The Fantasy World of US Empire

Apologists for US empire like Max Boot insist that American victory was possible in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t. But as long as the war machine needs justification for new interventions — today, in countries like Venezuela and Iran — writers like Boot will have an audience for their imperialist fantasies.

American helicopters hover above armed US soldiers, preparing to lift them from combat back to their base in Tay Ninh. Express Newspapers / Getty

In US social memory, the Vietnam War is typically imagined to have been a civil war between two sides: South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Each side had its own military, flag, currency, capital city, and national anthem. The South called itself the Republic of Vietnam (RV) while the North called itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The United States consistently claimed when sending troops to South Vietnam that it was doing nothing more than protecting that “spunky little Asian country” (as the Saturday Evening Post described it) from North Vietnamese aggression. Many historians in the US have not thought twice about categorizing the Vietnam War as a civil war. It has seemed an incontrovertible fact, as obvious as the borders and names of the two countries on the maps of that time.

This long-standing civil war paradigm has been reinforced by widely watched PBS documentaries: the thirteen-hour Vietnam: A Television History (1983) and the Ken Burns­–Lynn Novick eighteen-hour The Vietnam War (2017). The films present the US as a well-meaning ally of South Vietnam, motivated solely by the desire to protect it from communism. As the author of the companion volume to the first documentary put it, there was a “civil war between anti-communist and communist factions” and the US, because of ignorance and “misinformation,” supported the faction that just so happened to have been “unpopular” and “incompetent.” A retired Air Force general says in the Burns-Novick film: “We were fighting on the wrong side.” In both films, the hours and hours of footage relentlessly unspool without ever pausing for an examination of the initial premise: that the war was, at its roots, a civil war.

US writers, obsessed with drawing lessons from such an unexpected defeat, typically find fault with the US government’s series of decisions to involve itself deeper and deeper in a civil war. The critiques of US policy are by now all-too predictable to anyone familiar with even a small part of the voluminous literature. The US did not understand the weaknesses of its chosen side and kept increasing the levels of its support even when that side was going down to defeat. The US became stuck in a “quagmire.” It did not have “an exit strategy.” It provided the wrong kind of support as the technocratic hubris of “the best and brightest” overemphasized raw military power rather than a political struggle for “the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese. Not being candid with the public about the prospects of a military defeat, the government generated a “credibility gap.”

In these standard critiques of US policy, the origins of South Vietnam are glossed over and an all-important fact goes unrecognized: the RV was created by the US. The maps showing two separate states divided at the 17th parallel, with the territories shaded different colors, misrepresent their different natures. The DRV, proclaimed in September 1945, was already a powerful, entrenched state by the time the US began building the RV state in 1954. The DRV had already built a cohesive, nationwide bureaucracy while fighting the French military over that eight-year period from 1945 to 1954. By contrast, the RV was a façade of a state, a kind of hastily assembled Potemkin village wholly financed by US funds, constructed on territory in which hundreds of thousands of DRV personnel already operated. From the moment of its conception, the RV came bearing the label “Made in the USA.” The war was not internal to Vietnamese society; one side was a foreign import.

The DRV, as it led the nationalist struggle against French colonial rule, became a remarkably effective state that gained the cooperation of many Vietnamese villagers. Under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, it commanded hundreds of thousands of soldiers and commandeered large quantities of resources from the populace. It formed a standing army with six divisions of troops and mobilized 1.7 million villagers to serve as porters to carry weapons and supplies. A land reform program (1953–56) redistributed about 2 million acres of land. Whatever the program’s murderous violence that the DRV leaders regretted when calling it off, the program helped the state win popular support. Many villagers became willing to sacrifice their lives for a state that was committed to building a more prosperous future for their families.

Judging from its ability to collect taxes, spend the tax revenue, direct economic development, and wield coercive powers, one can say that the DRV’s “state capacity” was high. It achieved impressive feats of logistical coordination using rudimentary means of communication and transport. While reliant on economic and military aid from China and the USSR, it had its own internal integrity. It was able to effectively use that foreign aid because it had a bureaucratic apparatus that reached down to the village level. The French military, bankrolled and advised by the US, lost the infamous set-piece battle of Dien Bien Phu in March–May 1954 precisely because it did not believe that the DRV was capable of transporting enough troops and weapons to overwhelm its far-flung fortress in the hills near Laos.

