An early chapter in the political story of Barbara Boxer, now California’s junior senator, was promoting a 1970 ballot measure in Marin County calling on President Nixon to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. As she told the Los Angeles Times in September, “I felt it was wrong, that it was a civil war, and that it was tearing our country apart.”
Boxer has supported U.S. intervention against the Taliban in Afghanistan, who were also fighting a civil war. The difference, she says, is that September 11 was a direct attack on the United States; “We’re acting out of self-defense.” Likening the attack to Pearl Harbor and acts of genocide by the Nazis in World War II, she said she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t do everything she could to defend the American people.
No leader lining up with President Bush during the current crisis deserves to be accused of inconsistency with 31-year-old positions. Besides, Boxer’s view of the Vietnam War is the same as that of many elites of her generation. The consensus remains that the U.S. intervened to prop up the weak and corrupt Saigon regime against a revolutionary movement composed of North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas willing to die for what they believed in. When the U.S. withdrew, the consensus view went, Saigon’s fall would be inevitable. While many in the anti-war movement thought we had no stake in the fight, others actually believed our side didn’t deserve to win. The strong impression emerges from many journalistic and historical accounts that the true-believing, self-sacrificial revolutionaries had the moral advantage if only by virtue of the sheer intensity of their commitment.
And yet we now have a starkly different view of guerrilla murderers willing to die in terrorizing surprise attacks – hallmark of both bin Laden and Viet Cong tactics. This passage from an October 3 speech by Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary James Webb makes clear that terrorism and guerrilla warfare are two sides of the same coin:
The Viet Cong had a very simple philosophy. Starting in 1958, they reintroduced assassination squads into South Vietnam….By [late 1961], the Vietnamese communists were killing, on the average, 11 government officials a day. Their message to the Vietnamese people was: If you affiliate with the government of South Vietnam, in contested areas, we will kill you.
So far, Taliban fanaticism has not withstood American determination – the cold anger President Bush described in the wake of the attacks. B-52 attacks against Taliban front lines seem to have given the Northern Alliance the edge they needed after years of stalemate.
There was a similar moment in the course of the Vietnam War. Research by Stephen Morris of Johns Hopkins has demonstrated that B-52 missions ordered by President Nixon in May and December 1972 terrified the North Vietnamese leadership, prompting some to favor suspending the war of aggression they had carried on for a generation. He and other analysts believe that South Vietnamese forces could have held the line indefinitely once American troops were gone provided the U.S. continued to provide aid and air support.
But Watergate took away the President’s ability to send the B-52s, and the Democrat Watergate Congress of 1973-75 slashed aid to South Vietnam, paving the way for the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Many members of Congress were still in thrall of the idea that North Vietnam’s victory was, if not welcome, then unavoidable. People felt history moving in favor of Hanoi and against Saigon. In reality, by depriving our allies of bullets, Congress gave history a shove and helped create the conditions that led the deaths of 2.5 million people in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Perhaps the lengthening years and the prism of September 11 and its aftermath will cause historians to look at the Vietnam War, the actions of all three Presidents who commanded troops on the ground, and the actions of Congress without implicitly assuming that a fanatical enemy is either an irresistible or morally superior one.
The civil war issue aside, Boxer’s question about whether the U.S. should’ve risked its own young people in faraway Vietnam when we hadn’t been attacked directly is one about which honest people disagreed. Some conservative isolationists opposed the Vietnam War for the same reason. Until recently Afghanistan seemed far away as well. In January 1999 our own Bruce Herschensohn (Boxer’s 1992 opponent) raised a lonely voice urging the U.S. to lead the way in ousting the Taliban. Had we done so, history might not have taken such a tragic turn.
When Presidents Kennedy and Johnson committed troops to Vietnam, and RN put his Presidency at risk to keep their promise, they were affirming that the U.S. had global interests and obligations during the Cold War. Many disagreed 30 years ago; few do today. Nearly 4,000 innocents innocents died in America on September 11. So too, one hopes, did American isolationism.