From Munich to Baghdad: Cautions on Reasoning by Historical Analogy

Speaking at the Brookings Institution, Senator Ted Kennedy recently raised the specter of Vietnam by stating, “Iraq has become George Bush’s Vietnam.” In the nearly thirty years since North Vietnamese forces hoisted a Viet Cong flag over the Presidential Palace in Saigon, both the left and the right have invoked George Santayana’s 1906 words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For the left, the Vietnam War was, at best, a case of good intentions gone bad. At worst it was the end result “knee-jerk” anti-communism. The United States foolishly coupled its strategic interests to a regime with dubious legitimacy. Defeat in Vietnam resulted from a pattern of imperialism begun by the Monroe Doctrine, defined in Manifest Destiny and matured in the wake of the Spanish-American War with neo-imperialist involvements from the Caribbean to the Philippines. Military intervention in Korea and Vietnam reflected American hubris flowing from a Judeo-Christian assumption that America is “A city on a hill, a light and beacon to all mankind.” In Vietnam the United States got what it deserved. Had President Bush “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” US forces wouldn’t be catching hell in the Sunni Triangle today. The left either consistently ignores the re-education camps in Vietnam, the plight of half-a-million boat people, the million or so slaughtered in Cambodia and the persecution of the Hmoung in Laos, or it blames these atrocities on American intervention. The left saw future Vietnams in Central America, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. The historical lesson: avoid foreign entanglements, especially those where military force must be used to support US vital interests. America is a behemoth.

Likewise, the right misused history when it raised the Munich analogy to justify involvement in Vietnam and, more recently, to topple Saddam Hussein. General William Westmoreland captured the central lesson of Vietnam when he stated, “It takes the full weight of the Tiger to kill the rabbit.” At the core of the right’s misuse of historical analogy is that liberal politicians, a pernicious press and the anti-war movement betrayed battlefield victories. The right also saw future Vietnams in Central America, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. The historical lesson: don’t fight unless you mean to win. Vietnam was a noble cause and America is the best hope of all mankind.

Both the left and the right abuse the lessons of history with alacrity. With all due respect to George Santayana, history does not repeat itself. The world of 2004 is not the world of 1938 and 1965. Osama bin Laden isn’t Adolph Hitler or Ho Chi Minh and there are vast differences between pre-world War II Europe, Vietnam and Iraq.

History, alas, cannot be ignored if only because there are but two ways to approach the future: faith and history. Western values are grounded in its history and in the Judeo-Christian faith. As a nation, our corporate sense of the future, our vision for what the world could be in the twenty-first century, must be based on values based on history as well as faith.

While a values-based and historically derived vision is a departure point for the future, it takes a coherent strategy to bridge the gap between today and tomorrow. The Bush administration reacted to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by declaring a “War on Terror.” Terror, however, is a tool in any potential enemy’s kitbag. Military force, essential to victory in any war, to be effective must be used as part of an appropriate strategic vision.

The United States is at war with Al-Qaeda and with regimes and groups that support it. Iraq is one theater in that war. Anyone who claims Iraq posed no threat to US vital strategic interests and that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not support al-Qaeda resides in a world of fantasy. Vision is a concept of the achievable. Fantasy is wishful thinking.

The United States is engaged in World War IV with an enemy intent on destroying Western civilization along with its Judeo-Christian values. This war is as much a struggle between competing worldviews as World War III was a contest between freedom and totalitarian communism. Victory in the last world war resulted from the superiority of Western values and vision coupled with a strategy that confounded Soviet expansionism through deterrence based on overwhelming military capability.

The fighting in Iraq, however difficult and painful the next critical few months may be, is fundamental to determining the strategic paradigm for the twenty-first century. If the West and its values are to prevail, we must stand firm at this critical juncture in history. Ideas are powerful but, historically, they prevail only when backed by military force.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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