The Decline of the United States, 2020
The nation faces an accumulation of problems that will be touched on. I make no attempt to explore any of the problems in depth, as that task belongs to experts or scholars in the various fields. This is a look at the forest, not the trees, by an observer with one qualification: he is 82 years old and has gained a wider, but not necessarily sharper, vision than some others with fewer years of experience.
1. The unraveling of the social fabric began with the War in Vietnam.
2. The problem of race began with the import of slaves from Africa and continues through our history; sometimes a simmer and at other times a boil, and occasionally boiling over.
4. The social justice movement has altered our Education system. Standards in both public school and in higher education continue to be lowered.
5. The decline of civil discourse has created a wall of separation between the political left and right. Politics has changed from a practical way to solve common problems into a cultural arena to display resentments. The Republican party, now in disarray, could be driven completely off the stage, thus increasing the change of one party rule.
6. And finally, Covid-19 which could precipitate an economic depression. The Nation is teetering, a depression would accentuate the factors mention above and possibly culminate in the demise of our Democracy and possible our link to western civilization.
A comprehensive history is beyond my capabilities. I have selected two books and two paintings that, like stepping stones, mark the downward path of the U.S. over the last half century.
I. Where to Begin?
The Roman world did not collapse like a felled tree; civilization drifted downstream for quite a while, as other civilizations have done. In 383 the Roman administrator Ausonius peacefully retired to his estate in Bordeaux to cultivated the vineyards and to write his memoirs. The rioting, looting, and general break down of law and order in our large cities that began decades ago will accentuate the movement of those with means to the suburbs and the hinter land. Our government like the Roman will delay the chaos with bribes to the rioters, but to no avail. The American Empire like the Roman Empire will slowly decline and eventually fade away. The inevitable question arises: how did a nation that emerged after WWII as the most powerful and wealthy in the world begin such a decline in less than a century?
The analogy that comes to mind is a scene from the play, A Lion in Winter, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II are chatting about the total mess their lives had become.
Eleanor: How, from where we started? Did we ever reach this Christmas?
Henry II: Step by step.
Step One. The United States War in Vietnam.
In 1962 I was an Infantry Lieutenant stationed with a training company at Ft Ord, California. Our job was to take drafted boys or volunteers through the first eight or sixteen weeks of basic training. On Saturday there was a regular T&I session conducted by an officer for the twenty odd enlisted men of the company. On one occasion I was assigned to conduct a session on our nascent involvement in Vietnam. Most of the NCOs were veterans of WWII or Korea and at the end of my presentation one Sergeant said, "If you get involved in a land war in Asia, you loose." All of the others chimed in with agreement. "Everybody knows that, its common knowledge", one old hand said. So how did we get ourselves in such mess in Southeast Asia? Below is an outline of events.
The French had held Vietnam before WWII and wanted to reestablish control after the war, but the Vietnamese were rebelling against more colonial rule. President Roosevelt had been opposed to the French revival of control, but after he died The State department almost immediately changed to pro-French policy. President Truman was persuaded to accept French control in Indochina. In August 1945 the Viet-Minh congress in Hanoi proclaimed the democratic Republic of Vietnam. Barbara Tuckman in her book, The March of Folly offers this quote,
“Even if you come to re-establish a French administration here it will no longer be obeyed: each village will be a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves ask about this atmosphere in which they will be unable to breathe.” This quote from a Viet-Minh member sums up the attitude and policy of North Vietnam from 1945 until the defeat of the U.S. and then of the South almost 30 years later.
What Tuchman saw as utter folly on the part of the U.S. was the false assumption that Vietnam was a crucial plank in Communist aggression in Southern Asia, and that this Communist threat was somehow controlled by Moscow. This is, she argued, a view of uninformed people not understanding either Southeast Asia nor the plans of Russian and China in the spread of Communism.
The U.S. View was that the French had according to Tuckman, “. . . dangerously outmoded colonial outlook and methods in the area . . . . on the other hand . . . . we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administration supplanted by philosophical and political organizations emanating and controlled by the Kremlin.” Tuchman pointed out the error of such an analysis: “It’s [The U.S.] central belief was that every movement bearing the label Communist represented a single conspiracy for world conquest under Soviet aegis.” Creeping Communism and The Domino Effect were the shibboleths of the State Department.
Despite U.S. wishes and support of the French, by 1950 Vietnam was mostly independent of France and two states were claimed, North and South Vietnams. Under Truman there was actually very little action on the part of the U.S. Truman sent 35 men up to 200 later, but they were not even wanted by the French. By 1954 the French were out and the nation was partitioned. This was a defeat for the U.S. ideologues who had already accepted the ultimate root of their folly: the two shibboleths mentioned above. Most of military leaders were not at all convinced that Vietnam presented any real threat to U.S. interest. Then the situation changed.
