Even before the extension of the United States' frontiers to the Pacific its political life was linked to conditions in Asia. Indeed, the tax that inspired the Boston Tea Party was conceived to help offset the massive imbalance of payments created by voracious English consumption of Chinese tea. The completion of America's Manifest Destiny, however, accelerated the exchange of goods, people, and ideas between the U.S. and Asia. The impact of this new state of affairs was felt almost immediately on both sides of the Pacific, as in 1852 President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to forcibly "open" Tokugawa Japan to U.S. commerce. Since that historical moment the mutual influence of the U.S. and Asia has deepened, broadened, and intensified, so that it seems clear that in this new century Asia will be the urgent focal point of U.S. foreign affairs. Since the time of Perry it has been a common (though perhaps not universal) assumption among U.S. policymakers that conditions in Asia may be reshaped through the determined application of U.S. power. Since America's future is so inextricably bound to that of Asia, it is important to test this working principal about U.S. power against the record of the past.
The early record of U.S.-Asia relations may be read as testimony to the outstanding success of U.S. power. The Perry mission of 1852 set off a chain of events that led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and set Japan on the path to modernization. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the Chinese Republic" was American-educated (a Christian convert), as was his wife and that of his successor, Chiang Kai-shek. After WWII Douglas MacArthur led a team of U.S. occupiers that overhauled the Japanese government in the image of American democracy while U.S. officials began the task of developing political institutions in newly independent South Korea. In 1946 one could look toward Asia and see a continent bearing the deep impression of U.S. power.
But then it somehow all went wrong. In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong overthrew the pro-U.S. Nationalist government of President Chiang Kai-shek. In 1950 Communist North Korea invaded the South, and despite a heroic defense and an initially successful counteroffensive U.S. forces were fought to a stalemate on the Korean peninsula. Finally, beginning in 1954 the U.S. became enmeshed in a steadily escalating effort to defend non-Communist South Vietnam that ended in withdrawal and the ingnominious collapse of the South Vietnamese state in 1975.
At first glance, the tale of the tape would seem easy to read. The story of U.S. power in Asia is one of initial and significant success followed by sudden and precipitate decline. A graphic representation would show a line beginning in 1852 and rising steadily until 1949, where it would take a sharp turn and move steadily downward. What could have caused such a profound reversal? The influence of communism? The deflation of America's political will? Strategic errors on the part of American leadership?
As simplistic as such analyses may seem, they are (with some nuance and shading) all too often the basis of much American scholarship and policy strategy with regard to Asia on all parts of the political spectrum. Amercian interpreters, both "left" and "right," approach the study of Asia with a latent faith in the efficacy of U.S. power. Under "normal conditions" they would expect Asian affairs to be responsive to American influence, thus the cause of any "intransigence" must be sought either in the changing nature of U.S. power or the variable wisdom of U.S. leadership. If Asian peoples effectively resist American efforts at change, it must be because U.S. power had been depleted or incorrectly applied.
The inherent weakness of these types of analyses is, of course, that they deny Asian peoples themselves any form or degree of agency. This is not a question of ethics but of analytical clarity. Any narrative of Asian history that is not constructed around Asians as its central actors is fundamentally distorted. In order to truly understand the fate of U.S. actors on the Asian stage one must look to the inherent dynamic of Asian cultures and societies. The stark fact is that the current state of Asian affairs has been determined by Asians- the Americans who participated in developments along the way were never (well, very rarely) more than interested bystanders.
This may be illustrated if we adopt, for a moment, the perspective of U.S. strategists in Vietnam. Here the American strategic goal was the preservation of a (preferably) democratic, (unequivocally) anti-Communist state in South Vietnam. A survey of what U.S. power had "achieved" in Asia up to that point gave every cause for optimism. Two particular cases informed American assessments of the achievability of their goals: Japan and Korea. The U.S. had defeated and occupied Japan from 1945-1952, during which time Japan was transformed from an autocratic, radically militaristic absolute monarchy to a totally demilitarized liberal democracy. In Korea, despite a concerted assault by the joint forces of China and North Korea (with the full support of the Soviet Union) the U.S. had managed to effect a (until the present day) permanent partition of the Korean peninsula and the stabilization of a pro-U.S. government in the South. The American task in South Vietnam should have been much easier than either of these cases.
Japan and Vietnam, in particular, presented a stark contrast. Vietnam had less than half the population of Japan (South Vietnam even less) and possessed a much more modern, industrialized economy and educated populace. The success of the U.S. in transforming Japanese state and society should have been matched or exceeded in Vietnam.
The intrinsic weakness of this analysis is that it gives far too much credit to the U.S. for the shaping of Japan's post-war state. U.S. observers of Japan, noting the dramatic difference between the goverment and political culture of Imperial Japan and that of Japan today, conclude that this disparity must be attributable to U.S. influence. This perspective assumes that the virulent militancy of the Empire and the atrocities committed by its officials and soldiers were all "organic" products of traditional Japanese culture, a congenital weakness in Japanese civilization that had to be purged by its American occupiers. Any close analysis belies this view, however. The extremism and brutality of the Empire were exceptional to the historical experience of the Japanese people and were as odious to many (if not most) of them as it was to foreign observers. These trends were not organic expressions of Japanese "values," but gradually escalating responses to the (not wholly unrealistically) perceived threats of European imperialism and mainland Asian socialism (both the Soviet Union and Nationalist China were, in Japan's eyes, adherents of socialist ideology). The slide of Japan's political culture toward self-destructive extremism was neither inevitable nor smooth, but was only achieved through the brutal suppression of robust voices of cosmopolitanism and liberalism that had largely shaped Japanese political life during the 1920's. The U.S. thus did not impose a wholly alien ethos upon the Japanese people during the post-war occupation, but merely aided them in the dismantling of a dysfunctional regime they found intolerably oppressive and the revival of traditions they had only reluctantly been forced to abandon.
