The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Posted on April 11, 2016


By the time this column reaches print, Bagdad may have fallen to the Isis coalition of Islamic Sunni radicals, and so another chapter in failed American foreign policy is closed. Or ISIS may have collapsed, giving way to new regimes in Damascus and Bagdad bringing in revolutionary, democratic structures.

You may be dreaming, of course.

It is so eerily familiar to April 30, 1975 when the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) fell to the victorious North Vietnamese communist army that I’m sure every political pundit and columnist worth her salt has commented on it.

But it’s worth kicking around, since we seemed to have collectively learned nothing from our recent, and sometimes even our more distant, past.

Are we doomed to repeat ourselves? Do we learn from past mistakes? Are we so present-minded, so infatuated with ourselves that we forget what we did in the past, precisely because it is in the past and so not germane to what we do today?

The Greek word for unbridled pride is hubris. Look it up for its full meaning if you are interested. It is basically a person, or, in this instance, a government acting on behalf of the people, so taken with themselves and their power and their success and their ideology that they think of themselves as invincible. They can do pretty much anything by an exercise of power, or will, or any combination of means to exert and dominate. And I’m not just nailing the present administration because Bagdad and the Arab/Muslim world go way back in American history. Try Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli pirates for an informative beginning of our interests in that part of the world.

What lessons have we learned from the past, especially of course with the rapid departure of Americans, embarking ships or helicopters, getting “out of Dodge” before the wind and waves of a more powerful force sweeps them out? Like in Saigon that day almost forty years ago?

Time and again, the power of the machine and technology has fallen victim to the power of the word, the power of an idea, the power of hatred.

I write this as someone who lived through the Vietnam era. I thought the U. S. presence in Vietnam smelled of rotten apples from the get go.

I’m not prescient, nor am I particularly sensitive to political winds, nor was I then even much of a student of world affairs. But by 1964 or 1965, when I was already on active duty in service (US Navy for those curious), I thought that the principle invoked by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration—the “domino” theory—to defend the increasing U. S. presence in South Vietnam was bankrupt of any true moral value. It was a convenient political and strategic construct.

I thought Johnson was a crass political manipulator who let expediency be his guide. He bought into the domino theory. Countries around the world would fall like dominoes to international communism sponsored largely by the Soviet Union and China. If one fell, so would others so the U. S. had to contain the communists. Ergo, the policy of “containment” that arose in the 1940s to guide American foreign policy for the next half century.

Some argued that LBJ, who lived through the Depression and witnessed the appeasement of Adolph Hitler at Munich and the subsequent near cataclysmic Second World War, was driven by these two formidable circumstances in his life. I don’t think I knew all this about him, except that I didn’t trust him.

I read some about the increasing U. S. presence in South Vietnam. The Green Berets were created by former President John F. Kennedy precisely to make successful unconventional warfare to stem the communists and they were already in Southeast Asia as advisers.

In the mind of Johnson, and many of his advisers, the fall of South Vietnam to communist North Vietnam was another domino in the growing communist advancement in Asia. Appeasement had not worked at Munich. Appeasement will not work in Southeast Asia or in any other part of the world—like Africa and Latin America—where communism was advancing, kind of.

So the United States threw its support to those who opposed communism in Vietnam. In fact, the U. S. tended to support anyone who opposed communism in the world, regardless of who they were. In South Vietnam they were a sorry lot of self-serving warlords and dictators. We could no more change their culture of graft and corruption in one lifetime than we can change the visceral hatred of the U. S. by the radical Islamicists of the Middle East today.

If we are to champion a world of liberty, freedom and democracy, then we need to ensure that anyone who receives our millions and billions in assistance honors these same principles. I am constantly astounded at how millions are sent—still—to places like Egypt where our interests are crushed by local ideologies, local religious fanatics, and the power brokers of that country, now in the hands of a military attempting to rule with totalitarian authority. What are we getting in return? If we are going to give gifts of our friendship and patrimony, then expect something in return that supports what we cherish and uphold.

Why are we surprised that Bagdad and everything we tried to do in Iraq—whatever that was—is crumbling before the world’s eyes? Is radical Islam, or Islam in general for that matter, conducive to the free exercise of one’s freedoms? To democracy as we understand it?

I’m not arguing that we change the world to conform to our vision of how it should be constituted. That would be the ultimate hubris. I think Jimmy Carter had it right when he served as President for one term back in the late 1970s.

I know a lot of people think Carter was a wild-eyed liberal whose domestic policies nearly crashed the country’s economy, but his foreign policy was premised on supporting human rights around the world.

Think about for a second. What totalitarian, dictatorial, tyrannical government has ever tolerated human rights? It was a good measuring stick, perhaps not the best, but better than simply crass self-interest. Like, why are we in the Middle East anyhow? Oil stupid.

We can go far back into history, to the age of the Crusaders when it was Christians versus Muslims for over three hundred years as both faiths struggled for control of the Holy Land.

I hardly ever see the religious differences highlighted or given play in any political commentary today. It is a third rail, like racism, which people would rather not touch, way too inflammatory, too in touch with the raw truth. Radical Islam, like radical Christianity, or radical Judaism, is, if fact, inflammatory and confrontational. We need to deal with it. 9/11 happened. We need to deal with that too. It was our age’s Pearl Harbor. Or, you might wish to research what President Johnson did in the summer of 1965 to fan the embers of war against the communist threat. Google the Gulf of Tonkin.

Every aspirant to political office—or office holder already in place trying to hold on to his office–should have a good historian on his staff to remind him of what has come before. We come equipped with something that is free, but also sometimes forgotten, a collective memory which is just as important as a personal memory which helps form you into the person you are.

I, of course, humbly volunteer to help any political candidate in this area. Write me for my fee structure at my email below.

But, don’t expect me to stroke your ego. History can be a flinty, rocky road, but not to be despised or swept under the rug.

Posted in: History