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The other Vietnam syndrome.


At the beginning of August, President Bush introduced a war-weary American public to an old conservative slander disguised as a new approach to the Iraq war. Shifting from his earlier rhetoric of optimism, he gave a series of election-timed speeches that were noticeably grim. Bush no longer emphasized the prospects of success; rather, he spoke of the danger of defeat. "Some politicians look at our efforts in Iraq and see a diversion from the war on terror," he said in a speech late last month. "If America were to pull out before Iraq can defend itself, the consequences would be absolutely predictable- -and absolutely disastrous." The villains responsible for such a disaster, his surrogates pointed out, wouldn't be the insurgents in Baghdad or Falluja, but rather the Democrats in Washington, D.C., whom House Majority Leader John Boehner helpfully described as "more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people."

This latest political tactic has captured the conservative mood perfectly. In June 2005, The Wall Street Journal editorial page declared that "the terrorists are gaining ground is in Washington." Recently, this tune has become a chorus. In August, The Weekly Standard portrayed Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont as the perfect embodiment of a fanatical antiwar sentiment sweeping the left. Its September 4 cover story, written by Harvard's William J. Stuntz (who is also a tnr contributor) asked "will we choose to win in iraq?" as if a mere preference for victory could win a war. National Review, for its part, hosted a symposium on Iraq in its September 11 issue, in which not a single contributor recommended withdrawal. Instead, Robert D. Kaplan noted that the essential questions on Iraq were "homefront perceptions and a willingness to win"; Michael Rubin, a former Bush Pentagon analyst, seconded the notion, declaring, "The U.S. is losing in Iraq because American politicians and the general public have not decided they want or need to win." Somehow, conservatives have come to believe that the main impediment to America's battlefield fortunes exists not in Iraq, but in Cambridge, Berkeley, and the Upper West Side.

On the right, the latter half of 2006 is feeling a lot like 1968, the year that the American public finally lost faith in the Vietnam war. And, just as they did then, conservatives are turning causality on its head: People aren't growing disillusioned with the war because we're not winning it; we're not winning because people have grown disillusioned. After Vietnam, this analysis enabled the right to avoid the agonizing reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy that has been that war's legacy for liberalism and the Democratic Party.

But avoidance has its consequences as well. It's true enough that, for more than 30 years, the left has not infrequently suffered from "Vietnam syndrome"-- the assumption that any military engagement will be a moral disaster and a potential quagmire. But, though it has been less examined, the lesson the right took from Vietnam--that the true danger to national security is not misguided wars, but overzealous opposition to misguided wars--is, if anything, more dangerous. Call it the Other Vietnam Syndrome.

DISILLUSIONMENT WITH A WAR   usually follows a predictable pattern, particularly among elites: support or acquiescence for the enterprise; a tortured recognition of the war's poor fortunes; and, finally, denunciation. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative founding father, followed exactly the opposite course with Vietnam. In 1971, as editor of Commentary, Podhoretz wrote despondently about the war, "I now find myself ... unhappily moving to the side of those who would prefer ... an American defeat to a `Vietnamization' of the war which calls for the indefinite and unlimited bombardment by American pilots in American planes of every country in that already devastated region." By 1982, however, Podhoretz had relocated the true fault for the Vietnam debacle--not among the war's architects, but among its critics. In Why We Were in Vietnam, he accused the antiwar movement of bearing "a certain measure of responsibility for the horrors that have overtaken the people of Vietnam." Over the intervening decade, Podhoretz had somehow grown illusioned with the war and disillusioned only with its opponents.

Podhoretz's progress may seem intellectually confused. But it followed a trail blazed by others in the 1960s and '70s. Most Republicans and conservatives initially supported the war but criticized Lyndon Johnson's handling of it. The myth took hold that if only Johnson would allow his generals to prosecute the war with sufficient brutality--mining the Haiphong Harbor, destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia--it could be won. Richard Nixon took office promising to end the war on a platform of "peace with honor," which nodded to opposition to the war across the political spectrum but, in truth, represented only the right-wing critique. (As Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer noted in 1972, "What President Nixon means by peace is what other people mean by victory.") Just as importantly, he identified the forces of peace with dishonor. In a crucial speech in 1969, Nixon married middle-American discontent with the protesters to a plea for patience as he expanded the war. "If a vocal minority," Nixon said, "however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society." It was no longer necessary on the right to be pro-war--only anti-antiwar.

