by Bruce S. Thornton
Mitt Romney recently said something on Fox News Sunday that raises questions about his understanding of history and its pertinence for foreign policy. In the course of talking about the war in Iraq and the “lessons learned” from that conflict and its “errors,” Romney responded to a question about an incident from his father’s brief 1967-68 run for the Republican nomination. In August 1967, George Romney told a Detroit radio-television reporter, “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam [in November 1965], I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the Generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there . . . . And, as a result, I have changed my mind . . . in that particular. I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”
Little remembered today, Romney’s remark, particularly the careless use of the term “brainwashing,” ended his run for the nomination. The other governors and the journalists who had been on the 1965 trip disavowed Romney’s insulting characterization of the military and diplomatic personnel who had accompanied the governors. Romney was accused of flip-flopping on his earlier comments that the war was “morally right and necessary” and that withdrawal was “unthinkable.” One journalist, noting the amount of time between the trip and Romney’s about-face, wondered why it took so long for Romney to get his brain back from the laundry. The media pounced on Romney’s clumsy use of the “brainwashing” metaphor: the New York Timesheadline read, “Romney Asserts He Underwent ‘Brainwashing’ On Vietnam Trip.” In February 1968, faced with polls showing voters in New Hampshire preferring Richard Nixon by a six-to-one margin, Romney dropped out of the race.
When Chris Wallace raised the issue in his Fox News Sunday interview, Romney responded, “Years later when my dad was proven to be right in terms of the errors in Vietnam, my wife asked him, ‘You know, dad, how do you feel about the fact that you’re finally being vindicated in what you said?’ And he said, ‘You know, I never look back. I only look forward.’ He’s quite a guy.”
Unfortunately, Chris Wallace didn’t ask an important follow-up questions. When Romney said his father “was proven to be right in terms of errors in Vietnam,” what exactly did he mean? Was one of the “errors,” as George Romney had explicitly said, getting involved in Vietnam in the first place “to stop Communist aggression”? And what events exactly does Mitt Romney believe “proved” his father was right? These are critical questions for understanding Romney’s grasp of history and its lessons.
What that history now shows us is that resisting Communist aggression in Vietnam was a “necessary war,” as Michael Lind calls it, a critical Cold-War duel that enforced the doctrine of containment of Soviet aggression. Thus if Romney thinks that subsequent events “proved” that intervention wrong, he’s on the wrong side of history. Indeed, there were “errors” made under General Westmoreland in the conduct of the war. But after the Tet Offensive of 1968 ended in disaster for the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, and after General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland and instituted effective counter-insurgency and Vietnamization programs, the tide turned. By 1972, the war was as good as won, as ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker said. American troops were coming home, the communist guerrillas in the South had been neutralized, the countryside was pacified, political and economic reforms were taking hold, and an improved South Vietnamese army was in a position to defend the country as long as the South Vietnamese received aid and air support from the US to counterbalance the resources provided the North by China and the Soviet Union, which had made the Army of North Vietnam the fifth largest in the world. But a Democratic controlled Congress in June 1973 passed the Case-Church amendment to the Defense Appropriation bill, which prohibited any further American military involvement in Vietnam after August 1973. Further legislation cut funding and planned to end all assistance in 1976. Left helpless before the combined might of North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, South Vietnam was quickly overrun in 1975. The Congressional abandonment of South Vietnam was the fatal error of the war that squandered that victory.
What subsequent events “proved” right, then, was not, as George Romney and apparently his son believe, that the intervention was a mistake, but that a failure of political nerve can waste a hard-won military victory and render meaningless the nearly 60 thousand dead and 150 thousand wounded who had earned that victory. Indeed, the following expansion of communism not just in Southeast Asia — including the genocidal murder of two million Cambodians by communist fanatics — but also in Latin America and Africa, proved not the error of intervention, but the error of failing to follow through on the part of politicians motivated by ideology or political self-interest.
Mitt Romney may have been displaying filial loyalty, or he may even not know what his father had actually said. Considering that in his Fox News interview Romney had spoken of the errors committed in the Iraq war, while still voicing support for it, he may have thought that his father was making a similar criticism. Either way, Romney needs to make clear whether or not he endorses the narrative of Vietnam that makes our intervention there a misguided instance of neo-colonial aggression. The answer to that question is critical for our understanding of Romney’s foreign policy philosophy.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton