PARIS. — Paris -- One of the British historian Arnold Toynbee's theories was that a nation or people put to an extraordinary test may succeed at a cost that effectively exhausts it, leaving it slave to the challenge. It cannot get beyond.
Among his examples were the Eskimos, pre-modern Polynesians, and Asia's nomads. Their audacity in mastering hostile environments left them prisoners of the rigid routines necessary to survival in the Arctic, in Pacific coral archipelagoes, and the steppe and desert.
A political analogy exists. Vietnam provides the dramatic example. It brilliantly but bloodily succeeded in all that its nationalist communist leaders set out to do. But it has been politically stalemated ever since, unable to go beyond the victory.
Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has just announced sweeping changes in its Politburo, bringing younger officials into the leadership, more of them southerners than before. The party's 7th Congress at the end of June also removed from office a man who once obsessed Washington, and before that the French high command in Paris and Hanoi, Vo Nguyen Giap -- General Giap -- the revolutionary strategist and commander who defeated France at Dienbienphu and went on to force a politico-psychological defeat on the United States.
The party, though, remains the slave of his victories, ending its DTC congress in a reaffirmation that ''our party and our people will follow the way of socialism, of Ho Chi Minh, as the sole correct way.'' Thus the Vietnamese march on through material austerities and moral wasteland, toward the ever-delayed dawn promised them by socialism, when man will lay his burdens down and find happiness. (A character in Umberto Eco's novel, ''Foucault's Pendulum,'' says of Marxism, ''yes, . . . an apocalyptic cult that came out of the Trier region. Am I right?'' This certainly will be history's judgment.)
Vietnam's audacity was to defeat two great powers of the West and then take on China (whom the two great powers of the West mistakenly believed the force behind what the Vietnamese did.) Confronted with Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge a deviant apocalyptic sect, of Trier origin by way of Paris university faculties), the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and took that over. They humbled China in the 1979 border war that followed.
They did all this and it took them nowhere. The truth is that the Vietnamese would have been better to have gone on acquiescing in French colonialism during the 1940s and 1950s. They undoubtedly would nonetheless be free today, just as all the other European colonies were eventually given independence. With their demonstrated abilities and determination the Vietnamese could have constructed as rich and dynamic a modern society as the Japanese have done.
However, the political analogy to Toynbee's challenge-and-response in societies can only go so far. The Vietnamese are not imprisoned by climate, like the Eskimo, or by an environmental challenge they cannot escape, like the Polynesians and nomads. They merely are slaves of a bad and false idea. Yet it could take another change of political generations before the Vietnamese are able to terminate their slavery, and close their accounts with communism.
Even that might not be the end. Consider the European 1920s, when national societies that had exhausted themselves in what proved to have been the meaningless struggle of World War I were awakened from their coma by Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, all offering rationales for what had happened and new promises of a meaningful future.
China obviously is in the same condition as Vietnam. The Soviet Union would seem a more hopeful case, because the Soviet elite, on its own initiative, has confronted the waste and its cause. It has since been attempting, not very successfully, to reconstruct its society.
One can argue that the U.S.S.R.'s problems are good problems because they arise from a recognition of reality and make up a constructive reaction. The problems of Vietnam -- and China -- are bad problems because they are part of a system of lies and illusion still to be confronted.
It is a system in which it is necessary to say that the United States and France were fatefully implicated as well. We, in our ways, demonstrated a belief in communism just as formidable as the Vietnamese belief, and thus we contributed to validating it for the Vietnamese. Testament to that are 54,000 American dead in the Korean War and the 60,000 in Vietnam. The United States continues to be implicated. A factor in Vietnam's situation is the rigid hostility practiced by Washington ever since the victory of General Giap. Beliefs are harder to bury than men and women.
8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.