Vietnam: 45 years later


It doesn’t show what you may have thought it did. 

The photo and explanation:

How should we remember this war?  Are there any lessons worth paying attention to without getting into the: if we had only done (fill in the blank) we would have won useless debate?

First, the underlying justification for the war was not critically examined at the time.

Always question your justifications for any potential use of violent force elsewhere.

Second, while the Vietnam War does not permit specific lessons, it should lead us to consider two key principles.  A) The importance of local forces in conflicts.  The above justification was not appropriate.  The Vietnamese were not ever going to be an existential threat to the U.S. or even anything beyond the former French Indochina.

In this regard, I recall reading Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s memoir. In it, he debated whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or a communist.  He did not consider that he was both and thus made an incorrect assumption that as a communist Ho had to be part of the international communist conspiracy directed from Moscow.  He could not see that Ho’s goal was to make Vietnam independent and he had sought U.S. help to do that in a letter he sent, based on the advice of his O.S.S. advisors, to President Truman.  That letter apparently never got to Truman.  We had no one in the upper reaches of our government who knew Ho.

Instead of seeing Ho Chi Minh for who he was, the U.S. misinterpreted him as an agent of communism directed from Moscow.  Yes, he had studied there, but he was not their agent.  Later, LBJ saw Ho as being directed by China.  Yes, he had Chinese advisors, but he did not take their advice on several key occasions.  Ho directed an independence movement and was going to use the Russians and the Chinese to help him be successful against the U.S.  He had not wanted their aid but saw no other option than to use it once Ike created South Vietnam.

B) There were and are limits to American power.  The U.S. was not ever going to be able to set up a lasting non-communist regime in South Vietnam or create a viable alternative regime to Saddam’s or to the Taliban.  The locals would and did resent our intrusion.  Containment yes, invasion no.  It was and is hard to admit there are limits to what we can/should do.

We had created a weak client in South Vietnam that could never achieve our ambitions for it.  We faced a determined foe who was willing to take enormous casualties to achieve independence.  Don’t ever underestimate your foe.  The U.S. could not imagine losing to a third world insurgency, but we did.

The U.S. had been so successful it was hard to imagine that our power had limits and that we could lose.  Still, many believe we should have won if only we had done______________(fill in the blank).  But, the North Vietnamese were not going to quit.  Have we resolved the issues that led to Al Qaeda or ISIS or Shiite Iran?  Should it be up to us to do that?  No. 

Since the Soviets collapsed, we have been overly tempted to use the military because we don’t have a relatively equal adversary.  This was predicted then and it has sure come to pass.  J.W. Fulbright’s The Arrogance of Power is still a cautionary warning.  Our military involvement in the Middle East led us to forsake our commitments to the rule of law, prudence, ethics, and more.  To defeat the jihadists, who never were an existential threat, we became like them.  Once W. signed an order that terrorists would not have any rights, excesses in their treatment were likely to take place.

Declaring a “war on terror” was much too broad a “goal”, and thus not capable of being achieved.

NIetzche aptly warned that if one is going to confront a monster, you have to be careful you don’t become like the monster.  Having read accounts of what happened at the “black sites” for alleged terrorists after we invaded Iraq without being invited, we became like the monster.  

Just as the photo above has been misunderstood so has our former war in Vietnam.  It still haunts us and the Vietnamese.  Go to the Vietnam memorial in D.C.  Feel its presence, touch it.  I have several times and it has always been a deeply emotional experience.  We can’t go back and change anything done in that war, but we can be more careful in the future.  I don’t have much faith that we will.