Revisionism - Vietnam and national security revisionism



The emergence of Left revisionism during the 1960s coincided with a contentious public debate over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The Left revisionist challenge to the core assumptions of the containment policy raised the question of whether the United States should continue a policy of supporting any and all anticommunist governments. As dissent over the Johnson and Nixon administrations' policies expanded beyond radical activists to the mainstream media and the halls of Congress, both administrations found it difficult to sustain support for the war. A further byproduct of the resultant unraveling of the Cold War consensus was a heightened skepticism about the role of the presidency and the secretive conduct of national security policy. Tapping into this skepticism, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department and National Security Council aide, in 1971 leaked the classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the socalled Pentagon Papers. Then, in 1973–1975, congressional investigations first of the Watergate scandal and then of the covert practices of federal intelligence agencies breached the wall of secrecy that had previously shrouded how national security policy was conducted, with the attendant result of the release of highly classified records of the White House and the intelligence agencies. One legacy of these companion developments was Vietnam and national security revisionism.

Vietnam Revisionism Historians would have researched the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—the nation's longest war and only military defeat—if the earlier availability of relevant primary sources had expedited such research. A consensus quickly emerged, captured first in Stephen Ambroses's synthetic history of the Cold War era, Rise to Globalism, and later in the more thorough syntheses of George Herring, America's Longest War, James Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell, and George Moss, Vietnam: An American Ordeal.

The Herring, Olson and Roberts, and Moss surveys convey the consensus interpretations of the Vietnam War, placing that conflict in a broader context of anticolonial guerrilla movements and emphasizing the limits to American power and the containment policy. This critical assessment of the U.S. military role precipitated a Vietnam revisionism that reaffirmed the major tenets of Cold War orthodoxy while incorporating some of the core assumptions of Right revisionism (of mendacity, irresolution, erroneous judgment, and conspiratorial influence).

Two such revisionists, Harry Summers and Philip van Slyck, dissent from the consensus on the Vietnam War. Both deny that U.S. involvement was unwise and unnecessary, or the misapplication of military power to a guerrilla war. The U.S. defeat, they argue, was the product of a failure of will by the nation's presidents and the general public. Eschewing a conspiratorial analysis, they attribute this failure to achieve an attainable victory to skewed national priorities (a focus on domestic issues to the neglect of national security interests), to a failure to respond rationally to an underlying Soviet threat, and to profound changes in the popular culture (the so-called counterculture) and the rise in influence of narrow special interest groups. Summers wrote in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War , the Vietnam defeat was the by-product of President Lyndon Johnson's "conscious decisions" not "to mobilize the American people—to invoke the National will"—and to the "social upheaval in America where the old rules and regulations were dismissed as irrelevant and history no longer had anything to offer … the 'Age of Aquarius.'"

Van Slyck echoes this analysis, condemning the "errors of judgment" of five presidents (from Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter) to lobby for needed increases in military spending and the commitments essential to checking the Soviet threat and averting the "ill-starred, mismanaged, and ultimately humiliating national ordeal in Vietnam." Lamenting the rise of "single-issue political causes" (the civil rights and youth movements of the 1960s), which he claims "displayed uncertainties of purpose and conflicting social and economic priorities," he concludes that "in this increasingly antiwar climate, the preoccupation with domestic affairs insured that expenditures for national security would be assigned a declining priority through the decade of the 1970s" ( Strategies for the 1980s: Lessons of Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan ). Michael Lind extends this analysis of the wisdom of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in Vietnam, the Necessary War (1999). In contrast, Martin Herz in The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972 criticizes the reporting and commentary of the "prestige press" (mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post ) as contributing to the "weakening and demoralization of the United States and South Vietnam" that led ultimately to the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Norman Podhoretz and Guenter Lewy expand upon this indictment, in language more vituperative and condescending. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Podhoretz defends the purpose and morality of U.S. efforts to ensure a noncommunist government in South Vietnam. Like Summers, Lind, and Van Slyck, he attributes the ultimate military defeat to a failure of will, to the limited uses of U.S. military power by presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and to misguided military tactics and strategies. Adopting the conspiratorial framework of Right revisionism, Podhoretz condemns the insidious role of antiwar activists within the academic, journalist, and liberal communities whom he derides as "apologists for the Communist side in the Vietnam War." Because Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Frances Fitzgerald were "very good writers," Podhoretz laments, "they were able to state the Communist case in a style acceptable to an audience that would normally be put off … by the crude propagandistic rhetoric of the hard-core inveterate pro-Communist elements." In his concluding assessment of the consequences of the North Vietnamese victory of 1975, Podhoretz argues:

