Two Texans in Trouble
Many believe Bush and his war planners have made similar blunders. The Bush team consistently underestimated the need for more U.S. troops in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the administration initially argued that the Iraqis would welcome American forces as liberators, as Robert McNamara, another hard-charging Pentagon boss, had argued during Vietnam. Yet the struggle for Iraqi "hearts and minds," to borrow a Vietnam-era phrase, isn't exactly going real well.
LBJ's strategy of "limited war" prevented U.S. forces from entering North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, which guaranteed that the United States could never deliver a knockout blow. Bush is in a similar predicament because the opposition is so diffuse and elusive. "In both cases, we have the problem where you divert your forces to one area and occupy it, but the moment you leave, the enemy comes right back," says Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, Vietnam veteran, and critic of the Iraq war. "The other thing that is so similar and so important is that the military must use overwhelming force, much like they had to in Vietnam, to protect our people in Iraq . ... But when you use that kind of force, you end up killing civilians on the ground, and that's when you turn the hearts and minds against you."
LBJ had a penchant for micromanaging-the U.S. Air Force, he once boasted, couldn't bomb an outhouse without his say-so. Bush conducts himself much differently, he told conservative columnists recently: "Remember the pictures in the Oval Office, with them sitting over the maps, picking out the targets in Vietnam? That's not happening in this war." There are also fundamental differences in how the two presidents have responded emotionally. Luci Johnson, LBJ's daughter, once recalled: "He'd be looking at the TV set and they'd be giving reports on fatalities that day, and it was as if you were looking at a man who had a knife thrust into the pit of his stomach . ... He just physically looked like he was in agony."
Bush (who served as a stateside Air National Guard pilot during Vietnam) compartmentalizes. He weeps with the families of slain troops-with whom he meets regularly in private. But he doesn't let the emotional toll weaken his resolve. "He feels that 30, 40, 50 years from now he'll be seen to have made the right decision in Iraq," a senior adviser says.
And he still can enjoy himself. "He keeps the mood light,"says an aide. On a recent trip back from campaign stops in Michigan and Iowa, the president came to the conference room on Air Force One and joined a game of gin rummy with Karl Rove and a few other staff members. With the World Series underway, the talk soon turned to baseball. Bush reminisced about his days as managing partner of the Texas Rangers and revealed an insider's knowledge of the lineups of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers.
A huge blow to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam began in the predawn hours of Jan. 31, 1968-an annual holiday called Tet-when an estimated 75,000 fighters from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched coordinated attacks against South Vietnam's five largest cities, 100 other cities and towns, and scores of allied military bases. This came only two months after Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in South Vietnam, declared that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were so chewed up they could barely pursue large-scale offensive operations. Tet cost the lives of 2,000 Americans and 4,000 South Vietnamese troops. Militarily, American troops scored a victory; 40,000 of the enemy were killed. But Tet called U.S. claims into question; it showed the war could go on for years-and it did.