Shortly after the second World War, we fought what became an unpopular war in Korea. Since then, we haven’t engaged in a righteous war or achieved legitimate American goals, culminating in America’s longest war, Afghanistan.
American media has focused extensively, arguably obsessively, on our exit from
Afghanistan without more of us pressing for a critical look at twenty years of war
and what we failed to achieve in so deep and tragic a commitment.
American leaders in two administrations have failed to show the wisdom, courage
and historical understanding to save young American men and women’s lives in a
misguided war in Afghanistan. A third administration mismanaged an intended
In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have fallen down the same rabbit hole that enveloped
us in Vietnam fifty years ago. We did so without sufficient reflection and concern
for reliving a sorrowful past in Vietnam. Our Afghan war is a strong proxy for the
Iraq war which will not be addressed here. Vietnam is uncomfortably similar in
lessons we should have learned and been wise enough not to repeat.
The Vietnam War
In Vietnam, we failed to heed the confluence of lessons of recent history and the
wisdom of an American President who best understood our military and the risks
of conflict. In the early sixties, there was support among military commanders and
manufacturers of weaponry for a military conflict in Vietnam. The prevailing
justification for the war was the domino theory, that Southeast Asia would
collapse under communist rule, one country after another, to the detriment of American interests and security. During his eight-year administration, President
Eisenhower rejected engagement in a war in Vietnam.
Despite the fact that Eisenhower subscribed to the domino theory, he refused to
commit American troops to the eight year-long French- Indochina War (1946-
1954) in what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. No modern era American
president was more qualified to assess military needs and the consequential loss
of American lives better than the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Forces
during World War II.
Eisenhower agreed to provide the French with monetary aid and weapons, but
would not risk American lives in a war that suffered high risks of failure.
During a speech in Seattle, Eisenhower stated that the American military
assessment was that no war in that region could be won without a commitment
of 275,000 troops.
Upon the conclusion of his second term, President Eisenhower solemnly warned
America of the growing influence of the “military industrial complex.” He
explained that, prior to World War II, the U.S. did not have an armaments
industry. He stated that we can no longer risk emergency national defense. We
have been compelled to create “a permanent armaments industry of vast
proportions.” Bearing in mind that his speech was in early 1961, he commented
on the enormity of our spending on defense, noting that that it is greater than the
net income of all American corporations. His most famous statements in that
address are still remembered 60 years later.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of
unwarranted influence…by the military industrial complex. The potential for the
disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
In a Baltimore Sun article, Melvin Goodman quoted a statement Eisenhower
made to senior advisers, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair
who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”
It is here that the discussion of an American war in Vietnam should have ended.
Standing alone, the assessment of the American military in the 1950s should have
satisfactorily forecast the massive troop commitments and likely casualty count in
a guerilla war that the modern military of France lost, despite American aid.
Attempting to countermand the military judgment of our revered Allied
Commander should have quelled the ardor of the most hawkish war proponents.
Conflict between North and South Vietnam required a solution that did not
involve boots on the ground. Later administrations did not see it that way.
The former General’s successor, President Kennedy, himself a Naval officer during
World War II, appears to have had serious concerns about engaging in another
war within the decade after the Korean War. Kennedy had authorized “military
advisors” in Vietnam that reached 11,000 men before his assassination in 1963. In
National Security Action Memorandum 263, Kennedy authorized the withdrawal
of 1,000 troops by the end of 1963. He was expected to decrease or eliminate
American military presence in Vietnam after achieving reelection in 1964.
Certainly, Kennedy’s political opponents believed he would refuse to engage in a
conflict in Vietnam and wasn’t tough enough on communism.
Instead, the path of American war in each of three decades became a reality. The
Vietnam War lasted ten years by most accounts (1965-1975).
Vietnam was the responsibility of President Lyndon Johnson, who accelerated
troop involvement and pressed the war effort after President Kennedy’s death. In
fact, Johnson and other military leaders and government officials frequently lied
to the American people about military casualties and our meager prospects for
success, according to revealed government documents known as the Pentagon
Papers. In June of 1971, a government insider named Daniel Elsberg released
7,000 pages of top-secret documents to the media. Those documents revealed
that presidential administrations had broadly lied to the American public about
many aspects of the war.
