Déja vu All Over Again? 1968 and 2006

News Abroad

Mr. Buzzanco, Professor of History, University of Houston, is the author of several books and articles on Vietnam War. Mr. Carter, Assistant Professor of History, Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, is the author of articles on Vietnam War, and War Profiteering in Iraq & Vietnam.

A difficult and unpopular war gets worse; the public increasingly turns against the conflict and the ruling political party is renounced in the voting booth; an unpopular secretary of defense is finally fired and a group of wizened consultants which includes an influential past secretary of state calls for a reorganization of the war effort and eventual deescalation; and the military, fearful of being blamed for the coming failure, pressures for a change in strategy as well.

Are we describing events in a) 1968, b) 2006, or c) both?

Obviously, the answer is “c” and thinking about the events of 1968 could be highly instructive today, as a different generation of American policymakers confronts the detritus of a misguided war in a faraway place.

In late 1967, U.S. officials offered bright views of the war in Vietnam, most notably General William Westmoreland’s observation that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”Within just a couple months, the enemy’s Tet Offensive undermined such official optimism about Vietnam and exposed the deep political and military flaws in the U.S. war. During February 1968, the enemy’s offensive continued, causing huge losses for  the U.S. and its allies in southern Vietnam, and, badly damaging American efforts to create a stable political environment and pacification program. Economically, the costs of the war became untenable, and a global financial crisis, spurred on by the huge deficits caused by military spending, erupted.

Amid this turmoil, the defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who had a terrible relationship with the military already, was forced out, and replaced by an old Washington insider, Clark Clifford, who began to reevaluate the war with the help of a group of “wise men,” experienced diplomats and politicians such as ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson. And the military, fearful of being blamed for the war, forced the president’s hand by asking for 206,000 more troops, a request that they understood would not be forthcoming, but which squarely placed responsibility for the coming failure in Vietnam upon the White House.  Meanwhile, support for President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war sunk to about 35 percent, the lowest since the war began, and he was essentially forced out of a campaign for reelection.  

Fast forward 38 years: 103 Americans died in Iraq during October alone, bringing the total of killed to over 2,800.   The situation has continued to deteriorate with growing levels of violence, destruction, and  abductions, and an Iraqi death toll perhaps in the hundreds of thousands since 2003.  Iraq, as American military leaders concede, is descending into civil war.  As in Vietnam in 1968, an enormous, ambitious state building campaign lies in shambles.

Amid turmoil on the battlefield, political events at home have intervened.  On Tuesday, November 2, the Republican Party, and by proxy the president, was handed  “a  thumping,” as Bush conceded, which was clearly and accurately interpreted as a repudiation of the administration’s disastrous Iraq policy.  A day after the elections, at a press conference, Bush the “uniter” replaced Bush the “decider” as the administration moved to damage control mode.   

Like Johnson ousting McNamara, Bush announced the firing of the war’s chief architect, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had long ago earned the enmity of many in the military over which he presides.  The President also quickly brought onboard a new group of advisors from the Reagan and Bush 41  years.  

The “blue ribbon” commission, headed by Former Secretary of State James Baker and including other past policymakers such as former CIA director and Rumsfeld’s replacement Robert Gates will act as the “wise men” of foreign policy to steer the American ship of state back on course.  The buzzword around the right-wing retreat is “pragmatism.”

Just as in 1968, the groundwork is being laid for an exit from a war gone wrong.  Public support for the war has plummeted and will almost certainly never return now that its rationale has been rejected.  The war in Iraq, which was part of a larger effort to remake areas of the world in the American image, has now thoroughly undermined the post-9/11 consensus around these ambitions just as Vietnam led to a huge “credibility gap” here and abroad.  

The costs, which have now surpassed the Vietnam War and could reach a trillion dollars, have also undermined military support as U.S forces have been stretched to the breaking point while making the U.S. a huge debtor state.  America’s international political reputation is also in a sorry state that will require some years of salvage operations to reconstruct.  Just as in 1968, the administration has been forced to face the proverbial music and finesse a way out of an unwinnable campaign.  The sooner it does so and begins the process of rebuilding America’s trust, credibility, economy and reputation, the better we will all be.  

The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are invoked often, usually to point out the common flaws in both conflicts.  But they can point to an exit strategy as well.  Though U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War continued until 1973, the events of 1968 forced U.S. leaders to acknowledge failure and seek a way out.  The events of the past few weeks should do the same for our current leaders.

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More Comments:

James I. Marino - 11/30/2006

Sir, get your facts straight. According to the "Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War" First) Only 20,800 Americans were killed during the Nixon years while over 38,000 during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Second) Nixon, Laird, and Kissenger did NOT introduce nor increase the number of American forces in SVN, in fact withdrew them under VIetnamization. Which will probably be the end result of the Blue-ribbon panel created in 2006, that is Iraqization. Build-up and replace their forces with ours. The difference will be no bombing campaign in Iraq like that in Cambodia, Laos and later over Hanoi by Nixon. Cheering the authors is fine rewriting history or just yelling incorrect "facts" is a disservice to the large number of Amricans who do not know their own country's history.
Jim Marino, teacher of Vietnam War Studies at Hopatcong High School, NJ

Jeff Schneider - 11/20/2006

Remember the peace we negotiated in 1972 was the same peace we could have gotten in 1968. What exactly is the reason for staying in Iraq?

Jeff Schneider

Vernon Clayson - 11/20/2006

KIA is not a word that should be used here, many of the deaths during the Vietnam era were not combat related. A realistic estimate would be if the standards used in the Korean era were used for Vietnam era losses where accidental, suicide, natural and out of theater deaths were excluded, that would lower the Vietnam figure significantly.

Vernon Clayson - 11/20/2006

Too stupid, too ignorant, too arrogant! Mr. Simonelli, the wiseman, got the "too lazy" right.

Robert Gilbert - 11/20/2006

Amen, brothers.

A very sad fact that is often overlooked is that at the time Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara had reached the conclusion that the Vietman War could not be "won" by the USA, there had been roughly 18,000 deaths of US service people. It was this conclusion that casued them to reject the generals' pleas to introduce more troops to the fray. Then, along came Richard Nixon, Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger who quite readily sent in hundreds of thousands more. As a result, another 36,000 or so were killed. That is, 2/3 of the KIAs occured after the president and secretary of defense knew that it was a lost cause. Insofar as I know, McNamara is the only one to have ever admitted any remorse over this fiasco. So much for "stay the course."

James Jude Simonelli - 11/20/2006

Unfortunately, the old adage that "History repeats itself" is true.
It is unfortunate that the worst of mankind's history repeats itself more often that any of the best of his history.
It repeats itself for those to stupid to recognize the error of their ways.
It repeats itself for those to stupid to recognize their leaders’ inadequacies.
It repeats itself for those to ignorant to recognize their place in history.
It repeats itself for those to arrogant to believe they are part of a greater whole.
Maybe it’s true that history repeats itself because we are all too lazy to change that cycle.