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Lessons of History

Mar 28, 2024 | Future, History, North Carolina | 0 comments

Rummaging through old computer files the other day, I ran into a letter I wrote about the lessons of history. It has been said — those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Others have said that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. At any rate, it makes you think! There are insights we could gain about building a better future in North Carolina by learning about what has worked well and what has failed in other states.

What if our governor and legislative leaders met regularly with a Council of State Historians? Might they open our eyes about new possibilities and warn us about taking a wrong turn?

The letter in which I applied my amateur historical knowledge to a current situation discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A couple months after the invasion, I got wondering if Mr. Putin could learn something from the lessons of our war in Vietnam. Being an optimist, I wrote up a few thoughts in this letter and sent it to the Russian Embassy in DC. He never wrote back. Sad. Thought it might interest you, my smarter-than-Putin readers.

                                                                         April 27, 2022

Dear President Putin:

It’s wise to learn from mistakes in the history of one’s own country, but it’s genius to learn from the mistakes of others. Now that Russia is fully engaged in military action in Ukraine, maybe we, in America, can share some of our lessons from the history of the Vietnam War. After all, that was similar instance of a Great Power trying to maintain a friendly government in a smaller country by force. It did not work out so well for us. Here are a dozen lessons we learned– although we have sometimes forgotten them.

  • Lesson #1: Building popular support for military action based on an exaggeration backfires. The American public and politicians were pushed into supporting a war based on the lie that an American ship had suffered an unprovoked attack by the North Vietnamese. Support sank when it was demonstrated the “attack” was not quite what it seemed. The leaders of Ukraine do not seem to be acting like Nazis you say they are.
  • Lesson #2: You cannot make people like you by bombing them. The U.S. dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Indochina during the war. This demonstration of our military power did not make the Vietnamese rally to our cause. Will flattening their cities make the Ukrainians love Russia?
  • Lesson #3: Little countries often have big friends who supply them with terrible weapons. Vietnam had China and the Soviet Union who were happy to supply the bullets and bombs that killed American soldiers. Ukraine has the whole Western Alliance to resupply it with lethal weapons.
  • Lesson #4: Citizens of a target county will rally around a leader who is an inspiring, determined nationalist. America faced Ho Chi Minh. Ukraine has Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • Lesson #5: If the initial attack fails, escalation does not work. After battlefield losses, the American government escalated the conflict, hoping that more soldiers, more weapons, and more intense bombing would reverse the tide. It did not work. Will it be any different for Russia?
  • Lesson #6: You cannot hide casualties forever. As American troops were maimed or died in large numbers, support for the war dwindled, anti-war sentiment grew, and Lyndon Johnson was forced from the presidency. How will support for your government stand up to a parade of coffins?
  • Lesson #7: As the Vietnam War settled into a stalemate, our soldiers became more cynical and wondered what they were fighting and dying for. Will it be any different for your troops?
  • Lesson #8: In the rage and confusion of war, some American soldiers lost their moral compass and killed randomly. Our standing in the world sank with news of the atrocities they committed. Will it be any different for Russian soldiers?
  • Lesson #9: Many American soldiers returned from the front psychologically and physically damaged, unable to function in society, unable to love. Will it be any different in Russia?
  • Lesson #10: American supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War raged against each other, poisoning rational dialogue about the future of our society for a generation. Already, Russian war opponents have been dehumanized, called insects to be spit out. How will dialogue be restored?
  • Lesson #11: Many talented Americans who opposed the war went into self-exile, leaving us a poorer nation. The exodus of talented Russians is already happening.
  • Lesson #12: In the end, the casualty counts were in America’s favor, but the North Vietnamese prevailed because they were willing to suffer more. They accepted more death, more destruction, more poverty than Americans were ever willing to bear. The North Vietnamese and their allies suffered over one million casualties. How much pain are the Ukrainians willing to endure to defend their homeland? How much pain will your citizens endure to subdue them?

I wish I could say that America learned these lessons well and emerged from the Vietnam War as a sadder, but wiser nation. Unfortunately, we have sometimes ignored the lessons in the last fifty years–and paid the price. Mr. President, I hope some of these thoughts will make sense to you and help you find a new path out of the quagmire of Ukraine before it is too late.


Tom Fehsenfeld



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