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Frank Deptola & Associates, LLC

Podcast: Not Repeating Lessons from Costly Past Mistakes by Frank Deptola



Not Repeating Lessons from Costly Past Mistakes by Frank Deptola


In Season 1 of Ken Burns documentary series on the Vietnam War entitled, “The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (Vietnam: Burns and Novick),” his narrative helps illustrates mistakes the United States made in managing a war we intentionally provoked. Mistakes that likely could have been avoided by a more balanced 360 degree look at the “Domino Theory,” taking our politicians’ egos out of the equation - especially LBJ’s, who after admitting on tape recorded phone calls that fighting a war in Vietnam likely would be the biggest mistake he ever made, one he didn’t want to fight, and one he couldn’t easily get out of without risking being “impeached” for being the first president to lose an American war. Despite his own recorded comments, he kept sending increasing larger numbers of troops to fight in Vietnam to keep South Vietnam’s independence. The irony was, that South Vietnam was a corrupt state that didn’t want to fight for their own freedom. At the end, a humanitarian catastrophe occurred, and the United States wasted billions of dollars and caused hundreds of thousands of war casualties among the combatants.

Similar costly “mistakes” have more recently been made in our military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. We intervened in those countries to eliminate “weapons of mass destruction” and, to clean out terrorist bases. We didn’t find any “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, but certainly caused a lot of destruction to Iraq. We rapidly departed Afghanistan, after 13 years of deploying U.S. troops and hundreds of billions of dollars to that country, abruptly ending our country’s longest war in a rather haphazard manner. This included leaving behind our Afghan friends and lots of our modern military hardware.

The ultimate financial and human costs of the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely will also adversely affect the world’s economic recovery from the Covid pandemic, especially as inflation rises. Government spending programs like, “Build Back Better,” likely will get re-examined and adjusted on the “budget chopping block.” Here are two factual examples:

  • Lyndon Johnson actually put “pressure” on the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, William McChesney Martin, to not make needed increases to interest rates as any increases would make it more costly for LBJ’s government to fund both his “War on Poverty” and “The War in Vietnam.” Martin succumbed, stating that he always said the Fed was an independent body in the government, not independent from the government
  • On August 15, 1971, Richard Nixon abandoned the “gold standard” in order to address the country’s inflation problem and discourage foreign governments from redeeming more and more dollars for gold. The gold price has steadily increased from $35 per ounce since that time. Abandoning the “gold standard” quickly devalued the worth of the U.S. Dollar which sank by a third during the 1970’s “Over the past 40 years, the U.S. Dollar has been anything but stable, with several periods of sever volatility.” [1]

Placing the above situations in juxtaposition with the Western democracies ignoring the “pleas” from Ukraine for more direct military intervention by the West, including “no fly zones” and / or NATO’s fast tracking them as a full member, is difficult to fully appreciate. Ukraine is a sovereign democratic Western European state. One leaning to other Western democracies as examples of what they want to ultimately become. Unlike Vietnam, Ukraine is now fighting invading Russian forces for their own freedom. Russia has been the West’s historic enemy. How can Western democracies, NATO, and the United States not directly support them? Does saving Ukraine and making it a strong and angry ally right next to the Russian border help or hurt NATO’s front line of defense?

In checking on NATO membership requirements apparently, “There are no set criteria for joining NATO, but aspiring candidates must meet certain political and other considerations. Many observers believe Finland and Sweden would qualify for fast-track entry into NATO without lengthy negotiations within months. They seem to qualify for fast-track entry because they closely cooperate with NATO allowing NATO’s troops to exercise on their soil, both Helsinki and Stockholm ‘substantially intensified’ their bilateral defense cooperation, and both have secured close military cooperation with the U.S., Britain and neighboring NATO member Norway.” [2]

Seems like Ukraine has met most of those fast-track membership criteria. The problem for NATO may not be these membership criteria, it might be their fear of a direct military engagement with Russia, and the possibility of starting a new major European war. NATO diplomats seem to want to “negotiate” an end to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by putting on increasingly more serious sanctions on Russia and “demanding” that Russia stop. The results of these increasing sanctions, so far, has been:

  • Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine
  • Russia’s use of cluster bombs and other banned weapons like the vacuum type flame thrower against the Ukrainian people
  • And, earlier today Russia attacking and capturing Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Russian troops are reportingly holding its employees at gun point. This plant supplies 50% of the nuclear energy produced in Ukraine, and 20% of the total energy produced by that country. It’s capture also may strengthen Putin’s nuclear capabilities.
  • Russia is also controlling and distorting the news it is giving the Russian people on their invasion by classifying it as a “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine where Russia is not starting a war, but stopping a war started by Ukraine – per Nick Robinson, CNN 3/4/22

               Stated another way, the sanctions to date have not worked in stopping this truly horrific war, nor the daily upheaval and ruining of the lives of generations of Ukrainians. These lack of desired results from “negotiating” bring to mind the May, 1940 comments Winston Churchill is quoted as making to his War Cabinet, during his adamant refusal to consider their almost unanimous desire to “negotiate a peace” with Hitler, and avoid fighting and defending their island against an imminent “Nazi” invasion. Standing up and slamming his wooden chair to the floor, Churchill snarled: “When will the lesson be learned? When will the lesson be learned? You cannot negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” -- 2017 Academy Award winning film, “Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright

               Winston wasn’t alone in his thoughts. Here are some other useful comments on “war decision making”:

  • A fundamental mistake our country seems to continually make is to assume that leaders of other countries think in a “rational” manner “similar” to our own. To the contrary, we need to understand and accept that other countries, especially autocratic ones, may have no desire, interest, or ability to think from our point of view. We may need to start “negotiations” by thinking from their viewpoint. Believing that the people we are dealing around the world see things the same as we do can often lead “no-where.” Want an example: The Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War was signed on January 27, 1973, but the talks began in 1968. Restarting aerial bombing of North Vietnam through Operation Linebacker II from 18 to 29 December, 1972 was required to bring the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. [3] So much for effective “negations.” If, this was a “rational” process, why did it take 5 years? [4]
  • Harrison Salisbury of the N.Y. Times wrote an article on Christmas Day, 1966 about the negative effects the American bombing campaign had on the civilians of North Vietnam, it seems very similar to what we are witnessing in Ukraine, and with Putin’s continued “mis-information” campaign to the Russian people. Like Vietnam: “Public doubts of the morality of the war grew.”
  • Leslie Gelb, Pentagon, during Vietnam War: “A lot of the military shared our concerns about how the war was being fought and whether or not it could be won … we just need more, more troops more bombing”
  • Sam Wilson, US Army, during Vietnam: “I recall in one instance after I had returned from Vietnam, I went by to see McNamara. He was saying, ‘Well how is our strategic bombing program affecting the course of the war? I said, ‘It is not gaining us anything. Indeed, it is counterproductive. He said, ‘What do you mean? Mr. Secretary, the sledgehammer approach is not working. These people know that at some point we’re going to get tired of killing them. And they think they can outlast us. And he said, ‘Why don’t people tell me these things? I said, Mr. Secretary, you don’t ask.”
  • Retired Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General Merrill McPeak, who served for 37 years and was a fighter pilot bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam:
    1. “So you try to strafe the last truck, so that it can’t move. And these are one-lane roads. So once you get the back truck disabled, then you just call-in fighters … You’re shooting fish in a barrel”
  1. “The real failures were made at the policy level. We were fighting on the wrong side. The South, the government in the South was corrupt. And its people knew it. And we knew it. I’ll tell you something, those truck drivers fought very well. I would have been proud to fight with them. So one of the things you got to do when you go to war is pick the right side, okay. Get the right allies.”

And here are some points on our history supporting freedom(s):

  • As Franklin Roosevelt said in his Four Freedoms speech in his January 6, 1941 “Annual Message to Congress” [5]: the continued aid to Great Britain and greater production of war industries at home. In helping Britain, President Roosevelt stated, the United States was fighting for the universal freedoms that all people possessed:
    1. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world
    2. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world
    3. The third is freedom from want – which translated into international terms means economic understandings which will secure to every nation everywhere a healthy peace time for its inhabitants
    4. The fourth is freedom from fear – which translated into international terms means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation anywhere will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any other neighbor.
  • A quote I saw last weekend at the General George Patton Museum at his Mojave Desert Training Center (DTC):

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out-because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out-because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

               Our country was founded on Freedom and Democracy. “Freedom is not Free.” Not having the same courage as the Ukrainian people to help them fight for their own freedom and independence seems antipathic to our nation’s roots. Putin seems to be oblivious to our “sanctions” at this point. To the contrary, he may ride it out, which likely could cost Ukraine valuable time in their fight to remain an independent democratic nation. On the other hand, putting in a no-fly zone or fast-track NATO membership recognition of Ukraine could help change the paradigm, especially if it resulted in “taking out” the threatening long Russian invasion convoy approaching Ukraine’s capital.

Yes, it might lead to direct confrontation with Russia, but that likely could happen anyway especially if Putin is emboldened by our continued “negotiation” tactics to raise the ante and send Russian troops, for example, to the Polish border. That has happened before with Russia.

One also has to wonder, why any “rational” country would boldly brandish its nuclear arms capabilities? It seems more “rational” that if he intended on using these he would do so, and not threaten it? Even an “un-rational” Putin is sure to recognize the potential backlash to Russia, and the world, if that would occur? Is that why Kissinger used the term “brinkmanship” in his dealings with the Russians? Because he thought they were rational? Brinkmanship is defined in as a” foreign policy practice in which one or both parties force the interaction between them to the threshold of confrontation in order to gain an advantageous negotiation position over the other.” Is this game Putin is “playing” now against the West?

We need to think from their point of view before we apply diplomatic “negotiations” to important situations. Putin may have no interest in the long-term effect of sanctions, at this time, but seems to have very high current interest in completing quickly his forcible annexation of Ukraine. Stated another way, NATO trying to put a 5-year solution on a problem that likely will be resolved in the next few weeks, seems inappropriate. As Churchill said:

“You cannot negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

My heartfelt salute and gratitude goes to the Ukrainian people. Their efforts to fight for their own freedom, stand up to Russian aggression, and maintain democratic values are important reminders to us all on the founding of our nation. Their valor and courage is truly inspiring, and likely is helping change the future of the world.


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