Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam

News Abroad

Mr. Rossi is an associate professor of history at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, specializing in the history of American business and U.S. foreign relations.

Although President Bush has long denied that the Vietnam and Iraq wars are in anyway comparable, his mid-November visit to Vietnam forced him to confront the issue anew.[1]  While Press Secretary Tony Snow and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice were busy deflecting questions about the relevance of the U.S.’s experiences in the Vietnam War to the one in Iraq, the President told reporters that there was “one lesson.”  We Americans, the President said, “tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while....  We'll succeed unless we quit.”

Sadly, the President is a poor student of history.  To date the war in Vietnam is the U.S.’s longest.  Clearly the desire for instant gratification was not an issue in America’s defeat there.  More important, however, are the depressing similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.  Iraq has become another American Vietnam–a tragic, unnecessary, and divisive failure in counter-insurgency and nation-building.

Historians and other commentators in these pages have suggested many parallels and analogies between the U.S.’s war in Iraq and other conflicts (see HNN’s Hot Topics: Iraq Analogies: It's Vietnam. It's Lebanon ...).  While there are many significant differences between the wars in 1960s and 1970s Vietnam and Iraq today, the closest relevant American experience to the war in Iraq is the Vietnam War.  As Dale Andrade and Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks (ret.) point out in the U.S. Army journal, Military Review:  “Vietnam is the most prominent historical example of American counter-insurgency–and the longest.”  The U.S. should, they urge, “apply the lessons learned” there “to Iraq and Afghanistan.”  The wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as Andrade and Willbanks, suggest are very similar in several fundamental aspects. [2]

Both of these wars began as attempts to preserve American “security” through nation-building–the creation of pro-American, “democratic,” capitalist client states in Vietnam and Iraq.  As these two conflicts developed, they came to stand as the central front in the broader global ideological conflicts the United States government was fighting–the Cold War in Vietnam’s case; the war on terror in Iraq’s. 

In these two conflicts the U.S. government’s top policymakers were terribly ignorant of the political, social, cultural, religious, and historical realities of the countries that they were making war in.  This led them to colossal errors of judgment regarding the prospects for success in using military force to export American-style democracy and economic freedom to Vietnam and Iraq.  They compounded this error by making military force their primary instrument in nation-building.  This is a task for which the U.S. military was and still is ill-suited. 

Tragically, both wars were unnecessary.  Neither communism in South Vietnam in 1965 nor Baathism in Iraq in 2003 threatened American national security or any fundamental U.S. interests. 

The two wars were also undeclared.  Neither Presidents Johnson nor Bush bothered to follow the Constitution and ask Congress to declare war–something that might have resulted in a careful and reasoned public debate about what was at stake and whether American lives and treasure should be risked in pursuit of it.  And, the congressional resolutions authorizing the use of U.S. military force in Vietnam and Iraq were obtained by Presidents Johnson and Bush through deception.  Although they denied it at the time, the two Presidents were determined to go to war when they requested congressional action.

The Iraq war, like Vietnam before it, is a guerrilla war and a civil war.  The U.S. military today, like its predecessor in the 1960s, is designed to fight conventional (army-to-army) wars; this was despite its failure in Vietnam. Consequently, both wars found American officers and troops unprepared for combat with an enemy indistinguishable from the civilian population. With little knowledge of Vietnam, Iraq, or how to fight guerrilla war, American officers and soldiers adopted strategy, tactics, and behaviors that oppressed and humiliated the civilian population and thereby provided the insurgents with a steady stream of recruits and popular support.  Adding more American troops in Vietnam simply stimulated more opposition and escalated the level of violence.  The same holds true for Iraq today.

In South Vietnam the United States built up a weak, ineffectual, and corrupt client state that could not win popular support.  The failure of the South Vietnamese state meant that the American strategy to Vietnamize the war was doomed.  Corruption and incompetence pervaded the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)’s officer corps, while its soldiers were undisciplined and often unwilling to fight with the same fervor as their opponents.  Sadly, the current Iraqi government and army show the very same traits as their South Vietnamese counter-parts.

In both conflicts yawning credibility gaps opened between optimistic pronouncements of the presidents and their civilian and military spokespeople on the one hand, and the bloody realities of the war on the ground in Vietnam and Iraq on the other.  The deceptions by the Johnson (and Nixon) and Bush administrations, the obvious political and military failures in the field, and the tragic waste of life and treasure made the Vietnam and Iraq wars unpopular among the American people. 

