James Thomson on Vietnam, 1968.

January 3rd, 2008

Several weeks ago I printed out this 1968 Atlantic Monthly article, but I only now got around to reading it.

How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy

I found the link to the article on James Fallows’s blog. Fallows writes this about it:

James C. Thomson Jr.’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” might seem somewhat obvious in its analysis now. But when it came out — weeks after the Tet offensive in 1968, days before Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election — it was electrifying in its originality and insight. Thomson, who had been raised in China by missionary parents, was then in his mid-30s and had recently left the government in opposition to the war policy. He was a a brand-new and very popular college professor when I met him, as a student, around this time. In a sense all journalistic and even historical attempts to explain foreign policy failures flow from the approach he took in this article.

Thomson’s article makes for compelling reading. In it, he focuses on the ways that institutional agendas and inertia served to paint the United States into a corner vis-a-vis Vietnam. And Fallows is quite right about how influential Thomson’s take has been; reading the article, it was hard to remember that it was written in medias res in 1968, rather than at some safe, scholarly remove of decades.

You can draw your own conclusions about how well or how poorly the situation Thomson describes parallels what has happened with the current Administration’s Iraq policy. It certainly offers much food for thought.

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