The Words that Killed 58,000 Americans
“This is your text-book,” Mr. Anderson said as he held up a small paperback on the first day of class. It was 1967. He was my American history teacher in my senior year of high school. He was short and stocky and his face seemed to be in a perpetual pout.
“It’s the only book you’ll need until Christmas,” he told us.
After he said that, my friend Nick and I looked at each other as if to say, we have finally reached Heaven in school: How could it get any easier?
The book was American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 by George Kennan, a former foreign policy analyst for the State Department.
We didn’t know, of course, that this was not just any book. And we really didn’t care. But soon enough, we learned that Mr. Anderson was bent on teaching us a powerful lesson about life through this book. He was bent on getting us to think…and to question what people claimed to be the truth.
Mr. Anderson showed us how Mr. Kennan’s words led to the war that was raging in Vietnam. It sounded crazy to us. Words caused a war? So Mr. Anderson went on to teach us how words and war are linked.
Mr. Anderson then explained that Mr. Kennan had formulated the “Containment Theory.” It was supposed to block the spread of communism. Before long, Mr. Anderson went on, the Containment Theory became the backbone for the Truman Doctrine’s anti-Soviet Union policy in 1947.
Mr. Anderson also referred to Mr. Kennan’s theory as the “Domino Theory.” In the domino game, if you tipped one domino over, it would topple all the others in line. He taught us that Mr. Kennan said countries would fall in the same way to communism.
One day Mr. Anderson lectured us about the Korean War. He recounted how the Chinese domino had already fallen and the Korean domino was next in line. It was already teetering, he said, so we sent troops to “prop” up the South Korean domino. Mr. Anderson, with a pout more sobering than his usual one, said that it took 36,000 American lives to keep that domino from falling.
Then Mr. Anderson focused on Mr. Kennan. He told us Mr. Kennan complained that the politicians distorted his views in order to justify an aggressive stance toward communism. Eventually, Mr. Anderson said, Kennan became a critic of the foreign policy he helped to create.
When I look back, I believe that Mr. Anderson was successful in teaching us to think and question. He taught us that when the ideas of thinkers like Mr. Kennan get into the hands of politicians, they often get a new interpretation to justify the actions the politicians want to take anyway.
And so as we studied Mr. Kennan’s book in our history class, we couldn’t have known that some of us who were turning the pages of his book today could be killed in Vietnam tomorrow. We didn’t know that the words we were studying, words written a generation before, had already shaped our immediate futures…
…because it would take 58,000 American lives to prop up that Vietnamese domino …
and then it fell anyway.
Long ago, Mr. Anderson had taught us to think…to question…and to understand how words and war are linked.