By MARGARET TALEV
July 13, 2005
When President Bush's critics drew the analogy during the March 2003 invasion, it was hypothetical, politically tinged and not very widely held.
Two years and four months later, however, as body counts rise in Iraq and the insurgency appears holding strong, the inclination to compare the Vietnam War with what is happening now in the Middle East is wending its way into mainstream America.
"These are totally different kinds of situations. Nonetheless, there are some similarities," says Vietnam historian and best-selling author Stanley Karnow. "People who used the word 'quagmire' at the beginning were wrong. But it's turned into a quagmire."
Historians, while loath to oversimplify wars, are turning to the subject matter with passion and precision. Pollsters are digging out old public-opinion surveys looking for parallels. More than one-third of Americans surveyed today say they worry Iraq could become another Vietnam. And politicians from both major parties, especially those facing re-election next year, are worrying aloud about public perception and military prospects, much as they did when U.S. casualties began mounting in Vietnam.
While vastly different in scale, scope and magnitude of lives lost, the conflicts share several traits: sharp international criticism of U.S. action, uncertain prospects for stable self-governance and security, and a growing skepticism on the part of Americans back home.
Many Americans' frame of reference for comparing the wars is superficial, particularly for those younger than 30 who were born after Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.
"For young people in college, it means what they've seen in films: 'We were defeated. Our military was humiliated. Our country was set into turmoil and that's what we're getting into again,' " said Michael Hunt, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968." Said Hunt, "That's pretty rudimentary."
In looking beyond the rudimentary, here are some of the similarities, differences and connections between the wars, as identified by experts outside and inside the military.
The enemy: The U.S. war in Vietnam ran from 1961 to 1973, but the war's origins began decades earlier. As early as 1941, Ho Chi Minh sought Vietnam's independence from France, but the French, supported by the United States, fought to take back control. France gave up in 1954, and Vietnam was divided into communist North Vietnam, and into South Vietnam. North Vietnamese insurgents increasingly invaded South Vietnam, and the U.S. military began training South Vietnamese forces.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for a stronger U.S. presence and sent military advisers. President Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops in 1965, but began looking for a way out after enduring the punishing Tet Offensive of 1968. President Richard Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia, relying heavily on attacks by air even as he began bringing ground troops home. The United States got out of the war formally in 1973. Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975.
While Vietnam's civil war was driven by an anti-colonialism toward the French, the stated threat to the United States was the spread of communism.
In Iraq, which was not at civil war, the threat was leader Saddam Hussein and his supposed stash of weapons of mass destruction. With the American military's quick disposal of Saddam's regime in early 2003, what the United States considers a big-picture threat is more amorphous: international terrorism connected to Islamic fundamentalism.
In each war, experts disagree on how imminent the threat was. The Soviet Union and China were communist world powers at the time; there are not comparable foes in today's context. But nothing comparable to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil predicated Vietnam. After Vietnam, the "domino theory," the idea other nations would topple to communism like dominoes, did not play out. The Soviet Union has since dissolved. The United States and Vietnam established diplomatic relations a decade ago.
The pace of war: The United States was slower into Vietnam than Iraq. Financial aid to South Vietnam began in the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower. Ground combat forces weren't sent until 1965, under Johnson. In Vietnam, the United States tried to use South Vietnamese soldiers before sending American forces; the reverse is true in Iraq.
In both wars, after about two years of U.S. ground presence and rising deaths, Americans began to sour, worry and criticize White House officials for false optimism. Vice President Dick Cheney's recent claim the insurgency was in its "last throes" has been compared to "light at the end of the tunnel" sightings in Vietnam.
Public opinion: Second-guessing over Iraq happened faster than over Vietnam, said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. (Scholars debate what role the so-called Vietnam syndrome - "Never again!" - plays in this.)
Gallup found a majority of Americans believing war in Iraq was "a mistake" as early as 2004, although opinion has bobbed up and down since. Last month, 53 percent called the war a mistake. A majority didn't call Vietnam a mistake until the summer of 1968, three years into U.S. ground fighting and seven years after Kennedy sent advisers. After that 53 percent "mistake" rating, public opinion for the war never recovered.
Johnson's approval ratings fell further than Bush's so far. Johnson's high point (78 percent) was his inauguration after Kennedy's 1963 assassination. It dropped to 36 percent in March 1968, and he did not seek re-election. Bush's peak (90 percent) followed the Sept. 11 attacks. His latest approval rating was 46 percent.
Manpower and costs. Iraq has involved far less manpower and casualties. Recent Department of Defense records put the U.S. death toll in Iraq at 1,740. Looking at essentially the first two and a half years of U.S. ground combat in Vietnam, between 1965 and 1967, the death toll was nine times higher. (The final U.S. death toll approached 58,000.) The rates of the wounded were seven times higher. On a per-capita basis, these differences are even higher, since the U.S. population has increased nearly 50 percent since 1965.
Money spent during the same time period was also higher during Vietnam, though the difference was not as great. Adjusted for inflation, Vietnam spending during the period was less than twice as high.
The insurgencies. In both wars, experts are struck by the insurgents' apparent strength and resolve. "In Vietnam, the U.S. tried to inflict enough punishment on the guerrillas so they would break. That never happened," said John Mueller, a political-science professor at Ohio State University who wrote a key study of public opinion during the Vietnam War. In Iraq, Mueller says, U.S. strategy is "very similar," but added that it's too soon to know "whether you're dealing with the same sort of dedicated insurgency that would be willing to fight forever."
The insurgencies are different - Vietnam's was larger and more organized. That's a point Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command forces, made to the Armed Forces Press Service earlier this year, to reject Vietnam analogies. "In Vietnam, you had a coherent opposition that had a political message with an external support network that ran not only through North Vietnam, but also through the Soviet Union and China," he is quoted as saying. "You don't have any state support for the insurgency in Iraq to speak of."
Vietnam began as a guerrilla war and escalated into a conventional war, Karnow says; Iraq began as a conventional war and is becoming a guerrilla war. Karnow also notes the absence of suicide bombers in Vietnam. "It's very hard to deal with suicide bombers," he said.
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