Comparisons have been made between the presence of U.S. advisors in Vietnam, and U.S. advisors sent by the Obama administration to Iraq. We have been warned by Republicans of “mission creep.”
Interestingly, though Republicans would not like to be reminded of this – because it requires them to admit President George W. Bush started the Iraq War – Iraq and Vietnam were drawing comparisons as early as 2004.
Then, it was Democrats warning that far from coming home, more U.S. forces might be on the way (they were right, as it turned out). Today it is Republicans issuing that warning.
These Republicans are ignoring a couple of facts:
- That it is because of Bush that American troops are there at all;
- It is because of Bush’s mismanagement of the occupation that first al Qaeda, and then ISIL, arose in Iraq; and,
- That mere days ago they were criticizing President Barack H. Obama for bringing home the same American troops they are now accusing him of sending back.
President Bush, like John McCain, said in response that, “The analogy is false.” The White House is adamant today, ten years later, that the goals remain the same even if the numbers do not, that mission creep is defined not by numbers, but by changing mission priorities.
There are similarities. In both cases the friendly government was losing control of its territory to the enemy. Needless to say, there are also differences between Iraq and Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical situation is vastly different today than that prevailing in the 1960s. There is no overriding aim of preventing the spread of communism that drove American Cold War strategy, and the U.S. is leading a coalition against an enemy that, through its barbarity, has alienated pretty much everybody.
North Vietnam was a nation state. The Islamic Republic qualifies as such only in its followers’ own minds. The Viet Cong could be seen as plucky freedom fighters. Torture, slavery, mass rapes and executions, have pretty much prevented this label being attached to ISIL fighters.
But let’s go back: Americans typically associate a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, with U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but the first U.S. advisors – 700 of them – began to arrive in South Vietnam in January 1955, pursuant to a promise of assistance made by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower to President of the Council of Ministers of Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem, in October 1954.
According to the Geneva Accords, a limit of 685 was placed on U.S. advisors in southern Vietnam. As we all know now, this limit was meaningless against the overriding specter of a communist victory creating domino effect throughout the region.
President Eisenhower left office in January 1961, being succeeded in the White House by John F. Kennedy. In May 1961, Kennedy sent 500 Green Berets to Vietnam to teach the South Vietnamese army counter-insurgency tactics.
By December of 1961, the United States had 3,200 troops deployed as advisors.
The United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was formed in February 1962 to manage this growing military assistance to the South Vietnamese government.
By the end of 1962, there were 11,500 military advisors in South Vietnam.
On September 2, 1963, constrained by the Cold War’s containment strategy, and no doubt frustrated by our South Vietnamese allies, President Kennedy told CBS,
In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it–the people of Vietnam against the Communists… But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake…. [The United States] made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate–we may not like it–in the defense of Asia.
By the end of 1963, the number of U.S. advisors had grown to 16,000.
We can never know if Kennedy would have sent combat troops to Vietnam. We do know his hope was to withdraw our advisors, assuming the South Vietnamese government was secure. We also know that he had resisted calls by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urging him to escalate the war, the same calls McNamara would later use more successfully on President Johnson.
In fact, far from expanding the war there, the Mary Ferrell Foundation reports that,
On October 11, 1963, Kennedy signed NSAM 263, initiating a withdrawal of 1,000 troops out of roughly 16,000 Americans stationed in Vietnam. Other documents, including planning documents from the spring of 1963, show that this was the first step in a planned complete withdrawal.
But something unexpected happened. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of that year, to be succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson. And with these events, the North Vietnamese apparently decided this would be a good time to test American resolve, a move we will get to in a moment.
It is important to remember that we had a Democratic president when the sh*t hit the fan, and that it was not the U.S. throwing that sh*t. In the event, we know how Johnson reacted. Even so, it is critical that we remember that it was Barry Goldwater, Republican nominee for president who, at the Republican National Convention on July 16-17, 1964, declared,
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Just as we have no way of knowing what Kennedy would eventually have done, we have no way of knowing what would have transpired had Goldwater become president. Inevitability is a symptom of 20/20 hindsight.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which North Vietnam allegedly attacked the destroyer USS Maddox on August 2, 1964, and a second ship two days later, was the trigger to a widening involvement.
The immediate result of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was H.J. RES 1145, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by Congress on August 7, which stated that, “the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
The secondary result was a bombing campaign, which, if they remember it, might remind some of President Obama’s airstrikes against ISIL. Then, on March 8, 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines were dispatched to Vietnam marking the commitment of what is commonly termed today, “boots on the ground.” By December, there would be 200,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.
Anyone who can read a calendar will notice at once that the first U.S. advisors arrived in Vietnam a full ten years before U.S. troops were committed to combat. Many things could have happened between 1955 and 1965. There is thus no reason to suppose, based on the example of the Vietnam War, that U.S. troops will be drawn immediately into the same role in Iraq. As already pointed out, each war had its own context.
Certainly, there could also come a triggering incident this year or the next, but again, this is not inevitable. ISIL is in no position, for example, to attack U.S. ships. Nor have they shown any capability to strike targets outside of Iraq and Syria.
Iraq may fall, of course, as South Vietnam eventually did, and two things come immediately to mind:
- There is no reason to suppose in that case, particularly with Barack Obama in the White House, that the U.S. response will be yet another invasion of Iraq; and,
- If the Republicans win the White House in 2016, any new troop commitment to Iraq would be celebrated by Fox News rather than condemned.
Finally – and this point cannot be stressed enough because it is one thing you never see mentioned – the U.S. also has advisors in Afghanistan. Has that involvement brought about the “mission creep” Republicans pretend to fear so much? No, not at all. Both U.S. commitments are, after all, in response to the ongoing war on terror.
If Republicans wanted to compare Vietnam and Iraq they should have done so at the height of the Iraq insurgency, when the two wars most resembled each other, but, of course, they did not question our involvement in Iraq, which they had already turned into a holy crusade. It cannot be that now, of course, with a black Democratic president in the White House.
In the end, these comparisons being made by Republicans to Vietnam are, like prior ISIL fear-mongering, just another anti-Obama narrative, and one that not only has no real basis in fact, since Obama cannot be blamed for what he has not yet done, or for what his predecessor did do, but that is particularly hypocritical under the circumstances.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.