May 4, 2000

Vietnam: Lessons Not Learned

On and on went the smug retrospectives on Vietnam. We have learned our lessons. We will never make the same mistakes again. It's all behind us now. Really? Just what exactly are the "lessons" we learned? That war is a jolly bad thing? Hardly. Over the last 25 years, the United States has invaded Panama, Haiti, Somalia, and Grenada. It has waged war against Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Nicaragua. From Colombia to Bosnia to Turkey to Afghanistan, the United States has sponsored and underwritten brutal wars in the name of nebulous geopolitical goals. What else? That bombing is not the best way to make friends and influence people? Again, hardly. Today, the United States Government expresses outrage at the mere mention of the possibility of offering the Serbs some help to rebuild their bombed and burned out country.

Perhaps it has something to do with geopolitics then? "Like most Americans, I saw Communism as monolithic," wailed Robert McNamara in his recent book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, "I believed the Soviets and Chinese were cooperating in trying to extend their hegemony. In hindsight, of course, it is clear that they had no unified strategy after the late 1950s. But their split grew slowly and only gradually became apparent." McNamara has never been one to let conventional wisdom pass by without his giving noisy and vigorous assent to it. Back in the 1960s the Sino-Soviet split was a life raft to innumerable Cold Warriors like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who decided to jump ship. Then as now, the arguments were amazingly feeble and served merely to rationalize their perfectly understandable impulse to get the hell out of Southeast Asia. If the US government really believed in something called "monolithic Communism," it would have come as news to Yugoslav leader Josip Bro. Tito, who for 20 years had been the beneficiary of American largesse on account of his supposed "independent" brand of Communism. Moreover, whatever differences may have existed between the Soviets and the Chinese, when it came to Indochina they were very much in agreement. They wanted the Americans beaten and sent on their way. That is why they continued to cooperate arming Hanoi. When the triumphant Democratic Republic of Vietnam turned over to the Soviets the former US bases of Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay, it was Cold War conventional wisdom that was vindicated, not the newfangled Schlesinger-McNamara one.

Perhaps we have learned to do without "domino theories"? Hardly. Here is an excerpt from a National Security Council document from early 1952, "United States Objectives and Courses of Action in Southeast Asia":

"Communist domination…of all Southeast Asia would seriously endanger…United States security interests. The loss of any of the countries of Southeast Asia to communist aggression would have critical psychological, political and economic consequences. In the absence of effective and timely counteraction, the loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group. Furthermore, an alignment with communism of the rest of Southeast Asia and India, and in the longer term, of the Middle East (with the probable exceptions of at least Pakistan and Turkey) would in all probability progressively follow: Such widespread alignment would endanger the stability and security of Europe….Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities. The rice exports of Burma and Thailand are critically important to Malaya, Ceylon and Hong Kong….The loss of Southeast Asia, especially of Malaya and Indonesia, could result in such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan's eventual accommodation to Communism."

The document is worth quoting at length because it enunciates the "domino theory" at its purest. The fate of the world hangs on what happens in Indochina. Any reluctance on the part of the United States to get involved would have catastrophic consequences. Variations on this theme were to be repeated again and again under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Compare the passage above with Bill Clinton's explanation to the American people on March 24, 1999 as to why he had just ordered the bombing of Yugoslavia:

"Kosovo is a small place, but it sits on a major fault line between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at the meeting place of Islam and both the Western and Orthodox branches of Christianity. To the south are our allies, Greece and Turkey; to the north, our new democratic allies in Central Europe. And all around Kosovo there are other small countries, struggling with their own economic and political challenges-countries that could be overwhelmed by a large, new wave of refugees from Kosovo. All the ingredients for a major war are there: ancient grievances, struggling democracies, and in the center of it all a dictator in Serbia who has done nothing since the Cold War ended but start new wars and pour gasoline on the flames of ethnic and religious division. Already, this movement is threatening the young democracy in Macedonia, which has its own Albanian minority and a Turkish minority….Let a fire burn here in this area and the flames will spread. Eventually, key US allies could be drawn into a wider conflict, a war we would be forced to confront later-only at far greater risk and greater cost."