The lesson that US policymakers should have drawn from France’s unexpected defeat in May 1954 was that they should not underestimate the state capacity of the DRV. Of course, they did not learn that lesson. In response to the first military defeat of a European colonial power by its own colony, they persisted in the belief that the Vietnamese were backward, pre-political, and premodern. They faulted the French military and credited the external backers — the USSR and China — rather than the DRV. They imagined that the US, with enough dollars and guns, could build a brand-new state in Vietnam that could rival the DRV, which was already in full control of 60 percent of the country and partial control (to varying degrees) of the other 40 percent.

For Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers in the 1950s, Vietnam was just another small and impoverished country that could do nothing to obstruct the US juggernaut. They viewed Third World societies as putty in their palms and made a habit of overthrowing governments, fomenting successionist revolts, and assassinating political leaders. In decreeing that a state should be built in the southern half of Vietnam, they assumed that any resistance from the DRV would be overcome, somehow or other. The particularities of a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country,” as lbj later described Vietnam, hardly needed to be considered.

US officials began designing a new anticommunist state for Vietnam even before the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. Abandoning the eight-year-long project of funding the French recolonization effort, they decided to cobble together all the Vietnamese organizations that had been collaborating with the French. The puppet state that the French had established in 1949, the Associated State of Vietnam (ASV), became the nucleus of the new US-funded state. At his villa on the French Riviera where he had spent the war years, the head of the ASV, Emperor Bao Dai, appointed Ngo Dinh Diem to be the new prime minister in June 1954. Diem was already close to US officials, having spent several years in the US residing in a Catholic seminary and lobbying congressmen. He became the centerpiece of Washington’s plans.

The US, working with Diem, laid the foundation for the RV state in the two-year period after the July 1954 cease-fire signed in Geneva. In accordance with the terms of the cease-fire, the DRV pulled some 120,000 of its personnel out of the southern half of the country, including all of its armed troops. The supporters who remained were under strict instructions not to engage in any violence that would disrupt the plans for a national election scheduled for 1956. The DRV did not resist as the US turned the southern half of the country — meant to be a temporary regroupment zone for the French and the ASV combatants — into the territory for a new state.

Washington policymakers initially hoped that Diem would unify all the anticommunist groups — both those already in the South and those who had just moved there from the North after the Geneva Accords. These groups were numerous, but they were not unified. The French had armed some 300,000 Vietnamese in the ASV’s military and patronized three different militias whose members were recruited from religious organizations: the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and the Catholic Church. The French officials and Bao Dai had sold off Saigon’s police force to a mafia, the Binh Xuyen, which used its coercive powers to monopolize the city’s brothels, gambling houses, and opium dens. The US wanted Diem, who landed in Saigon in June 1954, to forge some kind of anti-DRV coalition out of these disparate armed groups, each of which was operating autonomously of the others.

When Diem arrived, he had no troops of his own and did not even control Saigon. He was prime minister on paper only. The ASV’s army, which was supposed to be under his command, was controlled by a Vietnamese general who refused to submit himself to Diem’s authority. Each one of the militias guarded its own autonomy. Diem’s only leverage over these armed groups was the money that the US supplied him. With hundreds of millions of US dollars at his disposal, he set about buying off the commanders of the various army battalions, militias, and mafias. He was fortunate that they were looking for a new paymaster since their old one, the French government, was about to leave. Still, each commander drove a hard bargain. Diem spent many hours negotiating with them and playing each one off the others. Without the money from the US, Diem would have never been able to assemble an army for his new state.

