Bruce Herschensohn, a former member of the Nixon administration and now a senior fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, spoke to the Channel City Club on parallels between the Vietnam War and the current war in Afghanistan.
The title of Herschensohn’s July 8 talk was “An American Amnesia: The Vietnam Stigma and the Current Obama Foreign Policy.” The amnesia he refers to is what he regards as America’s forgetting, or misinterpretation, of what caused the war in Vietnam to fail. This misinterpretation, he said, influences present-day opinion and policy toward the wars in the Middle East.
The Vietnam War effort suffered from lack of support from Congress and the media, according to Herschensohn. Though the war was technically won, he said—ending, as far as the U.S. was concerned, in January, 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords—Congress’s refusal to allocate sufficient funding, plus ramifications of the Watergate scandal, resulted in the ultimate surrender of South Vietnam, and Cambodia, to North Vietnam. The failure was not because the war was incapable of being won, as many thought, according to Herschensohn, but because of lack of support, in sentiments and finances.
“I see a repetition of the war that we lost,” Herschensohn said, explaining that the trouble with Afghanistan is that it takes a back seat to the economy and other issues in the minds of the government and the public. Much of the public is not too concerned about the issue, he said, and for President Obama, it is more of a nuisance than a priority. In addition, Herschensohn said more than 83 members of the House of Representatives and 19 U.S. senators have called for an end to the war.
“Wars are either won or lost,” said Herschensohn. “They are not simply ended. [In World War II], we had no timeline. The only timeline, if you want to call it that, was victory.” Herschensohn took particular issue with the idea of a timeline, saying, “If I know the timeline, and you know the timeline, surely our enemies know the timeline. Rule number one in the military is you never tell the enemy is what you are going to do and when you are going to do it.”
Herschensohn said that another major change in U.S. war policy was that we have become too cautious. He cited a time when the military had a chance to take out 16 terrorists in Afghanistan, but they were stopped because two civilians’ lives were at stake. “We bombed the devil out of Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, and certainly Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we won,” he said.
In response to an audience member’s question on the issues of creating infrastructure and social services in Afghanistan as the war rages on, Herschensohn said he doesn’t believe “that you try to reach hearts and minds while you are still fighting a war. You do it when it’s done,” he said, citing as an example the Marshall Plan, which was implemented in Europe after WWII was over.
According to Herschensohn, success in the war efforts in the Middle East is vital, and in order to succeed, we must shake the stigma of the war in Vietnam. “At the moment, what we are facing, in my view, is the most important issue of our time, and, very likely, the most important issue of all time,” he said. “If we should lose this war, everything we’ve ever been, the U.S. itself … wouldn’t survive.”