Joseph A. Palermo: History Through a Bush





[Mr. Palermo is Assistant Professor, History, CSUS.]

I wasn't going to write about George W. Bush's recent disfigurement of the history of the Vietnam War because I didn't believe it was worthy of a response. But when I read David Kirkpatrick's piece in The New York Times saying that Bush's remarks "sent historians scurrying toward their keyboards," I felt I better join my esteemed colleagues and "scurry" (like a rat?) to my computer.

On August 22, 2007, Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri:

"The world would learn just how costly these misinterpretations would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea. . . . "

The Historian-in-Chief put forth a novel interpretation of the meaning of these Vietnam War factoids. I guess the Munich 1938 analogy had exhausted its usefulness, so Bush's speechwriters pulled out this gem. The point was clear: the United States must continue occupying Iraq or a genocidal bloodbath will unfold there, "just like Vietnam."

Let's recall a few factoids of our own.

Let's recall that according to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara the U.S. was directly responsible for the deaths of over 3 million Vietnamese.

Let's also recall that President Richard Nixon began "secretly" bombing Cambodia in March 1969, and when the B-52s fell silent a few years later the United States had rained over 112,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia. The bombing terrorized people in the countryside and created population displacements the likes of which Cambodians had never experienced.

Let's also recall that in 1970 Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk and install the obscure General Lon Nol as the new puppet dictator.

Let's also remember that China backed the Khmer Rouge, which swelled in the aftermath of the bombing and the coup from a fringe group of about 3,000 fighters to over 30,000, especially after Prince Sihanouk, embittered at the CIA for ousting him, sided with the Khmer Rouge to resist the U.S.-backed regime. (To get a taste of just how angry Sihanouk was with the CIA just read his book entitled: My War with the CIA.)

Nixon's carpet-bombing scared the daylights out of the peasantry of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge exploited the fear and chaos to grab more influence and power (kind of like how Bush has exploited the fear of another 9/11 to enhance his power).

When Nixon ordered U.S. forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam into Cambodia for an "incursion" in May 1970, sparking mass protests in America as well as the Kent and Jackson State killings, he made the situation far worse because it sparked marriages of convenience between political factions in Cambodia that probably never would have occurred under any other set of circumstances. (It was also a total failure.)

The Khmer Rouge, in effect, rode the American B-52s into power.

Let's recall too that the entire time the Khmer Rouge was annihilating the intelligentsia, the urban elite, and anyone else who got in its way, China was its principal financial and military supporter. Both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter believed that the progress being made with the historic "opening" with China was far more important than trying to put an end to the Chinese-backed "killing fields." In fact, after the People's Army of Vietnam overthrew Pol Pot in 1978 with the support of the Cambodian people, the Carter administration refused to recognize the new government and denounced the Vietnamese for their "unlawful" intervention in Cambodia.

In Vietnam, the "boat people" and other victims of the war who fled the country in the aftermath of the American defeat in April 1975 had been part of an artificial governing class in Saigon that owed its existence to the massive amounts of economic and military aid the United States had lavished on South Vietnam beginning in the mid-1950s. The Vietnamese refugees were the predictable outcome of 30 years of war and occupation. If one takes even the most cursory look at the United States' "Commercial Import Program" (CIP) for South Vietnam that was begun in the early years of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime (1955-1963) and continued in various forms all the way to 1975, it is clear that the American largess created an unsustainable "middle class" in Vietnam that suffered the wrath of its fellow Vietnamese when the Saigon government fell. But what really collapsed the regime of General Nguyen Van Thieu were the oil shocks of the early 1970s, which made the artificial economy of South Vietnam untenable. Just go to a used bookstore and find a copy of George McT. Kahin's Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, (1986), and read about the origins of the United States' client regime in Saigon; it was never a self-sustaining entity (like the current Iraqi government).

In short, it was the military and economic policies of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, starting with the financing of the French war shortly after World War Two, which created the social conditions for the humanitarian catastrophes that followed.

In Iraq, the city of Ramadi is widely heralded as a great military "victory" and success story. The Vietnam scholar, Marilyn Young, in an essay in her recent edited work, "Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam," points out that American Marines attacked Ramadi in July 2004, and then again in February 2005, and again in June 2006. She quotes a reporter's description of the city: "Whole city blocks here look like a scene from some post-apocalyptic world: row after row of buildings shot up, boarded up, caved in, tumbled down." Half the population fled and the American forces razed to the ground Central Ramadi and constructed a fortified "green zone." The U.S. military is carrying out similar operations in other Iraqi cities setting up check-points and constructing enormous earthen berms to seal off cities in what are called "clear and hold" operations, (similar to the "strategic hamlet" program in Vietnam). It is nearly impossible to distinguish insurgents and "bad guys" from ordinary Iraqi civilians, (as it was in Vietnam). The tens of thousands of displaced women, children and old men add to the chaos of a "war" that has no front lines, (as was the case in Vietnam). These are the kind of analogies that have relevance, not Bush's twisted self-serving "lessons."

In February 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy summed up America's folly in Vietnam. And what he said then can be directly applied to the current occupation of Iraq:

"For the people of Vietnam the last three years have meant little but horror. . . . Whole provinces have been substantially destroyed. . . . With all of the lives and resources we have poured into Vietnam is there anyone to argue that a government with any support from its people, with any competence to rule, with any determination to defend itself, would not long ago have been victorious over any insurgent movement, however assisted from outside its borders?

"For twenty years, first the French and then the United States, have been predicting victory in Vietnam. In 1961 and 1962, as well as 1966 and 1967, we have been told that 'the tide is turning'; there is 'light at the end of the tunnel'; 'we can soon bring home the troops -- victory is near -- the enemy is tiring.' Once, in 1962, I participated in such predictions myself. But for twenty years we have been wrong. The history of conflict among nations does not record another such lengthy and consistent chronicle of error. It is time to discard so proven a fallacy and face the reality that a military victory is not in sight, and that it probably will never come.

"The best way to save our most precious stake in Vietnam -- the lives of our soldiers -- is to stop the enlargement of the war, and the best way to end casualties is to end the war."


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