Diem’s Final Failure

In Philip Catton’s Diem’s Final Failure, the author examines the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam from 1954 – 1963 and argues that the conflict between the United States and the Diem government resulted from a “clash of visions” on the methods of modernization and nation building (Catton 2). Catton develops this thesis by broadly examining U.S. military and government documents, newspapers, private journals, and also delving deep into the South Vietnamese archives where he accessed documents produced by Diem’s government, the South Vietnamese military, and Vietnamese newspapers.  Using these documents, Catton focuses his interpretation heavily on Diem and how he reacted to American plans, objectives, and aid.  This narrative challenges standard depictions of Diem and attempts to rationalize his actions.

Catton, like others before him, describes the relationship between Diem and the United States as a marriage of convenience with each party relying on the other in order to fulfill objectives.  Though both parties were heavily reliant upon one another, Catton convincingly shows that Diem and the United States failed to communicate on the same level.  The United States expected the Diem government to establish order, promote democracy, aid the rural peasants, and to improve central administration to prevent excessive power.  These objectives, however, clashed with Diem who believed he knew what was best for his country and he ignored American advice aggravating the Americans.  This clash, argues Catton, developed out of Diem’s uncompromising nationalism which runs contrary to previous depictions of Diem which instead characterize Diem as a monk-like mandarin unreceptive to advice.  (Herring 75) By revealing Diem as hard line nationalist, Catton shows that Diem rejected the advice of U.S. advisors because he believed that he knew what was best for his nation and feared that U.S. interference would portray him as an American puppet which would discredit him in the eyes of the people.   Moreover, by examining Diem as nationalist, Catton places him within the cultural context of Vietnam.  This approach reveals that Diem’s governing style and objectives developed out of Vietnamese traditions and that his disregard of U.S. advice was not mere ignorance or self-interest but rather based on Diem’s cultural understanding of Vietnam.

Another challenge to the earlier historiography put forth by Catton is his understanding of Diem’s policies towards rural peasants.  In George Herring’s study America’s Longest War, the author contends that Diem’s approach to the rural villages was “a singular lack of concern and near-callous irresponsibility.” (Herring 77) This interpretation suggests that Diem cared little for the improvement of rural life and that his policies towards the peasants created great unrest and anger which led to their tacit support of the NLF.  Catton attempts to challenge this interpretation and instead argues that the Diem regime, though conservative in many aspects, sought modernize the rural regions of South Vietnam.  Though the outcomes of these programs were at times disastrous, Catton suggests that this was a result of implementation rather than a genuine disregard for rural Vietnam as Diem sincerely hoped that these plans would facilitate modernization in Vietnam.  Thus, Catton demonstrates that Diem’s policies towards rural Vietnam were not unenlightened but were rather paternalistic and showed much planning and deliberation.

Ultimately, Catton’s depiction of Diem challenges the conventional interpretations by using the new source material gathered from the Vietnamese archives.  He argues that the conflict between the United States and Diem developed from different understandings of modernization and objectives of modernization.  While Diem attempted to modernize Vietnam based on the nations traditions, the United States demanded that Diem follow their models and aim for their objects.  The United States’ hands-on approach infuriated Diem who wished the Americans to be a silent partner in the nation as he believed he understood his people.  Catton also successfully demonstrates that Diem was not an isolated mandarin but rather a fervent nationalist that sought to modernize his nation by basing modernization within the nation’s traditions.  Catton here shows that Diem did seek a third way between the liberal democracy of the Americans and the coercive policies of North Vietnam, however, Diem’s third way ultimately relied on coercion as well because the rural Vietnamese people did not want to participate in Diem’s nation-building policies.  Thus, by placing Diem within the context of Vietnam and its traditions, Catton is able demonstrate that the traditional depictions of Diem have been inaccurate; however, Catton’s image of Diem also appears to swing too far in the other direction and fails to fault Diem for his ignorance of village life and the catastrophic polices which destroyed the lives of the peasants.

American Umpire – Review

In Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s book American Umpire, the author examines the history of U.S. foreign policy from the founding to present day.  By exploring specific events in American history, the author challenges those scholars who suggest that the United States is an empire and she asserts that the term “umpire” better describes American foreign policy.  Cobbs Hoffman writes in her introduction that the term empire is hard to define, analytically problematic, and burdened with a significant amount of baggage.  She contends that the United States is an umpire because it has compelled other nations to acquiesce to “rules that had earned broad legitimacy;” moreover, she observes three practices that the United States encouraged and extended which have helped all nations transcend their differences including: access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business.  As the global umpire, Cobbs Hoffman argues that the United States has sought, for the most part, to spread these practices and enforce international norms.

