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Iraq, Vietnam, and the Bloodbath Theory

By now we have all seen the analogies drawn between the present war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam decades ago. Some of these analogies have been insightful. Some, to put it charitably, have not. Nearly all, however, have focused on how the United States entered and fought both wars. Little attention has been heeded to what the Vietnam war might tell us about the United States getting out of this one. It is an issue that deserves our attention.

More than thirty-five years ago, as American civilian and military opposition to the Vietnam war increased, those advocating continued warfare found themselves in something of a bind. The applicability of the domino theory to Vietnam had been persuasively challenged. The idea that America was fighting for democracy in Vietnam appeared to many observers, given the despotic nature of the successive Saigon regimes, risible. Yet despite the gap between the government’s rhetoric and observable reality, a minority of Americans clung to the idea of the war as a righteous and necessary cause. What little credibility the public explanations for American intervention enjoyed, however, was largely demolished when, in 1971, the top secret Defense Department history of American policymaking in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg and published in a number of outlets. It is no wonder, given the extent to which the government’s own analysts put the lie to what American officials had been telling the public for years, that the Nixon administration reacted so hysterically to this turn of events. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, for much of the American public, the Pentagon Papers shattered what remained of their will to continue the fight in Southeast Asia. American policymakers determined to perpetuate the war were therefore confronted with a crisis.

Today, I would argue, American officials find themselves in a somewhat comparable position. Their public explanations for the Iraq invasion have nearly all been discredited. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Evidence of the Bush administration’s deception on this issue is voluminous.1 Iraq’s support for al Qaeda? Dick Cheney’s stubborn insistence notwithstanding, no such relationship existed.2 Freedom for the Iraqi people? As is clear from an examination of the factual record, the Bush administration opposed the 2005 election it now touts as perhaps its greatest democratic achievement.3

The Bush administration currently offers two serious public justifications for continuing the war in Iraq. Both have antecedents, though imprecise, in the Vietnam war. The first is the fight against anti-American terrorism. The second, which is my focus in this essay, is what is described as an effort to prevent full-fledged civil war and the chaos and Iraqi bloodshed this would produce. For this the Vietnam war offers possible lessons.

Starting four decades ago, as the credibility of other explanations for intervention suffered, American policymakers began increasingly justifying American involvement in considerable part on the grounds that a military withdrawal would result in a bloodbath in which countless Vietnamese would be killed. The perpetrators of this bloodbath, U.S. officials alleged, would be the revolutionaries fighting the United States and its Vietnamese clients. The total number that would be slaughtered was a matter of dispute. The “lowest estimate,” Senator James Eastland noted in 1972, appeared in what Eastland referred to as Stephen Hosmer’s “superbly researched study of terror as an instrument of Communist policy.”4 According to Hosmer, an analyst for the Defense Department-affiliated RAND Corporation, the number would likely not be “much less than 100,000” persons, and it could very well be “considerably higher.” Other estimates, such as P. J. Honey’s speculation that the “minimum number of those to be butchered will exceed one million and could rise to several times that figure,” were widely accepted by supporters of the American war. Indeed, Eastland maintained, “[t]hat there would be a massive bloodletting is something that is taken for granted by virtually every serious student of Vietnamese affairs.”5 The debate was simply over numbers.

To buttress the bloodbath theory the Nixon administration cited two specific episodes from the recent Vietnamese past: the land reform atrocities in northern Vietnam in the mid-1950s and the “Hue Massacre” of 1968. In both, the Vietnamese revolutionaries were said to have slaughtered thousands of Vietnamese anti-Communists or other supporters of the United States (or France). That the factual basis of the conventional narratives for these episodes was challenged by scholars was, to the White House, apparently immaterial. Citing the land reform atrocities and the “Hue Massacre” to support American policy was simply too convenient to allow abstract notions such as truth and accuracy get in the way.

