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Lessons from the Vietnam War: U.S. leaders must commit to diplomacy, peace

Forty years ago this week, the Vietnam War came to an end when Saigon fell to the communists. The tragedy was not that our country lost, but that we started the war, and then failed to learn the lessons from our disaster. The battle started shortly after World War II, when President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) supported the French, to keep their Vietnam colony from communist leader Ho Chi Minh, assuming he was an agent of the Soviet Union.

Truman’s chief of Southeast Asian affairs, Abbot Low Moffat, claimed that Ho Chi Minh was “a communist, because he believed communism was best for his people” but he was “first and foremost a Vietnamese nationalist …” Years later, Moffat wrote: “We are reaping today … the tragedy of our fixation on the theory of monolithic aggressive communism.”

When the Soviet Union started the Cold War by occupying East European countries all the way to East Germany, Truman’s adviser, diplomat George Kennan, set forth the “containment” strategy to limit the Soviet empire, a brilliant policy to avoid World War III. But to Kennan’s dismay, Truman’s administration transformed his policy to the “containment of communism,” a detour that would lead America into conflicts across the Third World countries from East Asia to South America, Africa and the Middle East.

When the Japanese occupied Vietnam in World War II, Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas aligned with the United States, even rescuing American pilots from the enemy. But when the French colonists returned, Presidents Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) provided the French with millions of dollars and aircraft to crush their former allies, only to see the French defeated by Ho Chi Minh’s forces in 1954.

Thereafter, the Geneva Accords called for a temporary partition between the North and South Vietnam zones, only to be united through a general election in 1956. But the revolutionary hero, Ho Chi Minh, was in line to win a landslide victory, so Eisenhower sabotaged the peace process by backing Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic non-communist in the South Zone. Then Diem won a rigged election in the South and canceled the 1956 election. Under his regime, graft was high and tens of thousands of suspected communists were thrown into jails, where torture was routine.

In response, the southern rebels organized their militants into the Viet Cong (VC), to fight Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam. By the time President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) entered the arena, Diem’s government was falling apart, his army was battered by VC ambushes and Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas were pouring from the North to the South Zone to join the VC to take back their country from the Americans.

To save Diem’s government, Kennedy sent 15,000 military advisers to Vietnam. By early 1963, a disillusioned president was considering pulling his soldiers from Vietnam – but only after the 1964 election. In November 1963, Diem was murdered and three weeks later Kennedy was assassinated, leaving President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) with “a god-awful mess,” as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara described it. Johnson agonized to friends about the idea of sending young men into the fire. But “we’re in there” and abandoning Vietnam would become another “domino,” pushing the East Asian countries into the communist world.

So in July 1965, Johnson crossed the Rubicon to take control of the Vietnam War. During the next three years, America’s forces bombed and destroyed villages where they suspected the VC militants lived, killing thousands of civilians, spraying fiery napalm and Agent Orange on crops and forests to expose the enemy. Some of our soldiers committed atrocities, but most GIs were just trying to keep alive from snipers, booby traps and ambush attacks.

Starting in January 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam soldiers reached a climactic moment through the Tet Offensive, unleashing automatic rifles, antitank guns and rockets at Saigon and 36 provincial capitals, killing 1,000 Americans. For the first time, polls showed that a majority of Americans believed the war was a “mistake.” Johnson called for peace talks in Paris and rejected a second election, enabling Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) to win the presidency.

By that time, over 30,000 American soldiers had been killed, our foreign relations damaged and thousands of Americans – ranging from college students and veterans to business leaders and nuns – were demanding an end of the war by words and actions. In that period, I met a German-American who said he had fought against Germany and, if needed, he would go back again to fight the Nazis. But if his son was drafted for this war, he would hustle him to Canada, where thousands of young men were going.

Meanwhile, Nixon intended to end the war with “peace and honor.” But honor, in his eyes, meant strengthening the Saigon government and the Vietnamese army, to end the war without losing it. Nixon began sending American soldiers home in stages and started the peace talks in Paris in July 1969. But at the same time, he expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos, where the enemy’s supplies and arms were protected. The Americans killed hundreds of enemies and captured their arms, but at the cost of whipping up the pressure back home to stop the killing.

After several starts and stops, on Jan. 27, 1973, diplomats at Paris agreed with a cease-fire wherein the United States would withdraw the remaining troops within 60 days, exchange prisoners and put together a coalition to conduct elections in the South. But the pact soon fell apart. Two years later, the North Vietnamese militants and the Viet Cong launched an offensive to take control of the entire country. On April 30, Ho Chi Minh’s dream was fulfilled: Vietnam for the Vietnamese.

But victory came with a heavy cost: 2 million to 4 million deaths in a population of 33 million; 2 million wounded; 11 million refugees; and a landscape littered with toxic defoliants and U.S. ordnance that killed and injured tens of thousands of people and is still doing so today. As for the Americans, 58,220 were killed; 153,303 wounded; 23,214 completely disabled; and 700,000 suffered from psychological problems. In addition, tens of thousands of veterans committed suicide in the ensuing years.

Years later, McNamara acknowledged that “our ignorance” of Vietnam’s history was one of the “major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.” But as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s adage put it, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Between 1945 and 2005, the United States tried to overthrow at least “50 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements against intolerable regimes,” according to William Blum, a specialist writer on American foreign relations.

One of the most important lessons from the Vietnam experience, according to Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale University, is that America should avoid its “imperial overstretch” in favor of diplomacy.

President Obama has adopted that principle. Speaking to West Point cadets last May, he warned that: “Since World II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” In his September 2009 address to the United Nations, Obama called for a “new era of engagement based on mutual interests” and “new coalitions that bridge old divides.”

Obama has tried to match his actions with his words. His foreign relations strategies aim to siphon off anti-American hatred by reducing our violent interventions, turning adversaries into allies and promoting a coalition of nations to fend off al-Qaida, the Taliban and particularly the Islamic State. Facing heavy winds from Congress, Obama has virtually normalized our relations with Cuba, and is closing in on normalizing relations with Iran.

The question is: Will we have enough leaders committed to diplomacy and peace, or will they slip back to our “imperial overstretch” habits?

Edward Cuddy is a history professor emeritus at Daemen College.