Arlan Kinney’s Background to War is a gem. The professional American security professional has an opportunity to learn from an expert, the younger student will learn about one of the greatest tragedies in his country’s history, and the Vietnam vet will be engaged in a nostalgic, perhaps bitter, perhaps satisfying, encounter with himself as a young man, dealing with America’s greatest international conflict since World War II.
Today I see a moral component to Vietnam that I did not see in 1963. I suppose one could make a generalization about war and morality throughout the history of man: Moral issues begin to creep into the conversation, as the war gets tough.
I remember Arlan. Nice guy; smart executive with an ability to deal with people. All crucial characteristics in the security field, where you have to make decisions that some people will not like. Impressive credentials. He was one of three security experts to conduct a security oversight inspection of America’s embassy in Hanoi in 1997 prior to the arrival of the American ambassador.
His ability to recall and present the details of Saigon in 1963; the way things looked, the confusion, the fear, the differences between the U.S. and Vietnam; will impress most of the guys who were there at the same time. I found myself wondering whether Arlan kept a journal. My memories of events and places that I encountered almost 50 years ago are a jumble; there are details that I remember, but I certainly could not recall the mass of specifics about Saigon in 1963 that are presented in this book.
A few personal notes about myself might be in order. I entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant the September after graduating from Tufts University in 1961. My first assignment was in Washington D.C. and I started OSI school there. I was one of four newly minted lieutenants who, after graduating from the school would run personal background checks on people who were applying for Top Secret clearances. After about a year I was assigned to review reports; at which task I was not too successful and did not like.
In retrospect I think that it was great good luck that I was assigned to Suitland Maryland because it allowed me to begin law school on a part-time basis after work. I had thought that I might want to be a lawyer when I was quite young. I learned, I do not remember the details, that there was an officer in administration who worked in the same building that I did who was attending Georgetown Law School nights after work.
I did not have a car, and I could not not have conveniently gone to Georgetown. But somehow I learned that American University had a part-time program, and I could take the bus from Suitland to the school. Later I made a pain in the ass of myself and hitched a ride with a guy who was going in the same direction most of the nights that I was attending. It was a tough schedule but I did it from June 1962 to June 1963, which was about the time Colonel Forest called me into his office and asked me how I would like to go to Vietnam. I said that I would not. He laughed and said, “Well you’re going.”
I tell people that the first cover story that I remember reading about Vietnam was a piece that I read on the plane over there. It was August 1963; I was 23 and a lieutenant in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. In 1963, despite what you may imagine, there really was no dissent. Dissent came later; as the body count crept up, the expenses accumulated and the Communists refused to compromise.
Now, there are many arguments that Arlan makes that make sense to me. Understandably, there are some areas where we disagree.
This review concentrates on one issue: How did nuclear weapons affect the outcome in Vietnam? This blog presents a point of view that I assert, and repeat, time and time again.
1. Nuclear Weapons reflect engineering talent, and this talent is represented by the normal bell curve IQ distribution.
2. In the past half-century authoritarian governments across the planet have forced peasant populations into school systems. School systems make visible the IQ distribution for that population.
3. The fact that the bell curve has a biological basis means that very poor, mostly peasant, societies will be able to produce nuclear weapons if their IQ distribution is similar to that of the American majority.
This is exactly what we see, first in the Russian Nuclear Weapons program, and second, almost contemperaneous with the start of America’s thrust into Vietnam, in the Chinese Nuclear Weapons program. America will spend the next several generation within forty minutes of nuclear destruction, precisely because the IQ scores of the best Russian and Chinese engineers are as impressive as the IQ scores of the best American engineers.
Anyone who has spent time on this blog knows that I use what happened to Italian-American between about 1950 and 1970 as a template for the interplay between IQ and economic development. In that 20 year period Italians of the second generation essentially reached economic and occupational parity with the census category “Native White Males of Native Parents,” the group that represents the white IQ distribution.
