Winning the Cold War by Losing Asia

Hugh White argues that the first step to winning the Cold War was losing the Vietnam War. If so, it adds even more significance to the arrival yesterday in Da Nang, Vietnam, of Cmdr. H.B. Le as the commanding officer of the USS Lassen. Le left Vietnam in a fishing boat in 1975, at the age of five. Something to ponder for those who argue that losing isn’t an option.

White’s piece, which offers five other thought-provoking observations, is the most insightful thing I’ve read so far on the fall of the Berlin Wall (admittedly not a lot, since I’ve been swamped the past few days).

If I had more time today, I’d write something along the lines of how the narrative mythology that has arisen to explain the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War is mistakenly triumphant and retrospectively determinist. As White points out, there was no way in 1989 to foresee the strength of the U.S. economy of the 90s. Absorbing the Warsaw Pact into Europe was a risky endeavor. And the post-Cold War political accomodation in Europe, especially as regards Russia, remains incomplete.

The Soviet Empire fell because communism failed to solve the problem of balancing people’s societal needs with their personal aspirations. But it’s a mistake to believe that because our adversary failed at that task, we have necessarily succeeded. All we can say for sure, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is that our adversary failed first.

Another mistake is to believe that the Berlin Wall was some sort of anomaly. The Soviet Empire was forced to construct visible barriers to flight and immigration, because it never succeeded in erecting the internal, invisible barriers that all societies use to maintain cohesiveness. If anything, walls are easier to identify and tear down when they’re physical objects than when they’re identity constructs.

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