”A divide in the history of the United States”

Interview with Dr. Tamás Magyarics

The US internal and foreign affairs of 1968 came up again and again in the articles of the last few months. And so came the idea to make an interview with one of my former teachers who is a well-known name not only for the students and tutors of Eötvös Lorand University.

magyarics_tamas.jpgDr. Tamás Magyarics graduated from ELTE in Budapest and LSU in Baton Rouge. He has been teaching since 1987 in various institutions in Hungary and abroad. Currently, he is a Professor at the Department of American Studies at ELTE. He used to be the editor-in-chief of the periodicals Külügyi Szemle and Foreign Policy Review, research director at Teleki Institute and Institute for Foreign Affairs, he is a member of the Hungarian Atlantic Council, spent four years in Ireland as ambassador, and as an expert of American affairs he appeared in several debates and interviews. His field of expertise is the Cold War, the foreign affairs of the United States, the transatlantic relations and security studies. He has been working as translator, editor and writer; among other books he wrote A History of the Foreign Affairs of the United States.

Why is the Vietnam War such an important event in the 20th century American history?

First of all, until the early twenty-first century it was the longest war the United States had ever waged. Second, it had had an air of obscureness from the very beginning, as for its objectives. The official intentions came from the Domino Theory; however, many people questioned the claim that South Vietnam was the right place to stop Communism. Besides, from the mid-1960s, more and more academic analyses claimed that there was no monolithic Communism. The Sino-Soviet opposition was growing stronger, but the American strategy itself raised a lot of questions too. Just like in Korea a decade earlier, they did not try to win in Vietnam, they wanted to prevent an enemy victory. And a lot of people got to question it, for instance, on behalf of the armed forces concerning the fact that traditional tactics were applied against a guerilla army. The conflict between the civilian administration and the military leadership led and still lead to several debates. And the soldiers stated that they were forced to fight with one hand tied behind their back, in other words, they could not do what was necessary as the political leadership kept interfering. In the White House, however, they were determined to prevent another war like that in Korea: they avoided all those targets that might involve the Chinese, but all that decreased their efficiency on the battlefield. These questions pointed out multiple inadequacies in the political and the military leadership. All that would eventually give way to the Weinberger Doctrine, then later the Powell Doctrine. To make things worse, the Vietnam War took place when the Civil Rights Movement came to being, and the society was deeply divided. That is why the war years may be considered as a sort of divide in the military and political history of the United States. 

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, outlined the doctrine named after him in November 1984. It was based on the hard lessons of the Vietnam War and was to serve to avoid similar political stalemates. It contains the following:

• The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
• U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
• U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
• The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
• U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
• The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

The Powell Doctrine named after Colin Powell was made up before the 1991 Gulf War and was based on the Weinberger Doctrine. Apart from the above mentioned points, total commitment, minimalising of the casualties and the swift execution were emphasized. It contains questions that need to be answered with 'yes' in order to start a military intervention.

• Is a vital national security interest threatened?
• Do we have a clear attainable objective?
• Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
• Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
• Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
• Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
• Is the action supported by the American people?
• Do we have genuine broad international support?


What are the lasting effects of the Vietnam War in political affairs? And how long will they be felt in the American public life and collective memory?

In the 1970s there was definitely a sort of recess and the "moral leader" role of the US was questioned. Later on, the Reagan administration tried to leave this conflict behind and draw the lessons. Despite all that, in the early 90s it was still in the collective memory. To give you some personal experience: I was in America in 1994, and in late May, on Memorial Day, President Clinton appeared on the Mall, not very far from the Vietnam War Memorial, to make a speech. Lots of veterans were there, and when he started talking, they turned their back on him, as Clinton was one of those who had avoided military service during the war.
The Vietnam War is not so topical these days. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan get more attention. Besides, the longest conflict in American history is no longer Vietnam, but Afghanistan. During the 2016 election campaign we could see the last ones of the politicians who grew up in the Vietnam era. Hillary Clinton pursued a sort of "Kulturkampf" as seen back in the 1960s in her own campaign, but she did not succeed. For most of the Americans this is history studied at universities. Books and studies now focus on details that no longer question or rewrite the classical works, rather, they try to add new pieces to the big picture. Most of the mainstream historians claim that this conflict was unnecessary, and only a few say that it delayed the Communist headway and meanwhile the Sino-Soviet opposition grew so significant that it made absolutely clear there was no monolithic Communism. The Domino Theory was originally about stopping Communism in Asia, but by the early 1970s it was clear that this was not the case. The Chinese minded their own business and the Soviets were tied down in Europe. Supporting North Vietnam by Moscow and Peking was a part of their rivalry to decide who was the leader of the International Communist Movement, to counterbalance the American influence, to tie down the American military might and to discredit the Western world.

