Time to Revisit the Vietnam Analogy

Andrew E. Busch

August 1, 2005

At least as early as Spring of 2004, prominent liberals (including Ted Kennedy) began echoing the standard refrain of the Left that the military action of the United States in Iraq was “another Vietnam.”

Such sentiments were immediately, and rather effectively, rebutted by supporters of the war. Knee-jerk warnings about “another Vietnam” have become so commonplace for the last thirty years—and have been so wrongheaded most of the time—that the very uttering of them must be considered at the very least suspicious. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Kuwait, Afghanistan, all have been declared the next Vietnam. With the perspective of time, it is obvious that even Vietnam was not Vietnam, at least as the Left defines it. Virtually every shibboleth of the antiwar movement, fossilized and rigidly applied to every new situation, has been disproven. On questions ranging from the communist credentials of the enemy to the role of North Vietnam to the strategic benefits sought by the Soviet Union to the human consequences for the peoples of Indochina, the assumptions of the antiwar movement have been proven wrong, those of the U.S. government right.

Despite all of this, it would be a mistake to dismiss too easily the idea that we could learn something from Vietnam that can be applied in Iraq. It may be time for us to revisit this question.

Indeed, there would seem to be several parallels between Vietnam and Iraq that are worth thinking about.

First, politics (and hence persuasion) is at least as important as military prowess in prosecuting the war. As many commentators have noted—including North Vietnamese generals—the Vietnam War was not lost by American troops but by American politicians (like Ted Kennedy). Or to put it another way, it was lost not on the battlefields of Vietnam but in the streets of America.

Today, there is no mass movement opposing the war, partly because Baathism and Islamicism do not yet have a hold on the imagination of intellectuals like third world communism once did. Nevertheless, it is clear that America is more likely to lose this war on the homefront, by lack of resolve, than in the course of the fighting overseas. Indeed, persuasion of the public may be more important in Iraq than in Vietnam. According to recent polls, public support of George Bush’s handling of the war is as low after 1,800 American war dead as Lyndon Johnson’s was after 20,000 or more war dead.

Clearly, Bush has exerted himself more single-mindedly on Iraq than Johnson ever did on Vietnam, which often seemed an unfortunate distraction for the 36th president. However, Johnson fought for several years before the media turned against the war; Bush has faced a hostile media, anxious to do him harm and unconcerned with the effect of their journalistic irresponsibility on the war effort, from the very beginning. Protestor Cindy Sheehan, it is now clear, is a left-wing crank, a fact made no less real or pertinent by the depth of her loss. But her demand—that George Bush explain to her why her son died—is a demand the president must meet, not in a face-to-face meeting with Sheehan but in public argument day in and day out.

In this effort, the President must be aided by those who agree with him, just as he is being aided in the fight over John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Television advertising is, perhaps unfortunately, the currency of political discourse today, and if public opinion on Iraq is going to be stabilized it must be employed. There are arguments that must be made that are better made by someone other than Bush himself—facts about the progress being made in Iraq, facts about Saddam’s very real connections with terrorism, facts about Saddam’s intent to reconstitute his WMD program after the demise of sanctions, facts about how the Iraq war stopped the Libyan Bomb, facts about how numerous al Qaeda leaders view the outcome of the “battle for Mesopotamia,” as one of them called it, as critical to their cause, perhaps even a history lesson or two, starting with 50,000 Union and Confederate casualties at Gettysburg in three days. Unless the arguments for fighting and winning in Iraq are sharpened, Bush runs the risk of becoming another Lyndon Johnson.

The second parallel between Iraq and Vietnam that is worth considering is the important role of external agitation and supply in keeping the enemy fighting. From the very beginning of the Vietnam War, North Vietnam flooded the South with troops and supplies in an attempt to conquer it. The supplies, in turn, came from the Soviet Union and China. In Iraq, while the insurgency originated in Baathist plans for a post-invasion guerrilla war, it has increasingly taken on the character of an external war against the Iraqi people. Foreign fighters and arms flood in from Syria; Saddam’s uncaptured henchmen direct the financing and conduct of the war from Syrian villas; and now word has come of an Iranian unit, operating under the direction of the Revolutionary Guards, training insurgents in explosives at a base in Lebanon. Yet no action has been publicly taken. This (apparent) willingness to allow safe havens for the organization of the insurgency is eerily reminiscent of U.S. policy in Vietnam, where an invasion of North Vietnam was mostly off the table as an option (and was never actually pursued) and where Cambodia remained a sanctuary except for a brief incursion in 1970. With the war in Iraq increasingly unpopular, it is difficult to say whether Bush even has the political wherewithal to address this issue, but it is hard to imagine free Iraq surviving indefinitely a squeeze between Syria and Iran should the two miscreants remain unchastened. Bush may need to gamble that the American people are willing to widen the war in order to win it.

Finally, one lesson of Vietnam that was learned magnificently in subsequent years, and then was apparently unlearned in Iraq, was the importance of acting with overwhelming rather than incremental force. It seems clear in retrospect that more troops were needed—not to defeat Saddam’s army but to seal the borders and maintain order. Having laid down the gauntlet to the terrorist regimes of the region, and having held Iraq up as a model-in-the-making whose example would help bring those regimes down, the United States apparently failed to anticipate that they would act out of self-preservation to attempt to throttle the example in its cradle.

In all three areas—lack of an effective public argument, toleration of safe havens for the enemy, and failure to anticipate the violent reactions of violent despots—U.S. policy in Iraq has veered distressingly close to the mistakes of Vietnam. Taken together, they form a pattern of McNamara-style limited warfighting—a pattern of perhaps not taking a very serious enterprise quite seriously enough. That was the first real object lesson of Vietnam.

This is not necessarily to say that the Vietnam analogy is, on balance, more apt than not. There are still enormous differences that work in our favor. It is certainly not to say that the end must be the same. Let us, at any rate, pray that it is not. For the second great object lesson of Vietnam, apparent in the millions of deaths and millions of refugees generated by Stalinist Indochina after April 1975, is the very high cost of losing to the sorts of enemies that America acquires.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.