Historians/Experts Weigh In On The Iraq-Vietnam Analogy

Ken AshfordHistory, IraqLeave a Comment

Continuing from this below, in which Bush uses the Vietnam-was-a-mistake model to promote his Iraq strategy, the experts weigh in:

Not surprisingly, they’re not impressed.

Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. “It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president,” he said in a telephone interview.

“We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn’t work our will,” he said.

“What is Bush suggesting? That we didn’t fight hard enough, stay long enough? That’s nonsense. It’s a distortion,” he continued. “We’ve been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It’s a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out.”

And some more.

Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow said Bush is reaching for historical analogies that don’t track. “Vietnam was not a bunch of sectarian groups fighting each other,” as in Iraq, Karnow said. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge toppled a U.S.-backed government.

“Does he think we should have stayed in Vietnam?” Karnow asked.

And some more.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed these comments. “The President emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early. It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay the worse it gets.”

For that matter, Rick Perlstein noted a series of posts — 1, 2, 3, and 4 — which, combined, debunk most of the popular conservative myths working their way through the political world today

Given today’s rhetoric, this is probably the most notable one.

It is true that tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed, and hundreds of thousands exiled to “re-education” camps, by a triumphant Communist government after Saigon fell in 1975. But by the early 1970s as the worst American bombing was raging, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were being killed, and millions being exiled from their homes — carnage that came to a dead stop once the war ended. As cruel as the Communist consolidation of power was, ending the war entailed an obvious net saving of lives, and if it were saving lives conservatives actually cared about — instead of scoring ideological points — this should be obvious.

That’s the first point. The second: America’s war aim — standing up an anti-Communist democratic government in Saigon absent an American military occupation — was impossible. President Nixon admitted this privately all the time, even while he was simultaneously publicly claiming he was negotiating to achieve exactly that. The point has finally become so obvious that now even conservatives admit it. Though conservatives still haven’t brought themselves to admit the more fundamental point: Nixon was right. Indeed, sickeningly, after more visits and better contacts in-country than any American politician, he had been saying we couldn’t win in Vietnam privately since 1966, as Len Garment disarmingly acknowledged in his memoir.

Regrettably, in just one day, the right is flunking military policy, national security policy, foreign policy, and history. Not bad for a day’s work.

Here’s some more experts, explaining that Bush learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War (a war he avoided fighting in):

“Bush is cherry-picking history to support his case for staying the course,” said Br. Gen. John Johns (USA Ret.), an expert on counter-insurgency who also served in Vietnam. “What I learned in Vietnam is that US forces could not conduct a counterinsurgency operation. The longer we stay there, the worse it’s going to get.”


“The speech was an act of desperation to scare the American people into staying the course in Iraq,” said Lawrence Korb, a retired Vietnam Naval aviator and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “He’s distorted the facts, painting all of the people in Iraq as being on the same side which is simply not the case. Iraq is a religious civil war.” Korb elaborated further on the refugee crisis as a result of the war in Iraq: “If the President cared about the refugees he’d let a lot more of them into our country.”

Rand Beers, a former Marine Corps Infantry Officer in Vietnam and now president of the National Security Network said, “The President’s analogies are as flawed as his strategy in Iraq. The longer we keep the dependency we’ve created in Iraq, the harder it will be for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future.”

Moira Whelan, communications director for the National Security Network, summarized the reaction to Bush’s speech this way: “The outcry about the misrepresentations in the President’s speech tells us that experts, Vietnam veterans and the American people simply will not buy his attempt to mask the fact the surge has failed in Iraq.”