Disastrous Lessons

Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster ignores history -- and makes dangerous recommendations to the Obama White House today.

White House watchers have been abuzz for the last two weeks with news that U.S. President Barack Obama and his top advisors are reading Gordon Goldstein's book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. The White House has rightly been commended for looking back to lessons past, for all great wartime leaders have been keen students of history. But the choice of Goldstein's book is most unfortunate because its history is flawed and its recommendations are consequently dangerous.

Goldstein's history is part of a swath of accounts that claim the Vietnam War was unnecessary because the strategic stakes were low and unwinnable because the enemy was less casualty-averse. In the past 15 years, however, several scholarly works have inflicted major damage on those interpretations. Instead of seriously considering those histories and the new evidence presented therein, Goldstein simply ignored them. What we are left with is an outdated portrait of history that does not even address the many potent objections that can be raised against it.

Goldstein's historical myopia yielded the lesson that is most likely to influence the current White House: that the president should distrust predictions and resource requests from the military. In analyzing the Vietnam deliberations of 1965, Goldstein maligns the theater's commanding general, William Westmoreland, for blithely assuming that the enemy would cave in under heightened U.S. military pressure. Westmoreland's reliance on this false assumption, Goldstein says, resulted in a futile strategy of attrition.

The historical documents tell a different story, one in which the military leadership demonstrated noteworthy prescience. On June 24, 1965, Westmoreland cabled the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "it is time all concerned face up to [the] fact that we must be prepared for a long war," for "if the Communists have the determination to make it such, they certainly have the capabilities." He added, "I face the very practical problem of maintaining morale of people on their second combat tours, with many, many more to come, I suspect, when all the forces we require are committed." While the military prepared for the long haul, it was civilian leaders, particularly the Harvard-educated proponents of game theory, who expected rapid enemy capitulation.

Goldstein overlooks the U.S. military's recommendations for more aggressive actions in 1964 and 1965, as well as the lack of military knowledge and the contempt for the generals that led Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other civilians to quash those recommendations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff lobbied unsuccessfully for intensified bombing of North Vietnam and insertion of U.S. ground forces in Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese sources, conspicuously absent from Goldstein's book, have since revealed that these actions would have reaped huge strategic rewards for the United States.

The White House's rejection of those proposals nearly a half-century ago further undermines Goldstein's criticisms of Westmoreland's military strategy. By leaving the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, then-President Lyndon Johnson allowed North Vietnamese soldiers into South Vietnam in such numbers that Westmoreland had no choice but to engage them in big battles. Nor does Goldstein examine counterinsurgency in detail, look into specific battles, or otherwise demonstrate appreciation of the military realities on the ground. As a true reading of Vietnam history teaches, civilians -- be they historians or White House advisors -- should not second-guess military strategies without a strong command of the particulars.

Finally, Goldstein disregards the South Vietnamese government's long-term potential for carrying the burden of the war. The U.S. military favored a large troop commitment in 1965 to buy time for the resuscitation of the Saigon government, which had been crippled by a series of purges following the November 1963 coup. That coup had been engineered by the U.S. civilian leadership and pushed through over the U.S. military's objections. Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson predicted in March 1965 that saving South Vietnam would require five years and 500,000 troops. By 1970, as it turned out, the Viet Cong insurgency was in tatters, U.S. troop levels were falling rapidly from a peak of 553,000, and South Vietnamese ground forces were on their way to self-sufficiency. In 1972, after all U.S. ground forces had left, South Vietnam repulsed a 14-division North Vietnamese Army offensive. It likely would have defeated the next offensive, in 1975, had the U.S. government lived up to its promises of continued military aid and air support.

In Vietnam, the civilian leadership showed too little deference toward military advice, not too much. As the commander in chief, the president must, of course, scrutinize the military advice he receives and not defer automatically. But history suggests that the country's military leaders possess experience, knowledge, and wisdom that warrant the utmost respect from the recipients of their advice. The White House should tune out Goldstein and instead listen intently to what the generals have to say.

Ron Sachs-Pool via Getty Images


Reversal of Fortune

Why preventing poverty beats curing it.

Lifting people out of poverty has become a mantra for the world's political leaders. The first U.N. Millennium Development Goal is to halve the number of people whose income is less than $1 per day, currently about 1 billion people. And, in the past decade, millions around the world have been pulled out of poverty by economic growth, effective development aid, and sheer hard work.

