WASHINGTON -- President Bush has been assuring the nation repeatedly that war in the Persian Gulf will not be "another Vietnam." But in one sense, history already is repeating itself.
The president's assurances deal with the nature of the military conflict. He is making the obvious point that fighting in the desert in the Middle East is far different from becoming "bogged down" for years in the jungles of Vietnam. He also is reinforcing the myth -- and it is just that -- that somehow the United States fought that war with one hand tied behind its back. In fact, the only thing the U.S. didn't use in Vietnam was nuclear weapons.
But the situation is very much "another Vietnam" when viewed in political terms. Although Bush has managed to build an international coalition behind his policy, he has reached the brink of war without building anything that could be called a national consensus for it. On the contrary, the opposition to the president's policy today is at a level the opposition to the war in Vietnam didn't reach for several years.
Thus, for example, although a New York Times-CBS News poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe Bush has done "everything he could to avoid war," a similar majority -- 56 percent -- also said that it would accept an international conference on all Middle East problems as a price for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, a course Bush repeatedly has rejected.
The poll also showed, as have other recent surveys, that approval of the president's policy declined sharply among those who expect the war to last more than a few weeks and to involve substantial casualties. Only 41 percent of those who expect 5,000 or more American lives to be lost support military action now.
The survey also demonstrated in stark terms the president's failure to make a clear case for his policy. Asked the main reasons for sending troops to Saudi Arabia, 42 percent said it was to stop Iraq from attacking others, 29 percent that it was to protect the oil supply and 11 percent said it was to return the Kuwaiti leadership to power. Unsurprisingly, only the first of those three groups provided a majority in favor of military action.
The popular mood is, of course, strikingly different from what it was when Congress voted in overwhelming numbers for
declarations of war to allow the United States to enter both World War I and World War II. Both of those wars already were under way, World War I for three years and World War II for two before the U.S. became involved. In each case, the U.S. was reacting to direct aggression -- German submarine attacks in World War I and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
The vote to enter World War I was 82-6 in the Senate, 373-50 in the House. On the declaration of World War II, there was only a single 'no' vote.
And the popular mood today also is quite different from that when Congress approved with only a murmur of dissent the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson used as a de facto declaration for the war in Vietnam that ultimately cost 55,000 American lives.
It took four years of growing protest to reach the point in 1968 at which Johnson decided the opposition was too overwhelming -- only 26 percent of the people supported his policy -- to make it possible for him to win another term.
President Bush, by contrast, knows from the outset that the nation is so badly divided that he could be in Johnson's shoes within a matter of months unless success comes both quickly and relatively painlessly.
There is, moreover, reason to believe that retaining public support could be far more difficult in 1991 than was the case in 1968.
Although television news coverage was credited with bringing the war in Vietnam into the living rooms, the medium was far less technically sophisticated than it is today, when satellites can do the trick instantly.
That likelihood is obviously one of the factors in the Defense Department's attempt to control news coverage as tightly as possible. But it is a vain hope; there are too many news organizations from too many countries to be controlled.
The president is right when he argues that the Persian Gulf is not Vietnam. But he is kidding himself if he believes a war in Iraq will be any more popular than the one in Vietnam.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.