The Unlearned Lessons of Vietnam Continue to Haunt The U.S.
Henry Kissinger has just published (in the Oct. 25 issue of Newsweek) a curious and revealing review of a new book on the Vietnam war, written by the man who was the research associate for McGeorge Bundy’s projected account of his period in the 1960s as national security advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Bundy did not live to write his book. His research collaborator, Gordon M. Goldstein, has now collected fragments of Bundy’s draft materials and other writings, together with the documentary research he had assembled for their joint book, and turned it into a new account of the Vietnam War as reflected in the papers that crossed the desk of the national security advisor and the other documents with which Bundy worked. The book is called “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam” (publication scheduled for Nov. 11).
Kissinger’s review is unexpected in its implied sympathy for Goldstein’s work, despite the fact that he describes it as unremittingly hostile to Bundy’s decisions in office. This was the crucial period when the ground was prepared for the eventually huge U.S. military intervention in Indochina that followed, but it deals with events preceding Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1968, when Kissinger became national security advisor. Kissinger draws policy lessons from the book that seem at odds with the policy he and Nixon followed in Vietnam, but more to the point today is that they conflict with the policy followed by George W. Bush in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the currently enlarged NATO war in Afghanistan.
Kissinger notes that Bundy was a man of the Second World War and had uncritically transferred his convictions, and worse, his strategic conceptions, about Communism’s “containment” from the European Cold War theater and the Soviet military threat to Southeast Asia, where there were no firm military or political front lines, and where the challenge was to the legitimacy of governments, not to their military power.
Vietnam, after all, had under the French been a single country with only a demilitarized zone separating North from South. The governments on both sides — above all the Communist government in the North — claimed to represent the entire people. This meant that the war was fundamentally political, which many American officials at the time would admit, but which had little effect on how they were waging their war.
Bundy also accepted the fiction of the “domino effect.” If one country “went Communist,” then the next would go too, and then the next, no matter how different each might be from the others politically, culturally, economically and structurally. Bundy held what Kissinger calls the “amazing” belief that “it would be better for America’s credibility” if it lost the war, after sending 100,000 men to Vietnam, than if it hadn’t resisted Hanoi at all.
All these are errors were repeated by the Bush administration in its supposed war against terror. “Muslim extremism” is everywhere the same and must be stamped out. George Bush decided that a “war” should be fought against something whose roots were nationalist and religious. Fighting is a matter of American “credibility.”
Most recently there is a newly announced “Gates Doctrine” extending the war still further, saying that the United States claims the right to strike anyone anywhere in defense of its strategic interests (as it did last week inside Syria). It also claims the right to overturn any government it deems a potential “domino” of Muslim extremism (as in the case of the so-called Islamic Courts government in Somalia, which had that country more or less pacified last year until a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia unleashed the violence once again).
Kissinger writes that “with the perspective of nearly four decades, it is possible to challenge (Bundy’s Vietnam-era) assumptions. Communism has proved not to be monolithic; the dominoes did not fall; the problem of how to deal with guerrilla warfare has grown worse, not better.”
One might think such conclusions now of the utmost banality. Yet the Bush administration did not learn the Vietnam lessons, and there are disturbing signs that Barack Obama and the people likely to make up an Obama National Security Council and State Department have not learned from Vietnam or the Bush “war on terror.” As for the McCain-Palin policy of “victory” everywhere, the prospect does not bear comment.
Governments, like corporations and modern organizations of all kinds, make much of systematically teaching “lessons learned” to those newly arrived to responsibilities, yet they seem infrequently to succeed. This is what Kissinger is implicitly saying in his article. Vietnam was a 1960s and 1970s war. Here we are in 2008, and the basic lessons remain unlearned.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
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