Americans are rummaging through the past for lessons to help us in Iraq. There’s just one problem: The two unsuccessful wars we’ve fought since World War II don’t teach the same lesson.
In Korea and Vietnam, presidents had to salvage wars that had gone bad, and their decisions provoked fierce congressional opposition. But here the stories start to diverge. In Korea, Congress demanded that Harry Truman do more to win. In Vietnam, it wanted to keep Richard Nixon from doing too much.
George Bush has clearly decided he won’t be the wartime leader who responds to setbacks by doing too little. He may be trying to learn from Truman’s mistakes—and there are plenty to learn from. Truman, after all, let Gen. Douglas MacArthur push far into North Korea because he couldn’t resist the idea of toppling a communist dictatorship. Unfortunately, there was another large communist country next door, and when Chinese forces poured across the border, the United States didn’t have enough troops to resist them.
So Truman, forgetting regime change, decided the United States would aim only to restore prewar battle lines. Gen. Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, described the new U.S. strategy as to “try to fight it out in general…without committing too great forces.” With the administration looking defeatist, all hell broke loose. MacArthur, fired by Truman for incessant talk of victory, returned to give his defiant speech to Congress. The speaker of the House called on the president to resign. Secretary of State Dean Acheson endured eight solid days of senatorial grilling.
Even so, Truman stuck to his military strategy, and before long the furor subsided. Yet the damage was enormous. While a truce was negotiated, U.S. forces suffered as many casualties as they had when the fighting was at full tilt. American policymakers wrestled for years with the legacy of a war they hadn’t tried to win. Communists across Asia were energized by seeing the world’s greatest power held in check. The war, Acheson said, “destroyed the Truman administration.”
Understandably, President Bush doesn’t want to repeat this history. For a president and his generals who consider success possible, deciding against an intensified effort is the hardest imaginable choice. It tempts a political backlash, military demoralization and strategic confusion.
But if this is what Korea teaches Bush, what about Vietnam? It’s too late for most of its lessons to help him. Right now, he is at the point in the drama where the defense secretary in charge of the war has been ousted, as Robert McNamara was in 1967; Establishment gray-beards have declared the effort hopeless, as Acheson and others did in 1968; and America is trying to shift the burden to its floundering ally, as Nixon began doing in 1969.
The Vietnam lesson the president needs to ponder most is that, although “Vietnamization” was an effective counterinsurgency strategy, in the end it didn’t matter. After U.S. forces left in 1973, South Vietnam’s survival depended on economic help, military equipment and occasional American airpower. But political support collapsed as soon as the “peace agreement” was signed. Congress outlawed any use of U.S. airpower, and assistance levels dropped sharply each year. When President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam visited the United States in 1973, hardly any of Nixon’s own Cabinet even showed up to see him.
Henry Kissinger has long insisted that Watergate kept the United States from helping South Vietnam, but President Bush should know the more dispiriting truth. Americans simply wanted nothing further to do with the place. The struggle between the president and Congress had become so bitter, so corrosive—such a grudge match—that the two sides ceased to agree on even the most basic goals. Today it seems shocking that people preferred to let South Vietnam go down rather than help it. But Congress was not solely responsible for this result. The president had done much to undermine his own policy.
Bush may be right that Americans will not long support policies that don’t involve trying to succeed. But if he wants to do better than Truman, he’ll have to do better than Nixon, too. His debate with Congress on Iraq will unfold much as the Vietnam debate did, and that means it’s not enough to have a military plan that could work. Richard Nixon’s plan “worked,” too, but in four years of implementing it, he lost the political support he needed to keep South Vietnam afloat once our troops were gone.
If this is how Bush succeeds, if he focuses entirely on what’s needed to improve things in Iraq in the short term without making his policy more sustainable in America in the long term, we’ll have to call it a failure. There’s no point learning from the one war unless you learn from the other as well.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.