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The Legacy of the Vietnam War

Speaker: Marilyn Young, Professor of History, New York University
Presider: Frances FitzGerald, Author
February 3, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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FRANCES FITZGERALD:  Good evening.

Welcome to today's meeting entitled, The Legacy of the Vietnam War.  This meeting is part of a series that the Council on Foreign Relations is co-sponsoring with the National History Center, an initiative of the American Historical Association.

We'd like to thank Roger Lewis who is here with us today and he's the Director of the National History Center, helped us create this series, which aims to make a connection between U.S. foreign policy and history.  

This particular meeting with Marilyn Young will look at the lessons of the Vietnam War for today.  

First, please turn off -- you know, not just put on vibrate -- your cell phones, BlackBerrys, all the wireless devices so they won't interfere with the sound system.  There we go. (Laughter.)  And secondly, I'd like to remind members that this meeting today is on the record.  New people with cell phones, off I hope.  

Marilyn Young received her PhD from Harvard University in 1963.  She taught at the University of Michigan before moving to New York University in 1980, where she is a full professor in the Department of History.  She's a prolific writer and a wide-ranging scholar and her publications as you can see on her biography range from works on China to works on Russia, human rights, U.S. foreign policy and so on.

She's written, of course, extensively on the Vietnam War -- history that I've been using, very, very valuable and, most recently, one of her most recent books is Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam Or How Not to Learn From History, and that's her subject for today.  

Welcome, Marilyn Young.  (Applause.)

MARILYN YOUNG:  I advise any women who speak here to wear a jacket because it makes it easier for them to mike you.  

When I finished revising this last week and the atmosphere was one thing and now it has shifted dramatically and makes, I hope, what I'm going to say even more relevant.  I don't know how many of you see Newsweek, but the cover of this week's issue is, Obama's Vietnam, and then for me with the contradictory subhead, How to Salvage Afghanistan and maybe we'll talk about the relationship between those two.

I should point out that R.W. Apple in October 2001 -- October 2001 -- published a story called "Afghanistan:  Another Vietnam."  So the legacy of Vietnam is my topic.

For a brief period of time, I think of it as perhaps the first five minutes or so of Jimmy Carter's presidency, it seemed that the Vietnam War had left a positive legacy.  In its aftermath, no administration would nor even could commit the country to war except for reasons of self-defense, and even then, only after a congressional declaration of war.  This, for me, was the real significance of the Vietnam War, that the war had come to be recognized by a majority of the American public as wrong, or at best, a bad mistake.

The consequent repudiation of the use of armed force abroad was so fierce it was given a name, the Vietnam Syndrome.  It was as though the country had become allergic to war.  For post-war presidents, this was a problem to be overcome, and I'd like this evening to talk about the process by which the anti-war legacy of Vietnam was eroded, transformed into its opposite, a tolerant civil war, so long as it could be conducted quietly, without much fuss and without conscription.

One approach to dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War featured small, homeopathic doses of war, notable as much for their outsized names and in their total absence of U.S. casualties as for their brevity.  Operation Urgent Fury, the rescue of students who couldn't get into U.S. medical schools from vague dangers in Grenada;  Operation Just Cause, the successful assault through very loud music on the drug lord Manuel Noriega in Panama.  

Neither effort raised the ghosts of Vietnam.  Meanwhile, the military, recovering from the demoralization of the Vietnam War, set about building an all-volunteer professional army and devising a new doctrine for its use.  The Weinberger-Powell doctrine was like an insurance policy against all that had gone tactically wrong in Vietnam.  

Strong public support should be mobilized before any war began.  Force would be used massively rather than incrementally, goals would be limited, the exit clearly marked and a declaration of victory thus assured.  Then in 1990, George H.W. Bush moved beyond homeopathy to fight a more ambitious war.  Gulf War I was scripted like a mini-World War II.  Saddam Hussein was Hitler; Kuwait stood for all of occupied Europe; it was a grand alliance; and appeasement was unacceptable.  

In accordance with the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, months were spent gathering public support.  This was the Desert Shield phase.  TV stations developed logos, appropriate background music, daily clips of soldiers of saying hi to their families, it being before cell phones.  Press control, which had also marked the operations in Grenada and Panama were strict, and in this and every other particular, Gulf War I was self-consciously, carefully not Vietnam.

At its conclusion, President Bush declared that the country had kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.  

John Hay dubbed the war of 1898 a, quote, "splendid little war," and just a little short of its centennial celebration, George H.W. Bush could take pleasure in his own splendid little war, an antidote to Vietnam, a ringing message of U.S. intent to diversify and dominate in the Middle East, a flexing of military muscle.  

American casualties were light, 148 dead in combat, 145 non-combat deaths, 457 wounded.  There were 100,000 Iraqi combat deaths, 300,000 wounded and an unaccounted number of civilian dead.  In this radical disparity of dead and wounded, Desert Storm recapitulated all of America's small wars from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

Bush had demonstrated that the U.S. could emerge victorious in a chosen war.  However, Clinton's use of the military suggested that, after all, the Vietnam Syndrome was still kicking.  "What's the military for?" Madeleine Albright asked plaintively, pugnaciously, there's no tapes so we can't tell if not to use it.  Although hardly loathe to use military force, Clinton was more cautious than his predecessor.  In Somalia, he pulled the troops out before anyone could even whisper quagmire.

