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Is Afghanistan another Vietnam?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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December 31, 2010

Rudyard Kipling, one of the truly great Victorian writers, wrote in 1915, following the death of his only son in the misbegotten World War 1, "If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied".  During the Vietnam War someone coined the phrase: 'old men sending young men to die. 
How should we put it today in Afghanistan?  No one yet has come up with a pithy line or two. They will.
President Barack Obama has been conducting a promised review of the war, yet his generals have long been pre-empting him, doing what General Douglas MacArthur did with President Dwight Eisenhower at the time of the Korean War, trying by public comment to steamroller the president into the policies he wanted. Even after the president fired MacArthur the generals were not quiet for long. Eisenhower said in a secretly taped conversation with newspaper publisher, Roy Howard, "I was the only one around here who was against American forces going in [to Vietnam], I tell you, and the boys were putting the heat on me".
His successor, John F. Kennedy, faced the same problem. Time and time again, senior military and national security officials recommended to the president that he should deploy ground troops in Vietnam. In one memo to the president the Joint Chiefs of Staff observed, "Assuming that the political decision is to hold Southeast Asia outside the Communist sphere, we are of the opinion that US forces should be deployed immediately to South Vietnam."
The Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, who was later to describe himself as a war criminal and who spent his late years trying to find closure on the Vietnam war, and campaigning hard against nuclear weapons, told the president he must ³"tell the world and the US what our commitment really is; the [present] 8,000 man force does not convince anyone of our resolve." McNamara wanted 200,000 troops immediately on the ground.
With all his advisors against him, Kennedy was reduced to leaking stories to discredit the proposal in the press.
Ignoring Kennedy¹s unambiguous and increasingly public opposition McNamara ploughed ahead. In one memorandum sent to Kennedy he argued that, "The chances are against, probably sharply against, preventing the fall [of South Vietnam] by any measures short of the introduction of US forces on a substantial scale."
McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy¹s National Security Advisor and formerly a professor at Harvard, told Kennedy that "Laos was never really ours after 1954. South Vietnam is and wants to be." "Ours?" For a highly educated man to talk so arrogantly demonstrates all too well what a mind set he and others had.
Although surrounded Kennedy was not intimidated - Kennedy had learnt from his debacle with the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to trust his own judgement more than he did that of his advisors.
Bundy, decades after, reflecting why things went so badly wrong, re-read David Halberstam's seminal history of the war. "One of the lessons for civilians who thought they could run small wars with great control," wrote Halberstam, "was that to harness the military, you had to harness them completely; that once in, even partially, everything began to work in their favour. Once activated, even in a small way at first, they would soon dominate the play...Once started, no matter how small the initial step, a policy has life and a thrust of its own, it is an organic thing. More, its thrust and its drive may not be in any way akin to the desires of the president who initiated it".
The cut and thrust between Kennedy and his advisors stretched over many months. Only his murder ended the debate. It quickly resumed under his successor, Lyndon Johnson who, more pliant and less self-confident than Kennedy, gave the military nearly everything they wanted.
America ended up in a quagmire and then a defeat. Johnson, a near broken man, decided not to run for office again.

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Obama and his advisors were too young to know or to remember all this. I don't know but I wonder if Obama ever sought to talk with McNamara or Halberstam about what happened. I wonder how much his present day advisors and military men have read up in detail on what happened and why it turned out the way it did.
Somethings don't change - not least, the military¹s ability to take control of policy. This we have clearly seen in the way that senior military men, over the last six months, have gone public with their argument that the US must stay the course in Afghanistan even if it means ignoring the president¹s commitment to start withdrawal in mid 2011.
Are the military and some of his advisors attempting to roll the young and inexperienced president, as they tried to do with Kennedy? I wonder.
© Jonathan Power 2010


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

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