James Holmes

The Vietnam War Meets Isaiah Berlin

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin presents students of the Vietnam War a unique way to classify key decision makers.

This week is Vietnam week in the Strategy & War Course, and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin provided an oddball way to get the conversation started. Precisely six decades ago, in 1953, Berlin published an essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In it he draws on a cryptic passage from the classical Greek poet Archilochus that reads, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Taken figuratively, he opines, the disparity between the two beasts signifies “one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.”

Temperament and worldview differentiate the fox from the hedgehog. Berlin postulates that a “great chasm” separates those “who relate everything to a single central vision” or “single organizing principle” from those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory … related by no moral or aesthetic principle.” The fox thinks “on many levels” without “consciously or unconsciously” trying to fit all things and all experiences into “any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.” While these metaphors can be pushed to the point of absurdity, he admits, contrasting the two archetypes nonetheless furnishes “a starting-point for genuine investigation.”

And so it does. The seminars tried classifying key personalities on the American side. General Westmoreland—hedgehog or fox? The U.S. commander appeared loath to transform the U.S. Army into a counterinsurgent force for fear of leaving it unprepared for its chief mission, namely beating back a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. That sounds pretty single-minded, for good reasons or ill. Hedgehog! (In my view.) In Berlin’s taxonomy, President Johnson was a misbegotten creature. LBJ was a hedgehog, but two big ideas impelled him, not just one. He wanted to help South Vietnam endure, but his first love was for the Great Society—that is, for transforming domestic politics. Preoccupied with the War on Poverty, he was deeply conflicted about the war in Indochina. Nixon? From ardent anticommunist in league with Joe McCarthy to pragmatist willing to parley with Mao Zedong. Sounds like a fox to me—a scowling fox, if such a thing is possible. Or you can repeat the exercise for leading figures on the redteam, grouping Ho Chi Minh or General Giap under one archetype or the other.

Like any good philosopher, Berlin opens a window into complex phenomena while provoking debate and refusing to supply pat answers. A hypothesis: being a hedgehog driven by an overriding purpose may be a good thing, provided you’re also the beneficiary of a fox-like gift for tactical innovation.

Individuals and their ideas comprise institutions, so it seems fair to apply Berlin’s template to institutions like the U.S. armed forces as well. Big, bureaucratic organizations incline toward the hedgehog side of the spectrum. They transcribe assigned missions into bureaucratic procedures and perform these routine functions over and over again, the same way every time—much as machinery does. Indeed, monotony is the genius of bureaucracy according to theorists like the 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber. Maybe so. But the tendency toward “routinization” inhibits an institution’s ability to reassess the surroundings as they change and adapt its practices to emerging realities. Designed to fight big wars reminiscent of World War II, the U.S. military found it hard to cope with the hybrid regular/irregular conflict it found in Southeast Asia. It was slow-footed like a hedgehog when it needed to be fleet-footed like a fox. Making institutions nimble while preserving their capacity to execute standard tasks is the challenge before leaders.

Comparing mythical beasts? Hey, you take your wisdom where you find it.