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Behind Bush's Vietnam Revisionism

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 12:38 PM

President Bush's contentious speech on the recent history of American warfare yesterday was one element of a new White House PR campaign intended to solidify crumbling Republican congressional support for the war in Iraq and put Democrats on the defensive.

Bush's most controversial assertion -- that U.S. troops could have prevailed in Vietnam had they stayed longer -- is a neoconservative fantasy that almost all historians ridicule. But the overall campaign may still work.

Here's the text of the speech. I wrote about it at some length in yesterday's column.

How the Speech Was Made

Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "With just three weeks to go before a crucial progress report on Iraq, the White House has launched a new communications effort to frame the debate by casting the war in historical terms. . . .

"Aides said the president felt it was necessary to revamp his message in the weeks before Army Gen. David H. Petraeus delivers a progress report that Congress mandated.

"White House counselor Ed Gillespie and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove worked with the president on the speech. There was a sense in the White House that the president's rhetoric on Iraq, though consistent, was also becoming somewhat repetitive.

"'The repetition is necessary and by design,' White House communications director Kevin Sullivan said in an interview, adding that the language is usually fresh to every new audience. 'However, the president was aware of wanting to set the table for the upcoming report and the discussion that will follow it in a new way that was both compelling and illustrative. We've done this work before, and it was beneficial to the American people.'"

Reynolds and Gerstenzang quote a "former official who left the White House recently" as saying the president intentionally set out to turn a perceived weakness -- historical comparisons to Vietnam -- into a strength.

"'Vietnam has been wrung around the administration's neck on Iraq for a long time,' he said. 'There are many analogies or comparisons or connections that could cut against the administration's position, but this is a connection that supports the administration's position."

Ewen MacAskill writes in the Guardian: "The speech was aimed primarily at what White House officials privately describe as the 'defeatocrats', the Democratic Congressmen trying to push Mr Bush into an early withdrawal."

Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News: "A Republican source said White House strategists, believing anti-war Democrats will liken Iraq to the Vietnam War 'quagmire,' launched a preemptive strike 'to inoculate Bush.'"

But where did they get the idea that we should have stayed longer in Vietnam -- when the prevailing view is that we should have left earlier? (Or never have gone in to begin with?)

Farah Stockman and Bryan Bender write in the Boston Globe: "Many neoconservatives who helped shape the Bush administration's policies on Iraq have long argued that the United States was wrong to abandon the South Vietnamese in the war against the communist north. . . .

"To many in this circle, analysts say, the bitter lesson of Vietnam was not that the United States fought a misguided war, but rather that US troops withdrew too soon."

Stockman and Bender note that the argument first surfaced in an official White House speech in April, when Vice President Cheney spoke in Chicago to financial supporters and board members of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Military withdrawal from Iraq, Cheney said, would trigger a replay of the same 'scenes of abandonment and retreat and regret' that followed the US military's departure from Vietnam. He likened recent Democratic calls for withdrawal to the 'far left' antiwar policies espoused by former senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democrats' nominee for president in 1972."

Changing the Political Dynamic

William Douglas and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush stepped up his high-pressure sales job Wednesday to stay the course in Iraq, illustrating how the administration is both shifting the goalposts it once set for measuring success there and changing the political dynamic inside Congress on what to do about it."

And it may be going exactly as the White House had hoped.

"Bush now seems likely to prevail when Congress resumes wrestling about Iraq in September, for reports of limited military progress in Iraq have stiffened Republicans' support for Bush's policy while putting Democrats on the defensive. Without more Republican support, Democrats can't overcome Bush's veto power to force a change in policy. . . .

"Republicans said that reports of military progress in Iraq have greatly eased pressure on their members to abandon the war. They may even be able to put Democrats on the defensive."

But public opinion may not be as malleable as our public officials are. Opposition to the war in Iraq remains widespread, based on the amply supported conviction that things over there are a disaster. A few "good spin" days by the White House aren't going to change that.

Rejected By Historians

Bush argued that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Southeast Asia three decades ago resulted in widespread death and suffering -- just as it would in Iraq. Historians and analysts were quick to refute this Vietnam revisionism.

As Stockman and Bender write in the Globe, political analysts and historians are agog.

"'I couldn't believe it,' said Allan Lichtman, an American University historian, adding that far more Vietnamese died during the war than in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. Lichtman said the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal pro-communist regime, could as easily be attributed to American interference in that country.

"The president's portrayal of the conflict 'is not revisionist history. It is fantasy history,' Lichtman said.

"Melvin Laird, secretary of defense under President Nixon from 1969 to 1973, said Bush is drawing the wrong lessons from history.