Diem’s consigliere and financier during this state-building process in 1954–56 was the CIA agent Colonel Edward Lansdale. Max Boot’s biography of Lansdale devotes about one hundred pages to the colonel’s work with Diem. That section is a convenient compendium of information about the events, though it adds little to what is already known. Lansdale’s story has been told many times before, once by Lansdale himself. He has been the subject of two previous biographies, and his operations in Vietnam have been described in most histories of the war. One of his former subordinates in the CIA operations in Saigon has written glowingly of his work in setting up the Diem regime.

Lansdale’s strategy was to befriend Diem in the same way that he had befriended the Filipino politician Ramón Magsaysay, who won the presidential election in 1953 with the cia’s help. As a former advertising executive, Lansdale specialized in the arts of persuasion and manipulation. He treated Diem as the leader of an independent country and played the role of a loyal and patient advisor. Other US officials had no personal rapport with Diem and refused to pretend as if they were anything but his bosses whose dollars gave them the right to order him about or even fire him.

The first two US ambassadors in Saigon in 1954–55 (Heath and Collins) thought Diem was incompetent and wanted to find some other anti-DRV political leader to support. Much to their consternation, Diem followed his own strategy in dealing with the armed groups in South Vietnam. Dealing with his rivals one by one, he forced out the general in charge of the ASV and co-opted some of the militia leaders. When attacking the Binh Xuyen mafia-cum-police force in April 1955, he turned Saigon into a war zone for two weeks. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands displaced. But he prevailed in the end, and the hard-nosed World War II veteran, General Collins, had no choice but to accept him as the leader of the new state for South Vietnam. Lansdale, who had stuck by Diem throughout, felt vindicated.

Given that Lansdale was more responsible than any other US official for setting up the Diem dictatorship, Boot’s title “The Road Not Taken” is misleading. The road that the US took in Vietnam might as well have been named Lansdale Boulevard. Once Diem dissolved the ASV and proclaimed the new state of RV in October 1955 (after holding a fraudulent referendum in which he won more votes than there were residents in some districts), the US became committed to defending that one-man polity, regardless of its lack of roots in Vietnam. The US kept driving down Lansdale Boulevard with single-minded determination, adopting the policy encapsulated in the rhyming slogan: “Sink or Swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.” The US fantasy was that one man could create a state that could rival the already entrenched DRV.

The “road not taken,” for Boot, was Lansdale’s personal approach to working with Diem. Once Lansdale was sent back to the US in 1956, the US officials who dealt with Diem thereafter could not persuade him to create a more inclusive polity. Allegedly, they could not approach him as a friend and equal, as Lansdale had, and their arrogance and ethnocentrism only provoked Diem into defying their orders. Without a trusted friend like Lansdale at his side who could gently induce him to change his behavior, Diem stubbornly persisted in his dictatorial style. The “unwise influence” of later US officials led to the sinking of the Diem regime in 1963: “How different history might have been if Lansdale or a Lansdale-like figure had remained close enough to Diem to exercise a benign influence.”

Boot’s “road not taken” turns out to be a narrow, dead-end back alley. Boot ignores the structural dynamics of Diem’s state and imagines that Diem could have, with a change of policy any time between 1956 and 1963, built a state strong enough to rival the DRV. By adopting Lansdale’s public relations tactics, Diem could have turned himself into a popular leader. By incorporating other anticommunists into his government, he could have broadened the state’s bases of support. Boot condemns post-1956 US policy towards Diem, as if having a “Lansdale or Lansdale-like figure” in Saigon would have — to continue the allusion to the Robert Frost poem — “made all the difference.”

One can safely say that it would not have made a difference. The problems of the Saigon state were congenital, with or without Diem and Lansdale. Boot winds up with a comical counterfactual: if only the great man Lansdale had remained by Diem’s side, he could have saved Diem from the baser elements of his character and built a state in South Vietnam with enough popular support to stand up to the DRV. Even with the dubious dynamism of the Lansdale and Diem duo, a separate state in the South stood little chance for success. The structural conditions were overwhelmingly against it.