More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. Severely disabled young
soldiers totaled 75,000. Of the soldiers killed, 61% were younger than 21 years
old, according to US Wings. We suffered egregious losses in a guerilla war in a
foreign jungle, as the French had done before us, losing 55,000 French troops.
What compelling justification was there for the loss of so many young American
lives? What did we gain? Nothing. What did we lose? Was American security
endangered by our loss of the Vietnam War because of the domino theory? The
domino theory used to justify the Vietnam War has been discredited. Our security was never at risk with the fall of Vietnam. With the exception of Laos and
Cambodia, communism did not flourish in South-east Asia.
Our modern military struggled in the guerilla war in Vietnam, much as we did
years later in Afghanistan. It is questionable how well we knew our enemy in
Vietnam, a glaring problem we also had in Afghanistan, according to the recently
released Afghanistan Papers. These critical documents will be addressed below
Certainly, the average American did not have fair and accurate knowledge of the
Vietnam War any more than in the Afghan War. Rarely, if ever it seems, does the
American citizenry have sufficient knowledge to support sending our young men
and women to war.
Having ignored the history of the French defeat and the well-considered decision
of President Eisenhower, could there have been an alternative to war in Vietnam?
We can only speculate, since a non-violent solution was not undertaken. Could
France and the U.S. have driven a wedge between North Vietnam and its
dependence on support from the Soviet Union and China? Could trade relations
and support for democracy and human rights espoused by Thomas Jefferson have
made a difference? After France lost the war, however, we were on our own. It
was solely our decision.
Perhaps if we knew our “enemy” better than we did, a different result may have
been possible for the benefit of U.S. and French interests as well.
Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, was not exactly the ruthless peasant
leader many of us believed him to be. In fact, he was taught Chinese by his
Confucian scholar father and learned French in a secondary school. He later wrote
books, articles and poetry in three languages, Vietnamese, French and Chinese.
Not a myopic man, he had traveled in his youth to foreign countries, spending
some time in New York and Boston before living in London for two years and Paris
for six years. While in France, he espoused socialism as an alternative for his
After the Russian Revolution, he became enamored with communism and
Vladimir Lenin’s anti-imperialist doctrine. He found support in both the Soviet
Union and communist China, although South Asian people had been historically
wary of China.
The relationship of China and the peoples of South Asia had been strained for
centuries. China’s historical economic dominance over Southern Asia was well-
known to Ho Chi Minh. Throughout early modern times (the 15 th century through
the 19 th century) Chinese immigrants and sojourners had significant economic
influence in South Asia and from the 1850’s to the 1930s, China dominated the
economies of South Asia. The Chinese were not well liked.
During his life Ho was regarded as a dedicated communist, but also as a
thoughtful, nationalist leader who passionately opposed colonial dominance of
his nation, seeking equal rights for his citizens. He petitioned the delegates of the
great powers, including President Woodrow Wilson, for equal rights at the
Versailles Peace Conference that ended World War I. He received no response.
Although Ho was viewed as an intractable communist, he was also viewed as a
nationalist first and communist, second. The fact that he approached Versailles
representatives and American leaders indicates that human rights and peace in
Vietnam were among his compelling goals.
With age and increased experience, Ho feared and opposed the rise of fascism,
even supporting the Allies against Germany and Japan.
During World War II, Japan took over Indochina after Germany captured France,
dominating Indochinese citizens until Japan was losing the war in 1945. At that
time, the American OSS (predecessor to the CIA) parachuted into northern
Indochina and provided aid and military training to Ho Chi Minh’s forces.
Later in 1945, Ho Chi Minh became the Chairman of the Provisional Government,
the Premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. At that time, Ho Chi Minh
adopted a Declaration of Independence using the language of our Declaration as
written by Thomas Jefferson.
It is likely that a majority of political analysts and historical scholars would
conclude that Ho Chi Minh was a committed communist with relationships with
the Soviet Union and China. That is true, to a point. There was another view,
however, that Ho may have aligned his country with the U.S. if we had made the
overture or responded to his petitions.
History suggests there may have been an opening for prospects of
accommodations with North Vietnam, short of war. Clearly, we were and are loyal to our French allies, but following their costly defeat, an American war in Vietnam
would not have been the course chosen by Eisenhower or Kennedy.
