Has the U.S. gotten beyond 'the Vietnam syndrome'?


November 18, 1990|By Jules Witcoverand Jack W.Germond

Washington -- When the United States finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, much of the credit -- or blame -- was assigned to the aggressive anti-war movement that had developed slowly but inexorably during the American involvement there. That involvement could not be sustained because there no longer was sufficient support for it at home.

Furthermore, a product of the experience was what came to be known as "the Vietnam syndrome" -- an attitude of never-again to American military adventures abroad in which U.S. interests were not so unambiguously present that home-front solidarity would be assured.

In the American invasions of Grenada in 1983 and of Panama in 1989, this attitude was swept aside in swift and successful military operations against only token resistance. Many said afterward that the American people had finally recovered from "the Vietnam syndrome" and were ready to accept their country's role as a world power again.

At the same time, though, the crumbling of the Communist empire in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War gave hope that peace was breaking out at last, and that the American military might -- constructed to meet the Cold War threat -- could be reduced, permitting a "peace dividend" to address long-neglected domestic needs.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, however, shattered that hope as President Bush moved swiftly to bar further Iraqi advancement into Saudi Arabia and achieve a pullout from Kuwait. Overwhelming public support for that action -- 82 percent in a USA Today poll in late August -- indicated that the American people had indeed gotten over "the Vietnam syndrome."

But Mr. Bush's latest escalation -- his decision to send more troops to the Persian Gulf to give the United States the capability to take offensive action -- has now resuscitated "the Vietnam syndrome" among many Americans. The result is a nascent anti-war movement that looks superficially like the ragtag protest that developed against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s but has elements that can make it more formidable and respectable.

Most important, members of Congress in considerable numbers are trying to blow the whistle on Mr. Bush before he puts the country into a shooting war under circumstances and in a place fraught with potential for frustration and disaster. At the time of the U.S. escalation in Vietnam, by contrast, only two senators -- Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening -- voted against Lyndon B. Johnson's blank-check Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Another difference, says former Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern, a leading voice in the Vietnam protest, is that "it is not the kind of youth movement we had in the '60s," but rather is touching older Americans, including professional people, who during the Vietnam War often looked askance at the campus "peaceniks" who were in the vanguard of the protest.

Mr. McGovern himself has picked up where he left off then, calling in an article in The Nation for U.S. ground troops to be replaced by United Nations-sanctioned soldiers from Arab countries and for U.S. participation to be "limited to air and naval power coordinated with the U.N. troop command." Then, Mr. McGovern says, a U.N. conference should be convened to take up in phases all outstanding issues in the Middle East, starting with withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and moving on to the Palestinian question and other territorial matters involving Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

When asked whether such a conference would not be a concession to Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who has demanded it as the price for withdrawing from Kuwait, Mr. McGovern says: "So what? It would be somewhat of a face-saving for him, but if we have to be a little humble, it's not the end of the world. We've been pressing for a negotiated settlement [of the other issues] anyway."

If some such outcome does not take place, Mr. McGovern says, and Mr. Bush initiates a shooting war in the Persian Gulf, an area ill-suited for U.S. military technology, "he's going to be a one-term president, that's for sure. It's going to be catastrophic. People forget what happened to that helicopter in the desert" -- a reference to President Jimmy Carter's failed hostage rescue attempt in 1980.

Although the protest against U.S. offensive action in the Persian Gulf has not yet generated the kind of campus activity that marked the Vietnam era, Mr. McGovern says it is starting. He has been invited to speak at Cornell and Columbia and some West Coast universities. Apparently "the Vietnam syndrome" is not dead after all.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.

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