Lying About Vietnam to Justify Iraq

George W. Bush served up a heaping platter of self-serving distortions and discredited right-wing myths in his much-hyped speech comparing the war that the U.S. lost in Vietnam to the one it’s losing in Iraq.

Speaking to the only audience likely to greet him sympathetically, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush lectured, “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.’”

Does Bush honestly believe anyone will buy this hogwash? That the aftermath of the war was worse than the war itself, when U.S. bombs, bullets and napalm exterminated millions? The U.S. would have stayed longer, too, if a growing rebellion within its armed forces hadn’t compelled the military brass to inform politicians that the war simply couldn’t be fought any longer.

As Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, pointed out, Bush “overlooked the 4 million Indochinese and 58,000 American soldiers who paid the ultimate price for that imperial war. And the myriad Vietnamese and Americans who continue to suffer the devastating effects of the defoliant Agent Orange the U.S. forces dropped on Vietnam.”

Even foreign policy establishment types were appalled by Bush’s speech–albeit because they fear Bush had managed to contaminate U.S. policy in the Middle East with the “Vietnam syndrome,” which limited popular support for U.S. intervention for decades after America was kicked out of Vietnam.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush’s account “was history written by speechwriters,” adding that “I think most military historians will find it painful because in basic historical terms, the president misstated what happened in Vietnam.”

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland said the speech invites “examination of the mounting damage that Bush’s approaches to the war in Iraq and to national security in general are doing to U.S. institutions in an American society that has significantly changed since 1975,” the year the U.S. pulled out as North Vietnamese troops overwhelmed the U.S. puppet government in South Vietnam.

Of course, Bush’s intention was to blame the “killing fields” of Cambodia under Pol Pot, the murderous Stalinist dictator, on the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam–and imply that similar violence would ensue in Iraq if the U.S. left.

But the fact is that Pol Pot was able to seize power in large part because the U.S. had fomented a failed right-wing military coup against the Cambodian monarchy. And not long after Pol Pot came to power, he became a secret ally of the U.S. and China to put military pressure on Vietnam.

The Cambodia analogy was too much for the Los Angeles Times editorial board. “Killing fields?” it wrote. “Iraq’s already got them: A dozen or two corpses are found dumped in the streets each morning, and bombs go off daily. Boat people? Two million Iraqis have already fled the country, and perhaps 50,000 more leave each month. Could it get worse? Absolutely. But can we stop it?”

However, the LA Times, like most mainstream media, glossed over who’s responsible for the vast majority of the killing in Iraq–the U.S., whose invasion caused at least 500,000 deaths according to a John Hopkins study that is now several years old.

The Media also ignored the other historical falsifications and distortions in Bush’s speech. For example, Bush equated the totalitarianism of imperial Japan and, later, the “communist” bloc with al-Qaeda today–as if the military threat of small armed groups are on par with some of the powerful states in the world in their day.

Then came the mythmaking about the U.S. role in the Pacific, which Bush portrayed as spreading democracy and freedom–first in the occupation of Japan following the Second World War, and next by waging war on the Korean peninsula to create a state allied to the U.S. in the South.

“[E]ven the most optimistic among you probably would not have foreseen that the Japanese would transform themselves into one of America’s strongest and most steadfast allies,” Bush said, “or that the South Koreans would recover from enemy invasion to raise up one of the world’s most powerful economies, or that Asia would pull itself out of poverty and hopelessness as it embraced markets and freedom.”

In fact, the U.S. “liberated” Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on it–entirely unnecessary militarily, but politically useful in sending a warning to the USSR, then looming as its main rival in the postwar world.

The U.S. occupiers of Japan suppressed militant trade unions and the left while fostering a corrupt political machine in the Liberal Democratic Party that has dominated the country ever since. Today, Washington is supporting the buildup of the Japanese military and a revival of right-wing Japanese nationalism in order to pressure China.

Bush’s other example of spreading democracy in Asia, South Korea, doesn’t pass the laugh test. Following the end of the Korean War in 1953, the country was an authoritarian U.S. puppet state, ruled by the military for long stretches. Democracy came to South Korea not because of the U.S., but in spite of it–because of mass strikes and protests in the 1980s that finally forced the regime to concede democratic elections.

Bush’s claims about “markets and freedom” conquering “poverty and hopelessness” in Asia are equally lacking in credibility. One decade ago, the East Asian economic “miracle” crashed, pushing millions into extreme poverty in Indonesia, Thailand and other countries. Today, two of the most dynamic market economies in East Asia aren’t U.S. models of liberal democracy, but the one-party states of China–and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, there is a connection between the U.S. war in Iraq today and its battle over domination of the Pacific with Japan, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Whatever their ideological window dressing or popularity, all of these wars were waged to extend or consolidate U.S. imperial power.

One of the main political difficulties for Bush in selling the Iraq war has been to give it the ideological coherence of the “good war” against Germany and Japan or the Cold War against the USSR and its allies.

But re-fighting the war in Vietnam–rhetorically, of course, since Bush avoided actually going there–hasn’t helped him.

The hostile response to Bush’s speech should have been another nail in the coffin of his Iraq policy–now rejected by 75 percent of the country–on the eve of the September report by military commanders on what has taken place since the “surge” of U.S. troops announced at the start of the year.

Instead, the Democrats are letting Bush get away with recycling the same lies that presidents used to prolong the war in Vietnam. Bush talks about the surge producing “success on the ground,” “tactical momentum,” and yes, a “turning point”–and the Democrats back away from withdrawal proposals to embrace “success” in Ramadi, as Hillary Clinton would have it.

“The sad fact is that this war has created stasis in American politics,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “If Bush doesn’t budge, he is likely to be able to continue his approach–even if a majority of the country has turned against it and even if there is no political reconciliation in Iraq.”

This is because while Bush’s Iraq policy may be unpopular, the wider aims of the war–greater U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil–are shared by both political parties.

All this underscores the importance of the real lessons of Vietnam: that the mightiest occupying imperial army cannot subdue a nationalist resistance forever, and that to be effective, the antiwar movement in the U.S. must mobilize independently of the politicians, and build within the ranks of the military itself.

Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.