WASHINGTON -- At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here, a mother has left a message about her son, a veteran and war survivor: "I am 85 and don't know how much longer I will see him suffering with his pains and nightmares."
I, too, am having nightmares. Mine can be traced to the ringside seat I had at the crafting of U.S. policy on Vietnam and to a feeling of déjà vu that I cannot shake as I watch U.S. policy toward Iraq unfold.
My most frustrating professional experience came in the 1960s when I served as principal CIA analyst of Soviet policy toward Vietnam and China. As U.S. forces sank deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam, senior officials in Washington began to indulge a wishful thought that the Soviets could be pressured or cajoled into "using their influence" to help the United States find a graceful way out. Until then, the thinking went, America would be required to "stay the course."
After pouring over the evidence, my colleagues and I concluded that the Soviet Union had precious little influence with the Vietnamese Communists, partly because Moscow had sold them down the river at the Geneva Conference in 1954. That unwelcome conclusion was summarily rejected by U.S. policymakers. The mischievous chimera that Moscow would agree to influence the Vietnamese Communists proved resistant to all evidence to the contrary.
Recently declassified documents show that in the autumn of 1969 President Richard Nixon put U.S. forces on worldwide nuclear alert, in what he (aptly) called a "madman" strategy, aimed at scaring the Soviets into using their influence to force Vietnamese Communist concessions at the peace negotiations in Paris. Last month, the Bush administration took a leaf out of Nixon's book when it threatened to use nuclear arms against Iraq if the Iraqis use chemical or biological arms against American troops. All U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Saddam Hussein probably will use chemical and/or biological weapons if the United States invades Iraq, which is what President George W. Bush seems determined to do. Is this new madman strategy not the stuff of nightmares?
The U.S. slide into Vietnam was initially a creature of ignorance laced with hubris, but deliberate deception quickly began to play a central role. In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson used spurious reports of a North Vietnamese patrol boat attack on a U.S. warship in the Tonkin Gulf to muscle Congress into giving him carte blanche to make war. Does this not have an eerie contemporary ring?
Years later, Johnson's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, gave a chilling first-hand account of how Johnson abruptly waved aside Bundy's cautions about the Tonkin Gulf incident and dispatched him like a pageboy to do his bidding on Capitol Hill. All the president's men went along with the deception.
Three years after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, falsified Vietnamese Communist troop strength in order to project an image of progress in the war (he knew there were twice as many as he was counting). Had he told the truth, the war could have been stopped before the disastrous Tet offensive in early 1968. And the Vietnam Memorial would be less than half the size it is today, since there would be 30,000 fewer names to accommodate.
Regarding Iraq, there is a flashback quality to the dissembling of top Bush administration leaders as they contend that:
Iraq poses a more immediate danger to the United States than North Korea does.
The Iraqis can produce a nuclear weapon "in less than a year." The U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons will deter Iraq from using chemical/biological weapons. (That worked in 1991, but only because the president's father had the good sense to halt the troops on the road to Baghdad, sparing Saddam.)
American troops have adequate protection to fight in a chemical/biological warfare environment. (Not so, says the General Accounting Office.) Oil plays no role in U.S. policy decisions.
Sadly, this by no means exhausts the list of disingenuous allegations that have left most Americans frightened, but also anesthetized and resigned to an unnecessary war that could include nuclear weapons.
Palliatives include Pentagon suggestions that leaflets will persuade Iraqi soldiers not to fight and that Iraqi generals will remove Saddam as soon as the first American soldier sets foot in Iraq. Would you risk the life of your own son or daughter to test that kind of wishful thinking?
Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only top administration leader with experience in combat, needs to lead Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to the Vietnam Memorial to read the handwriting on the wall.
The writer served as a U.S Army infantry and intelligence officer from 1962 to 1964 and then as a CIA analyst until 1990. He is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington.
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