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What Trump Needs to Learn From Vietnam

A solidarity rally with United States and South Vietnam officials in Saigon in 1964. Credit Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images
A solidarity rally with United States and South Vietnam officials in Saigon in 1964. Credit Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

In August 1965, a resolute President Lyndon Johnson said: “America wins the wars that she undertakes. Make no mistake about it.” But the strategy on which he committed America to its ill-fated intervention in Vietnam that year did not aim at winning, but at not losing. McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security adviser, later admitted as much to a biographer, saying that he had personally approved a strategy that used just enough military pressure to achieve a battlefield stalemate, which “would eventually compel the Vietnamese Communists to compromise their objectives,” forcing them to the negotiating table or to a Korea-style armistice.

Bundy added that his strategy rested, in hindsight, on “little more than an unexamined assumption.” The same might be said of President Trump’s newest policy on Afghanistan. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the strategy, which commits a few thousand more troops, was “intended to put pressure on the Taliban.” The idea, he said, was “to have the Taliban understand, you will not win a battlefield victory — we may not win one, but neither will you — so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”

There are two great lessons of Vietnam that the Trump administration might bear in mind before attempting to reprise the stalemate strategy that so conspicuously failed in the earlier conflict.

The first was formulated by a rueful Bundy, many years after the end of the Vietnam War: “We ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence the internal power structure” of another country, he told his biographer, Gordon M. Goldstein. George Kennan, the historian and former diplomat, came to the same conclusion long before Bundy. In the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam in February 1966, he stated, “Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country.”

Did President Trump learn that lesson? In his Aug. 21 speech announcing the policy, he said: “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” But actions matter more than words, and a strategy based on an indefinite stalemate requires precisely what Mr. Trump says he rejects: propping up an Afghan government that cannot survive unaided for a prolonged period of time.

And in fact, nation-building is exactly what America is doing in Afghanistan, as the foreign policy expert Max Boot found on a recent trip to the country. Only instead of “nation-building,” he heard commanders use terms like “capacity-building,” “enabling” and “working by, through and with.” One could hark back to the hopeful reports of democracy-building in Vietnam in 1967, as President Nguyen Van Thieu began consolidating his military-based rule with a flawed election, carried out mainly at the insistence of the United States.

This brings us to the second lesson of Vietnam, articulated by Henry Kissinger at the end of 1968 in a famous Foreign Affairs essay: A denial strategy cannot in itself produce victory, especially in a conflict involving insurgents. “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one,” he wrote. “We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

Many years later, Mr. Kissinger, who became Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, connected this conclusion with an additional point: America’s inability to “win” in Vietnam by producing a decisive outcome rendered the stalemate strategy of “not losing” ineffective. He no doubt took pleasure in ascribing the fallacy to his rival and predecessor, Bundy.

“Stalemate violates the maxim that the guerrilla wins if he does not lose,” Mr. Kissinger told Newsweek in 2008. “Hanoi’s leaders had fought a decade against France and battled the United States for a similar length of time, not to achieve a political compromise, but to prevail.” In other words, a stalemate strategy against an ideologically motivated, insurgent-driven enemy is doomed to fail.

There’s a corollary: Stalemate strategies that don’t show rapid progress will soon eat away at public and domestic political support. Indeed, by 1967 the news media and a growing number of politicians were debating whether or not the Vietnam War was stalemated — overlooking, or disregarding, the fact that this was precisely the Johnson administration’s goal. Nor was it simply a matter of bad communication: Stalemate might have made sense to Bundy, but no one in the White House or Pentagon thought it made for good P.R. And so even as the White House and the Pentagon pursued a stalemate strategy in Vietnam, at home they insisted that progress toward a conventional victory was close at hand.

Gen. William Westmoreland, who oversaw the American war effort from Saigon, was brought back to Washington twice in 1967 to reassure Congress and the American people. But his promotional efforts served only to amplify the shock of the Tet offensive in early 1968, which led Walter Cronkite, after a visit to Vietnam during the fighting, to announce, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion.”

This same disconnect in strategy, rhetoric and reality confronts us today. If stalemate and nation-building are the goals in Afghanistan, but the American public is led to expect a victory, then it is only a matter of time before the entire edifice collapses. And when it does, we might face the same conclusion that Cronkite drew after touring Vietnam: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

David Elliott is a professor of goverment and international relations emeritus al Pomona College.

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