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More lessons from Vietnam

Worried about flagging support for the war? The president tells his aides in a secret memo, "Publicly we say one thing; actually, we do another."

That was not President Bush on Iraq, but President Nixon on Vietnam and Cambodia. It is only one line in some 50,000 pages of newly declassified Nixon-era documents from the National Archive. It is not surprising, but still a little unsettling, to learn how often a president will dissemble with the people.

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The revelation of the abuse of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad was bad news for the Bush administration, as was the 1968 massacre of more than 350 South Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. My Lai was treated by the Nixon White House as a public relations problem more than a moral problem. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird warned Nixon that My Lai could prove "acutely embarrassing" to the United States and could affect the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. Mr. Laird added that My Lai, "will provide grist for the mills of antiwar activists," which could be ruinous to the image of the US.

Nixon said that an image could be changed by astute public relations, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger weighed in with the observation that the trial of Lt. William Calley, implicated in the My Lai massacre, would alleviate press concerns about a cover-up.

Some of the Nixon Oval Office discussions about the future of Vietnam read eerily like memos on Iraq. In May 1969, a Nixon White House document said the US wanted to establish in Vietnam, "procedures for political choice that give each significant group a real opportunity to participate in the political life of a nation."

Sound like a discussion about nation-building in Iraq?

To bring this up to date, former Secretary Laird has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Its title: "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam."

Arguing for "de-Americanizing" the Iraq war, Laird says that our military presence is what feeds the insurgency. Laird says that he was the one who invented the term "Vietnamization." Maybe the word for what we face in Iraq today should be "Iraqization."

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at NPR.


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