Opinion: Iraq is like South Vietnam in 1963 – the US should walk away

Diem and LodgeBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org
As I watch the dramatic collapse of the Federal government of Iraq, I keep telling myself that I cannot possibly be the only person noticing the remarkable political resemblance between the Iraq of 2014 and the South Vietnam of 1963. Just like government of Iraq today, the Republic of South Vietnam, which had been set up with direct American support flowing France’s exit from Indochina in 1954, faced increasing domestic opposition that was both political and religious. In Iraq today it is the Sunni Muslims who have taken up arms against the Shiite-controlled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem, a westernized Vietnamese Catholic, whose family had been proselytized to Christianity in the 17th century, was shunned by South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority. The latter became increasingly agitated in opposition to the American supported government in Saigon, which they saw as alien and fundamentally anti-Vietnamese. Diem’s response was to intensify internal repression in South Vietnam. He unleashed the country’s secret police, controlled by his shadowy brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, against the Buddhist community. In the summer of 1963, Buddhist monks began resorting to self-immolation in a desperate attempt to draw public attention to their repression by Diem’s paramilitaries. Nhu’s wife, the fashionable Madame Nhu, shocked public opinion by dismissing the incidents as just some “drugged monks barbecuing themselves”. Washington immediately distanced itself from her comments, and increasingly from Diem.

In the summer of 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a personal friend of Diem, publicly accused the government in Saigon of having “lost touch” with the Vietnamese people and condemned the harsh repression of the Buddhist community. In private, Kennedy had gone a step further, instructing the Central Intelligence Agency and his Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to begin consulting with the South Vietnamese military about the possibility of deposing Diem. By that time, the Diem regime had become immensely unpopular in South Vietnam. Diem had moved to a brand new palace, where he lived in almost complete isolation from public life under the protection of a private army, which he paid for with American funds. His rare public appearances revolved around inspecting troops or addressing heavily staged rallies in the capital. But his days in power were numbered. The predictable coup came on November 1, 1963, when heavily armed troops led by one of Diem’s generals, Duong Van Minh, stormed Diem’s palace seeking to kill him and his brother. Diem immediately telephoned the American embassy, hoping to seek asylum. But Ambassador Lodge refused to speak to him. He frantically tried to escape with his brother, dressed as a Catholic priest. But the two siblings were caught and executed on the spot. The US-sponsored coup and Diem’s subsequent assassination is seen by most historians as the moment when the imbroglio in Indochina became an American war.

Shortly after the November 1963 coup and her husband’s execution, Madame Nhu gave a press conference in which she bitterly accused America of failing to realize that a foreign country cannot be controlled through coups and counter-coups, “like a puppet”. She said:

“It is not enough to try to kill or subdue the duly elected leaders of a country, just because one wants to transform that country into a satellite. To kill or to subdue is easy, but what will happen afterwards? Nobody can rule another country with just money and puppets”

She concluded by saying that the ramifications of the coup would be felt, not only in Saigon, but also in Washington. She was right. Just weeks later, in an extraordinary twist of fate, President Kennedy, the man who had authorized Diem’s ousting and —most likely— execution, was himself assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The numbers of American “advisors” in South Vietnam, which under Kennedy’s Presidency had risen from 500 to 16,000, skyrocketed to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. By 1969, there were more American troops in Vietnam than in the European theater of World War II.

Like al-Maliki, Diem emerged to power in Vietnam with American backing. Like al-Maliki, he had lived abroad for many years and was liked in Western political circles, but remained an unknown quantity inside his own county, until American involvement propelled him to power. Eventually, his tendency to equate disagreement with his policies with betrayal, as well as his sectarian rule, which was riddled with corruption, compromised America’s geopolitical goals in the region and eventually distanced Washington from his administration. Moreover, Diem was removed from power not only because of his tyrannical and unpopular rule, but also because he was secretly meeting with America’s sworn enemies, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. He knew that he was unable to replicate the genuine popularity and charisma of Ho Chi Minh, and could sense that the Viet Cong would eventually emerge victorious; so he tried to cut a deal with them behind President Kennedy’s back. Similarly, al-Maliki is seen in Washington as being far more responsive to Iranian, rather than American, concerns. This is hardly surprising, since he lived in Tehran under Iranian protection for almost a decade in the 1980s.

I subscribe to the axiom that history never repeats itself. Additionally, few, if any, would argue today that the United States military is preparing to re-enter Iraq. This is hardly a precursor to an Iraqi version of the Tet Offensive. But, military adventurism aside, it is remarkable to see how, once again, America finds itself involved in a complex and potentially explosive situation in a far-off corner of the globe, where there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, and where chronic American intervention has undoubtedly worsened an already grave state of affairs. The historian of today could argue, convincingly, that the best thing the Kennedy administration could have done in the explosive summer of 1963 would have been to walk away from South Vietnam. In the summer of 2014, one hopes that the administration of President Barack Obama will have the sense to realize what Kennedy and his advisors failed to recognize: that “to kill or to subdue is easy, [but] nobody can rule another country with just money and puppets”.

* Joseph Fitsanakis coordinates the Security and Intelligence Studies Program at King University, where he is also Director of the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies.

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3 Responses to Opinion: Iraq is like South Vietnam in 1963 – the US should walk away

  1. Without nit-picking, this is a very good analogy within a thought provoking article: let’s hope President Obama et al read similar reports and apply common sense.

  2. Peter Wallerberger says:

    Might I add – someone once said “you can’t change a country in a year nor can you change it in a hundred years” (Or words to that effect.) (Oman being a rare exception to the rule)

    It is now up to the people of Iraq to decide their future. Just don’t be surprised if Iraq much like Korea is by necessity eventually divided into two States. Obviously drawing a definative line in the sand to facilitate such will sadly do nothing to appease neighbouring countrys., nor in any way will it ensure Middle East peace and security – quite the opposite.

  3. Carl says:

    For whatever it is worth I had a similar thought when ISIS “overran” Mosul. Seeing the Iraqi’s take off their uniforms, abandon equipment, and walk away reminded me immediately of the South Vietnamese abandoning the Central Highlands and walking away. I guess the lesson that you really cannot build an American army out of a population with a different cultural base has yet to sink in.

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