Michael H. Hunt: Panetta on tour in an Asia without history

Michael H. Hunt

[This article is crossposted at the author’s website michaelhunt.web.unc.edu.]

Last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta completed an inspection tour of Asia. Like any respectable tourist, he should have shown some interest in the lands on his itinerary. The proclaimed Obama administration pivot toward the region provided all the more reason for a careful look at Asia’s path to the present. Over the last century the region has gone through an extraordinary transformation in which colonialism, revolution, warfare, authoritarian and communist leaders, and state-guided economic development have all played a part. The U.S. involvement has been deep, varied and highly consequential. In four wars beginning in the Philippines in 1899, Americans have practiced counter-insurgency, cultivated allies and confronted enemies, secured a network of military bases, perfected the art of annihilating cities from the air, offered up its consumer market as an export prize, and in general experienced triumph as well as frustration.

Panetta’s formal comments and casual remarks reveal little interest in this rich past, no insights that would be instructive, and some generalizations that are distinctly misleading if not wrongheaded.

  • The commencement address he delivered at the U.S. Naval Academy on 29 May on the eve of the trip anticipated the cavalier handling of history to come. The United States was, he informed the midshipmen, “returning to our maritime roots” and taking care of “historic” alliances” in the region. But nothing to clarify these claims or their relevance to the “China challenge” preoccupying the Obama administration.
  • Two days later during a stopover in Hawaii, he informed assembled troops that “we learned a lot of lessons” from the Vietnam War. But he offered none that were policy relevant. Indeed, the only lesson he served up was “support our troops” — and this without saying who had failed them during the Vietnam conflict and how.
  • Talking the next day with reporters, Panetta stressed the importance of building trust with China but gave nary a thought to how Chinese leaders had reacted to earlier U.S. military expansion and whether lots of meetings and expressions of U.S. good intentions were (as Panetta seemed to assume) enough to create confidence in Beijing.
  • In the major address of the tour, delivered in Singapore on 2 June, Panetta opened and closed by genuflecting to Clio. He recalled the U.S. turn to the Pacific during the era of continental expansion and his own memory of the fear that gripped his coastal California community during war with Japan and later in Korea. “Over the course of history,” he noted glibly at the end, “the United States has fought wars, we have spilled blood, we have deployed our forces time and time again to defend our vital interests in the Asia-Pacific region.” But these gestures to the historical muse went nowhere.

    His one attempt at a grand historical observation led to trouble. Panetta claimed that U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic presence in Asia had “helped usher in an unprecedented era of security and prosperity in the latter half of the 20th century.” Exactly the opposite would be closer to the truth. The U.S. presence had spawned conflict and U.S. military might had sown destruction between 1899 and 1975. Richard Nixon’s decision to retreat from Asia marked the end of a long, bloody drive into the region. He brought the Vietnam War to an end, recognized China as regional power with which the United States would have to do business, and swore to avoid involvement in more Asian wars. This retreat may have been the most important U.S. contribution to the period of peace and development that followed.

  • Panetta’s last set of comments came on 3 June in remarks to U.S. Navy personnel in Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. logistical base during the Vietnam War. Panetta tantalizingly pointed to “the great arc of history that we’re all part of.” But predictably nothing on the bend of the arc and its larger significance.

Under the circumstances he did have to say something about Vietnam’s place in the arc. “A tremendous amount of blood was spilled here on all sides, on the American side and on the Vietnamese side.” But what sense to make of “the sacrifice of all those who fought and many of whom who died in that war”? Panetta grasped the happy thought that the terrible costs would be justified “if we can build a better future.” (He seemed to like this formulation because he used it again in even more convoluted form in remarks to a group of reporters: “If we can work together, both of our countries, to develop a better relationship between the United States and Vietnam, all of the sacrifice involved in that war will have proven worthwhile because we will improve the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.”) Panetta’s anodyne approach suggests he cannot see (or will not see) that the Vietnam War was the result of contending differences—Vietnamese and American—over the future each wanted for that country and that the defeat of U.S. forces and their Saigon ally finally resolved the issue. Sacrifice in this case had not built a better future; it had been the by-product of a violent dispute over who got to define that future. Americans and Vietnamese emerged from that war with a heavy burden that made a better world harder, not easier, to achieve.

Panetta’s weak sense of the past is revealing at several levels. Here is a self described member of the Vietnam generation who has witnessed first hand the trauma of that war and its legacy of division and distrust. Perhaps even more significant, he has a sterling establishment reputation After serving an apprenticeship in the House of Representatives, he moved over to the executive side, first in Bill Clinton’s White House and more recently under Barack Obama as head of the CIA and now Department of Defense. Yet despite a generational stake in Asia and considerable policy experience, this consummate Washington insider can bring to the official table nothing more than a shallow and unsophisticated understanding of the policy-relevant past.

There is good reason to conclude based on comments by the president and others in the administration that Panetta’s limits are those of an entire administration and arguably even the broader Washington policy community. Ultimately history seems irrelevant except as rhetorical dressing or plausible talking points.

Tourists can ignore history without harm. Policymakers who do so are rendered clueless and forced to operate in something close to an eternal present. Worst of all, policymakers floating free of the past can talk in grandiose and self-flattering terms about bringing peace, stability, security, and prosperity to an entire region while ignoring the difficult questions history poses.

  • What exactly is the point of the U.S. pivot toward Asia and what risks does it entail? If the previous U.S. involvement that began in the Philippines and culminated in Vietnam generated repeated rounds of conflict, what are the reasons for thinking things will go more smoothly this time?
  • If countries within the region resisted in varying degrees the first U.S. intrusion, why expect cooperation or acquiescence this time? How will those countries with their own immediate stakes and with still lively memories of an earlier era of conflict involving the United States respond to the prospect of Americans pivoting back to prominence? (The meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Hu Jintao right on the heels of the Panetta tour underline the pertinence of that question.) Are American leaders, who once underestimated Asian nationalism, about to repeat that mistake?
  • What commitments and unforeseen consequences might follow from deepening U.S. engagement? Can the U.S. treasury now sustain the costs? Will today’s public prove any more patient with commitments gone awry than in the past?

An administration without a serious sense of history has simply finessed these questions when it should be wrestling with them—and sharing their answers with the rest of us.


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.