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Did Vietnam Anti-War Protests Embolden Our Enemies?

Like the larger Tet Offensive of 1968 in Vietnam, the uprising of Sunnis and Shiites that began in April 2004 in Iraq has heightened Americans' anxieties about the prospects for success in the war and given rise to renewed criticism of the administration's leadership. Even though defenders of the war and the administration have rejected others' attempts to draw analogies between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, they have drawn an analogy of their own. Iraq War supporters have repeated the charge Vietnam War hawks leveled against doves; namely, that domestic opposition to the prosecution of a war has the effect of emboldening America's enemies.

Is there historical merit in this historical comparison? There is abundant documentary and polling evidence to decide the case for the American side. On the Communist side, such evidence is scant. Nonetheless, drawing on interviews, captured Communist documents, newly revealed policy papers, and transcripts of negotiations between Hanoi and Washington, we can infer conclusions that carry more authority than deductions derived from ideological dogma and political spin about Communist thinking.

Public opinion polls in the United States indicate that in early 1968 the citizenry was uneasy about the war and growing more weary of it, with a majority turning against its continued prosecution and favoring gradual withdrawal, Vietnamization, negotiations with the enemy, and a bombing pause. Polls influenced policymakers and politicians, who studied them carefully, comparing the data with their own personal soundings of friends, colleagues, family members, and the press. It was not just the general public's mood that had changed. The confidence of many corporate executives, Democratic policymakers, and informed officers and soldiers in the military was waning. Key Republican leaders had doubts, and rank-and-file Republican sentiment was moving away from all-out support of the war. Driving the changes in public opinion were the war's costs and frustrations. Mounting casualties, economic burdens, social dissonance, and feelings of frustration and futility were the most palpable.

Communist Vietnamese policymakers had correctly foreseen that the American people would come to believe that it was not in their interest to endure heavy costs and suffer high casualties in a distant war for unclear, abstract purposes. They had always assumed that the United States, which had global ambitions and global responsibilities, would be overextended in Indochina and that its troops, fighting on foreign soil, would likely suffer low morale. At the same time, North Vietnamese leaders and Viet Cong cadres put their faith in their own fighting ability, their own morale, and what they considered their own just causes. For Communist leaders, public opinion in Vietnam was therefore much more important than public opinion in the United States. They were, moreover, unsurprised that an antiwar movement had arisen from progressive elements in American society, and while they were marginally encouraged by it, they were also disappointed and realistic about its actual strength and could plainly see that American policymakers were able to continue the war with great violence despite the doubts of the American public and the activities of the antiwar movement. The Vietnamese were realistic enough to know that protest in the United States could not turn the war around in their favor. Its outcome would be decided on the military, political, and diplomatic fronts.

By early 1971 surveys of American opinion indicated that voter support for Nixon and his presidency was soft and that his continuance of the war was a factor. Polling evaluations of his strength and decisiveness were high but declining. His credibility score was down, and the public's assessment of his handling of the war was at its lowest level since the beginning of his presidency. The citizenry was also becoming more dovish, or, if not that, exhausted by the war. By the fall solid majorities indicated they believed the struggle was "morally wrong" and opposed keeping a residual American force in Vietnam, bombing on behalf of a postwar South Vietnam, and continuing massive monetary aid to the Saigon regime.

Nixon and Kissinger blamed the antiwar movement, liberal intellectuals, the press, and Congress for opposing their policies, encouraging the enemy, prolonging the war, and ultimately causing the collapse of South Vietnam. Their public defense of their policies rested on the argument that additional military force would have turned things around. But this argument conveniently omitted consideration of those analyses within the Johnson and Nixon administrations at the time that the use of even greater force than what was already being applied would have triggered Soviet and/or Chinese entry into the war, probably would have failed, and would have overtaxed America's military and economic resources, further damaging the economy, undermining America's global military posture, and provoking political rebellion among mainstream, fence-sitting voters.

Privately, Nixon and Kissinger were influenced by these analyses and additional appreciations. They finally came to understand that the war could not be won in a military victory over the southern guerrillas and the North Vietnamese main-force units, and so they sought a political settlement while withdrawing American troops. How they did it and how they prolonged the war in doing it can be criticized, but the point is that they finally came to appreciate the military and political realities on the ground in Vietnam.

Although there are significant differences between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, meaningful analogies exist. In a nutshell, if the American public's faith in Bush's leadership and in the prospects of success in the war are slipping, it is mainly because of what is happening on the ground in Iraq, politically and militarily. Critics and opponents of the war provide alternative opinions and analyses that serve much more to point the way out of the quagmire than they serve to encourage America's enemies, who are motivated and encouraged by their own resentments and goals and their own interpretations of their prospects in Iraq. There is another lesson: in a "people's war," excessive reliance on excessive military force is likely to produce more enemies and fewer friends.