In the flush of the U.S. military triumph, it may seem odd to liken the war in Iraq to the past conflict in Vietnam. But there are fascinating parallels. Novelist and historian A.J. Langguth covered the Vietnam War for The New York Times and later returned to Southeast Asia to research Our Vietnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000), his widely acclaimed account of the conflict. HOWARD BLUME asked the Los Angeles-based author, who teaches at the University of Southern California, to ponder the parallels between then and now.
L.A. WEEKLY: What leaps to mind when you compare Vietnam to the war in Iraq?
LANGGUTH: There were always some people who wanted to suggest we were in Vietnam for the natural resources, for the tin and the rubber. If you had been there, you knew that this was really quite preposterous. There just wasn’t that much that was worth fighting for. It was truly an ideological battle. The people who got us into it thought that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, we were going to have to do it in the Philippines, or even in San Francisco. It was that kind of ideological frenzy, and never a question of natural resources.
And this time?
It’s very different this time, isn’t it? Because this time, there’s really no ideology, is there?
There’s an expressed and sometimes shifting ideology, such as a desire to eliminate weapons of mass destruction or a desire to liberate an oppressed people, but these rationales fall short in terms of consistency, and perhaps in terms of logic.
Yes. Is it that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Then why not continue the inspections? It’s basically a crusade against one dictator, I guess. But this time when people say, “No blood for oil,” I find it hard to disagree that oil is a large part of the equation. On any kind of rational basis there’s no reason for what we’ve done or what we’re doing. So you grasp at anything, and oil, we know, matters to our country and matters to the people running it right now a great deal more than to anyone else.
So Vietnam, which was such a sordid mess, was more of an ideologically pure endeavor, even if wrong-headed?
In Vietnam, our leaders didn’t even take into account that maybe the domino theory was flawed. They were so certain we were fighting an ideological war. They knew nothing about the history of Vietnam.
Well, they could have had a better understanding of what was going on. Undergraduates at Berkeley could figure it out.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is particularly irritating on this subject. When I asked McNamara quite recently, “What in the world were you thinking?,” he said, “Well, you remember I came from the Ford Motor Company. I was told by [former Secretary of State] Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett and all the pillars of the establishment that we had to hold on to South Vietnam. That’s what people who knew more about geopolitical issues than I did wanted, and so I’d do it for them.”
Bush could offer a version of the McNamara excuse. Instead of saying, “Remember, I came from Ford,” he could say, “Remember, I came from owning the Texas Rangers.”
But perhaps there is a difference between taking your philosophical international thinking from the East Coast establishment and from a sports team.
It must rankle when you hear Bush talking about how America has always intervened on the side of right and to promote democracy. He probably doesn’t know any better.
Oh, he doesn’t know anything. For a man of his social class never to have been to Europe until he was elected president shows such a fundamental incuriosity. He’s just a very limited man. They found the right hand puppet for the tax cuts. The whole thing until September 11 was the tax cuts, wasn’t it? It was almost as though they said: “Look. We’ve got this one window of opportunity. He might be a one-term president, like his father. We’re going to snatch and grab.” At least that’s the way it seemed from the outside.
But then there was September 11, and this man, with a fundamental disinterest and lack of curiosity in the greater world, is suddenly intervening in every geopolitical theater. It’s an astonishing turn of events, and frankly a little scary.
It is scary.
How do you make sense of it?
Harry Truman was right when he said a president makes foreign policy. But a lot of the policy he makes depends on his advisers. Colin Powell was emasculated. Remember before September 11, there were stories about how limited his influence was and about whether he might even resign. And there’s been so much documentation about the fact that the Richard Perles and the Paul Wolfowitzes of the world were ready to do this in Iraq long before Bush was elected. That goes back years. What’s going on is pretty transparent, although we might not understand the motive behind it.
And that’s a difference when compared to Vietnam?
President Johnson was really trying to sneak the war past the American people as best he could, and that certainly has not been the aim this time. This time, if anything, there’s been true bellicosity, right from the beginning.
Johnson was not particularly interested in foreign affairs. He was somewhat more conversant than the current president because Johnson served on appropriation committees and was the leader of the Senate — he had to be involved. Johnson wanted America to be strong, but mostly he wanted to get his very admirable social and civil rights programs through Congress. And he felt if you started a debate over Vietnam, you would give the conservative Southern Democrats an excuse to oppose his program in the way that the Northern Democrats are opposing Bush’s tax cuts now: by saying that, with a war going on, these programs are too expensive.
Johnson always intentionally underestimated the war expenses. He counted on getting special appropriations, and he didn’t want to alarm people with the actual cost of Vietnam. We’ve certainly seen that now, where the Bush administration was adamant about not being drawn into speculation about the cost of the war.
But what a difference in the domestic agendas. Johnson didn’t want the war to short-circuit his programs to help the poor and people of color. Bush is trying to salvage tax cuts that offer the greatest benefit to the wealthiest of Americans.
