Foong KHONG. Analogies at War: Korea,
Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965.
Princeton New Herseyt Univ. Press. 1992, 286 PP.
Foong Khong succeeds very well in his aim of explaining and exemplifying how and
why historical analogies are used in decision making processes, but he fails to
identify the paradigm assumptions underlying the analogies he uses.
Khong explains the “analogical explanation” framework, and
illustrates how in the Viet Nam decisions of 1965, analogies mattered because
they helped the “policymakers arrive at inferences--about the nature of the
problem confronting them, about the stakes of the problem, and about dangers and
prospects of alternative solutions . . . [p. 252].”
His systematic integration of psychology with political and historical
analysis is very helpful theoretically and in terms of information and
understanding of the Viet Nam experience. His
focus on the discussions leading to the decisions as a level of analysis is
important and legitimate. What is
misleading with this analysis is the implicit assumption that the use of
“analogy” is the primary level on which the decision making process is
working. It is what A. N. Whitehead referred to as the “fallacy of misplaced
I argue that foundational to the understanding of the analogies there is an
underlying paradigm--made up of (a)
material conditions, (b) social, political and economic structures, and (c)
worldview assumptions--which structure the analogies themselves, just as the
analogies structure the conscious decision making process.
To understand the Vietnam decisions we must understand both levels of the
structure of knowledge. First let
us identify the task and some of the positive contributions in this work.
Analogical Explanation (AE) framework “essentially takes an
information-processing approach to understanding decision-making [p. 40].”
The task of the book is to identify, explain and illustrate the
“cognitive sources of foreign policy [p. 9].”
The author also shows how
“analogies actually influence the selection of policy options” (p.
9), and “why policymakers often use
analogies poorly [p. 13].”
The latter task is accomplished by focusing on “the processes of
analogical reasoning . . . that makes it difficult, though not impossible, to
use historical analogies properly in foreign affairs [p. 13].”
thesis of the study is that the AE framework:
that analogies are cognitive devices that ‘help’ policymakers perform six
diagnostic tasks central to political decision-making.
Analogies (1) help define the nature of the situation confronting the
policymaker, (2) help assess the stakes, and (3) provide prescriptions.
They help evaluate alternative options by (4) predicting their chances of
success, (5) evaluating their moral rightness, and (6) warning about dangers
associated with the options. [p. 10]
argues that the AE framework “succeeds in accounting for the Vietnam decisions
of 1965 at a level of precision not achieved by other explanations [p.
a look at the theoretical assumptions which Khong uses to develop his case:
beings are creatures with limited cognitive capacities.
As a result they cope with the enormous amount of information by reliance
on “knowledge structures” such as analogies or schemas (p. 25). “The difference between
a schema and an analogy is that an analogy is specific and concrete [e.g.,
Korean war], while a schema is abstract and generic [e.g., aggression unchecked
means general war later].” (p. 26)
psychologists have demonstrated that one major way human beings make sense of
new situations is by matching them with old situations [i.e., analogies] stored
in memory [p. 24].”
The fact that recent events are easier to recall is the
“availability heuristic” (pp. 35f).
“[P]eople tend to access analogies on the basis of surface
similarities. . . . Once the analogy or schema is accessed, it (1) allows the
perceiver to go beyond the information given, (2) processes information
‘top-down,’ and (3) can lead to the phenomenon of perseverance.
These two sets of findings suggest that the process of analogical
reasoning involves cognitive mechanisms and inferential steps that may lead to
simplistic and mistaken interpretations of
the incoming stimuli [p. 14].”
“The idea of top-down or ‘theory-driven’ processing is that incoming
information is compared with or fitted into existing schemas stored in the
memory. . . . ‘bottom-up’ or ‘data-driven’ processing happens just as
frequently . . . [p. 37].” “The ‘default values’ of the schema fill in
for information missing in the incoming stimuli; thus, the schema makes a more
complete picture possible [p. 28].”
“The significance of top-down processing is that information that does not fit
the schema is either ignored or not given the weight it deserves [p. 38f].”
