The Legacy of Vietnam
Lessons Learned from VietnamMuch has been written about the lessons learned from Vietnam. Military leaders now have “doctrines” they use to define when and where the United States should engage and how limited our scope should be. Whether we have adhered to the advice is a different matter. Vietnam had the most impact on Presidents in the early years after the war ended when they had to make difficult decisions as to where to intervene and risk American lives.
But given our current international entanglements, I think it is safe to say that any lessons learned from our 20 years in Southeast Asia have been well forgotten. We are now entering our 17th year in Afghanistan and I think we have all come to accept that America will always have a presence there, which means we will always be a target for extremists. Recent Army deaths in Niger demonstrate that we have operations all over the world that could inflame at any time, bringing us into a much larger conflict. All of these actions are justified and approved under a 17-year-old Congressional authorization which both chambers refuse to review and renew, thus abdicating responsibility and accountability to the executive, regardless of party.
The larger and most significant (in my opinion) legacy of the Vietnam Era, are the divisions it left behind at home. There were no “bad guys,” in this drama – at least not at first. Conservatives and Republicans in Congress, think tanks and national publications wanted to build an alternative approach to governing; an alternative to the statism of the New Deal. A significant part of that approach included small government, low regulations and taxes and a vehement anti-communist stance in the world. When it became clear that the United States was failing at beating back the communist incursion in Southeast Asia, those same voices had to create an alternative narrative.
Conservative rhetoric’s longevity would be simply historical if it had not mushroomed into the divisive politics we see today. We can easily see how the right moved father right from the time of Bill Clinton to Obama and now Trump. Now that the left has organized in a much more formal way, the divisions will intensify and will continue to take on apocalyptic urgency. This gets worse, not better at least in the short run. Conservative thought will harden (if that is even possible) as the left gains momentum. We have already seen Republican attempts to gerrymander districts in order to secure a permanent minority power structure. Their policies may not be popular (consider attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act which included a grand scale back of the Medicaid entitlement), so they have moved to other ways of keeping the country safe from liberal destruction. At this point, these views are endemic and engrained in society. They are cultural. If you fall on the left side of the argument like me, you feel the same natural pull.
Many reading this post may doubt my conclusions. You may be thinking, “Vietnam was over 35 years ago. People are angry about other things like taxes and transgender politics.” That is true. But it was during Vietnam that the idea of liberal and communist media influences entered our nation’s bloodstream. It was during those years that an entire group of people and more importantly, set of ideas, were deemed “enemies of the state” and the cause of our failure abroad. America’s wholesale embarrassment in the eyes of the world, and in that existential war against Communism was laid at the feet of liberals, Democrats, and the media.
Once that infection gets into the bloodstream, if it is not treated with strong antibiotics, it mutates. Not only was it not treated, it was fed, fertilized and nurtured. Technology made it easier for the disease to act as a contagion, spreading from state to state, region to region through universities, journals, and newspapers. Then the internet came along and the infection metastasized. It infected and polarized churches turning once rational and God loving Christians into judgmental and discriminatory theocrats. And it eventually flipped neurons in enough brains to equally divide this country along deeply polarizing issues, many of which have been made political where once they were insignificant.
Today we are arguing over the scientific reality of climate change (not policy proposals to address the impact – the scientific reality itself), birth control, bathrooms, and who the military should admit into its ranks to fight on our behalf in perpetual wars with changing missions. These issues are stupid. They are a waste of time. We should be having a national conversation about educating our youth for the jobs of the future, investing in technologies, research, and development that will create those jobs, and examining our social safety net and entitlement programs to ensure that they are scalable and sustainable for the next 50 years. Instead, we debate tactics: how much are we going to cut taxes and whose reproductive health benefit are we going to take away in order to please a small segment of the electorate who believe that “this” one issue is driving the country into the ground.
