Vietnam and Afghanistan: Two essays, one nonsensical, one filled with wisdom

U.S. soldier in Vietnam. Photo (cc) 1971 by Bruno Barbey.

Two essays, one in The New York Times and one in The Boston Globe, compare the disastrous, tragic war in Vietnam to the disastrous, tragic war in Afghanistan. One is based on nonsensical analogies. The other puts both conflicts in their proper perspective.

I’ll begin with the bad. Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, writing in the Times, tries to make the case that the grotesque lies Lyndon Johnson told in order to escalate our involvement in Vietnam are somehow comparable to President Biden’s handling of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. The headline — “To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan” — is worse than the essay, but the essay is bad enough.

Kazin’s piece is based on the premise that “the last time a war blew up in the face of a Democratic president, it derailed his domestic agenda and stalled the most ambitious social reforms of a generation.” Yet Johnson pulled us deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War, to the point where it overwhelmed his presidency. Biden has ended our involvement in Afghanistan. It’s been awful to watch, and no doubt it could have been handled better. But he’s done what three presidents before him wouldn’t do, and there are no signs that the public wanted us to stay.

And yes, Johnson and his administration lied repeatedly about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, used as an excuse to go all-in, and lied repeatedly about our progress. As Kazin himself concedes, there is nothing comparable going on with Biden. He writes:

Mr. Biden made a decent start at such truth-telling during his speech this week. But he should give a fuller explanation of why his administration failed to prepare for a Taliban victory that, according to years of intelligence reports, was quite likely.

The fall of Afghanistan just happened. Of course we’re going to learn more in the weeks and months to come. It’s obvious to everyone that one interview with George Stephanopoulos isn’t going to be the end of it.

By contrast, the Globe piece, H.D.S. Greenway, makes the considerably more solid argument that our failed wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan had certain similarities — a misguided mission to build pro-Western democracies in places that called for a different solution, an obstinate refusal to learn about the cultures in which we had immersed ourselves, and rampant corruption on the part of our allies. Greenway, a former Globe editorial page editor and longtime foreign correspondent, concludes:

The tragedy is that America really had no interest in either Vietnam or Afghanistan for themselves. We went into Vietnam to fight communism and into Afghanistan to fight terrorists. Over the years, mission creep took over, and we thought we could bring forth democracy in our image out of the barrel of a gun.

The proper analogy to LBJ is not Biden; it’s George W. Bush, who could have saved us from two decades of anguish after 9/11 if he’d launched a limited mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and had stayed out of Iraq. Barack Obama should have pulled out after bin Laden was killed. I’ll give Donald Trump a tiny bit of credit for at least talking about ending the war.

But it’s Biden who did it. Like Gerald Ford in 1975, Biden watched the U.S.-backed regime collapse and had the maturity and good judgment not to try to stop it. It was over. It seems clear that there were intelligence failures that prevented us from getting as many people out as we could have, and there’s no doubt that Biden’s going to be asked some tough questions.

Regardless of what Kazin thinks, though, the fate of Biden’s presidency does not depend on Afghanistan.

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9 thoughts on “Vietnam and Afghanistan: Two essays, one nonsensical, one filled with wisdom

  1. Wondering if you have a reaction to Duncan Black’s observations about asymmetry in the media:
    “The Right gets a deferential hearing on every issue, no matter how out of touch it is (anti-vax, for example). Not just deferential, but coverage which implies it is the majority view, that Democrats should be on the defensive and conciliatory
    “The Left can’t even get that treatment when its views are, actually, the clear majority view (Forever war in Afghanistan is bad).”

    1. Dan Kennedy

      I partly agree. Black is right, but I’ve seen far, far more criticism of the way the evacuation has been handled than I have of the end of the war itself. It seems fair to me that Biden faces some tough questions about why the regime collapsed so quickly that we’re not going to be able to get people out — and why our intelligence didn’t seem to know that. But as for Black’s larger point, I’ve been writing that for 25 years.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Drum may have been a little too quick on the draw. There are reports today that planes seem to be stuck on the ground.

  2. I would this to Dan’s fine article: Greenway names the political reasons for the US invasions of Vietnam and Afghanistan but makes no mention of the economic reasons driving our foreign policy. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned the American people about makes great profits from long wars, whether invasions or low intensity conflicts. And economic hegemony is an oft-stated State Department goal (alongside the political claim that democracy and preserving the “American Way of Life” demands military solutions.

  3. As I’ve heard many experts say, there is no elegant way to lose a war. It’s always messy. Biden didn’t start the Afghanistan war, nor did he escalate it under false pretenses. He got us out. It was inevitably messy, but we are getting out. Will we get everyone out who needs to get out? Doubtful. We didn’t in Vietnam either. It may take efforts by private individuals, former service members etc., to find and get people out one by one — perhaps over time — if they don’t make it out by the time the troops leave. I think, by and large, Americans will be glad to be out. But, will there then be oodles of complaints about all these Afghan immigrants in the U.S.? Likely.

  4. Defend your villain as your own property. Biden is a guy who is at least as bad as Trump. You’ll never understand that he used all means to defeat an idiot like Trump and that’s not legal? When will you stop being a criminal defender, Mr. Kennedy? Where’s the impartiality of a journalist and professor Mr Kennedy? You are a shadow of your past, American…

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