No president was closer to the rising influence of the military-industrial complex
than Eisenhower. His somber warning in 1961 forecast the serious potential for a
conflict of interest between the military-industrial complex and the American
people. Such a conflict occurred less than four years after the President’s warning.
Those conflicting interests collided in August, 1964 when Congress passed the
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Equally notably, nine months after John Kennedy’s
death, the Vietnam War was underway.
Like Vietnam, public officials misrepresented prospects for a successful conclusion
of the Afghan war. True statements were finally revealed in the Afghanistan
Papers obtained by the Washington Post after three years of Freedom of
Information Act litigation.
In fact, the information obtained was worse than one could have predicted. More
than 2,000 pages of interviews and memos revealed the hopelessness of
American success in Afghanistan. The statements of military leaders and
politicians, speaking on the assumption that their remarks would remain
confidential, detailed American failures. U.S. officials acknowledged that
American war strategies had not prevailed, admitted to massive waste of
American funds trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern democracy and
acknowledged the endless corruption of Afghan officials. These failures resulted
in our inability to build an able and effective Afghan army and police force.
Further, none of our efforts could curb the thriving opium trade.
Yet through two decades, three administrations bore responsibility for the war
which one initiated and others inherited, the Administrations of George W. Bush,
Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Of the three, the Trump Administration sought
to end the war. In doing so, however, Trump created serious commitments which
hamstrung his successor’s effort to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In the Bush Administration, The President, Vice President Cheney and Defense
Secretary Rumsfeld bear substantial responsibility for the initiation and perpetuation of the Afghan War. The goal of the invasion was to eliminate the terrorist threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Based upon that military objective, a war in Afghanistan was a righteous effort to eliminate the al-Qaeda threat to our country. We achieved that objective before the end of 2001. In late 2001, the Taliban sought to surrender and end the war. Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration refused to negotiate a Taliban surrender and get America out of
Afghanistan. The perpetual war could have ended then and ceased thereafter to
be a righteous and necessary war.
It was the determination of the Bush Administration to relentlessly continue the
war. Yet in the Spring of 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appeared to have
misgivings about the war. In a memo on April 17, 2002 to several generals and
senior aides Rumsfeld expressed early concerns about the status of the Afghan
war and our ability to extract ourselves.
“We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take
care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will
be necessary for us to leave. Help!”
Following the Bush Administration, successor administrations had three choices in
Afghanistan, increase troop levels, decrease them or maintain the status quo.
A president certainly knew more than the public about the dismal prospects for
success in Afghanistan. Withdrawal, however, is a difficult choice, tantamount to
an admission that we had lost a war, again— as we did in Vietnam.
Since 2001, the U.S. committed 775,000 troops to the Afghan war, many soldiers
serving multiple tours. At one time, we had 110,000 American soldiers deployed
in Afghanistan. Deaths of American soldiers totaled more than 2,300 and more
than 20,000 were wounded. American economic costs were astronomical,
conservatively totaling between 1-2 trillion dollars. Consider how such sums could
have been deployed to address American infrastructure, climate change and
The Obama Administration inherited two wars but perpetuated an ill-considered
war. President Biden, as Vice President of the Obama Administration, strongly
opposed the surge in American troops undertaken by President Obama, an
internal dispute which was kept quiet. Obama authorized an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, followed by a further increase of 33,000, authorized for a
The Trump Presidency was the second administration to inherit the Afghan War.
Candidate Trump proposed to end the Afghan War and he attempted to do so, a
matter on which his successor, President Biden, agreed. Trump’s opinion was
justified and consistent with public opinion, but the devil is always in the details.
The Trump Afghanistan peace effort was ill-conceived and bungled.
Even before peace talks, Trump was already withdrawing thousands of troops.
The message to the Taliban was one of resignation, a foolhardy move before
ramping up peace talks. Defense Secretary Esper disagreed with Trump’s decision.
Esper was ultimately fired.
Trump determined to negotiate directly with the Taliban and to do so without the Afghan government leadership by his side. Secretary of State Pompeo called the
effort “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”
The Trump Administration had 9 rounds of talks with the Taliban over 18 months.
