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Back from the beach: A book report

I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.

I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.

The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.

But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.

My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.

Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.

My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.

It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.

Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.

All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.

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