His administration's intervention in Kosovo took place at 30,000 feet above the streets and fields with no American casualties.  There was never any question of U.S. intervention in Rwanda.  Bombing and sanctions were the preferred approach to the ongoing irritation of Saddam Hussein.  Asked by a reporter what she thought about the estimated 1996 total of 500,000 Iraqi children who had died in consequence of the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq, Madeleine Albright said, quote, "It was a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it," end quote.

Clinton's National Security Adviser Anthony Lake had assured the country that the U.S. would act multilaterally when possible, unilaterally when necessary.  The administration of George W. Bush dropped the first half of the sentence.  The new policy was set by the 2002 National Security Strategy whose language and attitude sound archaic today so thoroughly has it has been outstripped by events.

Let me remind you a little of how it went.  It opened with an assertion in the 20th century; the 20th century had ended in a decisive victory for the forces of freedom and, quote, "a single sustainable model for national success, freedom, democracy and free enterprise."  Potential alternatives, "militant visions," this is a quote, "of class, nation and race had been defeated."  In their place, the U.S. will use its economic power abroad to encourage, quote, "pro-growth legal and regulatory policies, lower marginal tax rates, sound business policies to support business activity and free trade," which was defined as a quote, "moral principle."

The National Security Strategy was a blend of a neo-conservative American domestic order, American prescriptions for the world and American military supremacy.  American military force must be strong enough to, quote, "dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States," end quote.  That's from the National Security Strategy or as Condoleezza Rice put it, no power would ever again be allowed, quote, "to reach military parity with the United States in the way the Soviet Union did," because, she said, quote, "when that happens, there will not be a balance of power that favors freedom, there will be a balance of power that keeps part of the world in tyranny the way the Soviet Union did," end quote.

There was a shift then from the recognition of the fact of American preponderance of power to an insistence on maintaining exclusive power.  From a multilateral vocabulary, even if honored mostly in breach to an unalloyed, unilateralist posture.  From a physics in which a balance requires two weights to one in which the single weight of American power by itself constituted a balanced world.

September 11th enabled the Bush administration to pursue with less opposition and greater violence policies that might otherwise have appeared to aggressive.  Yet despite Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I and 9/11, George W. Bush's administration was as haunted by the Vietnam War as his predecessors.  Reporters wrote of credibility gaps, the failure to win hearts and minds, worst of all, those quagmires.

While Donald Rumsfeld denied there was an insurgency in Iraq and Paul Bremer vehemently rejected any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, Bush, with characteristic boldness, confronted the analogy and drew from it a contrary conclusion.  In a 2007 address to the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he recalled Alden Pyle, Graham Greene's Deadly Quiet American.  Pyle was, Bush told the veterans, quote, "a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and naivete," end quote.  

Kevin Buckley, one of the great reporters of the Vietnam War, wrote that it appeared the president had taken Greene's angry observation -- quote, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," end quote -- as a compliment.  

As the president read Greene's story, it was not about how or why the United States had entered Vietnam, but rather about the disasters that ensued when it left and he warned, quote, "Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home."

Pursuing this somewhat counterintuitive logic, the Bush administration deflected questions about the inception of the war in Iraq to predictions about what would happen after the U.S. withdrew.  In the press and on TV, the language of the Vietnam War recovered its resonance, Iraqification, instead of Vietnamization, triangles of death, inability to tell friend from foe, cut and run, bloodbath and, of course, quagmire.

Even those who like Tom Ricks criticized most severely, the incompetence, ignorance, ineptitude, brutality of the Bush administration, argued that whether or not the war in Iraq should have been fought, the issue now was how to fight it.  Vietnam served as the example for all sides of the debate.

Let me pause here for a moment to underline the consequences of shifting from a discussion of a fraudulent inception of a war to the best tactics with which to fight it.  An unnecessary war, a war that need not have been fought, which was the case both in Vietnam and in Iraq is, by definition, a criminal war and the suffering on all sides is a criminal non-sequitur.

This is the legacy of Vietnam no one ever confronted, instead, and this my central point this evening, there was and is again near universal agreement that the most important lesson of the Vietnam War could be summed up in a single word, counterinsurgency.  Why, article after article lamented, had the counterinsurgency lessons of Vietnam been forgotten?  In some renderings, for example, Lewis Sorley's, the claim was that counterinsurgency had actually won the war in Vietnam before losing it again to the irresponsibility of the press or of Congress or of the anti-war movement or all three.

In other accounts, that of Andrew Krepinevich for one, the claim was only that counterinsurgency would've won in Vietnam had it been practiced early enough, hard enough, long enough.  Familiar names from old colonial wars reappeared in fresh editions, Galula on the war in Algeria, Nagl on Malaya and Vietnam, T.E. Lawrence became the man of the hour, though he fought with not against insurgents and courses on counterinsurgency were restored to the curriculum of the service academies.

