I am now reading Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent Into Vietnam by Brian VanDeMark. This is a newly released book, particularly compared to what I usually read. The book was published in the fall of 2018.
It is occasionally a difficult book to read, even when comparing it to some of the military-sponsored works I’ve referenced previously, but not because of the writing style. It is written well enough that it is a pretty comfortable reading experience. The difficulty comes from the thesis of the book itself and how that translates to a narrative.
The idea is to reexamine the escalation of the Vietnam War in the light of the most modern understanding of psychology. Basically, Kennedy’s, and then Johnson’s, people were supposed to be the best and the brightest and on the peaceful side of the political table to boot. So then how did they drive so deeply into a war effort that became such a spectacular failure? To explore this, historical records of the decision-making process are interspersed with psychological theories about how one might arrive at such a wrong set of decisions, given the pressures of human frailty. The breakup of the narrative can distract, especially when some of the psychology is stretched quite a bit to apply to meager evidence from 55 years ago. Still, as I said, the book reads well enough, especially once you get used to its pacing.
The book begins with the Bay of Pigs invasion and, essentially, the beginning of Jack Kennedy’s presidential term. The argument is that the combination of talent, ego, and inexperience caused a series of missteps resulting in failure at the Bay of Pigs. That failure, the book describes, lead directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in some ways, the successful outcome of that confrontation. But that success built a foundation for failed decision-making processes that would send us down the wrong road in Vietnam. Eventually, not only would South Vietnam to fall to the North but it would do so only after tremendous expenditure of blood and treasure on the part of the United States. The blame for that loss, and the impact on American politics and military, continues to reverberate in American politics to this day.
The author also wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam with Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. That project started as a book about McNamara created through extensive interviews between the two co-authors as well as talks with other major players from the top ranks of late-60s diplomacy. In response to another biography, McNamara decided to release his own memoir and the VanDeMark/McNamara biography was turned into auto-biography. With this background research, in this book VanDeMark can analyze events of the time by comparing the thoughts of the contemporary McNamara with a retrospective McNamara as a way to understand the extent to which the thinking was distorted when decisions were being made.
One area in which this book stumbles is flying high of its politically-biased flag. Perhaps it should only be expected that a book critical of the Vietnam War should be authored by a liberal. Writing from the vantage point provided by one’s own beliefs allows an exploration of that world as one sees it, which may, perhaps, be a necessity. I find parts of this book, however, where the partisan leanings bend so far as to make me wonder what the author might be blinding himself to in his analysis. I’ll discuss an example.
President Johnson’s decision to begin a bombing campaign was made as a result of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and particularly the second of the two attacks*. Johnson had been pushed towards, and resisted, a bombing campaign throughout 1964. The military leadership advocated a military response to the growing involvement of North Vietnam internally in the South and bombing was proposed as a way to limit U.S. committment. Even after Tonkin, Johnson put off the decision hoping that events would improve his range of options. When the Viet Cong attacked Camp Holloway in February of 1965, Johnson started the bombing campaign that he had essentially authorized the year before. In all of this, Johnson is described as making the wrong decision, but against his own better judgment. Among other factors, that judgment is impaired by political considerations. Johnson hoped showing strength against North Vietnam (a popular decision at the time) would buy him political points, both with conservative Republicans and his own Southern Democrats. The latter, he felt, was ready to turn against him on Vietnam in retaliation for his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet Johnson’s realpolitik in foreign policy is contrasted with his Great Society initiatives, which he is seen as pursuing only for the most righteous and selfless of reasons. OK, perhaps the author admits that Johnson is interested in his “legacy,” but the intensely political animal we see escalating in Vietnam is suddenly nowhere to be found when it comes to domestic politics.
Of course, as I said already, its not as if we didn’t expect a bias when we picked up a book titled Road to Disaster. Further, it may be informative to have that bias fully on display at every turn rather than having to second guess what might hide behind a more neutral and dispassionate prose. Moreover, in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin and the “second torpedo boat attack,” I’m pretty sure that the author has his analysis correct. The tenure of the analysis, though; the certainty in the face of conflicting accounts from fifty-five years past, makes me wary of analyses where I don’t already have some background.
Another aspect of this bias is that, when attempting to clarify what constituted the truth among conflicting estimates of the time, the author frequently cites recent statements from the government of Vietnam itself. Obviously, access to the communists’ records can shed some real light on an ambiguous situation. If nothing else, seeing something from “the other side” can be critical to getting a true perspective. However, 50 years on, it would seem to me that America’s own current perspective is going to be more reliable than the communist government of Vietnam, influenced both by the propaganda of the time and its own desire to self-promote in the here and now. Where Vietnamese official data confirms something we already thought we knew, it is probably worth accepting as positive evidence. To simply accept statements as arbitrating the truth is probably naive.
In the final analysis, this book is something of a mixed bag, but a mix that turns out to be a hearty stew (mixed, much like this metaphor). The historical narrative combines the familiar with new insights. The psychology ranges from the pop variety to actual insightful analysis, the latter truly helping to understand why decision-making went so wrong. The telling of the story from the perspective of the diplomats, in particular, represents a nice counter-balance to the stories that the generals have told in those other books that I’ve read.
*VanDeMark has no doubt that the second attack did not take place. I don’t disagree with him, but I don’t find the historic record to be definitive. In my own analysis, I deliberately avoided discounting the testimony of any participant who claims to have evidence in the matter. In Road to Disaster, by way of contrast, the evidence that no attack took place is presented to overwhelmingly back that point. Ironically, this done in a chapter that discusses the role of confirmation bias in blinding people to evidence which contradicts their per-conceived notions of fact.