Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher
Whenever Vietnam is mentioned in an opinion article, we always sit up and take notice. It is not at all uncommon for the history of Vietnam and the lessons of Vietnam to be invoked in reference to other conflicts. In fact Vietnam is the fulcrum from which all false arguments about war are launched. We are told we should not forget the lessons of Vietnam, but the lessons are often based upon falsehoods and misrepresentations that make the lesson unhelpful.
Such is the case with a recent article published by CNN. Writing about the recent Paris attacks, the author invokes the specter of Vietnam to “prove” how badly America has handled foreign policy.
It helps to look at history — not to find equivalencies but understanding, taking the long view that recognizes appropriate contexts. We make bad decisions about foreign policy — and war — when we fail to take into account the historical setting, which is, well, almost everything.
For example, we lost 50,000 American soldiers in Vietnam because our policy-makers failed to look at the wider historical context, ignoring the traditional animosity between China and Vietnam — a conflict in which it was highly unlikely that the “domino effect” would ever be relevant. It wasn’t, and we created mayhem in the region.
Pushed to the limit, we simply withdrew in 1975, with our tail between our legs. And where is Vietnam today? The U.S. is currently the largest single importer of Vietnamese goods and Vietnamese are the eighth-largest student group studying in the States. Of course, it took almost four decades for that kind of healing to occur.
So much untruth packed into such a short space!
First, we certainly wouldn’t argue that it doesn’t help to look at history. The problem is, it actually needs to be history to be helpful. We lost more than 58,000 men and women in Vietnam because we faced a determined enemy who was willing to sacrifice over 1.4 million of its own citizens to conquer an independent nation.
Citing the animosity between China and Vietnam, which exists to this day, as proof that US policy makers failed to understand history is so profoundly ignorant that it takes one’s breath away. China provided billions of dollars in materiel and support to North Vietnam and tens of thousands of military advisors. Whatever differences there were between China and Vietnam, they were set aside during the 2nd Indochina War to pursue a common goal – the defeat of South Vietnam and the spread of communism.
What US policy makers failed to understand was that their enemy was not a rational actor that would respond to stimuli the way Americans would respond.McNamara’s graduated escalation policy had little effect on the North Vietnamese and the bombing pauses were used by the North Vietnamese to regroup, resupply and reinforce their defenses. We are making the exact same mistake today in the war with ISIS.
The idea that the Domino Theory was fraudulent has been a central point of the communist propaganda campaign from the beginning. Many Americans have fallen for it. But we have addressed it in detail here and shown that not only was it legitimate but the dominos did not fall precisely because the US intervened in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Furthermore, the claim that the US “created mayhem” in the region ignores several things. First, the North Vietnamese began the first steps of their conquest of South Vietnam in 1945, left troops behind in 1954 in violation of the Geneva Accords and began escalating the war in 1959, long before the US inserted combat troops. They had been creating mayhem for quite some time.
By the time the US got involved militarily, North Vietnam had been actively committing atrocities and terrorist activities in South Vietnam for almost 20 years. By 1959 they had also invaded both Laos and Cambodia and began establishing bases in both countries. After the US left, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, tens of thousands of Laotians and 1.7 million Cambodians were killed. The mayhem created in Indochina was a direct result of North Vietnamese communist party policies, not US policy, and continued long after the US left Vietnam.
Finally, claiming that the US was “pushed to the limit” and “withdrew in 1975” again displays profound ignorance of the 2nd Indochina War. The US began removing combat troops from Vietnam in 1969 and by the time the peace treaty was signed in 1973 we did not any combat troops in Vietnam. North Vietnam, consistent with all their previous deceits, violated the treaty before the ink was signed, but they were so weakened by US and South Vietnamese forces that it took another two years before they could again invade in force.
There are certainly lessons that need to be learned from Vietnam, but we will never learn them until we finally acknowledge the truth about Vietnam. That will not happen until communist propaganda is no longer used to justify arguments about Vietnam that have no relation to the history of the conflict.