A new field manual on counterinsurgency was drawn up and after it had received 1.5 million hits online, the University of Chicago obliged by publishing it as a trade volume with an endorsement by Newt Gingrich, a preface by Sarah Sewell, head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and a blurb by General David Petraeus himself.   This is the blurb.  "Surely, a manual that's on the bedside of the president, the vice president, secretary of defense, 21 out of 25 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and many others, deserves a place at your bedside, too," end quote.  And if any of you know the names of the four holdouts on the committee, I'd love to have them.  (Scattered laughter.)

The manual was hailed as a great step forward and when General Petraeus soon to have succeeded in putting his principles into practice in Iraq, Vietnam, briefly, dropped out of the war -- the news altogether.  With counterinsurgency back in the curriculum and at the center of U.S. tactical thinking in the Middle East, there was a brief sense of optimism about the future of American military ventures.  In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, who both served in Iraq, look forward, quote, "to a more creative and aggressive strategy in Afghanistan."  Petraeus they write, quote, "the architect of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy," end quote, "had pulled Iraq back from the abyss," and they believe, quote, "Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure."

For an historian of the Vietnam War, the currently intensifying discussion of Afghanistan -- excuse me, is awfully reminiscent.  The problem we are told is primarily political, not military, and protection of civilians is one of the primary principles of the new field manual.  On the other hand, it is impossible to solve the political problem, to protect civilians until there is military stability.  Quote, "One conundrum, U.S. military officials told a Washington Post reporter recently, is that the expanded forces in Afghanistan will have to come in with heavy firepower and aggressive military tactics likely to create more civilian casualties and public animosity in order to secure rural districts so they can bring in services, aide and governance aimed at winning over the local populace," end quote.  Once more, we must destroy villages in order to save them.

Nor does Iraq predict for a comfortable war in Afghanistan.  The arming of Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was the centerpiece of Petraeus' tactics in Iraq.  The same approach in Afghanistan is likely to backfire.  Few seem to be asking whether war is the best model for pursuing al Qaeda or for stabilizing Afghanistan.  

The first Gulf War was about not fighting wars like Vietnam ever again.  The second has turned out to be about how to fight wars like Vietnam and win.  Discussion of the war in Iraq has moved decisively away from its origins to how, finally, the U.S. figured out how to fight it.  There it seems to have settled in the notion of an endless series of counterinsurgent battles in what General Petraeus assures us will be a very long war, indeed.

And that is the end of my remarks.  (Applause.)

FITZGERALD:  Marilyn, you've been talking about how successive administrations and other people, other Americans, have interpreted the legacy of Vietnam, and given the time constraints, you haven't sort of clearly given us a view about what -- your view of subsequent American wars since Vietnam were about or should be about.  

So under the sort of heading of what is a just war, has the United States fought any just wars since Vietnam?  What -- you know, what about Kosovo?  What about the Gulf War?  Because there at least President Bush Senior said he was waging a war against international aggression and the Congress and the Security Council agreed with him.  He was also worried about Saddam Hussein moving into Saudi Arabia, which could indeed be interpreted as a national security problem for the United States.

And then, finally, what about the initial American attack on Afghanistan when they were harboring al Qaeda?

YOUNG:  Okay, first of all, I want to avoid the term just war because it brings with it such a burden of theory that I really don't want to get into.  So why not just go much more simply and talk about justified or justifiable wars.  And there, my answer is no.  I know that the argument about Kosovo and Gulf War I is a complicated one and we can perhaps talk a little bit about it this evening, there's a lot to be said on both sides.  It's not open and shut as I think the war in Iraq is open and shut and as, I think, Vietnam was.  But Kosovo, Gulf War I.

On Kosovo, it is the case as I understand it, first of all, it wasn't a U.N. war, it was NATO's first war and at least part of the motivation was to -- it was about the purpose, what was the purpose of NATO after the end of the Cold War?  Well, this was the kind of thing that NATO could do.  That's part of the justification for the war and I think it's not a very good justification, but on the issue itself of what Milosevic was doing in Kosovo, there was negotiations right up to the moment of the bombing attack.  And the last piece of that negotiation as I understand it was a proposal offered at Rambouillet, which had in its appendix a clause saying and NATO shall have the right to move militarily through Serbian territory any time it wants to.

Now, this is an impossible condition for any sovereign nation as I think we surely recognized at the time and I think was intended to be rejected.  So the question arises, was it possible to keep negotiating?  Were sanctions possible as a way of leaning on Milosevic in Kosovo?  

So on Kosovo, I think, diplomacy has not been exhausted.  Gulf War I is really interesting because, you know, Saddam Hussein had been complaining about Kuwait a great deal and apparently some of those complaints were not without reason.  One issue was that Kuwait was apparently drilling sideways into what was considered Iraqi oil fields.  That was one issue and there were others about -- oh, and Kuwait was dropping oil prices at a time when Iraq desperately needed funds to recover from the long war against Iran, and that dropping of oil prices was apparently not with OPEC sanctions.

So these were two issues which Saddam Hussein raised with our then ambassador to Iraq, a woman named April Glasby, who has disappeared -- I mean, she makes occasional appearances, but there was a long time when you could find exactly where April was and in the conversations that she had with him, among the things she said according to transcripts I've read is, that, well after, Kuwait and Iraq is an Arab-Arab issue.  Well, if it's Arab-Arab issue, it's an Arab-Arab issue and it's not a case of international aggression across international borders.

