Two Texans in Trouble
Johnson and many military officers blamed the news media for failing to portray Tet as a military defeat for the enemy, part of their larger contention that the media undermined support for the war by focusing on bad news. Today, Bush makes similar charges against the media for focusing on the negative in Iraq. "It's maddening for us," says a senior Bush adviser.
Yet media defenders say the reporting in Iraq will be vindicated, as it was-mostly-in Vietnam, and they point to a 1989 study for the Army by historian William Hammond, entitled "The Military and the Media." It found that "what alienated the American public in both the Korean and Vietnam wars was not news coverage but casualties." When casualties jumped, public support dropped. Hammond said that despite serious shortcomings in military journalism, "the press reports were still often more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam." Today, though many Americans distrust the media, they also have doubts about whether the president is talking straight. "Bush has a very big credibility problem in Iraq," historian Dallek told U.S. News.
THE SPECTER OF QUAGMIRE
A more fundamental problem is whether America's resolve can be maintained. Bush warns frequently that the terrorists believe Americans will tire of the Iraq war, and he urges patience. He promises to pursue the war to victory "even if it drives him down to 3 percent" approval in the polls, Snow says.
But, in an eerie harbinger of the current situation in Iraq, North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong said in 1962: "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars-and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus, we are sure to win in the end."
Johnson and Bush gambled that the indigenous populations in Vietnam and Iraq would eventually take over the fighting and establish stable, democratic governments. That didn't happen in Vietnam, and it is proving very difficult in Iraq. Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who declared the Vietnam War a stalemate after the Tet offensive on Feb. 27, 1968, told U.S. News: "I suppose you [can] say there were big similarities in the long run in Vietnam because it became apparent that we were going to have to create a democracy there as well. And that isn't easy."
LBJ declined to run again in 1968 after he was challenged in the Democratic primaries by antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Bush, of course, won his narrow re-election victory two years ago, but he's facing the possibility of considerable setbacks in this week's elections because of Iraq, which could make him a lame duck.
The Vietnam War cost the United States more than 58,000 lives and claimed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. It cost more than $500 billion in today's dollars. The Iraq war has claimed more than 2,800 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqis so far. The financial cost of the Iraq war is expected to reach $320 billion in the coming months and is running at about $2 billion per week-far more than initial estimates.
And consider this: After Johnson left office, in January 1969, the conflict continued for more than six years. The last U.S. combat troops didn't leave Saigon until 1973, and South Vietnam, trying to go it alone, fell to the North in April 1975, as frightened residents climbed to the rooftops, hoping, vainly, to be taken along by the fleeing Americans.
With Silla Brush, Angie C. Marek and U.S. News & World Report Library