Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with US President John F. Kennedy, taken June 3, 1961. (U. S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with US President John F. Kennedy, taken June 3, 1961. (U. S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

History as a field of study allows us to shape the future by learning from our mistakes. As we approach the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we reflect on his time in office and the decisions that were made following his presidency — especially in the escalation of the Vietnam War. To learn more about what lessons we can take, we speak to CIGI Chair of Foreign Policy Development James Blight and his colleague and project partner for Avoiding Nuclear War, janet Lang.

CIGI: In a recent interview, janet described the Vietnam War as the “prototypic war for the 21st century.” How do you see lessons of perceived aggression and relative power applicable in today’s context?

The greater the discrepancy between the size, military power, global reach and other dimensions of the strength of individual adversaries, the greater will be their mutual difficulty in understanding the other. The problem is the absence of empathy: the ability to really get into the skin of the other, and to accurately articulate what the other side is telling itself — about itself, about you, about the nature of the problem and how the problem might be fixed.

The history of US foreign policy since World War II shows how difficult this problem is to fix, to learn the lessons of previous failures. The United States overreached in Korea, and invited a Chinese invasion of the South without the slightest intention of doing so. President Truman was not interested in an invasion of China and said so. The Chinese could not assume Truman would stick by his word, so when US forces moved close to the Chinese border, the Chinese attacked. Another example: no US president since the 1959 Cuban Revolution has wanted to invade Cuba and replace the Castros. But how could Cuba assume that the US economic embargo would not bleed into a military confrontation, as indeed it did during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis? In effect, Cuba has been on a military alert for more than a half century, seeking to deter an American invasion they still feel they cannot rule out as a live possibility.

The US war in Vietnam may be the limiting case of a superpower and a tiny power at odds and almost totally and mutually befogged, with each unable to grasp what the other side was about. President John F. Kennedy sent no combat troops to Vietnam during his 1,036 days in office. He had fought in the Pacific during World War II; he had confronted Japanese kamikaze attacks; and he knew that smaller powers have only their sacred commitment (to country, ideology, religion or other cause) with which to ward off a gigantic power, something that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, understood none of. President Johnson authorized a full-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnam in early 1965, and by mid-1965, tens of thousands of US combat troops began to arrive in South Vietnam. The purposes: first, to convince North Vietnam to stop supplying the southern insurgency; and to assist the South Vietnamese army in fighting the insurgents in the ground war.

Did the Hanoi government cave in? No, basically they told Washington to go to hell, unless and until the bombing of the north stopped. Did the southern insurgents cave in? No, they fought like tigers with a fanaticism and resiliency that the United States and its ally could not even come close to matching. The United States finally left Vietnam in humiliation, having withdrawn in the face of movements and governments which, though small and militarily “weak,” more than made up for their lack of hardware with spirit and resourcefulness.

This problem, of “the mouse that roars,” is still with us. Does the United States understand Iran? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? North Korea? We don’t think so. Do any of these smaller countries understand the United States? No. So the recipe for one or more Vietnam-like disasters is still in play.

CIGI: You recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times’ opinion page “Room for Debate” that looked at how JFK’s successor took America further down a path of war. The op-ed says, “If States won't do diplomacy, Defense will try — and fail. That's how we ended up in the Vietnam War.” With that in mind, what lessons can Barack Obama’s administration learn in their approach to contemporary problems such as Syria and Iran, if they are to look at the decisions made by Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara under Lyndon Johnson? 

As to what the Obama administration should do with regard to Iran and/or Syria: first, it is useful to recall that Obama came to office on the heels of eight years of the reckless, costly, ultimately disastrous foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. The so-called “war on terror” alienated most of the world, but the anti-Americanism was most acute in the Middle East, where the Bushies did the most damage. The totally unnecessary and still unresolved war in Iraq has been more costly in dollars than even the Vietnam War. It has also been catastrophic for the Iraqi people.