The beginning of the end of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam came with the Tet offensive in January, 1968.  Tet made it abundantly clear that the Johnson administration’s claims of winning the war were wrong.  It also showed that all too many South Vietnamese did not want U.S. troops in their country and that they did not support the American vision for it.  After Tet increasing numbers of Americans saw the war as unwinnable, and turned against it.  By August of 1968 a Gallup poll reported that over half of the Americans it surveyed (53.46 percent) believed “the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam.” [3] A year and a half after the offensive 60 percent of Americans told Gallup’s pollsters that they wanted either to end the war or U.S. involvement in it. [4]  Without popular support in South Vietnam or the U.S., the U.S. government lost the Vietnam War. 

The U.S. was defeated in Vietnam, not because, as President Bush suggests–the American people were quitters without the necessary will to go the long haul, but because the war could not be won on terms that policymakers sold it to the American people–bringing democracy and economic freedom to South Vietnam.  The then Lieutenant John Kerry aptly summarized these sentiments in his 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.

We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy.... They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace....

This history is being repeated in Iraq today. Iraqi Army units have mutinied rather than join U.S. forces a fight to end the sectarian violence in Bagdad.  A recent poll by the University of Maryland reveals that 78 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. presence is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing," and 71 percent want the U.S. to withdraw in a one year.  The last six months of Washington Post/ABC News polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war is not worth fighting.

The comments of President Bush, Secretary Rice, and other top officials regarding the lessons of the Vietnam War for Iraq suggest that America’s political and military leaders have long been in a state of denial regarding the Vietnam War and its relevance to the conflict in Iraq.  Their refusal to seriously and openly engage the historical experience of America’s Vietnam War and ask what went wrong with the U.S.’s war effort in Vietnam helped lay the foundation for the current debacle in Iraq.  The Vietnam War highlighted the great difficulties in nation-building and the limits of American power, particularly military power, to export American-style democracy and freedom.  The U.S. military could not compel the Vietnamese to support the government Americans sponsored and helped setup in South Vietnam.  The U.S. government’s civilian arm proved incapable in getting its Vietnamese clients to construct a government and economic system that won widespread support among the South Vietnamese people.  The result was the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  Tragically, the U.S. government is losing in Iraq for many of the same reasons.

Although the final chapter on the Iraq War is yet to be written, the Vietnam experience suggests that exiting the Iraq quagmire poses serious challenges. The decisions taken in 1969 by President Richard Nixon and his National Secretary Adviser, Henry Kissinger (now one of President Bush’s trusted foreign policy advisers on Iraq), resulted in a widening of the war.  The rise of the Khmer Rouge and the conversion of Cambodia into killing fields was one horrific consequences of this decision.  Nixon (and Ford) and Kissinger’s failure to negotiate a sustainable peaceful settlement left the region ablaze.  Shortly after U.S. forces left (1973), its client state in South Vietnam fell to the Vietnamese communists in 1975.  It would take nearly 15 years of successive wars involving Vietnam, Cambodia, and China before relative peace was restored to this part South East Asia in the early 1990s.

Americans would do well to avoid a repeat of the bungled Vietnam War exit in Iraq.  Unlike South East Asia, U.S. prosperity and security depend on the free flow of Middle Eastern oil.  A series of wars following the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq would cost Americans dearly.  There is also the possibility, however remote, of the creation of an Islamist jihadist regime in Iraq, or in the Sunni part if the country fragments, that could sponsor terrorist attacks against the U.S.

The U.S.’s government’s repetition of the Vietnam War in Iraq makes its Middle Eastern war doubly tragic.  A detailed historical understanding of America’s Vietnam War on the part of the President and other U.S. policymakers could have helped the nation avoid the current debacle in Iraq.  Instead this history was denied, or at best received extremely superficial attention, as President Bush’s “instant success” comment indicates.  This enabled the Bush administration and large majorities in Congress to launch the U.S. on another mistaken nation-building venture that had little prospect for success.  The result is a war in Iraq like the one in Vietnam–another losing war effort with American and Iraqi blood and treasure being freely squandered in the process.  Iraq in short, has become Arabic for Vietnam.


1.   E.g.:

Q:  Do you see, as some of your critics do, a parallel between what's going on in Iraq now and Vietnam?


Q Why?

THE PRESIDENT: Because there's a duly elected government; 12 million people voted. They said, we want something different from tyranny, we want to live in a free society. And not only did they vote for a government, they voted for a constitution. Obviously, there is sectarian violence, but this is, in many ways, religious in nature, and I don't see the parallels.

(Press Conference of the President George W. Bush, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, June 14, 2006, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/06/20060614.html; “President Bush's Election News Conference,” CQ Transcripts Wire in washingtonpost.com, November 8, 2006,  http://www.washingtonpost.com).

