The lesson of Vietnam

As great a power as the United States is, there are limits. That is, we can waste many resources for little gain (or loss). We should not expect to change the history and destiny of all the world. A failure to appreciate the history of Asia and our differences led us off our traditional path.

For example, the Indo-Chinese colonies were part of an old European system, something we decried and fought two world wars to change for good. Yet the Pacific rim was not completely settled after WWII (only Japan was by the US). France was still had its commitments there. At the end of the 1950s, France withdrew its interests and the US ambivalently replaced it (JFK sending in military advisors).

Historically, US used France (a part of old system) as an ally to rid ourselves of the old system, while De Gaulle used the US (a part of the new system), via JFK, to rid France of the new system (Communist threat in SE Asia.) Remarkable.

Did the US not realize what it was doing? We entered an old power political system (European style), something we were never used to doing. US policy was awkward and confusing from that moment on.

US failure in Vietnam only confirmed that the US consensus for getting involved is for last resort, temporary in nature, and has limited participation afterwards.

None of this became true in Vietnam. Containment of Communists via military intervention was primary US foreign policy at the time of the Cold War; our involvement became increasingly lengthened; and even a victory would have to be secured by American forces and/or strong influences, permanent in nature.

US had before always entered conflicts in order to correct a wrong, to change system, or even to try to improve it. Such was the reasoning for WWI and II. But such was not the case for Vietnam. Our entrance there to maintain the status quo of old French rule was arguably un-American, from the traditional perspective.

It can be argued that JFK’s liberalism and inexperience with foreign affairs influenced at least, caused at most, US foreign policy to be jeopardized by reasons the US had never before used for its interventionist actions. That is, no president ever before gave US support for reasons never before used.

Many American Conservatives probably saw this early on. Fortunately for them it was the Democrats in the White House. And quite fittingly, it was Nixon as President who proclaimed Vietnam unwinnable and called for its end. Yet leading Democrats such as RFK also saw Vietnam as unwinnable, with or without US support, and also called for its end.

Unfortunately, some present-day “conservative” Republicans constantly call for intervention in global regional areas for the reasoning of containment. I put the word conservative in quotes because it is not fundamentally American to become involved in a foreign affair unless to, say, change a “bad” system. These “conservatives” then blame the Democrats and the failure of Vietnam for reducing public support for future planned escapades. A good recent example of awkward US involvement is Lebanon. We went to maintain the status quo. We are clearly inexperienced in such affairs if not miserable at it (Vietnam). The Persian Gulf is another dangerous escapade.

What about Nicaragua and Latin America? I consider it a rude awakening. We should learn fast before we have another China in our hemisphere. (You know, US supports a corrupt dictator indifferent to real welfare of his country yet continues to solicit US funds because declares himself anti-Communist, then Communists support continues to strengthen with popularity in corrupt country, have a civil war, dictator rendered useless, hello USSR!). Scarily, El Salvador has same potential fate as Nicaragua, Mexico to a lesser degree.

US military involvement in Latin America could be justified (our hemisphere, sphere of influence, maybe even Monroe Doctrine). But I argue that it will not be successful unless to change the system. Unfortunately, that would be unlikely to come about by the US. Latin America has always been a quasi-colonial interest for the US. That is the Old System of the US in Latin America. Likely future involvement would be to defend that (and thereby could be justified intervention). But the enemy would be USSR, a member of the New System (USSR/US). For similar reasons Vietnam was unsuccessful abroad, so would US involvement in a Latin America conflict be dismal. What is worse is that it is not a foreign ally (i.e. France) soliciting US involvement, but a domestic one. We would be bringing it upon ourselves.

So what should the US do? Are we doomed to decline of our empire because we could not continue an old constant foreign policy stance of no entanglements?

What is so sadly ironic is that US could not maintain that policy for another fundamental American virtue: the old (European) system was not for America, it had too many faults. Thus America was new hope. It was clearly very American to defend this ideal and contribute to fall of old European system. Better yet, under Wilsonian principles, we could try to make whole world like American democracy.

The wrench in the plan was Communism. It was against everything Western, including democracy. So, to this day, it is the enemy because it is preventing the spread of world democracy. Yet blindly it was US who was to undertake the role of fighting Communism. The consequence of desiring world democracy, and having an enemy of communism to that goal, was to enthrall the US into every region of the world under contest.

In relation to Latin America, there becomes a conflict because people of those regions do not see themselves as democratic under their leadership (dictators) and with US heavy-handed involvement, while US convinces itself that they are indeed democratic enough because those leaders proclaim the stance of being against Communism. It may not be enough in the end.

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