Don A. Rich: A Tale of Two Texans ... George W. Bush, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the Wars in Iraq and Vietnam

Roundup: Historians' Take

Mr. Rich is Director of Research Council on Emerging National Secuirty Affairs and Instructor of Political Science and Economics at Montgomery County Community College.

Periodically in discussions of the current war in Iraq, the dreaded V word is raised, which is to say that analogies are drawn between the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, in which the substance of the argument is that the current Iraqi war is drifting towards a fiasco on a Vietnam-like scale. While there are certainly haunting similarities between the wars, there are at least four key differences between the two that warrant careful thought. First, the Vietnam War was fought by draftees, the Iraq war by a, on average, more dedicated force of self-selected volunteers. Second, the stakes in Iraq are far higher than in Vietnam. Third, the level of foreign support for the Iraqi insurgents and the level of domestic Iraqi support for the insurgency is far more manageable for the United States than was the case in Vietnam. Fourth, the Vietnam war is in the end mainly interesting only as a matter of history; the war in Iraq remains in flux, and therefore remains salvageable, though time is running short. After reviewing the similarities and differences, we offer suggestions that the lessons of history offer in the hope that the United States may yet avert disaster.

As to the similarities, they are haunting indeed. In the Vietnam , the first president to confront the dilemma was Dwight Eisenhower. In 1954, as the situation of the French garrison at Dienbienphu grew increasingly desperate, Eisenhower was pressured to intervene. As a military professional, he was sobered by the recommendations of General Ridgeway, as professional military opinion called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and an American force of 200,000 men for an indefinite commitment. Direct military intervention, Eisenhower concluded, was imprudent.

In 1961, the CIA performed a simulation for the Kennedy Administration about the consequences of U.S. intervention to save the failing Southern regime. The results of the exercise projected that the United States would reach a stalemate with North Vietnam, even with the deployment of 500,000 men. While we will never know the consequences of a long-lived Kennedy presidency, one wonders if he too, like Eisenhower, would have taken a pass.

Thus, when Lyndon Johnson committed the United States to the Vietnam War, he did so in the face of professional military and intelligence service advice that suggested caution. Therein lies the first similarity to the current war in Iraq. George H.W. Bush at the end of the first Persian Gulf War was clearly in a position to topple Saddam Hussein. Although that option was briefly entertained, in the end, the weight of the advice of the professional military, intelligence and diplomatic community induced that infamous, yet vital word, for which Dana Carvey made a career mocking Bush I for : prudence. In the end, although Bush I detested Saddam, overturning the regime seemed a very uncertain venture.

In 1998, frustrated with Saddams’ obfuscations and evasions about weapons programs, Bill Clinton seriously considered toppling Saddam. In the end, although he launched a 600 plane raid and a covert program to topple Saddam, he concluded that an overt effort by the United States to change the Iraqi regime would be too risky. Thus, when George W. Bush was advised by General Shinseki that 300,000 troops on a multi-year commitment would be the price of an Iraqi invasion, he was merely receiving long-settled wisdom of the professionals involved in any such effort. The first similarity between Vietnam and Iraq, then, is that the wars were launched in spite of well understood advice that the missions were highly risky in character.

The second similarity between the wars goes to the nature of the launching of the war. The proximate cause of U.S. intervention was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. While the public was led to believe that the U.S. Navy had been attacked in an unambiguous fashion, in order to maximize support for launching the war, the reality was far more ambiguous. First, the destroyers in question were in fact engaged in Operation 34 B, designed to insert South Vietnamese commandos on demolition raids in North Vietnam. While the program may have been justifiable in response to North Vietnamese aggression against the South, it was not as if the U.S. Navy was just fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Furthermore, the U.S. Navy and the intelligence community suppressed any questions about whether in fact the destroyers had even been attacked. It remains unclear to this day whether there was an attack, or whether, as one naval officer at the time remarked,” the U.S. Navy was just out there shooting at whales.”