Cobbs Hoffman’s narrative is by no means triumphalist and she does not hesitate to criticize U.S foreign policy decisions.  For example, she does concede that the United States did acquire a formal empire following the Spanish-American War.  However, her interpretation is highly subjective and, by focusing on her three practices, she avoids important debates about empire and dismisses arguments for American empire without fully engaging in the scholarship.  Moreover, the author swiftly dismisses the Indian Wars, the Mexican- American War, and the westward expansion by explaining them away as actions practiced by other republics.  Yet this explanation remains confusing.  How are wars for territory and the subjugation of peoples not imperial practices?  Although the United States sought to make new territories and incorporate them into the Union as equal partners, this practices does not necessarily mean that the efforts to incorporate those territories were not imperial.

Another issue overlooked by Cobbs Hoffman is the concept of umpire.  An umpire is usually a third party with some type of authority chosen to decide issues of importance.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an umpire “decides between disputants or contending parties and whose decision is usually accepted as final.”  Thus, a nation does not just become an umpire because it declares so.  Rather, a nation must receive customary authority of other world powers to enforce rules and act as an umpire.  Working with this idea, the United States does not become an umpire until 1945 when the nation acquires both the prestige, power, and authority to be the global umpire.  Prior to 1945, the major powers of the world considered the United States a middling nation and thus just another participant in the game.  Therefore, if the United States was not an umpire for most of its history, the author needs to reassess the role of the United States from 1776 to 1945.  Furthermore, some nations never accepted the United States’ role as an international arbiter.  So, can American be an umpire if only certain nations agree that American’s decisions are final?  And how many actually did/do accept America’s decision making?  Certainly not Russia or China.

This leads back to the term empire, a concept which historian Paul Kramer still considers useful and necessary for placing the United States in global history.  Although he concedes that the term can be difficult to define, Kramer instead advocates the analytical capabilities of the term in helping historians consider dimensions of power, spatial ordering, and relations of hierarchy, discipline, dispossession, extractions, and exploitation.  Hence, using the imperial concept allows historians to contemplate the United States’ role in the world beyond policy and to include aspects of business, economics, cultural, and social in understanding the United States place.  Cobbs Hoffman’s strict focus on international agreements, policy, and arbitration ignores the features of U.S. foreign policy that the imperial paradigm can incorporate.

Ultimately, America was not and is not umpire, but many scholars also contend that America was not an empire, except for the imperial moment during the Spanish American War.  This is a debate that will hardly reach consensus in the near future, especially with American military bases scattered across the globe, but it is an important debate.  While Cobbs Hoffman’s umpire thesis fails to convince this reviewer, her effort to broadly rethink American foreign policy deserves credit and will force future historians to sharpen their analytic skills in attempting to characterize U.S. foreign policy.

Review – Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia by Gabriel Gorodetsky

Gabriel Gorodetsky’s study Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia examines the foreign policy of the Soviet Union from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  In this study, Gorodetsky asserts that Stalin’s foreign and military policy were non-ideological and based on realpolitik whereby Stalin carefully calculated the rapidly shifting power within Europe and worked to prevent the Soviet Union from being drawn into war.  Moreover, Gorodetsky strongly argues against the interpretation advocated by Victor Suvorov and others that Stalin was planning to attack Nazi Germany which forced Germany into a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union.  Instead, Gorodetsky shows Stalin working vigorously to keep the Soviet Union from being dragged into war and attempting to make territorial gains in the Balkans while his enemies the Germans and British were fighting each other.  To support his argument, the author utilizes documents from numerous archives including the old party archive, the Soviet foreign policy archive, the Russian Military Archive, the Presidential Archive, and archival material from Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, Sweden, and the former Yugoslavia.  By incorporating these sources into his study, Gorodetsky’s study of Soviet foreign policy is comprehensive and able to depict the many nuances of the diplomacy between these European states.

According to Gorodetsky, Stalin interpreted the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact not as a commitment to Germany but as neutrality for the Soviet Union; moreover, the agreement secured a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Europe in the north and center.  For Gorodetsky, the south remained a problem for Stalin and he feared an agreement between Turkey and Great Britain which might create a location for the Allies to attack Russia.  This concern led Stalin to pursue complete security around the Black Sea while Germany’s focus was on defeating Great Britain.  Stalin’s initial overtures were made towards Romania and he ultimately forced Romania to give up control of Bessarabia which gave the Soviet Union access to the Danube.  However, this event drew Germany’s attention to the Balkans as this region was essential to Germany’s oil supply.  This led Germany to continue pressuring the Balkan countries to join the Tripartite Pact, a Nazi defense alliance, which eventually muscled the Soviet Union out of the Balkans.  The author views the diplomatic disputes between Germany and the Soviet Union in Balkans as the key to understanding Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s realpolitik practices to create a security zone in the south angered Hitler who ordered his military staff to draw up the invasion plans.

