Why does the United States–born in a people’s war for national independence from the greatest empire of its time–have such a difficult time understanding the people’s wars of independence of our day? The example before our eyes is of course the failure to plan for or even anticipate the uprising against the American occupation of Iraq. But the error has a far longer history than that, extending at least as far back as a half-century to the failure to understand the roots of Mao Zedong’s revolution in China. In the 1940s, the US government had in its ranks officers who reported fully on the rot that pervaded every level of the Chinese government and warned of Mao’s success. Notable among them were Gen. Joseph Stilwell and his political adviser, John Service. However, when their warnings proved correct, they were not congratulated; they were absurdly excoriated for supposedly having caused the result. Then many were hounded out of their jobs in a purge of the State Department. Leading the purge was Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the speech in February 1950 that inaugurated his anti-Communist witch-hunts, he announced that he possessed a list of 205 names “known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy.” He singled out Service for mention. The theme of McCarthy’s attack against the Democratic Party is worth noting in our day:
At war’s end we were physically the strongest nation on earth and, at least potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could have been the honor of being a beacon in the desert of destruction, a shining living proof that civilization was not yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably and tragically to arise to the opportunity. The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful, potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation.
The idea that a Republican-led America could dominate the world if only weak-kneed, treacherous Democrats did not stand in the way was also to have a long and rich history.
What stands out in retrospect is not that the US government failed to learn the lessons of the Chinese revolution but that it did learn them (from people like Stilwell and Service) and then energetically and successfully banished them from memory. When the time came to decide whether to step into the shoes of the French colonial rulers in Vietnam, the State Department was left almost devoid of competent Asia hands. The ensuing debacle needs no lengthy rehearsal here: the United States’ underestimation of the force of Vietnamese nationalism; its misbegotten reliance on military force to win a struggle whose essential character was political; its consequent destruction of the society it was trying to “save,” at a cost of some 3 million lives; its shameful exit by helicopter from the roofs of embassy buildings. Even the politics of the disaster were the same as those after the victory of Mao. Republican bullies drove Democratic cowards into a military policy that in their hearts they knew was unworkable. President Johnson certainly knew it, as his taped conversations show. But he also knew–or believed–from the “who lost China” debate that “losing” Vietnam would be political suicide.
Did the United States learn the lessons this time? Did it finally grasp that being “physically the strongest nation on earth” did not confer unlimited power over other countries, that their peoples were as attached to independence as Americans were, and as ready to fight, and fight effectively, with and without arms, for their independence? For a while, it did. That was the lesson, after all, that every previous empire had had to learn in the twentieth century. The lessons were perhaps absorbed most deeply by the institution most profoundly affected by the war: the military. It vowed never again to enter a war without an “exit strategy” and never again to address militarily objectives that could only be won politically.
But once again the forces of organized amnesia set in. Before long, the Vietnam lessons were renamed the “Vietnam syndrome”–a mental illness. A series of victories over feeble enemies–the Grenadans, the Iraqi forces in the deserts of Kuwait–restored the illusion of omnipotence set forth by McCarthy. President George H.W. Bush even declared after the victory in the first Gulf War, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome.”
The purgation of memory and sense was successful. The United States, ignorance restored, was ready for the next debacle, this time in Iraq. Once again the likelihood and strength of popular resistance, fusing nationalism with ideology (now, religious ideology), is being overlooked. Once again wiser people in the State Department have been stiff-armed by the Pentagon. Once again–in Najaf, in Falluja, in Tal Afar–the United States is destroying cities to save them. Once again, military successes are leading to political defeat. Once again, Republicans are bullying and Democrats are caving.
The case of John Kerry is especially poignant, as well as potentially tragic for the country. As a soldier, he learned the lessons of Vietnam as deeply as any American. He fought the war, he protested the war. For him to forget its lessons is forgetfulness indeed. And there is every reason to believe–though I admit it cannot be proven–that it was done for the same compelling reasons that inspired Harry Truman to purge the State Department and Lyndon Johnson to dig himself deeper into Vietnam. In order to get a hearing in a discussion so thoroughly steeped in fantasy, Kerry must have felt he had to buy halfway into the lie. He, too, played the old game of co-opting the Republicans by halfheartedly adopting their cause. He voted to authorize war. At his convention, he crisply saluted the assembly of ardently antiwar delegates, who, too clever for their own good, roared their approval. He then reaffirmed his vote to authorize the war. Like so many Democrats before them, members of his party are torn between the truths they know and the delusions that, they imagine, are politically necessary–delusions that have been laid down now, layer after layer, for more than fifty years.