No More Vietnams: This time, let's finish the job

The United States has no tradition of running away. The left had better get this straight: Vietnam was an aberration. There will be no more Vietnams.



David Gelernter’s No More Vietnams is worth reading and bookmarking. There is an accurate history of Vietnam, and it is nothing like the New York Times version. The latter version has informed most of the media reportage since Vietnam and Watergate, often inverting true and false.

NOT LONG AGO RICHARD COHEN of the Washington Post wrote a column about Iraq headlined “As in Vietnam, dereliction of duty all over again.” The Vietnam analogy has been part of the Iraq war story since the fighting started (in fact, since before it started). The Bush administration often deals with its critics by ignoring them. This time it can’t. Too much rides on the president looking these critics in the eye and telling them: Damned right this is Vietnam all over again. Only this time we will not get scared and walk out in the middle. This time we will stand fast, and repair a piece of the American psyche that has been damaged and hurting ever since we ran from Vietnam in disgrace way back in April 1975.

Of course any citizen is welcome to criticize the conduct of any war–tactfully, without giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Maybe we are doing things all wrong in Iraq. But those who launch the Vietnam analogy at the administration are lobbing heavy artillery for a different reason. They are predicting (with obnoxious schadenfreude) that Iraq will turn out like Vietnam in the end: We will proclaim ourselves beaten, give up, and go home. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we will do the intelligent and humane thing and surrender.

These critics ought to be told firmly that Iraq is indeed another Vietnam. Once again we are in the middle of cleaning out one of the world’s ugliest abscesses, which turns out (again) to be infected and putrefying.

In Iraq as in Vietnam, the government gave the American people an unrealistic estimate of how hard the war would be. Both times it was an honest but costly mistake, which could probably have been avoided.

In Iraq as in Vietnam, it’s impossible to say whether our intervention was justified by self-interest. (Churchill: “It is not given to the cleverest and most calculating of mortals to know with certainty what is their interest. Yet it is given to quite a lot of simple folk to know every day what is their duty.”) In Iraq as in Vietnam, we have promised to rescue a suffering people from its tormentors. (Our duty was not to plant democracy in Iraq; our duty was to put an end to unbearable suffering. But planting democracy seemed like the only way to accomplish this goal, unless we were bucking for a new colony.) In Iraq as in Vietnam, the fighting is ugly and bloody. But in Iraq, unlike Vietnam, we will stay until we are finished.

Not many nations get a second chance to show the world and themselves that they are serious after all, that their friends can trust them and their enemies ought to fear them. There is no way we can atone for the blood and death we inflicted (indirectly) on South Vietnam by abandoning it to Communist tyranny. That failure can never be put right. But we can make clear that “No More Vietnams” is a Republican slogan. It means that we will never again go back on our word and betray our friends, our soldiers, and ourselves.

[…]

THOSE WHO THINK that “no more Vietnams” means that cowardice is the better part of wisdom don’t know their Vietnam history either. There are many important lies in circulation about Vietnam, like counterfeit $50 bills that keep resurfacing. Those who held these views during the war itself weren’t liars; in most cases they were telling the truth as they understood it. But decades later, it requires an act of will to keep one’s ignorance pristine.

Lie #1: We were wrong to fight the Vietnamese Communists in the first place; they only wanted what was best for their country. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz summarizes Vietnam after the Communist victory. He quotes the liberal New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, outspoken critic of the war, on its aftermath. “What Vietnam has given us instead of a bloodbath [is] a vast tide of human misery in southeast Asia.” He quotes Truong Nhu Tang, minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government that ruled South Vietnam after the Americans were ordered by Congress to run away: “Never has any previous regime [previous to the Communists] brought such masses of people to such desperation. Not the military dictators, not the colonialists, not even the ancient Chinese overlords.” Prominent South Vietnamese were thrown into prison and tortured with revoltingly inventive cruelty. Virtually the whole South Vietnamese army and government were herded into concentration camps. Tang fled Vietnam in 1979, one of untold thousands who put to sea in crowded, rickety boats. Anything to get free of Communist Vietnam, the workers’ and peasants’ paradise, Fonda-land by the Sea. In Vietnam, as everywhere else on earth, communism was another word for death.

