Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today

Summary: Nothing shows our FAILure to learn more than how we’ve repeat so many of our mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan. No hegemon, no matter how powerful, can survive a rapidly changing world, filled with rivals and foes, if it doesn’t profit from its experience. Today is FAILure to learn day, with 3 lessons from the past that we have ignored, to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.  {1st of 3 posts today.}

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’”

— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869).

Vietnam: closer than you think.

Here is the final pages of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972), describing how Nixon took ownership of the Vietnam War from LBJ — much as Obama did from Bush. I was going to change the names to those from our war in Afghanistan. But why bother? The parallels are obvious.

Remember, because every day is a teachable moment.

Henry Kissinger

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About the same time Henry Kissinger, who had emerged as the top foreign policy adviser of the Administration (in part because he, like Nixon, was hard-line on Vietnam, whereas both William Rogers, the Secretary of State, and Mel Laird, the Secretary of Defense, had been ready to liquidate the war in the early months of the Administration), was asked by a group of visiting Asians if the Nixon Administration was going to repeat the mistakes of the Johnson Administration in Vietnam. “No,” answered Kissinger, who was noted in Washington for having the best sense of humor in the Administration, “we will not repeat their mistakes. We will not send 500,000 men.” He paused. “We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the movement.

One thing though — Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For step by step, they repeated the mistakes of the past. They soon became believers in their policy, and thus began to listen only to others who were believers (they began to believe, in addition, that only they were privy to the truth in reports from Saigon, that the secret messages from the Saigon embassy, rather than being the words of committed, embattled men, were the words of cool, objective observers).

Doubters were soon filtered out; the Kissinger staff soon lost most of the talented Asian experts that had come in with him at the start of the Administration. Optimistic assessments of American goals, of what the incursion into Cambodia would do, of what the invasion of Laos would do — always speeding the timetable of withdrawal and victory — were passed on to the public, always to be mocked by ARVN failure and NVA resilience.

Richard Nixon

More important, Nixon saw South Vietnam as a real country with a real President and a real army, rich in political legitimacy, and most important, capable of performing the role demanded of it by American aims and rhetoric. So there was no tempering of rhetoric to the reality of failure and miscalculation in the South; Nixon himself spoke of the fact that America had never lost a war, precisely the kind of speech a President needed to avoid if he wanted to disengage.

Similarly, if there was an overestimation of the South Vietnamese, there was a comparable underestimation of the capacity, resilience, determination and toughness of the other side. Even in 1972, when Hanoi launched a major offensive, Kissinger called in favored Washington correspondents to be sure that they downplayed the importance of the offensive; like so many French and American spokesmen before him he saw it as the last gasp — “One last throw of the dice,” Kissinger called it.

But the Nixon Administration, like the Johnson Administration before it, did not control events, and did not control the rate of the war; and though it could give Thieu air power, it could not give him what he really needed, which was a genuine, indigenous political legitimacy.

While Thieu’s regime was as thin and frail as ever, the North Vietnamese were imbued with a total sense of confidence. Time was on their side, they were the legitimate heirs of a revolution, nothing confirmed their legitimacy more than American bombs falling on the country. Eventually, they knew, the Americans would have to leave.

What was it a fully confident Pham Van Dong had told Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times in December 1966 in Hanoi: “And how long do you Americans want to fight, Mr. Salisbury ? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We will be glad to accommodate you.”

And the war went on. American air power served its limited purpose; it could, at great cost, keep the South Vietnamese from being routed. Administration sources praised progress in pacification, but there was no real pacification; the 1972 NVA offensive ravaged any frail gains, and Nixon, in frustration, approved an even fiercer bombing campaign against the North, lifting many of the restraints which had marked the Johnson years.

Veterans Day

In world’s eyes the bombing, in the name of a losing cause, made the United States look, if anything, even crueler. Peace seemed nowhere near in the summer of 1972, unless the President abruptly changed his policies, and so the American dilemma remained. Time was on the side of the enemy, and we were in a position of not being able to win, not being able to get out, not being able to get our prisoners home, only being able to lash out and bomb.

The inability of the Americans to impose their will on Vietnam had been answered in 1968, yet the leadership of this country had not been able to adjust our goals to that failure. And so the war went on, tearing at this country; a sense of numbness seemed to replace an earlier anger. There was, Americans were finding, no light at the end of the tunnel, only greater darkness.

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Learn from mistakes

Other posts about Afghanistan as a repeat of Vietnam

  1. Least we forget: lessons for us from the Battle of Ia Drang.
  2. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said.
  3. Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template.
  4. Senator Jim Webb on the Vietnam Generation – Outstanding!
  5. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”.
  6. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again.
  7. Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?

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