The "domino theory" is alive and well, in other words. Indeed, the world today seems to comprise the United States and innumerable falling dominoes. Round every corner lurks a new threat to US security. Unless the United States makes a stand, cataclysm is sure to follow. Sometimes the scourge is drugs. Sometimes it is "weapons of mass destruction." Sometimes AIDS. Sometimes "rogue states." Sometimes it's resurgent Russia or China. Sometimes terrorism. Sometimes "ethnic hatred." And sometimes – when all the threats seem exhausted – there is that plain old standby, "instability." Interestingly, then as now, while policymakers anguish about this or that, they invariably avoid making their case either to the American people or to Congress. Here is a memorandum from 1954 written by Robert Cutler, special assistant to President Eisenhower: "The President went over the draft of the speech which [John Foster] Dulles is going to make tonight, making quite a few suggestions and changes in text. He thought additionally the speech should include some easy to understand slogans, such as 'The US will never start a war', 'The US will never go to war without Congressional authority', 'The US, as always, is trying to organize cooperative efforts to sustain the peace'." It was all lies of course but no different from last year's bromides about America's going the extra mile to work out an agreement at Rambouillet.

The truth is that the overriding lesson of Vietnam is that we have learned nothing from it. Then as now, the United States launches wars for no reason other than to secure its dominance over other nations. Then, as now, the supposed "threats" from which nations are to be saved serve merely as the agency of American empire. Then as now, "allies" are really only satellites. Then as now, the United States is sublimely indifferent to the casualties – human, material, moral and psychological – that it inflicts on other nations. Why were we in Vietnam (to paraphrase a famous question)? It certainly was not to stop the spread of Communism. In 1949 the Truman Administration did not seem too distressed to see Chiang Kai-shek's armies crushed by those of Mao. In 1954 the Eisenhower Administration rejected the entreaties of the French to help them defeat Ho Chi Minh. In 1975 the Communists seized all of Indochina, and Americans barely noticed.

Were we in Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese? Unlikely. Not for one minute did US policymakers show the slightest respect for the independence of the South Vietnamese. They were to do as they were told. If they fell out of line, they would be punished. A cablegram dated August 24, 1963 sent by the State Department to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon gives one a sense of the arrogance of American power: "US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in [Ngo Dinh] Nhu's hands. [Ngo Dinh] Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie….If…Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved….You may also tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism." As we know, it was this cable that began the train of events that led to the overthrow and murder of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. The Americans had got tired of Diem. He was too proud to follow unquestioningly Washington's orders. Diem had to go. So he was subjected to the, by now, standard American sanctimony and hypocrisy. Diem was not – horror – a "democrat"! Washington's anxiety in 1963 about "corruption" and the absence of "democracy' in Saigon stood in marked contrast to its tolerance of the savage repression then taking place in South Korea. In 1965 the same US policymakers who were berating Diem had few problems with the horrifying massacres that followed the suppression of the Communist-inspired coup in Indonesia.

Throughout their years of involvement in Vietnam, US policymakers never doubted their right to decide who would and who would not serve in the Saigon Government. There was never any question of withdrawal. If the President of South Vietnam "remains obdurate," the United States would not pack up and leave (the honorable thing to do). No, it would seek his overthrow. Here are McGeorge Bundy's slimy words to Ambassador Lodge written two days before the coup: "We do not accept as a basis for US policy that we have no power to delay or discourage a coup….We believe…you should take action to persuade coup leaders to stop or delay any operation which, in your best judgment, does not clearly give high prospect of success." It is hard to see how America's attitudes towards its satellites differed from those of the Soviet Union. If anything, they were worse. In 1956, as Revolution engulfed Communist Hungary, the Russians spirited out of the country the hated former leader Matyas Rakosi. He was to die peacefully in the Soviet Union 14 years later. Diem, a loyal American client was brutally murdered.

"Nothing succeeds like success," John Kenneth Galbraith, US Ambassador to India, boasted following the fall of Diem. And he was right. With Diem out of the way, the United States could take over the war as well as the government and society of South Vietnam. This was the objective all along. Three weeks after the death of Diem, President Kennedy himself was shot. It was justice of sorts. South Vietnam was now subjected to bombing, defoliation, forcible transfer of population. There was a lot of talk about "nation building." By Americans that is, not the South Vietnamese. The other day, Senator John McCain said that the wrong side won the war in Vietnam. Perhaps. We do know that the right side lost.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for appears every Wednesday.

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