Thirty years ago, in the wake of the Vietnam War, historian James Clay Thompson warned: the primary lesson learned was that the United States should never again go to war in a former French colony located on the other side of the globe, in a land with a tropical climate, against an insurgent force supported by a sympathetic communist regime in a contiguous state. Thompson acknowledged the lesson’s limited applicability.
Pennsylvania Democratic Representative John Murtha, a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam, recently dubbed the American effort in Iraq “a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion” and called for a rapid US military withdrawal. Representative Murtha is among many from my generation drawing analogies between Vietnam and the fighting in Iraq.
In late 1971, I returned from Indochina perplexed by my experiences. Over the next 15 years I wrote a volume in the Air Force’s official history of that conflict, completed a doctorate in military history and then penned two additional books on the war. I also taught courses on the Vietnam War at the Air War College and several civilian universities. While I appreciate lessons history provides, with no disrespect to 19th century philosopher Georges Santayana, the past does not repeat itself.
Nevertheless, there are only two ways to approach the future: faith and the study of history. The former, based on things unproven, issues from beliefs and opinions usually flowing subjectively from religious or ideological convictions. History, while open to interpretation, relies on facts, however subject to interpretation those may be. For instance, how the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies defeated the United States remains a matter of historical controversy. Fact is, however, on April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese forces raised a Viet Cong flag over the Presidential Palace in what is today Ho Chi Minh City.
Four years into the global struggle against al Qaeda and its supporters, US-led forces have planted democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite barbarous attacks by insurgents and terrorists infiltrated from Iran and Syria, the Iraqis held two elections and ratified a liberal constitution. Polemically-driven carping aside, the US is winning this war.
Nevertheless, Vietnam specters linger for good reasons. With a tip of the hat to Santayana, the current administration’s strategic goals entering this war were as poorly-defined as those of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam. This goes beyond analogies between the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964 and whether or not President Bush lied about intelligence, “fixed” dubious intelligence to support the case for invading Iraq, or simply acted on bad information. The more egregious mistake was that the administration failed to make a strategically clear case for war. Without clear strategic objectives, the military cannot devise a coherent strategy. Poorly defined strategies cannot be redeemed by firepower or heroic sacrifices. In Vietnam, that was the ultimate reason US policy failed. America’s will evaporated because there were no coherent and clearly established strategic goals to which the public could respond until President Richard M. Nixon provided three limited objectives in 1969: withdrawal of US forces by the end of his first term in office, turning primary responsibility for the prosecution of the war back to the South Vietnamese — a process labeled “Vietnamization” — and the return of American prisoners of war. While the US accomplished only two of those goals, the subsequent fall of South Vietnam testifies to failure of Vietnamization.
However poorly defined, the strategic goal in Vietnam was the preservation of an independent and democratic Republic of Vietnam. Great nations do not go to war so they can retreat and get back their POWs. While the Nixon administration succeeded in the withdrawal part of its strategy and in bringing the POWs home, US forces withdrew before the South Vietnamese were adequately prepared to persevere against a determined foe.
The Vietnam War was a sideshow in a larger struggle between the East and West. Likewise, Iraq is a theater in a larger global struggle with al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the nations that support them, primarily Iran and Syria. In Vietnam, Hanoi and the Viet Cong pursued the limited strategic objective of compelling the withdrawal of US forces so they could then unite Vietnam under a single totalitarian socialist regime. Today’s enemy seeks US withdrawal as a first step toward establishing radical Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East. What follows will be a global struggle of unprecedented horror, made more horrible by an enemy likely armed with and willing to employ weapons of mass destruction. While the consequences of losing in Vietnam were comparatively small, the cost of in this war could be catastrophic. More is at stake than the future of Iraq and the American response must rise above partisan bickering.
Dr. Earl Tilford is professor of history at Grove City College. He enjoyed an extensive military career and after retiring from the US Air Force served as an associate professor of history at Troy State University in Montgomery and professor of military history at the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In 1993 he became director of research at the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, PA, where he worked on a project that looked at possible future terrorist threats. He has authored three books on the Vietnam War and co-edited a book on Operation Desert Storm. He has lectured throughout the US and abroad on the Vietnam War and, more recently, the future of armed conflict.