Given the state of affairs in Iraq, camparisons to the war in Vietnam 30 some odd years ago are inevitable. Sure, there are vast differences (e.g., civil war then didn't mean what it might mean now, strategic location and resources are different, etc.) but there are eerie similarities. Anyone who was around then can't be shocked by the American Legion's newly declared war on America.
"For many of us, the visions of Jane Fonda glibly spouting anti-American messages with the North Vietnamese and protestors denouncing our own forces four decades ago is forever etched in our memories. We must never let that happen again….
"We had hoped that the lessons learned from the Vietnam War would be clear to our fellow citizens. Public protests against the war here at home while our young men and women are in harm's way on the other side of the globe only provide aid and comfort to our enemies."
Hey, we even get a Jane Fonda reference. Well, what are the American people really thinking, and what where they thinking then? Gallup provides some helpful historical comparison:
It is obviously too early to predict the verdict of future historians who will compare the two wars. There are significant differences between them, and the Iraq conflict has not yet approached the depth of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which saw more than 500,000 U.S. troops deployed in that country by 1968 and which ultimately resulted in more than 58,000 U.S. military deaths.
Still, the Iraq war was a major theme in last year's presidential election, as was Vietnam in the elections of 1968 and 1972 -- and the Iraq war is now a dominant subject in news coverage, just as Vietnam was in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Once Congress gets back, we're going to hear all sorts of bombast, some similar to the American Legion idiocy. So in preparation, let's take a more objective look at where we are and where we were.
(N.B. I have written permission from Gallup to occasionally use subscription material with proper attribution)
As the graph illustrates, Americans have become negative about the war in Iraq more quickly than they did for the Vietnam War.
The latest quarterly average for Iraq shows that 50% say it was a mistake to send troops (the most recent single measure on this indicator, from an Aug. 5-7 Gallup Poll, shows 54% saying the war was a mistake).
In the comparable quarter for the Vietnam War (the third quarter of the war's third year -- that is, the third quarter of 1967), Gallup found 41% saying the conflict was a mistake. It was not until the third quarter of the fourth year of the Vietnam War (August-September 1968) that a majority of Americans said the war was a mistake. In short, it took longer for a majority of Americans to view the Vietnam War as a mistake than has been the case for Iraq.
(There is one caveat in these comparisons: A larger percentage of Americans in the Vietnam years said they did not have an opinion about Vietnam than has been the case for Iraq.)
The fact that only 60% of Americans thought Vietnam was a mistake after 9 years of fighting should not be glosseded over. After all, the 40% who thought it was a brilliant move are the employee pool for the Bush Administration, and (despite some turnover between then and now) still represent a significant portion of Bush's base. Some people never learn their lessons (see above link to the American Legion). More from Gallup:
Most Important Problem
Another measure of public opinion about the nation's involvement in war is provided by responses to
Gallup's long-term, open-ended trend asking Americans to name "the most important problem facing the country today."
The number of Americans who identified the Vietnam War as the most important problem facing the country fluctuated significantly over the course of the war. But only a year and a half into the war, in August 1966, an overwhelming 69% identified
Vietnam or the war as the nation's top problem. These responses don't necessarily indicate that 69% of Americans thought involvement in Vietnam was a bad decision. But the fact that about 7 out of 10 Americans said Vietnam was the nation's top problem by 1966 shows how quickly it began to dominate the nation's consciousness.
The open-ended mentions of
Iraq in response to this question have been much less dominant so far, ranging from 5% in August 2003 to 27% in the latest poll and in a June 2004 poll. ( Gallup had found higher percentages mentioning Iraq as the top problem leading up to the start of the war.) Today -- about two years and five months after the war began -- 27% of Americans mention Iraq as the top problem, essentially as high as this measure has gone since the war began in 2003.
This is a significant difference which can likely be explained by one word: draft. And I think it's important to look at Gallup's summary for perspective, agree or disagree:
Although public support for both the
Vietnam and the Iraq wars was strong as each conflict began, at least as measured by Gallup's "mistake" question, opposition to the latter has escalated much more quickly. Within a year and three months of the Iraq war's inception, a majority of Americans said it was a mistake. It wasn't until over three years after the inception of the Vietnam War that a majority called it a mistake.
At the same, Americans much more quickly perceived that the Vietnam War was a major problem facing the
United States, with over two-thirds naming it as the nation's most important problem within the war's second year. By contrast, even today, some two years and five months after the Iraq war began, only a little more than a fourth of Americans say it is the nation's top problem.
In short, Americans have been quicker to oppose the
Iraq war, but less likely to consider it the top problem facing the nation. [ed. Harris disagrees, at least as of now].
With all of this, it is worth remembering that a good deal of the significant societal impact of the Vietnam War did not take place until long after the war's two-and-a-half-year mark (essentially where the
Iraq war is today).
Vietnam continued to be a major factor in American life as late as the presidential election of 1972 -- some seven years after it began. And -- as noted above -- the cost of the Vietnam War in terms of human lives was ultimately many degrees higher than the cost of the
Iraq war so far. But the fact that a majority of Americans already say Iraq was a mistake, and that it has become perhaps the most significant issue facing the Bush administration today suggests that comparisons between the two situations are not totally unreasonable.
Well, that's good because you're going to hear a lot more comparisons before this is all over.