Afghanistan, Vietnam, and the Superpowers
February 20, 1993
It saddens me to read John Rizai's February 19th's Alternative View, which compares the U.S.
actions in Vietnam with the Soviet actions in Afghanistan. True, the actions are similar in one
respect. The leaders of a huge super power with the capacity to annihilate their opponents
eventually realized that the benefit of victory was not worth the cost. Beyond that, there is little
comparison. The Soviet communist party bosses had goals that were entirely different than those
of the elected representatives of the U.S. capitalist democracy. The former sought to oppress the
opponents and to deter other would-be seekers of independence in the Soviet block. The latter,
with some exceptions, sought to demonstrate the U.S.'s resolve to deter oppression.
The philosophy behind Vietnam was the domino theory -- the idea that actions in Vietnam would
reduce communist oppression throughout the world. The majority of Americans believed this
theory and history seems to have proved that it was correct. It seems today that without the
umbrella of the U.S. military threat, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, parts
of West Germany and a host of others would not have been secure enough to focus first on
economic development. Vietnam was certainly a black mark in U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless,
the goals of those who supported it were noble and its effects were beneficial and far-reaching
throughout non-communist Europe and Asia. One can hardly say the same about the Soviet
action in Afghanistan.
One can take an even broader view and suggest that the overall anti-communist actions of the
U.S. government in the 1950s and 1960s were mostly responsible for the breakup of the Soviet
Union and for recent liberalism in uncountable countries, including Mainland China. Not only
did the U.S. umbrella allow the open eyes of the world to make vivid comparisons (Mainland
China vs. Taiwan and Hong Kong; East Germany vs. West Germany; North Korea vs. South
Korea), it virtually forced the oppressive Soviet government into bankruptcy.
Another important difference between the two wars is way they ended. Former President Nixon
ended the Vietnam war because the cost to him in terms of a loss of votes was greater than the
benefits. The people of the Soviet Union had no say in the Soviet decision to withdraw from
Afghanistan. Exactly why Gorbachev ended the war is difficult to say. The impending dissolution
of the Soviet state must have been a factor, however.
Regarding the Middle East, it seems to me that the West is not trying to re-order in its image, as
Mr. Rizai says. I think that, on the contrary, it is trying to stop the fighting. By promoting
democracy, the U.S. is trying to institute a more peaceful means of settling disputes. By
promoting capitalism, the U.S. is trying to reduce the desire to engage in disputes. It is true that
special interests sometimes have a disproportionate say in U.S. foreign policy. Over the long
haul, however, U.S. policy reflects the will of a majority of mixed-race people whose precursors
had to learn to create and live under a rule of law as opposed to living under the rule of dictators
or the law of the jungle.
Copyright © 1996 by James Patrick Gunning
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J. Patrick Gunning
Professor of Economics/ College of Business
Feng Chia University
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