"'I don't think what happened in Cambodia after the war has anything to do with Iraq,' Laird said. 'Is he saying we should have invaded Cambodia? That's what we would have had to do, and we would have never done that. I don't see how he draws the parallel.'

"Other historians said Bush bypassed the fact that, after the painful US withdrawal was completed in April 1975, Vietnam stabilized and developed into an economically thriving country that is now a friend of the United States."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune that Bush's remarks "invited stinging criticism from historians and military analysts who said the analogies evidenced scant understanding of those conflicts' true lessons. . . .

"'This was history written by speechwriters without regard to history,' said military analyst Anthony Cordesman. 'And I think most military historians will find it painful. . . . because in basic historical terms the president misstated what happened in Vietnam.' . . .

"Cordesman noted that human tragedies similar to those that occurred in the aftermath of U.S. involvement in Vietnam already have taken place in Iraq.

"'We are already talking about a country where the impact of our invasion has driven 2 million people out of the country, will likely drive out 2 million more, has reduced 8 million people to dire poverty, has killed 100,000 people and wounded 100,000 more,' he said. 'One sits sort of in awe at the lack of historical comparability.'

"It also struck some historians as odd that the president would try to use a divisive issue like Vietnam to rally the nation behind his policy in Iraq. 'If we get into a Vietnam argument, the country is divided, but if you are going to try sell this concept that the blood is on the American people's hands because we left and were weak-kneed in Asia, that is a very tenuous and inane historical argument,' said historian Douglas Brinkley."

The Associated Press quotes more reaction from experts:

"The speech was an act of desperation to scare the American people into staying the course in Iraq. He's distorted the facts, painting all of the people in Iraq as being on the same side which is simply not the case. Iraq is a religious civil war." -- Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary under President Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

"Bush is cherry-picking history to support his case for staying the course. What I learned in Vietnam is that U.S. forces could not conduct a counterinsurgency operation. The longer we stay there, the worse it's going to get." -- Ret. Army Brig. Gen. John Johns, a counterinsurgency expert who served in Vietnam.

"The president emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early. It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay the worse it gets." -- Steven Simon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The only lesson he found in the nation's last foreign quagmire of a war was that it ended too quickly."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "It's true that millions of Iraqi civilians have already paid a terrible price and may suffer even more as fighting may well worsen after a U.S. withdrawal -- whenever that occurs. But it seems equally clear that the civil war cannot be suppressed indefinitely unless the U.S. plans to occupy the country for decades. Killing fields? Iraq's already got them: A dozen or two corpses are found dumped in the streets each morning, and bombs go off daily. Boat people? Two million Iraqis have already fled the country, and perhaps 50,000 more leave each month. Could it get worse? Absolutely. But can we stop it?"

Here's David Gergen's reaction to the speech on CNN: "He's tried all along to say this is not Vietnam. By invoking Vietnam he raised the automatic question, well, if you've learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you ever get us involved in another quagmire? Why didn't you learn up front about the perils of Vietnam and what we faced there? . . .

"But here's the other point, that if you look at Vietnam today, you have to say that Vietnam at the end, after 30 years, has actually become quite a driving country. It's a very strong economy. So there are those who say, yes, when we pull back there were bloodbaths in the immediate aftermath, but after that the Vietnamese started putting their country together. Is that not what we want Iraq to do over the long term? . . .

"[And] the other issue and why it's dangerous territory for him to go into Vietnam and the Vietnam analogy is reason we lost Vietnam in part was because we had no strategy. And the problem we've got now in Iraq, what is the strategy for victory? If the strategy for victory is let our troops give the Maliki government enough time to get everything solved, and the Maliki government is going nowhere, as everybody now admits, you know, what strategy are we facing? What strategy do we have to win in Iraq? It's not clear we have a winning strategy in Iraq. And that's what cost us Vietnam, and that's why we eventually withdrew under humiliating circumstances."

Here's Democratic strategist Paul Begala on CNN: "He's saying, essentially, that 58,000 dead in Vietnam weren't quite enough, that maybe we should have twice as big a tragic memorial on the Mall.

"And who's saying it? A man who chose not to serve, took steps, used family friends to get out of serving in Vietnam, didn't even show up for his own Guard duty, so that better, braver men could fight that war. He stood before those better, braver men today a coward in the company of heroes."

Sen. John Kerry released this statement: "Invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars. Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work. . . .

"As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq based on official deception. As in Vietnam, more American soldiers are being sent to fight and die in a civil war we can't stop and an insurgency we can't bomb into submission. If the President wants to heed the lessons of Vietnam, he should change course and change course now."

