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Thomson: 'No Substitute for Failure'


The following statement was made by James C. Thomson Jr., lecturer on History and former Far East-aide at the Department of State and National Security Council Staff, 1961-66, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

I AM GRATEFUL FOR THE opportunity to testify before this distinguished Committee on the origins and lessons of the Indochina War.

I must add, however, that I am astounded to be doing so while that war continues in yet a new phase of escalated American involvement in this fifth month of the year 1972. Had I been told, as a State Department official ten years ago or as a National Security Council staff member seven years ago, that the United States would still be a Vietnam war participant in 1972, I would have been utterly incredulous. Most of my colleagues would have been equally disbelieving.

All of us--policy-makers, legislators, and citizens alike--have been exposed by now to more data, documents, exhortations, and preachments about this war than any other unresolved crisis in our history. Let me try, therefore, to summarize very briefly my own views on the matter:

1. American participation in Vietnam hostilities is a step that could have and should have been avoided. Once begun, it should have and could have been ended at several junctures. Today, this week, is only the most recent of such junctures.

2. The Vietnam region, an Asian colonial appendage, was a region governed so badly by its French colonial rulers from the later 19th century through 1940 that Vietnamese nationalism and Vietnamese communism largely coalesced during the struggle against first France, then Japan, and then France again. As a result of such coalescence, such fusion, the leadership of the Vietnamese revolution for independence and nationhood had largely fallen under the control of long indigenous Vietnamese Communists by the mid and late 1940s. Ho Chi Minh was the George Washington of Vietnam, whatever we may think of his politics, though like George Washington he had to struggle against "loyalist" pro-French elements within the bureaucracy, army and intelligentsia.

3. Vietnam was, further, a colonial region in which the French so delayed and bungled the opportunities for post-1945 graceful withdrawal that they were eventually forced out by Ho and General Giap in 1954 under fairly ignominious circumstances. Moreover--a sadly important point for us--they were forced out at a time when the United States had been suddenly traumatized by the Cold War in Europe, the so-called "loss of China," and then the Korean War.

4. Against this backdrop, America's progressive involvement went through several very separate stages. First Washington acquiesced in the French return to Indochina and then financed the French war there largely for reasons that had nothing to do with Asia but rather, as Mr. Acheson and others have revealed, as the price required to win French participation in West European defense arrangements. (By 1954 that price totalled $4 billion.) But with the Communist victory in China. Washington developed a second rationale, namely, resistance to what was wrongly perceived as monolithic international communism: Peking and Hanoi as mere creations and puppets of Moscow. Such a false perception was intensified by the outbreak of the Korean War and China's eventual entry into that war as MacArthur marched to the Yalu. From this point on, Washington saw Chinese-directed communism "spilling out" all over Asia, and Vietnam became merely one break in the dike.

5. Hence, Washington's further blunder of disassociating the U.S. from the 1954 Geneva Accords and gradually moving in to replace the French and help upset those Accords--all on the false assumption of Communism's monolithic special nature and force of Vietnamese national-communism--a gradually escalating commitment to a historical, political, and logistical swamp that any great power should have known enough to avoid.

6. And ahence, further, the compounding of these initial blunders through escalatory intervention by two Administrations in an unfinished Vietnamese civil war from 1961 onward while pretending that it was not a civil war. In conjunction with these moves, policy-makers sought to explain such involvement to the American people by developing a public description of what was at stake in Vietnam that bore little relevance to reality but created, de facto, a new reality through rhetorical escalation; in other words, Vietnam became of supreme importance largely because we said it was of supreme importance.

7. None of this, I would add, was the result of criminal or malevolent men, either in Washington or necessarily in Southeast Asia. Most of it was the result of ignorance, shortsightedness, fear, frustration, and fatigue--though ignorance, short-sightedness, fear frustration, and fatigue can, in fact, lead to and have led to criminal consequences.

Let me deal at once with one obvious rejoinder to the preceding capsulized account. Vietnam obviously confronted American policy-makers with a situation where, if Washington had not intervened, a good many innocent anti-communists would have suffered in the course of civil war and revolution. But even if it were argued that we should be in the business of rescuing oppressed peoples from their compatriots on a worldwide basis (a dubious proposition), I would suggest that infinitely more suffering has been inflicted--and continues to be inflicted today--on people in both Vietnams and in Laos and Cambodia by our intervention than would have occurred if we hadn't interveneo. Those who have warned for years of the impending "bloodbath" must face the grim reality of the daily bloodbath we have imposed on Indochina. Here, indeed, is one of the most striking cases in modern history of a cure far worse than the disease.