The Tet Offensive took place 50 years ago. This dramatic series of events was a turning point or the last straw concerning the public image of the war, having effects on internal and foreign affairs, plus the media. Was ever there another event in the American history when the President and the establishment found themselves in such a stalemate in every possible way and therefore they were forced to back down?

Nothing similar ever occurred. The Tet Offensive indeed was a psychological turning point. Until then politicians did have credibility. Let me tell you a story about that. Back in the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy sent the reconnaissance photographs taken over the island to Paris, London and other cities to show the proof. The Paris envoy, maybe Vernon Walters was about to present these pictures to de Gaulle, who said it was alright, he did not wish to see them, the word of the President of the United States was enough for him. It was another time, another world. Credibility of the American Presidents and the politicians was about 70-80 percent among the public; nowadays it is about 10-12 percent. One of the lasting effects of the Vietnam War is that they have no credibility.
Media became an effective political actor during the war. And one of the dramatic effects of the Tet Offensive was when Walter Cronkite, who had this grandfather-like image and who was the embodiment of credibility, asked "what is going on here, I thought we were winning and now there are Vietcong in the courtyard of the American embassy." People felt they were deceived. And politicians had never uncovered the whole truth. Openness was something that had been missing even at the time of the Korean War, but that was how it went throughout the Cold War. In the Vietnam years, it became more and more obvious that politicians had their own games behind the curtain and sometimes they simply lied to the public. Their credit was down as well as the credit of the media would be in a few years. In 2016, it was about 20-30 percent as many people think that certain media figures follow political agendas, while there is no one like Walter Cronkite, James Reston or Walter Lippmann, who likewise followed political agendas, but undoubtedly up to par.


As for the other side, we hear voices claiming that the North Vietnamese expected a military failure during Tet and counted on the loss of the Southern communists in order to take their place afterwards. Lest we forget, there are smaller wars in every war. And there was the traditional Sino-Vietnamese opposition. There was a saying back then: "The Chinese would fight the Americans to the last Vietnamese soldier." To give an example, the Americans initiated more than a hundred peace proposals during the war via Polish, Hungarian and other mediators. It is said that some of these were hindered by the Chinese. Operation Lumbago was one of these. A Polish diplomat set out to Zakopane in the Tatras to have his lumbago treated, but in fact, he tried to get to Hanoi. He flew to Moscow, then to Peking where he was stopped and told that a snowstorm made the next leg of his journey impossible. However, at the same time a Chinese delegate was sent to Hanoi to persuade their leaders to ignore what the Polish diplomat had to say. The Vietnamese were hard nuts, too, but the Chinese and the Soviets had more than one iron in the fire... Henry Kissinger mentioned something interesting in his book White House Years. When they had a meeting with the Chinese and the Soviets in 1972, the Vietnam War had no significance whatsoever at the table, although the White House had had worries about the Soviet response to the mining of the Haiphong harbor. The Vietnamese realized what was going on and that was when they returned to the peace proposals.

As for the untimely death of J.F. Kennedy, certain historians and former colleagues like Robert McNamara claim that he would not have escalated the war and sent combat troops, he would rather have left the Republic of Vietnam. Although Kennedy always went for the peaceful solutions, did the White House, Kennedy or Johnson have truly have an option in 1963 after so many years of economic and military support?

