What has resulted from America's Mideast wars since 2001? Our military support of Syrian rebels helped create a nation in ruins, Assad in power, 400,000 deaths, and millions of refugees. Defense Secretary Mattis says "we are not winning" against Afghanistan's Taliban. Our regime-change project in Iraq fractured that nation into ungovernable pieces. Regime-change in Libya turned that dictatorship into a failed state. We're also involved nearby in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Uganda, Mali, Niger and Cameroon. The cost, according to The Nation magazine: $5.6 trillion.
Recalling that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it, I'd like to review a previous blunder.
After the Vietnamese under Marxist Ho Chi Minh defeated colonialist French forces in 1954, that nation was separated into two parts with elections planned. Knowing that Ho Chi Minh would win, the southern U.S.-supported part made sure these elections were not held. Driven by the fear that, if Vietnam fell to world communism, other "dominoes" would also fall, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations supplied money, weapons and military advisers to South Vietnam. North Vietnam worked to overthrow the south's unpopular U.S.-backed regime. By the time of Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Vietnam was in civil war and America was divided on how to respond.
But the always-busy U.S. Navy, while patrolling Vietnamese coastal waters, got involved in an alleged skirmish in 1964. President Johnson then received nearly unanimous U.S. Senate consent to "take all necessary measures" against aggression. This was Johnson's blank check to wage war and, following his election to the presidency, to prevent the presumed dominoes from falling by escalating the conflict.
The Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary McNamara, chose a program of sustained bombing called "Operation Rolling Thunder" that would increase in intensity until North Vietnam cried uncle. The bombing included Laos and Cambodia, incorporated defoliating agents to remove jungle cover, pummeled military and civilian targets, and ran for years. It rained more bombs than were used by America and its allies during all of World War II. It was kept secret from Congress and the American people. But the North Vietnamese and their southern allies were fighting for their country and wouldn't quit.
U.S. commander Westmoreland realized in 1965 that boots on the ground were essential, and U.S. troops began a "search and destroy" program. By December 1965 there were 190,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. Escalation continued. By December 1967, 500,000 troops were deployed, 100 Americans were dying every week, and a national antiwar movement was in full flower.
Then something changed; not in Vietnam but in America. In Spring 1968, Westmorland requested 200,000 more troops. President Johnson denied the request, explaining that further escalation was no longer politically tenable. The antiwar movement had turned the tables on the Pentagon.
I'm proud to report playing a small role in this turnaround. Arkansas' antiwar movement began in Fayetteville in 1967, with weekly demonstrations near the campus. One high point occurred in 1969, when the peace movement staged a demonstration on the lawn of the university's administration building overlooking Razorback Stadium during the Arkansas-Texas "game of the century." President Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham attended, and many of us wanted everybody to know that Vietnamese and Americans were suffering from U.S. aggression in a distant land.
Demonstrators met at my home the night before to prepare our display. University President David Mullins phoned me that evening to ask us, in a friendly way, to call off our demonstration. The sizable contingent of university students, faculty, Vietnam war vets and others voted, without dissent, to go ahead despite the possibility of arrest. I recall one large sign bearing the words "Remember My Lai," the mass murder of civilians by U.S. troops in 1968. The signs, including a peace symbol covering the lawn with an American flag at the center, were visible from the stadium.
The peace movement stopped the escalation, but did not end the war. The American public was divided between hawks and doves, and U.S. involvement continued until January 1973, when remaining American troops were withdrawn. The civil war continued until 1975, when Ho Chi Minh's troops captured Saigon. The cost to America: $1.06 trillion in today's dollars (Department of Defense estimate), and 55,000 dead.
Today, the Communist Party rules Vietnam in a manner described by The Diplomat magazine as similar to China's one-party rule. Vietnam maintains normal relations with the U.S. and has one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. Contrary to hawkish predictions, no further dominoes have fallen.
Commentary on 07/10/2018
Print Headline: Learning from an earlier war