As for that other recurrent rejoinder, the so-called "domino theory," such simplistic formulations are a cover for sloppy thinking. As anyone who knows that nation's tortured history must see, Vietnam is a special and peculiar mix of ingredients--unique, not general, or a "test case." What happens there tells us nothing very useful about the future anywhere else. Moreover, the consequences of Communist success there must therefore be examined with special care and precision; and such examination indicates that it would not have ramifications of real significance beyond the three Indochina states already affected--except, of course, for the commonplace of a "ripple" effect which is a far cry from the vision of falling dominoes.

I AM CONVINCED, HOWEVER, that "dominoism" does contain one important kernel of reality. For as I review the record of our Indochina involvement. I detect--as Daniel Ellsberg has put it--one crucial domino that seems to have obsessed each American President since Mr. Truman: namely, the Administration in power in Washington. By this I mean that each President has sensed a "lesson" from the Democrats' so-called "loss of China" in 1949 and their defeat at the polls in 1952--and has concluded that the "loss" of South Vietnam to communism will bring about his own Administration's downfall at the next general election.

One has heard from men in high positions at each stage of this convulsive tragedy that "no constructive alternative" to escalation was offered or available. The fact of the matter, however, is that at every stage alternatives have been offered, both from inside and outside the government. All of them were allegedly unpalatable at the time since they all ran the risk of a Communist take-over in South Vietnam. Yet all of them were proved progressively more palatable in retrospect once the opportunity was missed. There were thingswe could, and should, have done a year ago, two years ago, three, five, ten years ago, that are substantially harder to do today--except that the American people may at last be learning. They were proposed at the time; and they were rejected at each stage because the short-term price of not doing them and continuing, instead, on the same course. But the long-term price of not doing them turns out to be compounded daily and hourly.

How, now, can we end the Indochina war?

In my view, the answer is fairly simple: by trying the one thing we have not tried--honesty. Specifically, by having the greatness to admit national error, the intelligence to act on that admission, and the compassion to do it quickly.

To put the matter bluntly: in some wars there is simply no substitute for failure. It is high time to face the long evident truth: that our South Vietnamese clients are the losing faction of a revolutionary civil war, could not have lasted the past decade without us, and today will not last a week without our constant bombardment of their adversaries and their own people. There may be way-stations, even fairly enduring ones, to the ultimate outcome of Communist domination in the South--for instance, a coalition government. But a cold calculation of Vietnamese interest, as well as ours, should persuade us to acquiesce in that ultimate outcome.

THAT WE SO DESPERATELY have needed is something no President has had the courage to face and to tell the American people: that Vietnam was "lost" to Vietnamese national Communism many years ago, by the French, by Americans, but mostly by Vietnamese; that nothing short of perpetual war might "retrieve" that loss (and at what cost!); that the loss doesn't matter in terms of American security interests and indeed has never mattered; and that an admission of error and failure that brings peace to a shattered region is far from "national humiliation," as Mr. Nixon once called it, but is rather the first step toward national regeneration, an act of true national courage.

What would be the results of such a message from the Presidency?

We have been warned, for as long as I served in Government and now by those in the Nixon Administration, of the "right-wing backlash," the new "loss of China" witch-hunt, that would follow such a move. We have been warned of the headlong flight into "isolationism" or "neoisolationism" that would ensue. Are these real dangers?

The first, a "backlash," seems probable in some form in the wake of virtually any outcome short of "victory." It is simply a fact of life: the inescapable price open societies must pay for righting a major and prolonged wrong. But it is also very clearly containable in the present instance--thanks largely to the overwhelming agenda of things to be done at home and elsewhere in the world, thanks also to the media that have brought this war's insanity into every living-room, thanks hopefully to effective executive leadership.