Congress did approve after -- not a declaration of war, there was never a call for declaration of war, but as you know the vote was close, in the U.N., President Bush had made it very clear that if the U.N. did not agree to go in, the United States would move anyhow.  So if the U.N. wished to have any relevance then it really better get on board, which it did.  

I think more could've been done diplomatically there as well.  I think sanctions hadn't really been tried for nearly long enough to deal with the issue of Kuwait.  Some people said, some people high up in the Bush administration even, I think -- what was the big deal with Kuwait, you know, it's just another gas station.  One of the interesting things about Gulf War I was the way Kuwait was made into this suffering little democracy, which is absurd on the face.  The Kuwaiti monarchy hired one of the really high-powered PR firms in the United States and they worked up that business with Iraqi troops throwing babies out of incubators, and it was a lie.  

As for Saudi Arabia and the threat to Saudi Arabia, at the time, both the CIA and the DIA thought it was extremely unlikely that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Saudi Arabia and after the war was over, there's evidence in some of the photographs that the Americans showed to the Saudi princes to persuade them that Saddam Hussein was really threatening them were fake.  

So there's room to think again about how Gulf War I started and there's a lot to think about how it was conducted and the lies that were told to persuade the public of its necessities and so on.  

FITZGERALD:  We could get back to that later.  I'd just like to move on into, indeed, your history of the war and you say that not long after the invasion of Iraq that the discussion shifted from the whole issue of the sort of fraudulent inception of the war to the best tactics used to fight it and that there was and is again a near-universal agreement that the most important lesson of the Vietnam War was counterinsurgency.  

I wonder if you're not being a bit categorical, first of all, about saying that no one ever asked again about the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq, but it's true that many military men and journalists, of course, after 2004, did focus on how the Iraq war ought to be fought.  But what else could have they done?  I mean, President Bush had ordered the invasion, military men were faced with having to do something about the consequences of this and journalists were faced with having to cover their effort.  

So, you know, I mean, isn't this sort of perfectly normal?

YOUNG:  Well, that's the problem, isn't it?  If that's perfectly normal, that is the problem right there.  Well, I realized, though, that I forgot -- and on the last one you asked me about the war in Afghanistan and there I just wanted to say very quickly that I do think war was the wrong model, it was the wrong model in 2001, it's the wrong model now.  There are other ways to think about how to have pursued al Qaeda so -- and we can come back --

FITZGERALD:  We'll come back to Afghanistan.

YOUNG:  Sure, in general discussion.  But no, I think journalists had a responsibility to say there's something crazy here; we're trying to figure out how to fight a war we shouldn't be in.  Therefore -- and they could've said that and that could've been pointed out over and over again.  Also, the sum of more force, although many did and I -- I mean, rely on the press.  I mean, my whole understanding of the world is derived from the most careful parcel of press reports, so this is not an attack on journalists at all.  

But you know, the success of the surge rested -- and journalists did say this often towards the very end of the article -- it rested on the fact there had been the most grotesque ethnic cleansing in Iraq already.  That's what made it possible.  Already, there had been so much killing of Shi'ite and Sunni and separation that you could really build walls because already no one was going to go into the other guy's neighborhood.

So there wasn't this kind of dreadful stability that had been created through ethnic cleansing and death.  In addition to that, you had Muqtada al Sadr's cease-fire, which was central and then, yes, the buying off of the Sunni tribes which began, by the way, before the surge and before the manual came into any sort of real operation.

So I think that could've been pointed out rather insistently.  We do have civilian control over the military, obviously.  It's not impossible for -- and, you know, commanders get removed and more pliable commanders get put in.  So I'm not blaming -- how can I blame the military for that?  But I'm talking about the punditry and the journalists who did spend a lot of time talking and thinking about counterinsurgency and about how you shape up the army so it could do this again elsewhere, essentially, creating a colonial army for the United States.

FITZGERALD:  You talked about the surge and also about the Sunni Awakening.  It seemed to me that, in many ways, that was the key to whatever success the U.S. has had in Iraq was, indeed, had very little to do with counterinsurgency.  It had to do with the recognition that we were not fighting something vague called an insurgency, but in fact, we were in the midst of a major sectarian conflict, civil war virtually and also that this so-called insurgency didn't have to involve all Sunnis, that there were ways in which you could cooperate with some and trying to isolate al Qaeda.

It seems to me those two things are essentially political recognitions as opposed to counterinsurgency.

YOUNG:  No -- I agree with you, but they fall under and they're always touted as a part of the shift that Petraeus and the manual put into place.  No, I agree with you that it had -- before counterinsurgency started that these elements were already in place, I think that's right.

The other thing is, Patrick Coburn had a terrific article called America's Surrender in Iraq in which he discusses the Status of Forces Agreement in terms of what the Maliki government was able to achieve, which was a date for American withdrawal, which is what it wanted and -- we take more playing out and I'm not sure I can do it off the top of my head, but there's a way in which the result of the Vietnam War, which was a failure, which was an American withdrawal, resembles American withdrawal from Iraq, which is considered a success

FITZGERALD:  Well, the -- I --

YOUNG:  -- because we negotiate our way out.  

