The president, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last week, pointed out that the withdrawal from Vietnam "was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields'." He continued, "Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility, but the terrorists see it differently."
If the more than 50,000 American deaths over a decade in Vietnam weren't sufficient to establish America's credibility in foreign policy, how can we regard the 3,700 American deaths in Iraq over five years as a sufficient commitment to advancing the cause of democracy?
According to Bush's logic, the U.S. should have continued the war in Vietnam, perhaps to the present day, sacrificing every decade about 50,000 Americans, about 200,000 South Vietnamese and other allied soldiers, an undoubtedly greater although unknown number of enemy soldiers and about a million Vietnamese civilians.
Let's briefly review the Vietnam War, particularly America's portion of it.
For America, the war ended in March of 1973 when the last of the American troops left the country. The beginning of the war for America is not as clear-cut. A small number of American troops, referred to as "military advisors," supported the government of South Vietnam in 1961, numbering about 3,200 at the conclusion of that year. The first combat death of an advisor occurred in January of 1962.
The first combat troops who were not referred to as advisors were 3,500 Marines arriving in March of 1965, joining 23,000 advisors already there. The numbers accelerated rapidly after that. The American part of the war is generally regarded as lasting about 10 years, although the first couple of years were relatively insignificant in terms of involvement by American troops.
American combat deaths totaled 47,369, with other deaths bringing the total to over 58,000. Some may wonder why there were so many non-combat deaths. Vietnam has a tropical climate with numerous tropical diseases and deadly creatures. Also, many non-combat duties of soldiers are hazardous. The full 58,000 deaths should be regarded as the price America paid in Vietnam.
By 1973, the majority of Americans had had enough of Vietnam.
In April of 1975, two years after the American troops left, the North Vietnamese Army completely overran the south, ending the existence of South Vietnam.
The ensuing atrocities committed by Vietnamese communists against their ideologically impure countrymen surprised only those Americans who had a soft spot in their hearts for people like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx.
The atrocities after the war were no more lethal to civilians than the war itself was over a comparable length of time, yet Bush appears to believe America owed it to the Vietnamese people to continue the war in order to avoid the aftermath. Bush must believe that an American victory was just around the corner in Vietnam if we had "stayed the course." That wasn't the view of the majority of Americans in 1973.
The reference about the war continuing "perhaps to the present day" was not facetious. Although the American portion of the war lasted about a decade, Vietnamese communists started waging war after Japanese occupation of the French colony ended in 1945, continuing until 1975, with a lull after the French were defeated in 1954 and the country was partitioned into north and south.
That's a total of 30 years, just a couple of years short of the time from 1975 to the present.
If America had continued the war at the level of American involvement at its height, it is likely the communists would be forced to operate at a smaller scale. Enemy soldiers were dying faster than replacement level. However, American policy would not allow blanket bombing of population centers in the north nor wiping out villages in the south that were supportive of the enemy, so there would continue to be enemy soldiers produced.
The Soviet Union's support of North Vietnam would have eventually run dry, certainly after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, but the Vietnamese communists would have likely continued on with what resources they had.
There is no evidence that there was a breaking point for the communists, no evidence that they could not accept war as a perpetual situation. For Americans, the idea of perpetual war is unthinkable.
We are not a warrior culture in the tradition of the ancient Greeks or Romans, or even the British at the height of their empire. We are, at heart, idealists rather than warriors. We demand that any military engagement contain the possibility of victory and this victory incorporate the American ideals of democracy, justice and equality. This is a charming, although na*ve, view of military conquest.
For Vietnam to offer any hope or inspiration to America today, Bush needs to revive belief in an imaginary happy ending for Vietnam, a belief that most Americans had lost back in 1973.