Here’s a novel idea for John Kerry and all those who gravitate comfortably toward the notion that Iraq is going to be “another Vietnam.”
Who says we lost the Vietnam War in the first place?
America considers itself the “loser” in Vietnam because, after nearly two decades of engagement, we pulled out all our troops in 1973, only to see the North Vietnamese overrun the South. True enough, we “lost” in the sense that the followers of Ho Chi Minh achieved their long-sought goal of unifying the country under Communism.
But that only considers short-term objectives. What was our overall goal in Vietnam? It was to block the advance of Communism in Southeast Asia and halt the spread of Marxism all over the world. We won that war hands down. And we won in large part because we resisted North Vietnam’s takeover of the South for so long. We showed other Asian countries that Communism could be resisted and gave them time to shore up their defenses. Except for Cambodia, which represented the last, ghoulish expiration of Asian Marxism, no other country fell to guerrillas.
Look at the map today. Vietnam is an island of poverty in a sea of rising free-market countries. The Vietnamese themselves are trying to join the world trading economy as fast as they can. Their handicap is that they spent 40 years building a totalitarian dictatorship that they still find difficult to dismantle. Far from being the “vanguard” of Southeast Asia, Vietnam is now the rear guard.
Other Asian countries are prospering precisely to the degree they resisted Communism in the 1960s. The domino theory — forever derided by the intelligentsia of the era — was absolutely correct. Because they produce so little material satisfaction at home, Communist societies were always geared for conquest. Had the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon in 1965, they would have quickly spread their minions into Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia. A large Communist guerrilla movement was already operating in Thailand during the Vietnam War and that country would have been the next domino to fall.
Instead, because we stood our ground for ten years, these countries were able to stabilize themselves. The turning point came in 1966, when Indonesian’s PKI, the largest Communist party in the world outside Russian and China, tried to engineer a coup against President Sukarno. With American support, General Suharto, a leader of the military, beat back the attempt in the “Year of Living Dangerously.” The bloodshed was appalling — an estimated 500,000 to 1 million killed — and General Suharto turned out to be just another right-wing authoritarian. But freedom was set in motion.Today Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic democracy.
The important thing is that the Communist tide was stemmed. Before Suharto’s coup, Indonesian soldiers were already engaging British and Malaysian soldiers in a contest for Singapore. Had Communism won the day in Indonesia, it is doubtful that any of the “Asian tigers” would exist today.
The Vietnam War, of course, was fought in the shadow of the Cold War. Half the world’s people were already under Communism. The Soviet Union had enough nuclear arms to destroy us seven times over and China was poised with millions of foot soldiers waiting to cross the border as they had in Korea. Those who think we could have won the war if we had just bombed Hanoi a little harder consistently ignore the threat of a wider war.
As it happened, President Nixon initiated his rapprochement with China well before we left Vietnam. This severely curtailed the chances of any Long March through Southeast Asia. The only domino that fell was Cambodian, where the Khmer Rouge created such hell on earth that the Vietnamese felt compelled to expel them in 1978. Meantime, Vietnam was purging the Boat People, the more-than-a-million ethnic Chinese whose mistreatment so angered the Chinese that they invaded North Vietnam in 1979. Southeast Asian Communism eventually choked on its own vomit.
So we did not “win” the Vietnam War in the sense that we ended up taking control of the region. Nor did we prevent another of the holocausts that were such a normal part of Communism. (The Chinese and Russians killed countless more in subjecting their own peasantries.) But we did prevent Communism from spreading beyond the old French Indo-China. That was our objective. Having been stalled, Communism was set up for the knockout blow when President Ronald Reagan went on the offensive in the 1980s.
It’s an important lesson to remember in Iraq. We’re not there to kill Mujahedin or take Fallujah or secure oil fields — although any of those might surely help. We are there to set up stable democratic systems in the Middle East.
We held the line against militant Communism and we can do the same against militant Islam. Presidential nominee John Kerry was part of it. He can feel proud of his country.