Iraq, Vietnam, and the Limits of American Power


By Robert K. Brigham

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Since the first days of the Iraqi invasion, supporters of the war have cautioned the public not to view this conflict as another Vietnam. They rightfully point to many important distinctions. There is no unified resistance in Iraq. No political or religious leader has been able to galvanize opposition to U.S. intervention the way that Ho Chi Minh did in Vietnam. And it is not likely that 580,000 American troops will find their way to Iraq.

However, there are two similarities that may dwarf the thousands of differences. First, in Iraq, like Vietnam, the original rationale for going to war has been discredited and public support has dwindled. Second, in both cases the new justification became building stable societies. There are enormous pitfalls in America’s nation building efforts in Iraq as there were in Vietnam. But it is the business we now find ourselves in, and there is no easy retreat from it morally. As American frustration increases, some policy makers are making the deadly mistake of approaching problems in Iraq as if we are facing them for the first time. It is crucial that we apply the lessons of Vietnam wisely and selectively.


For my daughter,
Taylor Church Brigham

After five years of conflict, the war in Iraq is not another Vietnam. It is far worse. Having the experience and lessons of Vietnam as a guide, the Bush administration charged headlong into a protracted war with little regard for history or the limits of U.S. power.
The first edition of this book raised the question of whether Iraq would turn into a war with the corrosive characteristics of Vietnam. That is no longer the issue. The Iraq War has created an array of new problems, and the United States will be coping with them for a generation, just as it had to struggle with the consequences of Vietnam. In this book, I argue that the Bush administration, in fighting a war of choice, has limited future U.S. foreign policy options, a limit that will have disastrous consequences. Americans may turn inward following the Iraq War, fearing that engagement with the outside world might lead to another protracted conflict with limited results. There will likely be an Iraq syndrome that matches the self-imposed foreign-policy restrictions and national malaise that followed Vietnam. Hearing echoes of Vietnam, the United States refused to intervene to stop genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans, and Rwanda before it was too late for hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The great tragedy of the Iraq War is that foreign policy blunders there may limit U.S. military action where it may be required later.
Furthermore, the United States has set back its Middle East agenda considerably. Once seen as an honest broker in the Middle East, the United States under the Bush administration has squandered its power and reputation in the region by mishandling the war and regional diplomacy. Whatever gains the United States made in the Middle East during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were quickly washed away by a misguided policy based on naive assumptions about the role of the United States in the world and its ability to promote change through military power alone. The recent military surge in Iraq has produced some victories and increased security in some places, but it has not had much impact on the Baghdad government. Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki has not created the kind of legitimate political institutions necessary to guarantee a civil society inside Iraq. Baghdad has simply focused too much on security issues and not enough on political legitimacy and institution building. Furthermore, the White House has refused to build the architecture necessary to find a political solution through the construction of a government of reconciliation and concord. Exacerbating this problem has been the Bush administration’s outright rejection of a role for the United Nations.
There will also be a domestic price for choosing war in Iraq. Paying for the war will be a burden on the country and its taxpayers for a decade. The U.S. economy has been in a tailspin for much of the war, following years of unprecedented economic growth, proving the old adage that it is difficult to have both guns and butter. Huge budget deficits and the price tag of trillions of dollars for the war in Iraq during the Bush years will require fiscal restraint and sacrifice in the near future. The United States now faces an economic recession fueled in part by the war in Iraq. In addition, domestic politics have become even more partisan and divisive. Democrats in Congress and Republicans in the White House have failed to act on the mandate for change in Iraq given to them by American voters in the 2006 midterm elections. Voters now want to move beyond this partisanship and overwhelmingly favor an end to the Iraq War.