In the first five years of its existence, the Diem regime convinced itself and the US that it could overcome those structural conditions. Diem was initially successful in imprisoning and killing many DRV supporters in South Vietnam. Even as he was struggling to overcome the fissiparous tendencies within his own armed forces in 1955, he was turning them loose against the communists and inflicting real damage. The repression was severe in the latter half of the 1950s, resulting in the political imprisonment of tens of thousands of people. The DRV supporters in the South pleaded with the Hanoi leadership for a change in policy before they were entirely destroyed.

As soon as the DRV leaders in Hanoi decided in 1959 to abandon their policy of passivity and authorize violent resistance by its supporters south of the seventeenth parallel, Diem’s state quickly lost control over the villages. The historian David Elliott, whose detailed study of one region of South Vietnam runs to five hundred pages in the “concise edition,” found that “within the space of a year, the Diem regime lost its grip on the countryside.” Hundreds of village heads appointed by the Diem regime were assassinated. State officials started treating much of the countryside as a no-go zone. Diem had only appeared great because the DRV supporters had been on their knees. Once they rose in great number, the regime was crippled. Thousands of cadre who had moved north in 1954 in accordance with the Geneva Accords trekked back to the South and helped lead a powerful insurgency. South Vietnam’s army had trouble suppressing the insurgency because it was warrened from top to bottom with double agents working for the DRV. Diem’s regime was doomed as soon as the sleeping giant of the DRV awoke in 1959.

In response to the crisis of the Diem regime, the White House sent Lansdale back to Saigon in late December 1960 to write up a report on how the regime could be saved. He concluded, after a two-week tour, that Diem would have to remain as the leader of South Vietnam but that he would have to be persuaded to incorporate some of his anticommunist opponents into his government. A US official would have to befriend and guide him so that Diem could reform the state while appearing to be doing it all on his own. Lansdale’s plan was a pipe dream. Diem had built up a dictatorship with fascist trappings (consider his Personalist Labor Revolutionary Party) and would not change course at the urgings of a kindly confidante.

US officials, having committed themselves to sustaining the state of South Vietnam, could not admit that the superior state capacity of the DRV was causing the RV to collapse. Men who viewed themselves as realists, adept in raw power politics, indulged in grand delusions about the power of one man to determine the fate of the RV. Diem was either, as Lansdale imagined, the greatest hope for stopping the collapse or, as others believed, the main cause of the collapse. Boot follows in their imperial footsteps. He presents Lansdale’s pipe dream as the stuff of pure reason and says nothing about the real power politics: the relative state capacities of the DRV and the RV.

The Kennedy administration, coming into office in January 1961, rapidly increased military aid to the Diem regime and dispatched thousands of additional troops. The Diem regime could not be reformed but it could be armed to the teeth. The regime, under the guidance of US counterinsurgency experts, began waging an all-out war against the rural population. Since DRV supporters had taken control of the countryside, Diem and his generals concluded that the only way to save the countryside was to destroy it. They followed the model of British counterinsurgency strategies in Malaya in the early 1950s and herded hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese villagers at gunpoint into “strategic hamlets” where they could be policed.

Boot portrays Lansdale as the “guerrilla guru” — the expert on counterinsurgency strategy — whose wisdom was ignored by US officials. Supposedly, Lansdale advocated a political strategy of “winning hearts and minds” while the Pentagon’s bull-headed generals and the White House’s nerdy policy wonks only promoted a strategy of military repression. But Lansdale was as clueless as the other officials about the organizational strength of the DRV supporters in the countryside of South Vietnam. David G. Marr, the brilliant historian of Vietnam who gained his first acquaintance with the country as a US military officer involved in counterinsurgency, noted in 1972 that Lansdale, “who had helped establish Diem and might have known how frail the system really was, wrote policy papers for President Kennedy in early 1961 that exuded optimism and recommended simply a little more muscle for the Saigon army (ARVN) and some minor bureaucratic reshuffling.” Lansdale shared the “sublime overconfidence” of US officialdom and the inability to recognize the power of “a mass revolutionary movement.”

