How We Lost Vietnam

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

How We Lost Vietnam


Byline: Ilya Shapiro, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A president elected on promises to avoid foreign entanglements in general and "nation-building" in particular feels obligated to deploy troops to a hostile foreign land where America has been securing a precarious geopolitical stability for over a decade. Though the engagement was to be short in duration and limited in scope, insurgents pursuing asymmetrical warfare force the United States to change mission parameters and maintain a prolonged presence.

While we will not know for a long while the final outcome of President George W. Bush's decision to enter Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein - let alone be able to pronounce on the administration's overall conduct of the war on terror - critics have long been making parallels to Vietnam, and always in the sense that Vietnam was a foreign policy failure.

Whether these parallels are apt, or go beyond the most superficial stylized similarities of the previous paragraph, I will leave for another day. What is more telling is that the specter of Vietnam haunts us still.

Though three decades have passed since that country fell to the communists, and though we have been enmeshed in another (increasingly unpopular) war for nearly three years, politicians and political analysts continue hearkening to America's involvement in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam War has influenced policy ideas and political alignments, historiography and international law scholarship. And so, 30 years after the last American helicopter left Saigon, fresh thinking on "what it all means" is still, remarkably, in order.

"To Oppose Any Foe," a compilation of essays by University of Virginia law students (stemming from seminars taught by two of the editors, John Norton Moore and Robert F. Turner), is just such a rethink.

(Full disclosure: The third editor, Ross A. Fisher, was a classmate of mine at Princeton, though he was a history major and I studied international relations.)

From the American military's role in preserving global security in the 1960s and '70s, to the failure of the Paris Peace Accords, to the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, the book provides novel historical analyses of the salient issues of the day. As would be expected from a group of lawyers, it also presents exegeses of the legal advice given to foreign policy teams at the beginning of the Vietnam War and the reshaping of the command responsibility doctrine after My Lai.

Appropriately, "To Oppose Any Foe" ends with an application of the lessons of Vietnam to America's aborted intervention in Somalia. The most fascinating contribution to the collection is the first one.

Mr. Fisher's own revisionist account of America's involvement in the overthrow of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, a prelude to our wholesale entree into what had essentially been a post-colonial civil war. …

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