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Ex-Nixon advisor blasts Bush's Vietnam comparison
David Edwards and Muriel Kane
Published: Wednesday August 22, 2007

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'Well, if you've learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you ever get us involved in another quagmire?'

In his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Wednesday, President Bush surprised many people by invoking the example of Vietnam in arguing against a withdrawal from Iraq. CNN invited David Gergen, who served as an advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, to comment on that aspect of Bush's speech.

"He may well have stirred up a hornet's nest among historians," Gergen stated. "By invoking Vietnam, he raised the automatic question, 'Well, if you've learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you ever get us involved in another quagmire?' ... It's surprising to me that he would go back to that, and I think he's going to get a lot of criticism."

"This is not a man who's talking about compromise," Gergen emphasized "This is not a man who's talking about a Plan B. ... This a man saying, 'I'm hanging tough.'"

CNN asked Gergen about Bush's statement that "there's one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam, and that is the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'"

Gergen acknowledged Bush's point that there were "massive killings" when the US left Vietnam, but insisted, "He's wrong to say that Cambodia only occurred because we pulled back. There are many who believe, had we not gone into Cambodia ourselves ... this country might have been more stable."

Gergen added that "everybody understands" there's going to be a US pullback in Iraq when the surge ends in the spring. "We're not going to stay there forever to prevent killings," he stated. "When we start pulling back, there's likely to be a bloodbath in Iraq, too."

Gergen further pointed out that "Vietnam ... after 30 years has actually become quite a thriving country. ... So there are those who say ... 'Yeah, when we pulled back, there was bloodbath in the immediate aftermath, but after that the Vietnamese started putting their country together.' Is that not what we want Iraq to do over the long term?"

"The reason we lost Vietnam, in part, was because we had no strategy," said Gergen. "And the problem we've got now in Iraq, what is the strategy for victory? ... It's not clear we have a winning strategy in Iraq. That's what cost us Vietnam. That's why we eventually withdrew under humiliating circumstances."

"[Bush] talks black and white," Gergen concluded. "Victory or withdrawal, those are the two options. And Democrats and Republicans are saying, 'Mr. President, there is a third option here, and that is a partial pullback. Stay there, try to prevent a civil war.' ... Today, there was no indication he was willing to do that."

In addition to Gergen's comments, several of the major national newspapers have already printed statements by scholars and historians of the Vietnam War, disputing Bush's comparison of Iraq to Vietnam and his suggestion that the US could have imposed a successful outcome in Vietnam if it had just stayed longer, as Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell outlines in a column entitled "Apocalypse...Now? Press Examines Bush Linking Iraq to Vietnam."

"Invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars," Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) said, in a statement sent to RAW STORY.

The following video is from CNN's Newsroom, broadcast on August 22.

Transcript of Bush's remarks on Vietnam during his speech:

There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we're fighting today. But one important similarity is at their core -- they are ideological struggles. The militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision for the proper ordering of humanity. They killed Americans because we stood in the way of their attempt to force their ideology on others. Today the names and places have changed, but the fundamental character of the struggle has not changed. Like our enemies in the past, the terrorists who wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places seek to spread a political vision of their own -- a harsh plan for life that crushes freedom, tolerance and dissent.

Like our enemies in the past, they kill Americans because we stand in their way of imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world. This enemy is dangerous, this enemy is determined, and this enemy will be defeated.


Finally, there's Vietnam. It's a complex and painful subject for many Americans. The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech, so I'm going to limit myself to one argument that has particular significance today; that is, now people argue the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw the killing would end. The argument that America's presence in Indochina was dangerous had a long pedigree.

In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called "The Quiet American." It was set in Saigon and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

After America entered the Vietnam War, Graham Greene -- the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: "What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?"

A columnist for The New York times wrote a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the Communists. "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." The headline of that story, dated Phom Penh, summed up the argument: "Indochina Without Americans, For Most a Better Life."

The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States, and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousand perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.

Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. There is no debate, in my mind, that the veterans from Vietnam deserve the high praise of the United States of America. (Applause.)

Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps" and "killing fields."

There's another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today's struggle -- those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In a(n) interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam, and they must do the same today.

Number two man Zawahiri has also invoked Vietnam. In a letter to al Qaeda's chief of operations in Iraq, Zawahiri pointed and -- quote, "To the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam, and how they ran and left their agents," end quote.

Zawahiri later returned to this theme, declaring that Americans, quote, "know better than others that there is no hope in victory. The Vietnam specter is closing every outlet." Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility, but the terrorists see it differently. We must listen to the words of the enemy. We must listen to what they say.

Bin Laden has declared that the war in Iraq is for you or us to win; if we win it, it means your disgrace and defeat forever. Iraq is one of the several fronts in this war on terror. But it's the central front, central front for the enemy that attacked us and wants to attack us again, and it's the central front for the United States. And to withdraw without getting the job done would be devastating. (Applause.)

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened. They would use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist's safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities.

Unlike in Vietnam, if we were to withdraw before the job was done, this enemy would follow us home. And that is why for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America. (Applause.)

Recently two men who were on the opposite sides of the debate over the Vietnam War came together to write an article. One was a member of President Nixon's foreign policy team, and the other was a fierce critic of the Nixon administration's policies. Together they wrote that the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq would be disastrous.

Here's what they said. "Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamic extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate. Perhaps that is why so much of the current debate seeks to ignore these consequences."

I believe these men are right. In Iraq our moral obligations and our strategic interests are one. So we pursue the extremists wherever we find them, and we stand with the Iraqis at this difficult hour, because the shadow of terror will never be lifted from our world and the American people will never be safe until the people of the Middle East know the freedom that our Creator meant for all.