Andrew Becevich warns we are reaching a Pleiku moment in Iraq

Historians in the News
tags: Vietnam



Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, is writing a military history of America’s war for the Greater Middle East.

LISTEN CAREFULLY. That’s a streetcar you hear approaching, similar to the one that President Lyndon Johnson hopped aboard a half-century ago when he plunged headlong into the Vietnam War.

Fifty years ago this week, Viet Cong guerrillas assaulted a US military compound at Pleiku in South Vietnam’s central highlands, killing eight Americans and wounding more than one hundred, while destroying several aircraft. Trivial in comparison to all that was to follow, the incident triggered a dramatic shift in US policy. Within hours, Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. Within weeks, raids gave way to a sustained bombing campaign, as US combat troops began deploying to South Vietnam to protect American air bases. Within months, those troops, arriving in ever-greater numbers, had commenced offensive operations aimed at defeating the Communist insurgency.

Rather than causal, Pleiku’s contribution to this sequence of events was catalytic. It converted predisposition into decision, inclination into action. “Pleikus are like streetcars,” remarked McGeorge Bundy, LBJ’s national security adviser. Wait awhile and one is sure to come along, carrying you to its predetermined destination. 

Visiting Saigon at the time of the attack, Bundy had immediately flown up to Pleiku to survey the damage. In a memo to the president drafted the next day while returning to Washington, he described existing US efforts in Vietnam as “surrender on the installment plan.” Bundy urged a major escalation. The president needed little persuading.

Are we approaching another Pleiku moment? Last year, the Obama administration renewed the US military commitment to a faux country (like South Vietnam) that is fighting for its survival. In place of Communism, radical Islam poses today’s threat. In place of North Vietnam, ISIS is the immediate enemy. As was the case back in February 1965, the present American role in Iraq is “advisory.” It’s their fight, not ours, we are told. Yet political disarray and military incompetence evident in that country suggest a variant of “surrender on the installment plan.” Supporting Baghdad today hardly seems a better bet than supporting Saigon once did...




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