A Mournful Legacy: Ukraine and the Recovery of Moral Realism

tags: foreign policy, Ukraine, international relations, Eastern Europe

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

A half-century ago this year, journalist David Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, his massive and influential account of America’s war in Vietnam. Filled with scathing judgments of the chief dramatis personae, the book remains eminently entertaining. Read against the backdrop of the present-day crisis over Ukraine, it retains considerable relevance. Despite the decades that have passed since it first appeared, it’s a book that President Joe Biden would do well to check out of his local library.

At one level, U.S. policy regarding Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s and the ongoing contretemps regarding Ukraine have nothing to do with one another. But look closer, and similarities emerge—as well as warnings for our present situation. 

The Vietnam War was neither the first nor the only crisis that the United States has confronted since donning the mantle of global leadership. But in terms of horrors inflicted and damage sustained, that particular misadventure occupies a category all its own. Halberstam’s account describes how senior U.S. officials talked themselves into classifying the Republic of Vietnam as a vital national interest, its survival a cause for which young Americans should be willing to fight and die.

Those who advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were smart and ambitious, impeccably educated, tested by their own service in World War II, and eager to lead the nation at a moment of seemingly maximum peril. By their own lights, they were tough-minded pragmatists, given to seeing things as they actually were, without ideological blinders. On that score, Halberstam shows otherwise. In fact, the Vietnam War offers a textbook example of what happens when a political elite abandons moral realism in favor of fantasy.

In Cold War Washington, through the 1950s and 1960s, the governing fantasy centered on a conviction that “monolithic communism” directed by aging revolutionaries in the Kremlin posed a direct threat to freedom everywhere, not least of all in the United States. Halberstam’s book appeared during the very year that Richard Nixon made his famous trip to China. With that event, the myth of monolithic communism collapsed. Halberstam shows that as early as 1961, members of the U.S. national-security elite had known full well about the Sino-Soviet split. But for bureaucratic and domestic political reasons, they found it expedient to ignore its implications. One result was the Vietnam War, fought because, according to the specious “domino theory,” Communist victory there would ostensibly put America itself at risk.

Read entire article at Commonweal

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