In a “Web-exclusive” commentary posted Thursday, Newsweek Senior Editor Michael Hirsh ridiculed President George W. Bush's warning that a precipitous pull-out from Iraq could lead to the humanitarian horrors that followed the American pull-out from Vietnam. Recalling a trip he made to Vietnam in 1991, Hirsh reported that he found a nation looking to the West and capitalism, adding that “today Vietnam remains” only “nominally communist.” He then snidely asserted: “This was the 'harsh' aftermath that George W. Bush attempted to describe this week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq as we did in Vietnam.” James Taranto, in his Friday “Best of the Web Today” posting for OpinionJournal.com, asked: “Could that last sentence be any more disingenuous? To Hirsh, the 'aftermath' of America's withdrawal from Vietnam didn't begin until 1991, more than 16 years after Saigon fell. About events between 1975 and 1991, he has only this to say: 'Yes, a lot of Vietnamese boat people died on the high seas; but many others have returned to visit in the ensuing years.'”
To that, Taranto astutely observed: “Never mind Vietnam's and Laos's 're-education' camps; never mind Cambodia's killing fields. It is as if one visited West Germany in 1960, found a prosperous democracy, and reached positive conclusions about the 'aftermath' of Nazi rule. It misses the point by a light-year.”
Indeed, Hirsh's blind-spot reflects that apparently prevalent in the mainstream media in the 1970s. My August 23 NB posting, “Flashback: 'The Unnewsworthy Holocaust: TV News and Terror in Cambodia,'” recounted a study which documented how from 1975 to 1978 the three broadcast network evening newscasts, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post, virtually ignored the ongoing massacre by the Khmer Rouge: “Over the four-year period of the Khmer Rouge rule, the three networks devoted less than sixty minutes on weeknights to the human rights situation in Cambodia. That averaged out to less than thirty seconds per month per network.”
Hirsh also couldn't resist getting in a cheap shot about how Bush's remarks “were an abuse of historical fact -- no surprise, perhaps, coming from a president who is just now catching up with the Political Science 101 reading he shrugged off at Yale.”
An excerpt from the top of Michael Hirsh's August 23 “Web-exclusive” posting on MSNBC.com, “Why America's Pullout from Vietnam Worked: The truth behind Bush's mangling of Cold War history,” and yes, it had some long paragraphs:
The Soviet Union was in its final days of existence when I visited Vietnam in late December of 1991. The cold war was about to end forever with the collapse of one of the two adversaries that had kept it going for 40-odd years. A lot had changed in Vietnam, too, I discovered during my trip. The coziness between Moscow and Hanoi, once comrades within the Soviet bloc, had curdled into mutual hatred. Throughout the country, but especially in the North, the Vietnamese had come to despise the large resident Russian population for its cheap spending habits and arrogance. Visiting Americans, by contrast, were welcomed with smiles (“Russians with dollars,” we were called.) On the day I visited the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon -- where some of those iconic photos symbolizing American defeat were taken -- I discovered government workmen removing a plaque that once commemorated the North’s victory over the “U.S. imperialists.” In the waning days of that epochal year, 1991, the propaganda against American involvement in Southeast Asia was suddenly no longer politically correct. Hanoi’s new message: Yankee Come Back (and bring your investment dollars). Today Vietnam remains nominally communist, but Hanoi knows it is an ideological relic surrounded by Asian capitalist tigers, all of them U.S. allies or dependents (one reason Vietnam was so eager to have Bush visit last November: it wants to be part of that club). The cold war dominoes did fall -- but the opposite way.
This was the “harsh” aftermath that George W. Bush attempted to describe this week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq as we did in Vietnam. His remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City on Wednesday were an abuse of historical fact-- no surprise, perhaps, coming from a president who is just now catching up with the Political Science 101 reading he shrugged off at Yale. Yes, a lot of Vietnamese boat people died on the high seas; but many others have returned to visit in the ensuing years. Above all, we have learned that Vietnam and Southeast Asia were never really central fronts in the cold war (although Korea at the time of the outbreak of war in 1950, when Beijing still kowtowed to Moscow and before the Soviet Union and China split, might have fit that bill). The decision to pull out had very little effect on the ultimate outcome. America triumphed in the cold war because it had the right kind of economy -- an open one -- compared to Moscow and Beijing, and its ideas about freedom were more attractive to the states within the Soviet bloc than their own failed ideas were....