Withdrawal from Vietnam was a devastating blow for America’s pride and self-confidence, and inhibited direct American military intervention abroad for a generation. This was exactly what leading leftists wanted, and they got it. Moreover, a whole generation of liberal Democrats—the so-called Class of ’74—were swept into Congress, and some of them are still in office, such as Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin and George Miller. The Nixon presidency was further crippled, and the groundwork was laid for Carter’s election in 1976.
In addition, the antiwar movement generated by opposition to the Vietnam war greatly fortified other social movements that were gathering momentum at the time, such as the women’s rights and the gay rights movements. Without Vietnam, would the sexual revolution have exploded in the way that it did? It seems doubtful. Vietnam was the main reason for the counterculture of the 1960s, which may have developed anyway but would have been a much weaker force without this galvanizing cause. In sum, Vietnam was for the left not only a foreign policy success but also a political success and a cultural success.
One possible objection to the idea that the left wants another Vietnam is the results were not an unqualified triumph for American liberalism. Historians point out that the legacy of Vietnam produced a political backlash that helped Reagan get elected in 1980. The whole conservative ascendancy of the past generation is partly a product of this backlash. Even so, the left during the Vietnam era was able to make permanent changes in American society. Gender relations were transformed. Homosexuals came out of the closet. Abortion on demand became not only legal but interwoven with the lives of millions of Americans. Even now, a quarter of a century later, conservatives can only hope to moderate, but not reverse, these sweeping changes. The left paid a political price for these victories, but it was worth it.
A second possible objection to the theory that the left wants Vietnam-style defeat in Iraq is that the Islamic radicals are the most illiberal force in the world. The Vietnamese Communists, like Communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, at least appealed to liberal principles such as social egalitarianism and workers’ rights. So one might understand how American leftists in the 1960s and 1970s might feel sympathetic toward their cause and view America as the enemy. By contrast, the argument goes, the Islamic radicals who are likely to benefit from America’s defeat in Iraq are resolute enemies of feminism, gay rights, civil liberties, and all the social causes that are a top priority on the left.
Yes, but it is precisely in the name of these causes that several figures on the left want the Islamic radicals to win, and Bush to lose, the war on terror. If you listen carefully to the rhetoric of leading leftists, you discover that they dislike Bin Laden and the Islamic radicals but they hate Bush and his conservative allies. Bin Laden to them is the “far enemy” but Bush is the “near enemy.” From their point of view, Bin Laden’s radicals want sharia in Baghdad but Bush’s religious and political supporters wants sharia in Boston. It is Bush, not Bin Laden, who threatens with one more Supreme Court appointment to jeopardize the left’s hard-won social victories of the past generation.
For this reason, the left is pursuing the strategy of the lesser evil. The left cannot publicly say this, but it is willing to work with the bad guy in order to get rid of the worse guy. The left and its allies in the press seem quite ready to risk an Islamic radical takeover in Iraq as long as it also produces the greater political good of destroying Bush and his conservative allies in America. If Bush is defeated in Iraq he could go down in history with a reputation as bad as Nixon’s and conservative foreign policy could be set back for another generation. Some on the left may be quite willing to give up the whole Middle East for this.
So far Bush and the right are fighting two wars, a military fight over there and a political war over here. So far the conservatives seem utterly ignorant of what they are up against. Conservatives continue their strenuous efforts to convince liberals and leftists that the Islamic radicals don’t like Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank. News flash to the right: the left already knows this. Conservatives also keep saying the liberal Democrats don’t have a foreign policy. But they do, and it’s the same strategy that Jane Fonda used a generation ago: to work with the enemy abroad in order to defeat the enemy at home.