Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mr. Bush Wants to Talk about Vietnam, Let's Talk

By Joel Wendland

In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last Wednesday, President Bush offered a simplistic comparison of the war in Iraq with the war in Vietnam. Basically, his argument boiled down to the claim that the US rush to leave Vietnam led to tremendous human rights atrocities in in Southeast Asia.

Elsewhere writers have dealt with the fact that a comparison of a stable and peaceful Vietnam to Iraq seems ludicrous on its face. Indeed, Bush's specific points about how the US leaving Vietnam led to atrocities against South Vietnamese collaborators with the US war, the forced emigration of refugees known as "boat people," and the "killing fields" in Cambodia are contradicted by the historical record.

It should be noted for the record that the newly reunified country of Vietnam deserves enormous credit for stopping the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (the creators of the "killing fields"). The US government, on the other hand, insisted in the UN that Vietnam's actions in doing so were illegal because the US regarded the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate authority in Cambodia. (Bush also appears to not have known or to have forgotten that a US backed coup against Cambodia's pre-Khmer government along with an illegal US invasion of Cambodia led to a political vacuum in which the previously insignificant Khmer Rouge gained power.)

Vietnam also deserves credit for it systematic efforts at reconciliation with former enemies: collaborators, US veterans, the US people, and our government. This fact cannot be denied.

Further still, one issue that President Bush notably failed to raise in his speech was that of prisoners and MIAs. On this issue, Vietnam has a much better record than any other country in which the US fought a major war in helping to locate and identify MIAs and prisoners. Journalist Stanley Karnow, in his massive work Vietnam, which became the basis of the widely-acclaimed PBS series, pointed out that even the remains of the soldier who served as Arlington National Cemetery's "unknown soldier" for the war in Vietnam were located and identified. (Of course, in no small part, developments on this issue also have a great deal to do with the political pressure by veterans on the US government, which, like Bush in his speech, mostly preferred to ignore the issue.) Karnow also pointed out that in comparison to other wars, the percentage of MIAs still to be located is microscopic.

But, in my view, these aren't the main problems at the heart of Bush's comparison. It is his claim that there was some sort of "rush to leave" Vietnam that deserves more careful scrutiny. For this, I rely on a book published in 2001 called No Peace, No Honor by noted historian of the war in Vietnam, Larry Berman. (Berman teaches at the University of California, Davis and has written at least four books on different aspects of the war.)

I should note at the outset, that Berman's appears to agree with those participants in the war and the political events surrounding it that South Vietnam was betrayed by the US and, after our departure, the southern region of the country was forced into dire circumstances. Without having asked him directly, my judgment is that in some ways he might agree with Bush's assessment that bad things happened in Vietnam after we left – as a result of us leaving.

Using declassified documents only made available to the public in 2001, Berman shows, however, that not only was there no rush to leave Vietnam on the part of the Nixon administration but that the delay Nixon and Kissinger sought only strengthened the position of the North Vietnamese both in battle and at the bargaining table. Peace negotiations were launched in 1968, an agreement was reached 5 years later, and the last US personnel didn't finally leave until 1975 (and the US puppet along with 16 tons of South Vietnamese gold for his personal use.)

Lyndon Johnson, who had escalated the war under false circumstances in 1965, by 1968 recognized the futility of continuing the massive US military occupation. The so-called Tet offensive was a major military blow to North Vietnamese forces, but it showed that despite losing battles militarily, the North Vietnamese could win in the long run. Johnson launched negotiations with the North in 1968 and refused to participate in the next set of US elections.

It should be noted that just prior to Tet, public opinion was pretty evenly split on the war. After Tet it took a turn toward disapproval. But the peace movement itself was fairly isolated and small. It was under Nixon's watch that public opinion nose-dived, and the peace movement gained momentum and influence. Someone out there may correct me on this, but it is my impression from reviewing some public opinion poll statistics from the Vietnam era that public support for the war in Vietnam never got as low as public support for the Iraq war has gotten.

Through back channels, the Nixon campaign helped scuttle the talks Johnson had planned, promising the South Vietnamese President Thieu that under a Nixon administration it would get a better deal. Thieu, in consultation with the Nixon campaign publicly refused to support Johnson's decision to halt bombings of North Vietnam as a precondition for opening the negotiations and conceivably handed an election victory to Nixon by a 0.7 percent margin.

Publicly, Nixon ran as an antiwar candidate. He told voters that he had a secret plan to end the war, promising to do so within six months after entering office. His plan, as it turns out, was to open secret negotiations with the North that excluded the South combined with massive military force. But, again, despite winning every battle with overwhelming US technical and tactical superiority, it had already been made clear that the war could not be won militarily. The situation demanded a political resolution. But with every passing month that Nixon tried to win the war militarily, US and world public opinion turned against him. US troop casualties grew. The bargaining position of the North was strengthened. South Vietnamese military forces proved as equally incapable of turning military prowess in political movement.

The North quickly saw that the situation in 1968, when it sought a political settlement with Johnson, had changed. It saw its best diplomatic advantage in dividing the extremely unpopular and brutal Thieu from Washington and stalling the talks. For his part, Nixon continued to believe in military victory and force, persisting in supporting the undemocratic Thieu regime in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese strategy ultimately worked, but only because of Nixon's refusal to concede certain realities and bring the war to an end as quickly as possible.

Public pressure forced Nixon to change tactics. Congress ordered an end to troop deployments in Cambodia (which Nixon continued anyway), and increasingly threatened to reduce budget supplementals to pay for the war. "Vietnamization" became the code word for withdrawal. As massive amounts of military aid and cash were handed over to back Thieu's one million person army, US troops were brought out. By the time Watergate (and Nixon's subversion of the US democratic and electoral process) was exposed and impeachment loomed as a real possibility, Nixon had no political muscle to keep his war going even through Thieu's proxy army.

In secret negotiations over a two year-period as the war continued, Kissinger moved from offering basic troop withdrawal promises to offering economic aid to the North, a timetable for withdrawal, allowing the National Liberation Front and the Revolutionary Provision Government (pro-liberation political movements in South Vietnam) to participate in future elections, and eventually promised to dump Thieu altogether. From the perspective of the empire, this diplomatic effort over time gradually weakened. One might even suggest that Kissinger moved from a position of strength to practically begging the North Vietnamese to let us leave "with honor," some shred of dignity.

I have long opposed comparisons between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But one similarity is clear: the longer we stay, the worse our options get. It is time to leave. Above all, it is time for the president to take responsibility for his failures, to refrain from abusing history and insulting us with childish comparisons, and set aside his arrogance.

Perhaps Bush thinks the 7 years it took to get out of Vietnam after peace talks opened and the 19 years the US intervened in that country was a rush. What does this say about how long he wants US troops to be in Iraq?

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