2.   Dale Andrade and Lieutenant Colonel James H. Willbanks, “Cords/Pheonix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future,” Military Review (March-April 2006), pp. 9, 22

3. The Gallup Poll #769, 9/26/1968 10/1/1968, Gallup Brain.

4.  The Gallup Poll #784, 7/10/1969?7/15/1969, Gallup Brain. This percentage is drawn from the 71.6 percent of those surveyed who answered yes to the question: “have you given any thought about what this country should do next in Vietnam?”

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N. Friedman - 12/8/2006


It is my impression that you are fairly new around this website. Welcome. You are a terrific contributor even if - SMILE - you need to read a bit more about Islam.

I would add to your reading list on the Muslim regions Bernard Lewis' truly brilliant book The Muslim Discovery of Europe. It is probably the best history books on any topic I have ever read, period. I might add, Lewis provides rather clear explanation of the Islamic view about spreading Islamic rule. If you want to read an excellent book specifically about how political terminology is used in Islamic thought and history, read his also rather brilliant book The Political Language of Islam. You will see that your understanding of classical Islamic political theology is just not incorrect.

Howard C Berkowitz - 12/8/2006

It sounds as if we are in general agreement.

Unfortunately, I don't remember the source of an interesting what-if: had JFK lived, presumably winning a second term, would the Bay of Pigs experience either led him not to escalate as did LBJ, or, if he did, to be more decisive?

Unfortunately, quite a number of tactics used against Communist targets either seemed adolescent fantasy, (exploding seashells for a SCUBA-diving Castro) to raids that really had no objective: the OPPLAN 34A covert military actions against North Vietnam.

N. Friedman - 12/8/2006


I agree in part. There were splits in the Communist camp. And, our government mostly acted, at least during Johnson's years, as if it were not so.

I would not use the word monolith as I think it is an overused buzz word that replaces serious thought.

Our involvement in Vietnam would not have occurred but for our opposition to communism. But for "containing" communism, who, other than a Vietnamese, could care less whether there was a South Vietnam or even a Vietnam? Certainly, not the US.

I might also add: having witnessed the French make fools of themselves in Vietnam, the notion that we could win a war of attrition was incredibly idiotic. It assumed things about the US and about the world which were not true. Fortunately, the argument raised about the long term impact of pulling out of Vietnam turned out to be as wrong.

As for coalitions, the issue in Vietnam is that it was far away and, in the end, unimportant. That would have been true for a grand coalition. And, taking invasion of N. Vietnam off of the table made it an impossible circumstance.

Howard C Berkowitz - 12/8/2006

The key point of the document is that Johnson Administration policy was playing not to lose, having escalated into a situation without having any real criteria for victory, or SVN government that could contribute to the kind of political victory seen in the Phillipines. You suggest "concern for the better, freer way of life for Vietnamese is indicated"...but that was 10% of the Johnson Administration policy.

Going back to 1945, US policy was to reinstall the French, rather than explore the same sort of transition to independence as in the Phillipines. Have you read any of the Patti mission reports (OSS units, 1945-1947)?

Yes, there were people that regarded Communism as monolithic, ignoring the historic enmity of Vietnamese for China. Diem was favored because he was tied into the US anticommunist leadership, as opposed to having any particular connection with the majority of people in the South.

Contrast Diem with Magsaysay, who focused on showing that the government was relevant to the people in the villages. Magsaysay's death was a great loss to the world, but he did manage to convince many Communist Huk guerillas to rejoin the Filipino political system.

Hindsight, of course, is wonderful, but dealing with Ho in a coalition, rather than continuing to support the doomed French presence, might have had a much better outcome.

N. Friedman - 12/8/2006


An interesting paper and well worth considering. I am not sure whether it shows your point but it is nonetheless interesting.

My skepticism is as follows. If we are purchasing tires, you will not likely find literature showing the importance that the tires be round. Such is, as it were, an assumed. It strikes me that an important axiomatic element of US policy was anti-Communism. And, the very fact that concern for the Chinese influence (evidently drawn by ahistorical policy advisors of the same type who might have concluded that there are really Iraqis, not Sunnis and Shi'a Muslims) and concern for the better, freer way of life for Vietnamese is indicated is more than enough to place that war in the context of the the anti-Communist axiom.

Jason Blake Keuter - 12/8/2006

Like France? Belgium? England? Germany? Poland?

Your use of the phrase capitalist client state regarding the cold war is a good example of attempted moral equivalency between capitalist democracy and communist tyranny.

Capitalism and democracy, unlike totalitarian ideologies like communism, fascism and Islam do not have a pre-determined outcome. Thus the introduction of democracy and capitalism to different societies has, HISTORICALLY, had radically varying results. These are dynamic systems. They provide individuals with a greater degree of self-determination but are decidedly not deterministic.