Throughout these diplomatic disputes between Germany and the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky also describes the interactions between Great Britain and the Soviet Union.  In discussing Great Britain, Gorodetsky downplays Churchill’s April 1941 warning to Stalin of a looming German strike and musters evidence showing why Stalin rejected this warning.  Examining the diplomatic interactions between Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky argues that British policy was constantly antagonistic towards the Soviet Union and was consistently trying to drag the Soviet Union into war with the Germans.  Since British attempts to thwart the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin never trusted the British and always viewed them with suspicion.  Gorodetsky specifically emphasizes Great Britain’s refusal to commit to a defense pact, support of Finland during the Winter War, and plans to bomb Baku oil fields as actions that reinforced Stalin’s suspicion of the British.  By presenting Britain actions towards the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky depicts numerous reasons for Stalin to remain wary of British warnings.

Although Stalin’s paranoia of the British remains explainable, Stalin’s refusal to believe Soviet intelligence sources concerning the German build-up is characterized as a failing in Stalin’s foreign policy.  Herein lays Gorodetsky’s grand delusion.  Stalin ignored the overwhelming information provided by his own intelligence sources because he deluded himself into believing that the massing of German forces was not going to result in an attack.  Instead, Stalin dismissed the German build-up as posturing to pressure the Soviet Union into further negotiations over Germany’s need for raw materials.  In fact, Gorodetsky shows that Stalin’s anger towards his subordinates concerning the German build-up resulted in the tailoring of intelligence reports to meet Stalin’s preconceived understanding of the situation.  This resulted in an intelligence failure only because Stalin refused to accept the accurate information provided by his intelligence services. Rather, he deluded himself by believing that Germany did not want war only further economic and military agreements.

Overall, Gorodetsky’s study is well researched and provides significant insights into Stalin’s foreign policy in the twenty-two months between the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the beginning of Operation Barbarossa; however, the author’s argument that Stalin’s foreign policy lacked ideology remains suspect.  Stalin’s domestic policies, particularly the ending of NEP, the collectivization of agriculture, and the drive for industrialization, demonstrates that Stalin was a believer in Marxist-Leninism ideology.  If Stalin’s actions domestically were ideological, why would his foreign policy be any different?  Stalin’s efforts to supply weapons to the communist forces during the Spanish Civil War, to establish communism in Soviet occupied Poland and the Baltic States, and his attempt to invade Finland depict ideological motivations in foreign policy.   Thus to dismiss ideology altogether from Stalin’s foreign policy is an inaccurate approach as ideology always played a role in Stalin’s thinking and worldview.  Instead of dismissing ideology, the author needs to demonstrate how ideology played into Stalin’s foreign policy decisions.  This approach to Soviet foreign policy places Gorodetsky within the orthodox interpretation according to Teddy Uldricks because Gorodetsky supports the idea of mutual security. Gorodetsky asserts that Stalin desired mutual security with Britain but was rebuffed by Britain’s staunch anti-communist ideology which blinded them to a potential alliance with the Soviet Union.  This ultimately led Stalin to reach a security agreement with the Nazis creating the conditions for the beginning of the Second World.

Dead, Dying, or Declining Recent Thoughts on Diplomatic History

This coming week I will be attending the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Conference (SHAFR).  The main reasons I am attending this year is the conference’s proximity to my current location.  I have no paper to give but I am hoping to meet other graduate students and historians with similar interests to mine – what we call networking.  I am also quite interested in hearing papers and discovering what topics are being researched.  Conferences always prove interesting as historians often present new research in order to refine ideas and arguments.  However, with the words like declining and dying hovering around the field, it appears as if a dark cloud is hanging over the upcoming event and the study of diplomatic history and American foreign relations in general.

Three recent essays that I know of have recently addressed the idea of decline in the field of diplomatic history.  In December 2012 Jeffrey Engel wrote an article titled “Diplomatic History’s Ill-Deserved Reputation and Bright Future” in Perspectives, the AHA’s news magazine.  In this article, Engel acknowledges that in the 1980s sharp critiques of diplomatic history “sparked vigorous soul-searching among diplomatic historians.”  Nevertheless, Engle is optimistic and remarks that decolonization the diffusion of global power will require diplomatic historians to approach their subject with a large toolkit of skills that the previous generation of scholars lacked.  Recognizing the transformation in diplomatic history since the 1980s, Engel places the focus of his essay on why historians maintain an antiquated view of diplomatic historians and to “ponder the subfield’s future.”

