The Vietnam War was a confrontation that lasted from 1954 to 1975. It was mostly due to foreign countries’ attempts to expand their philosophies and accomplish their goals while weakening Vietnamese interests. The result was a loss of life as well as physical, social, and political stagnation in the world for the three decades that the war lasted. An analysis of this conflict gives useful insights into the relationship between progress and people’s desire to preserve stability. Robert McNamara, in a speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in May 1966, noted that security was a misinterpreted concept at the time. According to McNamara, developed countries thought that the best way to ensure that their people and the rest of the world was secure was to increase their military strength and engage in armed suppression of any threat to security. He dismisses these views and notes that for the developing world to achieve peace, it is important that developing nations come in to foster social, political and economic development. To him, insecurity comes up as a reaction of the people to being frustrated beyond intrinsic limits. This essay will analyze America’s approach to the Vietnam war and contrast it with McNamara’s sentiments, specifically the sentence “In a modernizing society, security means development”
The meaning of this phrase “In a modernizing society, security means development” with reference to the Vietnam War
McNamara’s sentiments that the best definition of security in a modernizing society is development came at a time when America was investing too much in war than peace. According to McNamara, the US and other developed countries at the time were more focused on developing military hardware and coming up with a stronger military force. He felt that this was not a necessary move given that if fueled more conflict.
According to McNamara, man is a rational animal. This rationality makes him eager to rise above his animal instincts. In an effort to achieve this rise, people will set blueprints where they expect that they will experience some growth and development after a certain period of time. Non-realization of the goals and expectations set through the blueprint makes human beings impatient and are likely to lose their rationality. If this stretches beyond what they can bear, they reach near-infinite capacity for folly and will use any means possible to try and get things work i.e., achieve development. This is what makes human beings take up arms and engage in armed conflict.
The ability of a person to maintain security and act rationally can only be assured if there is development. This means that the individual is satisfied and they are not disgruntled against forces of nature or other human beings for their suffering. Governments of developing nations do not understand that there must be a certain level of internal development for the people to be able to maintain order and stability.
McNamara recognizes that there are cases where order and stability can be compromised when there is development. In such cases, the government is justified to use military force to restore peace. However, this force can only be applied up to a certain extent. It can only work if the rest of the population is willing to cooperate. This cooperation is usually enhanced by development. A developing society yearns for peace because it feels that insecurity interrupts the process of enjoying what comes from the development. The people will seek peace by themselves if there is development. Therefore, military intervention will form a small part of the whole procedure of restoring peace.
From McNamara’s explanation, a modernizing society is that which is breaking from the traditional political, social and economic system. Modernization comes with governments that are willing to play a more active role in the wellbeing of the people. Modernity has come with many advantages where the people have a voice over how they would want to be governed, are included in the economic system and have a voice over social issues. A modernizing society is expected to be more coherent with a government that understands its people.
How “modernization theory” Influenced the American prosecution of the Vietnam War
Modernization theory is used to explain the transition of a society from a traditional setting to a modern one. There is no absolute definition of what a traditional and modern society entails. This is due to the diversity that has existed in both worlds where different societies have their own ways of life. However, it is clear that modernization involves the improvement of the social, political and economic status of the people. The modernization theory is also related to the development theory that describes development as a series of events characterized by certain aspects. Vietnam was a country caught between two extreme ideologies in the mid-20th century (Kaiser, 2000, p. 22). This saw powerful nations come in to enforce the ideologies that each felt was the most ideal for the development of the society.
Before the Second World War, Vietnam was under the rule of the French that had lasted for almost a century. The French ruled the Vietnamese with excess power where the people were forced to abandon Buddhism and become Catholics. France exploited the colony’s tin, rubber, zinc and coal resources. The locals were used to build railways, roads and canals to ensure that these resources were processed and sent to the market to benefit the colonizer. The Vietnamese questioned the right of France to exploit them.
Though the French had entered Vietnam with a promise to modernize the country, they turned to exploitation while the social, political and economic development of the people was undermined. Elites such as Ho Chi Min started resisting French rule. After the defeat and ouster of France in the initial stages of the Second World War, Japan came in and took over the resources while the people remained under oppression. Ho formed VIET MINH, an organization meant to resist foreign dominance. The US felt that the Vietnamese deserved freedom and development. It therefore supported Viet Minh in resisting Germany. The country split into two after the end of the war (Kaiser, 2000, p. 45). Viet Minh successfully repulsed France when it tried to reestablish its rule over Vietnam. The US felt that the Europeans were wrong in trying to impose themselves to the Vietnamese. They therefore supported the Vietnamese through military assistance.
