Learning from history

Iraq, war critics claim, is America’s new Vietnam. They could be right.
Writes David Kranz in the Sioux Falls, SD, Argus-Leader:

As President Bush travels across the country proclaiming successes in Iraq, critics are getting louder in opposition.

Former Sen. George McGovern, a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, continues to speak out about Iraq, discussing it during a recent speech at the downtown library in Sioux Falls.

The Vietnam War was his issue when he won the 1972 Democratic Party nomination for president. He recently reviewed his campaign speeches focusing on that war, concluding, “Today, you can just cross out Vietnam and write in Iraq. It’s the same thing. That insurgency kept rolling in Vietnam the longer we stayed.”

The insurgency in Iraq has become a challenge too big for an outside power to handle, he said.

“They don’t have to win any battles. They just have to kill people. We are trying to do now what Nixon attempted in Vietnam. We are trying to turn security over to the Iraqi army – the same people in Saddam Hussein’s army and they have friends in the insurgency,” McGovern said.

The comparison also surfaces in debates by scholars. Writes Scott Laderman, assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota on George Mason University’s History News Network:

By now we have all seen the analogies drawn between the present war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam decades ago. Some of these analogies have been insightful. Some, to put it charitably, have not. Nearly all, however, have focused on how the United States entered and fought both wars. Little attention has been heeded to what the Vietnam war might tell us about the United States getting out of this one. It is an issue that deserves our attention.

More than thirty-five years ago, as American civilian and military opposition to the Vietnam war increased, those advocating continued warfare found themselves in something of a bind. The applicability of the domino theory to Vietnam had been persuasively challenged. The idea that America was fighting for democracy in Vietnam appeared to many observers, given the despotic nature of the successive Saigon regimes, risible. Yet despite the gap between the government’s rhetoric and observable reality, a minority of Americans clung to the idea of the war as a righteous and necessary cause. What little credibility the public explanations for American intervention enjoyed, however, was largely demolished when, in 1971, the top secret Defense Department history of American policymaking in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg and published in a number of outlets. It is no wonder, given the extent to which the government’s own analysts put the lie to what American officials had been telling the public for years, that the Nixon administration reacted so hysterically to this turn of events. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, for much of the American public, the Pentagon Papers shattered what remained of their will to continue the fight in Southeast Asia. American policymakers determined to perpetuate the war were therefore confronted with a crisis.

Today, I would argue, American officials find themselves in a somewhat comparable position. Their public explanations for the Iraq invasion have nearly all been discredited. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Evidence of the Bush administration’s deception on this issue is voluminous.1 Iraq’s support for al Qaeda? Dick Cheney’s stubborn insistence notwithstanding, no such relationship existed.2 Freedom for the Iraqi people? As is clear from an examination of the factual record, the Bush administration opposed the 2005 election it now touts as perhaps its greatest democratic achievement.