Robert F. Kennedy on Vietnam

I’ve been flipping through “The Vietnam Reader: Articles and Documents on American Foreign Policy and the Viet-nam Crisis” (revised edition, 1967).

Most of the articles were written early on in the conflict (at least those that I’ve scanned so far). The parallels between Viet-Nam and Iraq at this point, in terms of the justifications for continued involvement, and the difficulties inherent in achieving a successful resolution along the lines originally envisioned are all too clear. Strikingly so, in fact–for some of the passages, all that is needed to make them relevant to today’s conflict is to substitute “Iraq” for “Viet-Nam”.

I’ll probably write about other portions of the book at a later point, but I was most struck by the following passages from RFK’s speech to the United States Senate on February 19th, 1966:


“There are hazards in debating American policy in the face of a stern and dangerous enemy. But that hazard is the essence of our democracy.”

“To attack the motives of those who express concern about our present course–to challenge their very right to speak freely–is to strike at the foundations of the democratic process which our fellow citizens, even today, are dying to protect.”

Take that, Dick.

Now, for some truly prophetic words (these are what struck me most strongly as I read through his speech, even more so than the above ringing phrases):


“There are three routes before us: military victory, a peaceful settlement, or withdrawal.

The last is impossible for this country. (my emphasis) For the United States to withdraw now, as I said last May, would be a repudiation of commitments undertaken and confirmed by three administrations. It would flatly betray those in Viet-nam whom we have encouraged by our support to resist the forces of Hanoi and and the Viet-Cong. Unilateral withdrawal would injure, perhaps irreparably, the principle of collective security, and undermine the independence of small nations everywhere in the world. […]”

But it wasn’t “impossible”, was it? I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a similar list of reasons why it is “impossible” to withdraw from Iraq.

RFK also discusses the requirements for a military victory, including among others, that “we continue to occupy South Viet-Nam as long as our presence is required to insure that hostilities, including insurgency, will not be resumed. And this will be a long time indeed.” (sound familiar?)

His many cautions and admitted acknowledgement of the vast resources required for a military victory are accompanied by the assertion that there may be “no alternative” and that “[t]he American people possess the bravery and the will to follow such a course if others force it upon us.” Of course, there was an “alternative”: unilateral withdrawal, because the American people did NOT (very rationally) have the will to continue investing the blood and treasure of the American people in an apparently endless war against a foe who did not measure victory and defeat in terms of battles and lives won and lost, but simply in terms of sustaining resistance.

RFK had the wisdom to re-evaluate and modify his positions as the course of the war in Viet-Nam progressed… will President (we hope) John Kerry? Will the rest of the Democratic Party? Republicans? (fat chance, that) Or will Iraq be “Kerry’s war” four years from now… Kerry’s $1 trillion dollar investment in futility… Kerry’s albatross around his neck, dragging down every other initiative?

Will we ultimately wind up creating a “Wall of Memory” for Iraq war veterans, visits to which will be as painful and cathartic as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. is for veterans of that war? On that note, where will the “Wall of Memory” be for the untold millions whose lives will suffer when the health, education, housing and welfare programs that would otherwise have been funded are sacrificed on the altar of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? (much as the “War on Poverty” was strangled by Viet-Nam)

The “insurgency” in Iraq is not “military”, in any sense of the word… most of the fatalities have not been due to “armed battles”, but carbombs, remotely detonated roadside bombs, and hit and run mortar attacks. Every time we have fought a “conventional” battle, we have inflicted massive and overwhelming casualties on the “enemy” (witness the hundred to one ratio of casualties sustained by the Mahdi Army vs. the American Army in Najaf) yet that has done little or nothing to demoralize or discourage even those foes suffering the conflicts, let alone “Al-Quaida in Iraq”. Would/will more or different troops truly change that calculus? Did 500,000 troops on the ground in Vietnam have much more impact than 50,000? Did we learn nothing from that experience?

I hope not.

Thomas Leavitt