When it became clear that Ho was in support of communism, the US turned against him and reverted to helping the French to set up a non-communist country in South Vietnam. The US had initially stood a justified ground on modernization by supporting the self-rule of the Vietnamese. The question of communism made the country abandon this perspective and instead supported the oppressive French Government against the Vietnamese. The French were defeated in 1954 after which a peace treaty was signed to divide the country into two: North and South Vietnam. The treaty also spelt that elections be held after two years (Small 2002, p. 36).
The modernization theory states that the country should tend towards democracy. Free and fair elections are a key aspect of democracy. However, the US felt that if the elections were to be held, communists would win. It was therefore keen to ensure that elections do not take place because China and the Soviet Union’s communism was more appealing to the people. The US denied the people of Vietnam the privilege to enjoy modernization of their political system (Small 2002, p. 38). The elections failed to take place. This created a power vacuum that was General Ngo Dinh Diem establish himself as the De Facto leader. The US supported him simply because he favored capitalism. He was dictatorial and moved people out of their ancestral lands, prosecuted Buddhists and invited the US to protect the South from the North. The US ignored the economic, social and political stagnation of the development of the Vietnamese society.
Guerilla Attacks and protests against Ngo intensified. US ships were attacked by patrol boats from the North in 1964. The congress authorized the war against Vietnam by passing the Tonkin Gilf Resolution. This entered America into a full war with the communists in Vietnam. 3500 US troops entered Vietnam in March 1965 and the war officially began (Sturken 1997, p. 9). Modernization theory states that a country should be able to gradually undergo political, social and economic development until all the traditional systems are replaced by modern ones. America initially supported this development. However, the country leadership’s contempt for socialism saw it compromise the concerns of the Vietnamese in regard to development. The US promoted the rule of the French and Ngo, despite the fact that these two undermined the welfare of the people of Vietnam. The Vietnamese thus rose and took arms to defend their wellbeing (Burkett and Whitley 1998, p. 2). This is what spun the conflict into a full-fledged war.
The broader Cold War context in Understanding McNamara’s Phrase
According to McNamara, people in the developing nations do not have the quality of life that those in the developed ones enjoy. However, their rationality makes them hope that their countries will eventually develop socially, economically and politically. This hope is usually backed with blueprints where the people expect that certain developments will take place at a specific time. When this fails to happen, the people are frustrated and will use any means to try and eliminate the barriers and restore development.
The cold war was characterized by propaganda and threats between powerful nations while trying to spread their influence. The political hostility pitted the western powers led by the US against the Soviet bloc led by USSR and China. These two blocs tried their best to become allies with other countries to strengthen their support. The Cold war coincided with the efforts to spread political theories (Craig and Logevall, 2012, p. 6). The western bloc pushed for capitalism while the Soviet bloc was pro-communism. These two blocs were so keen on their rivalries that they tended to ignore the issues affecting people in smaller countries that they sought relations with. The US and her allies would support any regime that was pro-capitalism even if it went against the rule of law, violated human rights and undermined development. The Soviet bloc was also desperate for domination that it supported any regime that was pro-socialist.
From McNamara’s words, it is clear that people can only stretch to certain extents when denied development. Therefore, people in these smaller countries could lose their patience and their rationality too. Subsequently, they took up arms and fought to defend their countries. Therefore, the enmity between the two blocs led to a number of armed conflicts by the people who were ready to compromise security to express their frustration at the stagnated development.
McNamara’s statement can be used as a summarized explanation of the Vietnam War. It links this war to the Cold War where the interests of the people were undermined leading to armed conflict. Human beings are rational. They set expectations and have needs that need to be met through the political, social and economic development. When this fails to happen, the patience of the people is stretched. It reaches a limit when they prefer violence and armed conflict over peace in order to solve their problems. This is what happened to the Vietnamese when Americans supported regimes that did not care about their wellbeing. Therefore, the world should concentrate on meeting people’s needs in order to maintain peace and order rather than armed military confrontations.
Burkett, B.G. and Whitley, G., 1998. Stolen valor: How the Vietnam generation was robbed of its heroes and its history. Dallas, TX: Verity Press.
Craig, C. and Logevall, F., 2012. America’s Cold War. Harvard University Press.
Kaiser, D.E., 2000. American tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the origins of the Vietnam War. Harvard University Press.
McNamara, R. S. (1966). Security in The Contemporary World. A speech delivered by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense before the American Society of Newspaper Editors Montreal, Canada, May 18th, 1966.
Small, M., 2002. Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Vol. 1). Rowman & Littlefield.
Sturken, M., 1997. Tangled memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic, and the politics of remembering. Univ of California Press.