I use Rhode Island as the template for Italian IQ. Approximately one-fifth of the state is ethnic Italian. Jensen estimated the IQ of Rhode Islanders may be a little higher than the white national average. So, I think it can be assumed that the Italian IQ average is certainly not dramatically below that of the average. We have no reason to believe that the IQ of the Irish or French Canadians, two other populations heavily represented in Rhode Island is way higher than the American average. Accordingly, what happened to Italians economically and educationally in that 20 year period was predicted by their IQ score, once the language barrier was overcome, and Italian boys stayed in school for 11 or 12 years. For all practical purposes all young Italian males in Rhode Island spoke English by 1970.
What we see today in China, in North Korea, in Pakistan, in Iran and in other countries that are developing nuclear technology, is precisely the phenomena that the Italian American Second Generation census cohort went through in the U.S. between 1950 and 1970. The assertion is that Nuclear Weapons development is a demonstration of the behavioral realities behind economic development; but on high octane. The most important ingredient in that octane is: All of the boys have to be in school for 11 or 12 years.
Nuclear weapons are not so expensive that they are out of the economic reach of most middle income countries. Certainly Russia and China have demonstrated that they can produce enough good engineers, and can supply those engineers with enough material to force America to experience the same nuclear vulnerability that the U.S. can force on them.
If one begins with the ambitions that the American establishment had in 1963; and compares that vision with what the world saw in 1975, Vietnam must be classified as a failure. There have been serious arguments that the price Communism was forced to pay in Vietnam finally drained the movement of its life-force.
Despite this argument, on balance Vietnam must be classified as an American failure. In the early 60’s American hawks were insistent that neutralism could not be an option. A decade later, it is clear that something much more severe than neutralism had been established in the teeth of U.S. opposition.
I will deal with the American failure in three categories:
I. The engineering talent of the Russian and Chinese Nuclear Engineer was the single most important reason America did not achieve its ambition to prevent a Communist takeover.
II. Ethnicity and religion played a much greater role in leading America into Vietnam, and, in turn, in stiffening resistance to America’s incursion into Asia than is generally realized.
III. Vietnam is still alive; it is not “Old News.” Generational and institutional memory has played a more important role among both America’s policymakers; and its adversaries, Russia and China, than is acknowledged by American academia. The main reason America will leave both Iraq and Afghanistan without reaching its goals is because there are millions of white middle-class Americans who say softly, to themselves, “Vietnam.”
I. The Russian and Chinese Nuclear Engineer. A substantial portion of the American population hated America’s involvement in Vietnam from its beginning. They saw the effort as racist and out of sync with the nationalistic impulse that opposed the West generally, and Western Imperialism specifically. They frankly admired Chi Minh and what he had done to break the back of the French in Indo China.
As an adjunct to this general anger at the war, they tended to romanticize the Communists generally, and the Vietminh, specifically. The general impression was that Vietnamese peasants were killing Americans with the 20th century behavioral equivalent of bows and arrows.
Arlan presents the actual state of affairs: Russian and Chinese weaponry played a major, a truly critical role, in killing 57,000 Americans, which fact would finally convince America to go home.
“And since the Soviet Union and China were then furnishing North Vietnam with nearly six thousand tons of aid daily, only a tiny fraction had to trickle down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the Communists to wage the war.” (p. 344)
And, “One of the illusions of those who advocated strategic bombing was that the air offensive could obliterate or at least slow down Communist war production. . .
It . . . ignored the fact that North Vietnam, a simple agrarian society with limited manufacturing capability, was essentially a conduit through which Soviet and Chinese material passed on its way to the battlefield in the south.” (p. 344)
And, “The image of ragtag Vietminh guerillas persisted, but it was pure romanticism. Giap now commanded a real army, backed up by China’s enormous weight.” (p. 31)
The economic advantage that the West generally, and the United States specifically, had over Russia and China was bigger in the 1960’s than it is today. If The U.S. was really serious about winning in Vietnam, why didn’t it bomb Russia and China? Simple. It was afraid. The possibility that Russia or China could respond with their own nuclear weapon can do that.
