destined to lose the war, in fact had a number of opportunities to win it, despite a flawed strategy and a dysfunctional decision-making process.
Regarding the consequences of my own service, my experience led me to appreciate the costs of war and to recognize that although force should never be taken off the table as a response to international affairs, war is not a course of action we should embrace lightly.