It is a fact that Kennedy did not send combat troops. Nevertheless, he increased the number of the advisors to 16,000. The key decision, however, was the coup against President Diem in November 1963. It seems that it happened with the consent of the American government, even if not personally by Kennedy. Colin Powell later said it was like the "Pottery Barn rule" which says "if you broke it, it is yours, pay for it." He referred by this to Iraq meaning if the US invaded Iraq, the future of that country would be their responsibility. The situation was similar in '63 as displacing the head of the government would leave them the political decisions afterwards. We do not know if they were aware what would follow the ejection of Diem and his brother-in-law, chaos or order. We will never know, but if you take a closer look at Kennedy's presidency, you will see that he had chosen the peaceful solution in the Bay of Pigs, but he was much tougher during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, he took a lot of risks. Today we know by several memoirs that the deployment of nuclear weapons was not limited to the presidential jurisdiction on either side. Battlefield commanders were allowed to use them, even in outback places like South Korea where the phone did not always work. In such a case, if a bomb might be dropped on them and the local battlefield commander considered it a state of war, he could give an order to deploy nuclear weapons in response and the nuclear conflict would have been on. arkhipov.jpgDuring the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was this Russian naval officer on a submarine, Vassili Arkhipov, who saved the world; their submarine was under attack by American vessels and he did not give his OK to use torpedoes with nuclear warheads. The bottom line is that Kennedy had gone tough by that time and he abashed the Soviets, especially by publicizing the proof. He could have sent those photos straight to Khrushchev saying, "OK, we will not make these public, but you have to withdraw the missiles..." Instead, they hobbled the Russians and it was obvious they had lied to the world. And these situations are always dangerous, because someone's prestige is at stake, if they let the other side blackmail them publicly. In other words, Kennedy could have solved that subtly without bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
Another thing is that both Robert and John Kennedy had started out back in the McCarthy era, they were hard-liners in Anti-Communism. And JFK had terrible experiences with the bullying Khrushchev during the Vienna Summit on the 4th of June, 1961. He said later he had never been talked to like that and he would never ever let that happen again. Given all that, it is unlikely that he could have taken the risk of giving up South Vietnam, especially because the Democrats had always been criticized for being soft on Communism. The covert support of Vietnam had been started by President Eisenhower, and the young new president simply could not have suspended it all. Johnson would follow suit. It was about prestige. What would happen if they gave up Vietnam and leave? The message would be that the United States was not a reliable ally. To make it worse, Khrushchev publicly announced that the Soviet Union would support the national liberation wars and they did pour the money in certain countries. The global image of the United States prevented a simple American withdrawal from Vietnam. That is why I think that Kennedy did not intend to terminate their commitment. If he had wished to do so, he could have done it back in 1961–62 much more easily. He could have stated that they would give economic, diplomatic and other support to Saigon, but no more, because as Bismarck once said, "The Balkans aren't worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier." The facts that Kennedy increased the number of advisers and basically overthrew Diem show that he did not want to withdraw. Johnson went on with this situation, and he had this desire to prove his worth to his political advisers inherited from Kennedy, who looked down on him, a former Texas school teacher. Prestige, global politics and ambitions were all very important in this game that none of them could just leave.


It may sound a bit tabloidish, but the death of Kennedy is related to the interests of the military leadership and the military industrial complex by many (not only Oliver Stone), which correlates with the escalation of the war. Do you think these researchers do a worthwhile job or this murder case should be shelved for long?

Poor Kennedy, it seems he was executed by a whole army, the CIA, Johnson, the Cubans, the Russians and the Joint Chiefs... Well, it is likely that the official report put a gloss on the truth, and it was not only Harvey Lee Oswald who was involved, it must have been more complex. However, I think it is quite bold to presume that the Joint Chiefs had organized a coup against their own president. Of course, a lot of historians dig into this as there were lots of motivations including that of the people who did not want to see Kennedy withdrawing from Vietnam and so made up a plot to kill him... And there was the CIA who bore the responsibility for the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, and the Cubans who felt they had been betrayed. Or Castro who knew about all the American assassination plots against him. And the Mafia, of course, is sometimes brought up. It is said that Kennedy was supported by the Mafia during the election campaign, for instance in Illinois or West Virginia; despite all that, Robert Kennedy as Attorney General took on Jimmy Hoffa – and the Mafia felt that they were treated ‘unfairly’, so they were angry about it. It is certain that Oswald fired three shots, but who stood behind him or Ruby who would kill him and who had connections to the Mob...? The armed forces would not even have been necessary for all that. But I cannot add anything to these conspiracy theories. This is Oliver Stone's turf.


You met foreign colleagues, diplomats who had served in Vietnam. Is this a delicate question for them? Do they speak about their own experiences or only about the lessons?

I know three or four of them. I met a former fighter pilot in America, whose grandmother was Hungarian. He is one of those typical old-school soldiers. He had a nice arsenal at home, so we spent a few hours on his shooting range. All he said was he had received orders, he had carried them out and he had no problems about it. Air war, of course, is basically different. Dropping bombs from an altitude separates the pilot from the actual killing. And there was an air attaché working at the American embassy, who never talked about Vietnam, but I knew that his family life had been ruined by it... They say it was about executing orders. They did not question the political decisions.

Here, at the university, are there any classes on the Cold War or Vietnam? Are the students interested? How many of them choose this topic for their theses?

Yes, some theses focus on this topic. One of my colleagues and I have Cold War seminars every now and then. But there are no tutors on American history at the Department of History here at ELTE.

Which books would you recommend?

The Pentagon Papers and George C. Herring's books (America's Longest War and The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War: The Negotiating Volumes of the Pentagon Papers) are highly recommended, as well as Christian Appy's work (Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told From All Sides). Robert Dallek wrote a three-volume book on Johnson, which is truly remarkable, just like David Kaiser's American Tragedy. I should mention two of Henry Kissinger's books, Diplomacy and White House Years. And there is John A. Farrell who wrote about Richard Nixon and truly revises his presidency.

Thank you for the interview.