Even if one accepts that the U.S. was far less instrumental to the democratization of Japan than conventional "wisdom" would suggest, the case of Korea would seem to argue that the U.S. mission in Vietnam should have been achievable. The key cause for the failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam was Vietnamese nationionalism. Many Vietnamese were suspicious of Communism. As a whole, though, they remained persistently and violently hostile to U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese state because they viewed them as obstacles to the unification of Vietnam, an ideal that most Vietnamese placed ahead of their allegiance or aversion to a particular political system. If we look at the Korean people, however, we find that they are no less nationalistic than the Vietnamese. The unification of the Korean nation is a dream deferred, one that causes deep anguish on both sides of the DMZ.
Why, then, would the U.S. succeed in maintaining the partition of Korea where it failed in the partition of Vietnam? The answer, of course, is that the partition of Korea would not be possible unless it conformed in some sense to the will of the Korean people. The Koreans are more amenable to the partition of their country than the Vietnamese, and here again the answer lies not in the actions of the U.S. but in the historical experience of the Korean people themselves.
The parallels between the experience of the Koreans and the Vietnamese are extraordinary. Both peoples share the legacy of venerable state traditions that developed under the profound influence of Chinese civilization. The contemporary Choson Dynasty of Korea and the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam were both structured in accordance to the ideology of Confucianism and in immitation of the institutional organization of China's imperial government. Both peoples came to question their traditional political values and institutions under the assault of foreign colonialism. This is where the histories of both nations diverge sharply. Vietnam's traditional government was brought to an end by French colonialism, the Choson dynasty was displaced by Meiji Japan. In both communities nationalism was born and grew within the forces of resistance to foreign colonialism, but significant differences in the experience of colonialism created profound differences between the forces of Vietnamese and Korean nationalism.
Because the French in Vietnam were operating in a land far distant from and culturally vastly different than their own they were never able to exert more than a very limited degree of political control over their Indochinese territories. As the forces of Vietnamese resistance grew the French were incapable of preventing them from operating within Vietnam itself. Even before WWII Vietnamese resistance fighters of all ideological persuasions were able to operate on Vietnamese territory, during and after the war a broad coalition of Communist and non-Communist forces developed that was united in resistance to the French.
By contrast to the French in Vietnam, the Japanese faced far less intense logistical (at their closest points Japan and Korea are less than 100 kilometers apart) and cultural (the Japanese and Korean peoples practice common religions, share a common script, and speak closely related languages) challenges to their colonial project in Korea. They were thus able to much more effectively and exhaustively suppress anticolonial resistance within the Korean peninsula itself, and as a result the resistance evolved almost exclusively in foreign exile. The emergent tradition of Korean nationalism thus grew within movements that were not only ideologically fragmented but also geographically segregated from one-another. Communist resistance to Japanese colonialism was centered almost exclusively in Manchuria, where Kim Il Sung led a Korean Communist brigade as an auxiliary of the Chinese Communist guerilla movement in that region. Non-Communist resistance was headquartered completely in Shanghai, where Syngman Rhee led the Korean Provisional Government under the patronage of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government. The Japanese were never able to completely eliminate Korean resistance within the Korean peninsula, but they were able to effectively (and brutally) preempt the formation of a broad coalition movement on Korean soil such as that which emerged in Vietnam.
Korean resistance thus evolved in an atmosphere of mutual isolation, suspicion and hostility. Hostility was deepened by the animosity between the respective patrons of the the two resistances, Mao's Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (the deadly feud between these forces was particularly vitriolic, fueled by a surprise coup that Chiang launched in 1927 against the Communists, with whom he was then allied). It was further exacerbated by the fact that pre-colonial society in Korea had been much more polarized than that of Vietnam. Choson Korea was led by a hereditary class of yangban aristocracy that enjoyed social privileges far and away removed from the social condition of Korea's lower classes. These contradictions had never been internally resolved within pre-colonial Korean society, thus the ideological divide between Communists and non-Communists was deepened by lingering suspicions of caste bigotry.
The final outcome of the Vietnam War can leave little doubt that there were deep divisions between the various Vietnamese nationalists. At the same time, however, it can not be denied that the period of operational unity under French colonialism laid the foundations for mutual trust and cooperation between Communists and non-Communists that drove events in Vietnam until 1975. Enough Vietnamese on both sides of the ideological divide trusted one-another sufficiently to make common cause in the service of Vietnamese unification. By contrast, the forces of Korean nationalism were incubated in conditions that only reinforced and intensified their mutual suspicions and hostility.
It would be extreme to argue that the Korean peninsula would definitely have remained partitioned in the absence of U.S. power (though this or something like it might still have occurred). It is certain, however, that the necessary conditions of both Korean partition and Vietnamese unity developed prior to American involvement in these nations' affairs. This and virtually all other cases of U.S. policy in Asia present concrete lessons in the limits of U.S. power. Viewed objectively, U.S. power has never been more than a slight catalyst or mild hindrance to developments that Asian people themselves have brought to fruition. The U.S. is not without influence in the region, but it is incapable of dictating the ultimate parameters of what is possible or achievable in Asian politics. This is the principal to which American policy makers should adhere in moving forward: facing Asia one should not ask first and foremost about the state of U.S. power or American political will. Rather, one should inquire first into the natural limits of change determined by the historical conditions of Asian communities themselves.