Political Tribes by Amy Chua

22bookchua1-superjumboAmy Chua is best known as the “Tiger Mother.” That not entirely complimentary moniker came from her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Chua described and espoused her (and her husband’s) super strict child-rearing methods. Not coincidentally, reaction to the book brought her a mountain of media attention.

But Amy Chua is much more than a mother with strong ideas about kid discipline. She graduated from Harvard and its law school, clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and went on to work in a big law firm. Today she is a professor at Yale Law School.

Chua’s specialty is ethnic conflict and globalization. Her books include World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall.

Which brings us to her latest provocatively titled book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (Penguin, 293 pp., $28). In it, Chua takes an American-centered look at the impact of “tribal instinct,” aka “ethno-cultural rivalry,” on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, including the 2016 presidential election.

Chua devotes a twenty-page chapter in the book to the Vietnam War–and why the United States came out on the losing end. But you won’t find anything in here about military tactics or strategy. Or the American media or the antiwar movement.

Chua instead concentrates on her specialty, giving us a tribal-centered answer to a question that has been debated for a half century: why “superpower America, with its formidable military,” as she puts it, lost a war to “what Lyndon Johnson called a ‘piddling, piss-ant little country.’”

Chua gives a nod to the “widely recognized” answers as to why the war ended the way it did: that the U.S. greatly underestimated the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and that Cold War myopia caused us to seriously misunderstand the nature of Vietnamese communism and its threat to U.S. national interests. But, Chua tells us, those two factors do not make up the “complete picture.”

What’s missing, she contends—“the core reason we lost in Vietnam”—in her words, is that American leaders from the Truman to the Ford administrations “failed to see the ethnic dimension” of Vietnamese nationalism. Amy Chua’s definition of the Vietnam War’s “ethnic dimension” in a nutshell: the multi-millennial conflicts between China and Vietnam.

U.S. policymakers’ gross ignorance of Vietnamese history (particularly the long-time enmity with China) caused us to blunder into the conflict for the wrong reasons. “Astonishingly,” she says, the U.S. was “so oblivious to Vietnamese history” that our State Department, Pentagon, and presidential policymakers “thought Vietnam was China’s pawn<_/>merely a ‘stalking horse’ for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’” This, she says, “was a group-blind mistake of colossal proportions.”

Chua makes her case with a brief recap of Vietnam’s enmity toward China, and an even briefer look at how the U.S. got into the Vietnam War, starting with fateful decisions made at the end of World War II. She delves deeper into the strong impact of ethnic Chinese people living in Vietnam. This, she says, is a good example of a “market-dominant minority,” a term Chua coined that describes the many entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese Vietnamese citizens who all but controlled South Vietnam’s “lucrative commercial, trade, and industrial sectors” for centuries, including during the American war.

All of this rings true.

Chua’s contention, however, that the fact that ethnic Chinese people dominated South Vietnam’s economy had a significant impact on the war’s outcome is harder to swallow. Yes, our South Vietnamese allies were generally not very effective fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. But to put the lion’s share of the blame for that on the South Vietnamese government asking its people “to fight and die—and kill their northern brethren” in order to keep the [local ethnic] Chinese rich” seems to be a huge exaggeration.

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Amy Chua

To her credit, Chua notes that many South Vietnamese were less than willing to fight their communist brothers for another reason: They had little love for a seriously corrupt regime that was asking them to do so, a regime—not coincidently—backed by the U.S.

“The group identity America offered the Vietnamese was membership in a puppet state,” Chua says. That amounted to “the ultimate affront in a country where many Vietnamese soldiers wore trinkets dedicated to the Trung sisters, symbolizing resistance to foreign invaders at all costs.”

No arguing with that.

And there’s no arguing with her conclusion that “virtually every step [the U.S] took in Vietnam was guaranteed to turn the Vietnamese against us. The regimes we supported, the policies we promoted, the money we spent, and the attitudes we brought made the Vietnamese hate us, hate capitalism, and only enhanced the appeal and status of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh.”

Chua’s website is amychua.com

—Marc Leepson

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