Belittling the Past

BELITTLING THE PAST….There are probably bigger things to worry about, but this particular passage from Howard Fineman’s comparison of Vietnam and Iraq bugged me:

In Vietnam, the threat posed by our departure was always difficult for Americans to grasp, even though they had been schooled in Red Scare thinking for a generation. According to the “domino theory,” a Vietnam in Communist hands would inevitably lead to Communist domination of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim?all the way, presumably, to the Embarcadero.

If you knew the history and the local politics you knew this was a fiction: the Vietnamese hated and feared the Chinese, and the Russians weren’t going to be able to control the region. Americans never really bought the “domino theory. LBJ’s (and later Richard Nixon’s) political enemies had no trouble eventually offering a rather simple alternative strategy: get out, or, as Sen. George McGovern put it, “Come Home America.”

But what is the alternative now, in Iraq? Few Democrats, let alone Republicans, are willing to agree at this point with Sen. Russ Feingold, who has called for a short, specific timetable for American withdrawal. Few experts I know think that leaving tomorrow would make the country less of a breeding ground for Islamic extremist terror.

This kind of rose-colored view of past problems is a common rhetorical gambit among pundits who want to make a case that our generation’s problems are somehow uniquely complex and intractable. Hell, I’ve seen folks over at NRO, of all places, waxing almost nostalgic for the Cold War because it was allegedly a simpler time when it was just us and the Russians, and really, we knew how to handle them all along.

In this case, either Fineman’s wrong or I am, and I’m happy to open this up to my older commenters for adjudication. My memory is that (1) far from realizing the domino theory was a fiction, lots of people in the 60s took it deadly seriously, (2) even as late as 1972 McGovern’s supposedly simple alternative was never supported by either the “experts” or a majority of Americans, and (3) we largely stayed in Vietnam out of a fear of looking weak in the face of a deadly and expansionist enemy.

In other words, Vietnam looked exactly as hard back then as Iraq does now. In Iraq we have an insurgency we don’t know how to beat (check); we’re afraid that if the insurgency wins it will spread to other countries (check); and we’re afraid that if we leave we’ll look spineless (check).

Those fears turned out to be exaggerated 30 years ago, and they’ll probably turn out to be exaggerated again. We just need to be clear-eyed enough to admit to ourselves that today’s problems aren’t really all that different from yesterday’s. They only seem that way.

UPDATE: Mickey Kaus falls into the same trap. Writing about Hillary Clinton’s dilemma (should she turn against the war or stay the course?), he says:

Hillary’s dilemma is worse, because Iraq isn’t Vietnam and the current Beltway consensus she’s being asked to denounce is a lot righter than LBJ was. Even mainstream Bush-bashing libs, in my experience, readily recognize that just withdrawing from Iraq now would be a global strategic disaster in a way withdrawing from Vietnam wasn’t.

Sure, in hindsight, withdrawing from Vietnam turned out not to be a disaster for the United States. But at the time the beltway consensus among Democrats and Republicans was exactly the same as it is now on Iraq: losing would be a catastrophe that would embolden the communists and demonstrate U.S. weakness in the face of an implacable foe. The beltway crowd in the mid-60s felt every bit as strongly about this then as it does today about Iraq.