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Bush on Vietnam: we left too soon
August 22, 2007
The year 1968 was one of the most tumultuous in the history of this country.
That year, which featured the rise of flower power and the protest movement, unrest in the streets and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, ended with the election of Richard Nixon and his promise to end the Vietnam War through “peace with honor."
In his Inaugural Address of January, 20, 1969, our 37th president told a nation torn apart by the war that, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker … after a period of confrontation, we are entering an era of negotiations.”
That era of negotiation would last nearly five more years, during which time over 21,000 American troops and nearly one million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians would lose their lives.
Through the later publication of “The Pentagon Papers” and countless memoirs of former cold warriors, we eventually came to realize that our government believed Vietnam to be a no-win proposition as far back as 1966. We would go on to lose 54,000 soldiers before Nixon finally ended the conflict in 1973, prompting returning veterans like John Kerry to ask members of Congress, “Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
In speeches planned for today and later this week, President George W. Bush plans to unveil his conclusions about what went wrong in South East Asia those many decades ago. Yes, the man who did his time not showing up for his Texas National Guard duty and whose hawkish vice-president utilized not one, but five different draft deferments to avoid fighting there, has finally learned the true lesson of Vietnam. His conclusion? We did not stay long enough.
In one of the most galling twists in his administration’s never-ending attempts to justify his disastrous misadventure in Iraq, the president is now deliberately invoking the specter of Vietnam -- not to point out the mistakes we might have made in sending hundreds of thousands of young Americans half-way around the world to fight and die in a country that posed us no threat whatsoever -- but rather to explain why 11 years in the jungle was just not enough time to get the job done.
Bush’s speech features some of the most twisted logic this side of this administration’s normal mantra of “keep us in power because we are protecting you from terrorists, but stay terrified because the terrorists are going to hit us any day now.”
“One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,' " the president will say. This of course avoids the fact that over two million Vietnamese perished during that war -- a war in which we dropped more explosive tonnage on that tiny country than all the bombs dropped on Europe in World War II combined. Of course, we no longer count the civilian death toll in Iraq. In Bush World, civilian casualties only seem to matter when caused by someone other than us.
The president goes on to draw the ridiculous conclusion that our withdrawal from Vietnam was somehow the unhealed chink in America’s credibility that 35 years later would embolden al Qaeda terrorists to attack us. Forget the fact that the Soviet war in Afghanistan served as bin Laden’s template for guerilla success -- success achieved with training, arms and cash provided by the U.S. government, or the fact that bin Laden’s most frequently cited instance of so-called American impotency was Ronald Reagan’s (correct) decision to withdraw troops from Lebanon after the 1983 truck bomb disaster that killed 220 Marines.
Bush and Cheney did not fight in the Vietnam War, nor did Richard Pearle, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Bill Kristol or Rush Limbaugh or any of the vast majority of right-wing cheerleaders of that particular age group that today have no problems sending a new generation of Americans to fight and die in Iraq.
In the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire," Billy Joel penned the words “we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it” in celebration of his generation’s participation in world events they had no control over -- including Vietnam. Iraq is Bush’s war. He started it despite the fact that not a single one of the 911 hijackers came from there and Saddam Hussein posed no credible threat to this country whatsoever. In all of his inane comparisons to Vietnam, Bush lacks one card in his deck that Nixon played until the end -- he doesn’t have Kennedy and Johnson to blame.
The wars in Vietnam and Iraq are similar in one sense -- we should never have fought either of them.
Column copyright 2007 Midland Avenue Communications. Reprints without permission are a violation of Federal Law.