DeM Banter: Cant help but harken back to Thinking in Time by May and Neustadt... history is extremely useful when…decision-makers separate what is known about the situation from what is unclear and from what is merely presumed; to study the history of the issue, thereby putting it in perspective; to beware of easy historical analogies when current circumstances differ from those of the past; to examine the assumptions behind any proposed course of action; and to study the backgrounds of those persons and organizations upon whom success depends….bottom line: The Vietnam analogy might just be too easy..
New York Times
August 12, 2012
AS the war in Afghanistan drags on with no definitive victory in sight for the United States and American troops begin to withdraw, comparisons to the Vietnam War are once again in the air, 50 years after both Washington and Hanoi decided to beef up their forces in South Vietnam. “Just take a run through the essential Vietnam War checklist,” wrote Tom Engelhardt in Mother Jones magazine, noting “there’s ‘quagmire’ ” and “the idea of winning ‘hearts and minds’ ” as well as “bomb-able, or in our era drone-able, ‘sanctuaries’ across the border” and even “a one-man version of My Lai.” Although these analogies are particularly attractive to critics — who see America’s battle in Afghanistan as even more futile than Vietnam and advocate a quick exit — they are deeply flawed.
Among the many problems with drawing lessons from Vietnam and applying them to Afghanistan is that the history of the Vietnam War is often completely misunderstood. The war’s history is constantly evolving as new evidence emerges, particularly from the other side. Since too little attention was paid to understanding the enemy’s motivations, internal dynamics, and foreign relations, we have always had an incomplete and incorrect picture of that war.
If we are to learn from the past, then, it’s worth parting the bamboo curtain that has long concealed decision making in North Vietnam to dispel some ingrained myths of that oft-invoked war.
IT is commonly believed that North Vietnam decided to go to war in 1959-60 to save the southern insurgency from eradication and that the Communist Party enjoyed the unflagging support of the Vietnamese people until the war’s end in 1975. But recent evidence reveals that the party’s resolution to go to war in South Vietnam was intimately connected to problems at home. Revolutionary war was an effective way to deflect attention from domestic problems, including a devastating land reform campaign, a dissident intellectual movement and an unsuccessful state plan for socialist transformation of the economy.
One of the greatest misconceptions of the Vietnam War is that Ho Chi Minh was the uncontested leader of North Vietnam. In reality, Ho was a figurehead while Le Duan, a man who resides in the marginalia of history, was the architect, main strategist and commander in chief of North Vietnam’s war effort. The quiet, stern Mr. Duan shunned the spotlight but he possessed the iron will, focus and administrative skill necessary to dominate the Communist Party.
Along with his right-hand man, the indomitable Le Duc Tho, who would later spar with Henry A. Kissinger during the Paris peace negotiations, Mr. Duan constructed a sturdy militarist empire that still looms over Hanoi today. Their hawkish policies led North Vietnam to war against Saigon and then Washington, and ensured that a negotiated peace would never take the place of total victory.
Mr. Duan ruled the party with an iron fist and saw Ho and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, renowned for defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, as the greatest threats to his authority. He sidelined Ho, General Giap and their supporters when making nearly all key decisions.
In 1963-4, Mr. Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aging leader opposed the controversial decision to escalate the war and seek all-out victory before American forces could intervene. And in 1967-8, there was a large-scale purge in Hanoi when Ho, General Giap and their allies opposed Mr. Duan’s plans for the Tet Offensive. Although the southern war initially rallied North Vietnamese to support the party, it soon became a quagmire. Mr. Duan and Mr. Tho reacted by creating a garrison state that labeled any resistance to their war policies as treason. By increasing the powers of internal security forces and ideological police and subjugating the southern insurgency to Hanoi, they were able to wage total war at their discretion until 1975.
The rivalry between China and the Soviet Union also played a major role in determining the course of the war. China’s emerging radicalism and the Soviet Union’s lack of commitment to third world revolutions allowed Mr. Duan to tilt toward China and advance full-scale war in the South in the early 1960s. As American involvement grew in 1965, Soviet aid poured into North Vietnam. By 1968, competition between Beijing and Moscow for influence in Hanoi had become intense.
Mr. Duan sought to assert Vietnamese autonomy by launching both the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 Easter Offensive — moves that Beijing and Moscow disapproved of. In 1972, Richard M. Nixon’s visits to China and the Soviet Union marked the pinnacle of Sino-Soviet obstruction of North Vietnam’s war effort. Both allies exerted pressure on Hanoi to end the war on Nixon’s terms as they competed for Washington’s good graces. Rather than waiting for a “big power sellout,” Mr. Duan and his comrades launched the Easter Offensive, with the aim of toppling the Saigon government and striking a critical blow to America’s détente with the Soviet Union and China.
Finally, it is a myth that America defeated itself in the Vietnam War. In fact, the Vietnamese were anything but puppets or passive players in their war; they shaped American actions in Vietnam as well as the global cold war order. It was Mr. Duan’s bid for victory in 1964 that prompted America to intervene decisively. And America’s allies in Saigon delayed the United States’ withdrawal.
They doggedly pursued their own interests, even when those proved detrimental to the Washington-Saigon alliance. Slowing down American withdrawal in 1969 and sabotaging the Kissinger-Tho peace negotiations in 1972-3, South Vietnamese leaders greatly complicated America’s exit from Southeast Asia. Although Washington possessed its own internal and geostrategic reasons to intervene and remain in Vietnam, it was leaders in Hanoi and Saigon who dictated the nature and pace of American intervention.
Fighting the last war is always a danger. It becomes even more problematic when the historical analogies driving current policy are based on an incomplete and flawed understanding of America’s past failures. As new historical evidence revises our understanding of the Vietnam War and renders any direct analogies untenable, we can at least draw one lesson: to be rigorous in our analysis of the enemy’s war effort.
TALIBAN leaders have conflicting views over peace negotiations, the prospect of reconciliation with the Afghan government, and the movement’s direction. With Mullah Muhammad Omar acting only as the Taliban’s spiritual head, the opportunity has emerged for an enterprising faction with a driven commander — as was the case with Mr. Duan — to unify or dominate the divided Afghan insurgency. This new leadership will inevitably be militant, particularly if America strikes an unpopular bargain with Taliban officials in Pakistan.
And even if increased casualties eventually lead some militants to favor peace, the Pentagon’s policy of classifying all males who happen to be in the vicinity of drone strikes as militants could undermine that impulse, in much the same way that America’s heavy bombing of “free fire zones” and “specified strike zones” in Vietnam drove many embittered villagers to join the Communist ranks.
It is also crucial for the United States to understand the role that regional actors — like Pakistan’s security services — play in internal Taliban politics. While Chinese-Soviet rivalry allowed Hanoi to maintain its autonomy while extracting maximum aid from both countries, the Afghan insurgency enjoys no such advantage, especially since neighboring Iran’s influence is limited. America therefore enjoys more leverage in Afghanistan than it did in Vietnam.
Finally, the United States envisions a complete pullout by 2014, but as history shows, our allies may not always comply with our wishes. It may be up to Hamid Karzai’s government or its successor to set the pace of American withdrawal from Afghanistan. For as we saw in Vietnam, we cannot assume that we alone can dictate our actions.
Lien-Hang Nguyen is an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam.”