Two Texans in Trouble
Vietnam "engulfed" the Johnson presidency, as Iraq is threatening to do to Bush's, says Boston University historian Julian Zelizer. And as the going got tougher, a "feeling of helplessness" eroded each president's popularity. Bush's approval rating today stands at only 34 percent, largely because of Iraq, just about where it was for Johnson in August 1968.
There are many differences between the two wars, of course. Today, there is no military draft, which intensified opposition to the Vietnam War. The level of casualties was much higher in Vietnam, where often some 500 American troops died every month. In contrast, 105 U.S. troops died in Iraq in October, the highest monthly total in a year. Vietnam was more a true civil war, with north divided from south, where Iraq is far more complex, inflamed by ethnic strife complicated by a grab bag of variously motivated insurgents.
And yet the parallels seem to be a growing part of the national debate on Iraq and could help influence what happens there next.
THE ROOTS OF WAR
Both Johnson and Bush, two tough-talking Texans, offered justifications for war that turned out to be tragically flawed. LBJ used an alleged confrontation between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin to win Senate approval for a resolution authorizing him to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. LBJ argued that on the cloudy night of Aug. 4, 1964, the North Vietnamese attacked two Navy destroyers, the USS Maddox and C. Turner Joy, without provocation. Johnson and other U.S. officials either distorted or misunderstood on-scene observations from Navy personnel and intercepts of enemy communications. Whatever the reason, they made it look as if the attacks happened, when they didn't. "In truth, Hanoi's Navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats" damaged in a confrontation with the Maddox two days earlier, wrote historian Robert Hanyok in a government report that came to light last year. Similarly, Bush and his senior advisers said the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, but it didn't. Bush has blamed faulty intelligence, but the erroneous claims have badly eroded his credibility.
Both presidents saw their wars as part of a broader international struggle. Johnson believed that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, other nations would follow. Bush sees the Iraq war as a "central front" in another type of global war-a fight with an Islamic jihadism. If Iraq falls, Bush warns, the terrorists will seek to topple other regimes and, eventually, attack the United States again.
In 1966, as Johnson was preparing to escalate the war, he told aides that America's technological might would easily overcome what he called a "raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country." Massive bombing, Johnson said, would bring the North Vietnamese to their knees; it didn't. Added David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest:" [T]he principals never defined either the mission or the number of troops .... There was never a clear figure and clear definition of what the strategy would be."