Ukraine Proves We Learned Nothing from the Vietnam War

by | Jan 30, 2023

Ukraine Proves We Learned Nothing from the Vietnam War

by | Jan 30, 2023

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Today, January 27th, marks 50 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords which effectively ended American participation in the Vietnam war. One of the consequences, according to Georgetown University international affairs scholar Charles Kupchan, was that an “isolationist impulse” made a “significant comeback in response to the Vietnam War, which severely strained the liberal internationalist consensus.”

As the Cold War historian John Lamberton Harper points out, President Jimmy Carter’s hawkish Polish-born national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, scorned his intra-administration rival, the cautious, gentlemanly secretary of state Cyrus Vance as “a nice man but burned by Vietnam.” Indeed, Vance and a number of his generation carried with them a profound disillusionment in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And for a short time, the “Vietnam Syndrome,” (shorthand for a wariness and suspicion of unnecessary and unsupportable foreign interventions) occasionally informed American policy at the highest levels and manifested itself in the promulgations of the Wienberger and Powell Doctrines which, in theory anyway, represented a kind of resistance on the part of the Pentagon to unnecessary military adventures.

But such resistance didn’t last long. Only hours after the successful conclusion of the First Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” And kick it Bush did: In the decades following his 1991 pronouncement, the United States has been at war in one form or another (either as a belligerent or unofficial co-belligerent—as is the case with our involvement in Saudi Arabia’s grotesque war on Yemen) for all but two of the 32 years that have followed.

Yet the atmosphere that now prevails in Washington makes it exceedingly difficult to believe such a thing as a “Vietnam Syndrome” ever existed. Indeed, President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine has been met with rapturous approval from the Washington establishment, winning plaudits from all the usual suspects.

But can the Biden policy truly be credited as a success when the entire ordeal might have been avoided by judicious diplomatic engagement? Are we really to believe that the war which so far has resulted in 8 million refugees and roughly 200,000 battlefield deaths has been worth a promise of NATO membership for Ukraine?

While the war has seemingly ground to a stalemate, the legacy media and various and sundry think-tank-talking-heads have been busy issuing regular assurances of regime change in Moscow and steady progress in the field with victory soon to come:

  • Writing in the Journal of Democracy this past September, political scientist and author of The End of History and The Last Man Francis Fukuyama exulted: “Ukraine will win. Slava Ukraini!”
  • Washington Post reporter Liz Sly told readers in early January that “If 2023 continues as it began, there is a good chance Ukraine will be able to fulfill President Volodymyr Zelensky’s New Year’s pledge to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year—or at least enough territory to definitively end Russia’s threat, Western officials and analysts say.”
  • Also in early January, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. General Ben Hodges told the Euromaidan Press that, “The decisive phase of the campaign…will be the liberation of Crimea. Ukrainian forces are going to spend a lot of time knocking out or disrupting the logistical networks that are important for Crimea…That is going to be a critical part that leads or sets the conditions for the liberation of Crimea, which I expect will be finished by the end of August.”
  • Newsweek, reporting in October 2022, informed readers by way of activist Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian parliament, that “Russia is not yet on the brink of revolution…but is not far off.”
  • Rutgers University professor Alexander J. Motyl agrees. In a January 2023 article for Foreign Policy magazine titled ‘It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse’ Motyl decried as “stunning” what he believes is a “near-total absence of any discussion among politicians, policymakers, analysts, and journalists of the consequences of defeat for Russia…considering the potential for Russia’s collapse and disintegration.”
  • And this week comes word, courtesy of Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the once realist National Interest magazine, that “The German decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a turning point. It is now clear that Vladimir Putin signed the death warrant of his regime in invading Ukraine.”

As Gore Vidal once quipped: “There is little respite for a people so routinely—so fiercely—disinformed.”

Conspicuous by its absence in what passes for foreign policy discourse in the American capital is the question of American interests: How does the allocation of vast sums to a wondrously corrupt regime in Kiev in any way materially benefit everyday Americans? Does the imposition of a narrow, sectarian Galician nationalism over the whole of Ukraine truly constitute a core American interest? Does the prolongation of a proxy war between NATO and Russia further European and American security interests? If so, how?

In truth, the lessons of Vietnam were forgotten long ago. The generation that now populates the ranks of the Washington media and political establishment came of age when Vietnam was already in the rearview mirror. The unabashed liberal interventionists who staff the Biden administration cut their teeth in the 1990s when it was commonly believed that the U.S. didn’t act often enough, notably in Bosnia and in Rwanda. As such, and almost without exception, the current crop of foreign policy hands now in power have supported every American mis-adventure abroad since 9/11.

The caution which, albeit all-too-temporarily, stemmed from the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ is today utterly absent from the corridors of power in Joe Biden’s Washington. 

The Vietnam Syndrome is indeed kicked: Dead and buried.

But we may soon come to regret its passing.

This article was originally featured at the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord and is republished with permission.

About James W. Carden

James W. Carden is a former advisor on Russia to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and to the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department. He is a member of the Board of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.

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