Vietnam casts shadow on support Clinton speech does not dispel public's fear that history will repeat itself

November 29, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Judy Silas, a middle school principal in Jacksonville, Fla., listened Monday night as President Clinton argued his case for sending U.S. troops to Bosnia. But she heard something else. Something familiar. Something she said she heard three decades ago when her brother -- and some of the high school seniors she taught -- were sent off to war.

"I heard Clinton use the same arguments I heard when we were going into Vietnam," says Ms. Silas, who opposes the involvement of U.S. ground troops in the Bosnian peace effort.

"The only difference is there's no talk now of the 'red scourge.' But it's history repeating itself. I'm only 55. I shouldn't have to see history repeating itself so soon."

Skepticism widespread

After Mr. Clinton's Oval Office speech seeking to rally support for dispatching 20,000 troops to Bosnia, Americans across the country remained deeply skeptical about the operation. Many drew parallels with Vietnam. Others questioned Mr. Clinton's contention that intervening in that complicated, bloodstained region was in America's national interest.

National polls and interviews suggest that many, perhaps most people still oppose troop deployment, although the president's speech may have swayed some who had been ambivalent.

"It was a very well-made case," said Scott Underbrink of Casper, Wyo., who had mixed feelings about the pending military action until the president's televised address.

Mr. Underbrink, a French and Russian teacher who describes himself as a liberal Republican, said he was initially troubled by the plan because he had traveled to the Balkan region and "felt like I was in a horror movie. It's such a morass."

But he said he was heartened to learn from Mr. Clinton's speech that the troops would be well-armed and could retaliate if fired upon, that most of the humanitarian aid would come from Europe, and that the time-frame was limited. He said he also accepted the president's argument that the United States had a moral obligation to contribute troops.

"If we're going to be the strongest country in the world, we have to lead morally," he said.

Deep divisions

Ms. Silas and Mr. Underbrink illustrate the deep divide within the country over the military mission to Bosnia. In Washington, the debate has inevitably pitted many Republicans -- including presidential hopefuls Patrick J. Buchanan and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas -- against the president, but the public's split seems to transcend politics.

"I think we have enough problems here at home that we need to address before we start trying to fix somebody else's problems," said Mary E. J. Williams of Columbia, Md., a Clinton Democrat who opposes the president on this issue.

Ms. Williams, an employment specialist for the state, said that the president has not convinced her that the mission is in our nation's best interest or that peace is attainable.

She said that she watched Mr. Clinton's speech for a while and then turned it off, annoyed that he seemed to have made up his mind with little regard for public opinion.

In fact, polls taken just after the speech show that Mr. Clinton still has an uphill battle for strong public opinion. Opposition to the military deployment ran at 57 percent in an ABC News poll and 58 percent in a CBS News poll.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the White House comment line received 2,500 to 3,000 calls in the hours after the speech, revealing "a great deal of skepticism."

Calls to Maryland's congressional members yesterday revealed similar unease, with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski receiving 97 calls against deployment and 52 for; Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes receiving 80 calls against and 20 for; and House members reporting tilts of varying degrees against troop deployment.

Only a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed any movement toward the president, with 46 percent saying they supported the troop deployment, and 40 percent opposed. In a Gallup poll conducted three weeks ago, 47 percent said they supported the action while 49 percent opposed it.

Still unconvinced

Many of those interviewed yesterday remained unconvinced that there was a clear role for U.S. troops, that they would be out in a year, and that our failure to intervene now could result in larger, deadlier conflicts that would spill into the surrounding regions.

"It's a civil war," says Laurence Glenzer Jr., the owner of an auto wrecking shop in Stevens Point, Wis., and a Vietnam veteran. "These factions have been fighting each other for 1,000 years. I feel sorry for the people living there. The people getting hurt are women and children, but I guess they all hate each other, so what are you going to do? It's hard for us to impose our will on somebody who doesn't want to do it our way."

Mr. Glenzer, who sees some parallels with the protracted Southeast Asian conflict he participated in, also takes issue with Mr. Clinton's argument that it is our "responsibility as Americans" to intervene militarily. "Can our nation afford to do everything for everybody?" he asks.

Those who support the deployment quarrel with the Vietnam comparison, noting that, for one thing, there is no longer a draft but rather a volunteer military.

Systems analyst Dave Lylo of Camp Hill, Pa., believes more appropriate comparisons would be to the Grenada invasion, the Persian Gulf war and last year's intervention in Haiti.

"Like it or not, we are a global police force," says the father of three, who supports Mr. Clinton's plan. "I don't think the U.S. has a choice considering the role we played initiating the peace agreement and our commitment to NATO. Nobody wants to see us get involved in a no-win situation. But we're the only superpower that's left. We can't isolate ourselves, especially not in this day and age."

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