You tell people that we can’t afford medical care and we can’t afford education and we can’t afford fixing the infrastructure of our nation. But we can spend $100 billion on going to war in Iraq. If you put it that way, it’s a lot harder to sell.
At this point, Bush has asked for $75 billion.
Everybody who seems to know anything about it argues that Bush’s estimate of $75 billion is billions of dollars lower than the actual cost is going to be.
Unless Iraqi oil ends up paying for it.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? As the president put it, “We’re going to return all that resource to the Iraqi people, to whom it belongs.” Whereas nobody has ever said the offshore oil from Texas or California or Alaska should be returned from the oil companies to the American people to whom it belongs. We seem to be suggesting that socialism for oil is good for Iraq but not for the United States.
The main question about the Bush administration’s actions is why. Why now? Why the hatred toward sanctions and the impatience with them? What’s the motive? It’s very hard to know.
To what extent is this dishonesty and to what extent self-deception?
You can’t rule out self-deception. It’s a big part of our foreign policy.
That was certainly true in Vietnam, was it not?
The fact is that nobody really knew much about Vietnam. In the early days, the young officers I dealt with, just out of West Point, were really dedicated. Exactly the kind of young officers you’d want. They were full of pumped-up wisdom, American idealism. And after a year in Vietnam, all of the ones I spoke with were saying variations of “I’m going to get out of the Army. I see now that it’s a bureaucracy, hopeless, and everything they’re telling the people at home isn’t true. We’re not winning this war.” They were very disillusioned.
There’s still a chance, isn’t there, that Iraq could prove to be a quagmire even after a successful military campaign?
The thing that led me to do a book on the American Revolution was my experience in Vietnam, watching these farmers in black pajamas ambushing and flummoxing the world’s greatest military power, just as we had done against the British. With the background of Vietnam, why are we still counting on American might — sheer might — to shock and awe? Everybody I talked to in North Vietnam said, “We were never more unified than when the bombs started to drop.”
This isn’t very complicated. We had a lesson in the lifetime.
And yet Saddam Hussein was not the same sort of opponent as Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam.
There won’t ever be that same warm feeling for Saddam among his people that there was for Ho Chi Minh. And Ho was a tyrant, too. But there were huge numbers of people — I saw them when I went back for my book — who really did love him. They believed that he was the George Washington of their country, the person who would free them from the yoke of the foreigners and deliver a unified country at long last.
And who’s going to say anything good about Hussein? Except, of course, you see the same stories I see, that people in Arab nations nearby are saying that it’s kind of good to see the Americans get their eyes bloodied a little.
Did you expect weapons of mass destruction to turn up?
I don’t know if I should even say this, but we live in Los Angeles, where we’ve been through the Rampart scandal. There’s a part of me that says if we didn’t find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, is it above the CIA to truck in some laboratory equipment to justify the invasion — the way the cops have a spare gun to throw down when an unarmed man is shot to death?
When I first went to Vietnam, that thought would have been impossible for me. But, you know, you watch your government do so many things that you disapprove of — like the CIA unseating democratically elected governments. You just cannot think that because it’s our country, the land of Jefferson and Madison, that we don’t do these things. I know we’ve done them in the past.
It’s striking how resolute and sure of himself Bush seems, whether cutting taxes or launching a war.
The smart people I’ve known have never been quite so sure about anything. I think it’s the confidence of the semi-educated. And that he’s convinced himself that God is on his side. For the first couple of years of this administration, I bought into the idea that he appointed someone like Ashcroft to be attorney general to satisfy the right wing. It took quite a while for me to wake up to the fact that he is the right wing. It’s not that he’s this more sophisticated man who needs to appease the right wing because he saw how they could savage his father. He is a true believer.
Bush has that look of somebody who isn’t going to back down. There’s something so young about him anyway. Not even adolescent, it’s younger than that. He looks like a kind of superannuated 7-year-old who has his fingers in a fist and he is just not going to back down. And that’s not good.
Of all the presidents in my lifetime — and for the first 12 years it was Franklin Roosevelt, which set a pretty high standard — I would’ve thought the worst president we could imagine would be Nixon. He had all that paranoia and all that really deep-seated hatred of people. I thought, “We’ll never have a worse president than Richard Nixon.” But he wasn’t dumb.
This man, Bush, is, in some ways, more alarming because I don’t think he can be reasoned with. Now, it may be that [presidential political adviser] Karl Rove will see that certain things have to be changed or modified and that Bush would listen. But just on the merits of an argument, I don’t think you could ever get through to him. And that isn’t really the kind of person you want leading your country.
Of course, you don’t need an intellectual to lead the country. In fact, maybe that would be a bad thing. Maybe an intellectual should always be second or third or fourth in command. What you need is somebody like [former Supreme Court Chief Justice] Earl Warren, who was nobody’s idea of brilliant, including his own. But when he leaned across the bench and asked, “Is it fair?,” he summed up an approach you want in your leaders. And I don’t see that quality in George W. Bush.