David H. Hackworth
July 18, 1995


"What experience and history teach is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.' -- Hegel

Last week, Bill Clinton faced reality: Vietnam was not a war, Vietnam was a country needing recognition. But Bob Dole choked with rage when Clinton normalized U.S. relations with Vietnam, and now Dole threatens to booby-trap the process.

Fifty years ago, Harry Truman also refused to recognize Vietnam. At the end of World War II, Truman should have followed Franklin Roosevelt's guidance, given only months before he died, to keep the French out of Indochina -- Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- and to secure independence for the long-tormented Indonesian people.

In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh addressed a crowd assembled in Hanoi with these words: "We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness-'

Sound familiar? Ho explained why: "This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America." Vietnam's revolutionary leader went on to tell the crowd, "This means: All peoples on the earth are born equal; every person has the right to live to be happy and free. These are undeniable truths."

Truman, fearing the Soviets would gobble up the rest of Europe and perhaps the world, ignored Ho and cut this deal with the French: If you point your guns at the Soviets, we'll let you take back the "jewel" of your colonial empire.

So, in 1946, French troops renewed their hundred-year reign of oppression, triggering the Vietnamese to rise up and clobber the French again and again until, in 1954, they finally high-tailed it home.

America, which had long supported the French with arms, equipment, technicians and advisors, got sucked into the quagmire because of Truman's befuddled Cold War concepts, until we too cut and ran in 1973.

This wrong-headedness, contrary to every principle upon which our country was founded, ushered in the bloodfest 30 years in Southeast Asian history -- over 6 million Asian deaths, almost half a million American casualties -- and blackened America's honor, perhaps forever.

But how quickly we forget! America is now in danger of realizing Hegel's observation in Bosnia, ignoring the history of our Vietnam experience, because shallow thinkers in the U .S . Senate -- led by Dole -- want to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Dole says providing the Bosnians with tanks and guns will level the playing field between the lightly armed Bosnians and the heavily armed Serbs.

What Dole doesn't say is that American military advisors and technicians will be needed to keep all the gear running and to teach the Bosnian warriors which buttons to push and which cogs to grease. Nor does he mention that U.S. logistical depots, communicators and staffers will be needed to supply and coordinate all this activity, or what will happen after the death of the first military advisor.

Bodybags shipped home will cause a need for security forces. These will start with a few rifle platoons, but as more advisors are killed, the security force will be enlarged, and before you can say 'MacNamara,' U.S. infantry battalions and divisions will be deployed to defend the perimeters of headquarters, hospitals, and logistical and air bases.

Vietnam started with a few hundred advisors in the 1950s, crept to 16,000 by the early 1960s and exploded to 550,000 troops before the American people demanded, "Stop the madness, get out now!'

Since gear doesn't instantly make an army, we should expect an advisory effort in Bosnia to take between five to 10 years. All the while, the Serbs will be killing Americans -- shades of Vietnam -- because we will have taken sides again in some-body else's civil war.

Clinton was right to open full diplomatic ties with Vietnam, and he is dead-on-the-money concerning not lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. Dole might be older, but in this instance at least, he's certainly not wiser. In fact, he's as wrong about recognizing Vietnam as he was when he supported Oliver North's run for the Senate.

Dole's Bosnian scenario will only be a tragic replay of our 25-year Vietnam misadventure.