Past as Prologue: Vietnam Warned Us About Trump

What do the lessons of Vietnam tell us about the wisdom of re-electing Donald Trump, this misanthrope president, nearly fifty years after the fall of Saigon?

That question was uppermost in my mind last week as I traded emails about the 2020 election with old Vietnam hands who’d done duty in-country during my own multiple CIA tours there, 1969–1975, or earlier.

I’d expected lots of heat and some light from my ex-comrades, since I’ve long believed that anyone who endured Vietnam first-hand in any official capacity came away uniquely tutored in the political and moral challenges Trump poses.

Except for two or three journalists, those who joined me on-line were glimmerings my old self, one-time spies, grunts, and dedicated do-gooders. Even in their dotage the majority remain reliably conservative and predominantly Republican.

Proving that old biases die hard, some immediately seized the moment to slag anyone to the left of Mitch McConnell. One crusty barnacle labeled Bernie Sanders a flat-out “Communist.” From his tone he might as well have substituted “Viet Cong.”

My closest compadre from the war years acknowledged in his posting that he’d forgiven Trump his youthful draft-dodging antics since Clinton had been equally sly in staying clear of Vietnam. He said he’d winced at candidate Trump’s inelegance and racial slurs, which he’d put down to campaign hyperbole, but had taken true umbrage at his sliming of John McCain

He had also worried about Trump’s “psychopathic” impulses but had “comforted” himself that professional bureaucrats would rein them in if he were elected, much as honest field hands had course-corrected Kissinger and other misguided desk jockeys during the war.

It was a hope, he conceded, that had not been vindicated.

On foreign policy he judged the President a “disaster,” in particular his “brutish” handling of allies and cozying up to dictators like Putin.

In the end he vowed to vote for anyone but the incumbent. But his ambivalence towards certain Trumpian peccadilloes (e.g. the draft dodging) and his glancing treatment of character issues like honesty bewildered me. And I can’t help but wonder if the chastening we suffered in Vietnam hasn’t made my friend a little too tolerant of human failings.

The way I see it, as I made clear in my own posting, Trump deserves the harshest judgment, especially from those with a Vietnam service badge, military or civilian.

Anyone who experienced that war up close and personal and saw what excessive secrecy, institutionalized duplicity, and blinkered oversight did to our country and to the Vietnamese themselves should have nothing but loathing for Trump.

He is the very apotheosis of all those sins.

Anyone who deplored our original combat troop deployments in 1965 without a proper declaration of war or sufficient popular support, and yet who now accepts the President’s imperial take on Article II as license “to do anything I want” is courting a “second Vietnam,” in my view.

Anyone who condemned Nixon for sabotaging LBJ’s peace gambit in 1968 — and Hubert Humphrey’s electoral prospects — by passing stolen diplomatic secrets to Thieu to help him stall off negotiations, and yet who now condones Trump’s Ukraine shakedown is being two-faced.

Anyone who faulted LBJ and Nixon for not leveling with the American people about the war — or the generals for not leveling with the White House — but who now gives Trump a pass on his serial mendacity about everything, has lost sight of why truth matters.

Any principled champion of pacification who abhorred the out-of-control Phoenix kill program but who now applauds Trump for murdering a foreign official in defiance of international law, executive order and the War Powers Act deserves to be excommunicated to Fox News.

(I have nothing against taking out bad guys, to be sure, but if the law and the norms prescribe “imminent peril” as the hit criteria, that sounds more than reasonable, especially considering what I saw first-hand with the Phoenix. Otherwise the trigger man himself becomes the imminent peril — a chilling idea if the hitman is the President of the United States, and up for re-election, to boot.)

Anyone who damned our use of Agent Orange and the defoliating of Vietnam’s incandescent beauty and the bodies of both friend and foe alike but who now shrugs off the ravages of Trump’s non-policies on pollution and climate change are booking us a ticket to extinction.

Anyone who once accused Congressional tightwads of betraying South Vietnam but who now ignores the way Trump treats our allies — be they Syrian Kurd, Ukrainian, or our friends in NATO — is smoking something.

Those who believe that corruption delivered a fatal blow to the South Vietnamese but who blink at the corruption at the center of Trump’s universe — from the self-dealing, to misused charities, to rampant conflicts of interest — are moral hypocrites.

Anyone who loathes Nixon and Kissinger for negotiating a sellout to Hanoi behind Thieu’s back in 1972 and yet who now applauds Trump for forcing an extortive peace plan on the Palestinians, one that will only blow back on the Israelis, is no friend to Israel or to a just and lasting peace in the region.

Anyone who eviscerated Hanoi Jane and cursed the anti-war left for deifying Ho and demonizing brave GI’s as baby-killers, but is willing to go on indulging a reality show blowhard who invited help from Russian hackers, coddled WikiLeaks, credited Putin over our own intelligence agencies, libeled the FBI, and solicited foreign interference in our elections has forgotten what a real Quisling looks like.

Anyone who came out of Vietnam believing with Colin Powell that America should never again commit its military to war without a clear plan of victory, but who now forgives Trump’s off-again-on-again troop commitments in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan doesn’t give a damn about wasted American sacrifice.

Anyone who deplored how Vietnam vets were treated upon their return, but who remains silent as Trump continues to malign McCain even in death, mocks Gold Star families and recent war wounded, and belittles generals who have served him faithfully, deserves no honor in his or her own house.

Vietnam taught hard lessons to everybody, liberal and conservative. But it bequeathed to us, the in-country crowd, a duty of care — the moral responsibility of the eyewitness — to call out any potential replay of the black arts and self-delusion that got us into that mess in the first place, and which threatens us with a sequel.

Trump is the worst possible answer to that prospect. Indeed, he fairly beckons us down the same path.

Peabody-award-winning journalist, bestselling author, CIA whistleblower, U.S. Supreme Court precedent-maker

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