Vietnam and Iraq: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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BOSTON, March 11 -- They were talking about a guerrilla war in Asia. Or, fairly often, more than one.

"You cannot win against an insurgency that springs from the population," said Jack Valenti, former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "There's never been an insurgency that doesn't prevail against a mighty power."

"How much reform can you do," former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger wondered later, "simultaneously with fighting a war?"

The banner on their dais read "Vietnam and the Presidency" -- ostensibly, the subject of a high-powered conference that brought historians and former policymakers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for two days ending Saturday.

But, as the speakers talked about anti-American insurgents and faulty U.S. intelligence and the search for an honorable way out in Southeast Asia, nearly all found bitter parallels to the current conflict in Iraq.

"It appears to me we haven't learned very much," said Alexander M. Haig Jr., Kissinger's assistant in the Nixon White House and secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.

The conference's stated subject -- Vietnam's history -- was captivating and wrenching enough on its own. Timothy Naftali, director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, played recordings of Johnson's conversations, including one from 1965 where he asked Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara how the war was going.

"The current battle is going very well," McNamara said, and then continued with a sentence whose Catch-22 logic made the audience laugh. "The problem is that it's not producing the conditions that will almost certainly win for us."

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