Features

The Vietnam syndrome

National | Will Clinton heed the instruction of history?

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

The situation in the Balkans isn't like Vietnam, we're told. Sure. And the situation when we first began sliding into Vietnam was different from the disastrous French experience in Indochina. The French warned us not to go there. We didn't listen, we're not listening still. History can teach, but only if students are willing to learn. In late 1961, President John Kennedy dispatched a small group to Vietnam. He told Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Gen. Edward Lansdale, and aide Walt Rostow, "Bear in mind that the initial responsibility for the effective maintenance of the independence of South Vietnam rests with the people and government of that country." But Kennedy didn't take his own advice. While telling The New York Times that he remained "strongly opposed to the dispatch of American combat troops to South Vietnam," his written instructions to Taylor, as recounted in Richard Reeves's book, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, were different: "As part of your appraisal, I should like you to evaluate what could be accomplished by the introduction of SEATO or United States forces into South Vietnam, determining the role, composition and probable disposition of such forces." Kennedy, like Lyndon Johnson after him, and Bill Clinton now, had an objective, but it was the wrong objective and the policies were also wrong, seeming to be made up as they went along. Those more than 55,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial are testimony to the folly of wrong goals backed up by bad policies. President Clinton says the purpose of the NATO bombing is to stop the ethnic cleansing efforts of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. But the displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is virtually complete. Now President Clinton says he wants to drive out Mr. Milosevic's forces so the Kosovars can return home. To what, more death and destruction? Such a goal will require a permanent occupying force, as has existed in Korea for more than 50 years. Otherwise, the parties will resume their warfare as they have done for hundreds of years. The president says he wants to "end" evil in the region. He might as well declare war on original sin. According to press reports, the Joint Chiefs advised President Clinton that a bombing campaign would not stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and could end up rallying Serbs around Mr. Milosevic, which is precisely what is happening. The bombing of Belgrade has inflamed more than buildings. In addition to Yugoslav citizens, the Russians are making noises about ending the arms embargo against the Serbs. U.S.-Russian relations are taking a beating at a time when the stability of the Russian government and the nuclear weapons under its control has never been more tenuous. The CIA also warned the president, according to U.S. News and World Report and The Washington Post, that bombing would lead Serbian forces to step up their ethnic cleansing. The president and his top aides decided to proceed. Clinton knows he can't afford large numbers of body bags because of his own failure to serve in the Vietnam war era and his immoral conduct in the White House. He'll take the first opportunity to declare victory and pull out, leaving others to pick up the pieces. This war will have served its purpose, which is to divert attention and deflect accusations from him to something and someone else. Will President Clinton follow his hero, Kennedy, and Kennedy's successor, Johnson, and send large numbers of ground forces into Kosovo? He might, but it's not like him. He probably knows what Kennedy told Roger Hilsman, the chief of the State Department's intelligence bureau, as recounted by Richard Reeves: "[The military wants] a force of American troops [in South Vietnam]. They say it's necessary to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another." Nothing has changed since Georg Hegel observed in 1821: "What experience and history teach is this-that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon principles deduced from it."
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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