Senator Kerry: Vietnam Could Not Have Been Won

We must dispense with a dangerous myth. In an effort to pressure the president to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, armchair commanders have dusted off the old canard that "we could have won in Vietnam if only … " Some revisionists contend we could have won "if only" Congress had not balked at the military's insatiable hunger for more troops and more bombing. Others argue that pacification of the countryside and training of Vietnamese soldiers could have carried the day "if only" we had stuck with these policies longer. Still others argue that we could have won "if only" President Johnson had made a much stronger American commitment when he first decided to send combat troops in 1965. (Article continued below...)

Let me be clear: more than 58,000 American troops died because they were sent into battle based on false assumptions, flawed goals, and faulty strategies. Yes, we adopted smarter tactics near the end, but by then the die was cast. History has definitively branded Vietnam for the mistake it was—no one should believe that the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans and at least 1.5 million Vietnamese were somehow not quite enough.

So what should we learn from Vietnam? The lessons aren't simple, particularly when applied to a very different country—with a vastly different history, culture, and geography—in a different era. But some comparisons with Afghanistan are apt.

We are once again fighting an insurgency in a rural country with a weak central government. Americans were outsiders in a complex war among Vietnamese. Our allies were corrupt. Our adversaries were ruthless. Enemy territory was everywhere. Last month I was traveling down a dirt road in Afghanistan's Helmand province in a heavily armored vehicle. Through thick, bullet-proof windows, I could see Afghans staring as we rumbled past. Their numb looks of confusion took me back 40 years to my days as a young Navy officer in Vietnam. Once again, our enemy blends in with the local population and finds sanctuary in a neighboring country. Once again, the danger of being perceived as an occupying force by a war-weary population remains perilous.

With Afghanistan, as with Vietnam, we have a president facing pressure from the military. President Kennedy was strong enough to refuse to be pushed into combat operations. His successor, President Johnson, feared a public dispute with his commanders, so he failed to stand up to them when they insisted that the United States was headed for disaster without an escalation. Combat forces were rushed in with tragic results. More recently, whoever leaked Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment that we would fail in Afghanistan without additional forces was trying to pressure President Obama to sign off on a big troop increase before his own deliberations were done. Those inside and outside the military demanding fast action risk subverting the deliberative process and putting us on a road to the mindless escalation that cost tens of thousands of American lives in Vietnam.

But the situation in Afghanistan is also very different from the challenge we faced in Southeast Asia. Vietnam was a mistaken proxy war against worldwide communism: nothing there realistically threatened the United States. The other major powers at the time of the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and China, had no interest in seeing us escape the quagmire. Yet in September 2001, mass murder was plotted against us from Afghan soil. We all know why we invaded Afghanistan, and so do the Russians, the Chinese, and other world powers. There was no contrived Gulf of Tonkin rationale. It was not a mistake.

Now we must choose a smart way forward so no one asks whether we've made a mistake in staying. The main lesson that Obama must absorb from Vietnam is the necessity to explain our goals in Afghanistan, and to choose clear and realistic strategies to meet them. In this war, the enemy can be defeated by better government and effective economic assistance. Unlike the relatively popular Viet Cong, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are widely despised. If we can provide sufficient security and support to our Afghan allies, there's little reason they can't win the battle for hearts and minds. Moreover, Russia and China have economic and security interests in helping us stabilize the situation. Harnessing those interests can help us.

However we proceed, we need to recognize that this is an Afghan war for the future of Afghanistan. We entered Vietnam thinking of it as a key part of the larger Cold War struggle. But the Vietnamese made clear this was a war about their country—Vietnam—not about America or the Soviet Union. We need to make a decision about Afghanistan strategy based on the reality of the place, not some imagined sense of what we wish it to be.

I pledged to myself long ago to be informed by Vietnam, not imprisoned by it. The easiest way to make a mistake is to tolerate a debate that sells our country short. In the case of Afghanistan, politics has reduced a difficult mission in a complex country to a simple, headline-ready "yes or no" on troop numbers. What we need is a realistic assessment of our strategy, military and civilian combined. One of the architects of the Vietnam War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, confessed decades later that he knew victory was no longer possible well before the American death toll had reached half its eventual total. He offers a horrific lesson that the time to voice concerns is now.