Stanley I. Kutler: Trashing history ... Bush and Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

[Stanley Kutler is the editor of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (Scribner's, 1995) and the The Wars of Watergate (Alfred A. Knopf). He is the E. Gordon Fox Emeritus Professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin, and also professor of law.]

The good news is that George W. Bush at last has found parallels between his Iraq misadventure and the Vietnam War. The bad news is that he is again writing his own revisionist history. The president is on dangerous ground -- for both wars are based on a bed of lies and miscalculations.

American involvement in Vietnam escalated after an alleged attack on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The incident offered President Lyndon B. Johnson the pretext for expanding American involvement from an "advisory" role to combat operations. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted in 2001 -- and ever since -- that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda, a charge without foundation. They also offered baseless allegations that Saddam had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

After four years of futile war in Vietnam, LBJ heeded the advice of his "Wise Men," commenced negotiations, and rejected his generals' requests for a "surge" in U.S. forces. But Bush, four years after he declared "mission accomplished," eagerly opted for a new surge for Iraq.

President Bush invoked Vietnam recently to an audience of veterans -- a usual venue for him. He mined the buried, but always festering wound of Vietnam -- and exploited it shamelessly.

For four years, Bush rejected any Vietnam parallels with his Iraq misadventure; he now distorts the events of three decades ago to rouse his base and intimidate his critics. Bush needs no Swift Boat warriors; his brigades of speech writers (with probably with no memory of Vietnam) serve just fine.

Bush's remarks play to his base -- and project out to his critics, warning that their demand for troop withdrawals is fraught with dire consequences. Karl Rove's spirit remains embedded.

Bush's audience cheered when he claimed that the United States had abandoned Vietnamese and Cambodians to vindictive enemies, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Not a word, however, about the estimated 1 million Vietnamese civilian and military casualties from a quarter-century of war against the French and the Americans.

But the postwar brutalities in Southeast Asia did not result from U.S. "abandonment."

Bush is ignoring the reality of the U.S. withdrawal. That iconic image of people clambering onto helicopters hovering over the American embassy in 1975 is misleading. Our war was already over. Richard M. Nixon's policy of "Vietnamization," which allowed for the steady reduction of 500,000 U.S. troops, had begun in June 1969. Nixon realized we could not remain indefinitely in Vietnam and he pursued a policy of training and arming South Vietnamese regulars to carry on their own battle. Four years later, the last U.S. troops had departed.

The South Vietnamese, who, on paper, outnumbered their opponents, were left to their own devices -- and collapsed within three years. The South Vietnamese populace lacked the steel and determination of the North; their government lacked popular support and political legitimacy.

The United States lost the Vietnam War, and Bush cannot bear that basic truth. Some military commentators are quick to assert the Vietnamese never defeated U.S. forces on the battlefield. Perhaps. But the American pursuit of political goals, implemented and insured by military means, failed.

If nothing else, the conflict shows that there are limits to American power. But Bush will not accept this.

The president is citing Vietnam as a usable past to push his own war aims -- but not too far. He repeatedly says that we must stop Al Qaeda in Iraq or we will have to fight them here. Shades of the 1960s "domino theory." We were told then that if the Communists conquered Vietnam, the countries across the Pacific would topple like dominos. First Thailand and Cambodia would be lost, then the Philippines and Japan. Then Hawaii and, ultimately, the Viet Cong and their Russian and Chinese allies would land on the beaches at La Jolla.

President Bush, who did not fight then, and his vice president, who has explained that he had "had other priorities" (and was failing in his graduate studies at Wisconsin), apparently did not follow the tide of events. They might have noticed no domino fell.

Bush's sudden recovery from Vietnam amnesia is intended to beguile our veterans and soldiers with self-serving noble ideals or misinformed, ulterior goals. Fighting and re-fighting the Vietnam War persists in the battle of symbolic politics. True to form, Bush remains our "great divider." He speaks to a bitter sub-culture that believes we should have "won" in Vietnam and still insists that the Vietnamese hold U.S. prisoners.

The White House Web site has a 2006 picture of a smiling George W. Bush posing with Laura Bush and the president of Vietnam and his wife -- in front of a giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Bush praised Vietnam as "a remarkable country." Irony abounds. The CBS correspondent John Laurence, in his unforgettable memoir of the Vietnam War, returned in the 1980s to see the booming Vietnamese economy. An American official probably offered him perhaps the best epitaph for the war: "It would have been a lot easier if they had just let us win the war."

The Vietnam War requires remembering it all -- and all its lessons. We must remember the postwar calamities -- as well as My Lai, the brutalities and repressiveness of our client South Vietnamese regime, the mirage of domino theory, the always-promised, never-delivered "light at the end of the tunnel," the limits of our will and power - and, of course, Gen. Alexander Haig's report to Nixon in 1972: "We are an eyelash from victory."

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Robert M. Bliss - 9/3/2007

Thank you, Stanley, for that reminder that the president cannot read historical parallels or ironies. Another irony he misses is that while it's plausible to argue that "the best and brightest" got us into Vietnam, it's not so with Iraq.

Bob Bliss