Even after five years of conflict, it is quite likely that the end of the Iraq War will combine an escalation of violence with a negotiated U.S. withdrawal that leaves the major political questions of the war unresolved. The end result may be a bloody civil war in Iraq with regional and international consequences. Rather than spreading democracy throughout the region, the United States has, in fact, introduced greater instability with increased political and military pressure on America’s Middle Eastern allies. And America’s enemies will be emboldened, not because of U.S. military weakness, but because of recklessness in Washington. The progressive impulse in American foreign policy has led to the realization in some circles that there generally is no political corollary to American military strength when the United States engages in nation building abroad.
The lesson Iraq teaches us, then, if we care to listen, is that the United States should not use its overwhelming power arbitrarily. A mature nation, a nation with a proper sense of its own history and power, does not engage in wars of choice. It is now time for the United States to reorient its power in the Middle East and to engage the world as a superpower with a clear sense of its mission. The first step is to create a framework for successful statecraft. For eight years the Bush administration has refused the diplomatic path in the Middle East. Now is the time to reverse that decision. It will take a decade for the United States to reestablish its power and prestige, but with bold leadership, such change is possible.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush took the United States to war in Iraq with soaring rhetoric about American ideals and deep-seated fears about security. He used heightened threat perceptions created by the horrific events of September 11, 2001, to make war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and a global terrorist network a necessity. By linking Saddam’s brutal rule with international terrorism—a connection that did not exist—the president was making the case for a preemptive strike against Iraq. The Bush administration convinced a majority of the American people and Congress that the United States would be more secure with a preventive strike against Baghdad. Furthermore, President Bush argued that the absence of democracy in the Middle East had given rise to terrorism and that it was his responsibility to change the course of history by using American power to overwhelm a tyrant who had aided and abetted the enemies of freedom.
The Bush White House believed that the world would support his decision to strike Iraq because U.S. interests matched global security needs. Rejecting the lessons of Vietnam, the president and his top advisers saw no limits to American power as an instrument of global transformation. They also believed that the United States would be welcomed as a liberator in Iraq, and that once victory was secured there, the rest of the Middle East would follow suit because the move toward democracy was the goal of all peoples.
Iraq, then, is not an aberration. Rather, it is part of a pattern of beliefs in U.S. foreign policy grounded in the principle that American ideals are universal and that U.S. power should support and expand those ideals around the globe. What separates Iraq from past American conflicts, however, is the Bush administration’s revolutionary goal of democracy promotion through unilateral, preemptive military action. Few presidents have engaged in a war of choice to promote democracy because the linking of power and ideals—democracy, freedom, liberty, capitalism—has not always produced the best results. Larger wars for ideas could be long on rhetoric and short on prudent judgment.1 Still, the Bush White House argued that it could overcome years of realist compromises with tyranny by following the neoconservative agenda. A more muscular foreign policy would include promoting democracy in the Middle East, by force if necessary. The confidence in the power of the United States to expand American ideals required the Bush administration to reject any lessons that Vietnam had to offer. Instead of viewing the war in Vietnam as an example of the limits of American power, the Bush White House believed Vietnam was a warning that policymakers had to have the right dedication to victory. Therefore, confidence about the mission in Iraq was a fundamental tenet of Bush’s foreign policy.
Despite the Bush administration’s more incendiary foreign-policy objectives, Congress treated war resolutions on Iraq and Vietnam similarly. In both wars, Congress granted the president unusual authority to wage war in its name. And within months of the start of the wars, the original justification had been discredited. In each case, this discrediting of the justification did not lead to a careful policy review. Instead, as the history of both conflicts shows, U.S. policymakers in the White House rejected carefully calibrated debates about U.S. security interests in favor of idealistic appeals for war. If Vietnam and Iraq can teach us anything about the way the United States goes to war, it is that Congress should insist on a full and frank debate before giving the president broad authority to wage war. Congress should better learn how to discipline power and harness fear. The presidency has grown increasingly imperious over the last several decades, and it is now time for Congress to take its rightful place in the foreign-policy process or risk more misadventures.


