Are there historical parallels between Iraq and Vietnam

Q: Are there historical parallels between Iraq and Vietnam?

Fool Me Twice?

Communism and Terrorism, Vietnam and Iraq

By Alan R. Jansen

“If we don't stop the Reds in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they will be in San Francisco.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966

“Our military is confronting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles.” – President George W. Bush, 8/26/2003

There is no doubt that Johnson and Bush are two very different Presidents. However, it is precisely what they had in common that caused them to make the same mistake when dealing with an international threat: They had no war experience and little knowledge in foreign affairs, and they placed their trust in a small group of people with bad judgments or ill-intentions.

While it has become apparent that Bush had received special treatment and avoided going to Vietnam as the son of a US Congressman, then-Vice-President Johnson had argued for two weeks against an investigative mission to Saigon assigned by President Kennedy:

“I don't want to embarrass you by getting my head blown off in Saigon.” The young president supposedly answered: “That's all right Lyndon. If anything happens to you out there, Sam Rayburn and I will give you the biggest funeral in the history of Austin, Texas.”1

Both Johnson and Bush, with little experience in foreign politics, later became President by accident. There was no indication that Johnson gave the subject of foreign policy much serious attention before 1964, until finally he had no other recourse. Washington Post Journalist Philip Geyelin observed in 1966 that “[h]e had no taste and scant preparation for the deep waters of foreign policy.”2 Similarly, when he was running for President in 1999, Bush failed to name the President of Chechnya, the General in charge in Pakistan, and the Prime Minister of India.3

Both also relied on a limited number of advisors when it comes to consultation. In Johnson’s case, he adopted the modus operandi of his predecessors who had broader knowledge of foreign affairs. Since Eisenhower and Kennedy needed less assistance in policy formation and execution, they enjoyed different levels of success in foreign politics without much organization within the executive branch of the government. But Johnson’s style and background failed to match the small circle of Kennedy’s men. In Bush’s case, he picked well-prepared and experienced advisors for his administration. However, the diversity of perspectives and judgments is nullified by political favoritism. As a result, the decisions and actions of the two Presidents echoed each other:

“It has characterized the United States as a paper tiger and has insisted that the revolutionary struggle for 'liberation and unification' of Vietnam could be conducted without risks by, in effect, crawling under the nuclear and conventional defense of the free world. Peiping thus appears to feel that it has a large stake in demonstrating the new strategy, using Vietnam as a test case. Success in Vietnam would be regarded by Peiping as vindication for China's views in the worldwide ideological struggle.”4 – Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, 4/13/1964

“Do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?” asked Tim Russert. “I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with various groups and individuals, people who’ve devoted their lives from the outside to try and change things inside of Iraq.”5 – Vice-President Dick Cheney, 9/7/2003

In the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy was alarmed that Communist expansionist efforts would move toward a concentration on stimulating prolonged conspiracy and guerrilla warfare throughout the underdeveloped world.6 Also, the US believed that “military intervention was to stop the Communists who were professing radical doctrines which led to violent and dangerous activities.”7 [They] all carried in their veins the implicitly unlimited commitment to global struggle against Revolutionary Communism, an undone chapter of World War II.8 Secretary of State Dean Rusk asserted that Communist China was promoting aggression in Vietnam and seemed to be either Hitler Germany or Stalinist Russia.9 As Johnson rolled out Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained involvement in Vietnam, the new advertised purpose of the war became:

“[t]he willingness and determination of the United States to employ increasing force in support of… an independent and stable non-communist government in RVN and a free and neutral Laos.”10 – Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, 3/2/1965

In the fight against terrorism, Bush was informed that Saddam Hussein possessed powerful weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, the weapons must be destroyed and the brutal dictator must be toppled by a pre-emptive strike. Furthermore, Bush compared the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, even it is confirmed that there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. “He said the fight against Osama bin Laden -- the terrorist mastermind implicated in the 9/11 attacks and others against the United States and Europe -- is a fight against ‘darkness across the Middle East.’” 11 Now that the weapons of mass destruction have not materialized, the new advertised purpose of the war became:

"[o]ur choice: Iraq will be free; Iraq will be independent; Iraq will be a peaceful nation; and we will not waver in the face of fear and intimidation."12 – President George W. Bush, 4/16/2004

Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps Bush could learn from the retrospect of his father, who had a vantage point for Iraq as an ex-President:

“Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq… would have incurred incalculable human and political costs… The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”13- President George H.W. Bush, 1998

And perhaps it can be a choice of listening to the man who didn’t have the privilege to learn from the past:

“We are the strongest nation in the world today, and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning.”14 – Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, 2003

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