Today marks the 31st anniversary of that shameful day Col. Bui Tin led a column of North Vietnamese tanks into Saigon to complete the military conquest of South Vietnam. It didn’t have to happen, and many contemporary critics of our involvement in Iraq are drawing the wrong “lessons” from that experience.
One of the most common myths is that President Johnson took America to war without congressional or popular support. Actually, Johnson sent combat units to Vietnam pursuant to a 1964 statute approved by a margin of more than 99 percent of Congress (which, on its own initiative, more than tripled his appropriations request) — and Johnson’s Gallup Poll approval rating shot up from 55 percent to 85 percent.
Another widely accepted misconception is that the war could not have been won. To be sure, there was a learning curve associated with guerrilla tactics, and the arrogant incompetence of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara — who ignored the consistent warnings from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA that his strategy of “gradualism” could not win and was actually encouraging the enemy — cost a lot of lives.
But, as Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis observed last year in Foreign Affairs, historians now acknowledge we were winning the war by the early 1970s. Even more remarkably, this is admitted by Col. Bui Tin and other former North Vietnamese and Viet Cong officials. Their only hope, in the final years, was that Jane Fonda and the American “peace” movement would persuade Congress to pull the plug, which it did in May 1973. In a very real sense, a misguided Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina.
Perhaps the most alarming myth is that there was no reason for America to go to war in Indochina in the first place, and the entire experience was based on “lies.” I remember as a staff member sitting on a couch in the Senate chamber and listening to Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, denounce the State Department for alleging that the “National Liberation Front” in South Vietnam was controlled by Hanoi.
In his view, Vietnam was merely a “civil war” in which America was on the wrong side. I don’t believe he has commented on the May 1984 Vietnam Courier article out of Hanoi that brags about the Party’s May 1959 decision to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and send tens of thousands of armed forces south to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. I documented that decision in my 1975 book, “Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development,” along with refuting the silly idea the NLF was independent of Hanoi.
Stopping communist aggression in Indochina was important, as the war was viewed around the world as a test case about whether America could effectively deal with the threat of “national liberation wars.”
In 1964, China was providing arms, training and money to “national liberation” movements, not only throughout Indochina but also in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and as far away as Mozambique. Central Committee Vice Chairman Lin Biao repeatedly emphasized the importance of Vietnam for the future of world revolution, arguing a communist victory would show Third World revolutionaries everywhere that “what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.” Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara argued that a U.S. defeat in Indochina would greatly further the cause of revolution in the Americas.
By delaying the communist victory a decade, we bought time for the dramatic upheaval in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. By 1975 China was no longer supporting revolutionary movements around the globe. Had we simply abandoned Indochina in 1965, we might have found ourselves confronting a dozen new “Vietnams” in Africa, Asia and Latin America — wars we could not have won. The outcome of the Cold War might well have been different.
Obviously, such pronouncements involve a great deal of speculation. But one aspect is absolutely clear. The critics who marched in the streets or gave angry speeches in Congress were terribly wrong when they alleged that ending aid to the people of Indochina would promote human rights and “stop the killing.”
Today, communist Vietnam remains on the Freedom House list of “the worst of the worst” human rights violators in the world. And according to the highly respected Yale University Cambodian Genocide Project, more than 20 percent of the people of Cambodia — about 1.7 million human beings, or more than died in combat during the previous 14 years of war — were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge after seizing power in 1975. Witnesses report that, to save bullets, tiny children were often dispatched by smashing their bodies against trees.
America went into Vietnam with an overwhelming consensus that it was important to contain communist aggression. But after years of being told the president had “lied” about the reason for the war, we were violating international law, our troops were regularly committing atrocities, and our allies were far from perfect, the American people became confused and largely abandoned the political playing field to the anti-Vietnam militants, who prevailed in the end.
When President George W. Bush was still governor of Texas, a unanimous Senate and a 90 percent majority in the House passed the “Iraq Liberation Act of 1998” declaring it should be U.S. policy “to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” Every senior Clinton administration national security official called for removing Saddam and echoed the numerous, unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions declaring Saddam’s regime a “threat to the peace.” In 2003, America went to war pursuant to a statute approved by more than 70 percent of Congress and supported by 73 percent of the American people.
But now that our troops and national credibility have once again been committed, we get a replay of the Vietnam mantra: The president “lied” to trick us into going to war, our soldiers are committing “war crimes,” and we must stop this immoral, illegal war now. Virtually no one truly objects to the fact that the National Security Agency is monitoring communications between al Qaeda operatives abroad and people inside this country, but many become frightened when critics tell us this means the president believes he can monitor any American’s private phone calls at will. Despite conclusions to the contrary by the unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee, the Silberman-Robb Commission, the Butler Commission in Great Britain, and even The Washington Post (Joseph Wilson “was the one guilty of twisting the truth”), critics still argue we knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and that was the only justification for the war. (As the war began, I wrote a 15,000-word legal defense that barely mentioned the WMD issue).
I don’t know whether we should have gone into Iraq. But that is not the issue we face. We made that decision, by an overwhelming consensus, and the issue is whether we will once again abandon those we have pledged to help. Will America let Saddam’s henchmen — reinforced by Abu Musab Zarqawi and other al Qaeda elements — drive us out of the Middle East? That’s a very different question, and in answering it we ought to keep in mind some of the real “lessons” of the Vietnam tragedy.
Robert F. Turner is associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, where for many years he has taught about the war. He traveled extensively in Indochina between 1968 and 1975, and is author or editor of several books on the conflict.