In terms of the diplomatic history’s negative stereotype, Engel suggest that many historians outside of diplomatic history have not changed their minds about the discipline since the 1980s.  Regarding this problem, Engel spiritedly remarks “To engage the question of relevance is to accept the possibility of irrelevance, ceding crucial ground for debate not readily recaptured. Diplomatic historians have largely, and prudently, avoided debating their right to exist. We do better to prove the historiographical ignorance of our detractors by publishing insightful work than by attempting to dispel the ingrained dogmas of the prior generation.”  Thus good scholarship by diplomatic historians proves their value.  Secondly Engle suggests that diplomatic history was exiled because it was ahead of the curve.  “The cultural and social turns within history were, at their most fundamental, efforts to recalibrate and reconceptualize power within society . . . Diplomatic history has always privileged the study of power, but now does not solely study the privileged who exercise that power in the most straightforward ways.” 

Diplomatic history’s study of power also proves why the future is bright for diplomatic historians stating that “Power underlies every global interaction: commercial, social, religious, elite, subaltern, or the messy combinations that characterize human history.”  This power is often associated with states which all peoples at some point must engage.  Studying the state alone, concludes Engle does not provide a complete picture of the past as diplomatic historians today need to be conscious of underlying social, cultural, religious, economical, and political factors when studying human interaction at any level. 

More recently, Timothy Lynch has asked why there is an imbalance between those historians of studying race, gender, and ethnicity and those studying foreign policy.  Lynch explains this imbalance through the “great man thesis” of history suggesting that the study of foreign policy focuses on men and the nations they led, wars they fought, and terms they negotiated.  In Lynch’s view, this leaves little room for gender and race, at least until the 21st century.  Lynch also emphasizes the way history is taught in university classrooms stating that “students are increasingly presented with impersonal forces and told these are responsible for injustice or are, conversely, the locomotives of progress . . . It is not individuals that move history but forces, pressures, classes, sexes, races, even climate. Nations, led by individual leaders, are made to matter less than the United Nations, led by supposedly progressive impulses.”  Concluding his short essay, Lynch remarks that diplomatic historians need to bridge the divide between impersonal forces and the great men. 

Finally, in a thoughtful rebuttal to Lynch, historian Cara Burnidge remarks that Lynch is at odds with the social turn and that his argument of great men versus impersonal forces is what is sideling, or leading to diplomatic history’s death.  Moreover, as a religious historian, Burnidge, discusses the role of religion can play foreign policy and, like Engel, states that diplomatic historians need to focus on the idea of power.  Studying power relations writes Burnidge, “offers scholars interested in diplomatic history a framework with which they can situate their work among recent decades of historiographical development and reach out to scholars across a number of interdisciplinary divides.” 

Ultimately, my sympathies in this discussion lie with Engel and Burnidge.  While I, like Lynch, lament the fact that universities have one or maybe two historians of American Foreign Relations, I do not think diplomatic history should be privileged above other fields and believe that the study of gender, race, and ethnicity are important to the historical profession and can help diplomatic historian glean ideas and concept they would otherwise overlook.  Furthermore, Lynch’s understanding of diplomatic history is narrow and focuses only on the elite policy makers of the nation overlooking impersonal powers such as social, religious, and cultural influences that Engel and Burnidge argue are important to diplomatic history.  For example, studying the U.S. relation with Iran is impossible without factoring in the religious nature of Iran and the United States; the Arab Spring makes little sense if one does not understand the social and religious nature of northern Africa; foreign policy towards South Africa must include a discussion of race; and future historians will need to understand the complex religious, social, cultural differences of multiple countries and non-state groups to understand the current situation in Syria.  Foreign policymakers inc any state are influenced by impersonal powers and they must be factored into the narrative.  Finally, the study of great man history is not dead and, in fact, remains healthy with recent biographies of Bismarck, Churchill, Jefferson, and Coolidge. Although Engels sanguinity for the future of the discipline appears overly optimistic, I agree with his assessment that diplomatic history is relevant and can be cutting edge just as much as gender studies.  

One area where diplomatic historians can make some headway is to embrace the “digital turn” and become active in purveying diplomatic history online.  While the State Department’s Historian’s Office does an excellent job of placing documents online, scholars need to embrace the digital humanities and the audience that one can reach.  An academic monograph can sit on a university shelf for decades as students wonder through the stacks, but a website accessible by those beyond the ivory tower creates an opportunity for diplomatic historians to reach a large audience.  Moreover,  endorsing the digital humanities can breakdown the idea that historians of foreign policy are elitist and demonstrate the depth and breath of the scholarship.  

All of this only needs good scholarship of which I plan to find in abundant this coming week.