Second Thoughts: Politics in the jungle: J K Galbraith revisits his satire on American foreign policy, The Triumph, first published in 1968

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The Independent Culture
IN THE autumn of 1961, I was sent by President Kennedy to Vietnam. He knew of my doubts as to our involvement there; my principal qualification, given the pressure on him to deepen our commitment, was that I didn't have an open mind. I found that some of my fellow countrymen in Saigon also questioned why we were there; my briefing on the military prospect was wonderfully confident and deeply ambiguous even by military standards.

For me there was a day of revelation. I was taken on an automobile tour along the roads north from Saigon. We had an armed guard, for this was held to be Communist terrain. There was dense foliage on both sides of the road, and I was struck by the thought: how does one tell a Communist jungle from a democratic, free enterprise jungle? It was a problem that remained strongly in my mind.

This thought of the threat of Communism and Washington's reaction to it was still with me when I wrote The Triumph (Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 6.99), set in the small, poor, partly jungle country of Puerto Santos in Central America. Here, a Communist, the politically vulnerable son of the old dictator had taken over with the help of the eager anti-Communist scholars and statesmen in the State Department. Except to themselves, they looked rather ridiculous, even stupid, in the aftermath.

Were I writing again, I would be compelled to take a markedly more tragic view. In the years since World War II, there has been no error quite so great as that emerging from the belief that poor, culturally primitive, agrarian communities could somehow be susceptible to successful socialism. Marx was wiser; he said that there could not be Communism before there was capitalism. (His error was only in believing that it was inevitable and acceptable thereafter.) In Vietnam under American auspices, and in Afghanistan under Soviet auspices, thousands died in combat or under the bombers or from sickness and impoverishment, in consequence of the anti-Communist paranoia. In The Triumph I treated those of this distinguished view with some amusement. I was more than a little pleased by the embarrassment of the high (and supremely self-confident) officials who were proved so wrong. Were I writing again, I would shed some tears.