In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention last week, president George Bush urged Americans to “resist the allure of retreat”.
He warned that premature withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will put that country at risk of the same kind of murder and mayhem that beset Vietnam when the US left there in 1975.
Although historians and commentators have responded to Bush’s twisting of the historical record to support his case, they have generally missed the point of his speech and who it was aimed at.
Bush contended that the US could have won the war had it stayed the course in Vietnam, and implied the war was lost on the home front where liberal politicians had handcuffed military tactics and the anti-war left sapped the morale of US troops.
The point of the speech was in its subtext – locating the real enemy in the halls of Congress and streets of the US.
The target audience for the message was not the electorate in general, much less the scholars and pundits who would challenge the president’s grasp of history. Rather it was the Republican conservative base that the Bush wing of the party needs to rally for the elections in 2008.
Critics of the speech were right, of course, that the historical record contradicts Bush’s claim that the US could have won the war.
But by limiting their critique to the empirical details of history, they leave the core element of the speech’s ideological content unchallenged.
The people most vulnerable to scapegoating for the loss of the war are the anti-war veterans themselves.
At last week’s protest march to Bush’s family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, the invective aimed at Iraq Veterans Against the War by counter-demonstrators included accusations that their members were not really veterans.
Much of the commentary on Bush’s Vietnam speech misses parallels to the present that could bring politics back into focus.
The spectre of Communists sweeping down from the north and creating a bloodbath in the wake of the US withdrawal helped extend the war in Vietnam.
While many in the US remember the spectre, few remember that there was never a bloodbath. That allows the Bush administration to construct the false analogy that, like in Vietnam, there will be a bloodbath if we leave Iraq too soon.
Bush also invoked the “killing field” of Cambodia – an analogy more usefully deployed against continuation of the war in Iraq.
It was the bombing of Cambodia by the US that ran up the death toll and created the social and political space for the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge added to the carnage but when the Vietnamese Communists stepped in to stop the bloodletting, the US lent covert assistance to the Khmer Rouge regime.
Bush would like us to forget that now, like then, it is the brutalisation of another country by the US that opened the door for political violence.
The large number of Vietnamese “boat people” who followed the US military out of the country were not, as Bush would have it, evidence of widespread Communist repression following the US abandonment of its allies in South Vietnam.
Reprisals did follow the fall of Saigon in May of 1975, but the boat people are also a testament to the kind of desperation created by carpet bombing and the defoliation of agricultural areas.
The story of emigration from Vietnam also points to class issues that are at play again in Iraq.
As war raged in Vietnam, the US-allied rich and educated fled in a mass exodus that left the poor to fight (on both sides).
This depleted the country of economic and social capital that it desperately needed at the end of the war.
Now, like then, it is the comprador class with Ivy League degrees and ties to Western corporate power that is getting out and watching the war from London and New York.
Following victory over Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, then-president George Bush senior said the “Vietnam syndrome” had been kicked. Never again would the nation have to look over its shoulder with an eye on that inglorious chapter of history.
I was sceptical, and when research, including my own, revealed what a strong grip the betrayal narrative for the loss of the war in Vietnam had on Americans, I knew it would be a factor in political culture for a long time.
In 2004 I wrote that the upcoming presidential election was “all about Vietnam”. The campaign season had begun, after all, with John Kerry being likened to “Hanoi Jane” Fonda.
Maybe that election did turn on Vietnam – and maybe the next one will too.
Jerry Lembcke is associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is a veteran of the war in Vietnam and the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam and CNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s Last Great Myth. He can be reached at [email protected]