George Kennan on credibility and retrenchment

Testifying about America’s war in Vietnam, George Kennan argued
‘there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.’
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings. Supplemental Foreign Assistance Fiscal Year 1966 – Vietnam (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 335–36.
This ran counter to part of the general Cold War consensus among policymakers, that failure to commit fully to an ally, even in a peripheral war outside the ‘core’ military-industial power centers of East Asia and Western Europe, could erode credibility, induce a crisis of confidence in allies, and weaken the web of alliances that were essential to US national security.
As Peter Beinart notes, there was a tragic irony:

As a general rule, the men who led America into war did not see Vietnam itself as of great value. What haunted them was the fear that if America did not uphold its commitments there, it would demoralize America’s allies, and embolden the Soviets, in places that really mattered, like Central Europe. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand,” declared Lyndon Johnson in April 1965, “are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” If the United States did not uphold its guarantees to Saigon, added Secretary of State Dean Rusk, its “guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility.”

Ironically, the very European leaders whose morale Johnson and Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam—men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle—privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war. In the end, after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had died, the United States did abandon South Vietnam. And the world shrugged. Yes, communists racked up victories in some other corners of the developing world in the 1970s. But they lost ground in others. And in the heart of Europe, the place American policymakers really cared about, NATO held together and the Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.

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