The “perseverance effect” is the tendency of individuals “to hold
on to their schemas even when confronted with contradictory information [p.
this theoretical framework laid out, and with historical evidence that reasoning
by historical analogy became a “virtual ritual” in the State Department in
the 1960’s (p. 72),
Khong reviews pre-1965 decisions, looking at the general policy of the
containment of communism as the explanation for these pre-1965 decisions. He
then does a case study of the American government’s 1965 decisions on Viet
Nam, identifying Korea, Munich, and Dien Bien Phu as the most commonly used
analogies by the decision makers at the time.
suggest that the need for containment is best viewed as an overarching constant
in postwar American diplomacy. It
is something of which policymakers are always aware, and it predisposes them to
be concerned about communist gains anywhere, but by itself it cannot explain why
policymakers made the choices they did in 1954, 1961, and 1965 [ p. 73].
statement is precise and important because it clarifies the author’s task as
explaining why one policy option was selected from among a selection of options,
all of which were acceptable given an underlying paradigm.
I suggest it might be helpful to think of the underlying paradigm as
“level 1,” the containment policy as “level 2,” and the decision making
process using specific analogies as
believe the underlying paradigm (level 1) contains the following (a) material
conditions, (b) social, political and economic structures, and (c) worldview
assumptions, which are assumed by
the “decision makers” and the author of
this text; (i) Reality is centered in the individual with a civil and
ideological extension to the nation which is a geographic area with shared
economic interests and belief system. Reality
is experienced from the perspective
of the “I.”
(ii) It is the “power of ideas,” (p. 7)
and “decision makers” that determine the course of history. [Material and
ideal interests, conditions and structures do not directly govern human conduct.
(see p. 19)] (iii) Truth includes an
ethic and ideology based on American individual rights, exemplified in the first
ten amendments to the constitution. The belief in individual rights (e.g.,
freedom, property, democracy) extends to the rights of our nation, i.e.,
“national security.” Freedom is
defined “negatively,” i.e., as the absence of government restrictions,
especially as it applies to private property and religion. [Freedom should not
be defined “positively,”[ii]
i.e., as “freedom of access” to the necessities of life, such as land.]
Democracy is defined as applying to political elections, [and not to
direct or indirect popular control of economic aspects of peoples lives].
“Property,” means that the private owning of productive property is a human,
[not a utilitarian social],[iii]
right. (iv) Beliefs (e.g., free
enterprise capitalism) take on the character of revealed doctrine or
“scientific” truth. [The structure of capitalist class relations and the
dynamics of a world market system are equated with the natural and moral laws of
nature.] Since America has
the truth, we are relatively closed to diversity or neutrality in belief and
structure. Reality is known.
There is truth and there is falsehood.
Truth is America, Christianity, political democracy and capitalism.
Error has no rights. Neutrality is evil.
“If you are not with us, you are against us,” and “if we do not win
we lose.” We Americans are the
world’s leaders, judges, and police establishing truth and “saving” the
world. If we don’t control a
country, we “lose” it to evil, the unnatural, the uncapitalist, the
unChristian, the unfree. (v) There
is a separation between means and ends. Life
and reality are a journey through time. This journey is make up of goals or ends to be accomplished.
It is a repetition of the selection of means chosen to reach unrelated
ends in the future. [This was
illustrated in U.S. governments systematic lying to the world about the means
used to achieve the end of “saving” Viet Nam.]
chapter on “Containment, Analogies, and Pre-1965 Vietnam Decisions,” and
pages 190-205 are used to illustrate how a “level 2” analysis of the
containment policy cannot account for the precise policies chosen in three
Our analysis of
three major pre-1965 Vietnam decisions suggests that even at the height of
containment, the United States was willing to allow the North to go communist in
1954, and in 1961 to live with a negotiated settlement in Laos, as well as to
avoid direct military confrontation with the NLF. . . .
Containment, therefore, cannot tell us whether U.S. concerns would result
in action or not; neither can it tell us the form of the action [p. 95].
is a half-truth which begets significant error.
