Carter in Asia
To the Editor:
It may be presumptuous of a layman to disagree with a scholar such as Chalmers Johnson [“McGovernism without McGovern: Carter in Asia,” January], but I was particularly provoked by his conclusion. . . . It seems to be the fashion these days to speak of the inexperience and amateurism of the present administration without giving any thought to the fact that this is a recurring American condition which has afflicted previous Presidents and their administrations since World War II. . . . Three of these post-World War II administrations were headed by former Vice Presidents, but this made little difference with respect to the quality of their expertise in foreign relations with Asia. . . .
For the entire duration of our involvement in Vietnam, did our policy even approach anything which could be called experienced? Was it a sign of experience when the head of our military saw “the light at the end of the tunnel”? Or when Henry Kissinger proposed, shortly before the final Saigon debacle, to pump another injection of hundreds of millions of dollars into South Vietnam’s decaying regime? Is there anyone in the United States who still believes that such a last-minute effort on our part could have changed the final outcome or markedly delayed our ignominious departure from Vietnam? Bear in mind that all this happened after we had been militarily involved in Southeast Asia for some ten years and, therefore, should have gained experience and lost our amateur standing. What about the “tilt” in favor of Pakistan? And the invasion of Cambodia, which undid the balancing act of Prince Sihanouk’s regime? Wouldn’t we love to have him back today—as irritating as he was—instead of shedding tears for the hapless Cambodians? . . .
It cannot be said too strongly that our foreign policy vis-à-vis Asia, especially under President Nixon, smacked of abysmal ignorance through and through. While present mistakes may have caused some shock and embarrassment which deserve criticism, previous mistakes have cost the lives of tens of thousands of our citizens and many more Asians. I cannot help feeling that in spite of the admitted inexperience and amateurism of the present administration, its first-year record in Asia has not been worse, and has probably been better, than the record of all its predecessors since World War II. . . .
As to some of the specific points Mr. Johnson makes, there is also room for disagreement. Whenever an argument is made against the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not there is a South Korean army in existence. I assume there is such an organization, trained by our experienced military, which by now should have become sufficiently motivated so that it could be called upon to protect its own country. I assume further that South Korea will find it possible to augment its armed forces by 33,000 men, a number equivalent to the number of American troops President Carter expects to withdraw. Mr. Johnson neglects to mention that the population of South Korea is about three times that of North Korea, so that an increase in the size of the South Korean army should present no hardship. The South Koreans should be able to withstand an attack by Kim II Sung’s forces, at least until we can come to their assistance if this should prove necessary. By 1982, the year the withdrawal of our troops is to take place, we will have stood side by side with Seoul’s army for about thirty years, and if this length of association has not been sufficient to create an efficient South Korean defense force—again based on a manpower reserve considerably larger than that of North Korea and backed by a flourishing economy . . . —then our presence in South Korea can only be considered a total failure and should definitely be terminated forthwith.
Since we are speaking of experience, it is also relevant to make a comparison between South Korea and South Vietnam. In the latter, our military presence in support of another regime of questionable popularity, similar in type to the one at present in power in South Korea, and also ruling over a population considerably larger than the population of North Vietnam, was unable to prevent the disaster which overtook us and the South Vietnamese in 1975. The “experienced” American leadership of that venture refuses to this day to admit that we made a tragic mistake in getting involved in Southeast Asia in the first place. We are now learning bit by bit that our involvement was based on lies and misinformation, and that Washington had the opportunity years earlier to end the fighting with some honor but did not have the courage to face the facts which were apparent to our friends and allies. Shall we commit ourselves to the possibility of a similar experience in South Korea?
With respect to our relations with China, I must agree with Mr. Johnson’s statement that “the United States has allowed itself to become subservient to Chinese initiatives.” This sad state of affairs started with a bang when Mr. Nixon went to Peking instead of trying to find a neutral place for the first meeting of an American President with the Peking leadership. . . . Mr. Johnson is further correct in stating that the Chinese like to conduct negotiations in stages, always starting the next stage based on concessions gained in the last one—but who does not try the same approach? On the other hand, we also know that the Chinese can completely abandon previous positions and ignore former offenses if it suits their purpose. Therefore, I would attach no great importance to Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s “acid assessment of the Vance visit” last August. . . .
