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Ask Auntie Pinko
March 4, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

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

Dear Michael,

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, American) interests.

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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