FITZGERALD:  How you define success in Iraq because some would say that the American withdrawal is a success almost in itself if Iraq sort of hangs together thereafter?

YOUNG:  Yeah.  Well, if we hadn't gone there --

(Cross talk.)  

FITZGERALD:  I'm going to open the questions to the floor so all of you can join our conversation.

YOUNG:  Do they get to ask you questions, too?

FITZGERALD:  No, no they don't.  (Chuckles.)  But first off, please wait for the microphone, which will come around and speak directly into it.  Please state your name and affiliation and please limit yourself to one question and keep it brief so that other people can have a go at it.

QUESTIONER:  Professor Young, I wonder if you might --

FITZGERALD:  Your name, please?

QUESTIONER:  Allan Gerson, I'm sorry.

FITZGERALD: And affiliation?

QUESTIONER:   Washington, D.C., Gerson International Law Group.    

I wonder if you might focus a bit on one difference between Iraq and Vietnam that may have escaped a lot of attention, and that is the disposition or view about international law.  I think we can pretty much agree that with regard to Iraq, there was, at best, a cavalier attitude or an attitude that international law did not matter.

My question is was it really the reverse with Vietnam?  I recall while you were speaking of a class I took at Yale Law School with Gene Rostow who was the Undersecretary of State and he made a point of saying this is really a war about international law, all the advisers in Vietnam from the attorney general to Dean Rusk to the national security adviser reversing international law and they said, listen, this is a case of aggression.  We need to respond.  And the great tragedy that's seen with Vietnam was that they didn't factor cost-benefit analysis into the decision, but they did do it on the basis of international law.

Would you disagree with that or is that a wrong take?

YOUNG:  No, I don't see what international; -- who invaded who?  Where was there -- sorry.  What did Rostow say at Yale?  Who had invaded?

QUESTIONER:  The position that they took was that the United States had to respond not strictly for the sake of protecting the South -- this was their position -- but for the sake of setting an example with regard to the primary rule of the U.N. charter, and that was violated with regard to the North's invasion of the South.  

YOUNG:  I think that is the strangest understanding of international law --  well, I've read many strange understandings of international law, but that one really pushes many, many limits.  

I'm really -- I'm sort of almost speechless.  You -- for one thing, you in the 1950s, you create a government more or less, certainly, Diem couldn't have lasted for very long without the United States, although let me put it back, first to violate the Convention, which ended the French war in Indochina.  That's the first step.  Well, that it seems to me is a violation of international law.  I'm not a lawyer, but at least it was pressing on international law, and that happened in 1954.  

So why don't we start there?  Why don't we start with the way in which the United States violated the agreements reached at Geneva?  The answer is, ah, but we didn't sign.  Yeah, that's true.  The United States didn't sign them.  But they were an agreement between two parties which had been at war, a military cease-fire, an agreement of a separation, temporary partition at the 17th Parallel and in two years, elections.  The Vietnamese, perhaps unwisely, agreed to this because they were leaned on by their fraternal socialist brothers, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.

Okay, so two years comes around, 1956, and what happened?  There's no election.  That seemed to me a violation as well.  And we can go on like that.  I really don't understand where in the -- my understanding of the long history of Vietnam that the United States stood up for international law.  It seems to me it was breaking it all over the place or at least stretching it.

FITZGERALD:  Well, this is certainly a notion that -- I mean, on the part of Rostow and people like that that Vietnam was actually two countries.  But no else thought that in the whole world.  (Scattered laughter.)

Next question.  Yes.  

QUESTIONER:  I'm Rocky Staples.  

FITZGERALD:  From?  

Q:  Well, I'm -- I'm from various places.  

FITZGERALD:  Okay.  (Laughter.)

Q:  How do you assess what's going on in Washington?  I was greatly encouraged two or three weeks ago by reading or hearing or someplace that either Obama or somebody who is close to Obama had actually had a talk with Ahmad Rashid, who is, in my view, one of the very few great authorities on the perils of Afghanistan and the dangers of Pakistan.

How do you think the administration is going to, on the one hand, balance the -- sort of the pledges that Obama has made in the past to be very vigorously tough on al Qaeda, and presumably, to some extent, on the Taliban, with what may be going on and taking another look at things?

YOUNG:  Well, I was encouraged by that as well.  I was discouraged by the fact that in his first week in office, Obama authorized a drone attack in Pakistan, basically, and that seemed to me not so great.  And there was another attack which took place shortly after that.  And both of those I found very discouraging because it seemed to me there hadn't been what he might have done, which would be to simply say, look, this is very complicated what's happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I need time to figure it out and to think about it and to sort it out, to consult people like Rashid and others and then we'll see where we go.  

Instead -- and of course, he's nearly fulfilling what he had promised during the campaign that he would pursue al Qaeda militarily in Afghanistan and wherever.  I find that quite worrisome and I think that the military solution in Afghanistan is not possible, that it will make -- here's the part that really bothers me.  I mean, Obama comes in and there's so much hope, you know, and all I can think of is that kind of analogy that is drawn by the Newsweek thing, LBJ was to Vietnam as Obama is to, what?  And Afghanistan is the obvious answer and he could just be marching in, but maybe not.

