When will historians of the future date the beginning of the decline and fall of the American empire?
The question may seem presumptuous. The idea that the American Century is a relic of the past, and we are entering a "new world order" of divided rather than hegemonic power, is relatively new, and still controversial. There are those who insist it ain’t necessarily so, primarily neocons of the second mobilization such as Robert Kagan, who are quick to reassure all right-thinking patriotic Americans that we’re still Number One and warn against the fatal lure of committing "superpower suicide."
To the rest of us, however – that is, to everyone outside the neocons’ cultic universe – the signs of the Great American Contraction are everywhere, most noticeably in the incomes, productivity, and general economic well-being of ordinary Americans. Our own CIA – never a friend to the neocons, but that’s another story – avers this condition is the single greatest threat to our national security: not Iran, not terrorism, but the very real threat of national bankruptcy. Our national debt is over 100 percent of GDP.
I would make the case, however, that the seeds of American decline were planted much earlier, during the cold war era. And if I had to pick a specific date that marked the beginning of the end, I would settle on January 31, 1968 – the day the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces began the Tet offensive, which was militarily a setback for them, but politically disastrous for the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Tet was costly for the Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese forces, but their decision to launch an all-sided assault on South Vietnam’s cities wasn’t entirely calculated for its military effect. As General Giap put it years later: "For us, you know, there is no such thing as a single strategy. Ours is always a synthesis, simultaneously military, political and diplomatic – which is why quite clearly, the Tet offensive had multiple objectives."
Militarily, their success was uneven and hardly decisive: they did not take any major cities, and those villages they took they couldn’t hold on to. On the diplomatic and political front, however, they came out the clear victors: their goals were to drive a wedge between the South Vietnamese government and Washington, on the one hand, and between Washington and the American people on the other. Their bold attacks on Saigon itself, which underscored the weakness of our South Vietnamese sock puppets, achieved the former, while television footage of American soldiers rushing to stop an enemy that seemed to be everywhere achieved the latter. Public support for the war plummeted. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, demanded more troops: his request was denied when the White House concluded the war was unwinnable. A few months later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.
But of course the war wasn’t unwinnable, as conservatives at the time protested: we could have sent the 200,000 troops Westmoreland requested, and initiated a Vietnamese "surge" which might have pushed the Viet Cong back. Indeed, we could have sent a million men into that carnage, and the reason we didn’t was because it was no longer politically possible. The country had turned against the war and not even a stream of scare-mongering red-baiting invective coming from the neoconservatives of the day could turn the tide.
Today, the neocons bitterly denounce what they call the "Vietnam Syndrome," bemoaning its deleterious effect on their various schemes for world conquest, and – from their perspective – they are right to do so. Because if you worship at the altar of the war god, this Syndrome is a dangerous heresy: it means that the default of American foreign policy is caution rather than rollicking recklessness, prudence rather than mindless belligerence, realism rather than utopianism armed.
January 31, 2013
Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
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