Political Hay

Getting Vietnam Right

The line between appeasement and self-delusion is very thin.

By 8.30.07

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In the past week, the criticisms swirling around the President's VFW speech have provided much less insight into the President or the speech than into the critics. Rather than address the speech's central issue -- the 1975 debate over the ramifications of abandoning Vietnam -- these individuals have tried to push their own views on Iraq by mentioning other aspects of Vietnam. Emblematic of the attackers was Senator John Kerry, who said that the President's comparison of Vietnam with Iraq was "irresponsible" and "ignorant of the realities of both of those wars." Kerry explained that in Iraq, as in Vietnam, "more American soldiers are being sent to fight and die in a civil war we can't stop and an insurgency we can't bomb into submission." Senator Ted Kennedy, another opponent of both wars, backed this interpretation with the comment that the United States lost the Vietnam War because the South Vietnamese government "lacked sufficient legitimacy with its people."

Kerry and Kennedy missed key facts about Vietnam, some of them long obvious, others newly emerged from historical studies. The New York Times and NBC News and CNN and so on missed them, too, because they chose to rely on outdated historians or their own prejudices. The insurgency in Vietnam was dead by 1971, thanks to South Vietnam's armed forces, America's forces, and a South Vietnamese civilian population that overwhelmingly viewed the South Vietnamese government as legitimate. During 1972, after all American combat units had departed, South Vietnamese forces defeated a massive North Vietnamese invasion with the help of American air power. The so-called Christmas bombing of 1972 bombed North Vietnam into submission, resulting in a peace treaty. Had the antiwar Congress not slashed aid to South Vietnam and prohibited the use of American aircraft over Vietnamese skies, the South Vietnamese probably could have repulsed the North Vietnamese when they violated the peace treaty in 1975.

The statements of Kerry and Kennedy lure the public's gaze away from the speech's main point -- that antiwar Americans believed that the Vietnamese and Cambodian people would stop suffering if America stopped supporting the anti-Communist forces. It is very much in the Senators' interests, for both espoused this view during the war. In his famous Dick Cavett Show appearance, Kerry said, "There is no interest on the part of the North Vietnamese to try to massacre the people once people have agreed to withdraw." In early 1975, Kennedy objected to President Ford's request of $300 million in military aid for South Vietnam and $220 million for Cambodia by arguing that this aid would "fuel the war."
Another scathing critic of the VFW speech who held such views in 1975 is Stanley Karnow, author of an outdated but still widely read history of the Vietnam War. "The 'loss' of Cambodia," Karnow said, would be "the salvation of the Cambodians." Senator Christopher Dodd, then a member of the House, claimed in 1975, "The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now."

Similar comments have recently been heard on Iraq from John Murtha and Bill Richardson and other Democrats. Until recently, they were heard from many more, but some Party leaders have had the sense to recognize that hasty withdrawal would entail exorbitant human and strategic costs and that cutting aid to besieged allies would put blame for the disaster onto the cutters.

Today's Congressional Democrats are relying heavily on another talking point of their Vietnam-era predecessors -- that if they controlled the White House, they could quickly negotiate an end to the war. Democrats then and now believed they would succeed on account of their diplomatic skills, their goodwill, and their recognition that aggressive U.S. military action discourages the enemy from negotiating. Recent revelations from the Vietnamese Communist side have done grievous injury to these notions. When America shied from tough military action -- in 1964, 1968, and 1975 -- Hanoi tried to win the war rapidly by military means. When America and South Vietnam employed their military power effectively -- in 1963 and 1972 -- the North Vietnamese developed a serious interest in negotiations.

In response to the President's comments about abandoning Vietnam, some have argued that abandonment was not that important because Vietnam is now a nice capitalist country. This argument shows a callousness toward the loss of human life (in the late 1970s) and the harsh repression of political dissent (from 1975 to today) that is thoroughly out of keeping with how these people normally view international affairs. Hysterical hatred of the Iraq War and President Bush seems the only possible explanation for such an inconsistency. The present-day capitalist economy of Vietnam, moreover, is not reason to doubt the wisdom of U.S. involvement. Instead, it is reason to doubt the wisdom of North Vietnamese involvement. While America was fighting for capitalism in South Vietnam, North Vietnam was fighting to destroy it.

It is also a mistake to assert, as many have asserted in recent days, that the United States never should have intervened in Vietnam in the first place because Vietnam was predestined to become capitalist. In my research, I found that American intervention in Vietnam saved Indonesia from going Communist in 1965. It probably also prevented countries such as Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia from becoming Communist or pro-Communist. Furthermore, American intervention fractured the Sino-North Vietnamese alliance and tamed China. In the absence of these developments, socialism might well have persisted in Vietnam and other Asian countries to this day.

President Bush has shown that he is up to speed on the latest historical discoveries on Vietnam. Those who are inclined to disagree should first get up to speed themselves.

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About the Author

Mark Moyar is the author of two books on the Vietnam War.