President George W. Bush is not generally known for his firm grasp of history. But this has not stopped him from using history to justify his policies. In a recent speech to American war veterans in Kansas City, he defended his aim to “stay the course” in Iraq by pointing out the consequences of the American withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. He also mentioned the post-1945 occupation of Japan and the Korean War as success stories in America’s efforts to bring freedom to Asia, and by extension, the world.
Historians, Democrats, and other Bush critics were quick to denounce his speech, particularly his reference to Vietnam, as self-serving, dishonest, and inaccurate.
Yet, for once, Bush actually hit upon a historical analogy that was true. Of course, the Vietnam War was different in almost every respect from the war in Iraq. Ho Chi Minh was not Saddam Hussein. In Vietnam, the United States was not invading a country, but defending a corrupt authoritarian ally against an aggressive Communist regime. But what Bush actually said was that the US withdrawal from Indochina was followed by a bloodbath in Cambodia, and brutal oppression in Vietnam. A withdrawal from Iraq, he implied, would result in similar bloodshed, or worse.
That is almost certainly true. However, what Bush did not say is that neither the mass murders in Southeast Asia, nor the potential mass murders in Iraq, would have occurred without the chaos caused by US intervention.