Trump had invited the Taliban leaders to Camp David which was cancelled after
Taliban forces killed an American soldier. In February, 2020, however, Trump
announced a deal with the Taliban.
The U.S. agreed:
To release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which we did.
To begin a step down in American troops to a final exit date of May 1, 2020.
The Taliban agreed:
Not to harbor terrorists
To stop attacking U.S. service members
To start peace talks with the Afghan government and consider a cease fire
(Taliban killed Afghan forces throughout U.S. negotiations.)
To accept all responsibility for any individual who might attack the U.S.
All of the Taliban’s promises were based solely on faith. There were no
enforcement mechanisms in the agreement.
Nowhere did the Taliban renounce al-Qaeda, an alarming omission.
For 7 days, as a show of good faith, the Taliban agreed to reduce actions on
Afghan forces, but did not stop attacks on Afghan security officials.
The agreement reached was a naked attempt to just get out of Afghanistan.
Unilateral negotiations with the Taliban were an affront to the Afghan
government, creating the obvious conclusion that the Trump Administration was
abandoning the Afghan government in favor of the Taliban. According to Acting
Defense Secretary Chris Miller, Trump was using the Taliban deal as leverage to
force President Ashraf Ghani to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the
Taliban. This was the “right approach,” according to Miller. This offensive
pressure strategy was assured of alienating the Afghan government.
This acting defense secretary found disagreement within the Trump
Administration. Lisa Curtis was an Afghanistan expert and Senior Director for
South and Central Asia within the Trump Administration’s National Security
Council. Ms. Curtis concluded that, in hindsight, the U.S. should not have entered
Taliban talks “unless we were prepared to represent the Afghan government’s
Trump’s answer to the fact that the Taliban agreement was toothless, if violated,
was his familiar kind of school yard bully-threat, “bad things happen.” A new
peace agreement, one as pathetic as this, is not solved with a renewed threat of
Trump’s Taliban agreement and inept approach to a peace process, in general,
have been attacked in many quarters. Within the Trump Administration, Trump’s
second National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, made a comment that reflected
stark exasperation. The agreement was “a surrender agreement with the
Taliban.” Others within the former Trump administration have distanced
themselves from the weak Taliban agreement. Lisa Curtis concluded that the
Taliban agreement contributed to the undermining of President Ghani and
facilitated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners without the agreed upon
concession of Taliban’s release of 1,000 prisoners.
As President, Joe Biden did what three prior presidents knew but failed to
do—get the U.S. out of an unwinnable war. None of the three prior presidents
were forced to take responsibility for another Vietnam-type failure.
Publicly, Biden admitted he had two choices, either increase troop levels in
Afghanistan or withdraw. To renegotiate a one-sided, sweet deal for the Taliban
would have been protracted and required substantial troop levels to be perceived
in earnest. More Americans and Afghans would have lost their lives. Looking at
two decades of futile attempts at nation-building, Biden said enough.
It took courage and conviction to conclude a struggle that had long-since become
unwinnable. Saving further lives no doubt was a propelling consideration.
Nevertheless, a president who withdraws from a war is somehow responsible for
Americans under 60 years old do not have a shared memory of the ugly
withdrawal from the Vietnam War by President Nixon. Withdrawal without
victory was problematic. The South Vietnamese military was substantial and
deemed able to remain autonomous. The Paris Peace Accord provided for an end
to the Vietnam War and a cease fire which both North and South Vietnam
After withdrawal of American troops, North Vietnam continued to advance
toward Saigon. Some 80 American helicopters frantically boarded Americans and
Vietnamese to get out of Saigon while North Vietnamese forces were a few miles
from overtaking the city. U.S. Marine lives were lost during the evacuation.
Crowds of South Vietnamese pressed against the gates to the American embassy
pleading to get aboard transports to aircraft carriers offshore, knowing the take-
over of South Vietnam would soon be upon them.
The images of the withdrawal from Afghanistan recall a war 50 years ago that we
vowed would never be repeated. Yet, here we are.
Why was this exit from Afghanistan as disorderly and chaotic as that in Vietnam?
What could have been done to save lost lives? These issues need to be addressed,
but our primary focus needs to be answering why we were engaged in a war of
historical length, longer than our last world war?