The Kennedy administration ultimately decided in 1963 that Diem, faced with protests by many Buddhist organizations, could not effectively unite the competing anticommunist forces. The CIA agent Lucien Conein, who had worked with Lansdale in setting up the Diem regime back in 1954–56, contacted military officers in Saigon and arranged a coup. The dictator upon whom the US had showered billions of dollars for nine years was unceremoniously executed in a hail of bullets. The military officers who dominated the RV state thereafter were, not surprisingly, unable to construct a more cohesive state that could counter the pro-DRV forces inside South Vietnam. Because of the strength of those forces, the RV state was collapsing in the early 1960s, well before regular troops of the DRV’s army entered the South.

Boot refrains from endorsing Mark Moyar’s absurd argument that Diem was on his way to defeating the pro-DRV forces in South Vietnam in 1963 before the US turned against him. Moyar, in his 2006 book, Triumph Forsaken, claimed that the main reason the US lost the war in Vietnam was because a cynical cabal of US officials decided to overthrow Diem just at the moment he was achieving a “triumph.” Moyar had no evidence for the claim and the book has been widely criticized by academic experts, even as it has become popular at military academies and right-wing think tanks. Without citing Moyar, Boot advances a similar claim, that the overthrow of Diem ended the viability of the RV state. He begins the book with the story of Diem’s assassination and argues that one event extinguished the possibility of an RV state “that could win the loyalty of its people.” Faithfully following Lansdale’s opinions, Boot argues that Diem was “the one man who might have been able to hold the country [South Vietnam] together” and that his assassination left the anticommunists “demoralized, disarrayed and divided” — as if they were not already like that under Diem. Boot does not acknowledge that a state whose existence depended upon one man — a reclusive and eccentric dictator at that — could not have been much of a state.

For Boot, Lansdale was infallible. The “guerrilla guru” who enjoyed a cult following among the white men of US officialdom becomes elevated in this hagiography into a veritable mahatma. He fits into a long-standing imperial mythology about the white man who goes native and then places his local knowledge at the service of imperial conquest: Sir Richard Burton, t.e. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, etc. Boot notes that Fritz Kraemer, a mentor of Henry Kissinger (himself a demigod in the US foreign policy firmament), revered Lansdale as a “mystic.” Never imagine the self-styled masters of realpolitik are not metaphysicians with their own ideas of the supernatural.

Even during his lifetime, Lansdale was a larger-than-life figure. He was the model for one of the protagonists in the novel The Ugly American (1958) and the Hollywood film of the same title (1963), a Colonel Hillandale who approaches Southeast Asians in a spirit of equality and friendship, willing to eat and converse with them in villages that other Americans treated as filthy and dangerous. With Boot’s biography, the Lansdale legend is one step closer on its way to reaching the fame of the Anna Leonowens legend: the English governess whose memoir of her time in the Bangkok royal palace in the 1860s was turned into a novel decades later, and then a Broadway musical (The King and I), a Hollywood film, a tv series, an animated film, and, most recently, a Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster, Anna and the King (1999). The legends of both Lansdale and Leonowens contain the same mythic archetype: the white person befriending and tutoring Southeast Asian political leaders in freedom and modern life. Perhaps Lansdale: The Musical is already in the works.

In striving to codify the teachings of the holy one, Boot invents a new -ism: “Lansdalism.” It is an -ism meant to guide the proconsuls of the US empire. Boot’s canon consists of three L’s: “Learn, Like, and Listen.” It sounds like a technique for teaching preschoolers. The US official posted to some conflict-ridden part of the world should learn the language and study the culture. (Since Lansdale himself never learned a foreign language, Boot awards points to the official who at least tries.) The official should also cultivate “influential individuals sympathetic to American interests” and demonstrate that he really likes them as close, personal friends. Finally, the official should patiently listen to these “friends” in “the developing world” and gently persuade them to follow US policies. The teachings of the mystic mahatma turn out to be the platitudes of Dale Carnegie.

The US empire today is certainly in crisis. To see Boot, a leading strategist of the empire, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, seek wisdom from one of the men most responsible for the US debacle in Vietnam, someone who consistently misunderstood Vietnam’s power politics, is to witness an act of desperation. After the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Boot has acquired the quaint notion that the “key American shortcoming” today is its “inability to constructively guide the leaders of allied states in the direction desired by Washington.”

