The March of Folly


While the French were conducting and losing the colonial war in Vietnam, they tried to get more help from the Americans, but the U.S. Congress refused to increase their help. Senator John F. Kennedy long before he became President, said, ‘before the U.S. agrees to commit to increasing military help to the French, the Vietnamese should be granted independence as the French were fighting a colonial war that was bitterly unpopular with the Vietnamese people.’ It did not make sense for the Americans to enter the fray in defence of the colonial powers. After all they had similarly revolted against European imperialism and now it was the turn of the Vietnamese. They supported the wrong side! Kennedy understood this long before he became President. Why did he forget it when he became President? This was a pattern that was repeatedly repeated by American Presidents.

Barbara Tuchman described this in her aptly titled book The March of Folly. This is what she said,


All the conditions and reasons precluding a successful outcome were recognized or foreseen at one time or another during the thirty years of our involvement. American intervention was not a progress sucked step by step into an unsuspected quagmire. At no time were policy-makers unaware of the hazards, obstacles, and negative developments. American intelligence was adequate, informed observations flowed steadily from the field to the capital, special investigative missions were repeatedly sent out, independent reportage to balance professional optimism—when that prevailed—was never lacking. The folly consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was attainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest and eventually damaging to American society, reputation, and disposable power in the world.

The question is why did the policy-makers close their minds to the evidence and its implications? This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence, addiction to the counter-productive.[1]


The French colonial war ended shortly after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords. France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, while stipulating that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam, nominally under Emperor Bao Dai, preventing Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country The refusal of Ngô Dinh Diêm  (the US-supported President of the first Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) to allow elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, eventually led to the Vietnam War.

John F. Kennedy and all of his advisors were profoundly affected by what had happened in the Second World War. His advisors included Dean Rusk, Walter Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor and above all Robert McNamara. McNamara had been President of the Ford Motor Company and gave up a lucrative job to serve his country. He was a pioneer in systems analysis. These men (and interestingly they were all men) were among those that David Halberstam called “The Best and the Brightest.”    Based on their experience or knowledge of World War II, all of Kennedy’s advisors believed, a dictator had to be stopped in his tracks. Appeasement would lead to disaster they all believed. Appeasement was intolerable.

David Halberstam was a journalist who wrote a book with that title in 1972 well before the war was over but long after it was realized by nearly everyone that it was a disaster. He focused his book on the foreign policy that was crafted by academics and intellectuals who were part of Kennedy’s administration. Some called them at the time “whiz kids,” though few were kids. They were leaders of industry and academia that John F. Kennedy persuaded to join his administration. Halberstam referred to some of their policies as “brilliant policies that defied common sense.” Often their advice ran directly counter to advice Kennedy got from career American Department of State employees.

It must be remembered that Kennedy was a young President who had narrowly defeated a much more experienced political opponent, Richard M. Nixon, the former Vice-President of the United States. The first couple of months of his administration were disastrous. Kennedy had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that turned into a complete debacle. Many Americans believed that Khrushchev the Premier of the archrival Soviet Union, had bullied Kennedy at a Summit meeting. Kennedy failed to stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall. Kennedy also failed to intervene to stop Communist insurrection in Laos. Americans hate to think of a leader as weak. To many it looked like Kennedy was a weak President.

Kennedy did not want to seem weak. Many Americans called their new President immature, weak, and unable to stop the mounting Communist threat. He was of course, the youngest President ever at 43 years of age. Kennedy was, as a result eager to prove that he was a tough and capable leader of the country. All of these antecedents helped to position Kennedy for disaster in Vietnam.

There were even more factors that led to the ultimate debacle that was the War in Vietnam. For one thing there was politics. The Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had “lost” China to the Communists, and it did not want to be said about it that it also lost Vietnam.

While Kennedy was getting advice from his inner ring of the Whiz Kids instead of the State Department that was not entirely because he preferred his specifically selected inner advisors. It was also because the State Department had been decimated by the McCarthy era when the government was forced to shred experts on Vietnam and its surrounding countries. As a result Kennedy did not have the benefit of as many career diplomats as he should have. This is not entirely dissimilar to the situation of Donald Trump whose current Secretary of State has been doing his best to cut down the State Department. As a result Trump has to rely more on private advisors than I would say he should.

Apparently there was an early study that indicated the United States would have to commit close to one million U.S. troops to completely defeat the Viet Cong. However it was inconceivable that the administration would be able to convince the American Congress or the U.S. public to deploy that many soldiers.

At all times the Americans were concerned about how their actions would influence the Chinese and Russians. The Americans, like the Chinese, had recently completed a costly war in Korea and had little taste for doing that again. The Americans were also worried that any precipitous actions by them would repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift. They liked that rift and wanted to see it maintained not repaired.

Very importantly the American military in conformity to the long standing military tradition that armies should prepare to fight the last war instead of the next war, the American military was not prepared for a long and guerrilla war. And as we all know, that is precisely what they faced in Vietnam.

Apparently some of the American war games indicated that a gradual escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. Every year nearly 200,000 North Vietnamese came of draft age and could be sent into the meat grinder of the war if necessary. As a result as some pundit pointed out, the Americans and their allies in the South would be “fighting the birthrate”. Johnson as well wanted to concentrate on other important issues when he came to power such as Civil Rights laws and establishment of the Great Society. He really did not want to get bogged down in a war in Vietnam that he had not started but he was stuck with.

Of course as happens in wars—as always seems to happen in wars—there was the effect of inertia. Wars develop their own inertia. Once the Americans committed to sending troops they did not want to lose the war. Better to send more troops than face the difficult task of explaining why any forces had been sent at all. Political and military leaders continually worried about being accused of throwing good money after bad, and more lives after those that had already died.

Thus were aligned the forces that encouraged more war with more soldiers.

For all of these reasons (if these should be sanctioned by calling them reasons) John F. Kennedy in 1961 confided to an aide that he could only make so many concessions and still swim. Too many concessions made it certain that he would be considered weak. And that would not do. For all of these reasons, Kennedy felt that he must act in South Vietnam. He could not acquiesce with business as usual. He could not stomach one more loss to the Communists.

For all of these reasons Kennedy thought he had no choice but to commit ground forces to fight in Vietnam and stop aggression from the north despite his initial assessment that this was foolish. As a result he set aside his earlier sound judgment that it made no sense for the Americans to fight in Vietnam.

This is the mistake that each President made in Vietnam. Each one of them started his first term asserting he would not do exactly what he ended up doing. With Kennedy that mistake was to commit ground troops when he had earlier correctly assessed that this would be hopeless. This is the precise mistake Barbara Tuchman referred to in her book and aptly called “the March of Folly.” It was exactly that.

Kennedy had earlier said that he would refuse to send troops because sending the first troops was like taking a first drink. There would inevitably be demands for more drinks. Over and over again the American Presidents made the same mistake and paid the same horrific price and it always led to tragic consequences.

John Gray, the relentless pessimist, was right; President Barack Obama who vowed not to do anything stupid, was right. Donald Trump who promised not to get involved in foreign adventures and abandoned that position within weeks of assuming office is nuts, but his initial position was right.

As a result of many factors, the young President Kennedy, against his initial better judgment, got lured into the War in Vietnam. As the Burns film said, “Over the next 3 years the United States would struggle to understand this complicated country it had come to save, fail to appreciate the enemies resolve, and misread how the South Vietnamese people really felt about their government. The new President would find himself caught between the momentum of war and the desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and lies.




[1] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly, (1984) p. 234

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