Vietnam War: 30 years later

On April 30, the United States commemorates the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. As we look back at Vietnam, we must ask ourselves, what have we learned? How do we bring those lessons into current foreign policy making and state practice? On April 29, 2005, the Center for American Progress conducted an Interview with Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Vietnam: A History, to answer some of these questions.

What are the most important lessons this country learned from Vietnam?

There are many lessons from Vietnam. The first is: don't get involved in a situation in a place where you don't know anything about the people or the country. We had no specialists on Vietnam; we knew nothing about them; and we didn't learn anything from the French. We also got involved without an exit strategy, and we were in there without any clear cut support from the American public= Most Americans didn't even know where Vietnam was on a map. We made the mistake of propping up a weak, unpopular government in South Vietnam, and later we were complicit in overthrowing the government because we finally realized they were incompetent.

Nearly 60,000 Americans ended up dying. Twenty-five years after the war, the war's chief architect, Robert McNamara, who served under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, looked back at the war and said that it was all "terribly wrong."

Vietnam was one of the most horrible chapters in American history. We didn't get involved in Vietnam because of oil or markets or raw materials. We didn't get involved in Vietnam for any practical reasons. It was hubris and pride. We stumbled in based on misinformation. We thought that the Vietnamese communists were part of an international communist conspiracy. We thought Ho Chi Minh was a pawn of China and Russia. One looks back, and it is a terrible tragedy.

Do you see any similarities between Vietnam and what we are seeing in Iraq?

It is dangerous to take one situation and overlay it on another. They are very different situations. Iraq is much more complicated than Vietnam. Vietnam was a civil war between anti-communist and communist factions. The Vietnamese agreed, though, that there should be one Vietnam. It's just they had different approaches. Vietnam was simple and forthright compared to Iraq; Iraq has different ethnic and religious factions.

We got involved in Vietnam very gradually. It started as a low-wage guerilla war and then escalated into a conventional war. Iraq started as a conventional war and became a guerilla war. The guerilla war in Vietnam was mostly in the countryside, while the guerilla war in Iraq is urban warfare. This is much more difficult. The insurgents in Iraq have much more sophisticated weaponry than the Vietnamese communists had. The Iraqi insurgents can shoot down helicopters – they make Vietnam look like child's play.

I personally think that we are involved today in an international war, and Iraq is not the most important part of it. The most important threat we are facing today is international terrorism, extending from Asia to Africa and capable of carrying out attacks on the United States. Vietnam was nowhere close to that. Vietnamese communists had no intention of going outside of their borders; they wanted to throw out foreigners. Vietnam was very much a local situation, and Iraq is a sideshow to the really big problem of fighting against international terrorism.

I am not very optimistic today. Our intelligence is very poor. Years have gone by, and we haven't captured Osama bin Laden and there are probably dozens of Osama bin Ladens.

Iraq may evoke Vietnam, but it is very dangerous to compare. Similarities exist in that Iraq may become the quagmire that Vietnam was called. But there are also positive things that have happened in Iraq. We got rid of Saddam Hussein, and Iraqis had an election and have a somewhat representative government. However, this was not the Bush administration's purpose. I think it was a misguided adventure from the beginning. I think Bush went into Iraq for an evangelical purpose.

Do you see major differences between the fighting forces of today and those in Vietnam, especially in terms of the demographic makeup of the armed forces?

Under the draft in Vietnam, there were exemptions for college students, which meant that that the "elite classes" largely did not serve in Vietnam. By and large, the Vietnam War was fought by professional forces, and by people who couldn't escape the draft. People who were not in college and a large contingent of black soldiers ended up fighting. The Reserves and National Guard were never called up in Vietnam.

In Iraq, the National Guard and Reserves are fighting in Iraq. The fighting forces in Iraq are more representative of the general U.S. population than was the case in Vietnam. In Vietnam, there should have been no exemptions. If there were no exemptions, more Americans would have been more aware of what was happening in Vietnam. Middle-class Americans did not protest. They were not aware. Protests were coming from those people who did not have to serve.

Did that disconnect between those who fought and those who protested create more anger against U.S. troops?

Yes, the protesters blamed the soldiers, calling them "baby killers" and "losers." John Kerry is a rare case. He had the audacity and courage to fight in the war and to be wounded in the war and to come back to protest against it. At least he had the credibility. But Jane Fonda's type of protest turned more people off than it influenced. The anti-war movement had much less influence than people think. President Nixon won by a landslide in 1972 – winning every state except Massachusetts. The anti-war movement did not influence the larger population. It existed in campuses and not in communities.

