Getting Out: Learning from Past Exit Strategies

Getting Out: Learning from Past Exit Strategies

“Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run,” the gambler says in a popular song. But in the aftermath of imperialism and war, walking away is not so simple. Dissent‘s editors asked several scholars and writers to look at British, French, and American exit strategies–and to pay special attention to the difficulties, above all, the need to protect friends and collaborators and to minimize violence. In these pages, the focus is on each particular case–the American colonies, the Philippines, India, Korea, Algeria, and Vietnam–but we are obviously looking toward an American withdrawal from Iraq. We will write about that in the Spring Dissent.

The American Colonies: Stanley Weintraub
How does one recognize the looming inevitable? In the 1760s, the British, having defeated the French in America and expanded George III’s overseas empire, saw only profit and prestige ahead. A New England cleric, the Reverend Samuel Cooper, told his congregation that the colonists were indebted “not only for their present Security and Happiness, but, perhaps for their very Being, to the paternal Care of the Monarch.” The legitimacy of royal rule was little questioned. In that future seedbed of sedition, Boston, Thomas Foxcroft declared, “Above all, we owe our humble Thanks to his Majesty and with loyal Hearts full of joyous Gratitude, we bless the King, for his Paternal Goodness in sending such effectual Aids to his American Subjects. . . when we needed the Royal Protection.”

The Philippines: Stanley Karnow
However much their methods differed, the British, Dutch, and French intended to cling to their colonies forever. But, from its start in 1898, the United States meant to limit its control of the Philippines—and, to that degree, the American-Filipino experience was unusual in the annals of imperialism.

The conquest of the Philippine archipelago was initially masterminded at the swanky Metropolitan Club in Washington by a covert coterie of obdurate men—the highbrow senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the naval strategist Captain Alfred Mahan, and particularly the belligerent Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy. The conquest of the Philippines was ancillary to their paramount goal of dislodging Spain from Cuba, but they realized that by propelling American power into the Pacific, businessmen could boost their lucrative trade with China and Japan and profit from tapping their thriving markets and rich sources of raw materials.

India: Rajeev Bhargava
Scholarly writing explains British withdrawal from India in terms of a crisis of the colonial state precipitated by Britain’s expansive involvement in the Second World War and the sustained anticolonial struggle of Indians led by leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. This is not a complete explanation, but at least it nudges us in the right direction.

However, crucial questions remain unanswered. Why was their departure moved up by over a year—from June 1948 to August 1947? What explains the timing of the withdrawal? What were its moral costs? Could displacement have been averted and the mass killings prevented if withdrawal had been delayed? Did political actors taking these decisions foresee the looming moral disaster? Did the British have information about the extent and depth of violence once they announced the decision that the country would be partitioned? If they had adequate intelligence reports, what measures were taken to quell the violence? And finally, what lessons can be learned from the calamity that followed, during which an estimated one million people died and millions more were displaced? Here, I focus on these questions and limit myself to the period immediately prior to independence.

Korea: Fred Smoler
Any close analogy between “getting out” of Korea and American withdrawal from Vietnam, French withdrawal from Algeria, or British withdrawal from India necessarily fails, because in the sense implied by those cases, the United States has not gotten out of Korea.

As recently as 2004, the United States still deployed 37,500 United States troops in Korea. That year the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) agreed to reduce the American deployment to 25,000 by 2008, so we are still in Korea, and likely to remain for some time. The reductions to date have never been intended to culminate in the withdrawal of all troops by a date certain, and their pace was for many years uneven. At the height of their wartime strength, American forces numbered 326,363, in the year following the armistice 225,590, and in 1955 the United States maintained a garrison of 75,328. After that, the numbers seesawed, in part according to the level of perceived threat, so that while in 1956 there were 46,024 American troops in the ROK, by 1964 U.S. troop strength had increased by almost a third to 62,596, and five years later it increased again, to 66,531.

Algeria: Todd Shepard
In March 1962, in the eighth year of the Algerian War, the French government signed off on the Evian Accords, which established a ceasefire as well as a process that led to the July 5 proclamation in Algiers of independence—one hundred and thirty-two years to the day after the Ottoman ruler of that city had surrendered to French invaders. Few people were surprised—the only surprising thing was that ending the French occupation took so long. The end was, after all, inevitable, or so it can seem in retrospect. But the war was long, and its violence was shocking to contemporaries both in its forms—the French Armed Forces’ systematic use of torture on suspected nationalists and the embrace of terrorism by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN)—and its effects: the dead numbered some 17,000 French soldiers, about 3,500 French civilians, and (according to current estimates) between 250,000 and 578,000 Algerians, the vast majority of whom were noncombatants.

Vietnam: Frances FitzGerald
In the wake of the Tet offensive, on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, initiated peace talks with Hanoi, and declared he would not run for a second term. In that election year, Richard Nixon called for “peace with honor” and defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who could not attack Johnson for waging what had become a hugely unpopular war. Many Americans assumed that peace would come in short order. But, though the peace talks had begun, fighting in Vietnam continued for another seven years. In those years, Nixon gradually withdrew American troops from Vietnam but expanded the war to Cambodia and Laos, and with extensive bombing campaigns wreaked more destruction on the Indochinese than had been visited upon them in all the preceding years of war. More than twenty thousand American troops died, and upheavals in the United States tore the country apart, creating divisions that remain with us today.