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Vietnam surfaces on both sides of Iraq debate

THE NATION

Supporters and critics of Bush policies have invoked the conflict. But scholars say the two wars differ greatly.

January 21, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush was preparing to announce plans to send more troops to Iraq earlier this month, 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 proposed troop increase.

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 American soldiers while they remain in harm's way.

Capitol Hill even witnessed the recent return of one of the Vietnam era's icons, when former Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, returned to offer lawmakers advice about ending this war.

Comparisons between the two conflicts are as old as the Iraq war itself -- and fraught with some peril, said Vassar College historian 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. "One thing we have to be careful of is that a lot of the references to Vietnam are intellectual shorthand.... Vietnam is a very complicated war to understand."

Just as Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, the American 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. More than 58,000 were killed. In Iraq, troop levels have remained relatively stable at about 130,000, and more than 3,000 of them 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.

"You have a generation who grew up with Vietnam as the political issue of their time," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who reminded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a recent hearing that the United States had withdrawn from Vietnam and had still won the Cold War.

For critics of the Bush plan, Vietnam has provided ammunition to bolster their calls for congressional intervention to end the current 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 (D-W.Va.) said on the floor of the Senate recently. "But then that is a lesson we should have learned many years ago from Vietnam."

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

In the House, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) drew on her brother's experience in Vietnam to challenge the president's proposal.

"As the sister of a Vietnam veteran, I still remember vividly our escalation of that failed war.... " Maloney said. "I remember vividly the worry I had for my brother and the feeling that our troops would be better-served if they were returned home rather than fighting in another country's civil war. Those are the same feelings I have today."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who joined the Senate in 1973 as the last U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam and is now a vocal Iraq war opponent, 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," Biden said. "They've got to sign on."

At the same committee meeting, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), 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."

Biden and Hagel have introduced a resolution opposing Bush's plan.

The president has consistently rejected Vietnam analogies, arguing that the conditions in Iraq and in the United States bear little resemblance to the Vietnam era.

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