It was, after all, the fear of falling dominos and lofty rhetoric about America’s moral obligation to oppose communist aggression that led to the Vietnam War. Despite the nation’s enormous military power and strategic dominance, many U.S. policymakers feared that the communists could marshal greater force or be more seductive than a democratic country. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, saw the cold war in apocalyptic terms that pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil. He was convinced the United States had to combat atheistic communism with all its military might because the communists knew no moral law and would stop at nothing in their quest for world domination. For Dulles, Christian ideals provided the dynamic difference between success and failure in the set-piece battle against communism. He argued that the only hope of defeating the Soviets and Chinese lay in “reacting with a faith of our own.” Dulles was firm in his convictions. “If history teaches us anything,” he concluded, “it is that no nation is strong unless its people are imbued with a faith. . . . The impact of the dynamic upon the static . . . will always destroy what it attacks.”2
The domino theory and a sense of messianic mission drew the United States to war in Vietnam. The conflict was not a quagmire in the 1950s but rather a noble mission in the eyes of the Eisenhower administration to save Southeast Asia from communism. U.S. leaders were so confident about the righteousness of their cause that on several occasions they failed to ask serious questions about the limits of U.S. power or the legitimacy of the domino theory. Support for the Eisenhower position in Vietnam was universal; Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress stood behind the domino theory. Senator John F. Kennedy, speaking before the American Friends of Vietnam in 1956, warned that Indochina “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.”3
So confident was the United States in its moral and military position that it rejected any political settlement of the growing crisis in Vietnam. By 1954, the French government had grown weary of its war against Ho Chi Minh’s communists for political control of Vietnam. The French had first come to Indochina in the 1850s, seeking an Asian jewel for their imperial crown. After one hundred years of colonial rule, Paris signed an armistice with the Vietnamese communists at a conference in Geneva that promised a French withdrawal and unifying national elections in Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration rejected the Geneva Accords, however, believing the United States could fare better than the French against the communists because it was not burdened by a colonial past and because providence was on its side.4 Accordingly, the United States presided over the birth of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, as a counterrevolutionary alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s communists. Dulles and Eisenhower therefore linked the American mission in Vietnam with American ideals. Anticommunism and the promotion of democracy along liberal lines were both a justification for war and the cornerstone of U.S. ideology.
In 1961 the new Kennedy administration engaged in a formal policy review of its options in Vietnam. Kennedy had been a longtime supporter of the domino theory and was clearly worried about communist advances in newly emerging postcolonial nations in Africa and Asia. The president and his advisers ultimately rejected the domino theory, however, believing there were situational differences in geography that could overcome politics.5 In other words, Kennedy was less concerned about falling dominos because he no longer believed that they were attached. If one nation fell to communism, it did not automatically mean that neighboring countries would fall. What replaced the domino theory in Kennedy’s mind, however, was his new thinking on U.S. credibility, what writer Jonathan Schell appropriately called the “psychological domino theory.”6 Kennedy believed the war in Vietnam was no longer about stopping dominos from falling but rather about showing enemies and allies that the United States lived up to its commitment “to pay any price and bear any burden” . . . to ensure “the survival and success of liberty.”7 Support of South Vietnam, not rolling back communism, became the new goal.
Perhaps Kennedy’s two national security secretaries were most forceful in advocating the new policy. Secretary of State Dean Rusk often used protocols of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as sufficient reason for U.S. intervention in Vietnam. According to Rusk, provisions in the 1954 SEATO agreement demanded that the United States come to the defense of any of the signatories. 8 Since South Vietnam had signed this agreement, the United States was obligated by treaty to defend it from communist attacks. Rusk further reasoned that if the United States did not aid South Vietnam, U.S. allies across the globe would come to doubt the U.S. commitment to its treaty obligations. Rusk was particularly worried that U.S. allies in NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) might wonder if Washington would stand behind that agreement should the Soviets invade another country in Europe. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara argued that if the United States did not intervene in Vietnam, both sides of the Iron Curtain would sense “a major crisis of nerve.”9 In a report to the president, McNamara concluded that “the loss of South Vietnam would . . . undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere.”10 By 1961, according to historian Fred Logevall, the doctrine of credibility had “supplanted the domino theory in American thinking on Vietnam.”11


