Lessons of Vietnam–When Will They Ever Learn?

On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war the airwaves are full of special programs, and the op-ed pages are packed to the gills with articles and symposia – all opining about the “lessons” of that conflict. Naturally, the New York Times takes this opportunity to pontificate: in today’s [April 25] editorial the editors write that was “a senseless conflict that might have been avoided,” berating Lyndon Baines Johnson for not following his instincts and getting out of the developing quagmire. We were “numbed and trapped by the liturgies of the cold war,” we are told: we stupidly drafted men for a war that lacked public support and did “grievous damage” to ourselves and our principles. But what is the New York Times numbed and trapped by – Alzheimer’s? Have they forgotten that, a mere year ago, their editorial page was a launching pad for virtually every laptop bombardier in the Beltway and beyond? Can they forget so easily the pious lectures, the “human rights” rhetoric and overwhelming wave of self-righteousness that energized the War Party in the summer of 1999?


The pious pomposity of the “lessons” we are supposed to have learned from our great defeat is almost too much to bear, and I point them out to my readers only because such pain cannot be borne alone. “It changed America in innumerable ways, for better and for worse.” For better? When a writer falls into bromides like “for better and for worse” – for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health – you know he’s trying to get away with something, and in this case it’s the appalling idea that there was anything good about the Vietnam war. Like what, fr’instance? In the next sentence the Times mournfully notes that the war “undermined a generation’s faith in the judgment and truthfulness of its military and diplomatic leaders” – and you just know they don’t mean that. Oh no, the alleged great benefit of this bloody sacrifice on the altar of the war god was that “it taught us that the United States must not commit its soldiers to protracted combat in the absence of clear security interests, and that future wars cannot be fought without the support of the American people.” But only yesterday these same editorial writers were earnestly egging Bubba on as he disdained the concept of the “national interest” as the guiding principle of American foreign policy and reduced much of Yugoslavia to rubble in the name of “human rights.” Now we’re getting to the really unbearable part, where our editorial writer intones a solemn dirge, the anthem of his own hypocrisy:

“For these and many other reasons, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington is different from the other monuments where America honors its fallen soldiers. The starkness and simplicity of the memorial, with the names of each soldier etched in polished black granite, reminds visitors that no victory is celebrated on this spot, no noble cause honored in memory of those who sacrifice their lives. The monument instead commemorates as needless sacrifice of troops who were betrayed by a president who prosecuted a war he did not believe in for a goal that he could not define in public speeches or private conversation. That, more than anything, is what the nation must remember this week, and that is why the words of Lyndon Johnson still sting.”


What words are they talking about?: Well, it seems that Johnson once “confided” in a conversation with Senator Richard Russell that he just didn’t see the point of sending soldiers (speaking specifically of one of his valets) into the rice paddies of Vietnam: “And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it?” Johnson is supposed to have asked. “And it just makes the chills run up my back.” As well it should have. But what of it? The war was never LBJ’s idea to begin with, it was the sainted John F. Kennedy who really escalated both the number of American “advisors” in South Vietnam and their scope of action. Here was a warmonger the New York Times could love, perhaps because he expressed the rationale for getting sucked in to another ground war on the Asian landmass in ringing tones – as he did rather eloquently in his first inaugural address, on a frigid Winter day in 1961:

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge – and more.”


The price was higher than anyone imagined at the time. Yet the ruler of “Camelot” is absolved – not even mentioned! – by the self-appointed War Crimes Tribunal over on West 43rd Street. Unlike the glamorous JFK, LBJ was a hideous old buzzard who had not been anointed by the elites but merely filled in for one who had. Yet it was the Anointed One who jumped into the Vietnamese quagmire headfirst, a determination ominously foreshadowed in his famous inaugural speech. After pledging to our “old allies” our undying devotion, an open-ended commitment of troops and treasure, Kennedy turns to “those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free”:

“We pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom – and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”


It was Americans, tens of thousands of young American soldiers, who wound up in the Vietnamese tiger’s belly, and it was Kennedy who defended our growing involvement in the Autumn of 1963 against the gentle blandishments of Walter Cronkite:

“I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away. We took all this-made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate-we may not like it-in the defense of Asia.”


