[Part of a series, this essay is adapted from Chapter Six of Healing America’s Narratives: the Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow (available October 2022)]
Decades before the 2003 U. S. invasion of Iraq, the United States invaded Vietnam — initially with “advisors” and eventually with bombs, troops, and bullets. After its defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to leave the former French colony, Indochina — as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were then known — which it had occupied during the war. After Japan’s departure, France’s attempt to reassert control of the area was thwarted by popular support for Ho Chi Minh. Under his leadership, on September 2, 1945, the “Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” emerged. It borrowed language and concepts from both the American and French revolutions, and it listed grievances against the French colonizers in 1945, much as the British colonists, who would eventually identify as Americans, had done against their British governors in 1776. The Vietnamese proclamation begins:
“‘We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. Understood in the broader sense, this means: “‘All peoples on the earth are born equal; every person has the right to live to be happy and free.’”¹
In 1945 and 1946 Ho Chi Minh wrote repeatedly to President Truman and other world leaders, and at least once to the United Nations, asking for humanitarian aid because some two million Vietnamese had died of starvation in the final years of World War II. The U. S. president, the other leaders and the United Nations did not respond. Ho concluded that “We apparently stand quite alone; we shall have to depend on ourselves.”² When the French began their eight-year war against Ho Chi Minh’s government and its followers in 1946, the U. S., first under Truman and then under Eisenhower, helped arm the French and financed most of the French effort.
With the 1949 Communist victory in China, and the faith that the Viet Minh had in Ho Chi Minh, the U. S. articulated and began to act on the “domino” theory — that if one Southeast Asian country were to succumb to Communism, the rest would follow suit, and that if free elections were allowed, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia would be controlled by Communists. Said differently, the U. S. wanted to stop the possible spread of Communism in the region by preventing free democratic elections.
In April 1953 President Eisenhower had delivered his “The Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Widely known as the “Cross of Iron” speech, it celebrates the end of World War II, warns of the Soviet Union’s post-war behaviors, and argues both against the costs of war and for hope, freedom, and democracy. It also includes, less famously than the cross of iron metaphor, these five precepts:
First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.
Second: No nation’s security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow-nations.
Third: Any nation’s right to form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable.
Fourth: Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.
And fifth: A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.³
Beginning almost immediately, and continuing for the next twenty-plus years in Vietnam and in various places around the globe to the present day, the United States would violate Eisenhower’s first, third, fourth, and fifth precepts, and engage an ongoing national debate about the second. The Soviets and Chinese would exacerbate the situation, but they didn’t claim to adhere to these same precepts.
Under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy the U.S. first ignored and then incrementally opposed Ho Chi Minh in the north; set up, supported, and eventually disposed of Ngo Dinh Diem in the south; and increased the presence and levels of engagement of U. S. military advisors. President Johnson, with the financial blessings of Congress, then officially sent U. S. combat forces to Vietnam without declaring war. Johnson and Nixon each escalated specific aspects of the undeclared war both on the ground and in the air. As we know, it didn’t end well.
More than 58,000 Americans, and depending how the counting is done, some three million Vietnamese combatants and civilians lost their lives during the war. Millions more on both sides died due to poisoning from the defoliant Agent Orange.
In 1995 former secretary of defense Robert McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,⁴ in which he explored eleven lessons learned. He would elucidate another set of lessons in his conversation with director Errol Morris in the 2003 film, The Fog of War.⁵ The architects of America’s policies and war in Vietnam ignored Eisenhower’s precepts. The post-9/11 architects of America’s policies and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would go on to ignore Eisenhower’s precepts and both sets of McNamara’s lessons learned — which we’ll explore in the next essay. The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) would eventually publish What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction⁶ in August 2021.
I’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about political and military lessons learned since World War II.
¹“Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” (September 2, 1945); multiple sources online; here’s one: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/vietnam/independence.pdf
²Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 148–53. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999/1980), 469–71. Sheehan puts the number of letters and telegrams from Ho Chi Minh to Truman and his Secretary of State at eleven over an 18-month period and notes that Britain, China and the Soviet Union also ignored his requests for help at the time. China and the Soviets would later provide financial and military assistance when the U.S. began financing France’s efforts. “We apparently stand quite alone; we shall have to depend on ourselves,” Sheehan, 149. Zinn includes an excerpt from one of Ho’s letters, 470–71. The U.S. State Department classified and locked away the correspondence, which would not become public until the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Sheehan, 152–53.
³President Dwight Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” April 16, 1953. Audio: https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/eisenhowers/speeches. Text: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/dwighteisenhowercrossofiron.htm. Accessed June 5, 2021.
⁴Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (Vintage, 1996), 321–23.
⁵The Fog of War, Errol Morris, director, (Sony, 2003).
⁶John F. Sopko, et. al., What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, August 2021) vii-xi, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf