Thomas Powers: The War Last Time

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas Powers is the author, most recently, of “Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda.”]

... Simple realism — totting up the Congressional votes the president can count on to back or oppose him — suggests that a turning point has been reached in Iraq. Getting in is over, and getting out is about to begin. I am reminded of a similar moment 41 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson was facing the bleak but imminent prospect of his South Vietnamese allies’ collapse in Saigon. The year was 1965, and Johnson had just been overwhelmingly re-elected president over Senator Barry Goldwater on the oft-repeated campaign pledge not to send American boys thousands of miles away to fight a war that Asian boys ought to fight.

Johnson’s advisers put it to him straight: Saigon was going to lose, Hanoi was going to win, and there wasn’t much time to waste. The choice was clear: lose the war or expand the war, find a formula of words to mask failure or send more troops and increase the bet on the table. Johnson chose to expand the war.

Raising the bet was already a pattern. Just two years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had faced a similarly stark choice. The government of Ngo Dinh Diem, installed and sustained by the United States, was locked in a destructive battle with Buddhists in its own country, and though it was fighting the war erratically and ineffectively, it seemed impervious to American counsel. Even worse, from Washington’s point of view, the Diem government had entered into secret conversations with the Communists. Some American officials thought a deal was in the works.

At the end of a long period of crisis, Kennedy’s government backed a coup by Vietnamese generals who were being advised by a French-born C.I.A. operative named Lucien Conein. The Diem government was quickly removed and replaced, but in the process Diem and his brother were brutally murdered. The war went better for a while, and then didn’t, in a pattern that repeated itself many times.

About 20 years ago, a friend and I were picking up a takeout dinner from a Vietnamese restaurant in Washington run by Tran Van Don, one of the generals who organized the 1963 coup. Tran pointed out a portly, white-haired man at a table overlooking the room, dining alone: it was his old friend, Lucien Conein. In a sense, they were both exiles. I often think about the conversations they must have had. The war that followed their coup killed 57,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese....

The verdict of the elections was clear. The public wants to let Iraqis handle their own troubles from here on out, while we start bringing our soldiers home. But that’s not what President Bush has said he wants, so there will very likely be a series of fights over Iraq that will extend to the president’s last day in office. Robert Gates is smart, quiet, dogged and loyal: a well-considered choice for defense secretary by a president determined to bring home that “coonskin on the wall,” to borrow a phrase made memorable by an earlier president in a similar fix, Lyndon Johnson.

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