A Change of Course

Researchers at the Senate Democratic Caucus chronicled the many times Bush himself has dismissed the Vietnam analogy, including this exchange at a press conference in April 2004:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, April is turning into the deadliest month in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, and some people are comparing Iraq to Vietnam and talking about a quagmire. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half Americans now support it. What does that say to you and how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

"THE PRESIDENT: I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy."

Loving Graham Greene?

Frank James blogs for the Tribune Washington bureau about yesterday's most bizarre moment by far: "In his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City today, President Bush summoned up the Alden Pyle CIA agent character of Graham Greene's classic Vietnam novel 'The Quiet American' which is essentially a contemplation on the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

"I'm not sure he really wanted to go there or why his speechwriters would take him there."

From Bush's speech: "In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called 'The Quiet American.' It was set in Saigon and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: 'I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.'

"After America entered the Vietnam War, Graham Greene -- the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people."

As James writes: "Greene doesn't really help the White House's argument. Indeed, most people would read Greene's novel as a refutation of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And why draw attention to a fictional character who has been used to outline Bush's alleged flaws?"

The Maliki Conundrum

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, scrambling to show he still backs embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, offered him a fresh endorsement on Wednesday, calling him 'a good guy, good man with a difficult job.'

"'I support him,' Bush said a day after he acknowledged frustration with the Iraqi leader's inability to bridge political divisions in his country. 'It's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.'

"Bush's validation of al-Maliki, inserted at the last minute into his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, stole the spotlight from Bush's attempt to buttress support for the war by likening today's fight against extremism to past conflicts in Japan, Korea and Vietnam."

Robert H. Reid writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is frustrated, his ambassador to Baghdad is disappointed. But there are no ready alternatives to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his opponents lack the votes to replace him.

"What's more, the country remains so fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines that it's doubtful whether any other politician could do a better job under Iraq's current system."

Democracy and Death

In an astonishing interview published yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell says that having to explain the administration's warrantless surveillance program to Congress "means that some Americans are going to die."

And if that weren't enough, he then goes on to disclose more details about the program than have ever been made public before.

McConnell's interview with the Chris Roberts of the El Paso Times was on Aug. 14, but the transcript was published online yesterday.

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "His comments represent an exceedingly rare public description of one of the nation's most closely guarded and controversial espionage operations. Many of the details he described -- such as the deliberations of the special intelligence court and the scope of the surveillance operation -- are usually considered classified."

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "McConnell confirmed for the first time that the private sector assisted with President Bush's warrantless surveillance program. AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications companies are being sued for their cooperation. 'Now if you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies,' McConnell said, arguing that they deserve immunity for their help."

He also "provided new details on court rulings handed down by the 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves classified eavesdropping operations and whose proceedings are almost always entirely secret."

But I just can't get over his unsupported assertion that the current public debate about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will cost American lives because of all the information it revealed to terrorists.

Said McConnell: "The fact we're doing it this way means that some Americans are going to die, because . . . the more we talk about it, the more [the bad guys] will go with an alternative means and when they go to an alternative means, remember what I said, a significant portion of what we do, this is not just threats against the United States, this is war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Q. So you're saying that the reporting and the debate in Congress means that some Americans are going to die?

"A. That's what I mean. Because we have made it so public. We used to do these things very differently, but for whatever reason, you know, it's a democratic process and sunshine's a good thing. We need to have the debate. . . . Now because of the claim, counterclaim, mistrust, suspicion, the only way you could make any progress was to have this debate in an open way."

Blogger Marcy Wheeler chimes in: "If transparency is going to kill Americans, Mike McConnell just killed a lot more Americans blabbing to the El Paso Times than a Congressional debate with marginal transparency ever will."

Secrecy Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration argued in court papers this week that the White House Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act as part of its effort to fend off a civil lawsuit seeking the release of internal documents about a large number of e-mails missing from White House servers.

"The claim, made in a motion filed Tuesday by the Justice Department, is at odds with a depiction of the office on the White House's own Web site. As of yesterday, the site listed the Office of Administration as one of six presidential entities subject to the open-records law, which is commonly known by its abbreviation, FOIA."

In Case You Were Wondering

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in their New York Daily News gossip column: "Gay escort-turned-White House correspondent Jeff Gannon is shooting down internet claims that shocking allegations in his forthcoming book prompted Karl Rove's departure from the White House. The claims were posted on TalonNews.com, which once carried Gannon's dispatches. But Gannon tells us someone else has bought the site name for 'publishing satire and in this case defamation.' Gannon insists his book, due in September, has 'no connection' with Rove's departure.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's view of history.

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