Newsweek November 16, 2009 Cover Story
The Surprising Lessons Of Vietnam
Unraveling the mysteries of Vietnam may prevent us from repeating its mistakes
By Evan Thomas and John Barry
Stanley Karnow is the author of Vietnam: A History, generally regarded as the standard popular account of the Vietnam War. This past summer, Karnow, 84, picked up the phone to hear the voice of an old friend, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The two men had first met when Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and Karnow was a reporter covering the war. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was calling from Kabul. The two friends chatted for a while, then Holbrooke said, “Let me pass you to General McChrystal.” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, came on the line. His question was simple but pregnant: “Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?” Karnow’s reply was just as simple: “The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place.” [Emphasis added]
Phi Beta Iota: Viet-Nam was lost before it started, in Washington, D.C., when the Joint Chiefs of Staff went along with a White House decision to use the Tonkin Gulf incident (which was immediately disavowed by the tactical commander on the scene at the end of his series of messages), and the Central Intelligence Agency refused to challenge the White House’s ideologically rooted assumption that Viet-Nam was a domino that would fall to communism–the CIA desk officer for analysis of Viet-Nam knew that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist; that Viet-Nam and China had been at war for centuries; and that we would be in violation of the Geneva Accords and supporting a nasty little Catholic mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his murderous sister Madame Nhu. We then made it worse by lying to ourselves, including a refusal to count the guerrillas in a guerrilla war. INTEGRITY is the core concept. Use it or lose it.