The history that preceded America’s blundering into our longest war should have
made wiser leaders refuse to continue engagement—but it did not. The military
might of the Soviet Union suffered a colossal failure in the Soviet-Afghan War
which lasted nine years, from December, 1979 to February, 1989. After nearly a
decade of war against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, deploying 100,000
troops and losing 14,500 soldiers, the Soviets marched out of Afghanistan, leaving
a civil war behind their withdrawal.
The Soviets were not the first foreign power to fight unsuccessfully against
guerilla warfare in Afghanistan. The British fought two wars in Afghanistan in the
19 th century. In the first Anglo-Afghan war, from 1839 to 1842, the British
deployed 16,000 British and Indian troops to Afghanistan which were almost
completely annihilated. British battles of retribution followed. The second Anglo-
Afghan War (1878-1880) resulted in re-establishing British influence in
Those Who Fail to Learn from History Are Condemned to Repeat It” – Winston Churchill
Two unsuccessful wars by other countries, within an historical stones-throw from
subsequent U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, failed to give us perspective to
avoid the dear cost of American lives. In both cases, the eight year-long defeat of
France in Vietnam and the near decade-long, failed Soviet war in Afghanistan did
not dissuade us from terrible commitments of human lives and taxpayer dollars.
Are we so lacking in knowledge of history that we mindlessly plow the same
ground others have pursued with the same conclusion? Have we altered our
course at all to avoid bad outcomes? It would appear not.
In the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers, we have
learned that our government lied to us about these two costly wars—and did so
We do not lack educated men and women who know history. Some of them hold
public office. American leadership is not illiterate. Are there reasons for war that
supersede history lessons?
There are significant military and corporate interests that must be reckoned with.
Corporate profits in war zones have been substantial. The military-industrial
complex President Eisenhower warned about in 1961 did not dissuade President
Johnson from engaging in a war just three years later. To what extent was the
Vietnam War the result of misplaced power that Eisenhower feared?
Dramatic arms sales motivate war venders. Massive funds disbursed for warfare
purposes can be diverted and without a proper accounting. Who has most
significantly benefited from our post-World War II military incursions? What
corporations, mercenaries and other “contractors” must be investigated?
NBC reported in March, 2012 on companies which have profited most on war,
utilizing the Annual Report of the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute (SIPRI). The research institute identifies the largest companies in the
sector and recites arms sales as a percentage of total sales for 2010.
The largest American defense company, Lockheed-Martin, generated arms sales
of $35.73 Billion, 78% 0f total sales. Boeing had arms sales of $31.36 Billion, 49%
of total sales. Northrup Grumman achieved arms sales of $28.15 Billion, 81% of
Bloomberg Government released its 2020 rankings of the top federal defense
contractors. In the aggregate, defense contract spending in fiscal 2020 hit a
record high of $447 Billion, representing almost two-thirds of all federal contract
For decades, our large defense contractors have generated substantial revenue in
defense spending. For a number of these companies, our government spending is
the driver for most of their revenue. There are other beneficiaries less visible than
our multi-billion-dollar corporate giants, such as Kellogg, Brown and Root (now
KBR, Inc.), Bechtel and armed private security contractors (mercenaries) like
Blackwater and DynCorp.
How do these large corporations, war profiteers, their lobbyists and other
enablers exert influence in Washington? Do they consistently make major
contributions to influential Congresspeople and Senators? President Eisenhower
explicitly warned America that the potential for “misplaced power” in the hands of the military- industrial complex was real. Civilian presidents face strong
pressure concerning war and misplaced power must be resisted.
Elected officials need to be pressed by their constituents concerning military
conflict, before the fact, where our young men and women are at risk for our
country. Can we take our leaders’ word for the need for wars and their status?
We need to stop blaming our current President for a war for which he was not
responsible, stood strongly against and brought to conclusion.
We Americans must be more circumspect and probing of questionable responses.
War draws in whole families. Certainly, we must protect our country. In any
future war, we must be sure our cause is righteous and necessary. Our current
and future presidents must vow to uphold our interests.
In his farewell address to the country, Eisenhower urged a solution to the
potential for misplaced power.
“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the
huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and
goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”