U.S. lawmakers increasingly invoke Vietnam War





On the floors of the House and Senate, in committee hearings and news conferences since the president's Jan. 10 announcement, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the war debate have repeatedly invoked America's longest war.

Opponents use the vocabulary of the Vietnam War as they talk of opposing an escalation that they consider as divisive as those pushed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon in the 1960s and early 1970s. And supporters of the president warn of repeating other mistakes of that conflict by withdrawing support for American soldiers while they remain in harm's way.

Capitol Hill even witnessed the recent return of one of the Vietnam era's iconic figures when former Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, came to Washington to offer lawmakers advice about ending this war.

Analogies between the two conflicts are as old as the Iraq war itself -- and fraught with some peril, said Vassar College historian Robert K. Brigham, author of the recent book "Is Iraq Another Vietnam?"

"When you say 'escalation' like Vietnam, you are in a sense saying there is an escalation that has no end ... and phased withdrawal rings of a retreat from Vietnam," Brigham said. "One thing we have to be careful of is that a lot of the references to Vietnam are intellectual shorthand ... . Vietnam is a very complicated war to understand."

Just as Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, the American military commitments in the two conflicts have striking differences.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, there were nearly 540,000 American troops in Vietnam. In Iraq, troop levels have remained relatively stable at about 130,000, and more than 3,000 have died.

Nonetheless, the president's proposal seems to have rekindled a spirited debate on Capitol Hill about America's last prolonged war and what lessons can be drawn from it.

For critics of the Bush plan, Vietnam has provided ammunition to bolster their calls for congressional intervention to end the current conflict and to push for a political rather than a military solution.

"If the lesson in Iraq teaches anything, it is that military might has very great limitations," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said on the floor of the Senate recently. "But then that is a lesson we should have learned many years ago from Vietnam."

Byrd, a longtime war opponent who has been in the Senate since 1959, is one of seven current senators who were elected before the end of the Vietnam War.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., who joined the Senate in 1973 as the last U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam and is now a vocal Iraq war opponent, also touched on Vietnam as he opened Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the president's plan.

"I think we all learned a lesson, whether we went or didn't go, whether we were for it or against it, (that) no foreign policy can be sustained in this country without the informed consent of the American people," Biden said. "They've got to sign on."

At the same committee meeting, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968, was even more critical of the president's proposal, calling it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

Biden and Hagel have introduced a resolution opposing Bush's plan.

The president has consistently rejected the Vietnam analogies, arguing that the conditions in Iraq and in the United States bear little resemblance to the Vietnam era.

"Iraq, after the overthrow of the tyrant, voted on a constitution that is intended to unite the whole country. And then they had elections under that constitution where nearly 12 million people voted for this unity government ... which is different from Vietnam," the president said before he visited Vietnam in November.

At a recent briefing, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow dismissed Hagel's Vietnam reference as little more than "a pretty good line."

Several of the president's congressional allies also have argued more recently that the price of leaving Iraq would be much higher than that of leaving Vietnam.

"We were able to walk away from Vietnam," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy fighter pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. "If we walk away from Iraq, we'll be back, possibly in the context of a wider war in the world's most volatile region."

Meanwhile, other congressional Republicans, including several more Vietnam veterans, have drawn on their own experiences during the war to challenge proposals that Congress should use its budgetary authority to stop the deployment of additional troops.

"I served at a time when we saw the Congress reduce funding for the military," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said last week while unveiling a resolution opposing any cut-off of funds to troops.

"We served at a time when the military did not have the support of the people, the press or the Congress," said Kline, who flew Marine Corps helicopters during the Vietnam War. "I don't ever want to see that again."



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