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Vietnam and Iraq: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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.

"We didn't lose Vietnam," said Haig, sitting next to Kissinger. "We quit Vietnam."

And there were flashes of the strong emotions that Vietnam still brings up. One audience member's question, submitted anonymously and read by the moderator, NBC news anchor Brian Williams, told the panelists, "You policymakers ripped the heart and soul out of . . . American families."

Another question asked Kissinger, who remains a lightning rod because of the Nixon administration's secret bombing of Cambodia, if he felt he had anything to apologize for.

"This is not the occasion for this sort of a question," Kissinger said. Later, though, Kissinger detailed the rationale behind the bombings, and told the audience, "I have no regrets" about his time in government.

For all the debates about Vietnam, there was one thing that most every speaker agreed on. "The sorry odor of the same aromas that we found in Vietnam" can be detected in Iraq today, Valenti said.

Sometimes, there were echoes of Iraq in references to Vietnam. Young said President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, rejected intelligence reports that contradicted his belief that Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh was no more than a pawn of the Soviet Union.

"Acheson told them to keep looking, in a model of the use of intelligence with which we've become familiar," Young said in an oblique reference to criticisms that President Bush manipulated intelligence before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Other speakers took on the issue directly.

"I think [Vietnam] sent a cautionary signal . . . that we should be more cautious in military adventurism," former president Jimmy Carter said in a videotaped interview played Saturday. "These lessons that were learned I think have been forgotten or ignored in the present Iraq war."

At times, the conference seemed to demonstrate a serious shift in at least some sectors of public thinking. Where just a few years ago it was debated whether Iraq could be called a "quagmire" such as Vietnam, here the question seemed to be: Could it be worse?

"There is not an adequate sense of nationhood," Kissinger said, contrasting Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divisions with what he called a more homogeneous population in Vietnam.

All told, the speakers spent two days sketching bitter parallels between the two fights -- comparing the Cold War "Domino Theory" of communist expansion with the Bush administration's ambitions to spread democracy in the Middle East, and comparing the Iraqi insurgents to the Viet Cong.

Eventually, some of the panelists were asked: So what should the country do now about Iraq?

"I'm not smart enough to figure out how to get out of Iraq," Valenti said, "any more than I was smart enough to figure out how to get out of Vietnam."

Kissinger, the man whose administration eventually did withdraw U.S. troops, had no solutions either.

"I know the problem," he said, "better than the answer."

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