Raw Nerves

by Jay Nordlinger

In my experience, there are some subjects liberals don’t want to talk about very much. One is abortion. They’re happy to talk about the rights of women (as they understand those rights). But they don’t want to talk about abortion: what it is, what it does.

They don’t want to talk about Vietnam either. The war, yes; the aftermath, no. Liberals, many of them, longed for an American withdrawal, and then for a cutting off of the Saigon government. Those things came to pass. And then, hell.

Funny how “peace” can be as hellish as war, or more than. I quote the churchman Beilby Porteus: “War its thousands slays, peace its ten thousands.”

I talk a little about Vietnam in Impromptus today (because something I read impelled me to). And I take note of an extraordinary speech given by George W. Bush, when he was president. This was in August 2007. He was speaking at a VFW convention in Kansas City. And he was warning against leaving Iraq too soon. He looked back to Vietnam, and to Indochina more broadly.

And, oh, did he strike a nerve. The media howled in pain and fury. I don’t think any speech Bush ever gave made them so mad. And that’s saying something. (Incidentally, when I say “the media,” I’m using a shorthand, and, of course, an unsatisfactory one. Thanks for indulging it, if you do.)

Bush said, “. . . many argued that, if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people.” He then quoted Senator Fulbright, though not by name. And then, this:

A columnist for the New York Times wrote in a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the Communists. “It’s difficult to imagine,” he said, “how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.” A headline on that story, dateline Phnom Penh, summed up the argument: “Indochina without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.”

Bush was talking about an article by Sydney Schanberg. For years, many of the conservatives I knew had that headline memorized. Anyway, more from the speech:

The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.

Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. There’s no debate in my mind that the veterans from Vietnam deserve the high praise of the United States of America. Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.”

I think of something that Elie Kedourie once said, or often said. His friend David Pryce-Jones is known to quote it: “Keep your eye on the corpses.”

Oh, how they hated that speech, Bush’s speech! (I’m again speaking of “the media.”) There is a rule in American life: It’s not nice to talk about Vietnam. The aftermath, that is. We’re just supposed to keep quiet, and dwell on My Lai. Bush broke the rule in August 2007. This was one of the most brazen and, to some of us, gratifying speeches in recent history. (To read it in full, go here.)

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