After Kennedy was elected in 1960 the North declared a war of unification of Vietnam. Kennedy had political reasons to need to show his willingness to fight Communism, especially after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. He too continued the unquestioned view of need to stop Communist ideology. Yet Kennedy knew this had to appear to be a Vietnamese war with the U.S. just providing some aid. He said: “If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we should lose it as the French had lost a decade earlier. Here was a classic case of seeing the truth and acting without reference to it.
Back at Ft Ord, the Cuba Crisis caused all reserve officers to have our tour of duty extended, no one knew for how long. My room mate at the BOQ decided he was tired of Ft Ord and signed up for a tour in Vietnam. He was then trained as an Intelligence Officer and shipped over. Before he was wounded and sent home, he sent a letter to all his army friends, now back in civilian life. The letter outlined the futility of pursuing the war. Washington had another view, championed by one Robert McNamara.
McNamara became a close adviser to Kennedy and advocated the use of a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and McNamara instituted a Cold War defense strategy of flexible response, which anticipated the need for military responses short of major retaliation. McNamara consolidated intelligence and logistics functions of the Pentagon into two centralized agencies: the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense Supply Agency. He presided over a build-up of US soldiers in South Vietnam. After the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the number of US soldiers in Vietnam escalated dramatically. McNamara and other US policymakers feared that the fall of South Vietnam to a Communist regime would lead to the fall of other governments in the region. In October 1966, he launched Project 100,000, the lowering of army IQ standards which allowed 354,000 additional men to be recruited, despite criticism that they were not suited to working in high stress environments.
By February 1962 the U.S. was beginning to actually get into the war in a more serious manner and within a year from 8,000 to 17,000 US troops were involved. Yet through all of 1963 almost no notice by public and no authorization by Congress was even sought. That set a pattern and this was the first “executive war” in U.S. history from 1964-1968. President Johnson started the U.S. bombing war using the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964. All major non-administration advisors argued against this action, and public notice began to grow.
By May 1964 the U.S. had raised its fighting force to 82,000 troops. By June of 1965 Johnson had approved combat troops and increased the draft. By July 40,000 to 200,000 “advisors” had been sent. Soon success was seen as not coming and the growth of U.S. anti-war sentiment was growing. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 election and Richard Nixon won the presidency, but he continued in the folly that Johnson feared “From being a fiction about the security of the United States, the point of the war had now been transformed into a test of the prestige and reputation of the United States – and, as he was bound to see it, of the President personally. Nixon too had no wish to preside over defeat.” Hubris came into play.
Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War states that human nature being what it is that history will, at some time or other in much the same way, be repeated in the future. He therefore believes that human nature is forever cruel and unjust. Without restraints, human nature will pursue whatever means necessary for self-interest. Coinciding with human nature, power is based on self-interest and the need to control reality at any cost. Rather than admit the mistake and retreat, Nixon doubled down.
In sum the folly of this ill-fated war left 45,000 U.S. soldiers dead and some 300,000 wounded in war. Tuchman emphasizes that never was the war really in the interest of the U.S., that the U.S. suffered an illusion of omnipotence and completely underestimated enemy resolve. The thrust of Tuchman’s book is that one could multiply cases like these throughout human history and that human governance has not shown any real advancement in history. Human error, desire for power, wealth and prestige, rational misjudgment and such human factors has made the phenomenon of “folly” to be central to the story of the United States' Vietnam fiasco and again in the Iraq War. Succinctly stated, we humans never learn.
codaThe introduction of Thucydides above permits a quick jump to our own time, and another application of his wisdom to the present situation.
In the midst of polarization between the ideologies of Athens and Sparta even the convention of language was under siege. Thucydides notes that “to fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meaning” (Thucydides, 3:82) adding for example “any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character” (Thucydides, 3:82). This stasis has changed collectively accepted discourse making lawlessness synonymous with just action.
Under the plague (in Athens), society entered a state of
depolarization creating a vacuum for unregulated power-starved human nature to
emerge. The consequence of the plague was that citizens “not knowing what would
next happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law”
(Thucydides, 2:52). Thucydides observes that even the convention of the funeral
procedure crumbles when it is found to be more expedient to pile up bodies
anonymously (Thucydides, 2:52). In the chaos of the plague, human nature is
exposed as self-interested and desirous of public
self-indulgence since the restraints that have made civilization possible disintegrate.