True, these cases show that we cannot predict from a containment policy
what action will be taken, but we can predict that some
action will be taken. First it is
misleading to say that the U.S. did nothing to stop North Viet Nam from going
communist; (a) the issue was not
“North” Viet Nam, it was all of Viet Nam, (b) the U.S. paid for much of the
French colonialist war and tried to get the British to join in “saving” Viet
Nam for the French, and (c) once
the French were defeated, the U.S. acted to prevent the implementation
of the Geneva Agreement by creating a de facto anti-communist, Christian,
pro-American government in the southern half of the country, and equipping that
government with arms to suppress the NLF in southern Viet Nam. This is hardly a
“doing nothing” policy. Without
a containment policy we might have done nothing, in which case, most likely, Ho
Chi Minh would have become the president of Viet Nam in 1956.
more qualified claim that analogies were “often, though by no means always,
relevant. . . . [and] were one factor among many influencing” (p. 96)
Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s decisions on Viet Nam is well documented in his
chapters on Korea and Dien Bien Phu are probably the most informative to the
reader interested in learning more about the process and content of the 1965
Viet Nam decisions. There is also a chapter on Munich which is interesting but
not as central to the decisions being made at the time.
In the interest of space I will focus mainly on the Korean and Dien Bien
lessons of the Korea analogy as applied to Viet Nam and most strongly supported
by Johnson and Rusk (p. 104) were
as follows: (a) The issue was aggression from the communist North, backed
by China and the U.S.S.R., against the South. This was not a civil war (pp.
(b) If aggression from the
North was the issue, military action on the part of the U.S. was the solution to
convince the communists that victory was not possible (pp. 101, 112, 117).
Thus the air war against the North (p. 139).
(c) It was vital to U.S. security to stop the dominoes from falling (p.
(d) Repelling aggression and
preserving “freedom” made it morally acceptable to intervene (p.
(e) The likelihood of
success was good (p. 139).
(f) As in Korea, if the U.S.
pushed the North Vietnamese too hard, the Chinese might intervene (p.
117), thus the more restrained “slow
squeeze” bombing policy against the North, and the escalation of the ground
war in the South (p. 139).
(g) Negotiations with the
possibility of a neutral South were unacceptable (p. 119).
lessons of the Dien Bien Phu analogy as applied to Viet Nam and most strongly
supported by George Ball (pp.
106ff, 150ff) were as follows: (a)
The conflict in Viet Nam was a “sui generis,” (p. 107)
Vietnamese war of independence (p. 163)
against “colonial* domination” (p. 140) [*sic:
read, neo-colonialist]. (b)
The stakes were minimal (p. 163).
NATO and Japan would support a negotiated settlement.
(c) There was dubious moral
acceptability of intervention in an internal revolution (p. 163). (d) There was no stable alternative government in the South (p.
240ff). The “Viet Cong’s* [*sic:
read, NLF] adversaries would be likely to experience serious internal
dissent,” resulting in central government repression (p. 149).
(e) Like the French, the
U.S. was the “oppressor,” (pp. 149, 152, 228), and in this alone. (f)
“Morale in the South,”* [*sic: read, “among the ARVN troops”]
would be low because nationalism is on the side of the rebellion (pp.
(g) The U.S. would have
“difficulty in collecting intelligence and understanding the enemy,
overestimating the ‘effectiveness of our sophisticated weapons under jungle
conditions,’ and so on [p. 152].”
The U.S., like the French, would be misled, by it’s own statistics,
into believing it was winning the war. (h)
The NLF and the NVA would do to the U.S. what they did to the French. We
could not win. They would not fight
a head-on war and would wear down the U.S. forces (p. 124).
(i) There was likely to be
domestic opposition in the U.S. to a protracted ground war in Viet Nam (p.
(j) Therefore we should cut
our losses, negotiate, and allow the country to become communist.
most important observation on Munich is the following:
question of Munich is primarily one of stakes.
The Munich analogy magnified the stakes of Vietnam for the United States
because it envisioned a 1930s syndrome in Southeast Asia.
In this sense, the Munich analogy was the intellectual basis of the
domino theory. American policymakers from Eisenhower to Nixon remembered the
crumbling European dominoes of the 1930s only too well; they were convinced that
the spread of communism--the fascism of the 1960s--would lead to a similar
catastrophe. [p. 184]
Johnson’s explanation of why he could not get out of Vietnam:
“Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam
and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing what
Chamberlain did in World War II.” [p. 181]
the “availability heuristic” from the earlier theory, Khong makes two
additional important observations. First,
Johnson, Rusk and most of Johnson’s advisors were closest to the Korean war as
part of their experience in American government.
