It’s now exactly 20 years since Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu were found murdered in the back of an armored car. Of the dozens of decisive moments in the history of the Vietnam war, the Diem coup and the chaos in Saigon that immediately followed are beginning to look especially significant. Suddenly in late 1963 John F Kennedy’s public comment the previous summer that “it’s their war [South Vietnam’s] to win or lose” no longer applied. The meetings at a Saigon dentist’s office between the CIA’s Lucien Conein and coup plotters had taken care of that. William Bundy, of all people, later came up with the right analogy for what the whole episode meant. He compared American complicity in the coup to “the parent who speaks up at PTA to oust an incompetent chairman; he or she cannot complain if the result is a job on the selection committee or in the end as the new chairman!”

Stanley Karnow, most recently chief correspondent for PBS’s fine 13-part documentary on Vietnam, began reporting on Indochina in the early 1950s and has skillfully covered it off and on ever since. His useful narrative of this futile war* contains quite a bit of retrospectively revealing information, particularly for antiwar liberals. In 1981, Karnow was invited to Vietnam for seven weeks, longer than any Western correspondent since the end of the war. He found that, contrary to the anguished cries of antiwar activists, the socalled “carpet bombing” of Hanoi in 1972 left less destruction than generally believed. (Hanoi can’t have rebuilt the destroyed buildings in the time since; it had no money.) Karnow also found that the CIA’s notorious Phoenix program, for all its brutality, was far more effective than he had once believed in neutralizing the influence of the National Liberation Front. Several Communist officials told him that the program came very close to succeeding in its objective of rooting out the Vietcong infrastructure. Most interesting of all, in the context of the critical 1963-1965 period, Karnow found that—surprise, surprise— that laughable State Department white paper had been right after all: the North Vietnamese were in fact infiltrating troops into the South before U.S. escalation. We hadn’t intervened in a civil war in the South, as so many were to claim. Karnow has this directly from the mouths of the North Vietnamese who widened the Ho Chi Minh trail.

This last detail is especially relevant because it confirms that the large-scale American commitment really did come in response to some very specific local events in Vietnam. That may seem self-evident, but it has always been—wrongly, it seems to me—subordinated to a more global explanation of the intervention. Nixon may have been right: the U.S. did become a helpless, pitiful giant. But not in the way he thought. It wasn’t that the big, strong United States looked weak to our allies, but that the big, strong United States was, in the wake of the Diem coup, led around on a leash by its own client state—or, more accurately, by the developments in its client state, South Vietnam.

Karnow understands the importance of Diem’s demise as a “fresh phase in the conflict:’ But the chapter he devotes to it only partly conveys the more complex dynamic that accounted for the “Americanization” of the war. Looking back, the essential change that took place in Vietnam during 1963 and 1964 was from a “political” commitment to a conventional military one. Up to the Diem coup, the U.S. placed most of its emphasis on politically strengthening the Saigon regime—through counterinsurgency training, a futile “strategic hamlet” program, and the use of aid reductions to try to affect the behavior of Diem and his brother. After the coup, with revolving-door governments and a weakening of the war effort, those advocating a strictly military approach won the upper hand in Washington, and bombing and ground troops followed. The shift was not total: within a couple of years the U.S. would push for elections and launch “pacification” programs. But by that time, with the presence of hundreds of thousands of American troops, any chance of a political view dominating had long since disappeared.

The shift in approach is most commonly explained at the highest level: Kennedy was assassinated three weeks after Diem, and the political response died with him. As vice president, Lyndon Johnson had supported Diem to the end—opposing what he called the “cops and robbers stuff” associated with the coup planning—and the minute he took over, Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman, Michael Forrestal, Paul Kattenburg, and others who had agitated against Diem were finished as Vietnam policymakers. It’s hard to remember, but the people who most wanted the CIA to help topple Diem were liberals who thought the war effort was going badly.

The demise of the so-called “Harriman Group” (the governor himself was transferred to African affairs), was highly ironic: having pierced the too-rosy military prognosis in the summer of 1963, these advocates of a political approach became victims of their own accurate assessments. After the coup, previously Pollyannish hardliners suddenly embraced Harriman and company’s pessimistic reporting on the war’s progress—and used it as a justification for stronger conventional military measures. The liberal policy-makers who had believed all that was needed was a change in government in Saigon had been proved wrong. The clownish coups and clumsy war effort that followed the decision to disassociate from Diem thoroughly discredited the political approach.

