With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why Vietnam Haunts the Debate Over Iraq

The Vietnam War is again dividing the country, this time by analogy. Doves liken the Iraqi occupation to the Indochina debacle. Hawks tick off the obvious differences. All this comparing and contrasting shouldn't be surprising. A law of rhetorical entropy seems to decree that every American war since 1975–Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan—tends toward comparison with Vietnam.

Indeed, for more than a year, hardly a month has passed without some new invocation of the Vietnam parallel. Even before the Iraq invasion, critics of the rush to war pointed to Vietnam as a cautionary reminder about the arrogance of power. The ground war had lasted barely a week before skeptics and hacks began whispering the dreaded word"quagmire."

The Vietnam parallel returned with a vengeance during last fall's controversy over Saddam's missing weapons cache. The dawning recognition that the Bush team's zeal for war had led it to misread data—and consequently to misrepresent the Iraqi threat to the world—stirred memories of another phony casus belli, the Gulf of Tonkin attacks of August 1964. Meanwhile, the administration's relentlessly upbeat forecasts and its withholding of key information opened a credibility gap reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's.

In the past few weeks, the occupation has inspired still more Vietnam comparisons—this time to the ill-fated"pacification" program. Violent uprisings have shown far greater Iraqi anger toward the American presence than was assumed. The enemy of our enemy, it turned out, wasn't our friend: Many Iraqis thrilled about Saddam's ouster nonetheless had little love for their occupiers. But the Vietnam experience suggested that the odds against winning the"hearts and minds" of the Iraqi populace were long. Pacification failed in Vietnam, after all, both because the Army always focused mainly on its military goals, and, more important, because most Vietnamese didn't wish to be pacified. Discouraged and sour, U.S. troops put stock in an officer's memorable line:"Grab 'em by the balls and their hearts and mind will follow." That approach failed, too.

For all the resemblances, however, even most occupation critics agree that history isn't repeating itself. The Vietnam parallel, like all historical analogies, admits as many differences as similarities. Each time Vietnam is invoked, some administration booster effortlessly reels off the countless contrasts: the relative brevity of the American term in Iraq; the lighter casualty toll; the wholly different nature of the enemy. Most significantly, in Iraq the main battlefield victories have already been won. And so the Vietnam parallels and contrasts degenerate into partisan claims and counterclaims.

(What does genuinely echo Vietnam, however, is the barrage of scurrilous attacks against those who question the occupation. Richard Nixon used to argue, in a textbook case of black-is-white newspeak, that protesters who demanded an immediate end to the war were actually prolonging it—rather like saying that Martin Luther King Jr. was prolonging segregation. Now, sadly, that twisted logic is being revived to try to disparage administration critics.)

But if Vietnam offers little in the way of usable lessons today, it remains relevant as history and as a large part of the explanation of how we got into Iraq at all. Among the American public, especially on the left, Vietnam conferred a deep wariness—"the Vietnam Syndrome"—about military intervention. The war chastened many Cold Warriors, teaching them the wisdom of humility in foreign affairs. It demolished the domino-theory logic that had transformed the moderate policy of containment into an untenable duty to police the world for Communist influence.

But the Vietnam Syndrome had harmful consequences, too. If it rightly showed many liberals that the Nicaraguan Sandinistas posed no threat to the United States, it also blinded them to the wisdom of such interventions as the first Gulf War, which stopped a regional menace from taking over its neighbors, or the Balkan interventions, which saved thousands of Muslims. And the Vietnam Syndrome also saddled the Democratic party with a reputation as soft on defense, which Republicans have regularly exploited at the polls.

Along with the Vietnam Syndrome on the left, however, the Indochina war also bequeathed a different neurotic complex to the right. The Vietnam humiliation naturally spawned the sorts of"stabbed in the back" myths that accompany most lost wars: wishful claims that even more American troops and firepower could have, somehow, prevailed; that only a lack of will led to defeat.

Such thinking influenced conservative policymakers disenchanted with the realpolitik of Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In the 1970s, most leading diplomatic thinkers shared Nixon and Kissinger's view that America was declining as a hegemony and had to share global power with the Soviet Union, China, Europe, and Japan. Many on the right, however, including Dick Cheney and other key Bush advisers today, concluded otherwise.

Vietnam helped convince them that America had to deploy armed force around the world more often and with fewer qualms. The exercise of American might could not only achieve diplomatic ends but also dispel the debilitating shame of Vietnam.

This outlook gained strength in the 1980s. The movie Rambo: First Blood, with its narrative of avenging the Vietnam defeat, embodied the spirit of the age. Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada didn't much affect the long-term security of the United States, but it did induce waves of patriotic pride. George Bush Sr.'s 1989 invasion of Panama similarly did little militarily but remove a thorn in the president's side. Symbolically, though, it showed that the American armed forces were back and ready for action. Two years later, after the successful expulsion of Saddam's army from Kuwait, Bush could claim he had kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.

But the claim was premature, and not just because Saddam remained in power. The Vietnam Syndrome endures because Americans remain profoundly ambivalent about the use of military force to work our will. As well we should.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.