Lie #2: The Vietnam war was unwinnable. We had no business sending our men to a war they were bound to lose. The Communist Vietcong launched their first major coordinated offensive in January 1968–the “Tet offensive.” “Tet was a military disaster for Hanoi,” writes the historian Derek Leebaert. “Intended to destroy South Vietnamese officialdom and spark a popular uprising, Tet ironically had more of an effect in turning South Vietnam’s people against the North.” But America had been fighting ineffectively. In May 1968, Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as supreme American commander in Vietnam and U.S. strategy snapped to, immediately. With Abrams in charge, the war “was being won on the ground,” writes the historian Lewis Sorley, “even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress.” The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson commented on America’s “Christmas bombing” campaign of 1972, which devastated the North: “You had won the war. It was over.” American anti-warriors insisted on losing it anyway.

Lie #3: As the American people learned the facts, they turned against the war and forced America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Actually, Americans continued to support the war nearly until the end. The 1972 presidential election was a referendum on the war; “Come home, America!” said the antiwar Democrat George McGovern–and he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Of all U.S. population segments, 18-to-24-year-old men–who were subject to the draft, who did the fighting–were consistently the war’s strongest supporters. “It was not the American people which lost its stomach,” writes historian Paul Johnson, “it was the American leadership.”

Lie #4: The real heroes of Vietnam were the protesters and draft-resisters who forced America to give up a disastrously wrong policy. If this was heroism, it was dirt cheap heroism. While college students paraded and protested and whooped it up, America’s working classes bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding, and dying. Around 80 percent of the 2.5 million enlisted men who fought in Vietnam came from poor or working class families. They lacked the law-breaking and draft-evading skills that their better-educated countrymen could draw on. And they lacked the heart to say no when their country called. Reread Norman Mailer’s gorgeously written yet (like the smell of marijuana) faintly disgusting Armies of the Night, about a massive antiwar march on the Pentagon. You will learn or relearn all about the passionate ingenuity of left-wing lawyers fighting for clients they admired–who were innately superior to the law but scared of the consequences when they broke it.

UPDATE: Scott Johnson has a very resource-rich post Give War a Chance on the same general topic of true and accurate history versus the distorted media version of history. RTWT for sure.

Vietnam Reevaluated – The Isolation of the Old Radical Left

David Horowitz and Ben Johnson document the remarkable inability of the radical left to reevaluate their histories (May 4, 2005).

In contrast to Sheer and Jensen, Horowitz/Johnson know their history – you really have to read the whole thing to appreciate the contrast between sloppy and careful:

Robert Jensen vibrantly illustrated the mindset of America’s fifth column Left when he wrote, “The United States has lost the war in Iraq, and that’s a good thing.” Jensen and his fellow ideologues do not wish for “peace” but the triumph of America’s enemies. Yesterday, L.A. Times columnist Robert Scheer extended this animus 30 years into the past, exulting over America’s lone military defeat in South Vietnam. “Sometimes it is better to lose,” Scheer wrote in his latest broadside against reality and human decency, entitled, “Our Loss was Our Gain in Vietnam.”

…How can a man so innocent of the history of his own era and so complicit in its crimes be a powerful columnist at one of America’s most important newspapers, not to mention a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications? (And what does that tell you about the times we live in?)

Scheer began his career with a 1961 book defending Fidel Castro and was the Cuban dictator’s chosen publisher of Ché Guevara’s diaries. Scheer’s history of support for Communist revolutionaries (not nationalists or pragmatists) stretches back 40 years and began with his Cuban romance.

… So Scheer is well aware that Communism was a messianic creed and an imperialist enterprise and one that the North Vietnamese Communists shared. But acknowledging this would prevent him from writing yet another column (he has written them before) on how it would be good thing for America to lose its wars with totalitarian enemies. But this is the very column that Scheer has been writing for the last three years about America’s war against the Islamic totalitarians in Iraq – another nation in which French self-interest left the United States to take care of a murderous autocrat they kept in power. Plus ça change….

I recently finished reading David Horowitz’s “Unholy Alliance : Radical Islam and the American Left”. I hope to write a review soon – this is an excellent analysis of how the radical left have evolved from supporting Soviet socialism to supporting Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremists.

Vietnam Reevaluated – Consequences

R.J. Rummel is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii. Thanks again to VietPundit who provided the reference to Rummel’s 19 April, 2005 essay on the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Rummel’s “Democratic Peace” website is another excellent Vietnam-era research node.