In the familiar phrases of militant Cold War liberalism, Kennedy conjured the memory of America’s “good war” to justify the one at hand – not unlike the War Party of today, which discovers a new “Hitler” every couple of years (or is that months?) in order to justify a policy of perpetual war. Don’t worry, said Kennedy to the Third World, we won’t abandon you to the Commies:

“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”


The world-savers and do-gooders who thought they were the pioneers of a “New Frontier” were merely the victims of their own hubris: not only were we going to take on the Communists, but also poverty and misery on a world scale – the alleged “underlying causes” of Communism. Vietnam was the liberals’ war, and the new administration was the perfect incubator for the impending disaster. Kennedy was just as hard on the Vietnam question as his successors, not only Johnson but also Richard Nixon. In a September interview with Chet Huntley

HUNTLEY: “Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Vietnam now?”

JFK. “I don’t think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost-a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don’t want that.”

BRINKLEY: “Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called “domino theory,” that if South Vietnam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it ?”

JFK: “No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Vietnam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also Live the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.”


Robert F. Kennedy confirms his brother’s determined interventionism even in the face of an imploding political situation in Saigon, and the collapse of public support at home – and so the Oliver Stone school of revisionist history on this subject, as retailed on the editorial page of the New York Times, is utterly without foundation.


But while Kennedy may take a good part of the blame for escalating the conflict to the point where it was noticed by the average American, then it was Eisenhower who was the first to stake our fateful claim. And it wasn’t the Left that first raised the alarm, but a veteran America Firster, the Old Right journalist John T. Flynn. In a radio commentary broadcast on January 15, 1952, the conservative publicist pointed out that the Eisenhower administration was bankrolling French colonialists in their bid to retain their Indochinese empire, giving “hundreds of millions of dollars in materials and arms.” The war was “sapping France” – just as it would drain us of our lifeblood if we intervened. The US would be “put in the position of aiding the aggressors against the people, while Russia will pose as the defender of the natives against the European aggressors.” Against the rising outcry that the free world was facing a “setback” in the region, Flynn bluntly replied: “Indo-China is not part of the free world. It is a captive country. The captors are the French.”


Just as he had rejected the interventionist arguments of the 1930s, when the Left was demanding that the US open up a “second front” to save the Soviet Union and the empires of Europe, so Flynn scoffed at when the cry went up – from many of the same people – demanding that we launch a global holy war against our formerly noble allies. The globalists, said Flynn, “frighten us by telling us Stalin will come over to eat us up, just as they told us Hitler would come over here.” The War Party naturally backed Ike in 1952 because “they believe he has taken his stand with Truman and Acheson and Dulles for the mad program of scattering our wealth and our income all over the world.” Flynn believed that we would come to regret the consequences of our nascent intervention in the Far East, and he was right. America’s role as financier of the French would soon give way to that of pinch-hitter for European imperialism. While most eyes were fixated on the Korean peninsula, Flynn was convinced that the next big foreign policy crisis was bound to break out in Indochina in time for the 1952 presidential election. He was a bit off in timing his prediction – but in this case, better too early than too late.


The curious inability of the Times editorial writer to comprehend how his solemn invocation of “lessons learned” contradicts everything else that appears on the same page in regard to Kosovo is a mental affliction that has all the characteristic of a growing plague. It is a form of dementia, apparently, where the victim is so blind to his own mendacity that he has about him the air of an innocent – even while he literally wallows in his own hypocrisy, in public and in print. Which brings us to the subject of Todd Gitlin, and his contribution to a Salon symposium dutifully entitled “What did we learn from Vietnam?


In an introduction, the editors of Salon coyly note that “each time the country is called upon to weigh the costs of intervention – Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere – the lessons of Vietnam are revisited and revised.” Revised is hardly the word: completely rewritten to mean the exact opposite is more like it, as the pathetic case of Gitlin – official chronicler and glorifier of the New Left, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and a failed novelist – makes clear. The war, in Gitlin’s view, was an unremitting mistake, from beginning to end, and the great lesson was to

“remind subsequent political leaders that they should not arrogantly assume that they can work their political will wherever and whenever they want. It convinced them moreover that they should think twice before committing American military forces without major alliances – it damaged the prospect for unilateral action, which is a good thing. Overall, it was an absolutely horrible moment in American history.”


