The public television series on the Vietnam War reveals lessons the U.S. failed to learn as it was engulfed by the struggle.
Whatever its intent, the series suggests parallels with the current North Korea crisis. A viewer comes away from the programs with impressions about what works and where to be careful.
President Kennedy and other leaders believed that, if the Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnam were successful, Communism could spread to other countries in the region. American policy was based on helping the South Vietnamese to prevent this outcome.
What really happened in Vietnam gives us the chance to see whether those U.S. fears were correct. North Vietnam succeeded in taking over the entire country in what had to been seen as a U.S. defeat. Did the dominoes fall all over Southeast Asia?
Vietnam is now an independent country visited by American tourists and doing business with American companies. Laos and Cambodia are not Communist. In fact, while countries like China seek territorial or economic domination, their moves have nothing to do with Communist ideology.
In confrontations with other powers, American policy often focuses on the worst possible outcome and seeks to prevent and protect against its effects. Policy makers pay far less attention to possible, more positive outcomes and measures that might increase their likelihood of success.
On North Korea, our attention is centered now on the possibility that Kim Jong-un will launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. or one of our allies. When he rattles his saber, we rattle ours in return.
The U.S. appears to have little idea about what Kim wants, so we focus on what he threatens. If we try to negotiate realistically to see if we can get what both sides must really want – no war – that could be progress.
“Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” said British statesman Winston Churchill, an honorary U.S. citizen. If the two sides could spend as much effort on finding a way to meet as they do on warning each other about war, there might be a better chance of resolving the crisis.
Only after the two sides talked to one another did U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War wind down. The American and North Vietnamese negotiators even got Nobel Peace Prizes, though the war continued a while longer.
The America position is often that the U.S. is willing to negotiate, but only if certain preconditions are met. They are so broad that negotiations would probably become unnecessary, because the other side would have already made the desired concessions. That’s not likely to happen.
Negotiating does not ensure agreement. But proposing a jaw-to-jaw meeting between President Trump and Kim would yield some intelligence and impress the rest of the world with America’s willingness to talk. And the U.S. might be able to find out about Kim’s objectives.
How stunning would it be for the two to meet in Guam or Switzerland, where Kim once attended school? The sole precondition would be that both leaders stepped back from making threats.
Proposing such a meeting could look like an American concession. Is leaning on China, as the U.S. now does, any better? Taking the negotiating initiative could buttress America’s weakening role in Asia.
The American strategy now consists of squeezing North Korea with sanctions, hoping they can be starved into backing off their threats. But Kim is certainly willing to starve his people to save his policy and his job.
In Vietnam, American support for corrupt regimes fuelled opposition to the U.S. among the South Vietnamese. People may well turn against outsiders applying pressure affecting them and toward support of their local regime. Desperation may promote resistance to foreigners, not rebellion.
Promoting prosperity may be more of an effective American policy than starvation. As people make personal economic gains, they have an increased stake in peace.
On one program, a South Vietnamese province chief says that, if he had the cost of one U.S. helicopter, he could have pacified his province through economic development. He was turned down, and the Viet Cong began shooting down U.S. helicopters with handheld weapons. The war turned even hotter.
Kennedy is shown in 1963 saying that Vietnam could not be won. but if the U. S. pulled out, he might lose the next year’s election. Unfortunately, that was not leadership. It was a calculation that cost many lives. The same risk exists now.
Korea and Vietnam are not identical. But Vietnam raised a relevant question. Can we do it better this time?