George Ball had been a lawyer for the French government during the first
Indochina War (p. 157).
It is not surprising therefore that Ball was the only advisor close to
the decision making process in 1965 to use the Dien Bien Phu analogy in his
analysis of what the U.S. should do.
Khong then makes
the case that combining (a) cognitive psychological theory
(b) the predisposition of decision makers to using specific analogies,
(c) the American definitions of the analogies being used, (d) the fact that the
“policy makers were given ambiguous and conflicting information about Vietnam [p.
165],” and (e) the tendency “that
analogies often function as important information processors. . . .
[to] help resolve conflicting incoming information in ways consistent
with the expectations of the analogy [p. 169],”
it is not surprising that Johnson chose to intervene with a gradual escalation
of the land war in the south and the bombing of the north, always careful not to
push so hard as to bring the Chinese
into the war, as happened in Korea.
Psychology of Analogical Reasoning” (Chapter 8) is a detailed reflective
application of the psychological theory to decision processes discussed in the
book. It is essentially a summary
of the points that have been make explicitly or implicitly earlier in the work.
It is however one of the most interesting chapters because it is not until this
chapter that Khong cuts loose and tells it like was.
perseverance of the subjects’ “theories” in the face of contradictory
evidence also seems to have manifested itself in the Vietnam analogies. The fact
that someone usually pointed out important flaws in the policymakers’
analogies did little to erode their faith.
. . . China and Soviet Union cannot, by any means, be depicted as states that
were using North Vietnam to violate the territorial integrity and political
sovereignty of South Vietnam.
and perhaps more to the point, the Geneva Conference of 1954 did not create two
separate states. The seventeenth parallel was not meant to be a political
boundary between North and South Vietnam. . . .
it was “provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as
constituting a political or territorial boundary.”
The notion of aggression is consequently not very illuminating; the
conflict between North and South in Vietnam is better described as a civil war.
we learn an important lesson from Analogies
their [analogies] lessons become part of the unspoken and spoken lore, when
there is only one consensual interpretation, their premises and their relevance
become matters of dogma that few will see fit to question.
At that point, analogies step beyond their roles as heuristic devices for
discovering new explanations and assume the roles of explanations and facts
themselves. [p. 262]
book is about the “power of ideas,” (p. 7)
which “decision makers” use from their “repertoires” (p. 215)
to determine the course of history. This
is evident throughout but explicitly in the author’s use of the Weber
quotation which opens his second chapter (p. 19).
ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct.
Yet very frequently the “world images” that have been created by
“ideas” have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has
been pushed by the dynamic of interest. [my emphasis]
Khong uses this quotation to focus on the “importance of ideas” (p.
19). Material and ideal
interests are dismissed because “[e]vidence of such concerns are simply absent
in the memos and minutes of meetings leading to the decisions of 1965 [p.
This is important because it illustrates that this book is not about the
“material and ideal interests” nor material
conditions or social, political and economic structures, e.g., economic
depressions, political repression or neo-colonialism, which govern people’s
conduct. This book is about the
ideas/ analogies which influence the choice of options which are
available given the underlying paradigm. The
underlying paradigm is not identified or acknowledged in this book, nor are
options which would have followed from a different paradigm.
It is perfectly appropriate for Khong to focus on the level of analysis
which he does but he should at least have acknowledged that there exists a
theoretical approach which argues that underlying
material and ideal interests, conditions and assumptions exist which influence
the selection and definition of analogies used by the decision makers.
underlying paradigm is also evident throughout the study in the unchallenged
assumption that the actors of history and the sources of problems are ideas
(e.g., analogies), ideologies (e.g., communism), and individuals (e.g., Hitler,
Churchill, Mussolini, Mao, Eisenhower, Ho Chi Minh and Johnson.) Khong quotes
Truman: “Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the
Japanese had acted . . .” (pp.
does a good job at many points (e.g., pp. 8-9, 71ff, 190ff
252) of identifying what the
skeptics of his thesis would argue. He
gives them credit where credit is due and effectively argues for the Analogical
Explanation as being the better analysis, while not the only factor in understanding the decisions made.
