Robert Dallek: In Letter to Editor of the NYT Says We Couldn't Have Won Vietnam and Can't Win Iraq

Historians in the News

To the Editor:

Re “An Iraqi Solution, Vietnam Style” (Op-Ed, Nov. 21):

Mark Moyar implies that if Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of the South Vietnamese government, had been given free rein in 1963 to suppress opposition, we would have had a different outcome in Vietnam.

But the Kennedy administration’s decision to encourage a coup against Diem’s government rested on the realistic understanding that Diem could neither maintain his country’s public support nor effectively counter the Communist insurgency.

The fact that Diem’s successors also failed at the same challenges suggests not that Washington made the wrong decision in abetting a coup but that our surrogates in Vietnam lacked the political wherewithal to defeat the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, despite our military support.

The lesson for us from Vietnam is not to assume that civic order in Iraq will come from giving Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki free rein in combating insurgents. Rather, it is to understand that we cannot impose democracy on a country with such different cultural and political traditions from ours.

The more important lesson is that, like Vietnam, we should not have entered Iraq in the first place. We are now caught in another quagmire with no good solutions except to withdraw and refocus our efforts on combating larger long-term threats against our national security.

Robert Dallek
Washington, Nov. 22, 2006

The writer is the author of biographies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and a forthcoming book about Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger.

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