Gates has been making some very interesting statements.  Among other things, he made a distinction between -- or rather, he didn't mention the Taliban when he said we will pursue al Qaeda.  The Taliban dropped out and what's going to happen to -- (inaudible) -- we don't know.  

Anatol Levin in this morning's FT has a curious piece, which is an effort to define a decent interval for the United States in Afghanistan.  All of you are old enough, you remember how many it years it took Richard Nixon to arrange a decent interval, and in that interval, many, many died.  So the question is is that really what should be happening?  Is the effort to get a decent interval?  Is that what should be happening?  Or maybe the United States should just get out of Afghanistan?  I think it's hard to answer the question why are we in Afghanistan and, it's getting harder.  That doesn't exactly answer your question, but it speaks to the area, I think.  

FITZGERALD:  Well, what about Afghanistan -- indeed, I mean, here is a different situation than Vietnam in the sense that al Qaeda is a national security issue for us since -- you know, since the Vietnamese were not for the United States.  So how do you -- you know, how do you --

YOUNG:  Well, suppose, you know, I've never been clear on; first of all, if you kill one operative, what does it mean if we're talking about al Qaeda?  You kill one operative in Pakistan, what does it mean?  If the issue is events like Madrid or London or, indeed, 9/11, then what difference does it make if they're hanging out there?  I mean what matters is having the intelligence to find out what they plan elsewhere, right?  No?  Sometimes I think what -- you know, it sounds like lets get them in Afghanistan, pursue them in Pakistan.  But suppose one didn't, suppose instead one tried very hard to figure out with the help of international police forces everywhere, where they were moving and what they were going to do?  I mean, I did, too, bought into this notion that you actually had to track them down where they were.

I'm less convinced that it makes a difference if they're there or not.  There is a difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda, I think, that's important to -- I mean, this is not to say one wants a Taliban government in Afghanistan or that the Taliban is somehow better people than al Qaeda.  Not at all.  But they have different objectives entirely.

What the United States has been doing so far has driven, essentially, them together.  It would seem to me smart to not do that anymore.  

FITZGERALD:  Anybody -- yes?

QUESTIONER:  I'm Russell DaSilva from Lovells here in New York.  What lessons from Vietnam, from Iraq and from Afghanistan would inform a sensible policy for the United States in Iran?

YOUNG:  For a start, nothing military, that's for a start.  I think Obama will talk, arrange to manage somehow to have a talk with somebody in Iran that makes a difference, I'm really convinced of that.  I even think that it's possible -- at my most optimistic, I think.  Who knows?  I mean, maybe even as we speak there is an effort being made to connect with people in Iran who will have something to say about what happens in Afghanistan or actually ease the situation there.  

So the first -- the absolutely first step is a conversation, that's absolutely the first step.  And it seems to me not at all impossible despite the speeches of Ahmadinejad asking for apologies all over the place.  I mean, there's no doubt the United States has several things to apologize for with respect to Iran, but I'm not persuaded that that will be the break point to a conversation between significant people in the United States and Iran, and that's the obvious first step.  

You know, one of the things that's really upsetting if you think back over it, immediately after 9/11, among the first countries to offer sympathy, and, indeed, to discuss what might be done to deal with things like this, al Qaeda being no friend to those who control in Iran, were the Iranians.  So they make this big thing, well, our hearts are really with you, this is terrible, we really reject this kind of thing, this has nothing to do with Islam and so on and so on and their first reward is that they get added into the axis of evil.  

I mean, it's just -- it's an opportunity just blown, and I don't think that Obama would blow those opportunities.  I think it's hard to ravel in; you can't really ravel in what's already happened.  You can only try and move forward in a different direction, I hope, and think -- think and I hope.

QUESTIONER:  Larry McQuade from River Capital International.

Focus a little on the people who made the decision.  You had a lot of brilliant people at the top, you had McGeorge Bundy, a Rhodes Scholar and a distinguished person; you had Robert McNamara, who became head of the Ford Motor Company at some extraordinarily young age; you had Mac Bundy --

YOUNG:  When it was profitable.

QUESTIONER:  -- who was so brilliant -- well, yeah, back in those days -- who was so brilliantly ahead in the scholarly world.  And yet these three, at least, were the interface with President Johnson.  I think his motivation was more domestic politics, whereas theirs was the real belief that they were doing what was right for the world, I think, at least.  But would you like to comment on the gaps between the people who know what's happening -- a friend of mine was in Vietnam and the CIA and he said we tried to tell those guys, but they wouldn't listen.

YOUNG:  They did try.  The documents show that they tried.  I mean, that's the wonderful thing about documents is that they show that people in the field did try.  

Well, I was asked for a short list of books on Vietnam and I recommended that people might want to re-read Halberstam's Best and the Brightest, which I thought then and think now was the most powerful attempt to understand how it is that very, very smart people can project their vision for the world irrespective of the reality of the world and then proceed to pursue it.  It's really quite extraordinary and disheartening when you' read the documents and see the way in which they thought about this country, about which they knew less and less as time went on.

