I have no expertise in this field. This post will not be cluttered with links, because I will write from memory and not link to anything. I suppose in a way, this post is a slap in the face of Tom Nichols, who is a subset of the topic, is supposed to be an expert on the topic, and is the author of “The Death of Expertise“. I will attempt to explain how his errors are due to envy and neurosis.
Honestly, my trigger was lest nasty (and less based on envy). Someone asked in a Tweet what is the consensus on the old domino theory which lead to US involvement in the war in Vietnam (which is also called “the American war” by the Vietnamese). I will put my anti Nichols spite after the jump (note I advertised his book). His alleged field of expertise is preventive war. There, that’s another advertisement. Actually I think I will just post a separate post sniping at him.
OK so the Domino theory.
The logic was as follows. In 1938, France, the British Empire, and Czechoslovakia could have stopped Hitler. But all he demanded was the Sudetenland which was predominately inhabited by ethnic Germans. Neville Chamberlain insisted on reaching an agreement. Benes and Daladier had to go along, so the chance to defeat Nazism with heavy but not immense losses was lost.
Heeeyyy wait a minute, wasn’t I supposed to be talking about the 1960s not 1938 ? Yes, but the first problem is that there are influential people in the USA for whom all years are 1938 (note I use the present tense — they are still around and are very dangerous).
The first key methodological assumption of the Domino theory is that all years are 1938 and all negotiations are held in Munich. The second is that Neville Chamberlain made every possible error, so, as long as one did the opposite of what he would have done, everything will be fine. The rest is commentary.
I now invite historians, experts in international relations and political scientists to contest my analysis (knowing that not very many read Angry Bear).
The domino theory maintained that the USA had to stop the Communists in Vietnam or else they would move on to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, East Pakistan, and India. The logic was exactly (and only) that it would have been better to fight Hitler at the old fortified border between Germany and Czechoslovakia than to let him take the Sudetenland, then the rest of Czechoslovakia, and then fight him in Poland. Notably, Hitler was surprised when France and Britain declared war on September 1 1939. The theory was that, restraint, compromise, or the most dreaded retreat would be perceived as weakness and make further aggression inevitable. One detail was overlooked. Hitler was one person, Khrushchev, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were three different people. The USSR had advanced weapons, the PRC had huge armies, North Vietnam had no fear of either and knew how to play one off the other.
Then Khrushchev was overthrown by the Red Army. The communist Soviet Union had not reached the advanced stage of Communist development which made a Communist military dictatorship possible later in Poland, so the generals gave power to a troika (sleigh pulled by 3 horses). The first among equals was Leonid Brezhnev. The USA still faced 3 adversaries lead by men incapable of pity. Brezhnev was incapable of pity or any other higher mental functioning. He liked clowns. The one key qualification for being Khrushchev’s second in command was being a total idiot (preferably lacking in ambition) and therefore being no threat. From then on, the analogy should have been negotiating with Rudolf Hesse in Munich (Hesse was similarly chosen for his total idiocy).
Notably one of the challenges for the US war effort in South Vietnam was the fact that the Communist Pathet Lao effectively controlled Laos and Communist friendly (and superhumanly vain) Prince Norodom Sihanouk) controlled Cambodia. Notably this is a problem for the domino theory. The dominoes which were supposed to be knocked down by the fall of South Vietnam had it already fallen. Their impact on Thailand was fairly minor (it might not have seemed that way to the Thai communists who fought and died in the jungle, but there were never many of them and almost no one noticed when they gave up and made peace (I forget the date)).
In contrast, US firm resoluteness in Vietnam made a large fraction of the world (and a substantial minority in the USA) hate the US government. It is also estimated to have caused 3 million deaths (from surveys decades later asking people if they had lost relatives).
During the resolute effort against the Hitler like world Communist movement, the USSR and the PRC fought a border war. They became each others’ most bitter enemies — the USA was not even number one on their enemies list. Soon after the final victory of the Vietnamese Communists, there was a brief war between Vietnam and the PRC. The enemy was the enemy of the enemy. The Soviet Chinese war occurred some time during the US war in Vietnam. It should have changed everything. But to completely reverse US policy, US policymakers would have to admit that they had made a mistake, and that is not possible.