This change in rationale also brought with it a change in strategic thinking. Throughout the Eisenhower years, U.S. foreign policy had been based on the concept of mutually assured destruction (called MAD). The president believed if he built up the American nuclear arsenal so that it could withstand a first strike from the Soviets, Moscow would be deterred from aggressive action. Although the “New Look,” as Eisenhower’s policy was called, did keep the United States out of major confrontation with the Soviets, it also limited the president’s options. Kennedy argued he needed a more flexible policy—one that more accurately reflected the needs of an administration willing to meet the Soviet threat anywhere around the globe. Kennedy envisioned a strategy that would allow the United States to act quickly and decisively against communists in the jungles of Southeast Asia and on the plains in Africa.12 However, Kennedy did not want these confrontations to lead to a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Any local war with a country inside the fraternal socialist world system risked a larger war with China or the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, the balance of terror limited U.S. policymakers in their actions.
At the time, most foreign affairs decisions were seen through the prism of the cold war and the limitations it presented. The primary national security issue of the era was preventing a catastrophic war that might well escalate into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Kennedy administration balanced the need to confront Soviet meddling in newly emerging postcolonial nations with the need to avoid a nuclear exchange with the communist camp through what it called “limited-war theory.”
The product of American academics Robert Osgood, Thomas Schelling, and Herman Kahn, limited-war theory gave the president a way to keep wars local and thereby avoid a nuclear showdown.13 At the heart of this new doctrine was the belief that the president should have the option to respond to Soviet aggression at a low level of violence or through diplomacy. The president could move up the rungs of a ladder of escalation, until such time as the enemy chose to cease and desist its activities rather than face the consequences of further escalation.14 With enough applied military pressure, according to the theory, the president could communicate with the enemy that it would pay a high price if aggression continued. In the case of Vietnam, the goal was to convince Hanoi that continuing to support the revolution in the south would come at too high a price. Each military escalation, therefore, was a signal to Hanoi to cease and desist. Of course, Hanoi rejected Washington’s signals, matching each military escalation with its own.15
U.S. fears were not limited to Moscow’s cold war power or influence. China was a legitimate threat to American troops in Vietnam. McNamara was convinced during the war that invading North Vietnam with U.S. ground forces carried with it unacceptable risks.16 He correctly concluded that China would act in its own self-interest and would consider any attack across the seventeenth parallel that divided North Vietnam from South Vietnam an attack against its own borders.17 General Bruce Palmer, General William Westmoreland’s deputy in Vietnam, agreed. He argued in his book The Twenty-Five Year War that “one cannot quarrel with the decision not to invade North Vietnam because it was too close to China.”18 U.S. officials now know that North Vietnam asked for and received security commitments from Beijing from 1960 onward.19 They also know China’s Seventh Air Force was moved permanently to the Vietnamese border in case of a ground attack across the seventeenth parallel.20 Four other air divisions were also moved closer to the border, and Beijing built two airstrips near Lang Son in anticipation of an American invasion. 21 By 1968, over two hundred thousand Chinese troops were serving within North Vietnam’s borders.22
Kennedy changed not only the rationale for war but also its strategic doctrine. In rejecting the domino theory in favor of the theory of credibility in the struggle against international communism, the president was willing to give up North Vietnam to protect South Vietnam. He was also willing to limit the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam to avoid a larger war that might entice China and the Soviet Union to join the conflict. The second-order issue—protecting South Vietnam from a communist takeover through the application of limited U.S. military pressure—proved more difficult to accomplish than anyone in the Kennedy administration had originally thought. The South Vietnamese government of president Ngo Dinh Diem was corrupt, inefficient, and not very democratic. Diem did little to reach out to those who were in the minority view on some issues.23 He persecuted Buddhists, believing that they were sympathetic to the communist cause, he rejected land reform programs supported by the United States, and he closed down newspapers that were critical of his rule.24


