Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam


Perils of Dominance is the first completely new interpretation of how and why the United States went to war in Vietnam. It provides an authoritative challenge to the prevailing explanation that U.S. officials adhered blindly to a Cold War doctrine that loss of Vietnam would cause a "domino effect" leading to communist domination of the area. Gareth Porter presents compelling evidence that U.S. policy decisions on Vietnam from 1954 to mid-1965 were shaped by an overwhelming imbalance of military power favoring the United States over the Soviet Union and China. He demonstrates how the slide into war in Vietnam is relevant to understanding why the United States went to war in Iraq, and why such wars are likely as long as U.S. military power is overwhelmingly dominant in the world.

Challenging conventional wisdom about the origins of the war, Porter argues that the main impetus for military intervention in Vietnam came not from presidents Kennedy and Johnson but from high-ranking national security officials in their administrations who were heavily influenced by U.S. dominance over its Cold War foes. Porter argues that presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all strongly opposed to sending combat forces to Vietnam, but that both Kennedy and Johnson were strongly pressured by their national security advisers to undertake military intervention. Porter reveals for the first time that Kennedy attempted to open a diplomatic track for peace negotiations with North Vietnam in 1962 but was frustrated by bureaucratic resistance. Significantly revising the historical account of a major turning point, Porter describes how Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara deliberately misled Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, effectively taking the decision to bomb North Vietnam out of the president's hands.


Nearly three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, neither historians nor international relations specialists have satisfactorily explained why the United States chose to fight a major war in that unfortunate country. the reader interested in understanding the mystery of the Vietnam War is likely to come away from the scholarly literature on the war with little more than the suggestion that Cold War ideology was to blame. Whether explicitly argued or not, the assumption underlying virtually every account of the Vietnam War has been that the primary motivating force was adherence to Cold War strategic doctrine about the threat of communism and the need to resist it by force if necessary. in a review of the literature on the war some years ago, Robert J. McMahon observed that unquestioning adherence to such Cold War doctrines had become the dominant historical explanation for U.S. Vietnam policy.

The Cold War consensus explanation can no longer be reconciled, however, with the documentary record on Vietnam that is now available to scholars, which contradicts it at every turn. This study of the making of Vietnam policy is aimed at providing a clear alternative to the Cold War consensus explanation for the war. It reflects a hypothesis about the reasons for the U.S. policy decisions leading eventually to war in Vietnam that I began to formulate more than twenty-five years ago when I was assembling a documentary history of the war. I did not pursue that germ of a hypothesis, however, until the past few years.

My hypothesis is that a dramatic imbalance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union had emerged by 1954, and that the new power relationship shaped the policies of both sides in the Cold War toward Vietnam for the next decade. in examining the proposition that unequal power relations had a decisive impact on Cold War foreign policy decisions . . .

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