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Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 /26 Nissan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Prevailing myths of the Vietnam War -- THE VIETNAM WAR marked the first time in American history that we waged war not only against a foreign enemy, but against ourselves.

Truth was the first casualty of that internecine fight, which means that now, on the 25th anniversary of our departure from Vietnam, many younger Americans know little about the war other than the grim idiocies passed on by the professors and the press.

Let's refute some of those popular myths.

  • Vietnam was an unjust war. Members of the self-described New Left argued in the '60s that the people of Vietnam loved communism and that the South Vietnamese hungered for the ministrations of Ho Chi Minh. That proved thumpingly untrue. Within weeks of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Vietnamese people expressed their feelings about communism by crafting crude boats and trying to drift to freedom -- much as Cubans do today.

  • We had no reason to enter the battle. Vietnam differed from previous wars in that the Vietnamese could not conceivably bring the fight to American shores. But John Kennedy, the architect of the war, perceived a different reason for engagement. He was deeply anti-communist and believed in the "domino theory" -- that if one nation in the region were to fall to communism, others would follow. Although college students of that era jeered at the notion, it turned out to be true. After Vietnam fell, so did Cambodia and Burma (now Myanmar). Millions subsequently died in communist "liberations."

  • The United States was an imperialist aggressor.

    Just the opposite was true. The United States, like France before it, was attempting to prevent communist imperialism. Like France, it failed. The Johnson and Nixon administrations, following the lead of Truman and Eisenhower in Korea, refused to call the war a "war," designating it a "conflict" instead.

    This verbal sleight of hand spared the presidents the trouble of having to seek a congressional declaration of war. But in failing to seek Capitol Hill's blessing, these presidents doomed the effort. Congressional debates force planners to sharpen their war aims and make presidents make a popular case for sending young men and women into harm's way.

    The arguments used in Vietnam failed both tests. The case for fighting was abstract in nature. Johnson and Nixon did not stimulate the patriotism that sustained us through World War II. They issued no clarion calls to national interest or American greatness. The Pentagon instead tried to justify the war by tossing out body counts -- estimating that we were inflicting 10 times as many deaths as the Vietcong were inflicting on us. That wasn't good enough for those who had to bury loved ones.

  • Vietnam War protests set off an age of youthful idealism.

    Vietnam War protesters -- of which I occasionally was one -- began their opposition to the war in earnestness and ended it in fecklessness.

    Most protesters got involved not because they had lofty feelings about war and peace. They joined in because they were bored, because disobedience was exciting, because the movement provided the next best thing to a dating service and because they wanted a high-minded way to dodge the draft.

    In retrospect, the tactics were wonderfully stupid. The Moratorium, which Bill Clinton helped organize in England, was built on the premise that college students could put an end to global conflict merely by standing around in the street and chanting slogans. Instead of inspiring peace, the young scholars goaded communists into waging a broader war on human liberties. The Soviets and their proxy armies concluded that Americans lacked the spirit or will to fight back.

    Even worse, anti-war organizations proved to be every bit as delusional as the Pentagon's bean-counters. The boat people proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the Vietcong were peddling death and misery -- and yet, left-wing commentators refused to acknowledge the fact. Many still do. Only communism could have turned the Vietnamese people into paupers. Here in America, Vietnamese immigrants have demonstrated their entrepreneurial and economic genius.

  • We're finally giving Vietnam veterans their due.

    Although Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidents have lavished Vietnam vets with praise, we can never give them what they deserve, which is their youth.

    We lost nearly 60,000 Americans in a war plagued by shabby planning on one side and a narcissistic anti-war movement on the other. Young people were instructed to fight, but not given the means to win. And when they stumbled home from the hell of jungle warfare, they had to endure taunts from a protest movement that viewed its cowardice as a form of nobility.

    This sorry legacy does, however, permit us to formulate a pithy summary of the "lessons of Vietnam." First, if you enter a war, declare war and build popular support. Second, fight to win. Third, honor those who serve. And fourth, remember: A strong military is necessary not just to fight wars, but to prevent them. No sane outfit will mess with a superpower that not only has the means to fight, but the will to punish aggressors.

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    © 2000, Creators Syndicate