Bush’s Vietnam

President Bush, faced with mounting casualties and declining popularity, addressed a sympathetic military this week at Fort Bragg, N.C., home to the Army Airborne. With trademark blue necktie amid the Red-White-and-Blue, Bush preached with characteristic conviction.

Iraq was defined as integral to the global war on terrorism, with stress on Sept. 11, 2001, to justify destroying the Saddam Hussein regime. There were no subtleties or nods to complexities. In that sense, Karl Rove’s recent red-meat denunciation of “liberals” for weakness in war was New York advance work for the president’s major message.

Analogies with Vietnam doubtless will grow as our current war continues. Bush’s emphasis on partnering with indigenous Iraqi forces is reminiscent of Washington’s preoccupation, and frustration, with training an effective South Vietnamese military.

The very long-term intervention in Southeast Asia was justified as part of the global Cold War to contain communism. Later the very costly involvement, in blood and treasure, was justified by the even greater projected problems of a precipitous withdrawal.

We are now in the third year of fighting in Iraq. The third year of heavy Vietnam involvement proved decisive, even though Washington did not fully withdraw until years later. Today, sophisticated observers note the American people will not accept significant military casualties, but between 1965 and 1968 we did just that for Vietnam. The nightly news carried grim statistics and graphic images of the combat there. Yet a majority of the public supported the Johnson administration war.

That changed dramatically with the January 1968 Tet Offensive, when every significant city and town in South Vietnam was simultaneously attacked. Carnage and casualties were everywhere, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where Viet Cong suicide squads temporarily got inside. Confident victory statements of President Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland were discredited, and public support of the war collapsed.

The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong and captured territory was quickly retaken but the political damage was done. LBJ withdrew from office, the Democratic Party sundered and the Republican Party became ascendant. The Nixon administration was able to continue the war only through emphasis on reduction of American involvement.

Crucial to LBJ’s failure was the perception of rigidity to the point of being self-defeating. Awhile ago, a lecture provided an opportunity for foreign-policy discussion with a largely Republican business audience. One older man noted emphatically that President Kennedy had been too smart and imaginative ever to have become so trapped in Vietnam. History renders that point moot, but the lesson is both durable and timely.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” E-mail him at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)