As for the second danger--"isolationism"--it seems highly improbable. We have been over-invested, over-committed, over-extended in parts of the world, and particularly in East Asia, over the past twenty years: indeed, the so-called Nixon Doctrine wisely acknowledges that fact. But disinvestment in one area, and indeed, pullback in Asia, cannot in this day and age mean anything like what those who grew up in the twenties and thirties so much fear. We are simply too globally involved, through communications, technology, trade, travel, economic investment, diplomacy, and our special status as a nuclear power, to return to anything resembling the dream of Fortress America.

This is not to suggest that the formula I offer will have easy consequences--for there is, of course, no easy way out of our present Southeast Asian crisis. But it can, under the right leadership, move us gradually toward something new and precious: a tempering of our national grandiosity, an end to our special sense of benevolence as a nation--an erosion of the ugly qualities that accompany such overweaning confidence, including excessive fear of "loss" or "failure". It can lead, in time, toward a new national maturity: a sense that we are only one of many, and that we cannot transform the world by ourselves.

And it can lead, in the process, to a new degree of candor in our Government's relations with its own citizens and a new degree of respect by the citizens for their government. We can thereby begin to cleanse ourselves of the war's most debilitating poison: collective deception and national self-deception.

I believe that one great step toward such health, Mr. Chairman, would be the creation of a blue-ribbon bipartisan national commission to reflect upon this quarter-century tragedy and to distill its lessons for the future. I have in mind the creation, by the President or, if necessary, by the Congress, of a National Commission on the Causes, Conduct, and Consequences of the Indochina War. Such a proposal is not new. But it seems to me more imperative than ever that we make every effort to move from recrimination to reflection and understanding. I would hope that such a Commission would be given access to all archives pertaining to the war--not merely the Pentagon study, but all others as well--and would take testimony from every level of participant. I would suggest that it be given a substantial period of time for its undertaking--perhaps two or three years. And I would hope that its ultimate fundings might not merely point the finger of guilt, where appropriate, at all levels of the decision-making and war-waging process but might also recommend a "general amnesty" for all: for Presidents, their civilian advisers, and their military officials from general down through the ranks, and also for those whose consciences caused them to choose jail or to flee the country, rather than serve in the Vietnam War.


Mr. Chairman: I listened to President Nixon on the television last night. And I heard tragedy compounded.

Faced with the failure of so-called "Vietnamization," the failure of negotiations, and the failure of rhetorical and military deterrence, he confronted now the predictable and the very long predicted: a renewal of the Vietnamese revolutionary war under the leadership of North Vietnam's men with a cause, and the impending collapse of will among South Vietnamese who have little or no cause. And what has he done? He has decreed two vital U.S. stakes in Vietnam--the one entirely phoney, and the other unachievable. He tells us that our 60,000 residual American troops are threatened--and what better way to resolve that problem, one might ask, than to withdraw them? And he tells us that the 17 million South Vietnamese are in danger of being taken over by communism--a distinct possibility and eventual probability for the past twenty years. Furthermore, he has reelevated this pitiful conflict to superpower and global levels of potentialdestruction by imposing an undeclared blockade on North Vietnam and by moving into direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. Finally, he does these things, he tells us, because no longer is merely "the presidency" at stake, as he had said last month, but our "honor" is at stake. He asks us, in closing, for "the same support you have always given your President."

The President's path is the path of national insanity. The invocation of national honor over pathetically misjudged stakes has been tried before. The invocation of support for the presidency has been tried before. The conscious invocation of superpower collision has heretofore been carefully avoided by proud but prudent men. But national honor is not what beleaguered presidents define it to be; it is greater and more enduring. And blind support for presidents is at the very taproot of our continuing Indochina calamity. As for conscious invocation of superpower collision, that is a course totally unjustified by the stakes, by the history, and by the issue itself.

Once again a President has stated the choices falsely. If this President genuinely wants peace, if he genuinely seeks the release of our prisoners, if he is genuinely concerned about our 60,000 remaining troops, and if he genuinely cares about the fate of 17 million South Vietnamese, he must take two long essential steps toward real peace: the first, proposed six years ago by the late Robert Kennedy, an offer at long last to agree to the formation of a coalition government in South Vietnam; and the second, proposed repeatedly by members of this Congress, the clear and final setting of a deadline for total withdrawal of all American forces from Indochina.

Only then can the people of Indochina begin to be relieved of the nightmare we have helped inflict upon them. And only then can the people of America emerge from their own far lesser nightmare

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