What has been happening so swiftly in Indochina can only be exhilarating to any libertarian: for what we have been seeing before our very eyes is nothing less than the death of a State—or rather two states, the Saigon regime in South Vietnam, and the Phnom Penh regime in Cambodia. The process by which these States have crumpled vindicates once again the insights of the theorists of mass guerrilla warfare, from libertarians such as Charles Lee in the late 18th century to the elaborations of modern Communist theoreticians such as Mao tse-Tung, Che Guevara, and, in Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap. Namely, that, after a slow, patient protracted struggle, in which the guerrilla armies (backed by the populace) whittle and wear down the massively superior fire power of the State armies (generally backed by other, imperial governments), the final blow occurs in which the State dissolves and disintegrates with remarkable speed. It is of course true that in Vietnam and Cambodia, one State has been immediately displaced by another—not surprisingly, since the Communist-led insurgents are scarcely anarchists or libertarians. But States exist everywhere; there is nothing remarkable in that. What is inspiring to libertarians is to actually see the final and swift disintegration of a State.
As only the San Francisco columnist Arthur Hoppe has pointed out, this dissolution of States also confirms the insight of political theorists from Etienne de La Boetie to David Hume to Ludwig von Mises that, in the final analysis, all States, whether "democratic" or dictatorial, rest for their continued existence on the majority support of their subjects. Once that support is finally destroyed, the State—seemingly mighty and all-powerful only weeks before—disintegrates and dies. In the case of South Vietnam, the ARVN army was seemingly mighty and powerful—a million strong, equipped with literally billions of dollars worth of American arms, and aided over the years by hundreds of billions of dollars of American aid and support, and by a half-million man American army. None of this superior might and firepower could in the end prevail against the will and determination of the mass of Vietnamese (and Cambodians), bent against seemingly impossible odds to dislodge dictatorial governments which were the puppets and clients of Western imperialism (first of France, then the U.S.) In the end, the ARVN army simply laid down their arms and fled, ignoring the orders of their hierarchical chain of State commanders, from the President down to the non-coms. In the eyes of the ARVN soldiery, as well as of the masses, the South Vietnamese State was no longer credible, no longer believable. Therefore the rulers were ignored, and the State dissolved, as the once mighty and all-powerful rulers and heads of State became in a trice, panicky and powerless individuals forced to flee with millions in ill-gotten gains to the bosom of the "free world."
Another cause for libertarian rejoicing was the body blow that these events have delivered to U.S. imperialism, and to the notion that the United States has the moral duty, and the permanent power, to install, prop up, and rule governments and peoples throughout the world. We are being forced into a policy of "neo-isolationism," unfortunately not through the adoption of moral principle, but through the concrete realization that imperialism is no longer realistically viable.
Unfortunately and pathetically, the Ford-Kissinger Administration, backed by the American conservative movement, proved down to the very last moment that, like the Bourbons of the past, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. As the results of their own disastrous policies crumbled around their ears, all they could do was to repeat, once more, the tired old hack fallacies of the past: the call for "one more chance" at massive foreign aid—$722 million to follow over $1 billion of abandoned arms down the Vietnamese rathole; to denounce "neoisolationism"; to call once more for the American "responsibility" to "spread freedom throughout the world" (the Thieu and Lon Nol statist dictatorships being prime examples of "freedom"); to howl about a forthcoming "bloodbath" (this from a government that murdered millions of innocent Vietnamese peasants, conducted the greatest bombing offensive in world history, and led over 50,000 drafted American soldiers to their deaths!) and to cook up a fraudulent "stab-in-the-back myth" to pin the blame for the Indochinese collapse not on themselves but on the antiwar movement and the Democratic Congress. And so on and on. But this time none of it worked. The American people were sick and tired of our long and losing intervention in Vietnam, and the Ford Administration could only ring the last futile changes on the old malarkey while their policy became a total shambles.
It was, in fact, the American policy of imperialism—the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon-Ford policy—that was responsible for pushing Indochina into the arms of Communism. By bolstering and then replacing French imperialism; by propping up unpopular and corrupt dictatorial regimes in the name of "freedom"; by suppressing peasant property and returning it to the imperially-created feudal landlords; by systematically extirpating neutralist forces; by making anything American hated throughout Indo-China, the U.S. imperialists only succeeded, at the end, in polarizing Indo-China in such a way as to make a Communist triumph inevitable. The height of the absurdity was the hubris of the Pentagon in inducing the ARVN to seize Communist-held territory under cover of the Paris agreements, and then to allow General "Big" Minh to come in and replace Thieu only at the literal last moment—after the U.S. itself had ousted Minh from power a decade ago as being insufficiently hawkish against the Communists! At the end, Big Minh was only in power long enough to order a surrender.
Only in Laos did the United States permit a neutralist-coalition regime to take hold, and even there it did this so late in the day as to probably insure an ultimate failure and a slipping into Communist control. In Cambodia, it was precisely the idiotic CIA-directed right-wing coup against the popular neutralist Prince Norodom Sihanouk that has now led to the Communist regime there. A return to an isolationist foreign policy is not merely the only moral as well as realistic policy for the United States; it is probably the only one that might have a chance of avoiding an eventual Communist triumph throughout the Third World. But if we don't learn this lesson, and if we allow ourselves to fall for a stab-in-the-back myth, we will only insure the long-run triumph of Communism in the Third World, after an enormous expenditure of American lives and treasure, and after a gigantic bloodbath of innocent people in all the countries that we are supposedly trying to "save."
Murray Rothbard is professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York. Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Death of a State".