Former CIA analyst
Dozens of comments have appeared in the last few days comparing a 1967 election in Vietnam with the election of January 30, 2005 in Iraq. The following historical summary of the 1967 election, written in the 1980s, contains more details than most of the recent comments and strengthens the view that one should be exceedingly skeptical of the Bush administration’s self-congratulatory propaganda on the Iraq election. The source of the paragraphs quoted below appears at the end.
“September 3, 1967, 4:00 p.m. Election day in South Vietnam. The polls in the country’s forty-four provinces and municipalities were closing. It had been a busy day. In nine hours, 4,868,266 people out of 5,853,251 registered voters had visited thousands of polling stations to cast their votes for president, an 83 percent turnout. Two days later the results were announced: Nguyen Van Thieu would be the president and Nguyen Cao Ky the vice president of South Vietnam. The American establishment in Washington and Saigon was pleased. A State Department spokesman acclaimed the election as a ‘major step forward., ‘It is an important and heartening fact’ he stated, ‘that 83 percent who registered actually voted a much higher percentage than in our presidential election of 1964.’
“President Johnson’s hand-picked team of American election observers in South Vietnam senators, governors, and respected citizens was positive in its assessment of the fairness of the election. Senator George Murphy of California ventured to call the elections not ‘unlike an election in Beverly Hills.’ Democratic Governor Richard J. Hughes of New Jersey dismissed the possibility that the South Vietnamese might have hoodwinked the observers: ‘We could all possibly have been bamboozled, but it would have taken a minimum or 25,000 character actors and about 11,000 stagehands to put on the production we have seen.’
“Many Vietnamese had doubts about the fairness of the election. One Vietnamese businessman commented, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the people think it’s a fraudulent election, but they are voting because it is the proper thing to do.’ There were also indications that the heavy turnout had much to do with government coercion and fears of retaliation against those not showing up at the polls. Since election officials stamped each voter’s identification card, it was widely suspected that lacking this ‘symbol of loyalty’ to the government would lead to trouble later, perhaps even charges of being VC.
“In the wake of the elections, President Johnson sought to justify American involvement in Vietnam as a sacrifice in support of a ‘legitimate’ elected government representing the will of the South Vietnamese people. But the will of how many South Vietnamese people? By official U.S. estimates, about one-third of South Vietnam’s population of nearly 17 million was in VC-controlled territory and so could not vote. The government itself disqualified tens of thousands of voters, and many Buddhists, the victims of harsh treatment by the junta, boycotted the election. Furthermore, the military ticket of Thieu and Ky received only 35 percent of the votes cast, hardly a popular mandate. Election rules mandated by the junta stipulated that no matter how low the percentage of votes secured by a winning candidate, there would be no run-off election, for that might have allowed civilian candidates to join forces on a second ballot.
“Most Vietnamese, wrote Robert Shaplen in a dispatch to the New Yorker, felt that American-style elections were forced on them, with little relevance to their own political dynamics and conditions, that the elections were ‘simply an American-directed performance with a Vietnamese cast., As long as many Vietnamese believed the Thieu-Ky regime was not the majority’s choice, it did not matter how hard the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] would try to make it appear that way or how sincerely the Americans believed it. Meanwhile, the war went on.”
The paragraphs above are from The Vietnam Experience, a detailed 20-volume series of histories published in the early 1980s. The books, by various authors but all fairly carefully researched, were published by the Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA. The 20 volumes are unnumbered, so that the only way to identify each volume is to cite the entire title of that volume. The section quoted above, titled “The making of a president,” is taken from pp. 168-169 of a volume entitled The Vietnam Experience: America Takes Over, 1965-67. The principal authors of this volume are Edward Doyle, Samuel Lipsman, and the editors if the Boston Publishing Company.
The paragraphs quoted are worth mulling over when thinking about the recent election in Iraq, because they show the wildly over-optimistic reactions in the U.S. to a nationwide election in South Vietnam in 1967. This election took place less than five months before the surprise Tet offensive of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began. That offensive was perhaps the key factor in turning a majority of Americans against the Vietnam War. We should all also remember that despite the Tet offensive it took seven more years before the Vietnam War ended in utter defeat for the U.S. These were seven years in which an additional million or so Vietnamese were killed as well as some 25,000-30,000 Americans over and above similar numbers killed on both sides before 1968. It is difficult to avoid concluding that these people all died in vain. Unless the U.S. in 2005 changes its entire foreign policies much more quickly than it did in Vietnam, we are likely to face a similarly excruciating, slow, dismal defeat and slaughter in Iraq.
BILL CHRISTISON was director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. He has written extensively in recent years on the problems of U.S. foreign policy. They can be reached at: email@example.com