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RUMMEL & TURNER: Real lessons of Vietnam
Question of the Day
Virtually every major U.S. commitment of military force abroad in the last 35 years has been compared to our tragic experience in Indochina that ended in communist victories in April 1975. Everyone seems anxious to learn “lessons” from that debacle, but until we understand what actually transpired that will be a difficult task.
The most common lessons are but myths. Certainly it is truly important to have the support of Congress and the American people before going to war, but in 1955 the Senate consented to the ratification of the SEATO Treaty committing the United States to protecting South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia with but a single dissenting vote.
In August 1964, Congress reaffirmed that commitment by statute authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to use military force to stop communist aggression in Indochina by a margin of 99.6 percent - and both dissenters lost their next elections. LBJ’s public approval rating in the Gallup Polls shot up 58 percent when he first bombed North Vietnam in 1964.
Then there are the lessons about Vietnam being a “quagmire” the United States could not win. To be sure, there was a learning curve that was greatly exacerbated by civilian micromanagement of the military under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; but (press accounts to the contrary) the 1968 Tet Offensive was a tremendous military defeat for the enemy and by 1972 the military war was essentially won by South Vietnam and the United States both on the ground in South Vietnam and in the air over the North.
What went wrong? Congressional liberals and gullible antiwar protesters were deceived by a very effective political warfare (propaganda) campaign out of Hanoi and Moscow into believing American troops were the “bad guys” in Indochina. And in 1973 Congress passed a law making it unlawful for the president to expend Treasury funds for combat activities anywhere in Indochina. In snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Congress betrayed the sacrifice of 58,260 Americans who died as a result of that war and betrayed a solemn promise embodied by treaty, statute, and in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural pledge that America would “oppose any foe” for the cause of human freedom.
Is so doing, congressional liberals paved the way for the greatest democide of the 20th century on a per capita basis. Hundreds of thousands in South Vietnam who had trusted America’s promises were executed, died in concentration camps, or died at sea as “boat people” trying to flee the Stalinist tyranny Congress imposed upon tens of millions in South Vietnam. In neighboring Cambodia, where the congressional prohibition against defending our allies brought to power Pol Pot’s “Red Cambodians” (Khmer Rouge), the estimates of the number murdered vary. Yale University’s award-winning Cambodia Genocide Program estimates 1.7 million were slaughtered - more than 20 percent of the population. “The Black Book of Communism” and “Death By Government” give somewhat higher estimates.
Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin is said to have remarked that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Americans sometimes have difficulty comprehending hundreds of thousands of human beings dying in a famine, much less being intentionally murdered in far-off places by evil people. The horror of the Cambodian “killing fields” was captured well in a 2004 issue of National Geographic Today: “Bullets were too precious to use for executions. Axes, knives and bamboo sticks were far more common. As for children, their murderers simply battered them against trees.”
Of course, the human consequences of the 1973 congressional decision to abandon America’s solemn commitment to defend victims of communist aggression did not stop in Indochina. Emboldened by America’s vacillation and self-doubt, Moscow transported tens of thousands of Cuban troops to Angola (and other parts of southern Africa), where civil war claimed another half-million human beings, unleashed communist revolutionary movements in Central America, and invaded Afghanistan (where another million people perished and the Taliban was born).
Congressional efforts to undermine the 1982-83 international peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon, persuaded our radical Islamic adversaries that America was “short of breath” and led directly to the Oct. 23, 1983, terrorist bombing that killed 241 sleeping Marines. In 1998, Osama bin Laden told an ABC News reporter that the American retreat from Lebanon following that attack proved America could not accept casualties - an observation that presumably played a role in bin Laden’s decision to launch the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As we enter the political silly season to select our next president, we should keep in mind the painful lessons of the Vietnam tragedy. For if our politicians signal our current adversaries that America is weak, vacillating and lacks the will to defend its interests and keep its word, the human costs we will face around the globe and in this country as well may quickly dwarf the millions who were slaughtered when congressional liberals betrayed our commitment to protect Indochina 35 years ago.
R.J. Rummel is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and author of “Death By Government,” “Power Kills” and many other books about war, peace and conflict resolution. Robert F. Turner traveled extensively through Indochina between 1968 and 1975 as a soldier and scholar, and is the author of “Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development” and more than a dozen other books. He continues to teach a University of Virginia graduate seminar on the war.
By Orrin G. Hatch
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