The reader knows from the title of the book — “American Tragedy” — that Boot has missed the boat. His three L’s of “Lansdalism,” with their call for empathizing with non-Americans, ring hollow when he cannot even acknowledge that the Vietnam War was a much greater tragedy for the Vietnamese than for Americans. Millions of Vietnamese were killed, and their country, about the size of New Mexico, was carpet-bombed and poisoned with chemical weapons so thoroughly that they are still suffering and dying, over fifty years later, from unexploded ordnance and genetic damage. Boot is a good American who has properly learned how not to care about the victims of American wars.

VanDeMark too is a good American who sees the war as an American tragedy. The war was, as the subtitle puts it, “America’s descent into Vietnam,” as if Vietnam was some lower level of hell that ensnared the decent men of the shining city upon the hill. VanDeMark, a professor at the US Naval Academy, ascribes “essential decency and humanity” to Washington policymakers. They made “mistakes” and had “failures” but did not commit crimes. The mass death and destruction they left in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos should be chalked up to understandable mistakes, like typos in a manuscript. Whoops. “We screwed up,” said Robert McNamara, who is the touchstone for VanDeMark as Lansdale is the touchstone for Boot.

VanDeMark spent many hours conversing with McNamara and co-authored his mea culpa In Retrospect (1995). McNamara’s “pain,” his “feelings of regret and sorrow,” are more significant than the pain of all the Indochinese, whose experience is only represented through casual statistics and passive verbs: “The war had been lost, millions of lives had been lost, and in his way, McNamara was lost too.”The juxtaposition in that sentence between McNamara’s loss and the loss of “millions” is a perfect expression of American indifference to the lives of others — the indifference that allowed the US to inflict such massive, horrific violence in the first place.

Like Boot, VanDeMark is preoccupied with personalities and cannot perceive the importance of the impersonal powers of state structures. Instead of discussing the relative state capacities of the DRV and the RV, he writes at length about Diem and Ho Chi Minh. Supposedly, America’s “mistake” was to misperceive Diem as a democrat rather than an autocrat and misperceive Ho Chi Minh as a communist rather than a Vietnamese nationalist. The problem, however, was not the lack of information about these two individuals. It was the lack of US interest in knowing the details of a “raggedy-ass country” while arrogating the right to determine what kind of state it should have. Many intelligence agents in the 1950s actually supplied Washington with fairly accurate assessments of the strength of the DRV and the artificiality of the RV.

McNamara and the other policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations appear in VanDeMark’s story as tragic figures — ordinary, innocuous men victimized by circumstances beyond their control. They made decisions with the best of intentions and then faced unexpected outcomes. VanDeMark, drawing upon the literature of cognitive psychology about decision-making, identifies the unconscious errors they made when reaching their decisions. Just about every trending term from cognitive psychology earns a mention in this book: self-serving biases, unquestioned assumptions, confirmation bias, illusion of validity, law of small numbers, choice deferral, and so on. The policymakers were just ordinary humans wrestling with unavoidable epistemological challenges.

The psychological terminology functions in this book as a smoke screen to cover the criminality of the decisions taken at the White House. Consider LBJ’s all-important decision in early 1965 to send US ground troops to South Vietnam and begin near-daily bombings of North Vietnam. With that decision, the US did not escalate its involvement in a civil war; it unilaterally waged war on the civilian population of both South and North Vietnam. VanDeMark frames the decision with a discussion of “the peril of short-term thinking” and “the foot-in-the-door effect.” He does not mention the laws of war.

VanDeMark is in need of examining his own “unquestioned assumptions,” such as the idea that US officials were “good men.” What does it say about the men of lbj’s cabinet that all but one of them (George Ball) were willing to destroy Vietnam only for the purpose of saving face? McNamara’s closest aide, John McNaughton, estimated the importance of “US war aims” in a memorandum of March 1965, as the Marines were landing and the bombs were falling. He wrote, in the overly statistical style admired by his boss, that 70 percent of US war aims was to “avoid a humiliating US defeat,” while 20 percent was to keep South Vietnam “from Chinese hands.” Only 10 percent was to “permit the people of SVN [South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.” The cynicism and racism of these men is staggering.

