President Obama’s announcement yesterday lifting the decades-old ban on weapons sales to Vietnam—despite the nation’s appalling human-rights record—fits a desultory pattern of the White House reinforcing bad behavior. Worse still, the rueful lessons of the Vietnam War, especially their roots in the hubris of modern liberalism, remain largely forgotten.
Arriving in Hanoi on Sunday, Obama is hoping to use his three-day visit in Vietnam to strengthen commercial and security ties, including approval for a 12-nation trans-Pacific trade agreement that has gone nowhere in Congress. Obama reportedly believes that “we can move beyond difficult and complicated histories” to find areas of common interest. But there seems to be little understanding in the White House of the historical and ideological reasons for this “complicated” history. There was not even the pretense in the president’s remarks that Vietnam, a communist state which tolerates no political opposition, is expected to initiate political or economic reforms.
Obama was predictably mute about the weekend “elections” in Vietnam, no doubt because they serve as an embarrassment: Only candidates approved by the Communist Party could participate. No matter. The government released a fabricated figure for voter turnout of 98.77 percent. Human rights organizations of all stripes agree about Vietnam: Freedom of speech, press, association, and religion are severely restricted. Private property rights are constantly under assault. Critics of the government face harassment, torture, and imprisonment. Even the left-leaning Human Rights Watch condemned the arms agreement. As the organization summarizes it: “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas.”
Nevertheless, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes claims that the lifting of the arms embargo “removes a lingering vestige of the cold war.” Yes, that pesky and distracting vestige known as the promotion of democratic ideals—the only proven safeguard of individual rights against the will to power—no longer applies. Ever the Machiavellian, Rhodes boasts of the progress being made in improved relations between the two countries, thanks to Team Obama. “You could not have a more contested, controversial, costly, tragic war than the Vietnam War,” Rhodes opined, “and now [Vietnam] is becoming a partner of the United States, an important partner.”
A thuggish and authoritarian regime, viciously determined to impose its communist creed on an unwilling majority, unrepentant about the storm of human destruction and misery unleashed in its cause—this nation is becoming a “partner” of the United States? While insisting that arms will not be sold capriciously to Vietnam, Obama sees no reason to let political ideology stand in the way. “We’re going to continue to engage in the case-by-case evaluation of these sales,” the president said. “But what we do not have is a ban that is based on an ideological division between our two sides.”
Perhaps the ideology animating the autocrats in Hanoi is not so different, after all, from that of modern liberalism and the political party that genuflects at its altar. Both share a utopian frame of mind about the capacity of the state to organize and calibrate virtually every aspect of society.
Critics of the Vietnam War focus on the Cold War doctrine of containment as the principal cause for the debacle of American involvement. A flawed military strategy, unreliable partners in South Vietnam, a profoundly determined and resilient foe—all of these factors help explain the U.S. failure in Vietnam. But perhaps the really decisive element was the attempt by a liberal Democratic president to apply his concept of the welfare state to southeast Asia.
As historian Walter McDougal explains in his masterful book, Promised Land, Crusader State, Lyndon Johnson thought he could impose on South Vietnam the values and the architecture of his “Great Society,” and that he could accomplish this in the midst of a ruthless military insurgency. “Yes,” McDougal writes. “Vietnam was the first war in which the United States dispatched its military forces overseas not for the purpose of winning but just to buy time for the war to be won by civilian social programs.”
An exaggeration? Hardly. By 1966, about 43 percent of USAID funding worldwide was flowing to South Vietnam. Billions of dollars in economic development schemes simply fueled a black market in stolen consumer goods and created an “economy” that pandered to the appetites of American soldiers and civilian aid workers—including drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes. As McDougal puts it: “South Vietnam’s cities—like much of inner-city America—soon became corrupt and dependent welfare zones.”
Johnson imagined that he could achieve military victory while instituting a political and economic transformation—in a post-colonial nation, a brand-new nation with no institutions to build upon, a nation that had never experienced self-government or the benefits of a market economy. Henry Kissinger—who has his own critics in his handling of Vietnam under President Nixon—viewed this as an innovation in American foreign policy. It was, he wrote, “a new concept not previously found in the diplomatic vocabulary.” It was, in a word, “nation-building.” Its abject failure in 1975, when American diplomats were forced to flee Saigon in disgrace, created the “Vietnam syndrome,” a fear and loathing of U.S. military engagement.
Whether nation-building was a new concept introduced in the Vietnam War is debatable. Just consider the American occupations and successful democracy-promotion efforts in Japan and Germany after the Second World War.
It must be said that naïve attitudes about nation-building are not confined to progressives and liberal Democrats. George W. Bush will be judged—and probably forever vilified—as the American president who unleashed his own vision of democracy promotion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not even Bush’s defenders could claim irrefutable success in either of those countries, campaigns that have left the Republican Party, and the American people, deeply divided about U.S. engagement in the region.
Nevertheless, there was an astonishing hubris involved in the quagmire of Vietnam. Johnson, along with John Kennedy’s “best and brightest,” presumed they could impose their own ideas about economic and political reform on a population they knew little about. And they did so with astonishingly little regard for the human costs involved. Political liberalism, with its facile trust in the ideals and motives of its secular humanitarianism, is uniquely prone to this temptation.
That, too, is a lesson of Vietnam, a lesson apparently lost on the occupants of the White House. They do not see—they do not wish to see—that America’s “difficult” and “complicated” history with Vietnam was forged by their own ideological history, a story darkened by its own mistakes, tragedies, and quagmires.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. He is the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: President Lyndon B. Johnson awards the Distinguished Service Cross to First Lieutenant Marty A. Hammer, in Vietnam. October 1966. By Yoichi Okamoto (Official White House Photographer), via LBJ Library and Wikimedia Commons.