Everybody laughed at that interviewed in which somebody in the Bush administration, this most recent Bush administration, said something about faith-based reality, but you know that was true for those guys then.  They also had a faith-based reality and went out looking.  I was on Bill Moyers the other day and he played a little clip of McNamara and Johnson on the phone talking about bombing, I mean, you wouldn't think a bomb did anything except be like a firecracker or something.  No, we just got to keep doing, we'll break their will.  It will work.  Or Kissinger talking to Nixon and these are telecons that are now available, Kissinger talking to Nixon on the phone and saying about the bombing in 1972, we dropped a million pounds on them today and Nixon really worried, says, gee, didn't Johnson try that, you know, bombing a lot?  

It's just about a direct quote, I read it very recently.  And Kissinger says, yes, but he didn't have a strategy.  He did 50 here, 50 there, but we dropped more in a day than he dropped in a week.  And Nixon says, really?

And as -- I forget now who said it, essentially, the United States bombed itself back to the negotiating table; it didn't change anything in Vietnam.  So it's the information on people in positions of great power.  It's the information from what happens in the world, there's a sense that they can move things around as if the world were two-dimensional and you can just make a move and someone will respond exactly as we want them to.

It's stunning and it's frightening than as it is now.

FITZGERALD:  It seems to me that, in a way, Iraq was different because, I mean, Vietnam came first and if you'd been in World War II as McNamara, et cetera, were, you would think that the United States Army -- armed forces would -- could do anything essentially and you might have been very surprised to find out that, in fact, you couldn't win a war in a small country like Vietnam.  But that having happened to do the same thing again without understanding what you're getting into seems to me -- amazing.  

YOUNG:  Yes, we're in complete agreement.

FITZGERALD:  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  Susan Woodward, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

It wasn't intended, but it's a bit of a follow on to what you just said.  Can you elaborate more about your views about this new counterinsurgency doctrine?  Because the analysts argue that it's exactly what we were doing in Vietnam, but it's as if the military doesn't seem -- those who wrote it now don't seem to realize that.  But I'm more concerned about what the effects of it, if any, will be on U.S. foreign policy?

YOUNG:  Well, I think the manual, it's great to have a manual, it's great to have a manual.  It's a great (field ?) that you have revised, the last one which was a 1940s small wars manual and that something new is happening here and if you read the manual as I have, it's something that's very, very old and there is not anything very new in it at all, but it gives a sense of science and that you really thought it through and that you figured it out and you know what you're going to do and this is, to me, extremely dangerous because the way in which the things were listing, I think, what's happening in the military now is, we're not going to have those terrible years, 2003 to 2007 again because we figured out counterinsurgency and we're going to have a military that is shaped and formed to do it and we're going to have HTT -- you know, Human Terrain Teams, attached to the military.

It's true they don't learn the languages fast enough, but still -- and of course, the languages change depending on where you're going.

So my worry is that what we're looking at really is the shaping of the colonial army -- permanent military, no draft -- whose intent and purpose is to literally counter insurgencies where they appear.  This seems very odd to me because, you know, you might not want to counter all insurgencies; some insurgencies you might want to sort of give a hand to or at least not interfere.  But the notion that we are now in a situation in which we will have to counter insurgencies everywhere, that's what worries me most of all.

QUESTIONER:  Peter Pettibone, Hogan & Hartson.  Congress is supposed to be the entity that declares war and it's also supposed to act as something of a buffer against executive action.  Now, we have the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Vietnam and we have the resolutions to go to war in Iraq.

Could you give us your views on the role of Congress in those two instances?  And why Congress approved both of those?

YOUNG:  They're really two different situations, I think.  Tonkin is very interesting to read the full congressional debate and what you find is senators asking -- Gaylord Nelson, for example, makes a speech saying, now, look, this is a very limited thing, right?  I mean, this is just about this one incident that happened in the Gulf, this is not giving the president powers to go further, right?  And Fulbright says right, right.

There's real uneasiness in the Congress.  Fulbright assures them over and over again, which is one explanation for why Fulbright was so furious and held those hearings shortly thereafter because he felt Johnson had just taken him; he had been just played for a fool.

So in Tonkin, there were expression of unease and an effort to say this is a limited, this is a limited resolution.  Much later it was called, quote; I can't remember who said it, "the moral equivalent of a declaration of war."  It was never intended to be that, as far as I -- my reading of the Congressional Record.  And, of course, there were two senators who voted against it.  One of them, Wayne Morse, who had information from inside that supported the contentions that the Vietnamese were making that, after all, the OPLAN 34A operations were covers for sabotage operations by the Saigon army, South Vietnamese army against the North -- quite against international law by the way.

So that's a little different.  I mean, there was an effort to think of it, at least as I read it, some Congress people convinced themselves that this wasn't limited, that they were not giving carte blanche to the president.  