A Democratic Peace excerpt, giving a concise summary of the true history:

In spite of the continued public support (as polls at the time showed) for our staying the course in Vietnam, and even though the war had been in effect won militarily, the alliance between the left, communists, Democrats, and major media forced an American military withdrawal from Vietnam, and a sharp decrease in aid to the South. Without sufficient American aid and support, the South collapsed under a conventional North Vietnam military offensive, and the North occupied and absorbed what had once been a sovereign country (no, it was not a civil war, but an invasion—the North and South had never been one country). Millions were killed and murdered before the United States turned tail to run off, and after the North’s victory, the killing did not stop. Hundreds of thousands were murdered — executed outright, or dying in “re-education camps,” and in the “new economic zones.” And never forget the over a million Vietnamese that risked an awful death on the ocean to escape the communists enslavement (the Boat People), of which perhaps 500,000 never made land again.

… The left seems not to care about such consequences. They opposed the war against the Afghan Taliban, and against Saddam Hussein. And even after both were defeated, in the face of terrorist attacks they wanted immediate withdrawal. I leave it to your imagination the resulting cost in blood of terrorist victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rarely reported by the legacy media is that more than half of the 4+ millon death toll resulting from the American retreat were in Cambodia.

Tabulation of Vietnam War and Post-War Dead (1954-1987)

What remains: Vietnam in my heart Pham Thi Hoà

Many thanks to VietPundit for referencing this English translation of an essay by Pham Thi Hoai. She was born and raised in communist North Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. She knows the reality of what the totalitarian regime did to the people and the country. She knows very well the price of the 30 years of tyranny that were enabled by the anti-war movement sponsored by John Kerry, Jane Fonda, et al. While I did not participate in the anti-war movement I share their guilt by tacit agreement with the abandonment policy of that period.

The Vietnam war did not result in the collapse of the United States. Rather, it led to the disappearance of the southern Republic of Vietnam, a nation that once dominated half of the country and which was no less legitimate than its brother in the north.

After liberation, however, southern society was subjected to intense repression: prison, concentration camp, the seizure of property, discrimination against bi-racial children, the purge of intellectuals, the destruction and prohibition of southern culture, the complete erasure of numerous careers and many lives. These are not the actions of righteous winners. Nor are they evidence of the superiority of the new regime in relation to its recently vanquished enemy.

Thirty years after the war, the country has never once acknowledged the painful exodus of almost 1 million southern Vietnamese, the “boat people”. It is as if they are no longer Vietnamese and have been excommunicated from the unified nation. It is as if the country belongs to only a single group of Vietnamese but not to another. It is as if they believed that national feeling can grow naturally from out of a deep hole of division and hatred, like a rice plant growing out from a trench.

VietPundit is a wonderful resource on the history of modern Vietnam – the best single place I know of to start your research on one of the most significant pivot points in our recent history.

Vietnam Reevaluated – "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series

I went through under- and grad-school during the 1960’s. Like many of my peers, I thought the press coverage of Tet in 1968 supported the logic of the anti-Vietnam protestors. It never occurred to me not to trust the “mired in stalemate” interpretation of “the most trusted man in America” (the full text of Walter Cronkite’s 27 Feb, 1968 broadcast).

When the New York Times leaked the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971 doubts about the quality of government decision-making were compounded with the worry that high level officials were not telling the citizenry the truth. Then came Watergate. The result? For my entire adult life I have believed certain “facts” about the Vietnam era that were wrong. I’ll never know how many such “wrong facts” there are as it will take more effort than my motivator can supply.

Since 9/11 I’ve read more history than ever before. It has become increasingly clear that the North Vietnamese strategy – to destroy the will of the American public – succeeded. But, like today’s terrorists, that NV strategy was enabled by media reportage. Also like today, the misleading reportage was not some sort of left-conspiracy — people tried to do their job, but failed.

A few weeks ago Roger Simon recommended a series on the Boomer Generation reevaluation of assumptions by new-to-me blogger Neo-Neocon. I’ve been a keen reader of all of her writing since, especially the “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series. The anticipated “Part 4C (Vietnam–change and betrayal)” was just posted yesterday.

Why do you want to read neo-necon? Because she elegantly documents her own difficult process of reevaluation – it might well stimulate your own thinking.

Personally, I did not relish a review the history of politics and policy of the period surrounding the Vietnam war. You, dear Reader, may have a similar aversion. But the study I’ve invested so far has been productive. I learned something about the framework that guides so much contemporary discourse, discourse that otherwise doesn’t make sense.

