When I first arrived in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1965, with a new job as reporter for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer , I was still operating on the childhood assumption that the people running the federal government knew what they were doing. I soon learned that is not the way Washington works. This revelation occurred because, as a kid from the sticks, I decided that I should quickly learn as much as possible about the war in Vietnam. I asked around the office for reading material, dug into the files, and spent much of my spare time for three months learning as much as seemed relevant on the public record. In due time, my editors discovered I knew enough to cover the Washington debate on Vietnam issues. It was then I found I knew more about the background to the Vietnam war than anyone I met in high places. It was an alarming discovery to a 29-year-old. The Vietnam “experts” either on Capitol Hill or in the Johnson administration each knew more than I did on small parts of the issue, but typically they did not attempt to learn something about every aspect of the issue.
My most important eye-opener involved the origins of U.S. support for the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic who enjoyed the support of the Vatican, of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, and of Joseph P. Kennedy. When John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960, U.S. interest in Vietnam expanded. As it did, the low-level conflict expanded as well, and our commitment escalated. Diem’s popularity went into decline in 1962 and 1963, and in early November of 1963 his generals staged a coup and murdered Diem and his brother Nhu. Kennedy himself was assassinated later that month. My first important insight in 1965 was that our State Department encouraged the coup, because Diem had become a public-relations problem with his declining popularity. In so doing, South Vietnam became a ward of the United States, now our moral responsibility. It was in the early 1970s that I began to see that JFK himself had signed off on the coup. In reading Seymour Hersh’s new book, The Dark Side of Camelot , I found the background to the coup even uglier.
It was not until early 1977, during research for The Way the World Works , that I realized why Diem had become so unpopular so fast. In December 1961, the Kennedy administration advised Diem that unless he adopted the economic program designed for Vietnam by American economists, U.S. aid might be withdrawn. Diem’s resistance to what was then a standard Keynesian tax-and-spend program dissolved. In January 1962 the plan was announced. By that summer, the economy and currency were already in an intermediate stage of collapse. An idiotic land-reform program designed at the University of Washington did to the countryside what the tax increases and currency devaluations did to the cities and towns. It took 55,000 American lives before we threw in the towel. In the 20 years since I wrote about this, not one other account has been written on my radioactive hypothesis. It is much easier for our political establishment to have the American people thinking the blame for its blunders lies elsewhere.
On "Meet the Press" Sunday, General Norman Schwarzkopf was asked by Tim Russert if he favored heavy bombing of Iraq. “Well, that’s a very good question. You know, we run the risk of doing the same thing we did in north Vietnam. We escalated the bombing, and every time they survived it, they kind of came out and brushed themselves off and said, ‘Wow, we’ve survived.’ And it toughened their resolve. So that’s one of the risks that you have when you go ahead and embark upon this type of military operation.” Russert asked if this was a risk worth taking and the general replied: “That’s not my judgment to make. It’s a judgment that has to be made by the national command authority, I think, and the United Nations.” Asked about Saddam Hussein’s threat of weapons of mass destruction, Schwarzkopf noted that during the Gulf War, Iraq essentially was told if they used poison gas, they would be hit with atomic weapons. That was that.
The parallel with Vietnam extends further. The armchair generals of The Weekly Standard are urging House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to 1) carpet bomb Iraq for openers; 2) assassinate Saddam if at all possible; 3) set up a puppet regime in London; and 4) prepare the American people for the need to send ground troops into Baghdad to rid the world forever of this madman. The ringleaders, who themselves seem a bit rabid, are Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, both superhawks who worked in the Reagan Pentagon. Perle now is in charge of this “hawk” team, which includes dozens of intelligent people -- including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who assume that Perle knows what he is doing. It was Perle’s mentor, the late Albert Wohlstetter, who for all practical purposes was the head of the hawk team from the 1950s until his death a year ago (with Henry Kissinger captain of the doves).
There was a time when Wohlstetter, Perle, and Wolfowitz were cozy with Baghdad. This was back in the days when it was in the strategic interest of the United States to hold Saddam’s coat as his army lost a million soldiers while killing a million Iranians. The main threat was still the USSR, but Islamic fundamentalism was second on the list and secular Saddam was our ally. The Iranian mullahs were urging the open rebellion of Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq; Iraq invaded Iran with the limited goal of taking the western province of Iran, oil rich, but also an enclave of Sunni Muslims who were not getting along with the Ayatollah. Poison gas was used by both sides as the war dragged on in stalemate, finally ending when Iran accepted a UN settlement in July 1989. Iraq was accused of using poison gas against its own people in the Kurdish region, but has always insisted it did not, that it would have gassed its own troops in the process. On the "McLaughlin Group" last Sunday, John McLaughlin pointed out that to this day the State Department cannot verify that Saddam has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. McLaughlin has been taking an aggressively dovish stance against the hawks in the national press corps.
It’s hard to equate Diem and Saddam, but there are obvious parallels. Both were allies that our political establishment played like pawns in the Great Game. Both became inconvenient and were set up for sacrifice. The fact is that Iraq came out of the Iranian war financially exhausted, and then asked our permission to stake its claims to the oilfields on the Kuwaiti side of the border. The invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War would not have occurred if our State Department was not sleeping at the switch, Lawrence Eagleburger in particular. Our blundering hawks spread the story that Saddam, bled white in Iran, was bent on swallowing up the Middle East, chewing up Israel in the process. My belief is that this was done to wipe the Eagleburger blunder under the carpet. Our ambassador to Baghdad at the time, April Glaspie, took the fall. To this day, I’m sure that Sen. Jesse Helms thinks it was Glaspie who goofed, when it was the big shots at State.
Before we proceed further with the bombs and puppet regimes and ground troops that my old friend Richard Perle has up his sleeve, the Republican leaders should ask more questions than they have so far. Jack Kemp remains the only GOP leader with creative ideas on how to avoid making Iraq a ward of the U.S. It’s about time they listened to what he has to say.