Magazine article The Spectator

'Road to Disaster: A New History of America's Descent into Vietnam', by Brian VanDeMark - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Road to Disaster: A New History of America's Descent into Vietnam', by Brian VanDeMark - Review

Article excerpt

Many wars have outsized and enduring effects on the societies that fight them, but for Americans the Vietnam war has one attribute that guarantees its longevity as a suppurating wound in the national psyche: it was a loss.

Analyses have been numerous and perennial, from David Halberstam's contemporary portrait of the policymakers who led the country into war, The Best and the Brightest, to last year's mammoth ten-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War. Now Brian VanDeMark, a historian at the United States Naval Academy who had working relationships with the two secretaries of defense who managed the war -- he co-authored Robert McNamara's In Retrospect and was research assistant on Clark Clifford's autobiography -- offers his own study of America's 'descent into Vietnam', with Road to Disaster.

Like Halberstam, VanDeMark is fascinated by the apparent paradox that highly educated, intelligent, and otherwise successful men could be responsible for such a costly and sustained policy failure. To this question he is excited to apply the benefit of 'groundbreaking research conducted over the last three decades into how we make decisions based upon neuroscience, psychology, and other behavioral investigations'. With these tools, he hopes to unpick the tangled knots of critical policy decisions, and to show us where things went wrong.

He makes a promising start. After a fascinating discussion of the Bay of Pigs debacle, VanDeMark unpacks the Cuban Missile Crisis, drawing out step by step the assumptions and evolving viewpoints of both Kennedy's team and Khrushchev's. He shows, for example, how the cooling of passions after the initial discovery of missiles in Cuba helped Kennedy open his mind to advice from people familiar with Soviet thinking, understand that the missiles were defensive in intent, and then craft a quiet deal removing US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. In doing so, he successfully bridged the 'empathy gap' (as it would be later characterised by MIT's Emile Bruneau) that bedevils so many real-world negotiations.

As the book moves on to consider the much more complex Vietnam war, however, it becomes clear that VanDeMark's definition of a decision-making error is not a failure to follow a rigorous thought process, but rather a failure to avoid fighting the war. He believes the war was fundamentally unwinnable, and on this assumption every step towards it (and deeper into it) was obviously a mistake: the sending of combat units, the bombing of North Vietnam, new troop requests by American commanders -- all these decisions he inspects for cognitive failures and untested assumptions. …

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