Obama’s inaugural address and Vietnam by mattsteinglass
January 21, 2009, 11:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

There were three points in Obama’s inaugural address that were relevant to Vietnam, in different ways.

1. “For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” The siege of Khe Sanh took place from late January to early April, 1968, at a remote US firebase in the mountains of northwestern Quang Tri province. Several divisions of North Vietnamese Army troops and armor attempted to surround and eliminate a couple of battalions of US Marines and South Vietnamese Army, and were ultimately held off, in one of the largest fixed battles of the Vietnam War. But here’s the thing: Concord, Gettysburg, and Normandy were all crucial American victories in wars we regard as historically vindicated. Khe Sanh, however, was an ambiguous engagement whose strategic meaning remains unclear 40 years later. For decades, some have argued that the siege of Khe Sanh was a diversionary tactic by the NVA to get the US to take its eyes off the ball, with the ball being the Tet Offensive that was launched a few days later by guerrillas who had infiltrated throughout the cities of South Vietnam. Khe Sanh certainly did attract the US’s attention: US commanding Gen. William Westmoreland believed the NVA were trying to replicate the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu and score a critical war-winning blow, and he poured tremendous resources into trying to defend the base rather than evacuate it. But the base itself had little strategic value, and it has never become clear whether its defense made any sense. So there’s a sense of ambiguity when one speaks of the men who “fought and died” at Khe Sanh: what did they fight and die for? Did we waste their lives?

On an intellectual level, the lesson of Khe Sanh goes to the distinction between tactics and strategy that’s so crucial in watching Obama, and it has implications for Iraq and Obama’s decision to withdraw with all deliberate speed from a war he considers strategically ill-advised. In the famous words of Marine General Lowell English, who disagreed with Westmoreland: “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven’t lost a damn thing.” The lesson of Khe Sanh is that when the strategic costs of winning a tactical battle overwhelm the costs of losing it, you’re better off withdrawing. But on an emotional level, what’s notable about mentioning Khe Sanh is that, set next to Gettysburg and Normandy, it has a bitter quality. One thinks: clearly, the line had to include a modern battle that would nod to today’s veterans, but did it have to be that one? And then one thinks: well, what other big-name battles from the past 40 years could Obama have mentioned? Kuwait? Fallujah? They all have that bitter aftertaste. And that has its own significance.

Addendum: Just watched Arcade Fire cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at Obama’s inaugural ball, and I’m sure they were conscious of the connection to the inaugural address in this stanza:

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…

2. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party Communist state which periodically imprisons unruly journalists and political dissidents. It is also a fairly well-run country whose government genuinely cares about the popular welfare and national interest, and cooperates eagerly on the international scene; and it is friendly with the US, and was a big diplomatic favorite of the Bush administration. The Bush administration’s rhetoric of freedom and “regime change”, however, always sat awkwardly with its enthusiasm for Vietnam. What Obama is doing here is articulating a more coherent framework for US relations with authoritarian states. Saying the US will “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” creates room for constructive relationships while at the same time taking disagreements over human rights issues seriously.

3. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” American rhetoric grows from the Western tradition of rights-based ethics. It is a rhetoric of freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness. Vietnamese rhetoric is more often rooted in a Confucian ethic of responsibilities. It is a rhetoric of duties and the collective good. One reason the world has come to mistrust America of late is a sense that Americans are irresponsible — they focus too much on their freedoms, and too little on their obligations. This problem influences perceptions of everything from Iraq to climate change to the global financial crisis. “A new era of responsibility” is a very Confucian slogan, and it’s an apt one for a time of multifaceted crises and widespread public mistrust. If the Obama administration can actually back up its Confucian slogan with some responsible behavior in the coming years, it will have a positive influence on attitudes towards the US in East Asia.


1 Comment so far
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I believe that the Khe Sanh reference was definitely an incorrect one to make.
If he had simply left out..”For us..” it would have been better.
No one died in Khe Sanh for me…or for America.

Comment by paul busch

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