We first saw how dramatic a difference that nuclear weapons made in the American fear index when we honestly parse the Cuban Missile Crises. Dean Rusk’s famous observation, “The other guy blinked”, has some merit to it. But it is also true that America’s eyelashes went a flutter as well.
Make no mistake, what Russia did by keeping Castro in place for decades, was a direct challenge of the Monroe Doctrine; a universally accepted American tradition by leaders of both political parties for generations.
President Kennedy and his advisors initially considered bombing Russia over the affront. Why didn’t they? After examining the possibilities, an aide commissioned to report to the Presidents Task Force, reported that Russia had perhaps 4 intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear weapons which could hit the U.S. mainland. In an instant of time everyone, Russia and America alike, realized something: the Russian homeland was safe from American attack.
That Russian engineer made a difference in Cuba. That Russian engineer made a difference in Vietnam. It is interesting that General MacArthur and General Curtis E. LeMay, icons of The Greatest Generation, thought that nuclear weapons must be used if China attempted to affect the outcome of the war. (p. 65) Obviously, the equation directed at the nuclear weapons problem, produces a dramatically different answer once China had its own nuclear arsenal. MacArthur and LeMay were brave; but they weren’t that brave.
II. Ethnicity and Religion. Ethnicity and religion made a difference in setting the war table in Vietnam. That is generally recognized. What is less recognized, and for all practical purposes never discussed, is that religion and ethnicity made a difference in the United States.
Let’s look at the religious and ethnic issues in the United States. Start in 1954 at Dienbienphu. Arlan’s history addresses Dienbienphu; it has to. “Captain James B. McGovern . . .crashed to his death while flying supplies to the beleaguered French garrison at Dienbienphu in May 1954.” (p. 218)
Now, given the ethnic makeup of the American political leadership at the time it is not surprising that America would use its muscle to help the French, not the Vietnamese at the seminal battle.
The fact that France was running a racist enterprise in Southeast Asia paled next to the fact that the Vietminh was actually a Communist organization. The year is critical: 1954, a problematic year for America; the same year as the Brown decision that forced large tracts of white America to accept black people into their schools. Obviously the American leadership saw French racism the way they saw American racism; a disconcerting anecdote in a larger novel celebrating American freedom and democracy.
What has forever written Dienbienphu into the library of legendary battles is that it was a place where a colored colonized population defeated their white, colonial overlords. There is no question that the French had retained a certain amount of racial privilege throughout their domination in Southeast Asia.
Intelligent white people in America, even whites in the political elite would not have denied that. But the white people would have seen that characteristic as a side-bar: The more serious deficiency was that the Vietminh was not democratic. There is no factual answer to this value judgment. But one should not be surprised if there were Vietnamese who made a different judgment on which characteristic was the anecdote, and which the crime.
Still, racism could not be the sole issue to consider in 1954. Arlan reminds us of a critical moral issue besides racism. He discusses the tremendous movement of refugees from the north to the south after the Communists established control. “Nearly a million Vietnamese made the journey. The majority was Catholic, whole communities of whom fled, their priests in the lead . . .” (p. 42.) Didn’t the West have a duty to at least try to preserve a society in the south that allowed the refugees religious freedom? Wasn’t there an implied promise to these poor souls from France and the United States that they would try to maintain a non-Communist society?
I attended a very large outdoor gathering near Danang. I think that it was prior to Diem’s downfall, in which the strains between Catholics and Buddhists were discussed. They were real and intense differences.
Another personal note. Shortly after Diem was overthrown I entered a Vietnamese store in Saigon to buy something. I admired a small case. The owner, apparently overjoyed that Diem was gone, and thinking I believe that Americans were responsible GAVE ME the article. That’s right, I paid nothing. I still have it. I would bet a thousand dollars that that shop owner was not Catholic.
