Back in 1968 when Richard Nixon was running for president against Hubert Humphrey (and John Kerry was volunteering for Vietnam and George W. Bush was scoring a lid), the belief was that the war in Vietnam would be won by three methods – beating the Viet Cong on the field, training the South Vietnamese army to fight the war on their own (it was called “Vietnamization”), and winning the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam by showing them that they were better off living in a democracy. This, along with the Paris peace talks begun under Lyndon Johnson, was Nixon’s “secret plan” to win the war. The alternative, we were told, was terrible to contemplate: Vietnam would become a communist dictatorship like North Korea, other countries around Vietnam would fall under the thrall of communism (the “domino effect”), and Southeast Asia would become a danger to freedom-loving people around the world.
For the most part, it did not happen. Vietnam did become a communist country under the rule of Hanoi, but not as a Stalinist state like North Korea; it more closely resembles China, which is one of America’s biggest trading partners, and it has opened its doors to the world. It’s not a paradise, but it also isn’t a threat to the rest of the world. In other words, it’s just another country in Southeast Asia.
What can we learn about the future of Iraq from Vietnam? Talking heads are fond of using Vietnam as the template for Iraq in making the case both for and against the war. The pro-war people are saying we can learn something from our experiences forty years ago in Vietnam; the anti-war people say we’ve learned nothing. The concensus among some military people is that the war in Iraq is not winnable on the terms we’d like: a peaceful democratic country and a model for the rest of the Arab world. Instead, we have a rising insurgencey, an interim government that can barely keep the capital secure (at the height of the war in Vietnam, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a bustling city of commerce and everyday life), and Iraq has become the recruiting poster for every disgruntled unemployed Islamic teenager to join Al-Qaeda with promises of glory and revenge. The best that we can hope for in Iraq is the outcome we achieved in Vietnam: a stable, ordinary country that someday will become the leading trading partner with the west for whatever industry they can salvage from the wreckage we’ve left them.
Richard Nixon promised us “peace with honor” in Vietnam. We didn’t get it; we had to settle for stability and a cheap source of bicycles, paid for at a terrible price. And the only lesson we may take away from this war is that in 2040, the Democratic and Republican candidates will have to prove what they did or didn’t do about the war in Iraq all those years ago.