Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S./Iraq: Historians Question Bush's Use Of Previous Wars' Lessons

Bush delivered his policy speech to U.S. veterans (epa) August 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a major policy speech on August 22, U.S. President George W. Bush drew comparisons between the Iraq war and America's previous wars with Japan, Germany, and Vietnam.

Now some historians are asking whether the U.S. president drew the correct historical analogies.

Bush’s main message in his speech before a gathering of elderly war veterans was that historically, when America has remained in a fight until the end, the result has been peace and prosperity, and where it has pulled out before achieving victory, the result has been chaos and bloodshed.

Bush pointed to the aftermath of the Vietnam War to defend his policy of keeping the United States in Iraq, saying that America’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 caused years of bloody upheaval throughout Southeast Asia.

"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 'reeducation camps,' and 'killing fields,'" Bush said.

"It was only after the United States left Vietnam that the Vietnamese people were permitted to attend to their own business and basically to get their act together."

Bush warned that, just like in Vietnam, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq now would create chaos. It would embolden Al-Qaeda and other terrorists and help them recruit more members, he warned. As an example, he said that when U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia was able to come to power, which led to the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians under Pol Pot.

A Questionable Comparison

David Hendrickson, who teaches political science at Colorado College in the United States and has written several books on U.S. foreign policy, says Bush's cause-and-effect logic isn’t entirely correct.

"The Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam; this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war," Hendrickson said. "The same thing has happened in the Middle East today; foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred."

Without doubt, one of the main consequences of the failed U.S. intervention in Vietnam was a tremendous amount of human suffering. But Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, says that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam actually created the conditions out of which a new, united, and eventually prosperous country could emerge.

“The long term consequences of the U.S. failure in Vietnam, from the perspective of the Vietnamese people, have actually been positive. Because it was only after the United States left Vietnam that the Vietnamese people were permitted to attend to their own business and basically to get their act together," Bacevich said.

"This very much, I think, contradicts the president's notion that military failure on our part, or withdrawal on our part, always and everywhere produces devastatingly negative consequences,” he said.

A Different National Character

In his speech, Bush also compared America’s post-World War II reconstruction assistance in Japan to current U.S. goals in Iraq. Bush said that after Japan surrendered, critics of the U.S. aid effort argued that Japanese culture and the country’s Shinto religion were incompatible with democracy.

In fact, Japan embraced democracy, Bush pointed out, which led the country toward stability and prosperity.

In Bacevich's opinion, however, the lessons of World War II are not entirely applicable to the current war on terror. There are few similarities between Japan and Iraq as countries, he said, and their national character is markedly different.

Japan in 1945, he said, was "a defeated nation but also a nation that had a long history, a very distinctive and rich culture, and a people who saw themselves as quite specifically Japanese. Contrast that with Iraq in 2007, which has a very short history, which may not actually be a nation state -- it’s more of a fiction created by Great Britain after World War I -- and whose inhabitants may or may not see themselves as Iraqis.”

Bacevich says one of the biggest lessons of Vietnam is that there are things the United States can do to minimize the damage when it finally does withdraw from Iraq.

Since the war began in 2003, more than two million Iraqis have been internally displaced and another two million have fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The UN says 50,000 new refugees are created by the war every month.

The Bush administration should begin planning now for the post-war scenario, and especially begin making provisions for Iraqi citizens who have helped the U.S. effort, Bacevich says.

“To the extent that people like President Bush and others in the administration genuinely care about the Iraqi people, then it seems to me that one of the things that we should do is to begin now to prepare the way for Iraqis who have supported us, to be able to get out of Iraq, and to find sanctuary here in the United States," Bacevich said. "It seems to me that that would be the best way for us to repay the moral debt that we certainly owe to Iraqis who have supported us.”

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

SUBSCRIBE For weekly news and analysis on Iraq by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iraq Report."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.