The conservative movement that has captured the Republican Party has pushed what used to be a rational approach to governing over the ledge. Every issue is framed in absolutes. Every tax is bad, even if the taxpayer can afford it and if the revenue goes to improve infrastructure. Everything should be privatized, including healthcare and education, when both are clearly public goods, not commodities, therefore, not susceptible or responsive to market forces. Gun ownership is an absolute right that cannot be curtailed, but a woman’s right to privacy should be regulated out of Christian morality.
Most fascinating has been the evolution of the Republican Party. The GOP clawed its way back from the depths of New Deal liberalism and the Great Society in part by focusing on individual responsibility. The party convinced middle-America that the Democrats had become a party of individual identities and special interest groups, often defined by race, gender or sexual orientation, each group demanding special consideration. They succeeded in this effort to the extent that at least for a while, Americans were willing to roll back parts of the social safety net, especially those that did not benefit them directly. The GOP has completely reversed itself, now becoming grievance group, looking at everyone else and asking, “Why not me?” The party of small government is now asking, “What has the government done for me lately?”
This is no overdramatization, in fact, it is the only rational explanation for what we see today. During the Vietnam Era, conservatives and the World War II generation grew to see the media and all the protest movements, but most specifically that of the anti-war as the enemy. They felt that they were under attack and so they attacked back consciously or unconsciously. Rather than admit the truth – that their policies failed, not their soldiers and certainly not their governing philosophy (at least not at that time), they looked for excuses and scapegoats. That misdirect continues today but has been amplified to a degree I am unsure was never anticipated.
I am not sure that this is ever “fixed.” Rather, I think we evolve into something else. The question is, “what is that something else?” I hope that the baby boom generation will be with us for another 20 years. The Vietnam Syndrome and Guilt infected my generation and I am hopeful that I’m around for another 40 years or so. We can either break the hold of complete misguided understanding of what both sides believe (aka – liberals are not causing the destruction of America), or we can pray that future generations figure out how stupid and gullible their parents were. Because we were. We fell for a story that made ourselves vulnerable to infection.
Do not watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War in a vacuum. History is not meant to be learned that way. And as you finish the last episode, share your thoughts. I have always believed that the key lessons from the Vietnam War included the idea that America is not unique in every aspect of world power. Like every hegemonic power in history, we are limited in what we can accomplish. Throwing resources and will at a problem does not always solve it and many times makes it worse. We see this over and over in our history. What will the long-term impact be of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? How will our attempts to arm Syrian rebels shape the next phase of the war on terror? Will it resemble the outcome of the Afghan War against the Soviets?
The other lesson of Vietnam could not be more relevant to today. In fact, it is the point of this blog. And that is – we have to learn the truth. We do not know what would have happened in Vietnam had we not initially propped up the South Vietnamese government. Most likely, the communist north would have invaded and reunited the country under Ho Chi Minh. All the horrible things that happened to the South Vietnamese after 1975 would have happened to an extent in the late 50s. But would the rest of Southeast Asia have fallen to communism, thus cutting the United States off from vital natural resources and consumer markets? Would Australia and the Philippines have been threatened? Would the final outcome – the fall of the Berlin War in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter – differ in any way?
We do not know any of these answers. We rarely know what would have happened had we taken the road less traveled. But we should never come up with alternative realities to make ourselves feel better. When we decided to ignore the truth about our failure in Vietnam and instead, identify scapegoats, we set ourselves down an ugly path. That is where we are today. One side does not trust the government if their party is not in control and certainly, cannot rely on the media for truth. So they find alternatives that reinforce their views. Both sides do it but in the case of Vietnam, liberals and Democrats imploded while conservatives and Republicans created a new narrative.
As Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) said in his 1968 Democratic Convention speech, “How hard it is to accept the truth,” likewise it is hard to search for the truth. The truth can be uncomfortable because it can rock you to your very core. But ignorance is not bliss and believing a lie will not restore what never existed in the first place. Restoration of a healthy body politic, like the restoration of the body, takes time, rest, patience, and treatment. I am not sure that we have the wherewithal or the capacity at this point in our history, to admit the disease, let alone search for treatment options. But if we do, it will be because one at a time, people started to look for truth.