Adm. Jeremiah A. Denton Jr. is a true American hero. The former senator, retired admiral and naval aviator spent almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, half of that time in solitary confinement. When forced by his captors to do a television interview in 1966, he blinked the word “torture” in Morse code. He’s the kind of man Washington leaders might want to listen to more carefully than the average purveyor of foreign-policy wisdom.
Adm. Denton’s classic account of his experiences, “When Hell Was in Session,” is being re-released today, updated with a new epilogue. In part, Adm. Denton seeks to “correct some of the mythology of the Vietnam War.” The version of the war that has come down through pop culture, the media and history books is fatally flawed - and those flaws may well be informing critical decisions at the White House.
Adm. Denton argues that the biggest myth, and the central argument of the antiwar left, is that the Vietnam War was unjust. The concurrent myth is that the war was not winnable.
President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara did the right thing but were not good war leaders. They did not conduct the kind of war that would lead to victory. Yet the United States actually won the war militarily during the Nixon administration by escalating the conflict. Concerted strategic bombing “destroyed the North Vietnamese means of continuing their war,” and new strategies pacified South Vietnam.
The war was lost not on the ground, but in D.C. backrooms. The North Vietnamese signed a peace agreement they had no intention of honoring, and when they renewed the war with the South, the liberal Democratic Congress deserted America’s allies in Saigon. The end followed swiftly. “It was one of the gravest sacrileges committed in American international affairs,” Adm. Denton said.
Adm. Denton said that the Vietnam conflict carries important lessons for Afghanistan. President Obama doesn’t deserve criticism for taking his time. The right course of action “can only be logically determined after examining the full situation.” But as in the Johnson period in Vietnam, the United States faces some leadership deficiencies. “Unfortunately, the president and Congress don’t know much about war,” he said. The president should “realize his shortcomings and listen to the experts.”
The most important consideration should be persistence, the “determination to see it all the way through.” Soldiers on the ground should get what they need to finish the mission. “The worst thing we can do is leave troops there who can’t fulfill their objectives,” he said.
But the United States cannot solve the world’s problems through force alone or be seen only as a military power. “Humanitarian aid is part of our national security,” he said. To promote his vision of values-based policies, he founded the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation, which seeks to distribute humanitarian aid abroad and to work to return the United States to the fundamental founding principle of “One Nation Under God.”
His message to the troops overseas was that they did not need his advice, “they are conducting themselves famously.” Rather, it is up to the country to support the men and women in uniform with better pay, medical care and other means of support. “They will be veterans for life,” he said, “and the defense of our freedoms rests in their capable hands.”