President Obama told cadets at West Point that “those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam” are basing their case “on a false reading of history.”
But there were some astonishing parallels between his speech Tuesday night and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s address to the nation on the night of March 31, 1968 announcing an exit strategy in Vietnam and conceding his inability to be re-elected president because of the war.
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Both pledged to end the war, not win it. The word “win” isn’t spoken in either speech and “victory” is never mentioned in Obama’s:
President Obama said, “Tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand – America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering.”
President Johnson said, “Let men everywhere know … that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace …”
Both highlighted the scourge of governmental corruption:
Barack Obama said, “Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it’s been hampered by corruption,” adding that “President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction … We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”
Lyndon Johnson said, “President Thieu told his people last week … that a major national effort is required to root out corruption and incompetence at all levels of government. We applaud this evidence of determination on the part of South Vietnam. Our first priority will be to support their effort.”
Both sympathized with the people’s suffering and praised their resistance to tyranny:
Obama said, “The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They’ve been confronted with occupation – by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes.”
Johnson said, “That small, beleaguered nation has suffered terrible punishment for more than 20 years. I pay tribute once again tonight to the great courage and endurance of its people … Its people maintain their firm determination to be free of domination by the North.”
Both wartime presidents emphasized their commitment to friendship, not imperialistic domination.
Obama: “We will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect … to hasten the day when our troops will leave, and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.”
Johnson: “Over time, a wider framework of peace and security in Southeast Asia may become possible … Certainly friendship with the nations of such a Southeast Asia is what the United States seeks – and that is all that the United States seeks.”
Both touted the unity of the American people as the nation’s greatest strength, not U.S. military might:
Obama: “In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people … we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership, nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time, if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse. It’s easy to forget that when this war began, we were united … I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.”
Johnson: “The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.”
Finally, both presidents said that the nations America was fighting a war for must, in the end, defend their own liberties themselves:
Obama: “We’ll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”
Johnson: “Our presence there has always rested on this basic belief: the main burden of preserving their freedom must be carried out by them – by the South Vietnamese themselves. We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts – on their determination and resourcefulness – the outcome will ultimately depend.”
The big question: are these parallels an omen that the disastrous end result in Vietnam – America losing the war – will repeat itself in Afghanistan?
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