Do you see similarities in the domestic challenges for Presidents Johnson and Bush – the fact that they are trying to maintain U.S. commitment to a war that the American public is increasingly doubting?

The American public is turning off in Iraq just as they did in Vietnam. By the mid-'60s, most Americans thought it was a mistake, and then the question was how to get out of it. But many were concerned about our reputation, and we found ourselves locked in a situation where we were up against an enemy that would take unlimited losses.

If Americans did not support the war by the mid-1960s, why were they not supportive of the anti-war movement?

When Nixon appeared in the 1968 primary, his campaign slogan was that he was going to give Americans peace with honor. Americans wanted peace, but an honorable peace. The anti-war movement did not offer an honorable peace. They were running around wearing Viet Cong uniforms and burning flags. Most Americans are and were patriotic and realized that it was a bad situation. I was covering George McGovern's presidential race, and he kept saying that we had to get out of Vietnam. But he did not offer alternatives, and Americans were still inculcated with the idea that communism was just going to take over if we left.

What do you think Americans should remember in commemorating the Vietnam War?

Vietnam taught us that we can't do everything everywhere. Americans before Vietnam thought we were a generation of John Waynes – that we could swagger into a saloon and knock off the bad guys. It can't be that way. We are not omnipotent. In the wake of the Vietnam War, Colin Powell and Casper Weinberger agreed that war had to be absolutely the last resort when every other option is lost. Bush made a grievous error in getting this country into Iraq.


Other Commentary on the Vietnam War:

Interview of Robert McNamara: "'And if we can't persuade other nations with comparable values and comparable interests of the merit of our course, we should reconsider the course, and very likely change it. And if we'd followed that rule, we wouldn't have been in Vietnam, because there wasn't one single major ally, not France or Britain or Germany or Japan, that agreed with our course or stood beside us there. And we wouldn't be in Iraq.'…The United States is today the strongest power in the world, politically, economically and militarily, and I think it will continue to be so for decades ahead, if not for the whole century,' he told me. 'But I do not believe, with one qualification, that it should ever, ever use that power unilaterally – the one qualification being the unlikely event we had to use it to defend the continental U.S., Alaska or Hawaii.'"

— Doug Saunders, "It's Just Wrong What We're Doing," Globe & Mail (Canada), January 25, 2004

"I wonder: Are the insurgents in Iraq students of history? Have they studied Ho Chi Minh's playbook? Are they familiar with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's dream of cutting the country in two?…Are they aware that protracted war goes against the grain of the American experience? Do they understand that the president's encouraging words are effective, but only up to a point, given battlefield reversals and disappointment?"

— Charles A. Krohn, "In Iraq, Echoes of Another Offensive," The Washington Post, December 29, 2004

"'Time is the condition to be won to defeat the enemy,' wrote Ho Chi Minh, the man whose insurgency drove U.S. forces from Vietnam 30 years ago. 'To protract the war is the key to victory,' agreed his revolutionary colleague Dang Xuan Khu. 'We shall weary and discourage them in such a way that, strong as they are, they will become weak and meet defeat.'

— David Ignatius, "Time Is a Weapon," The Washington Post, January 11, 2005

"The truth is that atrocities were committed in Vietnam. The worst and most horrendous atrocity was officially sanctioned. The American command coldbloodedly set about to deprive the Communists of the recruits and other assistance the peasantry could provide by emptying the countryside. Peasant hamlets in Communist-dominated areas were deliberately and relentlessly bombed and shelled. Free Fire Zones – anything that moved, human or animal, could be killed – were redlined on military maps.… It created an atmosphere that fostered the massacre at My Lai hamlet on March 16, 1968, when 347 Vietnamese old men, women, boys, girls and babies were butchered.… There is a way to honestly confront the reality of Vietnam and yet still honor the men who fought there. One must learn to distinguish between the war and the warrior.…"

— Neil Sheehan, "A War Without End," The New York Times, August 27, 2004,

"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.…"

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,"

Speech delivered April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

"We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts – on their determinations and resourcefulness – the outcome will ultimately depend.… And there may come a time when South Vietnamese – on both sides – are able to work out a way to settle their own differences by free political choice rather than by war…. We have no intention of widening this war. But the United States will never accept a fake solution to this long and arduous struggle and call it peace…."

— Lyndon B. Johnson, "Renunciation Speech," delivered March 31, 1968

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For more information on the Vietnam War, please see the following:

The movie, the Fog of War, offers interesting insights into the Vietnam War. Its website can be found at: http://www.sonyclassics.com/fogofwar/indexFlash.html

Please note the website of the Vietnam Veterans of America at: http://www.vva.org/whatsnew/30Anniversary/index.htm