The truth is that the antiwar movement bears a certain measure of responsibility for the horrors that have overtaken the people of Vietnam; and so long as those who participated in that movement are unwilling to acknowledge this, they will go on trying to discredit the idea that there is not distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For to recognize the distinction is to recognize that in making a contribution to the conquest of South Vietnam by the Communists of the North they were siding with an evil system against something better from every political and moral point of view.

Guenter Lewy echoes Podhoretz. Writing with Harry Barnes's dogmatism, in the preface to his America in Vietnam (1978), Lewy describes his purpose as to "clear away the cobwebs of mythology that inhibit the correct understanding of what went on—and what went wrong in Vietnam" and to critique the "ideological fervor which has characterized much writing on the Vietnam War." Like Podhoretz, Lewy defends the purpose and morality of U.S. involvement, emphasizes the wisdom and necessity of a policy to contain the spread of communism, and condemns the bias of the media and the "growing permissiveness in American society … and widespread attitudes of disrespect toward authority and law enforcement." Lewy extends this indictment in The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life , impugning the loyalty of anti–Vietnam War critics in the peace movement, the civil liberties community, and in the universities, and the "Leftward drift of the American political spectrum." He charges that

Today a host of organizations, not formally linked to the Communist Party and in many cases defying the categories of Old and New Left, carry on an energetic agitation for a radical transformation of American society, push for drastic cuts in the American defense budget, if not for unilateral disarmament, and lobby for Communist guerrillas and regimes. The political outlook of these groups provides Communists with a perfect cover and allows them to ply their trade with little need to seize actual control…. Such alliances provide the Communist Party with valuable political legitimacy and respectability.

National Security Revisionism The public debate over the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair (and the resultant opening of formerly classified records of the federal intelligence agencies) also spawned a more critical assessment of the role of the presidency and federal intelligence agencies, and how bureaucracy and secrecy adversely influenced national security policy. This new historiography was previewed in Arthur Schlesinger's quasi-critical history of the U.S. presidency, The Imperial Presidency. Reassessing his own earlier endorsement of the "presidential mystique," Schlesinger chronicled how "Especially in the twentieth century, the circumstances of an increasingly perilous world as well as of an increasingly dependent economy and society served to compel a larger concentration of authority in the Presidency." Surveying how presidential power expanded (including by relying on secrecy and bypassing the Congress), Schlesinger nonetheless concludes that the abuses of power of the "imperial presidency" were peculiar to the Nixon presidency.

Published in 1973, at the time of the special Senate investigation of the Watergate scandal, Schlesinger's history of the Nixon administration's uses of the federal intelligence agencies (Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation) for political purposes was soon challenged as the result of subsequent revelations that presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had similarly exploited these agencies—publicized in the hearings and reports of the Church and Pike Committees of 1975–1976 and in federal intelligence agency records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. These revelations confirmed how "national security" priorities and secrecy claims had altered executive-legislative relations, and how presidents and intelligence agency officials had exploited secrecy to violate the law, privacy rights, and First Amendment rights. These themes were developed in a number of studies, notably Frank Donner, The Age of Surveillance; Morton Halperin et al., The Lawless State; Edward Pessen, Losing Our Souls; Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety; John Prados, Presidents' Secret Wars; and Athan Theoharis, Spying on Americans.

