Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rumsfeld recalls ghost of McNamara's lessons of Vietnam

I've had this post idea since I saw Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld interviewed on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on December 8. It's been stewing awhile, and I rented Fog of War so I could recall an exact quote.

A disturbing parallel occurred to me after seeing Rumsfeld's NewsHour interview. Tell me if you don't see the lesson we haven't seemed to have learned from Vietnam.

Robert S. McNamara

Mr. McNamara was the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, first under Kennedy and then under Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. By most counts, the war in Vietnam was a failure for the United States as 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed, over 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, and South Vietnam still fell to North Vietnam. At the time the U.S. administration subscribed to the "domino theory" that South Vietnam had to be propped up against the North lest the South's fall lead to the fall of a series of countries throughout Asia, spreading communism to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

McNamara has written a number of books about his time as Secretary and what he, in retrospect, has learned about the decisions made about the U.S. engagement in Vietnam. One of the major causes of the U.S.'s disastrous experience in Vietnam, according to McNamara in his book, In Retrospect, is that we [the U.S. Government] misjudged the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions. In its most basic form, we did not know our enemy. According to McNamara in Fog of War, we viewed Vietnam as an element of the Cold War and not what they saw it as, a civil war.

A quote from McNamara in an interview at Berkeley in 1996:
Now to illustrate the degree to which we didn't understand the situation in Vietnam at the time, today I believe that Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist, more of a Tito, than a servant or a follower of Khruschev. But at that time, we looked upon him as a vassal of the Soviets.
The beginning of the Berkeley interview is here.

[UPDATE, 2/16/2007] -- Upon revisiting this post, the quote below about history wouldn't have made sense coming from Tran Van Lam as he was Minister of Foreign Affairs for The Republic of Vietnam, which the U.S. supported during The Vietnam War. Even though I can't confirm the author of that quote definitively, it most likely was Vo Nguyen Giap, who according to his Wikipedia entry was, in addition to a General in the Vietnam People's Army, the Minister of National Defense of what we in the U.S. called North Vietnam. During discussion of the history quote, Fog of War shows a terrific photo of these two in the heat of discussion, presumably during the below-mentioned 1995 visit, that I have been unable to locate online. [/UPDATE]

The striking quote from Fog of War that I wrote down comes from McNamara's 1995 visit to Vietnam and his meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart during the war, former foreign minister (as he referred to him) of Vietnam Tran Van Lam. I have been unable to confirm this man's name as it was unclear in the film's audio and I believe McNamara's wikipedia entry identifies the wrong person, a former Vietnamese general named Vo Nguyen Giap. McNamara clearly says in Fog of War that it was the former foreign minister who told him the following after McNamara asserted that he thought we could have avoided U.S. escalation while also preventing the spread of communism:
You are totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us ... Mr. McNamara, you must never have read a history book. If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. Mr. McNamara, didn't you know that? Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years? We were fighting for our independence and we would fight to the last man and we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.
Donald Rumsfeld

When I heard the following quote from Secretary Rumsfeld I had to wonder whether the U.S. is willing to face what it learned at so great a cost during the Vietnam War:
... you think about what they are losing. The terrorists, the opponents, this is an enormous thing for them. If they fail to stop a democratic government, Iraqis with their own constitution, their own election, their own officials, a sovereign nation, if they don't stop that, they've lost something enormous ... they have a lot at stake. And I expect them to be putting a lot of cards on the table.
Now admittedly, the insurgents, terrorists and other opposition forces in Iraq are not nearly as organized as the North Vietnamese were, but what strikes me is the similar "all or nothing" incentive those groups have to what the North Vietnamese had. If those forces are going to lose "something enormous," shouldn't we approach the situation differently? Shouldn't we not underestimate the level of resistance to the U.S. face of democracy in Iraq? What else do we know or not know about the motivations of the opposition forces there and in surrounding countries? What is amazing is that Rumsfeld recognizes the potential loss the opposition forces face and he doesn't seem overly concerned. We're just going to continue on with our plans no matter what.

That's quite a lot I've poured out of my brain, so if you've stuck with me I applaud you. If you're so inclined please leave me a comment and let me know if I'm out of my mind or if I've put together a coherent statement and observation.

Further reading:
McNamara's June 1996 interview with CNN.
Wikipedia's list of people related to the Vietnam War.


Mateo said...

Great minds think alike. See my post from September..
Good posting!!

Lon said...

If this Viet Namese official's comment was correct, both sides completely misunderstood what the other one was fighting for, were unable to see from the other side's point of view with any accuracy. What are the odds that this is going on in Iraq as well? 100%? According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid on last night's Fresh Air broadcast, a huge proportion of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims feel that Islam is under attack by the West and Iraq is the current battleground. According to anoter NPR commentator the moderate and modern schools of thought within Islam are losing members to more radical schools of thought due to lack of jobs, the war in Iraq, and other factors.

Kevin said...

Lon -- you've hit my point exactly.