Home > Blog > Trump’s odd relationship to Vietnam – and American greatness

Trump’s odd relationship to Vietnam – and American greatness

April 29th, 2016

Presidential hopeful – or should that read shoo-in – Donald Trump has deigned to tell the world what his foreign policy would be in the Oval Office.

Unsuprisingly, this businessman-demagogue boils it down to “American greatness, American interests”. The supposedly “ethical” foreign policy that nominally belonged to the US in the 20th century would be ditched wholesale.

Trump’s campaigning slogan has been “Making America Great Again”, and he has finally managed to put that sentiment in an international context. An unwelcome echo is of Adolf Hitler’s project to revive German greatness after the humiliation of the First World War.

An interesting angle in this is Trump and the Vietnam War. Not that he served in it – come now! Serving is for losers, as The Donald almost said about war hero and decent human being John McCain. Young Trump was, sadly, unable to don [sorry] the uniform of a grunt because of bone spurs in his feet. He was 22 when his number came up, and had been a student athlete. But those darned bone spurs got him a deferment. What a shame.

(This, incidentally, is what bone spurs are.) The uncharitable might say the bones in his head are the real problem.

But seriously: the link between Donald Drumpf (Trump) and Vietnam is the deep, deep wound which that disastrous venture left in the American psyche. How could the mighty US lose a war to a small South East Asian country fighting jungle guerilla tactics on a shoestring? But it did, comprehensively, as Harriet Senie makes clear in her wonderful new book, Memorials to Shattered Myths (Oxford). Around 60,000 people died, and many others were left with life-changing conditions both physical and mental. “The war remains a haunting spectre in American history,” Senie writes, and, later comments that “the quagmire” of Vietnam, although the conflict ended more than 40 years ago, “continues to influence US presidents and key elements of their foreign policy to the present day”.

Trump, in his speech on April 27, declared, with his usual finger-wagging, that “America is going to be strong again. America is going to be reliable again.”

The Donald at the US Centre for Public Interest

The Donald at right-wing think-tank The National  Interest. Reuters

Strength and reliability of the nation were two cardinal beliefs that were fatally undermined by the Vietnam experience, which all scholars and commentators agree has left a lasting legacy of shame and bewilderment. So it is ironic that a draft-dodger would take on the mantle of recovering the US’s sense of strength and control in a fractured, dangerous world.

And, in one of those twists that make the whole Trump venture unlikely if not unbelievable, a 1997 radio interview was unearthed where the non-combatant referred to the risk of venereal disease when dating as his Vietnam.  “It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” Trump said, presumably tongue in cheek – but maybe not.

Trump’s prescription for American re-creating is simplistic and probably unrealistic, although the media observed that this was his most detailed description of his plans for foreign policy. There were no nuances or complicated theses, but no politician can expect to deliver these to appreciation, especially in a country where more than half the population do not even have a passport.

He suggested that the US should find common ground, or shared interests, with China and Russia. The author of The Art of the Deal believes his business acumen could easily translate to issues such as missile defence or strategy for Syria.

That strategy could be for inaction – Trump made the point that nation-building, or interference in other countries’ affairs, would not happen nearly as much with him leading the US. This is likely to be a popular position, giving the disastrous ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq which took thousands of American lives.

Reuters reported negative reaction internationally to Trump’s “America First” message, and noted that this phrase was first popularised in the 1930s before American isolationism came crashing down with the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Former South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Sung-han commented: “Saying the US will no longer engage in anything that is a burden in terms of its relationships with allies, it would be almost like abandoning those alliances. It will inevitably give rise to anti-American sentiment worldwide.”

But the speech was well-received in Russia, according to CNN, which also reminded that Vladimir Putin has conceded that the New York billionaire is “talented”. Trump recycled this as a claim that Putin deemed him to be “a genius”.

Trump, reading from a teleprompter, said: “Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my Administration, a deal that’s great, not good, great, then we will walk away from the table.”

That’s how he ran his real estate deals, and that’s how he plans to run the world.

He will paper over the jagged cracks that Vietnam caused, and the USA will be number one again. Easy.

“A Trump administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded, and funded beautifully,” he told his audience.

It’s all about the funding: it’s all about the money. Easy.

But terrifying.