The bloodbath theory proved beneficial to the Nixon administration because, at a time when a growing number of Americans viewed the Vietnam war as immoral, it restored a moral cast to the American intervention. The war, in other words, was not being waged solely in the furtherance of U.S. interests; it was being waged to prevent the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese. Moreover – and this was crucial to the war’s proponents – the bloodbath potential meant that those calling for a rapid American withdrawal appeared as callous isolationists indifferent to the fate of Vietnamese suffering. Of course, critics of U.S. policy, such as dozens of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, pointed out an obvious logical shortcoming in the bloodbath hypothesis. “No one wants to witness a ‘blood bath’ in Viet Nam,” the soldiers wrote in a letter to President Nixon in November 1969. “The slaughter which you predict will occur upon our withdrawal is certainly an ugly possibility. But the slaughter in which we are now participating has already cost 40,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives.… We urge you to end our part in this massacre.”6

To Nixon and other proponents of continued intervention, the logical flaw highlighted by the Fort Bliss soldiers was dismissed. As a propaganda contrivance, the bloodbath theory was frankly too attractive in buttressing American policy. But a propaganda contrivance it was. At times the intellectual gymnastics employed by the White House to most forebodingly propagate the theory approached the level of dark comedy. To cite just one example, in an April 1972 conversation between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the president and his national security advisor spent four minutes debating how, in an approaching speech, Nixon should characterize the likely victims and whether he should claim that “hundreds of thousands” would be killed in a post-withdrawal bloodbath or, more menacingly, “millions” would lose their lives. After going back and forth and back and forth – a spar that today illuminates the weak empirical basis of these earlier White House predictions – Nixon finally concluded it would be “better to say” that only “hundreds of thousands” would be killed.7

I raise all of this because elements of the “bloodbath theory” echo in today’s political culture. Just in the last few weeks the specter of an Iraqi bloodbath has been raised by some of the nation’s more prominent public intellectuals. For example, Stephen Biddle warns in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a journal influential among the policymaking elite, that in a communal civil war such as the one in Iraq “genocide is a real possibility.” The “risk of mass slaughter,” he wrote, “is especially high.”8 James Carafano of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, in a syndicated newspaper column, agreed. A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he claimed, “would be like creating the conditions for a Rwanda writ large,” enabling just “what the terrorists want”: a “no man’s land of bloodletting” that would “turn Iraq into a terrorist Disneyland.”9

For American officials such a prospect must seem at once both a disaster and a boon. It is a disaster because a bloodbath following an elective American war would reflect negatively, to say the least, on those policymakers who framed the invasion and occupation as serving the best interests of the Iraqi people. But it is a boon because, with the absence of weapons of mass destruction, with the emergence of the Iraqi insurgency, and with the rise of an increasingly theocratic government, the potential for a “ Rwanda writ large” restores a moral vision to the American invasion. George W. Bush, in this view, will not be like Bill Clinton, whose administration utterly failed the Rwandan people, not only refusing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide but ensuring that the United Nations proved incapable of doing so. With his political fortunes sagging and support for the war at an all-time low, Bush, under the bloodbath theory, can emerge as the visionary president who not only freed the Iraqi people of Baathist tyranny but who will stamp out terrorism so that its liberation can have meaning.

Would there be a bloodbath following a U.S. military withdrawal this year? The possibility certainly exists; indeed, the prospect seems more compelling today than it did three decades ago. But if the history of the Vietnam war is to provide us with any guidance about the predicament in which the United States currently finds itself, it may be this: Current iterations of a bloodbath theory are not without precedent. The bloodbath hypothesis was trumpeted during the Vietnam war but, not surprisingly to the antiwar movement, failed to materialize.10 For possibly the most searing lesson of the Vietnam war in this context, however, we need to turn not just to history but to elementary logic: In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there is something absurd in perpetuating a bloodbath in order to ostensibly prevent one.


1 For merely one contemporaneous exposure of the White House’s deception, see Institute for Public Accuracy, “White House Claims: A Pattern of Deceit,” News Release, March 18, 2003, at <http://www.accuracy.org/newsrelease.php?articleId=536> (Accessed on February 22, 2006).

2 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “Overview of the Enemy,” Staff Statement No. 15 ( Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, June 16, 2004), 5.

3 An important corrective to media misinformation about the Bush administration’s early commitment to democratic elections is Seth Ackerman, “Defeated by Democracy: Reported as Triumph, Iraq Elections were Really Bush Team’s Nightmare,” Extra! 18:3 (June 2005): 11-14. In addition to the White House’s opposition to the 2005 national election, in at least one instance L. Paul Bremer III, from May 2003 to June 2004 the chief civilian administrator of Iraq, ordered that a local election (in Najaf) be cancelled when it became apparent that a candidate Bremer did not favor would win, according to senior commanders of the United States Marine Corps. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, “After Invasion, Point Man for Iraq Was Shunted Aside,” New York Times, March 13, 2006.

