The Corner

Vietnam Syndrome: a Prediction

I’m increasingly coming around to the Krauthammer position on Vietnam Syndrome– that Americans as a group do not suffer from anything of the sort. Rather, liberal babyboomers and their intellectual progeny suffer from the syndrome. The symptoms come in all sorts of instances when liberals immediately leap to Vietnam-inspired analysis before the facts warrant it. They use the word quagmire prematurely — days into the Iraq and Afghan wars, for example. They assume that when events overseas go poorly — as they have been in Iraq — that the political damage for the White House will be immediate and substantial when in fact the experience of the last four presidents suggests if not the opposite then at least something much more complicated. After all, public support for Vietnam took years to erode, but when you listen to VS sufferers you’d think Americans give up almost instantly. Also Bush did not suffer from all the bad Iraq news and Kerry did not gain, in the obvious ways VS sufferers would have predicted.

I haven’t seen it yet in response to the Iraqi prisoner story — except in a few emails — but after listening to Ted Kennedy today I suspect we are going to be hearing more and more comparisons to the My Lai massacre, not least because of the involvement of Sy Hersh in both stories.

I haven’t read up on My Lai in a while, but if memory serves the politics of My Lai were much more complicated than what one would expect a Vietnam Syndrome sufferer to believe. Americans rallied around American troops in large numbers. If I remember right, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter asked Georgians to rally around Calley and the others of My Lai and even as a presidential candidate his position on Calley (and Vietnam) was nuanced. Richard Nixon — an acute student of electoral advantage — all but pardoned Calley, releasing him from jail and sentencing him to house arrest. I think I’m remembering this correctly.

Now, I don’t think the comparison to My Lai is a good one and I don’t think the story of My Lai is as straightforward as some think. But obviously I think My Lai and the Abu Ghraib are both outrages, regardless of the context. But that’s not my point. On the issue of the politics of this, I’ll be interested to see whether VS sufferers once again misread the lessons of Vietnam and act on this story as if it will be politically damaging to Bush. My guess is yes.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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