The Magazine

Another Vietnam?

What is the "lesson of Vietnam"?

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By DAVID GELERNTER, FOR THE EDITORS
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JOHN KERRY is famously hard to pin down; you can reach out to grasp his opinion only to find that it has flitted away like a bashful butterfly, or a goldfish you are trying to catch with your bare hands. But nowadays his pronouncements and campaign ads are easy to read. They suggest that Iraq is like Vietnam; that our top priority is accordingly not to win but to get out. John Kerry evidently believes, a propos Vietnam, that we should have run away sooner. Many Americans disagree. Many Americans believe that we should have stood by our friends until a free and stable South Vietnam had taken root.

What is the "lesson of Vietnam"? It's a hard question, in a way; virtually all Americans agree that Vietnam was a tragedy and a national humiliation--and, at least during the years when William Westmoreland was in command, a badly fought war. Kerry seems to believe that these propositions lead to only one possible conclusion. By shouting "Vietnam!" he thinks he can induce desperation and make Americans turn in horror to the Democrats begging for relief, begging to be pulled out of this awful quagmire. His mistake is something like Abu Musab al Zarqawi's. I don't say Kerry is like Zarqawi, of course not. But Zarqawi believes that by committing barbarities on videotape, he has made Americans tremble with fear; in fact we are trembling with rage. (And someday this mistake will be vividly brought home to him.) Kerry believes that by saying "we are facing another Vietnam," he can frighten people; and some Americans will indeed be frightened. Far more will say: If this be Vietnam, make the most of it. Let's do it right this time.

President Bush should announce: You want to talk Vietnam? Fine, let's talk. Kerry believes that Iraq is turning into a Vietnam-like "quagmire"; the assertion is false, and it's important that voters know why it is false. But there is a more important, deeper-lying disagreement under the surface. Bush obviously stands with the large contingent of Americans who are determined that, if we ever did face another Vietnam, never again would we pull out in a headlong rush and leave our allies sinking in the mud, clutching at our helicopter skids as we fly away, with the wreck of the new and better nation we had tried to build collapsing around their heads. Never again will we treat America's trustworthiness and honor, and the hopes of our friends, and the blood-sacrifices of our soldiers, like bad debts to be written off with a shudder.

We fought in South Vietnam to protect that country from a torrent of Communist evil threatening to roll down from the North. I suppose not many Americans remember the details. But surely a fair number do remember how Congress concluded that Vietnam was a quagmire, a mistake, the wrong war at the wrong time. Whereupon it refused to vote any more money for the war, not one more cent; whereupon we pulled out in a gathering panic, and South Vietnam fell to the invading tanks of the North. Then the picture goes blank. Totalitarian regimes don't like network cameramen advertising the little clean-up that invariably accompanies the establishment of a brand new absolute dictatorship. But many Americans surely recall that, after we ran away, something awful happened. The evil rolled down in a flood. Huge numbers put to sea in rickety rowboats. Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge and its bosses, a group of French-trained Communist intellectuals who created a virtually indescribable hell-on-earth. Millions died.

The truth about Communist South Vietnam leaked out gradually. Hundreds of thousands were executed; many more were thrown into "reeducation" camps--estimates range from a few hundred thousand to over a million inmates. "What Vietnam has given us," wrote Tom Wicker of the New York Times after the Communist victory, is "a vast tide of human misery in Southeast Asia." Two sentences convey more about the regime's character than a page of statistics. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz quotes Doan Van Toai, a political prisoner jailed by the Communists after we left and they triumphed. "I was thrown into a three-foot-by-six-foot cell with my left hand chained to my right foot and my right hand chained to my left foot. My food was rice mixed with sand." There in two sentences is the reason we were right to fight and wrong to run. Americans have good cause to reject John Kerry's suggestion that, if Iraq is like Vietnam, getting out is our number one priority. If it is truly like Vietnam, all the more reason to fight relentlessly and to think of victory, only victory, until the enemy has been beaten to bits. Americans want to erase the worst national humiliation we have ever suffered, not recreate it.