by Yuen Foong Khong, 1992, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
This is one of the books that my son, Peter, had as a result of his master’s studies at George Washington University. I went through the box and picked out some of them that looked interesting. The book sat in another box for a few years until I picked it up this summer because there weren’t any other books in our RI condo that I hadn’t read.
The subject of this book holds a certain fascination for me as I was convinced that the government was lying to the American people about the motives of the intervention in Viet Nam (as well as what was occurring during the intervention). I did not, however, have a very good understanding as to exactly what the motivations were. This book went a long way toward providing some insight.
Khong analyzes, from a human psychological perspective, two decisions of 1965, the February decision to bomb North Vietnam, and the July decision to introduce ground troops. Khong’s assertion is that analogies from prior historical events play a large role in making current decisions. He also finds that using these analogies from prior historical events can lead to major mistakes in policy decisions and, once the wrong decisions are made, these same analogies invariably lead to the decision makers’ hanging on to their original thinking despite mounting evidence that they are on the wrong course. The three analogies that were most commonly used were the Korean conflict, Munich, and Dein Bein Phu. It appears that the analogy of the Korean conflict was the one most used in supporting the two decisions of 1965 that were examined.
One of the findings is that, in the absence of current information, the decision maker may fill in missing information with the facts from the prior situation, facts that may not necessarily be pertinent to the current situation. The author points out that many of the decision makers in the Viet Nam era were some of the brightest and most well educated persons in our society. Despite their smarts, they tended to make some grievous errors in judgement and tended to not listen to arguments that were in opposition to their way of thinking.
After reading this book, I could sympathize somewhat with the difficulty these individuals had in making the decisions that they did. My particular sympathy is with President Lyndon Johnson as he agonized over these decisions and repeatedly sought opinions from all of his advisors as well as this military leaders before making these decisions. From the questions he asked, it appears that he had the best interests of the United States at heart when he finally came to the conclusions that he did. It is unfortunate that he didn’t get better advice.
The book also indicates that one of his advisors, George Ball, was on the right track when he used the analogy of Dien Bien Phu in predicting the disastrous outcome that would come to pass some years later. My sympathy is with Mr. Ball because his very accurate predictions were ignored in the face of opposition from almost all of the other advisors.
While I have less sympathy for the other advisors, I can now, as a result of reading this book, better understand how they came to their positions. Several of these advisors later admitted that they were mistaken and regretted the advice they provided (William Bundy and Robert McNamara are two such individuals).
Although I have a better understanding of the thought process that surrounded these decisions, I still can’t forgive individuals such as Walt Rostow and General William Westmorland who never recanted their views despite overwhelming evidence that they were greatly mistaken. These are individuals who should definitely share the blame for the loss of over 58,000 American lives as well as the lives of countless Vietnamese.
Analogies at War is an insightful work. The author researched his subject carefully and it shows. His writing and sentence structure are very clear and he forcefully presents his arguments. The only downside of the book, I found, was that, because of the arguments put forth and the information provided, it tended to get somewhat repetitious.
The book was written in 1992, prior to our involvement in the Iraq wars. It would be interesting to read an updated version that would examine the decision making that went into those two wars.