Although differing in their interpretations, these authors share a common framework—emphasizing that the more centralized and secretive decision-making process by which national security policy was conducted, undermined civil liberties and democratic principles. In Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan, Theoharis summarizes these themes in his conclusion:

[The] Cold War encouraged a strong elite-dominated government with authority to make decisions and the gradual acceptance of the need for secrecy and uncritical deference to so-called national security claims…. The steady rise in influence of the FBI, NSC, the CIA and the White House staff to dominant policy-making roles and the displacement of the State and Justice departments and the Cabinet—served to reduce the congressional oversight role. By the 1970s, therefore, the intelligence bureaucrats … had become independent powers, effectively establishing national policy, even at times independent of the occupant of the Oval Office.

These themes of the undermining of congressional oversight and of privacy and First Amendment rights were central to the new historiography that focused on the impact of the Cold War on American institutions and decision making. Reflecting the differing assessments of presidential power that distinguished Schlesinger from these other historians, in Secrecy: The American Experience, Daniel Patrick Moynihan surveys the history of the "institutions of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century." Moynihan criticizes over-classification as undermining democracy and immunizing decisions from needed scrutiny, and calls for the replacement of this new "culture of secrecy" by a "culture of openness," but at the same time recognizes that secrecy "is at times legitimate and necessary." In contrast, the various contributors to Athan Theoharis's A Culture of Secrecy deny that the legacy of international conflict was simply unnecessary overclassification and emphasize the purposefulness of secrecy in ensuring controversial, at times illegal, programs and procedures.

These differences over the purpose and consequences of secrecy are replicated in the writings of other historians on the evolution of the "national security state." In a study that transcends the debate among revisionist and orthodox historians on the origins of the Cold War, Melvyn Leffler in A Preponderance of Power emphasizes how the "Cold War shaped our political culture, our institutions, and our national priorities; and how American officials, commanding a "preponderance of power," were emboldened to "refashion the world in America's image and create the American century." Leffler nonetheless concludes that the resultant exclusively executive decisions were neither aggressive nor mistaken, but "quite prescient," were reflective of a "sophisticated strategy," and "manifested sagacity, security, and wisdom" of "prudent officials" willing to take "calculated risks." Leffler had, however, introduced a distinctive theme—that executive decisions reflected the increased influence of bureaucrats whose expertise in formulating policy in secret ushered in the "national security state."

Michael Hogan in A Cross of Iron and Benjamin Fordham in Building the Cold War Consensus explicitly develop this theme of the "national security state." Surveying the congressional debate over Cold War policies, Hogan focuses on how during this era a "new class of national security managers" eventually triumphed over progressives and conservatives who feared that "bad policies could put the United States on the slippery slope to a garrison state dominated by military leaders and devoted to military purposes"—a debate between those who cast Cold War containment policies "in a new ideology of national security and those who adhered to values rooted in an older political culture." The national security ideology, Hogan argues, was shaped by the experiences of national security managers during World War II and the Cold War who came to see "the world and America's place within it. It laid the groundwork for a more international foreign policy and for a supportive program of state making, both of which challenged such traditions as isolationism and antistatism." Hogan concludes by emphasizing the "role of war and Cold War as agents of state formation" that in the process enabled bureaucrats "toward independent action and autonomy."

In contrast, Benjamin Fordham in Building the Cold War Consensus focuses on the intersection of domestic policy (and politics) and national security policy. Exploring the debate between "internationalists" and "nationalists" over the nature and costs of the nation's foreign policy role, Fordham locates national security decisions not as based on abstract conceptions of the national interest nor as responses to international crises, but as shaped by the "structure of the domestic political economy" and the ability of bureaucrats to "influence policy to the extent they can draw political support from interested groups in society."



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