A Vicious Entanglement, Part II: Idealism Chastened in Vietnam


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of “A Vicious Entanglement,” a series by Jon Askonas on The Vietnam War, a new documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Read the first piece in the series here

Why does America seem to get drawn in to small wars like a moth to the flame? “Deja Vu”, the first installment of the 10-part documentary series, The Vietnam War, hints at a response as it tells the story of the origins of American entanglement in Vietnam. Most of the focus is on French colonialism, the rise of Vietnamese nationalism, and the story before American troops arrive on the scene. Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick point to a way of understanding how America got involved in the Vietnam War that places it into an even bigger, and longer story than the Cold War: the story of modernity. I realize that thinking about modernity is more often the province of beret-bearing, chain-smoking philosophes in the salons of Paris and Berkeley than of the readers of War on the Rocks, the proverbial “rough men [and women!] standing ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Bear with me, because I think a better understanding of what modernity means for human history might help explain why America can’t seem to quit “small wars.”

The episode begins the story with the French conquest of Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) between 1858 and the end of the century. The French ruled through puppet regimes and built infrastructure to support plantations and Francofied-cities (Saigon foremost) and broadly the spread French civilization. We are then introduced to a young Ho Chi Minh petitioning Woodrow Wilson during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations to support actualizing one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points — self-determination — for his native country. Needless to say, the young man’s request was ignored. After being exiled from Vietnam, Ho travelled America and Europe and worked a variety of menial jobs for 30 years. His exposure to socialism in Paris led him to study in Moscow before making his way back to Vietnam via China as part of the interwar communist international. During World War II, Ho led the Viet Minh, the premier insurgent effort against the occupying Japanese and collaborationist French, supported by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Japanese left, he sought to push out the French as well, precipitating the subsequent, successful guerrilla struggle, which resulted in the “temporary” partition of Vietnam into north and south. A low-grade civil war then began within South Vietnam between factions vying for power as the nascent government of Ngô Đình Diệm sought to root out criminal networks, army plotters, political and religious dissident groups, and communist cadres who had begun laying the groundwork for re-unification on the North’s terms.

Understandably, the episode focuses on World War II and the emerging Cold War, which provides the context for America’s initial involvement in Vietnam and explains why the United States ended up supporting the French. But as a result, it doesn’t really explore why the French show up in the first place, and it doesn’t really do justice to American attitudes about former colonies like Vietnam in the early Cold War. France didn’t just pick out Indochina on a map: French presence there was part of a dramatic “Global Transformation” that upended age-old patterns of human life around the world, what historians and social scientists call Modernity.

To put things in perspective, when Benjamin Franklin was born, the center of global manufacturing was, as it had been for over a thousand years, East Asia. Chinese and Indian manufactures and luxury goods were the engine of global trade. The Industrial Revolution was in part inspired by the desire to catch up with Indian and Chinese manufacturing. While historians debate exactly why the Industrial Revolution took hold in the West first, they agree that some combination of scientific, political, and economic systems allowed Europeans to equal and surpass Asian industrial production. At the same time, advances in medicine, transportation, and weaponry created over the course of a few decades an unbeatable European military dominance where there had been only a slight advantage over non-European societies. It was the combination of industrial power, military might, and newly globalized European competition in the balance of power that drove the explosion of European activity in Africa and Asia after 1830.

There are two things we should understand about this European-dominated stage of modernity. First, it created enormous and sudden change in almost every area of life, as societies were exposed to intensifying global flows of people, goods, and ideas. Second, it was surprisingly brief. Ho Chi Minh’s grandfather was born during the First Opium War (1839 to 1842) when European powers were only beginning to assert their dominance. His wartime colleague General Giap (1911 to 2013) witnessed the British exit from their last Chinese enclave of Hong King and the return of Chinese manufacturing might. The entire East Asian encounter with Western hegemony lasted only three or four generations.

