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The Left Loses the Vietnam War

By Robert Tracinski

In political battles--and all too frequently in war itself--victories are rarely complete, defeats are rarely final, and the real significance of a battle is often not evident for years, even decades afterward.

America's defeat in Vietnam, for example, was seemingly a triumph for the anti-war left, which had long proclaimed the war to be unwinnable quagmire. Yet the years following that defeat--the era of American retreat and "national malaise"--proved so traumatic that the American people have never wanted to repeat them. Thus, what the anti-war radicals regarded as a vindication ended up discrediting the left on foreign policy for a generation. You could say that they won the political battle over the war--but they lost the peace.

Today, we may be seeing the final chapter of that process. The left is losing the Vietnam War itself--losing Vietnam, that is, as a rhetorical high ground from which to pillory any advocate of vigorous American military action overseas.

In a speech last week, President Bush surprised everyone by citing Vietnam as an analogy to Iraq. Just as we paid a "price in American credibility" for our abandonment of Vietnam, he argued, so we will suffer an even worse blow to the credibility of American threats and American friendship if we retreat from Iraq.

The New York Times, borrowing "military parlance," described this as Bush's attempt at "preparing the battlefield--in this case for the series of reports and hearings scheduled on Capitol Hill next month." The military terminology is appropriate, since this war will not be won or lost only on the battlefield in Iraq; it will be won or lost in the political battles that will be fought in Washington, DC. And Bush's invocation of Vietnam may turn out to be a brilliant rhetorical flanking maneuver. In one stroke, he has unexpectedly turned the political battle over withdrawal from Iraq into the last battle of the Vietnam War. The effect on the right has been electrifying. One conservative newspaper, the New York Sun, has even taken the step--inconceivable a year ago--of dedicating a page of its website to parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.

This certainly has caught the left by surprise, since the history of the Vietnam War is territory they thought they owned and controlled, which is why they have attempted to fit every conflict since 1975 into the Vietnam template. An editorial cartoon published early during the invasion of Iraq aptly depicted the Washington press corps as unruly children in the backseat of the family car, pestering the driver with the question, "Is it Vietnam yet? Is it Vietnam yet?" They assumed that if Iraq was Vietnam--if it fit into their Vietnam story line about dishonest leaders starting a war of imperialist aggression that was doomed by incompetent leadership and tainted by American "war crimes"--then it was guaranteed to be a humiliating defeat for their political adversaries.

Yet while the left complacently trotted out its same old Vietnam story line, a few historians have been busy revising and correcting the conventional history of the war. The leading work of this school is Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, by Mark Moyar. What makes Moyar's argument interesting is that he had access to facts that the conventional history of Vietnam, written in the 1970s and 1980s, could not have taken into account: the archives in Hanoi and Moscow, which reveal what our enemies regarded as our victories, our weaknesses, and our worst mistakes. Here is how Thomas MacKubin Owens describes Moyar's findings in his review of the book:

Moyar's thesis is that the American defeat was not inevitable: The United States had ample opportunities to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, but it failed to develop the proper strategy to do so. And by far our greatest mistake was to acquiesce in the November 1963 coup that deposed and killed [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem, a decision that "forfeited the tremendous gains of the preceding nine years and plunged the country into an extended period of instability and weakness."

Not surprisingly, Vietnamese Communists exploited that post-Diem instability and adopted a more aggressive and ambitious stance. Moyar argues that President Lyndon Johnson rejected several aggressive strategic options available to him, options that would have permitted South Vietnam to continue the war, either without the employment of US ground forces or by a limited deployment of US forces in strategically advantageous positions in the southern part of North Vietnam or in Laos. The rejection of these options meant that Johnson was left with the choice of abandoning South Vietnam, a step fraught with grave international consequences, or fighting a defensive war within South Vietnam at a serious strategic disadvantage.

As for the eventual fall of South Vietnam--to be covered by Moyar in a planned second volume of his history--according to the New York Sun, "Mr. Moyar said the North Vietnamese only attempted their 1975 attack when convinced that America would not counter this violation of the Paris Agreement." And what gave the North this confidence? The Sun recounts the history: "Between 1972 and 1975, America's Congress passed a series of pieces of legislation that strangled the Republic of South Vietnam of resources and blocked any hope of an American air campaign.... These included the Second Supplemental Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1973, which blocked funding to 'support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam or South Vietnam'; the Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1974, and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, which went so far as to prevent third-party countries from assisting the South Vietnamese so long as they received American aid."

This new view of how the Vietnam War ended is summed up by Max Boot:

By 1972 most of the south was judged secure and the South Vietnamese armed forces were able to throw back the Easter Offensive with help from lots of American aircraft but few American soldiers. If the US had continued to support Saigon with a small troop presence and substantial supplies, there is every reason to believe that South Vietnam could have survived.... But after the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, we all but cut off South Vietnam, even while its enemies across the borders continued to be resupplied by their patrons in Moscow and Beijing.

This thesis is still somewhat new and controversial--but there is enough truth to it that it is beginning to stick. Whatever the failures of American strategy in Vietnam, there is no doubt that the anti-war left pushed for American failure and accomplished it by persistent and vigorous legislation. And that is the crucial issue. If the architects of the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration can be criticized (as Moyar does) for not doing enough to win the war, the later anti-war left actively pursued American defeat and humiliation as their goal. They didn't merely want us to withdraw; they wanted us to lose, and they did whatever was necessary to make sure that happened.

So instead of being a story of the failure of imperialist, war-mongering Republicans, the Vietnam War was the story of two separate failures by Democrats. The Democrats who started the war held back from using the force necessary to win it--and the Democrats who ended the war deliberately knocked all of the remaining props out from under the South Vietnamese government to ensure the defeat of an American ally.

This is the wider Vietnam story that the left has never understood. They have always regarded Vietnam and Watergate as the glory days they long to relive. It was a time in which their political faction was temporarily triumphant, hounding two hated presidents out of office in disgrace.

But for everyone else, those events and their aftermath--the whole "national malaise" of the 1970s--was a painful period of national humiliation, for which we are still paying the price. The collapse of American power and credibility, combined with the "Vietnam Syndrome" that enshrined timidity as the cornerstone of American foreign policy, emboldened the Soviet Union and encouraged its invasion of Afghanistan--which gave birth to the "mujahadeen," the movement that gave Osama bin Laden his start and established his reputation. It also led to President Carter's withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, which assured the success of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution.

So the twin pillars of the contemporary Islamist threat--al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran--owe their origins to the collapse of American power in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What new disasters wait to be spawned in the aftermath of a self-imposed defeat in Iraq?

Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. What will the American people do when they are required to meditate seriously, for the first time, on the full, concrete ramifications of a defeat in Iraq? What will they think when they hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasting of Iran's eagerness to fill the "power vacuum" that will open up in Iraq after the "collapse" of "the political power of the occupiers"?

Will the American people--offered even the glimmer of a possible victory by the success of the "surge"--decline to repeat the painful history of Vietnam?

If they do, then the left will finally have lost the Vietnam War.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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