This would prove a potent template. When Nixon prosecuted an even more savage war with no appreciable change in its fortunes, an emboldened Congress, led by Democrats, voted to cut off funding in 1974. This had an unintended and profound consequence. Suddenly, the right, which had spent the previous five years and the entire Johnson administration recognizing that the war was bleak, if not totally futile, had a new scapegoat: the forces that had ended the war before giving their preferred strategy time to work. Those forces were twofold: first, the representatives and senators who had betrayed the troops in the field; second, the antiwar movement that had pressured them to do so.

The antiwar movement was indeed guilty of excesses, including appalling ones like essentially blood-libeling American servicemen as murderers for carrying out their orders. The justified bitterness of veterans, who were denied a rationale for their sacrifice, fueled the campaign to portray the opposition to the war as a betrayal. In 1984, Ronald Reagan took up its banner when he referred to Vietnam veterans as "heroes as surely as any who have ever fought in a noble cause." It was a deft rhetorical sleight of hand. Vietnam veterans deserved--and deserve to this day--to have their sacrifices honored by the country that sent them to war. But Vietnam was among the most ignoble causes the United States has ever engaged in.

The "stabbed in the back" myth has flourished on the right ever since. Indeed, what is so striking about conservative--and especially neoconservative-- treatment of Vietnam is a near-complete disregard for the actual circumstances of the war. Occasionally, a book or scholarly article will come along challenging the conventional wisdom that the war was unwinnable or foolhardy, and it will receive some attention. (Lewis Sorley's A Better War, for instance-- an impressive piece of scholarship that argues, unconvincingly, that General Creighton Abrams made the war winnable--was headlined by The Weekly Standard as "the truth about vietnam.") By and large, however, conservatives are content to shunt the actual Vietnam war to the background and elevate criticism of its critics. In his 1999 book, How We Got Here, David Frum argued that, just as the war showed signs of turning in America's favor, victory was snatched away by an anti-American fringe on college campuses and in the halls of Congress. Though the conservative movement reviles Henry Kissinger, Frum approvingly quoted his contention that "[t]he so-called peace movement had evolved from seeking an end of the war to treating America's frustrations in Indochina as symptoms of a moral degeneration that needed to be eradicated root and branch." Similarly, in a revealing column during the Sunni and Shia insurgencies of spring 2004, Charles Krauthammer rejected the Iraq-as-Vietnam comparison--except in one crucial sense: "Walter Cronkite, speaking for the establishment, declared the war lost. Once said to be lost, it was."

THERE ARE REASONS for such distortions. For one thing, the first generation of neoconservative intellectuals felt genuine terror over the radicalism of the antiwar movement. Indeed, it was this horror at the counterculture that had driven many of them to the right in the first place. "When we saw this attack [on the war] launched in the most extreme terms, we simply didn't understand what they were arguing about or what they were fighting about. The critique they launched of the United States was something we simply could not accept," Nathan Glazer recalled to filmmaker Joseph Dorman for the documentary Arguing the World. As the antiwar movement itself began to conceive of American power in the most Manichean and moralistic terms, it became easier for a new generation of conservatives to subordinate discrete arguments about Vietnam to a broader cultural counterattack.

But, more fundamentally, it is a profound and painful thing to accept that one's country has involved itself in a futile or immoral cause; it is worse still to ask what intellectual or political mistakes led to such a nightmare. Faced with a disastrous war, the most important consideration is not "Were we wrong?" but "Why were we wrong?" and "How can we avoid being so wrong in the future?" These are questions that often will implicate the country's leading politicians and intellectuals, and its cherished myths. The anguish of confronting them has been on display in the Democratic Party's foreign policy debate for 35 years.

The results have not always been pretty. But they have been important. It is only when the United States shrinks from asking such agonizing questions that we wade back into agonizing wars. That is a price that conservatives have been willing to pay, as the ugly pre-Iraq war debate vividly displayed. When conservatives achieved power, their 35-year-old willful blindness led the country right back into a quagmire, this time in a desert.

This article originally ran in the October 9, 2006, issue of the magazine.