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Jewish World Review May 3, 2005 / 24 Nisan, 5765

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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'Nam: What we won | The spectacular fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 had Americans glued to their television sets. Millions watched as long lines snaked up stairs at the American Embassy waiting to be rescued by the U.S. military.

It had been barely 10 years since the first U.S. Marine combat troops arrived in Vietnam at Danang. That decade had been punctuated by premature proclamations of victory, promises of "light at the end of the tunnel" and a Tet offensive that effectively destroyed the Viet Cong, but remained a potent Communist propaganda coup in Western media.

"Vietnamization" finally removed almost all America combat troops from Vietnam more than a year before the fall of Saigon. But by then many Americans felt so whip lashed by media accounts of a war they didn't understand they accepted the fall of Saigon as the final humiliating proof of an American defeat.

As the years passed, a collection of myths accrued that today are regarded by many as historical fact. It is time to reexamine them.

There may be good reason to do so since Edward Kennedy, John Kerry and others repeatedly warn there is an imminent danger that America's attempt to liberate Iraq may become "another Vietnam."

As "everyone knows" today, Vietnam was a war in which the lives of Americans drafted from the lower classes, disproportionately black and Hispanic, were wasted in a failed American intervention in what was basically a civil war between Vietnamese.

Except, as a former Secretary of the Navy who served in Vietnam as a Marine officer, James Webb, has pointed out, 67 percent of those who served and 73 percent of those who died in Vietnam were volunteers, not draftees. And blacks "comprised 13.1 percent of the serving age group, 12.6 percent of the military and 12.2 percent of the casualties."

The "civil war between Vietnamese" is a misrepresentation of the Geneva Agreement of 1954. Among other things, it negotiated the removal of the French colonial power and separated North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel, pending a popular election to be held in 1956 to determine a single government for them both. Neither South Vietnam nor the United States were signatories to the treaty. The majority of the population remained in the Communist North, even after more than a million fled to South Vietnam.

In anticipation of the election, The New York Times in 1955 stated "we must not be trapped into a fictitious legalism that can condemn 10,000,000 potentially free persons into slavery." And Sen. John Kennedy regarded the election as "obviously stacked and subverted in advance."

When the vote didn't take place, the Vietnam War began with the late-'50s return of Communist cadres to what had become South Vietnam. The "National Liberation Front" — better known as the Viet Cong — was sent to create an insurgency against the Diem government. The NLF was not an independent political movement of South Vietnamese. Said an editor of the official North Vietnamese People's Daily, "It was set up by our Communist Party."

So this was no civil war. North Vietnam began and supported a campaign of Viet Cong subversion of its sovereign southern neighbor, and after the destruction of the Viet Cong at Tet in 1968 intervened directly with its own military.

But, after 9 million men and women had served in the U.S. armed forces and more than 60,000 American soldiers died, South Vietnam still ended up as part of the North Vietnamese totalitarian state. So what could it have been but U.S. defeat?

John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, so mocked to this day for his "domino theory," gave a perfectly logical answer to that question years before American forces had even begun a role in Vietnam.

Prior to the Geneva Agreement in 1954, Dulles was asked if the new Southeast Asia Treaty Organization was designed to solve the Indochina problem after the French evacuation or the problems of Asia? Dulles replied: "The purpose . . . is to save Southeast Asia, to save all of Southeast Asia if it can be saved; if not to save essential parts of it . . . then the 'domino theory,' so-called, ceases to apply."

The object of U.S. action in South Vietnam was to stabilize Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular. At the time, Asia was anything but stable. The former British colonies Malaysia and Singapore were under siege by Communist guerillas. The No. 2 political party in India was the growing Communist party, and Pakistan and India were still at one another's throats. Taiwan expected an assault from Red China at any moment. And China itself was suffering from Mao's "Great Leap Forward" industrialization that led to a famine that killed more than 30 million.

Indonesia under Sukarno was headed toward a "year of living dangerously" showdown with a large Communist insurgency led by overseas Chinese. The Philippines continued to have a problem with its Communist Huk rebellion. And the Korean War had ended less than a year before Dulles's statement.

Dulles wanted to save "essential parts" of Asia. America understood at the outset that it was unlikely to save all of it. And America succeeded brilliantly, both for its own interests and Asia's. It may have lost Vietnam and been unable to stop the Communist takeover that led to the death of a quarter of Cambodians in the "killing fields." But the dominos did not fall.

Only four years later, in 1979, American trade with Asia had surpassed trade with Europe. And now, 30 years later, the new "Asian tigers" have standards of living and booming economies that would astonish an old Asia hand like Dulles.

Asian prosperity is the wonder of the 21st century and particularly valuable to U.S. trade at a time when the stagnant European Union is becoming an increasing problem. And in this brilliant company of Asian states, full partners in the global economy, the People's Republic of Vietnam remains mired in irrelevancy.

America may have lost a tactical intervention in Vietnam, but the strategic consequences of that intervention were part of one of the most masterful exercises in foreign policy in modern history.

The Middle East and the United States should be so lucky as to have Iraq turn out to be "another Vietnam."

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JWR contributor Thomas H. Lipscomb served as N.Y. Chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. To comment, click here.


© 2005, Thomas H. Lipscomb