The war in Vietnam was an unadulterated failure for the United States in every respect. However, the Washington Post argued in an April 30 editorial (Remembering Vietnam) that, at the time, it was entirely reasonable to speak of communism on the march. The Post also noted that for the sake of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam, it is important to recall the large and just cause for which they made their sacrifices.
Without denigrating the sacrifices of the brave soldiers who faced enormous danger to do what their government asked of them, much scorn should be heaped on that government for sending those troops to their deaths for no valid reason. It is important to clearly remember what happened in Vietnam so that such pointless loss of life in future brushfire wars can be avoided.
Although the U.S. political leadership bungled the war politically and militarily (an obvious fact that has to be acknowledged by even those trying to rewrite history), its biggest mistake was getting involved in the first place. The Post--and others reinventing history--seem to argue that the cause was noble but the U.S. government merely fumbled in the execution. The Post seems to forgive U.S. leaders for seeing a red tide rising because of North Koreas invasion of South Korea; the strength of pro-Soviet parties in Japan, France, and Italy; and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt and attempt to install missiles in Cuba.
Yet the Johnson administration should have been expected to exhibit a little common sense. Make no mistake, totalitarian communism was and is an absolute abomination, but by the early 1960s, the fracture of the monolithic communist bloc was apparent to all. The geopolitical landscape in the world began to tilt in the U.S. favor as the two largest and most powerful communist nations--the Soviet Union and China--became bitter enemies. Furthermore, the United States triumphed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Unions brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising was an act affecting its own sphere of influence rather than one expanding the frontiers of communism. Worrying about the overblown strength of pro-Soviet parties in Italy, France and Japan did not serve U.S. security but merely reflected an insecurity that the superior systems of market capitalism and democracy in those nations might not triumph in the end.
Also absent was a clear definition of American vital interests. Shortly before the Korean War, the Pentagon considered South Korea of little strategic interest and predicted that that nation would eventually end up dominated by the Soviet Union. President Truman seems to have disregarded the Pentagons opinion when he sent forces to beat back the North Korean invasion. If South Korea--with its close proximity to Japan--was not regarded by the Pentagon as strategic, why did the Johnson administration believe that the remote South Vietnam was vital to U.S. security? President Johnson himself wondered why the United States was getting involved in a backwater nation such as Vietnam. Nonetheless, he plunged into the quagmire with both feet.
The medias rewriting of history reflects a national desire to deny that 58,000 Americans lost their lives in vain. But the cold, cruel fact is that they did, and the U.S. government is responsible for this utter waste of human life. In addition, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are responsible, respectively, for lying to the American people about the progress of the war and the desire to end it. They were also responsible for undermining the public''s confidence in the American political system and the economic prosperity that undergirded it.
Another reason the media changed their tune 25 years after the war is their need to justify the current muscular liberalism in foreign policy. The contradiction of criticizing the Vietnam War but applauding the dispatch of troops to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia on humanitarian missions is too glaring. If the media rewrite history so that Vietnam is a large and just cause that just went awry in execution, the insidious cognitive dissonance is erased. The media even gave time to the preposterous Alamo defense: that the ignominious U.S. defeat in Vietnam bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia to escape communism.
But as with the Holocaust, we should remember Vietnam in all of its horror so that it doesnt happen again. As time passes, our memories of Vietnam are fading and are being twisted. Rewriting history to make people feel better or to justify further bad policy may cause the horror to repeat itself--for example, long after the Cold War, U.S. involvement in the Colombian civil war to battle that nation''s communists is already escalating ominously.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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