The reader-of-the-whole thing will be amply rewarded. Here’s an appetizer from Part 4C:

But what if, at some time in the future, evidence surfaces that that hard-won knowledge may be wrong? How many people, having lost faith because of a betrayal, and having laboriously reconstructed a new worldview, can revise that worldview again? What if that worldview turns out to have been a house of cards? Who can stand two betrayals–trust having been placed in a rescuer, the press, who is now exposed as having been a liar and a betrayer, also? Who can return to believing that the government–although flawed (there is no returning to the initial state of naive, unquestioning trust)–is now to be trusted more than the press, after all?

For some, one betrayal is enough. They can’t even entertain the possibility of a second, or the idea that they may have come to incorrect conclusions about the first one. To say you’ve been wrong once is one thing; to go through it again (“fooled me twice”) is quite another. And the second time it is even worse, because this time you are older and more experienced, and should have known better.

So, just as some generals continue to fight the previous war, so do some people. Over and over.

Action

So far, I’ve talked mostly about cognition and feelings. But action also had its place in reactions to the Vietnam War. The behavior/action component, for those liberals who were not directly involved in the war itself (and that constitutes most of us), was the demonstration.

Getting together with like-minded people in organizations dedicated to stopping the war tended to reinforce the feeling of the rightness of the cause, in the usual way of groups. Ultimately, the actions of the antiwar liberals (and their far more extreme and far less numerous fellow-travelers, the leftists) had its effect: the withdrawal from Vietnam. And so, young liberals had the heady experience of affecting history at an early age–protests seemed to matter; they worked. Liberals considered this a success, perhaps their finest hour, something to be proud of for the rest of their lives. As I wrote here, the terrible scenes of the American withdrawal, the fall of Saigon, the reeducation camps, the boat people, the killing fields of Cambodia–all these things that came after gave pause to some of us, myself included. But rationalization is a powerful tool, and many of us were able to rationalize that it was not our fault because there had been no alternative, that this outcome was unevitable, and that the only thing that would have occurred had we stayed longer was more American deaths, and more Vietnamese deaths at American hands.

So the investment in believing this particular “narrative” of Vietnam was huge for liberals. As the years went by, decades of beliefs, affiliations, and activities were added to the mix, and the stakes grew even higher. To have disbelieved it all at some later date would have meant facing a profound disillusionment, not just with institutions such as the press and the government, but with the self itself.

The bitterness and polarization of that time had deep roots, as we discovered post-9/11. But that’s another story for another time.

In Part 4C I learned that I’ve been reading some of the same history as neo-neocon. I’ll try to cover some of these references soon.

Meanwhile, another highly recommended source is VietPundit, written by a Vietnamese-American who escaped from Vietnam in 1982. Enjoy!

Update: There is an excellent profile of Neo-Neocon by Norm Geras.

Vietnam: The War We Could Have Won

While it’s still difficult to uncover the truth of what happened in Vietnam, that may improve in the next few years as we gain access to the Communist archives, more documents are declassified, and a new generation of historians comes of age. The latter is important as they do not have a direct stake in the traditional narrative.

Based on the histories that I’ve found to date, it has been painful for me to learn that much of what I thought was true is false.

This New York Times May 1, 2005 op-ed by Stephen Morris is well worth a read. The essay is so concise I won’t attempt to summarize his points. The Vietnam history that Morris is writing is due out in 2007.

The War We Could Have Won

By STEPHEN J. MORRIS

THE Vietnam War is universally regarded as a disaster for what it did to the American and Vietnamese people. However, 30 years after the war’s end, the reasons for its outcome remain a matter of dispute.

The most popular explanation among historians and journalists is that the defeat was a result of American policy makers’ cold-war-driven misunderstanding of North Vietnam’s leaders as dangerous Communists. In truth, they argue, we were fighting a nationalist movement with great popular support. In this view, “our side,” South Vietnam, was a creation of foreigners and led by a corrupt urban elite with no popular roots. Hence it could never prevail, not even with a half-million American troops, making the war “unwinnable.”

This simple explanation is repudiated by powerful historical evidence, both old and new. Its proponents mistakenly base their conclusions on the situation in Vietnam during the 1950’s and early 1960’s and ignore the changing course of the war (notably, the increasing success of President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy) and the evolution of South Vietnamese society (in particular the introduction of agrarian reforms).

