Neocons and the Forgotten Lesson of Vietnam
June 30, 2004
Executive Summary: The Christian Science Monitor has posted a highly informative introduction to neoconservativism at its website. Included is a 10 question Neocon Quiz that lets readers determine whether they are neoconservatives. Question 2 asks whether the US was right to intervene in Vietnam. Question 3 asks whether the US should intervene in China. Quite inexplicably, the multiple choice answers suggested for China differ dramatically from the multiple choice answers for Vietnam. This discrepancy raises a disturbing question. Have Americans already forgotten the lesson of Vietnam?
Neocon Quiz Question 2
The US campaign in Vietnam was…
[ ] A disaster. What threat did Vietnam pose to American security? More than 50,000 US troops died in support of a theory about “dominoes.”
[ ] A failure. The American objective was strategically and morally bankrupt.
[ ] A quagmire. The US had the right strategy – it was important to contain communist expansion into Asia – but executed the wrong tactics. High casualty rates and low public support put the US in an unwinnable war.
[ ] A hard-won victory. US forces paid a high – but necessary – price to contain Communism in Southeast Asia.
Neocon Quiz Question 3
What type of relationship should the US form with China?
[ ] The US must hedge China’s rise to great-power status. The policy of preemption includes China, and US military leaders must strategically contain China’s armed forces, while US policymakers maintain America’s economic preeminence. Above all else, China must not be encouraged to think it can challenge America’s superpower status.
[ ] China’s bullying – of Tibet, Falun Gong, and Taiwan – is atrocious. America’s “normalization” of trade with China has allowed it to continue its human rights abuses, while costing countless American jobs. The US must not sacrifice its moral high ground at the altar of trade.
[ ] China presents great potential dangers – and rewards – to American interests in the 21st century. While the US must affirm China’s progressive steps and opening economy, it cannot ignore its repressive human rights behavior, trade violations, and bullying of Taiwan. Ultimately, opening China to American goods and services spreads American values that will influence China for the better.
[ ] The US should neither appease nor aggravate China. China is a bellicose regional power and its human-rights record is appalling. But it doesn’t threaten US interests. The US must stop giving China preferential trade treatment and do more to protect American jobs, but it needn’t contain or confront China.
“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
— Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense to JFK and LBJ and chief architect of the Vietnam War
I assume you noticed the discrepancy between the two sets of multiple choice answers?
I assume the discrepancy made as little sense to you as it did to me?
Three of the four multiple choice answers for Vietnam rightly characterized US intervention in Vietnam as an unmitigated catastrophe, as a “disaster,” a “failure,” or a “quagmire.”
Three of the four multiple choice answers for China, on the other hand, characterized potentially apocalyptic US military coercion of mainland China as Doing the Right Thing, as “strategic,” or “moral,” or an “influence for the better.”
Even the one multiple choice answer that explicitly rejected military intervention against mainland China, the one least Sinophobic, characterized China as “bellicose” and maintained that China’s “human rights record is appalling.”
The obvious question is: “Why?”
When Will They Ever Learn?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
— Pete Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”
Why did the answers suggested for China differ so radically from the answers suggested for Vietnam?
Two possibilities come to mind.
One, the editors of the Christian Science Monitor who formulated the quiz know that neocons have forgotten the lesson of Vietnam and are testing for it.
Two, the editors of the Christian Science Monitor have themselves forgotten the lesson of Vietnam. Both they and the neocon chickenhawks in charge of Bush administration China policy are deluded enough to believe “That was then, this is now,” and therefore “This time, it’s different.”
But is it different? Or is it deja vu all over again?
In 1975, after a decade long struggle, Vietnam defeated America’s vaunted military machine, albeit at an appalling cost in Vietnamese lives. Four years later, in 1979, mainland China, in a bloody but short and decisive campaign, defeated Vietnam. In other words, mainland China defeated the nation that defeated the US.
Vietnam never possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching America’s population centers. Mainland China, which to its credit has forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons, possesses a second strike deterrent capability. Vietnam’s current population numbers a “mere” 82 million. Mainland China’s population numbers 1.3 billion.
If the US campaign against Vietnam proved to be a “disaster/failure/quagmire,” why wouldn’t a US campaign against a far larger, far better armed China be a far worse “disaster/failure/quagmire?”
