The Carthage Syndrome (II): The seventies

César Vidal (*)

At the beginning of the 1970’s, the United States found itself in a situation similar to that of Carthage after the First Punic War, weakened and exhausted.  The Vietnam War seemed to have no end in sight and indeed was harming the nation in ways that many still don’t understand.  The cost of the war in terms of human casualties and materials has been calculated with some degree of accuracy, but unfortunately these weren’t the only costs the United States paid in a war fought in distant Indochina.  For one, the social cost of Vietnam was so colossal that it blasted away a good part of the Great Society, a social program begun by President L. B. Johnson.  Some vestiges of Johnson’s dream remained in areas such as education and health, but it is truly dismaying to see what the program could have been and yet was not.  Like a missed train, the U.S. is still trying to catch up to it through below-par solutions such as Obamacare, as it is called.  Painful though it may be, America - the only advanced society in the world that does not have universal health care - is still bitterly arguing over the need or the risk of having a government-run health care system for all, when this argument could have been settled more than half a century ago. The fact that it wasn’t is due to the enormous price of a war taking place in a forsaken place of southern Asia.

    Besides the social costs, however, there was also the financial toll.  To be sure, the Vietnam War was a lucrative business for weapons manufacturers, but the country as a whole paid a price from which it has yet to recover, whether we realize it or not.  Nixon - for whom many had voted in hopes he would end the war - was forced to declare the end of the economic plan drawn up at Bretton Woods in 1944 before the end of the Second World War.  Those exceptionally intelligent accords, drafted by men from the era of Roosevelt's New Deal, spawned the Golden Age of Capitalism, boosted the economies of Germany and Japan and put the brakes on Communism in Europe and Asia.  Nevertheless, the Bretton Woods economic system came to an end in 1971 when Nixon decided that the dollar would no longer be directly convertible to gold.  Nixon was merely yielding to reality.  The Bretton Woods era ended because there simply wasn’t enough gold to support a war effort like the one in Vietnam.  It can be said that since the early 1970’s one had to trust the dollar by faith and not by sight, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul.  The sad reality, all connected to the Vietnam War, was that the global economy had entered the realm of fiction, the United States was forced to continually increase its deficit and the Bretton Woods system finally went up in smoke in 2008 without a solid substitute for this brilliant invention.  But let’s not get too far ahead.  What remains clear is that the Vietnam War had dreadful costs and furthermore, ended in defeat.  One can argue for a long time if this defeat was the fault of the Kissinger/Nixon duo, of Gerald Ford or was simply inevitable, but whatever the case, the defeat was undeniable.  And that was not all.  Nixon’s presidency ended prematurely due to the Watergate scandal, leaving widespread national malaise.  In fact there were many in the mid-seventies who felt that the American empire was marching quickly and irrevocably towards its demise.

    The bitterness over the Vietnam War, the shock at Nixon’s abuse of power and the understandable mistrust towards government institutions catapulted Jimmy Carter to the presidency.  By all appearances, under Carter the country would regain its integrity, which it had considered lost, and begin down a foreign policy path that would rid millions of Americans of their bad feelings towards the intervention in Vietnam.  Nevertheless, Carter’s presidency did not proceed as expected.  It abandoned pragmatism in Latin America, allowing the Sandinistas to take power in Nicaragua and creating a fear that certain Marxist revolutions were spreading over the whole continent. This only bolstered the domino theory, a theory that did not hold up in Asia despite the defeat in Vietnam.  The worst, however, was that Carter, a real political parvenu in foreign policy, accepted the views of Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Advisor, who advocated using Islamic extremists as a weapon against the Soviet Union.

    Brzezinski was born in Warsaw and came from a family of Polish diplomats.  As luck would have it, the family was in Canada at the outbreak of World War II, which of course prevented them from returning home but assuredly guaranteed them a better life.  Brzezinski was obsessed with Russia almost to the point of paranoia, and he himself admitted that he felt particular pleasure in being the first Pole in centuries to beat the Russians.  It is true that relations between Russia and Poland hadn’t been good, but that was from the time the latter invaded Russia in the 17th century with the aim of putting a czar designated by the Jesuits on the throne. But history aside, Brzezinski’s statement did not correspond to reality and furthermore revealed that he was willing to place his personal prejudices above national interests.  The worst part of Brzezinski’s vision was not his desire to prevail over the Soviet Union - an entirely legitimate and desirable aspiration - but the fact that he confused this with satisfying the resentments of his country of birth and above all, that he would make Islamic terrorism a special instrument in the pursuit of this objective.  Today we know that Brzezinski got this idea from former SS officers who had been trying to sell it to the United States since the 1940’s.  We also know that the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was in response to a secret operation - the most expensive of the entire cold war - carried out by the CIA to embroil the Soviets in their own Vietnam in central Asia.  The origin of Brzezinski’s strategy to use Islamic terrorists is irrefutable, although as far as I am aware, Brzezinski has never acknowledged it.  As for the Afghanistan affair, Brzezinski himself boasted of it on various occasions, it seems without comprehending the effects of his geo-strategic vision.

    Espousing this vision of Brzezinski’s had two disastrous consequences in the short term for President Carter and for the international status of the United States.  The first was that the invasion of Afghanistan was actually seen as a failure for the United States, in that it had not contained Soviet aggression.  In actuality it was a victory for its intelligence services, though with all that the invasion produced in the last decades, one must ask if the final cost has proven to be too steep.  The second consequence was allowing the Muslims who believed in God to overthrow the Shah of Iran, because it was thought that their anti-Soviet position was more radical than that of the westernized Reza Pahlavi.  In theory, the dictator was allowed to fall, as in Nicaragua - which would supposedly enhance the Carter administration’s reputation as a defender of human rights - and people who would curb Communist expansion, unlike atheist communists, were allowed to take power.  The ayatollahs were certainly anti-communist and believed in God, but that is where the logic in Brzezinski’s reasoning ended.  One look at today’s news is enough to demonstrate that though this politician of Polish origins may have felt euphoric, he was in reality sowing seeds for future tragedies for the United States.

     As a side chapter, but certainly not an unimportant one, Fidel Castro intervened in Africa during the same years, winning a reputation as an ally for those battling colonialism and apartheid.  This gave him great prestige in the eyes of well-known figures of the continent such as Nelson Mandela, which regrettably but understandably remains to this day.  If there is a place where history might absolve Castro, it is Africa, judging by the image they have of him in the southern part of the continent. This was a distant stage, yet once again it can’t be said that the United States emerged as a winner, despite, or perhaps because of, Brzezinski’s counsel.

    No matter how one looks at it, the seventies was one of abysmal consequences in the area of foreign policy for the United States.  Yet in a matter of a few years the international situation would change dramatically and the often unexpected successes of the United States in this arena would cast it headlong into its own particular Carthage Syndrome.



(*) Cesar Vidal is a historian, writer, PhD in History, Law, Philosophy and Theology; Member of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy's Council and of the North American Academy of Spanish Language.