A half-century ago this year, journalist David Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, his massive and influential account of America’s war in Vietnam. Filled with scathing judgments of the chief dramatis personae, the book remains eminently entertaining. Read against the backdrop of the present-day crisis over Ukraine, it retains considerable relevance. Despite the decades that have passed since it first appeared, it’s a book that President Joe Biden would do well to check out of his local library.
At one level, U.S. policy regarding Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s and the ongoing contretemps regarding Ukraine have nothing to do with one another. But look closer, and similarities emerge—as well as warnings for our present situation.
The Vietnam War was neither the first nor the only crisis that the United States has confronted since donning the mantle of global leadership. But in terms of horrors inflicted and damage sustained, that particular misadventure occupies a category all its own. Halberstam’s account describes how senior U.S. officials talked themselves into classifying the Republic of Vietnam as a vital national interest, its survival a cause for which young Americans should be willing to fight and die.
Those who advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were smart and ambitious, impeccably educated, tested by their own service in World War II, and eager to lead the nation at a moment of seemingly maximum peril. By their own lights, they were tough-minded pragmatists, given to seeing things as they actually were, without ideological blinders. On that score, Halberstam shows otherwise. In fact, the Vietnam War offers a textbook example of what happens when a political elite abandons moral realism in favor of fantasy.
In Cold War Washington, through the 1950s and 1960s, the governing fantasy centered on a conviction that “monolithic communism” directed by aging revolutionaries in the Kremlin posed a direct threat to freedom everywhere, not least of all in the United States. Halberstam’s book appeared during the very year that Richard Nixon made his famous trip to China. With that event, the myth of monolithic communism collapsed. Halberstam shows that as early as 1961, members of the U.S. national-security elite had known full well about the Sino-Soviet split. But for bureaucratic and domestic political reasons, they found it expedient to ignore its implications. One result was the Vietnam War, fought because, according to the specious “domino theory,” Communist victory there would ostensibly put America itself at risk.
In fact, to the extent that we can trace the roots of our present-day malaise and disunion back to the 1960s, we might conclude that the Vietnam War actually served to undermine rather than to uphold American freedom. Even today, the mournful consequences of that war linger. By that measure, the legacy of the best-and-brightest lives on.
In the decades since, this absence of moral realism has become something of a signature of U.S. policy. For evidence, we need look no further than the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), undertaken by members of an elite fancying themselves infinitely smarter than, say, McGeorge Bundy or Robert McNamara (who figure prominently in Halberstam’s account), but who are actually cut from the same cloth. Governed by their own fantasies, the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz wildly misconstrued actual U.S. interests after 9/11 and expended American power on a prodigious scale without purpose. They too have left behind a mournful legacy, not only in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but also among our own increasingly demoralized and alienated fellow citizens.
Today it has fallen to a new generation of highly credentialed officials to address a different problem set, with the Ukraine crisis a prominent example. Sadly, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan seem intent on reviving the tradition of Bundy and McNamara, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. At the heart of that tradition is an inability to gauge actual U.S. interests combined with exaggerated expectations of what American power and influence can achieve. This defines the very opposite of moral realism, which seeks to maintain at least a rough equilibrium between purpose and power, while recognizing that others may have legitimate interests that differ from those of the United States. That last point is of crucial importance.
The Ukraine crisis and the resulting standoff with Russia offer a case in point. As was the case with Vietnam and the principal theaters of the GWOT, Ukraine does not constitute a vital U.S. security interest. From an American perspective, it is not worth fighting for, as President Biden himself has tacitly admitted. That Russians should entertain a different view regarding Ukraine’s strategic importance is not only unsurprising but to be expected. Thousands of miles from the United States, Ukraine borders on Russia. In geopolitics, propinquity confers strategic importance.
Given this context, Ukraine’s expressed ambition to join NATO, dating from 2008, necessarily appears in Russian eyes to be a hostile act, as would, say, Mexico dropping hints that it seeks to forge a military alliance with the People’s Republic of China. In 1997, the renowned diplomat and historian George Kennan warned that expanding NATO at Russia’s expense would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Successive administrations chose to ignore that warning, which proved to be remarkably prescient. The truth is that when Russia was weak, the United States and its European allies exploited that weakness to the West’s advantage. They should not expect gratitude from the Kremlin.
Claims by the United States that its intentions regarding Ukraine are benign will ring hollow to anyone recalling Washington’s recent appetite for aggressive military action. One need not—and should not—give Russia a pass for its 2008 punitive skirmish with Georgia, its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and its incursion into Ukraine’s Donbas region that same year. Neither, however, should we expect adversaries to overlook U.S. military actions undertaken with even less legal justification and even sketchier strategic logic, which resulted in far greater loss of life. If the Russian troop presence along the perimeter of Ukraine is a provocation, then how should we characterize the conduct and outcome of America’s invasion and twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan?
The sins committed by great powers abound, a truth as applicable to our era as to any other. The task immediately at hand is not to weigh American transgressions against Russia’s but to limit the resultant damage. Regarding Ukraine, the imperative is to devise a formula that will restore a semblance of stability to a region now seemingly teetering on the brink of needless war. In that regard, the approach favored by Bundy and McNamara, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz won’t do.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has advanced a set of large demands that translate into a comprehensive set of security guarantees; for example, permanently foreclosing the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. In effect, Putin appears intent on declaring an end to the period when Russia could be pushed around. While in some respects his demands may be excessive, moral realism requires that Biden refrain from dismissing them out of hand.
My Quincy Institute colleague Anatol Lieven had devised a plausible solution to the conundrum: neutralization, using Cold War Austria as a model. In the immediate wake of World War II, the victorious allies occupied Austria, and arrangements there paralleled the terms of the occupation of defeated Germany. In 1955, however, the occupiers, including the United States and the Soviet Union, negotiated a treaty that resulted in Austria’s neutralization along with the withdrawal of all foreign forces. Austria thereby became a buffer between East and West, an outcome agreeable to all parties, not least of all to Austrians.
Moral realism suggests the possibility of a similar outcome for Ukraine: neutralization to transform it into a buffer between Russia and NATO while providing for the essential security and well-being of the Ukrainian people. A perfect solution? No, and hawkish critics will scream appeasement. But such an outcome will be infinitely preferable to a major (and potentially nuclear) armed conflict or to Ukraine remaining a perpetual flashpoint.
And let’s face it: given the precarious state of their own democracy, Americans today have more pressing concerns to deal with than Eastern European border security. Restoring a modicum of moral realism to U.S. policy will mark a large step toward giving those concerns the attention they deserve.