Drawing Lessons from the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War may seem like ancient history to many Americans, but that destructive conflict holds important lessons for the present, especially the danger of “group think” driving foreign policy and the value of insights that clash with conventional wisdom, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Every generation has its own defining historical events that shape its attitudes toward current events. Members of later generations easily become disdainful of what they regard as preoccupations with the past. This pattern comes through in an article by James Mann about the different generations represented in the Obama administration’s foreign policy apparatus.

Mann divides the administration team into a Vietnam generation, which does not want to repeat the misery of that war, a post-Vietnam generation that believes the first generation’s reaction to the war made the Democratic Party look too wimpy and naive about the use of military force, and a still-younger generation that believes both of the previous two cohorts have over-reacted in their different ways to a long-ago and increasingly irrelevant conflict.

Air Force F-105s bomb a target in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam on June 14, 1966. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)"


The attitude of the third group is bluntly expressed by the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Unlike the previous two administrations, says Rice, “We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision, or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s….

“What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry, you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’  And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ 

Given the ridiculous, or outrageous, way that the Vietnam War was swift-boated into the 2004 election campaign, one can understand Ambassador Rice’s disgust. She is too quick, however, to dismiss the relevance of what individual personal histories related to that war, among those who served in it and those who had other priorities, may say about the individuals in question.

Sure, it’s hard for anyone who has come of age in the era of the all-volunteer military to relate to the situation that young males of a previous generation faced, but that hardly means the responses of those males were irrelevant. Beyond the personal level, there are all the lessons that have to do with larger issues of national policy and the use of military force.

Much has been written in this vein in the four decades since the Vietnam War. Different people have derived different lessons, but surely a conflict that had such a tremendous impact on the nation, including more than 50,000 war dead, still has things to teach us.

perceptive piece about lessons that the U.S. military drew, and ones that it should have drawn, appeared in the U.S. Army War College’s journal Parameters in 1986. It was written by an Army major on the West Point faculty named David Petraeus. He combined observations about topics such as civil-military relations and the future of counterinsurgency with a more general caution, similar to cautions from many historians, against applying analogies from any one conflict to any other single conflict without taking into account the differences between the two.

That such cautions are necessary is ironic in that there was at least as much analogizing during the Vietnam War, by those making policy about the war, as there has subsequently been analogizing from that war. There were comparisons made to how the West stood up to other communist advances earlier in the Cold War, and many made to that most overused of all historical analogies, the rise of Nazi Germany before World War II.

In general, the historical analogies invoked during the Vietnam conflict, at least before the costs and casualties mounted to unspeakable proportions, were more uniformly in favor of staying the course in opposing the Vietnamese communists than has been the case in later debates in which historical lessons have been flung back and forth.

In the early stages of the American involvement in that conflict, before the introduction of U.S. ground troops, it was very difficult to resist what was a widely accepted belief that the United States had to make a stand in Vietnam.

Petraeus cited approvingly in his article some observations about historical lessons by Paul Kattenburg, a Belgian-born former U.S. Foreign Service officer with a doctorate from Yale who in the early 1960s was working on Vietnam matters at the State Department. Kattenburg’s place in American history rests on his attendance at a single National Security Council meeting in August 1963, at which he argued to his assembled seniors that the U.S. effort to prop up South Vietnam was bound to fail and that the best course of action was for the United States to withdraw honorably.

This was before Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening ever cast “no” votes on Vietnam in the Senate, before George Ball was the in-house devil’s advocate in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and before Vietnam became a leading national issue. Kattenburg’s recommendation was the first time anyone had said anything like that at a high-level policy meeting on Vietnam, and it was so much at odds with widely accepted assumptions that the seniors castigated him rather than coming to terms with what he was saying.

Kattenburg paid a price. As Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts observed in their book on the Vietnam War, Kattenburg’s “career, like his assessment of the war, was downhill from then on.” Despite having years of experience on Southeast Asia, he was exiled to a post in Guyana and then to a training position before he left the government for academia. He is surely one of the heroes of the Vietnam War story, but one who has been largely unsung beyond aficionados of the Pentagon Papers.

Here’s a lesson I will offer from the Vietnam War, in addition to all those other ones. When, on some other issue, some brave soul has a Paul Kattenburg moment, the rest of us, inside and outside government, probably will not realize it because we will be sharing a mental concept so deeply engrained that it will not occur to us even to question it, let alone to give it up.

