Niall Ferguson: Kerry's Going and Coming on Both Iraq and Vietnam

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson, writing in the WSJ (Feb. 4, 2004):

In Sen. Kerry's eyes, Vietnam and Iraq are both"win-win" issues. For his courage as a Swift Boat officer in Vietnam, he was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V and three Purple Hearts. If that doesn't make a man a war hero, what does? But his testimony before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations in 1971 also established him as one of the war's most credible opponents."We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them," he declared,"We saw America lose her sense of morality . . . . How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Sen. Kerry has been having it both ways over Iraq as well. He voted for the resolution in October 2002 that authorized the use of armed force against Saddam Hussein. But last year he voted against the $87 billion package requested by the Bush administration to finance Iraq's occupation and reconstruction. This war, too, now seems to Sen. Kerry to have been"a mistake." It's a position greatly strengthened by weapons inspector David Kay's admission that the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMD was"all wrong."

Many pundits and, I suspect, most voters would prefer this year's election to be about domestic bread-and-butter issues. But this is a typical symptom of American imperial denial -- to believe that you can invade and occupy a sovereign state one year and then campaign about Medicare the next. The reality is that this year's debate needs to be about Iraq -- not to mention Afghanistan. Like it or not, the candidates' plans for national security matter more than their plans for Social Security.

And that's where the Vietnam factor gives Sen. Kerry an edge -- an edge that could cut deep into the support not just of Howard"Hulk" Dean but also, if Sen. Kerry wins the Democratic nomination, of George W. Bush. For the reality is that ordinary Americans live in dread of"another Vietnam." And every time an American soldier is killed in Iraq -- low though the total U.S. casualties remain, in relative terms -- the suspicion grows that this is just a sandy version of the same, horrible quagmire. If the whole operation now turns out to have been a mistake, President Bush starts to look faintly like Lyndon Johnson, waging a war that is simultaneously unwinnable and pointless. Enter Sen. Kerry. ...

This is where lessons from Vietnam are indeed apposite. But they are not the lessons learned by John Kerry.

First, fighting the war in Vietnam was not a mistake. Abandoning it was the mistake. I have just returned from a short tour of that country, which allowed me to see firsthand what three decades of Communist rule have achieved there. The very best that can be said is that they achieved nothing. The worst that can be said is that by throwing in the towel in 1973, the U.S. condemned South Vietnam to 30 years of repression, corruption and poverty. And the best proof that these were truly"lost years" for the people of Vietnam are the current frantic efforts of the country's leaders to bring back capitalism.

There is virtually nothing about Ho Chi Minh City today that differentiates it from the Saigon of 1973, except the red flags with the gold stars and the tired old socialist-realist posters. ...

Nobody would dare cast aspersions on Sen. Kerry's record as a war hero. It is his grasp of history -- and its implications for U.S. strategy today -- that looks shaky. And let's not forget: the original"band of brothers" won their war.

See also HNN blogger Timothy Burke's commentary.

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Troy Davis - 2/7/2004

I agree with Miller's and Loewen's criticisms of Ferguson's argument, but to me, Ferguson overlooks a much more basic point: American foreign policy is designed to further the interests of the United States -- not those of any other nation. Thus, when Sen. Kerry says that US involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, clearly he means it had a negative impact on the US. The effect that it had on South Vietnam is irrelevant to his argument. That seems reasonable, given the fact that he is running for president of the United States.

The basic assumption underlying Ferguson's argument is that, "The worst that can be said is that by throwing in the towel in 1973, the U.S. condemned South Vietnam to 30 years of repression, corruption and poverty."

In making that statement, of course, he is assuming that a US "victory" in Vietnam would have resulted in a democratic, upright, and honest South Vietnam. That assumption is open to argument, but even if we grant the truth of the assumption, Ferguson would still have to explain how the additional costs of a US victory would have benefited the country Kerry is seeking to lead.

In my estimation, then, it is Ferguson's grasp of history -- and its implications for U.S. strategy today -- that looks shaky.

James W Loewen - 2/7/2004

Niall Ferguson would have us believe that abandoning our War in Vietnam was a mistake because it condemned Vietnam to 30 years of communism? He has forgotten that the Vietnam War was not really between Vietnamese communists and Vietnamesse capitalists. He has forgotten that President Eisenhower explained why our client regime refused to hold the elections it had promised to hold: Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the votes. He has forgotten that we LOST the War in Vietnam.
The alternative to leaving would have been to destroy the country, which we were well on the road to achieving before we left.
I agree that capitalism is much better than communism, not least because it offers people an economic and even residential place from which they can oppose the government if they choose. Thus capitalism does tend to assist the development of democracy.
It's also great that Vietnam is now bringing itself to go the capitalist route. But our clients in Vietnam were not even as democratic as our opponents. And it is absurd to think that our continued warfare on that country would have promoted capitalist economic development.

Harley R. Miller - 2/7/2004

I suppose using the word "abandoning" gives one the satisfying illusion of choice and control in a situation where in fact there was neither. We lost an ill conceived war. Let's just admit it. Our soldiers fought with all the courage, patriotism, and love of their comrades as any men and women in our history. This would certainly include any "Band of Brother's" before or since.

Short of nuking the entire country (or region) and it's people into a a large glob of silicon glaze we were not going to win. No one offered a winning solution then nor do they today. The only choice was to continue to allow our troops to be slaughtered by the tens of thousands while killing Asians by the millions or leave. We could have destroyed an entire country in order to save it, I suppose, but in doing so we would have in many important ways destroyed ourselves.