Paul Pillar

The Vietnam War and Lessons of History

Every generation has its own defining historical events that shape its attitudes toward current events. Members of later generations easily become disdainful of what they regard as preoccupations with the past. This pattern comes through in an article by James Mann about the different generations represented in the Obama administration's foreign policy apparatus. Mann divides the administration team into a Vietnam generation, which does not want to repeat the misery of that war, a post-Vietnam generation that believes the first generation's reaction to the war made the Democratic Party look too wimpy and naïve about the use of military force, and a still-younger generation that believes both of the previous two cohorts have over-reacted in their different ways to a long-ago and increasingly irrelevant conflict. The attitude of the third group is bluntly expressed by the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Unlike the previous two administrations, says Rice,

We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s....What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, "Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?"  And I’m thinking, "What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?" 

Given the ridiculous, or outrageous, way that the Vietnam War was swift-boated into the 2004 election campaign, one can understand Ambassador Rice's disgust. She is too quick, however, to dismiss the relevance of what individual personal histories related to that war, among those who served in it and those who had other priorities, may say about the individuals in question. Sure, it's hard for anyone who has come of age in the era of the all-volunteer military to relate to the situation that young males of a previous generation faced, but that hardly means the responses of those males were irrelevant.

Beyond the personal level, there are all the lessons that have to do with larger issues of national policy and the use of military force. Much has been written in this vein in the four decades since the Vietnam War. Different people have derived different lessons, but surely a conflict that had such a tremendous impact on the nation, including more than 50,000 war dead, still has things to teach us. A perceptive piece about lessons that the U.S. military drew, and ones that it should have drawn, appeared in the U.S. Army War College's journal Parameters in 1986. It was written by an army major on the West Point faculty named David Petraeus. He combined observations about topics such as civil-military relations and the future of counterinsurgency with a more general caution, similar to cautions from many historians, against applying analogies from any one conflict to any other single conflict without taking into account the differences between the two.

That such cautions are necessary is ironic in that there was at least as much analogizing during the Vietnam War, by those making policy about the war, as there has subsequently been analogizing from that war. There were comparisons made to how the West stood up to other communist advances earlier in the Cold War, and many made to that most overused of all historical analogies, the rise of Nazi Germany before World War II. In general, the historical analogies invoked during the Vietnam conflict, at least before the costs and casualties mounted to unspeakable proportions, were more uniformly in favor of staying the course in opposing the Vietnamese communists than has been the case in later debates in which historical lessons have been flung back and forth. In the early stages of the American involvement in that conflict, before the introduction of U.S. ground troops, it was very difficult to resist what was a widely accepted belief that the United States had to make a stand in Vietnam.