As to the Taiwan issue, I have developed my own theory. It is nonsense to talk of our “abandonment” of Taiwan; the opposite is more likely to occur. Both Communist and Nationalist Chinese are in complete agreement that Taiwan is part of China. If there should develop a strong movement for an independent Taiwanese state by native Taiwanese patriots, and if the Chinese Nationalists feel that they can no longer successfully contain such a movement, they will put aside every other political consideration to avoid the loss of what both Communists and Nationalists consider a province of China. In that event, the Chinese Nationalists will “abandon” us with ease and make their peace with Peking where they will be received with open arms. There are numerous examples in Chinese history of such 180-degree turnabouts by bitter antagonists, and we had better be prepared for this possibility. . . .
Walter A. Sheldon
New York City
Chalmers Johnson Writes:
It seems to me that it is Walter A. Sheldon who is being fashionable. His tone of defeatism and mea culpa is all too symptomatic of the government he seeks to defend. In any case, his argument that previous U.S. governments have been inept in Asia is no refutation of my contention that the present one is dangerously so. More to the point, my explanation of Carter’s blunders in Asia rests less on charges of inexperience and amateurism than on the administration’s ideological proclivities. I sought to explain why the government has persisted in its plans to withdraw troops from Korea, punish Japan for its development of nuclear power, and recognize Peking despite radical and imperfectly understood changes going on in China at the time of Vance’s visit. It seems to me (and I offered evidence to support the view) that Carter’s willingness to write off large parts of Asia while seeking to appease the Communist governments of China, Vietnam, and North Korea has the all too familiar ring of George McGovern’s positions.
I cannot agree with Mr. Sheldon that the cause of the debacle in Vietnam is to be found primarily in Indochina. It seems to me that historians will eventually find the critical fault to have lain in the United States itself: its uncertain commitment, its inequitable draft, its divided leadership politically and militarily, and the crisis-mongering of the media. But this is no place to debate Mr. Sheldon’s platitudes about Asian governments of “questionable popularity” (a particularly nice bit of sophistry in light of Cambodia’s “genocide by natural selection” and the drifting boatloads of Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea) . I should simply like to assert that Mr. Sheldon’s equation of Vietnam with Korea is terribly misplaced: Korea is one of the fastest industrializing areas on earth, the popularity of its government is strongest in the countryside, and the costs to the U.S. and Japan of its being abandoned to its own defenses will be much greater than in the case of Indochina.
Allow me to mention a few items that have cropped up since my article was written: (1) War between Vietnam and Cambodia has brought into the open the influence of the Sino-Soviet dispute in Indochina, yet the United States persists in its attempt simultaneously to recognize Hanoi, which is backed by the USSR, and China, which supports Cambodia. (2) In one of Senator Humphrey’s last reports to the Senate, he and Senator John Glenn advocated that “The U.S. should continue through word and deed to make clear its continuing commitment to South Korea in order to avoid any chance of a North Korean miscalculation” and “Our East Asian allies should be adequately consulted prior to each phase of the proposed withdrawal” (Committee on Foreign Relations, January 9, 1978). (3) The U.S. government itself reports that “On the Korean peninsula . . . the forces brought to bear in the early stages of a war will favor North Korea over the South ‘in all categories’” (New York Times, January 6, 1978, p. 1). And (4), after its ill-informed argument with Japan over atomic power during the first half of the year, the U.S. government allowed relations with Japan to worsen dangerously over economic questions during the second half of the year.
Mr. Sheldon’s Taiwanese “scenario” is implausible, given the number of Taiwanese being placed in high positions by President Chiang Ching-kuo. Moreover, the idea that the industrious people of Taiwan, Nationalist or Taiwanese, would abandon their prosperity and comparative liberty for the rigors of Chinese Communism seems to me to betray a lack of familiarity with either the dynamism of non-Communist Asia or the problems of the Chinese People’s Republic. My point, however, is that there is no way the United States can meet Peking’s terms concerning Taiwan and still expect to remain a credible force with any nation in Asia.