WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 — The American withdrawal from Vietnam is widely remembered as an ignominious end to a misguided war — but one with few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies.Bush also continued to use the WWII analogy that also requires a new view of history.
Now, in urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, President Bush is challenging that historical memory.
In reminding Americans that the pullout in 1975 was followed by years of bloody upheaval in Southeast Asia, Mr. Bush argued in a speech on Wednesday that Vietnam’s lessons provide a reason for persevering in Iraq, rather than for leaving any time soon. Mr. Bush in essence accused his war critics of amnesia over the exodus of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees and the mass killings in Cambodia that upended the lives of millions of people.
President Bush is right on the factual record, according to historians. But many of them also quarreled with his drawing analogies from the causes of that turmoil to predict what might happen in Iraq should the United States withdraw.
“It is undoubtedly true that America’s failure in Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia,” said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
“But there are a couple of further points that need weighing,” he added. “One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”
The record of death and dislocation after the American withdrawal from Vietnam ranks high among the tragedies of the last century, with an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about one-fifth of the population, dying under the rule of Pol Pot, and an estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese and other Indochinese becoming refugees. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese who were sent to prison camps after the war have ranged widely, from 50,000 to more than 400,000, and some accounts have said that tens of thousands perished, a figure that Mr. Bush cited in his speech, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Mr. Bush did not offer a judgment on what, if anything, might have brought victory in Vietnam or whether the war itself was a mistake. Instead, he sought to underscore the dangers of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq.
Mr. Bush also sought to inspire renewed support for his Iraq strategy by recalling the years of national sacrifice during World War II, and the commitment required to rebuild two of history’s most aggressive and lawless adversaries, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, into reliable and responsible allies.Bush calling up memories of Vietnam is a sign of desperation. It shows that the administration fears they may even lose the "swift boaters". It certainly won't help with the majority of the population.
But historians note that Germany and Japan were homogenous nation-states with clear national identities and no internal feuding among factions or sects, in stark contrast to Iraq today.
The comparison of Iraq to Germany and Japan “is fanciful,” said Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He noted that the American and allied militaries had eliminated the governments of Japan and Germany, and any lingering opposition, and assembled occupation forces that were, proportionally, more than three times as large as the current American presence of more than 160,000 troops in Iraq.
“That’s the kind of troop level you need to control the situation,” Mr. Simon said. “The occupation of Germany and Japan lasted for years — and not a single American solider was killed by insurgents.”
Senior American military officers speaking privately also say that the essential elements that brought victory in World War II — a total commitment by the American people and the government, and a staggering economic commitment to rebuild defeated adversaries — do not exist for the Iraq war. The wars in Korea and Vietnam also involved considerable national sacrifice, including tax increases and conscription.