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Weston Powell

Critique on Barbara Tuchmans The March of Folly: From Troy to


Vietnam

The book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam is a book by American
historian Barbara Tuchman that was released in 1984. Although my reading was
specifically from the chapter Married to Failure which focuses on the Vietnam War, it
is important to know more background about this book. The author describes four
different times in history when government has lead to folly which she describes as
the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.
The first three examples Tuchman uses are the Trojan horse incident of the Trojan War,
early sixteenth century history of Renaissance Popes ruling, and the British losing control
of American colonies during our revolution. She finishes off with an argument about the
War in Vietnam. I believe this chapter and argument is the main objective of the entire
book. Tuchman leads with the other historical evidence to support her final argument
about the U.S. governments role in the Vietnam War.
President John F. Kennedy surrounded himself with a like-minded staff. Most of
the people on his staff were veterans, mostly around the age of 40, of World War II and/or
Korean War. Kennedy himself was well known as a combat veteran from World War II.
Kennedys appointed Robert McNamera as his Secretary of Defense. McNamera was
known to be an analytical, no nonsense veteran. Well known as Harvard Business
School prodigy, McNamara had a talent for systems analysis in World War II.

McNamara was so talented at statistics and probability that he paid little heed to human
effect. The Secretary of State was Dean Rusk, another analytical mind with a stern
demeanor. Rusk was chosen by President Kennedy instead of Adlai Stevenson, a man
who was much more reserved in taking extreme action and a man likely to disagree and
debate with President Kennedy. It seemed the President was only getting one perspective
on the conflict from his advisors. For the most part, these advisors agreed that the United
States needed to stop the red tide of communism in Vietnam.
Kennedy was no different from other presidents, including Barack Obama, in the
way he made decisions. The President of the United States has to often make tough
decisions so an easy-going, indecisive person would most likely make a poor president.
The president is constantly faced with information on both sides and he must be able to
make firm decisions in a timely manner and stand by them. To say that the president was
only looking at one side of the issue could be construed as short-sighted. Kennedy knew
that the only way to defeat communism in Vietnam was to enforce the local democratic
army. Intelligence was misleading, causing leaders to believe the Republic of South
Vietnam was stronger and better prepared than what was reality. Maxwell Taylor, a
military advisor to Kennedy, had said that North Vietnam was extremely vulnerable to
conventional bombing even though he had never been there or preformed
reconnaissance. Even when faced with facts or evidence, Kennedys tough veterans
administration somehow ignored the evidence and believed that it did not apply to them.
The leaders that got the United States involved in the Vietnam conflict knew
many of the dangers and knew that it could be a disaster for our country. The French had
just lost a conflict that would inevitable be very similar to the U.S. conflict. The French

spent years, millions of dollars, and lost many French lives before they were finally
defeated and left Vietnam. When Americans were faced with this issue they somehow
told themselves that the United States was different. After all, we were the ones that
saved France in World War II. Another thing that comes up right from the beginning of
the debate about American involvement and persists throughout is that we as an
American Nation cannot win the war. The war must be fought by, and won by the South
Vietnamese Republic. We knew right from the start of the conflict and before getting
involved that they were not equipped to win the conflict. The South Vietnamese people
we constantly getting defeated and did not have the means for recruitment
Tuchman seems to make one assumption throughout the article; that what
happened in history was bound to happen. This cannot be true because sometimes
strategies are very successful in history and some fail. An example may be the United
States genocide of the Native Americans. Through brutal means the U.S. succeeded in
taking all the land from the native inhabitants, killed off most of the people, and in the
end came out heroes of manifest destiny. Hitler on the other hand is probably the most
hated person in history for doing basically the same thing. Why Hitler failed and the U.S.
was so successful is very hard to say, there are many factors that go into the situation.
The leaders behind U.S. Vietnam involvement were often optimistic and believed victory
could be won by 1965. The United States military had never been stronger in history.
Even the smartest and most careful tacticians, such as McNamara, severely overestimated
success in Vietnam.
Possibly the most important point Tuchman makes is that the U.S. underestimated
the opponent. Just like in the fall of troy or the Huns invasion of Rome, or Napoleons

invasion of Russia, the U.S. underestimated a dangerous opponent. The Vietnamese were
already accustomed to the white mans war and they were getting aid from China and
Russia. Many of the Viet Cong were radical passionate fighters that believed they were
fighting for their families and their homes. After 100 years of French colonization and a
long bloody war with the French, America must have looked like a tyrant enemy to the
poorest parts of Vietnam. McNamera and others believed victory would be achieved
mostly through air power and through training and equipping South Vietnamese. In
retrospect it would seem obvious that we could not win this kind of conflict and
hopefully the U.S. would not get involved in another drawn-out, guerilla war against a
policy on the other side of the world. Surely, the U.S. had learned a lesson after Vietnam
and would not make the same mistake. In reality, Vietnam has set the president for a few
other massive failures; the war in Iraq and especially the war in Afghanistan look very
familiar. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were growing in recruitment for years. Even though
we seem to have quelled most of the tide of Al-Qaeda, a new threat immerged in ISIS. No
matter how many radicals the U.S. kills, there are always more to fill the spot. How
many lives will it take before the United States realizes that killing radical people across
the globe only leads to more radicalization?
In 1962 the United States and allies had defeated the biggest threat to peace the
world has ever seen less than 20 years before. This country had the strongest economy in
the world and the strongest military in the world, including the most advanced air force.
We had just successfully completed a conflict in Korea that, to many, looked similar to
the one in Vietnam. The Viet Cong at the beginning of the conflict were Guerilla fighters,
poor, and seemingly poor-equipped. Furthermore, the U.S. was in great fear of Russia

and the communist movement. World War II changed the world. Russia rapidly
expanded and even made vague threats to American security, and later on, not so vague
threats, like the Cuban Missile Crisis. With Russias rapid expansion and brutal means of
victory, the world left in shambles after WWII, and many developing nations in rebellion,
it is not out of line to think the U.S. had to take drastic action to ensure peace. When
looking at South Korea, there is a good example of how the U.S. and allies can save a
country from invasion and save a democracy. Most officials at the time believed the U.S.
could and should change the course of the Vietnam conflict.
Tuchman makes many compelling points in this reading selection. Many of the
decisions President Kennedy made seem especially bad when looking back. Even when
faced with intelligence that we could not win this conflict, leaders decided to marry a
dead horse. The reasons behind the decision to enter a losing race were legitimate, but it
was still a losing race. The U.S. rigorously fought with a many-headed hydra; the more
heads you cut off, the more that grow back. Kennedy and advisors really believed that
through superior technology and training the United States could defeat an enemy at
home, but they were wrong. Tuchman makes some great points and has some excellent
insight into the conflict in Vietnam. Overall Tuchman brings a greater light to a confusing
and very frustrating situation.