How Iraq echoes Vietnam

This war in Iraq is beginning to look enough like Vietnam to bring back memories of those turbulent years from long ago. The Vietnam War stretched through the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Eisenhower's involvement was mostly symbolic. US military forces had a token presence and few advisers. Kennedy had a few more, but unrest was beginning to simmer. Kennedy sent Army Gen. Matthew Ridgway and civilian adviser Walt Rostow to Vietnam to report. Their separate reports disagreed so sharply that the president asked if they'd been to the same country. Quarrelsome religious sects appeared in Vietnam as well as some political violence. The prime minister of South Vietnam was assassinated shortly before Kennedy was in November 1963. Johnson came to office suddenly and devoutly wishing to get out of Vietnam but not knowing how. He feared being charged with having led the "only war America ever lost."

Then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident. On Aug. 2, 1964, the US destroyer Maddox reported that it had been attacked while it was on what the Navy described as a routine patrol off the North Vietnamese coast. It was joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy, and both ships reported further attacks Aug. 4. There was no damage to the destroyers, nor casualties to their crews, but Johnson ordered air strikes against North Vietnam. He also asked Congress for a joint resolution authorizing him to "take all necessary measure to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to repel further aggression." Congress passed the resolution, nearly unanimously, within two days. (Both Presidents Bush received similar authority before attacking Iraq in 1991 and 2003, respectively.)

One reason the Vietnam resolution got heavy Democratic support was that the 1964 presidential race was shaping up between President Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona Republican who was talking about "bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age." Compared with that, the Johnson response to Tonkin looked moderate. But it led to increasing troop levels, to more bombing of the North, to more casualties, draft calls, and protests on campuses.

As the scope of US involvement grew, the prospects of its success diminished, and opposition increased among the public and in Congress. In the Senate, and more slowly in the House, the center of opinion shifted gradually along a scale ranging from all-out support to all-out opposition.

Two events are noteworthy in influencing this shift. The first was the 1966 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam, which made opposing the war respectable. Opponents of the war were no longer only wild, long-haired college kids, but also mature, successful adults. Returning veterans began to speak out. This robbed the administration of the argument that failure to support the war was failure to support "our boys." These decorated veterans said the best way to support the troops was to bring them home.

The second event was the unraveling of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. An anonymous tip led the Foreign Relations Committee to investigate that incident more thoroughly. The Maddox, it turned out, hadn't been on a routine patrol at all, but on a sensitive, deliberately provocative, intelligence mission against North Vietnam. The Johnson administration was dissembling about the attacks, just as the Bush administration has dissembled about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

A far-sighted member of the House had foreseen how the end would come in Vietnam when opposition was a mere wisp. "We can take one casualty per congressional district," he'd said privately. "We can maybe even take 10. But if it gets to be 100, Congress will pull the plug." That is precisely what happened. Congress eventually ended the war in 1975 by using its power of the purse, at which point there'd been more than 50,000 American deaths. But, as early as March 1968, with the American death-toll in the war nearing 20,000, President Johnson decided not to seek reelection.

George W. Bush, have you noticed this?

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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