A New War Like — Vietnam?

With the first stage of the air war against the Taliban regime completed, the United States now enters a more difficult and dangerous phase of combat.

Repeatedly, President Bush has warned that the fight against international terrorism will not resemble the previous conflicts with Iraq and in Kosovo. But he has left unsaid, in what is no doubt a deliberate omission, any comparison to a war it does resemble — the war in Vietnam.

In his address to Congress on Sept. 20, for example, Bush’s words eerily echoed those offered by Lyndon Johnson a generation ago. “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail,” Bush declared. Johnson made a similar pledge in March 1965. “We will not be defeated,” he vowed. “We will not grow tired.” That month the first U.S. ground troops arrived in Vietnam.

Other similarities between the war in Vietnam and the war against terrorism abound. Bush has promised to sever the financial network that supports al-Qaida, the organization headed by Osama bin Laden, the terrorist who plotted the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Johnson likewise promised to sever the logistical network (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) that supplied the Viet Cong, the guerrilla forces dedicated to the overthrow of the pro-United States government in South Vietnam.

Bush has also asked the American people to return to their normal routines as quickly as possible. He has made no mention of real sacrifices, such as higher taxes. Johnson similarly avoided the question of sacrifice. Not until 1968 did he authorize a temporary tax surcharge.

Of course, the analogy between Vietnam and Afghanistan is by no means perfect. For one, the end of the Cold War has dramatically altered the geo-political context — witness the possibility that old rivals Russia and China may support current U.S. efforts to bring bin Laden to justice. For another, terrorist cells that operate across national borders are not identical to guerrilla forces such as the Viet Cong, which used neutral countries as safe havens but ultimately depended upon the support of North Vietnam.

But the parallels between the military actions launched by Johnson and Bush remain numerous and troubling. In 1965, Johnson made an open-ended commitment to support South Vietnam without a clear means to achieve victory or an accurate measure to assess progress.

In 2001, Bush has promised to destroy al-Qaida despite similar obstacles. Like the war in Vietnam, the fight against international terrorism promises to be long and bitter, with no certainty of lasting success. Like the war in Vietnam, it will also feature an unclear enemy, an uncertain objective and an unpredictable outcome. And like the war in Vietnam, it will be waged on unfamiliar terrain.

Other historical comparisons have dominated the discussion to date. Pearl Harbor was the most popular — and misleading — analogy to emerge in the wake of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, twin symbols of America’s economic and military might. Commentators and politicians, repeating the famous words of President Franklin Roosevelt, declared that Sept. 11, 2001, was now, like Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” Once again, a fanatical enemy had “suddenly and deliberately” committed a blatant act of war against a peaceful nation.

But in 2001, bin Laden was already at war with the United States — witness the attack on the USS Cole last year. Perhaps, then, a more proper analogy is with the surprise assault on the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. On the last day of January 1968, as part of a massive series of coordinated assaults across South Vietnam, a suicide squad of Viet Cong sappers invaded the compound of the embassy, the symbol of American power in the region. The dramatic event — broadcast on national television — stunned the country, which until then had believed official statements that the war was going well.

In the aftermath of Tet, the United States achieved a short-term tactical triumph over the Viet Cong. But the long-term political damage had been done. The credibility of government officials had eroded to the point where many Americans began to doubt whether the war in Vietnam was winnable and whether it was worth the cost.

The fight against international terrorism is critical to the future of the United States and the world. But to defeat international terrorism Bush must maintain the resolve of the American people to pay the price of dollars spent, lives lost and liberties curtailed. To protect his political credibility, he must also continue to dampen expectations of a conclusive victory at little cost in the near future. To meet the challenge, the White House should face — not avoid — painful parallels from the Vietnam era. In so doing, it can help prepare the nation for the long and difficult struggle that lies ahead.

Michael W. Flamm is an assistant professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and a writer for the History News Service.