Only a couple of days into our invasion of Iraq, it was evident that people on both sides of the war issue were drawing the wrong comparisons with our failed effort in Vietnam.
Jonah Goldberg, in an op-ed piece in the March 22 Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote: "In every major war effort America has won, we’ve owed our victories to the patience of the American people … Vietnam was not lost on the battlefield [but] lost because the governing elites in this country (i.e., the press and the politicians squandered the patience of the American people by resorting to half-measures and pursuing political, as opposed to military, objectives)."
Goldberg goes on to write that "maybe Vietnam was unwinnable, but that’s only because the American people turned their backs on the effort." The lesson Goldberg draws from comparing the Vietnam (and Korea) experience is that " … there is nothing beyond this country’s abilities if it’s willing to summon the willpower and patience necessary."
What Goldberg and others who see the Iraq opportunity as a way to vindicate the Vietnam debacle fail to realize is that there was a good reason why Americans lacked the patience to see it through. Vietnam was a well-intentioned, but ill-conceived, disaster. It was the wrong war for the wrong cause.
The reason why we only used "half-measures" in Vietnam is that we had no justification to destroy the North. This was not a war to liberate Vietnamese. We refused to abide by free elections in Vietnam as provided by the Geneva accords because we sensed that Ho Chi Minh could win. We were not fighting for democracy in Vietnam.
The Thieu-Ky regime was hopelessly unpopular and corrupt. The South Vietnamese army was in shambles. Our good intentions were that we thought it was important to keep the communists from taking over the South for fear that it would cause a domino effect in the rest of Asia. There was a feeling prevalent at that time that once communism took hold, it was impossible to restore democracy, so better to prop up a tin-horn dictator in the chance that someday things would get better. In support of that theory, we expended the blood and treasure of too many American lives, while destroying the people we had come to save.
The American people in their wisdom were ahead of their leaders and forced an end to the conflict. The lesson to be gained from Vietnam is not that we don’t have an iron will, but that we had the good sense to call a halt to the senseless slaughter.
Goldberg and the others on the right are not the only ones who have drawn the wrong comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. The peace movement refuses to recognize the essential difference between the two conflicts. Whereas a communist Vietnam never really threatened the peace and security of the United States, reasonable people cannot make the same conclusion about Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Even many who oppose our invasion of Iraq do not quarrel with the danger posed by Hussein’s possession of chemical and biological weapons and the threat of his obtaining nuclear weapons. Most of the opposition — even the French — argued that Hussein was being contained by on-site UNSCOM inspections and the surveillance of our spy planes flying over Iraq.
They made a calculation that it was better to leave Iraqi babies dying under United Nations sanctions, as Saddam used his resources for food and medicine to invest in more weaponry, than to overtly kill some Iraqi civilians in an attempt to liberate them. At the same time, they ignored the fact that once the United States withdrew its forces from the area, Saddam would no doubt expel the inspectors just as he did in 1998.
The peace movement not only ignored these facts, but placed its own moral stamp on this calculation. The enemy became George Bush, not Saddam Hussein. The protesters are trying to relive the glory of the Vietnam years. On the face of it, it’s intellectually impossible to equate the justice of the two wars, and one has to believe that deep down the peace movement knows it. Their driving motivation must be to feel the power inherent in imposing their will on a powerful America as they did in Vietnam.
The peace movement is also motivated by a virulent dislike of George Bush. While they claim the president has made this a personal vendetta because of his father’s failure to oust Saddam, in effect the political left has made this a personal vendetta against George Bush to avenge Al Gore and the dangling chads. One suspects that had it been George Bush instead of Bill Clinton who correctly ordered American planes to bomb Milosevic into submission and stopped the genocide in the Balkans, the protesters would have filled our streets.
Iraq is a threat, Vietnam was not. We are in Iraq to liberate its people; in Vietnam, we were willing to sacrifice our principles in the cause of containment. On the political edges of both the right and the left, those differences are not understood. Iraq is not Vietnam. SPR
Editor’s note: Tom Cardella’s opinion does not necessarily reflect that of other Review employees.