Lessons we've learned - or should have - in Vietnam

This week marks the 30th anniversary of America's ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam in helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. The South Vietnamese capital, soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, fell to Communist forces on April 30, 1975. President Ford proclaimed the end of the war on May 7. Not since the Civil War 100 years before had the country been so divided. What lessons have we learned, or should we have learned, from the Vietnam experience?

• Be sure there is a solid, enduring national consensus about where the national interest lies. We looked at Vietnam as part of the cold war and at North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh as the Communist tool of China and the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he turned out to be an anti-Chinese nationalist.

• Be sure it is the US national interest that drives involvement and not the national interest of another country. In the case of Vietnam, US policymaking in the early days was heavily influenced by pro-French European policy: The US wanted to help France hold its pre-World War II colonies, including Vietnam.

• Think the problem through: Are we going to stick with our original policy even though it turns out to be mistaken? US engagement in Vietnam began small under President Eisenhower and grew under presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon before Congress ended it under President Ford.

• Be honest with Congress and the American people. White House statements consistently misrepresented the situation in Vietnam. The most egregious example was the edifice of falsehood erected around the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, when American destroyers on a provocative intelligence mission were depicted as the innocent targets of North Vietnamese attacks.

• Don't be afraid to admit mistakes. It is easier to correct a policy when it is acknowledged to be a mistake than to pretend it doesn't exist. The Johnson and Nixon administrations kept insisting on their success in interdicting the Ho Chi Minh trail while the CIA was telling them that North Vietnamese supplies continued to get through to the southern Viet Cong guerrillas.

Some of these lessons apply more forcefully than others to the current imbroglio in Iraq. Of Iraq it can be said that there is not a solid national consensus, that the Bush administration did not think the problem through, that it has not admitted its mistakes, and that it has not been totally honest with Congress or the American people.

But, although similar, the two problems are not parallel and should not be considered as such. Many more troops fought in Vietnam and casualties were much higher: more than 50,000 were killed in Vietnam; about 1,500 so far in Iraq. The draft was used in Vietnam; volunteers in Iraq.

Vietnam ruined the reputation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who had most to do with it. He also hated it. The first weekend of his presidency, even before Kennedy was buried, Johnson had a long telephone conversation with Sen. Richard B. Russell, his closest friend in the Senate, in which these two hawks (among the biggest in Washington) both lamented the predicament. Neither had any idea what to do about it. Johnson's White House staff later said the president thought anything less than victory would "tear the country apart," as one of them (Jack Valenti) put it. In fact, what tore the country apart was continuing the war. It was the war that drove Lyndon Johnson from office and probably cost Vice President Hubert Humphrey the 1968 election against Richard Nixon.

Meanwhile, Johnson was successfully pressing Congress to enact the most far-reaching domestic program since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s - civil rights, Medicare, aid to education. Without Vietnam, historians would now probably rank LBJ with FDR as the two outstanding presidents of the 20th century. Instead, he is remembered as the president who led the country into its worst foreign disaster as of that time. Whether George W. Bush challenges him for that distinction remains to be seen.

Nixon provides a different example. He probably had the most sophisticated world view of all our post-World War II presidents. He pulled off the opening to China. He began the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Watergate was his undoing, driving him to resign the presidency rather than face a Senate impeachment trial.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wrote the book 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy: A Dilemma of Democracy.'

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