What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?

April 29, 2015–On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the things I heard there are actually disturbing for citizens of a nation that is continually faced with new appeals for it to commit blood and treasure in foreign ventures, some important, some not so much.

One panelist went on about transformation. That is, since the Vietnam war the lands of East Asia have enjoyed an economic boom, greater prosperity, more cohesion in terms of regional politics, and the like, attributed to the “stand” the United States made in Vietnam. When you have lemons, make lemonade. First, the United States did not make a “stand” in Vietnam, that was an intervention. More to the point, while it is perfectly understandable that national and international investments had been slowed by the security fears occasioned by the war, and therefore surged once it ended, attributing economic prosperity to the war is mistaking consequence for purpose. America lost the Vietnam war–and not prettily–and to make it out as a victory of any sort is inadmissible. This version is actually something popularized by Walt W. Rostow in the 1990s, when Robert McNamara’s memoir deploring the mistakes of White House insiders put Rostow on the hook of responsibility for some of the trauma of Vietnam.

Another panelist learned that presidents need to keep their sights on three things– the need to keep on the right side of the Congress, the American people, and the media. There were no lessons about valid purposes, none about proper commitments, nothing learned about the need for exit strategies. Apart from the question of whether it is any longer even possible to stay on the right side of the Congress, this whole thing is about freedom of action. Presidents can do anything they like so long as they follow these three easy rules.

If this is the caliber of our takeaway from the Vietnam war then perhaps it is a good thing that Americans spent several decades trying to forget all about Vietnam.

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