This is the second of three posts examining the question “Is Iraq like Vietnam?” In our last post we concluded this is the wrong question for Americans to ask about our involvement in Iraq now. In this post we look at the President’s historical reference in the speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, where he made this comparison of Iraq to Vietnam:
” … one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields'”
Contrary to the President’s assertion, it is indeed a “mistakable” legacy, dubious history, and a poor analogy. Particularly if this assertion is meant to communicate, as has been asserted by many bloggers and columnists, that the 1975 Congressional vote to cutoff funding for Vietnam was the primary cause of the death of millions of Cambodians at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The first step in deconstructing the President’s version of history, is to separate the Vietnamese and Cambodian horrors that followed our withdrawal.
For the purposes of this post, we will stipulate that a direct consequence of the 1975 vote was hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese displaced, killed, and imprisoned after Saigon fell. These were the ‘boat people’ and victims of ‘re-education’ camps’ that the President references. It happened, but it did not have to happen the way it did. We could have planned better to support those who supported us in the withdrawal and evacuation. But as bad as it was, it still must be seen in the context of a fifteen year war, where two to three million Vietnamese and 52,000 Americans lost their lives. Such is the grisly calculus of war. Continuing American involvement after 1973 or 1975 does not mean that fewer Vietnamese lives or even that fewer lives of our Vietnamese supporters would have been lost. After 15 years of American involvement in the fighting in Vietnam, it is hard to imagine how a better outcome would have resulted from an additional two or five or ten or fifteen more years of American intervention, as implied by the President’s speech.
Nevertheless, what happened in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon happened to our shame. But the blame does not fall exclusively on the shoulder of the Democratic Congress that voted to cut off funds. That guilt must also be shared by the Republican Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of State, and the administration that set the wheels in motion for that vote and its consequences.
Consider this transcript of a taped conversation between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office in August 1972:
Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu over the brink… even the Chinese won’t like that. I mean, they’ll pay verbal– verbally, they’ll like it–
Nixon: But it’ll worry them.
Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won’t help us all that much because our opponents will say we should’ve done it three years ago.
Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which– after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.
Actual events did not stay precisely on Kissinger’s schedule. This conversation took place in August, 1972. The Paris Peace Accord was signed five months later in January, 1973. Saigon fell a little over two years later, in April, 1975. Duplicity and domestic political gamesmanship by a Republican President and his Secretary of State set the timetable for the fall of Saigon. The Democratic Congress was an accessory to the crime. There is plenty of blame to go around.
Continued at Divided We Stand United We Fall.