Boot and VanDeMark are the latest examples of US historians who follow the tropes of the Lost Cause narrative about the US Civil War when writing about the project of building a noncommunist state in South Vietnam: the RV state may have lost but its ideals were noble and just. That narrative glosses over the simple fact that US officials did not even care about the wishes of the anticommunists who were collaborating with them, much less the rest of the population. One of their greatest fears was that the anticommunists of Saigon would negotiate a reunification deal with the DRV rather than tolerate more mass death and destruction. As the historian Fredrik Logevall puts it: “Neither LBJ nor his top aides were prepared to accept the idea that to win the people, you had to let them express themselves, which meant risking a government that might negotiate an end to the war.” The state of RV had to remain in existence, not for the sake of the people of South Vietnam, but for the sake of the prestige of the US officialdom that had created it: “The self-determination Washington claimed to be defending was what it feared the most.” Logevall concludes that the foreign policy of the Johnson administration, unleashing massive violence only to avoid “embarrassment” and “the stigma of failure,” has to be “judged immoral.”

The US military strategy was to steadily ratchet up the violence in Vietnam until the DRV leadership gave up and agreed to recognize South Vietnam as a separate state. As Kissinger saw it, North Vietnam could not be “the only country in the world without a breaking point.” US policymakers behaved like torturers, turning up the dials to deliver more powerful shocks to a screaming prisoner and then marveling that the prisoner did not break. If the DRV had given up, there would have been no “tragedy” or “disaster” for Boot and VanDeMark to lament. US policy would have been deemed a glorious success and the “victory culture” of America would not have been disturbed, even as the same number of Vietnamese civilians lay dead and dying from cluster bombs, napalm, Agent Orange, and all the other technologically sophisticated weapons the US deployed with abandon.

VanDeMark resorts to the language of cognitive psychology to avoid a confrontation with questions of morality and international law. He hopes that contemporary policymakers can avoid “mistakes” by “harnessing cognitive diversity.” Never fear, technical solutions are at hand. His psychological terms provide the opiates that can allow Americans to remain blissfully ignorant of the ways that racism, masculinity, and class interests have determined US foreign policy. American readers do not have to experience a psychic shock that might arise upon encountering the unnecessary suffering their government inflicted upon millions of people in Indochina.

Boot and VanDeMark see their task as the training of a new generation of officials who will be better able to manage the US empire. In analyzing the dead-end imperial “roads” laid by the US in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, both writers are concerned with laying the foundations for successful “roads” in the future. Boot has called for the US to serve as a “Globo-Cop.” His dream of US officials acting as “self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets” has not ended even after the debacles of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. He has affirmed the message of Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” the second line of which is: “Send forth the best ye breed.” Boot, presenting the adman Lansdale as the best of America’s breed, tells the officials of Langley and Foggy Bottom to go out and make friends with a select few from among those Kipling called “sullen peoples, half devil and half child.” He is concerned with their interpersonal skills (though it is hard to see many people in the world wanting to befriend a Kipling fan). VanDeMark, by contrast, is concerned with their mental skills: he tells the officials to learn the latest findings in cognitive psychology and train their minds to avoid self-serving biases and other epistemological traps.

Both writers remain trapped in the fantasy world of the US empire — a world where officials, zombie-like, march down the same old road, now turning their glazed-over eyes to Iran and Venezuela, all the while jabbering nonsensically about learning lessons from the past, adopting the latest innovations in social science research, and getting counterinsurgency techniques right. They repeat the mantra “we are good people” as they deploy the awesome power of the US military to bulldoze through existing social institutions. It is a world where no one reflects on long-standing racist assumptions about the malleability of foreign societies and no one stops to look at the carnage left on the road behind them or attend to the victims.

Share this article


John Roosa is an associate professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006) and the forthcoming book, Buried Histories: The Anti-Communist Massacres of 1965–1966 in Indonesia.

Filed Under