Wouldn’t any US strategic planner in his right mind be more “prudent” about bullying China? Wouldn’t he, or she — not forgetting Condi Rice — think twice before backing China into a corner, forcing it to defend its territorial integrity?
What threat does a free-market China eager to engage in peaceful trade with America pose to American security? How many US troops will die in support of a theory about a nonexistent “China Threat?” Why isn’t the neocon objective of “preventive” military aggression against China “strategically and morally bankrupt?”
Will Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reenact every mistake of his predecessor Robert McNamara? Will Rumsfeld confess, 30 years from today, that “We of the Bush II administration who participated in the decisions on China acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong.”
As a perennial optimist, I prefer to see a glass half full. Dubya’s obsessive search for monsters to destroy unfortunately, makes it impossible to see anything but a glass completely empty. The neocon inmates in charge of the Bush II foreign policy asylum have forgotten the lesson of Vietnam, assuming they ever understood it in the first place.
For the record, the lesson of Vietnam was this: Unless a foreign nation invades your territory and murders your citizens, leave it alone!
Neocon imperialists consider such a severely constrained foreign policy unthinkable, even outrageous. That’s because Neocon advocates of Pax Americana, unlike America’s Founding Fathers, have never understood traditional American values, specifically the timeless and enduring value of political noninterference combined with economic engagement.
Speak of the Devil
“Pile on the brown man’s burden, compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly he dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom, don’t hesitate to shoot.”
— “The Brown Man’s Burden” by Henry Labouchere, February 25, 1899 a satirical response to the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” in McClure’s Magazine
“Only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world hegemony. The ideology of benevolent American empire and global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power. It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American, one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired to modesty and self-restraint.”
— Claes Ryn, Professor of Political Science, Catholic University
No sooner did I post this op ed piece, than I came across this chilling news report, confirming my worst fears:
US plans huge show of force in Pacific, by Ching Cheong
The Straits Times Interactive, June 30, 2004
Seven aircraft carriers to move within striking distance of China; Taiwan forces slated to join in drill
HONG KONG – The United States is planning a massive show of force in the Pacific Ocean near China to register a point with Beijing. In an exercise codenamed Operation Summer Pulse 04, it is expected to arrange for an unprecedented seven aircraft carrier strike groups (CSGs) to rendezvous in waters a safe distance away from the Chinese coastline – but still within striking distance – after mid-July.
This will be the first time in US naval history that it sends seven of its 12 CSGs to just one region. Clearly, given Beijing’s repeated warning that it will use force, as a last resort and whatever the cost, to stop Taiwanese independence, the US feels it needs to send Beijing a message.
The US usually despatches one CSG to a trouble spot as a reminder of its presence. It did so several times in the past when tension was high in the Taiwan Strait. It sends two to indicate serious concern, as was the case when China test-fired missiles over the strait in 1996. In a combat situation, it deploys three to four, which was what it did in the Gulf War in the early 1990s and the recent Iraqi war. But never before has it sent in peace time seven CSGs to the same theatre.
The implications for China are grave. This means that if China has to wage war over Taiwan, it has to be able to land and seize control of the island within the first 30 days. Otherwise, under the FRP, six CSGs may well arrive to join in the battle.
“All this leaves China with no choice but to start and end the war with lightning speed” said a Chinese military source.
Politically, Summer Pulse is likely to be seen by many Chinese as naked intimidation.
“This is gunboat diplomacy in the 21st century,” the source remarked, adding that it would remind the Chinese people of their century-long deep humiliation by Western powers – and put Sino-US relations at peril.
Just When You Thought It was Safe to Come Out of the Fallout Shelter
“After the Soviets, who I thought were a real threat, collapsed, I expected a much greater demobilization, a pullback of American troops, a real peace dividend, a re-orienting of federal expenditures to domestic needs. Instead, our government turned at once to find a replacement enemy: China, drugs, terrorism, instability. Anything to justify this huge apparatus of the Cold War structure.”
— Chalmers Johnson, LA Weekly – Dissing the Republic To Save It
Just when you thought you were being overly pessimistic, just when you decided “Even Dubya isn’t that stupid,” you come across a bombshell like Summer Pulse and wonder “Who’s advising George W. Bush on China? General Jack D. Ripper?”
The Bush II administration alas, has no shortage of latter day Jack D. Rippers. To see who they are and how they dictate US policy, see the pages below.