I just saw the movie "The Fog of War" about Robert McNamara
and the US involvement in Vietnam. It left me with a lot of
questions. I think from how you write you are old enough to
remember the Vietnam era, so maybe you can help (I apologize
if you're not that old.)
Did we have a good reason for getting into Vietnam? Did
we have a good reason for getting out when we did? And are
there really a lot of similarities between Vietnam and Iraq?
St. Cloud, MN
Those are enormous questions. I am indeed old enough to
remember Vietnam (but it doesn't feel "that" old to me.)
One thing that helps to understand why America made the
mistakes it did over Vietnam is to remember that in 1963 there
were nuclear warheads a few hundred miles off the coast of
Florida. Those warheads were owned by a power that was openly
hostile to the United States, and they were attached to missiles
that could have reached millions of Americans with almost
no warning at all.
And in 1963 most Americans (not to mention the rest of the
world) could remember vividly what had happened less than
20 years earlier (the distance in time is about the same as
the distance between today and 1986) when two atomic bombs
- less powerful than the warheads off the Florida coast -
had actually been detonated in population centers.
It was a pretty anxious, paranoid time, Michael. And people
closely associated that sense of menace with the countries
that were called "communist" - the Soviet Union and China.
It was even called "Red China" then, without a blink.
Auntie's not going to get into the difference between those
autocratic tyrannies that called themselves "communist" to
give a thin veneer of ideological validity to their criminal
activities, and real communism. It's enough to say that those
governments twisted the very word "communist" into standing
for everything antithetical to freedom, and when you add the
threat of nuclear annihilation to that, you have a pretty
powerful fear factor.
You can read Barbara Tuchman's wonderful book The March
of Folly for a blow-by-blow account of just exactly how
we blundered into Vietnam. Our initial mistake was letting
our friendship for France convince us that the end justified
the means. Ho Chi Minh (who was not enthusiastically communist
at the time) had offered us the opportunity to help the Vietnamese
people establish self-government without colonial rule. But
because the colonial power the Vietnamese were trying to remove
was our friend France, we turned him down, and even offered
France military assistance in trying to set up and maintain
a puppet government that would respond to French (and, presumably,
When we turned him down, Ho Chi Minh looked for allies who
weren't friends with France. The big communist countries were
a logical choice. Even though the Vietnamese people were wary
of Chinese colonialism, the French were the nearer and greater
evil. And it's possible that the positive aspects of real
communism attracted him as a way to unify the Vietnamese peoples
and give them a sense of nationhood and pride.
But of course, all it took was the association of communism
to turn Ho Chih Minh and the North Vietnamese into devils,
complete with horns, hooves, and pointy tails, in America's
eyes. People really believed in the "domino theory" then,
because they did not yet have much experience with the economic
unworkability of communism as practiced by the Soviet Union
and China. "Communism" appeared to be a powerhouse.
A dangerous powerhouse with plenty of real, documented, verified,
we're-not-hiding-them nuclear weapons. And a powerhouse with
an openly hostile attitude toward the United States.
So, did we have a good reason for getting in? The Gulf of
Tonkin resolution was pretty much of a pretext, and everyone
knew that, even then. But if Saddam Hussein looked dangerous
enough to smack down, try to imagine how a communist Vietnam
looked to most American eyes then.
There were plenty of Americans who were saying it wasn't
such a good idea, for many reasons. But the sentiment was
overwhelmingly in favor of America holding the role of anti-communist
standard bearer, and stopping the "Red Tide" wherever it threatened
to break out. It was scary. People were scared. Scared people
sometimes don't exercise the best judgment.
Getting into Vietnam was sort of like thinking you're going
to make a beautiful dive into a pool, and having it go wrong
and end up being a painful belly flop. Having made the political
decision to intervene, the White House then thought it needed
to control the Pentagon's conduct of the war, with the primary
goal of keeping the war "acceptable" to the American people.
Auntie Pinko may be a pacifist, but even I know that's no
way to fight a war.
Did we have a good reason for getting out? Yes, Michael.
As long as it was clear that the American people did not support
the war strongly enough to accept its full cost, the White
House was never going to be able to give control to the military.
Even if they did, by 1972 the price of achieving the goal
might have been too high for the Pentagon. The terrible conscription
and training process had seriously degraded the Army's effectiveness,
and morale was low. While many South Vietnamese did fear the
communist North, many more simply wanted all the soldiers
to go home and let them rebuild their houses and replant their
fields - what was left of them.
Are there similarities between Vietnam and Iraq?
You tell me, Michael. And thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!
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