But after only a couple of generations, these colonial societies began producing indigenous figures shaped by global ideas, drawing on both ascendant Western norms and those of their own society. Figures like Sun Yat-Sen, Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, Ataturk, Sayyid Qutb, and Sukarno all embodied a “third way” of reacting to Western influence, producing hybrid ways of thinking that were neither accommodating nor reactionary. It goes unremarked upon in the episode, but a colonial insurgent prior to Giap’s generation would not have thought to have studied Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Mao — not only because Lawrence and Mao’s work had not yet been written but because it took a certain caliber of colonial education and global diffusion of knowledge to produce figures like Giap. The global transformation also means that nations around the world are to a large extent defined by when and how they encountered modernity. Their institutions are likely to have been shaped either by colonial rule or by successful but transformative resistance to direct European domination. And the indigenous responses to European domination were shaped by the prior global history of such resistance. Many of them were inspired by the birthplace of this cycle of colonial institutions bringing forth hybrid figures to found a new nation: the United States of America.

Due to its revolutionary heritage, the United States has historically held a dim view of European expansionism and an instant sympathy for national liberation movements around the world. The writings of the American founders and the ideas behind them have proved inspirational to would-be revolutionaries and nationalists ever since. The birth of the United States of America — both a product of European colonization and the first successful example of a reaction to it — means that modernity and the American experiment are intrinsically linked. American exceptionalism, whatever you make of its moral claims, is an historical fact.

So America didn’t have any love lost for French (or British) colonialism. It’s hard to appreciate in light of the Cold War and the many moral compromises it elicited (or necessitated), but the post-war period was a high-water mark for American idealism. American might and resolve had defeated a pair of formidable and evil regimes (the depths of their crimes being revealed only after the war), and stood poised to extend its influence around the world. Moreover, decolonization promised to open up to American capitalism dozens of markets that had previously been carefully guarded by the imperial powers. The other ascendant power, the Soviet Union, though an ideological foe, also perceived itself as an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist power. In the post-war world, while it was apparent that an ideological, military and economic conflict with the Soviet Union would be a major factor in the new world order, it was not immediately believed that it would be the defining factor, especially outside of Europe. However, it soon became clear to both sides of postcolonial conflicts that, if you could successfully convince either superpower that your conflict was really about global communism, they would provide you with resources and considerable leverage against your opponents (at the cost, of course, of bringing the other bloc into the conflict on the other side). So what appears to Americans today as a Cold War conflict with post-colonial undertones appears to French and Vietnamese citizens as a post-colonial conflict with a Cold War twist.

So, it’s in light of this other American tradition, of standing on the side of the oppressed, that we can make sense of why America can’t seem to quit small wars. Built into our national psyche is a permanent Bat-Signal of which the threat of communism was only a contingent version. Any instance, anywhere, of oppression (especially by foreigners) of national self-determination and an expressed desire for liberty and democracy has the potential to be interpreted by the United States as important and (in principle) in the American interest. While the specific response will depend on a great variety of factors, including realpolitik, this fundamental orientation towards a moral vision of human government is unique.

This theme emerges again and again in U.S. history, but it has become especially important in light of global American power, where there are fewer and fewer resource, institutional, and political constraints on U.S. action abroad. John F. Kennedy gave voice to the American aspiration to act as a liberator of the oppressed everywhere in his First Inaugural:

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom — and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Kennedy’s speech is often put in a Cold War light. But he is just as clearly speaking about decolonization and the birth of new nations. Compare his speech with George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, firmly in the post-Cold War world:

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and Earth…

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

One might argue that Kennedy was about “smart power” — the surgical application of American power abroad, the elusive “limited conflict.” The difference, though, is one of scope, not of substance.

Vietnam casts in tragic light what Niebuhr called “the irony of American history.” America’s most cherished ideals, which lie at the heart of her collective identity, lead her to make real sacrifices to spread freedom and democracy around the world and to support movements that espouse those values. This leads America to overextend herself abroad, often led by an ideal and not a plan. Frankly, it is also an easy lever for other parties to manipulate. Americans fight wars (big and small) that compromise their noble view of themselves. This leads to a chastened realism that is mixed with a skeptical view of our foreign entanglements, which also allows domestic political concerns to drive the agenda at the expense of longer-term strategic goals. There’s a perverse cycle that takes us from Bush’s earnest nation-building in Iraq to Obama’s extension of an American strategy in Afghanistan he didn’t believe would work. Who should Americans prefer: the sincere and idealistic Kennedy who gets us involved in Vietnam or the cynical and realistic Nixon who ignominiously extracts us? And what would it take to break the cycle?


Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.

Image: Photo by unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons