September 13, 2007
With just 15 months left in office — a twinkling of an eye to history, an eternity to most of the world today - George W. Bush is looking toward his legacy. Lyndon B. Johnson looms in his side-view mirror, closer than he may appear.
Nearly 40 years ago, Johnson, battered by Vietnam, virtually abdicated his presidency and left office in humiliation. Bush is determined not to let Iraq do that to him.
You can see that attitude in his August 22 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He refuses to follow the path of withdrawal in Iraq, as Johnson and his successors Nixon and Ford did in Vietnam. "Then as now," he declared, "people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end."
After quoting several anti-war naysayers in Congress and the press, he resumed: "Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. . . . Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of American’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’"
Another price of withdrawal, he went on, was the loss of "American credibility" that haunts us to this day; he quotes the taunt of Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri that "there is no hope in victory. The Vietnam specter is closing every outlet."
His explicit linkage of Iraq to Vietnam was characteristically weak: Not a single person today argues that withdrawing from Iraq would end the killing; and as for the Iraqi version of "boat people," refugees are not waiting for an American exit — already two million have fled the country, with another million displaced internally.
However, it was a surprise to many that he compared Vietnam to Iraq at all, after repeatedly denying any such thing, particularly the word "quagmire." The way he finally compared them was even more of a surprise: Was he actually implying that the U.S. should have stayed in Vietnam?
Robert Dallek, author of biographies of both Johnson and Nixon, complained to the press with incredulity, "What is Bush suggesting? That we didn’t fight hard enough, stay long enough? That’s nonsense. We were in Vietnam for ten years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives. And we couldn’t work our will."
Of course, the Bush speech was no historical analysis, only dangling assertions begging to be filled in by inference. But those bald statements excite the mind to "alternate history," that fascinating game of "what-ifs": What would have happened if the U.S. had remained in Vietnam?
Johnson’s consistent policy for Vietnam was "containment," not conquest. As Truman had done in Korea, the goal was to keep Communist regimes from toppling their pro-Western neighbors: the "domino effect." The incursions and bombings in North Vietnam were acts of deterrence, not aggression. But the North Vietnamese could not be contained; they were focused on unification with the South, on their terms alone.
In late March of 1968, just days after announcing he would not seek a second term, Johnson called a halt to the bombing and invited peace talks with the North. What if he hadn’t? Would "staying the course" have eventually so worn down Northern resources and morale that Ho Chi Minh would have initiated peace talks instead? Possibly - but at what further cost? By that time, conditions at home were verging on anarchy, and within that same year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would be dead; could Johnson have continued the war of attrition without destroying his own country in the process?
There is a second what-if: What if Johnson had changed his war policy from containment to conquest? What if he had gone for the throat of North Vietnam as some "hawks" had suggested, obliterating Hanoi, eliminating the Communist leadership, and forcing unification on his own terms? Would that "victory" have saved his presidency, reversed the nation’s slumping morale, and restored the image of America the Invincible? On the other hand, would victory in Vietnam have precipitated a disastrous conflict with the Soviet Union and/or created an American colony, angry and restive and ready to explode anew?
Because of its complexity, the possible alternative histories of Vietnam are endless. What Bush’s own may be, we’ll probably never know, just as we do not know his scenario for "victory" in Iraq, over which he has some actual control. But it is clear that like Johnson in Vietnam, Bush has no real vision of victory, despite his rhetoric. He and his agents General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who are testifying to Congress this week, cling to the hope that given more time, U.S. military presence will prevent total chaos and allow for a kind of natural shakedown among the warring factions that will eventually result in social reconfiguration and political stabilization. That’s hardly victory, but then again, this is hardly a war anymore; it’s a waiting game that may take decades to resolve.
An air of resignation seems to have settled on the country. Calls for immediate pullout grow fewer and fainter as the reality of the situation sets in. With Petraeus and Crocker paving the way, President Bush is slowly positioning himself to hand the tar-baby of Iraq to his successor without acknowledging defeat.
He has Lyndon Johnson in the mirror.