Vietnam and Iraq: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

On the panel were Theodore Sorenson, left, an adviser to President Kennedy; Jack Valenti, from the LBJ White House; and former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr.
On the panel were Theodore Sorenson, left, an adviser to President Kennedy; Jack Valenti, from the LBJ White House; and former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr. (By Lisa Poole -- Associated Press)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

BOSTON, March 11 -- They were talking about a guerrilla war in Asia. Or, fairly often, more than one.

"You cannot win against an insurgency that springs from the population," said Jack Valenti, former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "There's never been an insurgency that doesn't prevail against a mighty power."

"How much reform can you do," former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger wondered later, "simultaneously with fighting a war?"

The banner on their dais read "Vietnam and the Presidency" -- ostensibly, the subject of a high-powered conference that brought historians and former policymakers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for two days ending Saturday.

But, as the speakers talked about anti-American insurgents and faulty U.S. intelligence and the search for an honorable way out in Southeast Asia, nearly all found bitter parallels to the current conflict in Iraq.

"It appears to me we haven't learned very much," said Alexander M. Haig Jr., Kissinger's assistant in the Nixon White House and secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.

The conference's stated subject -- Vietnam's history -- was captivating and wrenching enough on its own. Timothy Naftali, director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, played recordings of Johnson's conversations, including one from 1965 where he asked Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara how the war was going.

"The current battle is going very well," McNamara said, and then continued with a sentence whose Catch-22 logic made the audience laugh. "The problem is that it's not producing the conditions that will almost certainly win for us."

In one from 1966, Johnson said that "I know we oughtn't to be there [in Vietnam], but I can't get out." He never would: Thousands more troops would die before Johnson left office.

Throughout the weekend, there were signs that even today, more than 30 years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, many of the most basic questions about that war remain politicized and unsettled -- questions as basic as: What happened there?

"The Vietnamese won," Marilyn B. Young, a professor of history at New York University, said after she appeared in a panel Friday.

"We defeated ourselves, with the divisions" among the American people, Kissinger said Saturday.


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