It's much harder for me to explain what happened in Iraq.  There, I think, it was a case, I don't know, if people like me could have serious doubts on the basis of what we're reading in the newspapers, surely Congress with better sources of information could have as well.  And there, I think, it's just cowardice -- that sounded very moralistic and I don't usually talk that way -- it seems to me really cowardice.  There was 9/11 and there was the country and there's Bush standing up for the country and it's very hard to stand against that and say, no, this is nuts.  It's really difficult.  And I think -- I said, well, maybe he knows some little something we don't know, which is the excuse of cowards -- you know, it was there, it was possible to say this is foolish, I won't vote for this.

So that's the best I can do.  I should say that the director has written a book about both Gulf wars, which will be out in three months.  Had I been able to read the manuscript before this evening, I would feel much more secure as I speak.  (Laughter.)

FITZGERALD:  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  Charles Bailey, Ford Foundation.  I work as the foundation representative in Hanoi from 1997 to 2007.

Professor Young, I could draw a couple of lessons from what you said, one is that there are long-term consequences from all of these wars beginning with Vietnam and the second is we don't seem to learn from our mistakes, that it's just one damn thing after the next, as Henry Ford once observed about history.  And the example we have here of long-term consequence is the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War, which is a continuing and current problem in Vietnam.  The government of Vietnam estimates at least 3 million whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by exposure and there are at least 500,000 American Vietnam-era vets on the VA registry as having diseases that our government recognizes here in this country as linked with dioxin exposure, but refuses to acknowledge that same linkage overseas in Vietnam.

So thinking of the brightest and the best and thinking forward to our current administration, what are the chances and what are the conditions under which we'll learn something and do something right, at least in this instance?

YOUNG:  Before I approach that, I want to say something about the Ford Foundation and your work there actually.  Patrick Leahy recently had -- well, not very long ago -- had an earmark actually, which was some modest sum for helping the Vietnamese deal with clean-up of Agent Orange hotspots, but Ford Foundation gave three times that amount to the Vietnamese and even so it's a modest amount given the nature of the problem.  And the failure to act on that is -- by the American Congress is really shocking in my view.  Of course, they're afraid of legal suits obviously, and the Vietnamese who came to this country to sue Monsanto and Dow lost that case recently.

But I just wanted to say, I think, not many people know what Ford has done in this area.  I think it's very important and it's really terrific.  Nobody is looking at DU -- if we're going to talk about that -- depleted uranium, which was used in Gulf War I, it was used in Kosovo, it was used in Gulf War I, it was used in Iraq, whose effects are not known.  But your question was, you know -- God, I feel an old Peter, Paul & Mary song coming on (laughter) -- when will they ever learn?  

You know, people learn different things from history.  History is this (shocking ?) this that is used.  Orwell, you know, talked about it, if you control the past, you control the present and the future.  So the goal is -- and my feelings for -- there will always be contention about what the history of the past means and to keep that contention going and to, you know, each of us in our own way to, as we learn from history, to try and make that matter in the present by whom to vote for, by what petitions we sign, by the work we do and so on.

I don't have a more global answer than that, I'm afraid.

FITZGERALD:  We have time for one more question.  I see two hands up, maybe you could both agree (inaudible, laughter), first, in the front row and we'll see if your question --

QUESTIONER:  (Name inaudible) SEIC.  My question is about lessons that some of the actors in the war said they learned.  McNamara wrote a book and a movie, The Fog Of War, which actually I was going to see him and made notes and then he didn't come, so I didn't ask him these questions, but there were 13 lessons that he drew from that and I wondered if you've looked at people who are in that kind of a position and made an assessment of how you see it, whether they actually got the right lessons?

FITZGERALD:  If your question at all is germane to this one --

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)  Ford Foundation.

FITZGERALD:  Well, go ahead --

YOUNG:  That's okay.  

QUESTIONER:  I'm Tony Holmes; I'm a State Department fellow here.  I've been fascinated in the past several months by the ongoing effort by foreign policy professionals and pundits, not a few of whom work in this building over the historical interpretation or an effort to influence the historical interpretation of the success of the surge.  

And so what I would appreciate you doing if you can is try to relate that back to your reference during your initial remarks about the changed interpretation in the United States today of the Vietnam War and the success of the Vietnam War and how our perceptions so near to what's going on in Iraq, and particularly, the interpretation that the surge was such a huge success at the end would relate to that and how that will play out in the future as we pursue foreign policy agendas around the world?

FITZGERALD:  Looking at the clock -- so just take a stab --

YOUNG:  Very quickly.  I'll do them both together.

FITZGERALD:  All right.

YOUNG:  And one thing is McNamara said we were wrong, terribly wrong and then he gave us 13 lessons, all of which he could have known at the beginning, I mean, there is nothing that was not available to him by way of knowledge about the situation in Vietnam when he came into office and he left.

I think the great danger of the way in which the surge has been made to stand for all of Iraq is that it wipes out the history of what's happened over these last six, seven years and which we have to hold onto and it's really important, having settled Iraq enough to get out does not erase everything that happened beforehand and not only that, Vietnam sometimes is talked about as a success for the United States because they're now on the capitalist road and all of that.

It doesn't work that way.  You can't wipe out the past and the way in which things work out at the end does not bring back to their beginnings, I don't think.

FITZGERALD:  Perfect way to end.  Thank you very much.  


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