4 Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, The Human Cost of Communism in Vietnam, 92nd Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972), 2. A number of Eastland’s introductory comments to the compendium were lifted verbatim – but without attribution or any acknowledgement of the source – from a manuscript prepared by R.V.N. diplomat Ta Quoc Tuan. Others were slightly revised. Eastland’s failure to disclose that many of his statements were composed by an official of a foreign embassy – especially in light of the fact that he was careful to include two paragraphs of acknowledgements in his published remarks – must be interpreted as an attempt at deception. For Ta Quoc Tuan’s manuscript, see Ta Quoc Tuan, “The Vietnamese Communist Terrorism,” January 1970, Folder 14, Box 13, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 05 – National Liberation Front, Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University [hereafter V.A., T.T.U.].

5 Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, The Human Cost of Communism in Vietnam, 2-3. Excerpts from Hosmer and Honey’s studies were reprinted in the document; their estimates appeared on pages 62-63 and 112, respectively. Eastland’s statement that “virtually every serious student of Vietnamese affairs” was in agreement about the “bloodbath” hypothesis was and is demonstrably false. While the word “virtually” admittedly lent the statement a certain degree of ambiguity, many academic scholars of Vietnam and Asia had challenged, in the years preceding the senator’s allegation, the likelihood of a massive bloodletting following an American defeat. In May 1970, for instance, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars issued “Twelve Questions on Vietnam,” a document intended to respond to some of the basic questions about the war that the organization believed were being clouded by official misinformation. One of the questions specifically addressed the bloodbath theory; the scholars concluded that, “looking at the question in historical perspective, there is reason to doubt the likelihood of a bloodbath.” The same section of the document also took issue with the Nixon administration’s statements about the “Hue Massacre.” Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, Cornell University, “Twelve Questions on Vietnam,” May 1970, Folder 06, Box 08, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 03 – Antiwar Activities, V.A., T.T.U.

6 Letter from Thomas J. Burke, et al., to Richard M. Nixon, November 26, 1969, Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, White House Central Files, Subject Files: Speeches (Gen), Box 113, Folder: SP 3-56/Con, 11/6/69 – 2/16/70, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland [hereafter N.A. II].

7 Conversation No. 333-21, Executive Office Building, April 26, 1972, Nixon White House Tapes, Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, N.A. II. Two-and-a-half years earlier Nixon told Sir Robert Thompson, the British counterinsurgency specialist, that “500,000 people in Vietnam would be massacred” following a revolutionary victory, according to a memorandum of conversation between the men. (Henry Kissinger and John H. Holdridge, an N.S.C. senior staffer, were also present at the meeting.) Memorandum of Conversation, “The President’s Remarks to Sir Robert Thompson Concerning the Vietnam Situation,” October 17, 1969, Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, National Security Council Files, Presidential/HAK MemCons, Folder: MemCon – The President, Sir Robert Thompson, et al., October 17, 1969, N.A. II.

8 Stephen Biddle, “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon,” Foreign Affairs 85:2 (March/April 2006), at <http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060301faessay85201/stephen-biddle/seeing-baghdad-thinking-saigon.html> (Accessed on March 8, 2006).

9 James Carafano, “ U.S. Risks Disaster If It Pulls Troops from Iraq,” Duluth News Tribune, March 18, 2006.


Beginning in the mid-1980s, Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson sought to undermine the consensus that no bloodbath occurred in postwar Vietnam by attempting to prove that, by a conservative estimate, at least 65,000 persons were executed in Vietnam from 1975 to 1982.  Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson, “Vietnam 1975-1982: The Cruel Peace,” Washington Quarterly 8:4 (Fall 1985): 169-182; and Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson, “Political Violence in Vietnam: The Dark Side of Liberation,” Indochina Report [Singapore] 6 (April-June 1986): 1-29.  Their work was effectively refuted by Gareth Porter and James Roberts in 1988, however.  Gareth Porter and James Roberts, “Creating a Bloodbath by Statistical Manipulation,” Pacific Affairs 61:2 (Summer 1988): 303-310.  Yet in an essay published in 1990, Desbarats revised her estimate of executions upward to “possibly more than 100,000 Vietnamese people” without acknowledging, let alone engaging, Porter and Roberts’s critique of her and Jackson’s flawed methodology.  Jacqueline Desbarats, “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” in John Norton Moore, ed., The Vietnam Debate: A Fresh Look at the Arguments (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1990), 196-197.