Recall that one of the most frequently asked questions in the years that followed—What were we doing there in the first place?”—simply wasn’t asked then. Getting out just wasn’t an option: Bobby Kennedy raised the issue half facetiously in the fall of 1963 and it was quickly laughed off. All the same, the reason we stayed underwent a subtle transformation in this critical period—a change that would determine the entire future of the commitment. What for Eisenhower and Kennedy began as a country in which large global ideas (containing Chinese communism, maintaining “credibility” with allies) dictated American interest in local Vietnamese circumstances, became for Johnson a country in which local circumstances tested the strength of larger global ideas. In other words, a policy determined by ideas became a policy determined by events. The idealism and ideology were still there, all right, particularly in the speechifying, but once we took responsibility for South Vietnam—once it became our baby, as the policy-makers like to call it—the power to affect the commitment really rested with the South Vietnamese. With the precedent of American involvement in the Diem coup, every time Saigon neared collapse, the U.S. had to step in further. Because political dickering had proved so unsuccessful, and total withdrawal was still so unthinkable (even to on scene skeptics like David Halberstam), that meant escalation.

Interestingly enough, the peculiar logic of all this did not originate with Vietnam. A.J.P. Taylor, writing about Europe, stated it in its purest form: “When one state is completely dependent on another, it is the weaker that calls the tune; it can threaten to collapse unless supported and its protector has no answer in return!’ This phenomenon was one of the strange hallmarks of colonialism. Liberal, anti-imperialist Gladstone, for instance, was drawn into intervention in Egypt 100 years ago, not to occupy the country or pursue some grand new Mediterranean strategy but, as Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher point out, as an “involuntary response to the continued collapse of the Khedivial regime!”

Could the American commitment to South Vietnam really have been involuntary? Karnow sprinkles his narrative with lots of details suggesting that the Saigon government, consciously or not, had the United States just where it wanted. it’the puppets were pulling the strings’,’ he writes. This extended from Minh to Khanh to Ky to Thieu, plus all the others who temporarily warmed the presidential seat. It’s well known that Thieu left Saigon with millions of dollars’ worth of gold in 1975, and that a whole class of urban Vietnamese, including most military commanders, carved up the country into franchises for drugs, television sets, and all sorts of other riches that the American presence.brought. But the United States was used in more subtle ways too. The Americans scoffed at Nguyen Khanh’s calls to “Go North” with the war in 1964; still, they planned during this period to do just that— as a way of staving off collapse in the South.

A particularly good example of the way the weaker called the tune came at the end of that year. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor made the mistake of privately hectoring Khanh and other officers about the absurdly convoluted political intrigue then—as always—gripping Saigon. Khanh responded by denouncing the United States to a New York Herald Tribune reporter, and Taylor in turn suspended certain U.S. military and civilian programs. Once again, as under Diem, the South Vietnamese easily called the Americans’ bluff. Aid was restored without changes in the behavior of the regime. One Saigon official spelled it out privately for Karnow at the time: “Our big advantage over the Americans is that they want to win the war more than we do!’ As time went on, this became obvious. The South Vietnamese government almost collapsed again in 1966 when another Buddhist revolt broke out in Hue, and in 1967 under the weight of staggering corruption. Until Tet in early 1968, you could almost plot on a graph the correlation between the declining effectiveness of the South Vietnamese and the growing American commitment. “Their weakness;’ Karnow writes, “was their strength!”

Tyranny of the weak

If you think about it, the weak, whether nations or individuals, fare well against the strong in all kinds of human situations. The strong can rest on their authority, muscle, powers of intimidation, and the threat of terminating a job or relationship. But the weak can impose guilt, sulk, threaten noncooperation, withhold admiration or affection, and figure out all sorts of other ways to undermine the strong. Might not this peculiar human chemistry also help determine why Cabinet secretaries are often prisoners of their departments, bosses of their subordinates, nations of their client states, and parents of their children? Karnow often describes the relationship between Washington and Saigon as akin to that between an awkward parent and difficult child. The weaker calls the tune.

This logic practically leaps out from Lebanon. It isn’t that Amin Gemayel or anyone else is consciously manipulating the United States. Instead, it’s the chaos itself, the threat of collapse, that carries within it the power to keep the Americans there. Just as in Vietnam, the larger global justifications for being involved have receded into rhetorical insignificance. These larger global stakes—the Soviets, etc.—now show up more in presidential speeches but in fact have less to do with why we’re committed. After the bombing of the barracks, it’s local circumstances that call the tune. If we leave, the regime collapses, and those marines look as if they died in vain. In Lebanon, as in Vietnam, where Vietcong attacks on barracks at Pleiku and elsewhere helped speed escalation, this mindset had replaced whatever it was that put us there in the first place.

All of this is by way of explanation, not justification, for what the United States eventually did to Vietnam. Moreover, while the logic may have unavoidably led to some sort of American commitment, it did not unavoidably lead to 500,000 troops, brutal warfare and an inept withdrawal. Remember, too, that the inexorable logic of intervention would not have been set in motion in the first place had it not been for the new sense of responsibility felt after American complicity in the Diem coup. In Lebanon, of course, that suggests that the more actively we intervene, the harder it will be to leave. Maybe the real lesson of Vietnam is to separate those world responsibilities we assume because we want them from those imposed on us because our actions—or the actions of local enemies—have left us no choice.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.