History Seems to Offer No Lessons for America

Roundup: Media's Take

Tony Walker, in the Australian Financial Review (fApril 17, 2004):

History seems to offer no lessons for America as it repeats a number of the serious errors it made in Vietnam one of the most notable being the lack of an exit strategy.

On August 5, 1964, US president Lyndon Baines Johnson sent a message to Congress asking for war powers to confront a communist menace in Asia. "America keeps her word. Here, as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments. Our purpose is peace. We have no military, political or territorial ambitions in the area," Johnson wrote.

Forty years later, the same words could just as easily have been uttered by US President George Bush regarding another conflict in another time and another place. Indeed, the Iraq war resolution of late 2002 exposed the same sentiments.

In the so-called Tonkin Gulf resolution (US warships had been attacked in the Tonkin Gulf in the summer of 1964) of the US Congress of August 7, 1964, the Senate and the House of Representatives backed the then president as commander-in-chief, to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States to prevent further aggression".

Eleven years and 58,000 American lives later, the US exited from Vietnam after being consumed by the sort of agonising debates swirling about Washington now regarding Iraq. But the difference between now and then, apart from the obvious distinctions between Vietnam and Iraq, is that America has a model to look back on the Vietnam example.

Unfortunately, it seems to be in the process of repeating some of the same errors, including a flimsy pretext for an invasion; lack of clarity in its objectives; gross miscalculation about attitudes on the ground to its role not as liberators, but as occupiers; unreasonable confidence invested in local surrogates; and finally lack of an exit strategy. This last error is, arguably, the most significant.

In the mantra of the moment that the US cannot afford to fail (Bush in his televised press conference this week described failure as "unthinkable"), that it must stay the course, that it cannot cut and run, that the whole future of Western civilisation is at stake, what tends to be subsumed in the debate is the "what if" question.

That question has to do with the "unthinkable", in George Bush's words failure. Of course, in such complicated circumstances failure is sometimes difficult to define. What constitutes failure? When might it be reasonable to assess (success or) failure? What criteria should be used to judge failure?

Back in 1964 there were not many voices either who were contemplating failure: it's sometimes forgotten that the American media and intelligentsia were overwhelmingly for the Vietnam war in its early stages.

In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, arguments about the need to contain the spread of communism, to impede the fall of dominoes, prevailed, more or less.

Then it was the contest with the Soviet Union (and China) which shadowed the debate and complicated perceptions. Today it is the war on terror, the threat of militant Islam in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US that burdens discussion.

When a country is at war, questions like "what if" tend to be muted.

To be sure, there were a few voices in 1964 who separated themselves from the pack: Walter Lippmann, the distinguished newspaper columnist, and Hans Morgenthau, the historian, made their reservations known, the latter in his 1965 book Vietnam and the United States.

It's interesting to read today Johnson's private taped conversations with senior aides about his views at that moment of history of various individuals, Lippmann included. Johnson was extraordinarily sensitive to criticism and quite fussy about details raised by individual columnists.

Those were the days when the press, as opposed to television, was relatively all-powerful. Now, the chatter of the news channels with their gargantuan appetite for talking heads tends to drown even the most thoughtful commentary.

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More Comments:

Dale Andrade - 4/26/2004

The author brings up one of the usual comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq--that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is somehow an analogy to what is happening today in Iraq. Blaming defeat on the resolution itself seems to imply that guerrilla wars (or whatever the author thinks this is) are unwinnable and that it is the act of getting involved in the first place that brings on defeat.

However, the reality is that other factors were the reason for failure in Vietnam. I won't go into great detail here, but the list is endless: enemy strength in 1965 (the date US ground troops were first introduced) numbered some 250,000, to be added to by increasing North Vietnamese regular troops within a few months; regular resupply and reinforcement from North Vietnam to the tune of an average of 75,000 tons down the Ho Chi Minh Trail over a decade; aid from China and the Soviet Union in the billions of dollars over a decade; and the US decision to allow the Communists sacrosanct base areas in Cambodia and Laos. These are the major factors that led to the American failure in Vietnam.

One can argue about the effectiveness of American strategy in Vietnam, but these factors make comparisons with Iraq moot. One can also debate the failures of American strategy and tactics in Iraq thus far, but let's get off the Vietnam analogy--it's just excuse-making that will not lead to any resolution.

Stevenlee L Uanna - 4/24/2004

Americans not only don't seem to consider the lessons history teaches, even the history is skewed to distort the facts and records are kept secret decades after it is necessary. People with another agenda than the real security of the United States have hidden most of the real history and security procedures of WW II and the Cold War.

Believe it or not most of the work of the Homeland Security Department has already been done for it back in the 1950's and 60's. The man who was the architect of most of the security and counter intelligence systems we could be building on today was named William Lewis Uanna. He was the CHIEF OF THE DIVISION OF PHYSICAL SECURITY AT THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE. The State Department is covering up his murder. His career in intelligence started right before WW II in the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps. Soon he would be the main security officer on the Manhattan Project. A role three movies have portrayed him in (James Whitmore in ABOVE AND BEYOND) - (Stephen Macht in ENOLA GAY) -(Minor Mustain in HIROSHIMA). Amazingly he is not mentioned in the so called OFFICIAL histories of the Manhattan Project like General Leslie Groves book NOW IT CAN BE TOLD which appeared only months after Mr. Uanna died of a "heart attack" in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on December 22, 1961. A look at the career of Mr. Uanna or "Bud" as he was known may explain why people like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put the interests of the "Associates" he represents in "Kissinger and Associates" ahead of the Chairmanship of the 9/11 Commission. Visit the site and see if you don't agree that Bud Uanna's resume was not a model for the SECURITY SUPER CHIEF we need now. Then possibly you will join me in demanding the opening up of the files those in government insist must be kept sealed. America needs a TRUTH COMMSSSION like the one they had in South Africa to cure our ills.

Visit http://www.securitysuperchief.com

During Watergate President Nixon, referring to the Bay of Pigs, said that opening up "that scab" will reveal a lot of things that he feel would be detrimental. Detrimental for who? Unless America is willing to look under these scabs, which will require amnesty for the criminals involved to really get at the truth, how can we really protect our nation or answer those who accuse of of past atrocities? Thank you, Steven Uanna