The trick with historical lessons is not just to select one lesson over another when both are being peddled and we know we have a choice, but to recognize when we have a choice to make.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “Drawing Lessons from the Vietnam War

  1. Desmond Morista
    July 5, 2012 at 08:22

    The geostrategic balance of power has changed greatly since the Vietnam War period. In the 1960s the U.S. was still an industrial powerhouse and its populace still had significant faith in its institutions. Fighting a colonial war with a conscript army and the endless fishy political assassinations and maneuvers that followed disillusioned the populace (read cannon fodder); and the decisions by the ruling class to become primarily merchandisers and swindlers rather than producers fatally undermined their potential power. Such machinations as the invasion of Grenada (after which then-president Bush the elder exclaimed in a speech to fellow ruling class types that we had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”) were attempts by the ruling class to convince themselves that things were going to go “back to normal” i.e. unlimited U.S. power and influence in the world. Like all rotten declining empires the U.S. must rely on mercenaries, proxies, and other paid killers. The era of “Coups and death squads” had arrived. Beginning with the Chilean coup in 1972 and on through the horrific Central American death squad era the U.S. elites managed much smaller wars without the use of conscript armies (no longer reliable). The domestic populace largely slumbered on content to live comfortably and enjoy their “Bread and Circuses”. The elites were forced to finance their foreign crimes with drug money and contributions from various far right-wing operatives, mostly foreign.

    Now the U.S. ruling class and empire is so weak that foreign operatives manipulate its larger strategic outlines and programs. The Israelis are the most obvious and egregious but the Japanese, Chinese, and Saudis, among others are or have been active in buying up our stupid, venal, and unbelievably cheap political figures to pursue their ends. The U.S. could no longer field a large ground force even if the populace could be persuaded to accept conscription and the glories of colonial war for the masses of American youth. The “Arsenal of Democracy” (the N.E. 1/4 of the country primarily) lies in ruins, the sunbelt industrial zone is largely a low wage branch plant zone of foreign owned operations, research and development are at rock bottom levels, and the youth (those who show up at the recruiting centers anyways) are so poorly educated that 1/2 cannot pass the entrance tests and a large proportion of the remainder are not healthy enough to be admitted to imperial forces.

    The real role of the U.S. in the future will be to supply food to the true power centers in Asia. Just like Ireland during the famine of the 1840s the populace here will face starvation while agricultural products will be shipped out to the areas of real power. Vicious police state tactics will be used to enforce this bleak future though how effective it all will be is still an open question.

  2. incontinent reader
    July 1, 2012 at 21:11

    Prof. Pillar, thank you for another fine article. I suspect that there have been more than a few other Foreign Service Officers who have paid the price for taking such positions. Just as with the China Hands in the late 1940’s, our Foreign Service Arabist experts suffered purges beginning some decades later, so that now the Service lacks a strong Arabist component. And, I wonder if the Leveretts who were as expert as any on issues relating to Iran were not intentionally marginalized- and I am thinking now specifically of Flynt Leverett who had years of experience at the CIA, State Department and the NSC, but, when he was with the Bush Administration NSC in 2002-2003, was systematically sabotaged by Eliot Abrams, and, after leaving the Administration was prevented for some years by it of publishing a critical op-ed piece in the New York Times unless he would agree to excise a large amount of information that had either been cleared by the CIA or was already in the public domain and acknowledged by officials of the State Department, including Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. Eventually, in 2006, he published a a more comprehensive version titled, “Dealing with Tehran: Assessing Diplomatic Options Toward Iran”, which can be accessed at: http://tcf.org/publications/pdfs/pb595/leverett_diplomatic.pdf Unfortunately, however, he is still on the outside, even though it is his advice that should be resonating with Obama in our policy with iran.

  3. Hillary
    June 27, 2012 at 11:14

    When will the USA apologize to the Vietnamese people ?

    Unexploded Ordnance ‘May Take Centuries to Clear’ in Vietnam.


    The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. Several decades later, concerns about the health effects from these chemicals continue.

    US Veterans receive a free Agent Orange health exam for possible long-term health problems related to exposure the Vietnamese don’t-


    • incontinent reader
      July 1, 2012 at 21:22

      I would not be surprised if the Pentagon generals who fought in the Vietnam War, in their dotage and with perverted logic, return to argue that in fact they did win the war because they destroyed the ecology of the country with Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance- witness current generations now suffering from cancer, genetic mutation (like children born in Fallujah), and the ever present risk of getting blown up- and that Vietnam in its impoverished state and now in a dispute with China over territorial rights and resources in the South China Sea has been forced to turn to the U.S and companies like Exxon to protect its interests.

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