Yes, post-1945 policymakers got it catastrophically wrong in Vietnam. But they got it right by containing the Soviet Union while building security alliances and promoting free trade. Those policies set the stage for the greatest expansion of freedom and prosperity in history, made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, and eventually led to the peaceful end of the Cold War.
It is common for defenders of the foreign policy establishment to invoke the policies adopted at the creation of the modern national security state as proof that the establishment can get things right, but this is a selective and sanitized history that requires us to forget a lot of what the U.S. did in the name of containment. It requires a great deal of whitewashing of the U.S. record during the Cold War to conclude simply that American policymakers “got it right.” It also tries to give the U.S. credit for developments that its policies did not cause, since the peaceful end of the Cold War was almost entirely the result of internal changes in the USSR and eastern Europe driven by the peoples of these countries. What a lot of all these defenses have in common is that they can’t identify any great successes of U.S. foreign policy in the last 20 or 25 years. In order to defend foreign policy elites today, they usually have to go back to the 1950s or earlier.
Defenders of the foreign policy establishment’s record are now usually willing to acknowledge that the Vietnam War was wrong, but they don’t have much to say about a lot of other similarly horrible policies. Did policymakers get things right when the U.S. cooperated in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in the name of anticommunism? Did they get things right when the U.S. sided with a Pakistani government committing genocide in Bangladesh? Did they get it right when they were cozying up to the Khmer Rouge in an effort to oppose Vietnamese influence?
Paul Thomas Chamberlin recounts this last episode in The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace:
However, none of this precluded a rapprochement between the Khmer Rouge and Washington – at least as far as U.S. policymakers were concerned. Officials in the Ford administration worried about the potential for Hanoi to expand Vietnam’s influence. To block Hanoi’s bid for regional power, the Ford administration hoped to reconcile with the Khmer Rouge and support a greater Chinese presence in Southeast Asia.
Chamberlin then quotes Kissinger: “You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.”1
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.