The Vietnam War experience can’t tell us anything about the war in Iraq – or so it is said. If you believe that, trying looking through this lens, and you may change your mind.
The Vietnam War had three phases. The War in Iraq has already completed an analogous first phase, is approaching the end of the second phase, and shows signs of entering the third.
Phase One in Vietnam lasted from 1961 until the Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in March 1965, authorizing deployment of large U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam. It began with hesitation and a gross misreading of American strategic interests. It concluded with the U.S. use of phony intelligence that made it seem that North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf without provocation.
President Kennedy was ambivalent about deeper involvement, but some of his aides believed that a North Vietnamese takeover of the south would bring Sino-Soviet dominion over all of Southeast Asia. They paid little attention to the emerging Sino-Soviet split, which the Intelligence Community was reporting in the early 1960s. Accordingly, the “containment of China” became their goal, their rationale for U.S. strategic purpose – that is, not allowing the Soviet Bloc to expand in this region.
Was it really in the American interest to “contain China” in Vietnam? By 1965, Soviet leaders were also pursuing the containment of China, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Did it, then, make sense for the United States to commit large military forces to the pursuit of Soviet objectives in Southeast Asia? Obviously not; the White House’s strategic rationale had no grounding in reality.
Not only Soviet leaders but Ho Chi Minh also wanted to contain China. A long-time loyalist to Moscow and early member of Lenin’s Communist International, he was never under China’s thumb. Yet he cooperated with Beijing to balance his dependency on Moscow, disallowing either to frustrate his aim, unifying all of Vietnam under his rule.
The Johnson Administration used an apparent North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin on the coast of North Vietnam in the spring of 1965 to persuade Congress to support the introduction of major U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. We now know that U.S. special operations – incursions into North Vietnam by Navy Seals – played a role in prompting North Vietnamese gun boat actions that became the casus belli for President Johnson. Thus, a misleading interpretation of the known facts, i.e., the intelligence assessment of these events, became the critical factor in making it America’s war, not just Saigon’s war.
Phase One in Iraq, the run-up to the invasion, looks remarkably similar. Broodings about the “necessity” to overthrow Saddam’s regime were heard earlier, but signs of action appeared in January 2002, when President Bush proclaimed his “axis of evil” thesis about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, countries he accused of acquiring “weapons of mass destruction” and supporting terrorists against the United States. This became the cornerstone of his rationale for invading Iraq, and it was no less ill-conceived than the strategic purpose for President Johnson’s war in Vietnam. It better served the interests of Iran and Osama bin Laden.
Iran had serious scores to settle with Iraq. In 1980, Saddam Hussein launched a bloody war that dragged on until 1988 without a decisive end. That President Bush would destroy Saddam's regime, saving Iran the trouble, was probably beyond its clerics’ wildest dreams.
He did the same for al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden must have been ecstatic. The U.S. invasion opened the way for al Qaeda cadres to enter Iraq by the scores. Killing Americans in Iraq is much easier than killing them in the United States after 9/11. Moreover, toppling secular Arab leaders – including Saddam – was, and remains, Osama bin Laden’s highest priority aim. America is farther down his list, seen as an intermediate objective in the long struggle to bring his version of radical Islamic rule to all Arab countries.
As it turned out, the alleged intelligence that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and that Saddam aided al Qaeda was grossly wrong. That, of course, became a major international embarrassment, alienating many U.S. allies and aiding its enemies in their claims that America is an aggressor state that cannot be trusted.
Does all of this – confused war aims and phony intelligence – sound familiar? It should.
Phase Two in Vietnam was marked by a refusal to reconsider the war’s “strategic” rationale. Rather, debate focused only on “tactical” issues as the war went sour.
By 1965 things had begun going badly for U.S. military operations. By the end of March 1968, public opinion was turning against the war and Johnson chose not to run for re-election. His own party in Congress was breaking with him, and the pro-war New York Times reversed itself that summer.
During this phase, no major leader or opinion maker in the United States dared revisit the key strategic judgment: did the U.S. war aim of containing China make sense? Instead, debate focused on how the war was being fought: on search-and-destroy operations, on body counts, and pacification efforts.
This obsession with tactical issues made it easier to ignore the strategic error. As time passed, costs went up, casualties increased, and public support fell. We could not afford to “cut and run,” it was argued. “The Viet Cong would carry out an awful blood-letting.” Supporters of the war expected no honest answer when they asked “How can we get out?” Eventually Senator Aiken of Vermont gave them one: “In boats.”
Phase Two in Iraq reveals that the same kind of strategic denial error prevails today. Since 2003, public discourse has focused on how the war is being fought. Reconstruction is inadequate. Not enough troops are available. We should not have dismantled the Iraqi military. Elections will save the day. The insurgency is in its “last throes.” And so on. Some of these criticisms are valid, but they fail to address the fundamental issue, the validity of U.S. strategic purpose.
