For most readers of this review, the Vietnam War was an intensely personal experience. The incidence of war altered a life’s projection, reshaping its path and having a rippling effect on relationships with family, friends, and colleagues — many far removed in time and space from the war itself.
This analogy is helpful in understanding Mark Atwood Lawrence’s brilliant new book, The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam War Era (Princeton University Press, 408 pp. $35). Lawrence makes a compelling argument that the Vietnam War, along with the social and cultural domestic changes of the 1960s, led to the downfall of liberal ambitions in the Third World so eloquently espoused by President John F. Kennedy, and were replaced with a foreign policy that favored stability—usually in the form of a dictatorship—over democracy.
Lawrence, a University of Texas history professor and one of the leading authorities of American Cold War foreign policy, is the author of Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam and Vietnam: A Concise International History. Though The End of Ambition is about American foreign policy and decision-making, Lawrence has undertaken extensive archival research about five countries.
The book’s first three chapters detail the liberal promise of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, the transition and inheritance of Lyndon Johnson of this potential after Kennedy’s assassination, and how LBJ, who was focused on domestic policy, dealt with the world as the war in Vietnam escalated.
The next chapters are case studies of Brazil, India, Iran, Indonesia, and southern Africa, focusing on how the war effected America’s policies and relationships with them. The conclusion explores Richard Nixon and his role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
After eight years of Dwight Eisenhower and a foreign policy built on nuclear deterrence, the transition from the then oldest president to the youngest could not have been starker. Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen expressed optimism about the United States’ ability to promote democracy and development in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They argued that the U.S. had the resources and the power to implement plans that would give these former colonies the opportunity to flourish in a democratic, free market system.
Though this impulse to promote and spread democracy is part of America’s heritage, its need was amplified by the realities of the Cold War, in which competition with the Soviet Union for the world’s unaligned nations would determine the outcome of the struggle.
When he assumed the presidency in November 1963, Johnson was determined to show constancy to the American people and the international community. He retained Kennedy’s personnel and policies, but he was no acolyte of modernization and nation-building, and his instinctive reticence in foreign affairs was amplified with ongoing crises in Vietnam.
Lawrence uses a case-study approach through the five developing nations to convincingly show the transformation of American policy from promise to practicality. This is accomplished in such a concise and profound manner that each could stand alone as a brief book.
In his conclusion, Lawrence makes the provocative argument that President Nixon should not be given credit for the innovative policies that ended the war in Vietnam, opened China, and thawed relations with the Soviet Union.
These policies, Lawrence argues, started under Johnson. In response to the turbulence of the Vietnam War, LBJ adopted a policy of cautious realpolitik to ensure stability and reliability.
But, as Lawrence so thoroughly demonstrates, Johnson was out of his element in foreign affairs, and his foreign policy was reactive. Nixon did benefit from Johnson’s policy turn, and articulated, planned, and implemented policies that had a coherent vision and measurable goals.
Lawrence laments that the U.S. did not cope constructively with the developing world in the 1960s to balance a national instinct to promote change with an understanding on the limits of its power. Though he does not explain how this could be achieved, Lawrence should not be criticized as that is a conundrum that perplexes American foreign policy to this day.
Daniel R. Hart