Notice here the first sign of the coming sellout. It isn’t just intervention that is the problem, but only unilateral action by the US. But what does he think the Vietnam war was: troops from South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops. The Southeast Atlantic Treaty Organization (SEATO), put in place by Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, was the Asian counterpart to NATO. US troops did not fight alone against the Vietcong: virtually all of the “Free World” countries sent contingents, at first, so that at least the fig-leaf of multi-lateralism covered up the reality of American power as the driving force behind the military effort. This didn’t seem to impress young Todd back in the sixties, his “days of rage”: however, now that he’s sufficiently chilled out and “matured,” his views seemed to have undergone a weird inversion. Instead of lecturing the elites about how they ought to give peace a chance, Gitlin is scolding them for having lost their nerve: he berates the military for its reluctance to jump into the Balkans quickly as Gitlin and others would like, and turns on his former comrades in the antiwar movement:

“Some people on the left and on the right have concluded from the Vietnam War, on the isolationist side, that the U.S. should not commit military force anywhere for any purpose. I think that’s mistaken. Because the US was criminally wrongheaded in the case of Vietnam, it does not follow that there can be no legitimate use of force. I think a use of force toward humanitarian ends is legitimate. It should be done in alliance – it should not be done unilaterally. It would have been absolutely right to do it in Rwanda, it was right to do it in Bosnia, and it would have been right to do it in Kosovo, where it should have been done earlier.”


The Gitlin of old is no more, if he ever was. Would the “raging” Gitlin of his long-lost youth have thought to call the antiwar demonstrators of the sixties “isolationists”? The old epithet of Cold War liberalism, the smear word that is meant to characterize opponents of war as archaic eccentrics, futile crusaders against modernity, is revived – and should be worn by all opponents of the New World Order as a badge of honor.


To the undiscerning reader – and we all know Salon has plenty of those – the trick phrase “commit military force” could mean committing violence per se, rather than committing troops to some specific (overseas) hot-spot. Gitlin deliberately confuses noninterventionism with pacifism: the two, while not mutually exclusive, are hardly the same. In any case, the new antiwar movement sees through the myth of “collective security”: by extending our alliances to the ends of the earth, by guaranteeing the peace and “security” of Azerbaijan and Estonia, the Middle East and the islands of the Pacific, we make our condition more precarious, not less. Along with our ever-widening “alliances,” the threat of war is also extended – but to Gitlin this is a good thing. For opposition to war was never really his shtick, and the passage of the years has clarified his views: it was never the vision of a peaceful society that energized the posturing little Lenins of the New Left, but their infatuation with utopian schemes to uplift and better the masses, whom they were condescending to “save.” It was only natural that having chanted “Ho, ho, Ho Chin Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” and waving Vietcong flags, the “antiwar” protesters of the yesterday’s Left would become today’s cheerleaders for the Kosovo “Liberation” Army – yet another gang of Third-Worldish-looking thugs with a fondness for red flags and a yen for “revolution.” Only this time they have NATO to back them up. Could anything be more dangerous, or more grotesque? The addled Gitlin has gone full-circle. From “give peace a chance,” yesteryear’s peacenik is now asking us to give war a chance:

“But the war traumatized American elites and led them to stall where they could have actually done some good with military force. The Weinberger principle is the recourse of elites whose political grip was loosened, or even shattered, by a horrendous mistake in Vietnam, and I’m glad they learned something. It’s certainly the case that political support is an absolute requirement in a democratic society for an extended military intervention, and it should be very rare. I would not accept the interpretation that would bar the use of military force in low investment, relatively rapid commitments of military force in cases like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. I’m speaking in favor of the possibility, not the inevitability, of military intervention in alliance with substantial other forces whose responsibility should not be usurped by us.”


Here is someone who spent the Vietnam war in the safe confines of a university dormitory denouncing America’s political and military elites as a bunch of cowards. This is not unexpected in a world where that other famous Vietnam era peacenik, William Jefferson Clinton, is now known as one of the most warlike presidents in American history. But it does raise the question: Are we to be spared nothing?


The lessons of Vietnam, if they were ever learned, have been rather conspicuously unlearned by the very “boomers” who once sought to instruct us all in the basics of geopolitical morality. Now they posture as the crusaders of a new globalist dispensation, messianic prophets of “humanitarian” interventionism. But nothing has really changed: the new act is not all that different from the old. Only the cast of characters has changed. Instead of LBJ agonizing over whether to endanger a single American life in a cause not easily understood or justified, we have Clinton (and Gitlin) glibly rationalizing the relentless bombardment of one of the oldest cities in Europe as a “humanitarian” act. It has been twenty-five years since the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war – but the way some are talking, and acting, it may as well be 2,500 years.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].