As al Qaeda marched into a country where it had not dared to tread before, the White House refused to admit that its war allowed them in. As Iran’s influence with Iraqi Shiite clerics and militias quietly expands, the administration refuses to confess its own culpability. As Shiite politicians appear headed to dominate the U.S.-created “democracy” in Iraq, no one is asking “Who lost Iraq to Iran?”
Instead, after each election and referendum in Iraq, hope surges in the media. The New York Times’s reporting on the elections in February of last year was eerily reminiscent of its reporting from Saigon on the 1968 elections.
The end of Phase Two is not yet here, but the Congress is showing signs of nervousness about where the war is taking the country. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has said that by no measure can it be said that the United States is winning the war. Republican Congressman Walter Jones is trying to push a resolution through the House, calling on the President to begin a withdrawal. When Democratic Congressman Jack Murtha, a highly decorated Marine war veteran, asserted that the war was hopeless and that U.S. forces should be withdrawn, supporters of the Bush White House attacked his patriotism. Sadly, the Democratic leadership refused to defend him.
Does all this sound familiar? Not entirely. In 1968 the Democratic Congress proved willing to oppose the Democrat in the White House. The Republican Congress today has yet to show the same courage and wisdom.
Phase Three in Vietnam was marked by “Vietnamization” and “make-believe diplomacy” in Paris, policies still ignoring the strategic realities at the war’s beginning.
The wind-down in Vietnam actually started in Johnson’s last year in office, but Richard Nixon implemented it (taking his time doing so). Rather than a rapid pullout, he pursued two tactics. The first was turning the war over to South Vietnam’s military so that U.S. forces could withdraw. By 1972 most of them were gone. Second, negotiations in Paris through Soviet intermediaries with the North Vietnamese began. Both were based on transparently false assumptions.
The key problem in South Vietnam had always been achieving a political consolidation among anti-Viet Cong elites. It was not building effective military and police forces. In fact, as South Vietnamese military units became more effective, their commanders competed aggressively for political power, insuring a weak dictatorial regime in Saigon.
The assumptions about the Paris peace talks were no less illusory. Their designer, Henry Kissinger, believed that Moscow would “help” the United States reach a settlement short of total capitulation. In fact, by the late 1960s, the war was not only serving Soviet purposes against China, but also weakening NATO, hurting the U.S. currency in the international exchange rates, and making the charge of “imperialism” believable to citizens in many countries allied to the United States. Thus Soviet leaders had no objective reason to help the United States find a face-saving exodus. The deeper into “the big muddy” in Vietnam went the United States, the better for the Soviet Union. Second, Moscow could not have compelled North Vietnamese leaders in Paris to accept half a loaf in South Vietnam. Hanoi was playing off Moscow and Beijing with no intention of conceding its ultimate goal for any price.
The war ended, we now know, with the abject failure of both policies. As helicopters evacuated the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975, both illusions vanished.
Phase Three in Iraq is only beginning. Early signs were apparent in the presidential election campaign of 2004. Both Bush and Kerry put full confidence in “Iraqization.” U.S. forces will “stand down” as Iraqi forces “stand up.” They differed only on who could train more Iraqis faster. Nor would they acknowledge that “political consolidation” had to come before “military consolidation,” as the Vietnam experience demonstrated.
In Iraq, we watch U.S.-led make-believe diplomacy negotiating a constitutional deal among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Should we believe that the Iraqi Shiites, a majority of the population with the trauma of Saddam’s bloody repressions burned into their memories, will settle for less than full control? And why should we expect the Kurds to surrender their decade-old autonomy after suffering no less bloody repressions than did the Shiites? And why should we expect Sunnis to trust a Shiite-Kurdish regime not to take revenge against them for Saddam’s crimes? And why would Iran and Syria be willing to abandon support for their co-religionists in Iraq in order to strike a peace deal favorable to the United States?
Will Phase Three in Iraq end with helicopters flying out of the “green zone” in Baghdad? It all sounds so familiar.
The difference lies in the consequences. Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on U.S. power that Iraq is already having. On this point, those who deny the Vietnam-Iraq analogy are probably right. They are wrong, however, in believing that “staying the course” will have any result other than making the damage to U.S. power far greater than changing course and withdrawing sooner in as orderly a fashion as possible.
But even in its differences, Vietnam can be instructive about Iraq. Once the U.S. position in Vietnam collapsed, Washington was free to reverse the negative trends it faced in NATO and U.S.-Soviet military balance, in the world economy, in its international image, and in other areas. Only by getting out of Iraq can the United States possibly gain sufficient international support to design a new strategy for limiting the burgeoning growth of anti-Western forces it has unleashed in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
© 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College