© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Comparing Afghan, Vietnam Conflicts


The White House bristles at even the suggestion that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. Last night, the president drew distinctions between the two conflicts.

President BARACK OBAMA: Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.

NORRIS: But in the weeks leading up to the president's big decision about Afghanistan strategy, many top officials within the White House and the Pentagon were reading two books about Vietnam. One of those books was "A Better War." It was written by Lewis Sorley, and argues that when the military finally figured out how to effectively battle the insurgency, it was too late. Politicians and the public were demanding an end to the war.

The second book was called "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam." It looks at the early decision-making on the war and argues that the White House and the military made major miscalculations because it had too narrow a view of the conflict. That book was written by Gordon Goldstein and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GORDON GOLDSTEIN (Author, "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam"): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: I'm going to ask you about your reaction to the president's speech last night in just a minute, but first, a bit more about your book. It focuses on McGeorge Bundy, the National Security adviser, one of the leading advocates for going to war in Vietnam. Why do you think so many people within the administration and the Pentagon were reading that book?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, the legacy of Vietnam lives on and it forms a national debate about intervention. It's become a metaphor for being entrapped in a military and strategic quagmire. And I think the costs of Vietnam to our political institutions, the human cost, the injurious impact on our foreign policy for decades, that's still very much a present issue.

NORRIS: The president, as we heard, went out of his way last night to say Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Do you view it that way?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, I listened very carefully to that, of course, and noted the president's emphasis on the existence of a coalition, the insurgency that is currently being confronted in Afghanistan, the fact that al-Qaida, of course, is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, all of those are fair points.

What the president did not talk about, however, were the strategic parallels that continue to exist. Both Afghanistan and Vietnam are small powers that have been historically extraordinarily resistant to the efforts of large powers to impose order.

Both Vietnam and Afghanistan had corrupt and ineffectual regimes. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan have contiguous border countries, through which support and sanctuary for an insurgency flows and fortifies that insurgency. But most importantly, the parallel, really, that drives Afghanistan and Vietnam is in the realm of military strategy.

In Vietnam, it was a strategy of counterinsurgency and clear and hold. In Afghanistan, General McChrystal has called for a strategy of clear, hold and build. So there are some parallels that I do not think can be easily dismissed.

NORRIS: Your book focuses on McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser who was very hawkish in his views about the Vietnam War. But he went through a transformation later in life. He regretted his early views. What did he regret and what lessons did that mea culpa provide for the current military leaders and the president as they ponder the path ahead in Afghanistan?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: You know, it's a great question. One of the ruminations that Bundy had about the process in 1965 was that when they were arguing over the size of the force to go into Vietnam. He said we were arguing about the size of the increase that General Westmoreland would get and not the military strategy that would govern those deployments.

I think in this process we have seen something of the opposite. I think in the past two months they were very much arguing over a strategy and the numbers were a secondary consideration.

For Bundy, he embarked upon this reflective journey to understand his errors of guidance and recommendation and counsel in Vietnam. And as he said in his own words, to see if we can find a way to guide us forward in a better world.

NORRIS: Gordon Goldstein, thank you very much.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you. My pleasure.

NORRIS: Gordon Goldstein is the author of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.