The after aftermath is that Communist China became more capitalist than the USA and the USSR collapsed. Impressively right up to the collapse, US hawks insisted that there was a high risk of Soviet conquest of the world. Also impressively the people who clearly demonstrated that they were clueless gained status from the collapse, because it (coincidentally) occurred while Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Oddly, some sincere people including Max Boot and Anne Applebaum took seriously Reagan’s claim to be a principled supporter of freedom around the world. I am not much older than they are and remember the distinction between acceptable authoritarians and unacceptable totalitarians (in other words our sons of bitches and sons of bitches who weren’t ours). I remember the mockery of Carter’s human rights campaign. I remember the US alliance with Argentine fascist mass murderers in opposition to the fascists non mass murdering Sandinistas (currently in power to remind us of the utter worthlessness of the domino theory).
So how can we assess the scientific standing of the domino theory ? How does it compare with the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, the phlogiston theory of burning, the caloric theory of heat, and the four humors theory of health and disease ? Digressions after the jump.
Obviously it does not reach the standing of the Ptolemaic model which is an astounding scientific accomplishment. Ptolemy’s model as written in Almagest gave useful predictions over a thousand years after it was published. This record remains unequaled. It happens not to be true, but it is excellent science. In particular it is often said that while Ptolemy was a great scientist, the medieval Ptolemaic astronomers were the epitome of a sort of bad science — the degenerative research program (google Lakatos). It is often asserted as a known historical fact that, when the model didn’t fit the data, they added fiddle factors in the form of additional epicycles. It is asserted that this lead nowhere useful and never would have, so a scientific revolution was needed. One problem with this story is that there is no historical evidence at all that any Ptolemaic astronomer after Ptolemy added even one epicycle. It is frequently stated as fact, but no archival evidence has ever been presented. In fact, it is pretty clear that Ptolemy’s model with no modifications was used by a Ptolemaic astronomer during Copernicus’s lifetime. The astronomer was named Copernicus (who was Ptolemaic before he wasn’t). He reports the differences between forecasts and measurements. We believe we know what he saw (as we have great confidence in Newton’s model and (irrelevantly in this case) more in Einstein’s. So one can infer the forecasts from the reported forecast errors. They are exactly the forecasts Ptolemy would have made.
So the Ptolemaic model of the solar system and the domino theory are like night and day — roughly tied for best effort ever and in the running for worst human idiocy.
OK Phlogiston. The phlogiston theory of burning asserted that burning was a process of release of a substance called phlogiston. The modern theory of oxidation asserts that burning was the process of adding or combining with a substance called oxygen. Each is reasonable. The phlogiston theory is more intuitive (and unsurprisingly older) because with most burning the ashes weigh less than the burned object. It makes perfect sense. Even when Priestly produced pure oxygen, he quite reasonably described it as air without phlogiston in it (dephlogistonized air). Lavoisier was, for some reason, obsessed with mercury which oxidizes to cinnabar (which is solid but soft and red). He got the money for his research by marrying a tax farmer and then becoming as ruthless as his father in law. (In tax farming the state sold the right to tax revenues to an individual for a fixed amount, then that individual collected taxes for himself). Another of Lavoisier’s inventions was the tariff wall around Paris — people had to pay to enter or leave. He lived just before the French revolution. It isn’t really surprising that he was guillotined). But his obsessive focus on mercury allowed him to notice that the cinnabar weighed more — that the amount of air in a closed system declined as the mercury oxidized, and that the process stopped when the volume of air (under one atmosphere of pressure) decreased by 20%. He noticed more generally that chemical reactions involve constant (complicated) proportions by weight. He invented modern chemistry. But he didn’t show that there was anything wrong with the Phlogiston model except that it didn’t happen to correspond to what was happening on earth (with mercury and a few other elements or, it was later learned, anything). The phlogiston theory is not like the domino theory. It fit some facts. It was reasonable given available evidence.
The caloric theory of heat held that heat is a substance which is released when things cool. It has the defect that it assumes that, because heat has a name, it has an independent existence (and weight and location and such). It’s an OK theory. It’s fault is that it isn’t true. It fits some facts about conservation of heat in closed systems without chemical or nuclear reactions. It’s OK, just not true.
The four humors theory of disease. Bingo. Total nonsense. Also highly profitable nonsense for physicians. It survived a long time. I have no idea of where to find a hint of a clue of any useful application.