Seemingly Insignificant Decisions Affect the Course of History

I just started watching the PBS documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the Vietnam War this week. So far I’m only on the second episode that is chronicling what happened up to 1963, so I don’t mention this because I’m planning to write a review of the series. But especially after watching a detailed review of those early years, I was struck by how the decisions made by presidents that might have seemed insignificant at the time, kept piling on one another until we were involved is something that was destined to be a massive failure, but couldn’t find a way out. In the end, over 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese paid for those mistakes with their lives—not to mention the multitudes whose lives were forever impacted.

As I was thinking about those seemingly insignificant decisions, I remembered the conversation President Obama had with a group of journalists about the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The topic of Nixon’s opening with China came up. Here’s how Max Fisher described the point Obama made:

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China’s transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran’s regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon’s historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China’s under Deng, opportunities like Nixon’s trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find “openings” for such moments.

That is the flip side to the decisions presidents made in the lead-up to the Vietnam War. Obama described his own process of trying to find openings that we might not foresee.

All of that led me to try to contemplate the big picture of what has happened during these first eight months of Trump’s presidency. Sadly, the one good thing that comes to mind is that he hasn’t started a war…yet. But think about the possible opening with Iran that Obama was trying to create. With Trump’s constant verbal tirades and the very real possibility that he will pull out of the nuclear agreement, that door has been shut and won’t likely crack even a tiny bit in the foreseeable future. We’ll never know what might have happened if Obama’s successor had built on that opening.

Opportunities like that are shutting down all over the globe. As Trump becomes more hostile with Cuba, our relationships with the countries in Latin America will deteriorate. We’ll never know what an approved TPP might have done to ensure that this country was a player in setting the rules for the global marketplace. Years from now we’ll learn how pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and showing indifference to the issue of climate change will impact this earth we call home. Finally, doing nothing to stop Putin’s encroachment on democracies in Europe, while failing to defend the international institutions that were developed following World War II, will likely have an impact on our security in the future.

Now I’ve written myself into depression. What a gloomy picture I’m painting! But those are the kinds of openings Trump is creating—even if he doesn’t start a war with North Korea. Just as Truman’s rejection of requests for help from Ho Chi Minh in order to stand with our allies in France created an opening for the Vietnamese leader to turn to Russia and China for assistance. Just as the domino theory during the Cold War led Kennedy to back a horrifically corrupt dictator in South Vietnam and created an opening for the involvement of U.S. troops in that country. Future historians will tell the story of what happened with the openings (or closings) created by Trump during his presidency.

All I can say in closing is that elections matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .