Does Rumsfeld Remember His Own Vietnam Lessons for Iraq?

News Abroad

Mr. Carter is Assistant Professor of History, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi.

Despite the Bush administration’s assurances that the United States will prevail in Iraq, the creation of a modern, democratic state is slipping further and further from reach. The violence continues to grow more destructive daily. The number of U.S. soldiers killed topped 2,100 (844 for 2005), while conservative estimates put the number of Iraqi civilian dead at more than 30,000. Most Iraqis either energetically oppose the American presence or do not support it. Charges of waste, mismanagement and fraud continue to dog the very legitimacy of the entire process of rebuilding the shattered state. American corporations such as the construction giant Halliburton remain at the center of controversy for war profiteering, and now individuals have been indicted on charges of accepting kickbacks and bribes for handing out millions in contracts. Experts now tell us that one for every three dollars spent goes to pay private contractors. The Iraqi state and its rebuilding have been thoroughly privatized, and yet much of the physical infrastructure such as water and electricity remains war-torn, neglected and unreliable. The people of Iraq and in the Arab world more generally have drawn their own conclusions regarding America’s intentions following an alarming string of revelations of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison to the latest accusations of torture in other parts of Iraq and around the world. Nevertheless, the Bush administration continues to assure the world that this state building effort will succeed, that the United States can and will “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people and build a stable, free, democratic nation. Perhaps administration officials such as defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld know something we, and the president, do not.

It is true, after all, that Rumsfeld, who warned us that the American mission in Iraq would be “a long, hard slog,” knows very well what the U.S. is up against in Iraq. As a Representative from Illinois during the 1960s, he traveled to Vietnam along with a team of congressmen during the “Americanization” of the effort there. This team conducted the first comprehensive investigation of the U.S. economic and military assistance programs to Vietnam. Its members investigated war-induced inflation, hoarding, the black market economy, corruption, theft and other “diversions” of American aid, the auditing and oversight processes, profiteering, capital flight, port congestion, the effort to pacify the people, the refugee problem, the public health care infrastructure and the massive construction contracts awarded to private firms to physically build the new nation.

This investigation revealed shocking levels of corruption, mismanagement and out right theft that were built in to the program. Donald Rumsfeld reported to the subcommittee, “I want this record and you gentlemen to know how disappointed I was at the discussions in Vietnam with AID [the Agency for International Development] personnel.” Repeatedly, questions put to these officials by Rumsfeld and others, “could not be answered…because of the lack of records, the lack of audits, the lack of procedures whereby this information would be available. And I got the feeling…that the information is not available. It was this thread that ran through the entire investigation that gave me a great deal of concern. It is distressing for a member of a subcommittee to be attempting to come to grips with these problems, and to be repeatedly told that necessary and basic information is not available.” The result of these considerable and overlapping problems, Rumsfeld added, “has been that the U.S…programs have failed to appreciably assist the Vietnamese in developing a more stable and secure society.”

These were not little problems, according to Rumsfeld, but large ones which threatened to undermine the entire project. The United States, he wrote, “has committed billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian personnel to Vietnam. Thousands of lives have been lost and additional heavy losses can be expected….Unless we can advance the economic, political, and social development of Vietnam, any military success will be limited and of little lasting value.” Rumsfeld clearly understood what the mission in Vietnam involved, and he decried “the almost total lack of success on the nonmilitary side of the effort. All could be wasted unless the political instability, religious and regional differences, and the severe economic difficulties are remedied.”

The findings and recommendations of the congress all those years ago contain very important lessons for today. The situation in Iraq daily grows more desperate. The needs, economic, social, and political, are great. The appearance of American unilateralism only hinders the overall effort. As Rumsfeld himself concluded in a letter to the congress voicing his considerable shock and consternation over the policies of the administration of Lyndon Johnson, “the real problem is the development, by the United States, preferably working in cooperation with other…nations rather than alone or almost alone as at present, of programs and techniques and approaches more suitable to meeting the pressures as they exist in Vietnam.”

As is well known, this did not come to pass in Vietnam. The Johnson administration, and that of Richard Nixon which followed, seemed impervious to bad news and to sound advice that ran counter to its own agenda. For his part, Lyndon Johnson demanded that those around him energetically stamp all talk of a neutralist settlement even if they believed it the proper course given events in Vietnam. Johnson himself said more than once that one of the principle obstacles to U.S. policy was the fact that there was no real, legitimate government in Saigon. Responding to advice to take the war north of the 17th parallel, Johnson admonished, “you don’t send a widow woman to slap Jack Dempsey.” Yet, he sent the old widow north in 1965. Even the sharp criticisms of fellow Democrat J. William Fulbright, the powerful Arkansas Senator, could not dissuade the administration from its disastrous course. Similarly, Richard Nixon ignored warnings of profound corruption, weakness and instability of the Saigon regime. His policies included no real effort to counter the regime’s illegitimacy and lack of popular support. He insisted that real obstacles centered on communist subversion and insurgent terrorism and followed with a secret and illegal war in Cambodia.

The crisis in Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat for the United States and massive destruction for the people of Vietnam. Given these historic developments, Donald Rumsfeld brings to this current crisis considerable experience. At the very least, the current defense secretary no doubt learned some valuable lessons from the tragic experience in Vietnam. The real question is: does he remember them?

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This is the kind of real and informative history this website ought to be encouraging, instead of the sloppy propagandistic punditry more often found here. But the Rambo Myth crowd is unlikely to be persuaded by this piece. It is a pity that the author/editor could not bother to included a few dates and footnotes to buttress this timely exposé of Donald Hubristic Hypocrite Rumsfeld.

Clara Louise Morgan - 1/30/2006

I just like to comment on your last comment about Abu Ghraib. Though we could argue for hours about whether or not humiliating someone by forcing them to pose naked for pictures can be qualified as "torture," I think we can both agree that it is abuse, and that's what Carter called it in his article. Unless you have always considered that a favorite punishment for your children, we might even have a long argument about the definition of "abuse."

And I don't think that you can make the pictures from Abu Ghraib innoccuous by the simple use of a description like: "a young dude walking naked in front of a young woman." That wasn't a case of "Insurgents Gone Wild." These pictures weren't taken at a frat house. It wasn't hazing (which is also illegal in the military, these days). It wasn't fun loving. It wasn't just some young "dude" walking naked in front of a "young" woman. I think you just "re-state[d] the facts to show trends which do not exist." Not to say that all of your comments weren't good.

Frederick Thomas - 1/24/2006

Unsupported characterization and politicized rhetoric seems to preclude factual discourse in this article. Even Mr. Clark, who froths at the mouth at the mere mention of Mr. Rumsfeldt, implies that more substance is needed. Indeed.

A few examples:

"...the creation of a modern, democratic state is slipping further and further from reach."

Did Mr. Jimmy Carter (?) miss the recent elections? One must presume so. He must have cut that class.

"The violence continues to grow more destructive daily."

Did Mr. Carter sleep through stat 101? Counting the actual numbers suggests that murders by Sunni thugs are down, though always too high. Mr. Carter quotes 30,000 Iraqi dead, the same figure quoted after the main force war. That implies that no new Iraqi deaths have taken place since then. Huh?

"Most Iraqis either energetically oppose the American presence or do not support it."

Ask any Kurd or Shia, Carter. They are almost 80% of the folks there.

"Charges of waste, mismanagement and fraud continue to dog the very legitimacy of the entire process"

Like, for example, during the first Washington administration, or perhaps the Grant administration?

"American corporations such as the construction giant Halliburton remain at the center of controversy for war profiteering"

Like, for example, DuPont or Colt during the Civil War?

Experts now tell us that one for every three dollars spent goes to pay private contractors.

So? Rather give it to the UN?

"following an alarming string of revelations of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison"

Last year's news, Carter. Prosecuted, decided, jailed, although no one has yet explained how a young dude walking naked in front of a young woman is torture. Next!

Whoops, that's it. Another case of internalize the propaganda, and restate the facts to show trends which do not exist, facts which are not in evidence, and political directions which have long been dead.

And, of course, no footnotes. Those actually wanting to know a few statistics can try this one:


Nonetheless, I thank Mr. Carter for his efforts.

James Starowicz [Independant] - 1/23/2006

There are Lessons, but they always fail, that rummy, cheney, wolfawitz etc. etc. etc., did learn from than.

How to Gain More from Corruption and War Profiteering!

They Gained, i.e. Billions Missing, Billions Over Charged, in Wealth, it'll come out sooner or later.

But those lessons Alway fail for the Power/Wealth Hungry as Corruption 'Corrupts' and the Mistakes 'Compound', man ain't as smart as it thinks it is!!

James Starowicz [Independant] - 1/23/2006

Should also add Atrosities, Actual or Perceived, move a small countries populace against the powerful force!

James Starowicz [Independant] - 1/23/2006

Lessons are Never Learned, certainly not after invading a small country for Unkown Reasons and False Intelligence geared to sway invading countries populace!
It's 'Simple' Guerilla/Insurgent Wars can never be 'Won' and especially the hearts and minds of the invaded!
Take one Positive Step forward and with every report of 'Innocents' being Killed/Maimed as well as Torture of 'Enemy', and the list can continue, You take a Huge Number of Steps 'Backward'!!
In Vietnam, the Insurgent Population/Citizens just wanted to rid their country of the invaders.
In todays World, and for a long time leading up to, the Invaded/Abused take their Battles across manmade borders!
The more the so called Powerful swagger that power with Terror in Regions the more the Growth of Hatreds occur, leading to a More Dangerous World!