By and large, Obama has been engaged in damage limitation in the Middle East. He has been trying not to make matters worse than they already are; however, even this task is mind-boggling. The Arab Spring is looking more like an “Arab winter” with each passing day as the fanatical jihadists gain a toehold all over the region. Iran is undergoing a change of some sort since their recent election, but whether this will translate into a deal with the West on it nuclear program is still up in the air, as is the converse, whether the United States and/or the Israelis will take military action if a deal is not reached. The Syrian civil war is on the brink of destroying an entire society, with no signs of letting up. The flow of Syrian refugees is already dangerously destabilizing neighboring countries. It is a bloody mess.

We hope the Obama administration takes a page from JFK’s playbook. Kennedy understood that not every problem on planet earth has an American solution or a military solution or, sometimes, any solution at all. That is precisely why he withstood tremendous pressure to Americanize the conflict in Vietnam and to seek regime change in Cuba. JFK was a believer in “soft power” before there was a name for the strategy of influencing adversaries via attraction rather than blackmail and threat. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech that the United States would never negotiate out of fear, but also that the US would never fear to negotiate. If Kennedy had lived and been re-elected in 1964, he would have had a chance to put his philosophy of foreign policy into practice: seeking to normalize relations with Cuba; bringing the US advisers home from South Vietnam; and beginning to work with the Russians to move toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

CIGI: Proxy conflicts during the twentieth century play a defining role in how we view the Cold War. When considering the dichotomous nature of that era — and the threat of communism — what can we say about today’s threat of terrorism or the idea of the “West versus the Rest”? Are there any parallels we can learn from the Vietnam War and the Cold War when looking at US-Iran relations, for example?

The principal problem in the West’s efforts to deal with Iran is a mutual lack of empathy between governments, regions, cultures, languages and histories. The vast majority of Western countries no longer have embassies in Tehran, and vice versa. Very few Iranians have travelled in the West, and even fewer Westerners have travelled to Iran. So there is the first part of the problem: basic unfamiliarity with virtually everything about “the other.”

There is also what we might call the “mutual weirdness” that constitutes a major portion of each side’s evaluation of the other. Most American presidents believe it is their sacred responsibility to bring a two-party democracy to every country in the world. States are often ranked, best to worst, according to how closely Washington deems them to have approximated this “ideal.” But Iran, with its quasi-theocracy, its peculiarly problematic variant of what they call “democracy,” its proclivity toward crushing dissent brutally and ruthlessly — does not appeal to any Western value. Yet there you are. This is the set of contradictions that constitute the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Forgive us for mentioning JFK one more time. Kennedy said in his famous June 10, 1963 speech at American University that rather than try to make the world safe for American-style democracy, Washington should instead work with others to make the world safe for diversity! Implicit in this challenge is to work overtime trying to empathize even with a country and culture as seemingly strange as Iran’s. Like every other country, Iran is what it is, and is not what it is not, because of its particular history. We need to learn that history. We need to try much harder to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians and ask ourselves, for example: why might they seek a nuclear weapon capability? Of course, one reason might be that they want to blackmail their neighbours and destroy Israel. But we believe there are more compelling reasons — essentially defensive reasons — why Iran might seek to develop nukes: they live in a very tough neighbourhood; the Israelis, who have said they will attack Iran militarily if Iran goes nuclear, have had nuclear weapons for nearly a half century; and it cannot fail to come to the attention of the Iranian leadership that even a country with virtually no friends and one of the worst human rights records of modern times — North Korea—is left alone, because it has the capability to respond to any military attack with nuclear weapons.

To put it in a historical nutshell, Barack Obama should ask himself: what would JFK do in this situation? That’s not a bad start toward defusing the problem of Iran’s nuclear program. As JFK said on many occasions, a journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step. We think that first steps ought to be for Obama to take the military option off the table, to reduce the sanctions unilaterally and then wait and see whether the Iranians reciprocate. But it is the powerful West, led by the United States, which has to take the first step. The West can afford to do so with no risk to itself. The Iranians cannot. They believe (not without reason) that they live under an existential threat from the West, whose only motive is to destroy the Islamic Revolution and its government. They need a meaningful sign that the West is turning a new page — that it is actually taking the Islamic Republic and its security concerns seriously. We think this will make it harder on Iran’s hard-liners to keep their wagons circled. 

Like every other country, Iran is what it is, and is not what it is not, because of its particular history. We need to learn that history. We need to try much harder to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians and ask ourselves, for example: why might t
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