By the middle of 1963, a frustrated John F. Kennedy was considering another major policy revision. First on Kennedy’s list of things to change in Vietnam was President Diem. Despite some support in his administration for staying the course with Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, there was overwhelming backing for regime change in Saigon.25 Many Kennedy officials believed the U.S. counterinsurgency war was doomed with Diem at the helm.26 Others argued that the political war so essential to victory was being lost every day because Diem cared little for the village war or for peasants caught in the conflict. 27 What Kennedy envisioned for Diem is still debatable; perhaps he believed the South Vietnamese president would be replaced in a bloodless coup. In the end, however, Diem’s own officers executed him and his brother in the back of an armored personnel carrier.
After Diem’s assassination, events in Saigon spun out of control. Various political groups wrestled for power in the capital, and the communists made significant advances in the countryside. In fact, the Communist Party hoped to take advantage of the chaos in Saigon. At its December 1963 plenum, party leaders agreed to “escalate the level of armed struggle in the South.”28 According to party leaders, “Armed struggle would be the direct and deciding factor in the annihilation of the armed forces of the enemy.”29 Le Duan, the party’s secretary general and a longtime advocate of a more forceful military policy in South Vietnam, applauded the decision.
As Hanoi turned up the heat, the Kennedy administration considered its options. One option was to withdraw. Convinced South Vietnam would eventually “throw our asses out,” and needing to score some political points without a huge military cost, Kennedy had considered a limited withdrawal as early as 1962.30 By April 1963, some administration officials suggested that withdrawing a thousand U.S. advisers “out of the blue” would reassure the American public the war was going well and would undercut the communists’ “best propaganda line,” that the United States was running the war for South Vietnam.31 Kennedy had McNamara draw up the plans for the limited withdrawal to begin in December 1963. Many believed the president was starting to phase out U.S. operations in Vietnam, and that after the 1964 presidential election he would withdraw all U.S. advisers. McNamara went on record stating he was convinced Kennedy would have withdrawn U.S. forces had he been reelected.32 No one will ever know. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Of course, Kennedy had another option, which was to intervene more forcefully. With just over sixteen thousand U.S. advisers in Vietnam, it was clear that more could be done to prop up the Saigon government and to aid the South Vietnamese armed forces. From the earliest days of the administration, some of Kennedy’s key advisers had advocated a more militant line.33 By the summer of 1963 many were calling for the president to introduce U.S. ground troops to take over the war from the South Vietnamese forces and to save Saigon from total defeat.34 Others suggested that a strong air campaign over North Vietnam would take some pressure off South Vietnam.35 It now seems clear Kennedy refused to ask the hard questions about American intervention in Vietnam, content instead to continue to steer a middle course that promised neither withdrawal nor greater involvement.
When Lyndon B. Johnson entered the Oval Office, he, too, could have expanded the war or withdrawn. In typical Johnson fashion, he chose neither course. Always wanting to keep his options open, Johnson usually took the path that limited his policy choices. The president and his national security advisers decided to continue Kennedy’s commitment to the defense of South Vietnam and to keep America’s role in the war limited. On March 17, 1964, Johnson outlined his decision in what is now known as National Security Memorandum No. 288.36 Expanding on Kennedy’s redefinition of the war’s aims, Johnson argued that nothing short of U.S. credibility was at stake in Vietnam. The administration would continue to support South Vietnam in its hour of need, the president concluded, because the United States was the only power that could do so. In the face of danger, the United States never backed down. Rusk perhaps put it best when he argued that the “integrity of the U.S. commitment is the principal pillar of peace throughout the world. If that commitment becomes unreliable, the communist world would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to a catastrophic war.”37 America’s war aims in Vietnam during the Johnson years were still focused on containment and credibility.
Thus, U.S. goals in the Kennedy and Johnson years were counterrevolutionary. First, the United States wanted to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, and then, after rejecting the domino theory, U.S. policymakers wanted to stop the communists from taking over South Vietnam. As the war dragged on, the chief goal became convincing enemies and allies that the United States honored its treaty commitments. Credibility was as important as the specific military mission. Containment, preservation, and credibility were the hallmarks of America’s war aims in Vietnam. Only in building up South Vietnam as a viable alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s communists did the United States move from the defensive to the offensive.


The Iraq War, in sharp contrast, is revolutionary. Its war aims include effecting regime change, spreading democracy in the region, and destroying an international terrorist network. The rationale for such a radical agenda began in early 2003, when Colin Powell, then Bush’s secretary of state, appeared before the United Nations (UN). Powell argued that Saddam Hussein was taunting the United Nations and its various resolutions urging him to comply with weapons inspections. 38 If the UN was to have any relevance, Powell argued, it needed to pass a Security Council resolution authorizing military strikes against Iraq, as it had done in the first Gulf War (1990-1991). Short of that, Powell warned, the United States was prepared to go it alone because its strength was beyond challenge and there was a monster out there to destroy. According to Powell, Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction to “project power, to threaten, and to deliver chemical, biological and, if we let him, nuclear warheads.”39


On Sale
Jul 22, 2008
Page Count
240 pages

author Robert K. Brigham

Robert K. Brigham

About the Author

Robert. K. Brigham is the Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College. He is a specialist on the history of U.S. foreign policy. His fellowships include the Rockefeller Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for Humanities. Brigham is author or co-author of nine books, among them Iraq, Vietnam, and the Limits of American Power (PublicAffairs, 2008) and Argument Without End (PublicAffairs, 1999).

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