April 30 marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The images of the capture of the capital of South Vietnam by communist forces are seared into the minds of Americans over the age of 50: The rooftop evacuation by helicopter of CIA personnel, Marines repulsing Vietnamese trying to enter the American embassy, and North Vietnamese tanks entering Saigon.
Direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War had ended in 1973, but fighting between the two Vietnams continued. The corrupt U.S.-backed regime in the South collapsed two years later, finally bringing to a close America’s involvement in what was a war that could not be won. Many American policymakers interpreted Vietnam through the lens of the Cold War, seeing the fighting in southeast Asia as a proxy for the struggle between the Soviet Union and China against the United States and its allies.
American involvement in Vietnam was a bipartisan failure. The Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson and then the Nixon White House failed to understand the war as an expression of Vietnamese nationalism. Millions of Vietnamese viewed French and American interventions in their country as the last stand of colonialism. It was no coincidence that Ho Chi Minh quoted the Declaration of Independence when he declared Vietnam independent in 1946.
Nearly 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. The war tore American society apart, pitting generation against generation. Many American campuses erupted in protests, some violent. In 1968, anti-war protestors disrupted the Democratic Party national convention in Chicago while hippies and yippies battled police on the city’s streets.
Avian symbolism dominated political discourse during the Vietnam Era. The term “war hawk” dates to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1798 to describe Federalists who wanted to go to war with France. The dove as a symbol of peace dates back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh and Noah both sent out doves to search for dry land during a flood. But it was Vietnam that made the terms common, hawk for advocates of an aggressive, muscular foreign policy and doves for those who try to resolve international conflicts without the threat of force.
Hawks and doves crossed party lines, but generally Democrats by the end of the Vietnam War, and in the years after, pursued a more dovish foreign policy while Republicans came to be identified with a hawkish international posture. That dichotomy appears to continue today, and it has relevance as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up.
The very large, and still growing, field of Republican candidates shows unanimity on foreign policy. All of the contenders, with one possible exception, are vying to see who is the biggest hawk. On policy toward Israel, there is no difference, though they constantly up the rhetoric in trying to demonstrate who is most fervent in support of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made international affairs central to his White House bid, trying to portray himself as the Republican best equipped to navigate America through a chaotic and dangerous world. He has denounced President Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba and has attacked the nuclear arms agreement with Iran, even though details about the deal are sketchy at best.
Fellow Floridian Jeb Bush also denounces the rapprochement with Cuba. Bush favors tightening sanctions on Iran and has urged NATO to deploy more troops in Eastern Europe to counter Russian policy in Ukraine. Like his brother and father before him, Bush tends to see the world in Manichean terms, referring frequently to “evildoers” and “barbarians” who threaten American interests. “America needs to lead. America needs to stay engaged,” he argues. Bush denounces the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, despite the unpopularity of President George W. Bush’s war in search of weapons of mass destruction.
Scott Walker is a neophyte on foreign policy who has demonstrated repeatedly his need to bone up on international relations. But the Wisconsin governor showed his mettle when he described how he would tackle the threat posed by ISIS. “If I can take on 100,000 protestors, I can do the same across the globe,” he said, comparing combatting terrorism internationally to battling organized labor in Wisconsin.
All the other Republican candidates, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and so on, echo traditional Republican interventionist policies. There is little difference among them on Cuba, Iran, Israel, and terrorism. Republican hawkishness is most notable in the candidates’s policy toward Israel. Republicans are more supportive of Israel today than in the past, and they have made the alliance more central to party ideology. The dominance of white evangelical Protestants, who are more united in zealous support of Israel than are American Jews, has made the Republican Party the ideological mate of Israel’s Likud-dominated government.
Rand Paul likes to characterize himself as the odd man out among Republicans on foreign policy. When he entered the Senate in 2010, he appeared to endorse his father’s isolationism, putting him at odds with mainstream Republican interventionism. But as he gears up his run for the presidency, Paul has sounded more and more like a typical Republican. Once an opponent of all foreign aid, Paul now says he favors maintaining aid levels to Israel. Still, Paul’s isolationist reputation seems to be goading South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — a prominent Republican interventionist — into entering the race.
The hawkishness of the Republican presidential field rests on simplistic notions of international relations. The tendency to see nations such as Iran and Cuba as existential threats to America and as adversaries who understand only force and with whom we cannot negotiate is reminiscent of the attitudes that led to the tragedy of Vietnam. That is why it is important to learn the lessons of Vietnam on this 40th anniversary of the end of the war.