In pedagogy, the indicator that a lesson has been learned manifests in changes in actions, not in a high score on a paper test.
Did the United States really learn the lessons of Vietnam? Can we even say, with assurance, what those lessons are?
Lesson 1: Support of a corrupt government often leads to disaster. One of the continuing problems of U.S. policy in Vietnam was that the South Vietnam governments were usually corrupt. Citizens knew that. A people rarely loves a corrupt government, unless the corruption inures to the benefit of the people — a degree of graft may be tolerated, for example, if the garbage is picked up on time and the streets are cleared after snow storms. People quickly lose patience with corruption that does not benefit them, however, and South Vietnam’s government simply could not get basic services to work well.
One might have hoped the U.S. learned the lesson, especially when Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, recommended to President Ronald Reagan that the U.S. not pledge military support for Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, because of the corruption in the Marcos government. As a result, the Philippines today has a democratic government, not one that works with great efficiency (which may be a hallmark of true democracy), but a government that the people understand is elected by them. Similarly, governments of Eastern Bloc nations under communism frequently were corrupt. The swift changes that occurred after Poland’s defection from communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to massive change. Where the new governments are not corrupt (Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany) or even just less corrupt, popular support is stronger and national recovery is a genuine hope, if not reality.
Of course, the U.S. was burned by this policy in Iran. When Jimmy Carter’s administration refused to back the increasingly corrupt and unpopular government of the Shah of Iran, revolutionaries found other reasons to lash out at the U.S. A wise person may contemplate that at least the U.S. has not been involved in a continuing war in Iran since the 1980s.
But the lesson stands. One would think that the U.S. would make great effort to assure non-corrupt government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and make the strongest possible effort to make clean government manifest to the local population and the world at large. One might be unsure that is happening today.
In Vietnam, communist forces were trained along the model that Mao Zedong had used in China against the Japanese, and then against the Nationalist army: Train in military methods, and emphasize the political aspects of the war, too. Mao’s army had songs they were required to memorize that emphasized high moral conduct of the soldier, with verses that encouraged full payment to anyone from whom anything was taken, such as food or shelter. Such actions would encourage civilians to support the army, Mao correctly hypothesized. Ho Chi Minh’s forces did not practice the rules perfectly, but, for example, they were successful often in pointing out that the destruction of cropland was not their doing, but was instead the result of U.S. war efforts. Vietnamese citizens may not have strongly supported Ho’s forces, but neither did they support the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. When the reason for the fighting is unclear, fighting often cannot be successful. Corruption in a government makes reasons to support that government suspect, fogging the reasons to fight for it.
Cleaning up corruption in Iraq’s government should be a very high priority of U.S. policy.
[This is the first of a series of posts on the Lessons of Vietnam.]