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Vietnam’s lessons apply to Mideast

Ever so often it’s worthwhile to listen to a voice from the past, especially when the words are still relevant and belong to a former government official discussing hard lessons.

“Once we had committed our own manpower and our own blood and so on, we were into a quagmire there that was not only expensive in terms of human life but expensive in terms of U.S. prestige.”

Former CIA director Richard Helms was talking about Vietnam in a declassified oral-history interview as part of a CIA historical series in April 1983.

Think Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria today as Helms, who, asked to discuss lessons from Vietnam, responded with a rhetorical question: When the Saigon government sought help from Washington “did we help in the best possible way to achieve the objectives we had in mind?”

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy sent trainers to assist the Saigon government in meeting a large-scale insurgency of South Vietnamese communist guerrillas who had support from North Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union.

The White House began with 400 Green Berets to train the South Vietnamese military in counterinsurgency. But it wasn’t working even by 1963, when the U.S. presence had grown to 16,000 trainers along with tens of millions of dollars for a nation-building program.

In August 1964, after an alleged attack on U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese gunboats, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.”

Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me later that he agreed to manage Senate approval of what was essentially a war resolution. He did it, he said, after Johnson promised that he would only need up to 125,000 U.S. troops and that they would stop the North Vietnamese.

The Senate passed the measure with only two opposing votes, and the House approved it unanimously.

Ultimately, the U.S. troop level rose to more than 525,000, when in 1969 newly elected President Richard M. Nixon announced plans to gradually withdraw combat forces. The Vietnamese would have to take over the fighting.

Sound familiar?

By the time the United States left Saigon in 1975 as North Vietnamese troops entered the city, some 58,000 U.S. service personnel had been lost and more than $1 trillion had been spent.

Looking back, Helms said, “If the United States had supported a Vietnamese solution . . . from the first day” — meaning left its efforts at training Vietnamese — “there might have been a better outcome.”

He said the introduction of U.S. troops resulted in the North Vietnamese sending larger numbers of their own soldiers south. They were “well trained, ready to fight, fighting on their own ground, the kind of war that we had never understood and were quite unable to fight, where great fire power and so forth was of almost no relevance.”

That also should sound familiar — and what President Obama appears to be trying to avoid — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

To those who are calling for the use of minimal U.S. combat forces in Iraq and Syria, I say look at history.

Also, what’s your Plan B?

Helms discussed how Americans did not understand the Vietnamese.

“The intrusion of a lot of Westerners” in such a society “even though they knew we were trying to help them . . . should start from the premise that we really don’t understand them very well,” he said.

Helms tried to get courses on Asian culture and languages set up at the CIA, but they died because managers would not send their officers, arguing that either they did not have time or that the people in those countries spoke English.

How many Americans going into Afghanistan and Iraq knew anything about the countries they were helping?

Helms recalled visiting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the early 1970s. If he were a Foreign Service officer “starting out these days I would become an expert in Islam,” he said. “You’ve got to understand Islam and all its manifestations. It not only cuts a wider spectrum, it’s a belt right around the world and these fellows are starting to get money now.”

Helms closed by saying that although he had mentioned the need to study Islam, he didn’t know whether “anything was ever done about it.” He added that if not, “We’re never going to get straight with these things.”

The United States has paid a heavy price for not understanding Helms’ post-Vietnam lessons, when in 2003 the Bush administration sent tens of thousands of troops into Iraq.

Obama, however, appears to have learned them. Let’s hope he continues to stick to just helping Iraqis and Syrians win their own internal battles without U.S. ground troops getting involved in another military quagmire.

© 2014, The Washington Post