For all the claims of popular support for the Vietcong insurgency, far more South Vietnamese peasants fought on the side of Saigon than on the side of Hanoi. The Vietcong were basically defeated by the beginning of 1972, which is why the North Vietnamese launched a huge conventional offensive at the end of March that year. During the Easter Offensive of 1972 – at the time the biggest campaign of the war – the South Vietnamese Army was able to hold onto every one of the 44 provincial capitals except Quang Tri, which it regained a few months later. The South Vietnamese relied on American air support during that offensive.

If the United States had provided that level of support in 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed in the face of another North Vietnamese offensive, the outcome might have been at least the same as in 1972. But intense lobbying of Congress by the antiwar movement, especially in the context of the Watergate scandal, helped to drive cutbacks of American aid in 1974. Combined with the impact of the world oil crisis and inflation of 1973-74, the results were devastating for the south. As the triumphant North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Van Tien Dung, wrote later, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam was forced to fight “a poor man’s war.”

Even Hanoi’s main patron, the Soviet Union, was convinced that a North Vietnamese military victory was highly unlikely. Evidence from Soviet Communist Party archives suggests that, until 1974, Soviet military intelligence analysts and diplomats never believed that the North Vietnamese would be victorious on the battlefield. Only political and diplomatic efforts could succeed. Moscow thought that the South Vietnamese government was strong enough to defend itself with a continuation of American logistical support. The former Soviet chargé d’affaires in Hanoi during the 1970’s told me in Moscow in late 1993 that if one looked at the balance of forces, one could not predict that the South would be defeated. Until 1975, Moscow was not only impressed by American military power and political will, it also clearly had no desire to go to war with the United States over Vietnam. But after 1975, Soviet fear of the United States dissipated.

During the war the Soviets despised their North Vietnamese “friends” (the term of confidential bureaucratic reference, rather than “comrades”). Indeed, Henry A. Kissinger’s accounts of his dealings, as Nixon’s national security adviser, with President Thieu are models of respect when compared with the bitter Soviet accounts of their difficulties with their counterparts.

In secret internal reports, Hanoi-based Soviet diplomats regularly complained about the deceitfulness of the North Vietnamese, who concealed strategic planning from their more powerful patron. In a 1972 report to Moscow, the Soviet ambassador even complained that although Marshal Pavel Batitsky, commander of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, had visited Hanoi earlier that year and completed a major military aid agreement, North Vietnamese leaders did not inform him of the imminent launch date of their Easter Offensive.

What is also clear from Soviet archival sources is that those who believed that North Vietnam had more than national unification on its mind were right: Its leaders were imbued with a sense of their ideological mission – not only to unify Vietnam under Communist Party rule, but also to support the victory of Communists in other nations. They saw themselves as the outpost of world revolution in Southeast Asia and desired to help Communists in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere.

Soviet archives show that after the war ended in 1975, with American power in retreat, Hanoi used part of its captured American arsenal to support Communist revolutions around the world. In 1980 some of these weapons were shipped via Cuba to El Salvador. This dimension of Vietnamese behavior derived from a deep commitment to the messianic internationalism of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Vietnam today is not the North Vietnam of 1955, 1965 or 1975. Like post-Mao China it has retreated from totalitarianism to authoritarianism. It has reformed its economy and its foreign policy to become more integrated into the world. But those changes were not inevitable and would not necessarily have occurred had Mikhail Gorbachev not ascended to power in Moscow, and had the Soviet Union and its empire not collapsed. Nor would these changes necessarily have occurred had China not provided a new cultural model for Vietnam to follow, as it has for centuries.

Precisely because Vietnam has changed for the better, we need to recognize what a profoundly ideological and aggressive totalitarian regime we faced three, four and five decades ago. And out of respect for the evidence of history, we need to recognize what happened in the 1970’s and why.

In 1974-75, the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hundreds of thousands of our Vietnamese allies were incarcerated, and more than a million driven into exile. The awesome image of the United States was diminished, and its enemies were thereby emboldened, drawing the United States into new conflicts by proxy in Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America. And the bitterness of so many American war veterans, who saw their sacrifices so casually demeaned and unnecessarily squandered, haunts American society and political life to this day.

Stephen J. Morris, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, is writing a book on the Vietnam War in the Nixon years.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company