People of a certain age well remember the hatred between Catholics and Buddhists during the Diem Administration. Arlan reminds us that those stresses extended well after Diem was gone. Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh held power in 1964. “Beginning on August 21, students streamed through the city demanding that Khanh ease his restrictive new laws. Soon they were joined by Buddhists militants, who insisted, among their other grievances, that too many former Diem supporters still held official jobs.”
Sometimes I wonder if, in fact, the Communists succeeded in large part because they were seen by the Buddhists as representing their interests.
Still, a large Vietnamese Catholic community had developed under French tutelage for over a century. Communism, as a philosophy, and as a political practice, was anathema to them. Who would dare to say that after generations of belief, the West should just abandon the Christians?
Make no mistake: Vietnam presented very difficult moral choices. Now that one side has lost, it is easy to swing to the pole that represents Vietnam as a nationalist enterprise by a colonized population. But, in the 1960’s the choices were difficult.
While regional differences may not have been as intense and angry as religious ones, they were there and they were real. Arlan tells us that in addition to his religious identity, Diem was also somewhat constrained geography. “Distrustful of everyone outside his family, he neither declined to delegate authority nor was he able to build a constituency that reached beyond his fellow Catholics and natives of central Vietnam.” (p. 40).
An interesting issue. Regional differences in Vietnam were not discussed at any length in the 1960’s endless debates. But they might have been more important than any outside the thin ranks of the true experts realized.
I have addressed the differences between Samuel L. Popkin’s The Rational Peasant and James C. Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant
in my book, Nuclear Weapons and the Blue-eyed People. Here, I note that they agree there really were substantial behavioral differences by geography in Vietnam.
“The geographic pattern of missionary success supports the thesis that the material benefits were essential to the attractiveness of their religion. . . After unification in the nineteenth century, conversions were confined mainly to the overcrowded and poorer areas of Tonkin and Annam, whereas the open frontier of Cochinchina (the south) ‘provided less successful ground of missionary activity.'” (Popkin, p. 130)
It reminded me of the surprise, 40 years later, in the minds of most Americans when they learned how intense the differences were between the Kurds in the north, and the rest of Iraq.
III. Vietnam and Institutional Memory. Vietnam is alive and well in the World’s memory. If the American withdrawal takes place as planned by the Obama Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be in large part because of Vietnam. One would have to be over 60 to really appreciate the degree of enthusiasm that America had to be the World’s Policeman in the 1950s and early 60’s.
“Given his view of America’s position in the world, Johnson could not envisage anything less than an outcome that stopped Communist “aggression”, in that respect he shared the same hope that guided Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.” (p. 288.)
Vietnam drained a lot of enthusiasm out of that bubble of ambition.
But America is not the only place that has a certain institutional memory because of Vietnam. When I see Russia and China standing together in the U.N. I imagine that I can overhear their off the record discussion with each other. The first sentence always begin, “Now remember Vietnam . . .”
Russia and China learned a very potent and potentially dangerous lesson from Vietnam. If they stand together, there is no force on the world that will attack them, no matter how disruptive they may be.
For most veterans of Vietnam, the now cloudy memories will be deeply personal. Life is like that. Probably over 25 years after I had returned from Vietnam, I was at home watching TV with my mother, who died in 1999. The movie The List of Adrian Messenger began. My mother turned to me and said “That’s the movie.” I didn’t know what she meant. “What movie?” “Vietnam”
I was inside the Capital Kindo Theatre on Sunday February 17, 1964 the night it was bombed. I had forgotten. My mother remembered.
If you were in Vietnam, you want to read this book. I highly recommend this book. You can order it directly from
Arlan L. Kinney
38625 Green Heron Road
Selbyville, DE 19975
The cost of the book is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling. Indicate how you would like him to sign your copy.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org