Troop increase in Iraq spurs reflections on Vietnam War

Opponents try to draw parallels between conflicts as Bush pushes on

January 22, 2007|By Noam N. Levey | Noam N. Levey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush was preparing this month to announce plans to send more troops to Iraq, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy chose to talk about another conflict.

"In Vietnam, the White House grew increasingly obsessed with victory and increasingly divorced from the will of the people," the 74-year-old Massachusetts Democrat said in a speech to the National Press Club.

"We all know what happened, though," he continued.

"There was no military solution to that war. ... In the end, 58,000 Americans died in the search for it. Echoes of that disaster are all around us today."

Kennedy mentioned Vietnam seven times in the speech, in which he outlined plans to challenge Bush's plan.

Other members of Congress would follow.

On the floors of the House and Senate, in committee hearings and news conferences since the president's Jan. 10 announcement, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the war debate have repeatedly invoked America's longest war.

Opponents use the vocabulary of the Vietnam War as they talk of opposing an escalation that they consider as divisive as those pushed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon in the 1960s and early 1970s. And supporters of the president warn of repeating other mistakes of that conflict by withdrawing support for U.S. soldiers while they remain in harm's way.

Capitol Hill even witnessed the recent return of one of the Vietnam era's most well-known figures when former Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, came to Washington to offer lawmakers advice about ending this war.

Analogies between the two conflicts are as old as the Iraq war itself -- and fraught with some peril, said Vassar College history professor Robert K. Brigham, author of the recent book Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

"When you say `escalation' like Vietnam, you are in a sense saying there is an escalation that has no end ... and phased withdrawal rings of a retreat from Vietnam," Brigham said.

Just as Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, the U.S. military commitments in the two conflicts have striking differences.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, there were nearly 540,000 American troops in Vietnam. In Iraq, troop levels have remained relatively stable at about 130,000, and more than 3,000 have died.

Nonetheless, the president's proposal seems to have rekindled a spirited debate on Capitol Hill about America's last prolonged war and what lessons can be drawn from it.

For critics of the Bush plan, Vietnam has provided ammunition to bolster their calls for congressional intervention to end the conflict and to push for a political rather than a military solution.

"If the lesson in Iraq teaches anything, it is that military might has very great limitations," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said on the floor of the Senate recently.

Byrd, a longtime war opponent who has been in the Senate since 1959, is one of seven senators who were elected before the end of the Vietnam War.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who joined the Senate in 1973, also touched on Vietnam as he opened Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the president's plan.

"I think we all learned a lesson, whether we went or didn't go, whether we were for it or against it, [that] no foreign policy can be sustained in this country without the informed consent of the American people," said Biden, a Democrat. "They've got to sign on."

At the same committee meeting, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968, was even more critical of the president's proposal, calling it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

The president has consistently rejected the Vietnam analogies.

"Iraq, after the overthrow of the tyrant, voted on a constitution that is intended to unite the whole country. And then they had elections under that constitution where nearly 12 million people voted for this unity government

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times

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