Vietnam redux?

Mona Charen

May 13, 1993|By Mona Charen

FOR someone who began paying attention to national politics during the Vietnam era, watching opinion unfold on the war in Bosnia is a dizzying experience.

Everything I thought liberals believed about the war in Vietnam is now thrown into doubt.

* Our involvement in Vietnam was immoral because we had no business intervening in a civil war where our national interests were not at stake.

Yet today, liberals are arguing that we have a moral obligation to get involved in another civil war where our interests are not at stake.

At least, I assume that liberals thought our involvement in Vietnam was immoral because we had no interests threatened. Surely, they weren't suggesting that the Vietnam War was an immoral war because we were on the wrong side?

We were drawn into Vietnam, let us recall, as much by moral considerations as by strategic ones. North Vietnam had launched a war of aggression against South Vietnam, which the South was vigorously resisting. Bill Buckley was fond of pointing out at the time that more South Vietnamese lost their lives defending their nation against aggression than Frenchmen died fighting the Nazis in 1939 and 1940.

The atrocities against civilians committed by the communists in that war were as ghastly as anything that Bosnia has suffered. The massacre perpetrated by the Vietcong at Hue, for example, took the lives of men, women and children indiscriminately.

Beyond the cruelties of war, Americans felt a moral tug to intervene in Vietnam because communism was perceived -- accurately -- to be an evil movement. Moreover, it was a movement with global ambitions, backed by massive military hardware, and thus a threat to U.S. interests.

* The domino theory was bunk.

It was Dwight Eisenhower who first used the phrase "falling dominoes" to predict what would happen to Southeast Asia if South Vietnam fell. Liberals have scoffed at the idea ever since -- though Cambodia and Laos did fall in Vietnam's wake, Cambodia at the cost of perhaps 2 million lives. But anyway, part of the conventional wisdom of the Vietnam era was that domino theories were so much hokum, dreamed up by saber-toothed generals in the Pentagon.

Today, you find the same scoffers arguing that if we fail to intervene in Bosnia, other nations in Europe will fall like dominoes.

* The problem with the prosecution of the war in Vietnam was that the government acted without the full support of the people.

First of all, this is a false reading of history. It was not the American people who failed to support the war in Vietnam (though, by the end, a sizable minority wanted out); it was elite opinion that soured on the war. In 1963, the New York Times editorialized that "The cost [of saving Vietnam] is large, but the cost of South-East Asia coming under the domination of Russia and communist China would be still larger." By 1966, the Times had reversed this position.

But among the American people, support for withdrawal from Vietnam was never higher than 20 percent until after the 1968 presidential elections -- by which time, as Paul Johnson observes in Modern Times, the decision to withdraw had already been made.

Yet it has been an article of faith among critics of U.S. participation in Vietnam that the government lacked the backing of the people for military action. Nevertheless, today, when large majorities tell pollsters that they oppose even an air war against the Serbs, the liberal Clinton administration seems bent on intervention. It is mind-boggling.

What became of the pre-gulf war hysteria about Americans coming home in body bags? What has happened to the liberal congressmen and senators who, throughout the Cold War, could not find an American interest -- moral or strategic -- in the gulf, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, in Afghanistan or in Angola?

We are told that intervention is a matter of conscience. But then what of the atrocities in Ngorno-Karabach, or Sudan, or the Punjab -- which are just as grisly as those in Bosnia? This new standard for American military action -- the tug of pictures -- is a frightening precedent.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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