If the Vietnam War was launched on a rather shaky initial premise, so too was the war in Iraq. Granting that the Bush and Blair Administrations have been cleared in a legal sense of “sexing” up intelligence to justify the war, the fact remains that any ambiguity about Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was downplayed in public discussions. To be fair to the Bush administration, much of this was Saddam’s own fault. He has apparently told U.S. interrogators that he had to keep some ambiguity about his weapons programs in order to scare the Iranians, perhaps a tragic case of the boy who cried wolf.

In the Vietnam war, public support, though high at first, gradually ebbed in the face of the rising casualties. The presence of the draft accelerated the erosion of support, because both because the war threatened to engage individuals who, like Dick Cheney, had better things to do, and because the soldiers in Vietnam itself, as non-self-selected individuals, were more easily embittered by their experience there, a bitterness that they would transmit to the home front as a normal part of the information transfer process in a democratic society.

In Iraq, the war stands at a similar juncture. Although support was initially high among the public, it has steadily eroded in the face of what the soldiers on the ground call the deaths of thousands of troops in onseys and twosies.

We now come to the differences between the war, which, if the administration were to change course, allow the United States to possibly salvage a respectable outcome. First, the stakes at issue in the wars are radically different. Vietnam was, in the end, well described by Lyndon Johnson as “… a third rate piss-ant country.” The United States, at the end of the day, could simply abandon Vietnam, saying in effect, “Sorry for all the pointless death and destruction. Have a nice day.”

The United States will never be indifferent to the fate of Iraq. Iraq controls and or borders a majority of the world’s proven oil reserves. Unlike Vietnam, an imploded Iraqi state would be an ongoing and possibly unending nightmare for any American president, even a president who thought George Bush was a “big fat idiot” for launching the war in the first place.

Second, our adversaries in Iraq are not supported domestically to the same extent as was the case in our struggle in Vietnam. While much of the population of South Vietnam was at best indifferent to our presence, in Iraq we at least have very begrudging allies, who although they wish we would go home, do not wish a precipitate withdrawal.

The next difference, relating to the last, is that while Vietnam received massive foreign assistance from both the former Soviet Union and China, the United States adversaries in Iraq have only a weird mixture of uncoordinated support from Iran, Syria, and Saudi nationals, none of whom is capable of even approaching the support offered by a China or a Russia.

We finally come to the last difference, which is that while the Vietnam War was fought by draftees, the Iraq war is being fought by self-selected professionals. Although many soldiers fighting in Iraq are certainly there in part because of a lack of opportunities elsewhere, nonetheless, they are certainly more likely to favor staying the course than was the case for the average soldier, brave as he was, in Vietnam.

This leads us back to the final similarity between Vietnam and Iraq that should haunt us all. Lyndon Baines Johnson once said that he gave up the “the good woman of the Great Society for the whore in Vietnam.” Lyndon Johnson overreached in the end, trying to go to the moon, fight a war on poverty, and win a good size war in East Asia. The great tragedy of his presidency was from its hubris, a basically good man, undone by trying to do too many things at once.

George W. Bush is dangerously close to traversing the same path. He has attempted to cut taxes, fight two decent size wars, all the while planning on sending us to the Moon, in the face of a rapidly approaching fiscal crisis that is known more colloquially as the retirement of the Baby Boomers. If the Bush Administration does not change course, it will be described as tragic as well. Given the stakes in Iraq, and the fact that it faces an easier task than did the Johnson Administration in Vietnam, it seems obvious that it should focus on one task, finishing the war it launched, and giving up the things necessary to achieve that end.

What is obviously necessary to that end is a temporary increase in both the size of the force deployed to Iraq to complete its stabilization, and an intensification of the reconstruction effort. The only way to achieve the first goal is to increase the size of the “thin green line,” the Army, to a Cold War force of 750,000 men. That, and an intensified reconstruction effort offer the on only way to achieve peace with honor. The only way to pay for a viable effort in Iraq would be to reduce if not eliminate the tax cuts, thereby making the kind of domestic sacrifice for the war that is appropriately matched to the stakes at hand.

George W. Bush would do well to heed the lessons of history. Lyndon Johnson tried to have it all, and only got the moon. He returned to his Texas ranch to die only two years later, by all accounts a broken man. If George W. wants to return to his Texas ranch as a successful president, he would do well to make the painful choices that are required as a consequence of his actions, or history is likely to rate him poorly.

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