The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam Era

Mark Atwood Lawrence, Princeton University Press. £28.00 hardback. ISBN 9780691126401

According to a 2006 survey of geographic literacy conducted by National Geographic-Roper nearly half of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-one did not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. Two thirds surveyed, after 2400 American deaths following three years of conflict, were unable to locate Iraq on a map according to Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason: Dumbing Down American Democracy (London 2008), pp. 281-289. Ukraine may, I suspect, be easier for most to find at present as I embark on this review of The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam Era by Mark Atwood Lawrence, (Princeton University Press, 2022) who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. However the cliché regarding ‘filling a gap’ seems a safe opening remark to start this effort which will, I hope, be of some interest in the current disturbing international climate. With my future well behind me I trust it was the book’s subject matter rather than its gloomy title that prompted Jill Groves, our editor’s invitation. By a strange co-incidence the Johnson/Nixon years with which it deals were precisely those in which I did my two teaching stints in America – first at the University of Maryland and subsequently, after a gap, at Central Connecticut University when I returned to a more chastened and certainly not very United States. So with regard to the 1960s and 1970s I suppose ‘I ‘ve been there and done that’ haven’t I? This poses a tricky dilemma – am I still too close personally to objectively judge the author’s view of distant American diplomatic reverses in the context of wider social, domestic and political history? Indeed I might just be tempted to slip into the role of ‘critical friend’ to compensate for my somewhat dated scholarship. Its 386 pages don’t come cheap at £28.60 but like hills, at my age, so many other things have become far too steep for my taste! It’s rumoured that established academics given this task first consult the bibliography to check whether their work is listed. Anxious researchers, on the other hand, look for indications of source material related to their topic. All that remains is to confess that your procrastinating reviewer will, as usual, first flick through the illustrations in an effort to postpone the real graft of the task.

On the cover there’s a depressing photo of a clapped-out LBJ looking miffed (the Texan would have used another more earthy phrase I suspect) with his tie loose (so unlike his cosmetically conscious predecessor), head in hand slumped at his desk. The photo surely encapsulates ‘that bitch of a war’ Vietnam but as the author emphasized this was but part of the ‘coming apart’ nightmare of the period. The chapter headings are revealing: Brazil: The Allure of Authoritarianism , India: The Partnership That Faded, Indonesia: Embracing the New Order, Southern Africa: Settling for the Status Quo and Iran: A Relationship Transformed. The last case-study mentioned particularly caught my attention in that a son-in-law (married to my Anglo-American daughter) has, unlike her, sadly never felt secure enough to return to the native land he fled in 1979. ‘It seemed a good idea at the time’ is a recurrent theme running throughout. The author poses many implicit astute questions in his remarkable analysis. Has much of the Third World ever really wanted so-called ‘freedom and democracy’ along American lines? Have Americans been victims of groundless optimism, a tendency to be easily duped, over-simplistic, ignorant, inward looking, sanctimonious, burdened with costly alliances with former colonial powers and ‘he’s our SOB’ type dictators, baffled by emerging religious/political zeal and confusing communism and/with nationalism. In essence the work impressively takes us well beyond the simplistic notion that American diplomacy was, at that time and at present merely governed by the tired old adage ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend.’

Herbert Block’s cartoons happily supplemented the written commentary drawn from unfamiliar sources in Brazil, Canada and South Africa as well as standard ones like the National Archives at Kew. Most, of course were lodged in the United States such as those in the LBJ, Nixon and JFK Presidential Libraries. Less well known material included the papers of Missouri’s Stuart Symington, Frank Church of Idaho and J Fulbright (for whom my Arkansas colleague, Joe, had worked in the Senate and who knew exactly about confidentiality) provided fascinating insights into the perceptions of those who had the ear of the White House. The newspaper/periodical section was quite short and included naturally the expected ‘heavies’ such as the New York lames but omitted largely what was the overwhelming breakfast read for most Americans – the then thriving ‘local’/statewide newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun or St. BOOK REVIEWS Open History 161 56 Louis Times. Thus to take one random example it’s probable that amongst countless typical ‘middle American communities’ the 1973/1974 OPEC oil embargo would have caused more righteous indignation than the CIA orchestrated overthrow of Chile’s left-wing President Allende which surprisingly merited but one sentence in the book.

Apart from legendary television pundits such as Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite together with local less sophisticated commentators in ‘Hicksville’ or ‘Middletown’ (especially in the ‘fly over southern /western states) local issues usually dominated the pre-IT media reminding readers that foreign affairs, let alone what was happening in Washington DC, did not keep the vast majority of Americans awake at night! Of course when they became personally directly affected in, for example, the extension of the draft to their own mainly white middle class sons their awareness and interest soared..

Rather disappointingly a number of bland conventional ‘for the camera’ photographs such as LBJ with Brazil’s president or his retiring ambassador to Indonesia are scattered throughout the splendidly lucid prose. However, perhaps the sharp pen of such cartoonists as Steve Oliphant and Bill Mauldin together with the all too few ‘Herblock’ drawings would have provided more vivid insight into what ‘ordinary’ Americans suspected what was really behind those images of leaders in suits near vases of flowers. The words of my former mentor, Professor Wayne S. Cole, came to mind. For him ‘American Diplomatic History’ was more than exchanges of official notes and fake smiles. It could only be meaningfully analysed by considering changing attitudes and impact on ‘ordinary’ folk largely distant, not merely geographically but psychologically for whom their America remained ‘The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ despite its formidable, constantly challenging domestic agenda.

In its case-study selectivity this informative work, is centred on less familiar areas of American diplomacy, and certainly meets needs for otherwise well informed readers. In a period dominated by bewilderment over increasing domestic conflict, the Vietnam nightmare together with puzzles like Castro in Cuba or even Nixon in China these ‘other’ less familiar ‘failures’ abroad too anticipate ‘the end of the American Century’ approaching despite the country’s undeniably pervasive, enduring ‘soft power.’ Nevertheless as the nation anticipated its bicentennial in 1976 many still retained the legacy of Woodrow Wilson’s determination to teach non-American nations ‘to elect good men’, remained convinced that the USA had ‘saved the free world’ in two wars and overall successfully filled the role of policing it so as to ensure the survival of liberty – an undoubtedly ambitious mission and perhaps unrealistically arrogant as Professor Lawrence has so impressively shown us.

Sidney Brown