What is missing is any of the kind of deeper paradigmatic analysis or the
inclusion of the issues which skeptics who do not share his paradigm, e.g., I.
author’s acceptance of the underlying paradigm is
also obvious in the use of language in the book. The text is filled with
references to “communists” but few or none to “capitalists” or whatever
the Americans and their Vietnamese allies were.
There are a few references to “colonialism” but none to
“neo-colonialism.” There many sentences such as, “South Vietnam was in
danger of losing the fight with the Vietnamese communists [p. 48].”
Since it is likely that the majority of southern Vietnamese were not
supporters of the Americans and the Saigon Government, why not write “The
Government of South Vietnam (GVN) was in danger of losing the fight with the NLF,”
or “southern Viet Nam was likely to win it’s fight with the
Vietnamese capitalists.” We
read of “South Vietnam’s impending defeat by North Vietnam [p. 54].”
This unqualified language accepts the American paradigm of two Viet Nams
and of northern aggression. We know
from his statement (p. 234) that
he knows that the Geneva Accords maintained one Viet Nam.
Khong writes (p. 89) that
“in the early 1960s . . . Diem’s government was not threatened by an
outright invasion of regular North Vietnamese units but by Hanoi-backed
communist guerrillas, many of whom were Southerners.” He could have written
“Diem’s American-backed government,” and he should not have identified all
the guerillas as communist because many were not communists. On page 244 Khong
writes, “Many of the peasants in the South supported the Vietcong because they
did not perceive the Vietcong as invaders but as social reformers and
nationalists.” What should be
clarified here is that “supported” also
meant being non-communist members and/or soldiers of the NLF.
The term “Vietcong” was a label to make it “true” that all
revolutionaries were communist. The text also includes many examples of terms
such as “saved” (pp. 81 & 151),
“fallen” (pp. 82 & 251),
and “collapse” (pp. 117 & 151),
used from the perspective of underlying paradigm, and seldom
from the perspective of a simply descriptive history.
the end of the book the author does a good job of being honest to the Geneva
Accords but shies away from any creative analysis of how one might have looked
at this analogy. For example,
Lyndon Johnson wrote that Munich shows that “success only feeds the appetite
of aggression [p. 49].” Khong
might have pointed out in his discussion (p 79f) that, by parallel analogy,
Ho Chi Minh’s compromise with the French at Geneva in 1954, and the
American success with SEATO and the U.S. selection of Diem,
fed Diem’s and America’s appetite for aggression. Isn’t it possible
that by analogy Ho Chi Minh looked
back at Geneva as Johnson looked back at Munich?
Each saying, “Never again!”
The book is well
worth the reading for its integrated disciplinary theoretical analysis of the
conscious level of decision making, and for the information on the American
Vietnam decisions of 1965. It is a
book which helps explain why and how American policy options were taken. This is
important, for all of us (including policymakers) who have read this book should
be more self-conscious and therefore more in control of the cognitive processes
which we use in making decisions. But we must look deeper than cognitive
processes if we are to understand and influence (a) the material conditions, (b)
the social, political and economic structures, and (c) the worldview
assumptions, which generate conflicts such as the Indochina wars, the World
Wars, the Korean war, and the American-Iraq war, and which will be the
“circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted” to our children from their past.
make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not
make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances
directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.
The tradition [material, structural and mental] of all the dead
generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.[v]
“This fallacy consists in neglecting the degree of abstraction
involved when an actual entity is considered merely so far as it exemplifies
certain categories of thought.” Alfred
North Whitehead, Process and Reality,
(New York), Harper & Brothers, 1929/1957, p. 11.
Robert A. Dahl, A Preface To Economic Democracy, (Berkeley), Quantum
Books, 1985, p. 88.
I. F. Stone, The Hidden
History of The Korean War,
(New York), Monthly Review Press, 1952.
[v] Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (New York), International Publishers, New World Paperbacks, 1963, p. 15.