The Myth of Government Incompetence: Part 1 – Imperialism


Many supporters of the current powers-that-be often talk about the idea of ‘government incompetence’ when it comes to certain policies. This first part of the article will discuss the idea of imperialist war as an incompetent mistake rather than a criminal act.

Imperialism as an Incompetent Mistake: The Case Of Vietnam

Whenever there is an imperialist conflict, such as in Vietnam or Iraq, liberal pundits write the government actions off as a ‘mistake’. This most often tends to happen after it has become obvious to the general public that the war effort was based on lies. The benevolence of the powers-that-be needs salvaging from the radical critique that their actions were based upon malice, and so the ‘incompetence’ narrative comes into play.

This article will focus on the Vietnam war as an example of this strategy. This war was waged in order to preferably keep the puppet state elites in power in South Vietnam so that the country could be exploited for natural resources, to destroy the capacity to build an independent, anti-colonial socialist government, and to deter other countries from taking an anti-imperialist path.

However, this conflict has been framed by many as a mistake, an unwinnable quagmire that the US leaders plunged into despite the fact that they knew they could not win. They were simply blinded by ideology or sunk cost fallacy.

One book that discusses government incompetence as a topic is The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. The definition of ‘folly’ in the book is as follows:

The pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency of the state involved. Self interest is whatever conduces to the to the welfare or the advantage of the body being governed, folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

The March of Folly, p. 5

Furthermore, the book states that to be perceived as folly the policy must have been pointed out as bad for the state or constituency’s self interest at the time by actors that were there and not just viewed as bad in hindsight.

The book discusses four examples, but this article is only going to address the Vietnam war.

The book discusses the doubts behind the scenes that the Americans could ‘win’ in Vietnam due to the unviability of the South Vietnamese puppet state. Instead, the book argues, they wasted trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives on trying to prop up this puppet state.

Tuchman states that the reasons that American policy makers continued to pursue this policy despite the costs are as follows:

American policy makers took it for granted that on a given aim , especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. […] Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations[.] […] [R]efusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a “fourth rate” Asiatic country were determining factors[.] […] Underestimation was matched by overestimation of South Vietnam, […] Western verbiage equated any non-Communist group with the “free” nations, fostering the delusion that its people were prepared to fight for their “freedom”…

The March of Folly pp. 375-6.

The Reality of Vietnam: Calculated Mass Destruction

We can now return to the question of how we are classifying ‘irrational’ behaviour. The truth is that whether behaviour is rational or irrational is defined by the goal of that behaviour. As outlined above, there were several goals of the Vietnam war. While the goal of propping up the South Vietnamese puppet state failed, the goal of the destruction of Vietnam to prevent the building of an alternative society clearly succeeded to a significant extent.

If we assume malice on the part of the government, the behaviour in Vietnam – of launching constant bombing campaigns, using chemical weapons, and assassination programs such as Phoenix make perfect sense as a measure to attempt to destroy a society.

A few examples.

The defoliation campaign was a devastating crusade against the Vietnamese people. This was achieved through the use of the chemical weapon Agent Orange.

According to Monthly Review:

During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, US warplanes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicide defoliants in an operation code-named Ranch Hand.

This had a horrific effect on the environment in Vietnam and thus also upon the population of the country. It destroyed forests and farming land, and ensured the chemical got into the food chain, meaning mass exposure to the toxin. The chemical itself produces birth defects and disabilities and has been demonstrated to do so among both the citizens of Vietnam and US fighters in the imperialist conflict.

The CIA also ran a program in Vietnam called Phoenix.

Phoenix was a systemic attempt to find and kill Vietnamese fighting against the US and its designs. It did this through terror, torture, intelligence-gathering and the relocation (and murder) of the insurgency’s civilian supporters.

This involved the murder of people who supported the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam (known as the ‘Vietcong’ by the Americans). This is still euphemistically termed ‘counterinsurgency’ by supporters of the establishment.

The policy murdered a large number of people in South Vietnam:

By 1971, a US House Operations Subcommittee investigation heard the CIA’s William Colby acknowledge that in three years from 1968, Phoenix killed 20,587 Vietnamese civilians — though the New York Times independently estimated the figure at more like 60,000.

The destabilisation of neighbouring countries also negatively affected Vietnam. Massive bombing campaigns in Cambodia by Richard Nixon helped to lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese government militarily intervened in Cambodia in 1978 and removed Pol Pot from power. The US government started funding Pol Pot after the Vietnamese removed his government from power.

[T]he US had been secretly funding Pol Pot in exile since January 1980. The extent of this support – $85m from 1980 to 1986 – was revealed in correspondence to a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the Thai border with Cambodia, the CIA and other intelligence agencies set up the Kampuchea Emergency Group, which ensured that humanitarian aid went to Khmer Rouge enclaves in the refugee camps and across the border.

The effects of all of this destruction on the Vietnamese society was to destroy traditional structures, to kill and maim many Vietnamese fighters and citizens, to force the Vietnamese to use their resources for war rather than peaceful construction, and to devastate much of the environment and farming land. This was not an ‘incompetent mistake’ or a ‘quagmire’ but a policy of mass murder.


The concept of government incompetence is not a valid explanation of major policy decisions such as the war in Vietnam. The idea of government incompetence is a shield used by people who defend the powers-that-be in order to cover up their mass murder.

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