President Obama Upsets the Swift Boaters

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 26 2013 5:50 PM

President Obama Upsets the Swift Boaters

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Opposing views of Ho Chi Minh are not always self-evident.

Photo by Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

If you don't consume much conservative media, you're probably unaware of the president's latest Crippling Gaffe. On Thursday, after a meeting with Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang, the president told the reporters at the photo spray that his counterpart brought a letter Ho Chi Minh once sent to Harry Truman.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"We discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson," said the president.

Cue the outrage. Fox News ran a NEWS ALERT telling viewers that reaction to this gaffe was simmering.

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"Was it a slip of the tongue?" asked Shannon Bream. "Was it prepared and calculated?"

"Either it's a gaffe," said analyst Chris Stirewalt (whom you might recall from his election night 2012 shutdown of Karl Rove), "and the president doesn't know ... who Ho Chi Minh really was, or what he really did—he may not have studied that—the other possibility was that he was being morally flexible or facile."

The letter in question is widely reprinted; in it, in February 1946, Ho asks President Truman "to interfere urgently in support of our independence," on behalf of his Soviet-aligned force and against the French. Truman didn't do it, obviously, even though Ho had courted American support by—yes—quoting the Declaration of Independence. My friend Asawin Suebsaeng brings the clue-hammer on what I thought was pretty well-known episode.

But the context of that episode matters. Ho was praising Jefferson when he wanted something from the U.S. In power, as Stirewalt says, he proceeded to execute Trotskyites and engineer Soviet-style land reforms that led to inevitable starvation. He praised the Declaration, not the Constitution, as Obama says. As a way of being diplomatic, the president was clearly endorsing a left-wing view of Vietnam that was dominant before his 10th birthday. That was how the president chose to bond with the Vietnamese president—by going along with the view that the Vietnam War needn't have happened had America embraced the country earlier.

Lucky for the White House, the outrage so far as been pretty rootless and gone over the heads of people who don't care to refight this. "This is a slap in the face to those who served — and especially those who paid the ultimate price for freedom during that dark time in history," said Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former POW. "Let me tell you, there was nothing ‘free’ about my seven years in captivity in Hanoi — more than half of that time in solitary confinement." What did Obama say about freedom? Nothing, but I assume Johnson heard in his head the voices of anti-war activists calling Ho the "new George Washington." And there's nothing he can do, really. The occupant of the White House is more sympathetic to that view than to the view that the war was right and winnable.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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