Four years ago, I set out to discover which countries -- and which local communities -- were doing the best job of ending poverty. Using a varied sample of more than 25,000 households in 200 diverse communities in India, Kenya, Peru, Uganda, and the U.S. state of North Carolina, my colleagues and I traced which households have emerged from poverty and attempted to explain their success. At first, the data were very encouraging. In 36 Ugandan communities, 370 households (almost 15 percent of the total) moved out of poverty between 1994 and 2004. In Gujarat, India, 10 percent of a sample of several thousand households emerged from poverty between 1980 and 2003. In Kenya, 18 percent of a sample of households rose out of poverty between 1980 and 2004.

Looking at these figures, one could be forgiven for feeling a sense of satisfaction. But pulling people out of impoverishment is only half the story. Our research revealed another, much darker story: In many places, more families are falling into poverty than are being lifted out. In Kenya, for example, more households, 19 percent, fell into poverty than emerged from it. Twenty-five percent of households studied in the KwaZulu-Natal province of eastern South Africa fell into poverty, but fewer than half as many, 10 percent, overcame poverty in the same period. In Bangladesh, Egypt, Peru, and every other country where researchers have conducted similar studies, the results are the same. In many places, newly impoverished citizens constitute the majority of the poor. It's a harsh fact that calls into question current policies for combating poverty.

All sorts of factors -- including financial crises and currency collapse -- can push people into poverty. But our research indicates that the leading culprit is poor healthcare. Tracking thousands of households in five separate countries, my colleagues and I found that health and healthcare expenses are the leading cause for people's reversal of fortune. The story of a woman from Kikoni village in Uganda is typical. She and her husband lived relatively well for many years. "Then my husband was sick for 10 years before he died, and all the money that we had with us was spent on medical charges," she said. "My children dropped out of school because we could not pay school fees. Then my husband died. I was left with a tiny piece of land. Now I cannot even get enough food to eat."

Among newly poor households in 20 villages of western Kenya, 73 percent cited ill health and high medical costs as the most important cause of their economic decline. Eighty-eight percent of people who fell into poverty in 36 villages in Gujarat placed the blame on healthcare. In Peru, 67 percent of recently impoverished people in two provinces cited ill health, inaccessible medical facilities, and high healthcare costs. When families are hit by a health crisis, it's often hard to recover. In China, one major illness typically reduces family income by 16 percent. Successive illnesses ensure an even faster spiral into lasting poverty. Surveys in several African and Asian countries show that a combination of ill health and indebtedness has sent tens of thousands of households into poverty, including many that were once affluent. The phenomenon exists in the rich world as well; half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are due to high medical expenses.

Millions of people are living one illness away from financial disaster, and the world's aid efforts are ill-suited to the challenge. An intense focus on stimulating economic growth isn't enough. Healthcare is not automatically better or cheaper where economic growth rates have been high. In Gujarat, a state in India that has achieved high growth rates for more than a decade, affordable healthcare remains a severe problem, and thousands have fallen into poverty as a result. Healthcare in fast-growing Gujarat is no better than in other, often poorer, states of India. Indeed, Gujarat ranked fourth from the bottom among 25 states in terms of proportion of state income spent on healthcare. Perversely, rapid economic growth often weakens existing social safety nets and raises the danger of backsliding. In places as diverse as rural India, Kenya, Uganda, and North Carolina, we observed how community and family support crumbles as market-based transactions overtake traditional networks.

As economic growth helps lift people out of poverty, governments must stand ready to prevent backsliding by providing affordable, accessible, and reliable healthcare. Japan's recent history offers hope that enlightened policy can prevail. At 4 percent, Japan's poverty rate is among the lowest in the world. Sustained economic growth undoubtedly helped, but so too did an entirely different set of policies. Quite early in the country's post-World War II recovery, Japanese officials recognized the critical relationship between illness, healthcare services, and poverty creation, and they responded by implementing universal healthcare as early as the 1950s.

Regrettably, that insight hasn't traveled nearly as well as Japan's many other exports. It's well past time that political leaders put as much effort into stopping the slide into poverty as they do easing the climb out of it.