Carl Becker - 12/7/2006

Iraq is another mistake and badly managed war just as Vietnam was. Attempts to hold Iraq together by political compromise have failed. Force doesn’t work either, at least not American force. The quagmire problems in Iraq may not be exactly the same as they were in Viet Nam but they are the same quagmire problems you’d find in any mess like this.

If the Americans stay there in Iraq they’re going to have to choose sides, friends as in Abdul Aziz al-Hakim who wants no other than an “the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” and wants to exterminate the opposition (besides Al Qaeda, Takfiris and Baathists, a lot of Sunnis. And the Americans teaching Americans the art of counterinsurgency? A lot of people are smiling at this silly idea (U.S. trainers giving instruction in combat techniques will be turned against them – how stupid can Americans be?) because Americans don’t speak Arabic, understand their culture, share the Iraqis faith, or know their history. The Big Plan with Baker and the smoke and mirrors in Dc is nonsense, another politically correct model to control the chaos.

Of course Hakim, who Bush has reached out to, is already in the business of extermination, Shiite death squads from his own organization, operating as part of the existing Iraqi government forces. American-backed savagery/ “Democracy” will be made possible by right-wing death squads.

Hakim’s vision of a democratic Iraq is rule by a Shiite majority that answers to Islamic clerical guidance

This guy’s an Islamic revolutionary, have the Bush people forgotten the clash between Islam and Christianity? Islam still remains the violent religion with big plans in this big picture and Iran will be encouraged. Things could work out, America may be walking down that yellow brick road into the sunshine of democracy now but delusions are funny things.

Howard C Berkowitz - 12/6/2006

So the issue was communism? May I cite the declassified document, from Asst Secdef (ISA) McMaughton to Secdef McNamara? See http://vietnam.vassar.edu/ladrang03.html, with the key quote below.

Nowhere in the document does it list "communism" as a basic part of the fight. The only reference is a passing one to "communist LOC" [lines of communication]. The emphasis on China ignores both Sino-Vietnamese conflict going back to the Trung Sisters in the First Century, and the reality that if NVN was a client, it was a Soviet client.

Key excerpt follows.

"1. US aims:

70%--To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).

20%--To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

10%--To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also-To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. Not--To "help a friend," although it would be hard to stay if asked out.

Frederick Thomas - 12/5/2006

He just has to pontificate about a war he probably refused to serve in, and surely knows nothing about.

As Ho Chi Minh said, after the Christmas bombardment which tanked his whole economy, "we would have asked for talks if it were not for the demonstrations." Way to go, former demonstrators.

The result was the Killing Fields, reeducation centers and the terribly oppressive Vietnamese communist government, which was so inefficient that the leaders decided to dump socialism on the ash heap of history.

Mr. Rossi doubtless liked those atrocities so much that he's hoping for the same thing in the mideast.

Communism has not been completely beaten yet. It is still secretly alive among US and European academe. It's time to ask for some accountability.

Sidney R. Tran - 12/4/2006

This writer has made several erroneous conclusions regarding the Vietnam War. The writer suggests that the wars in Iraq and Vietnam are a "guerrilla war and civil war". In actuality Vietnam War was a multi-faceted war consisting both insurgency and conventional. The communists always understood this aspect. The writer should check out Easter Offensive in '72 where Hanoi was launched a 120,000 man offensive with tanks and armor. Hardly, a picture of peasants foot soldiers setting booby trap.

Another point of contention from this "professor" is that RVN was a "weak, ineffectual, and corrupt client state that could not win popular support". Yes, RVN was a developing country and the level of corruption was indicative of that aspect. But the corruption was no worse or better than any other Southeast Asian countries around that region in addition to South Korea. RVN had a functioning society with limited level freedom given the wartime conditions. Freedom House rated RVN in 72-75 as 4 and 5, a ranking that was higher than any other Southeast Asian countries. Additionally, RVN loss of 275,000 for a nation of 17 millions was a percentage with respect to population was on par with the losses suffered by United Kingdom in WWI. So the writer contention that RVN didn't fight is just complete fabrication and outright distortion.

The writer also quoted the testimony of J.F. Kerry, a veteran of 4 months in Vietnam, as an expert in the conflict. "We found most people didn't know the difference between communism and democracy". Give me a break! Maybe, the Senator should ask the 1.5 million Vietnamese refugees living in the U.S. and another 1.5 million living around the world today how they felt about it. They fully well know the difference between totalitarian communism and freedom because they left their homeland by the most perilous of means.

Republic of Vietnam was responsible for many things that were wrong with the war. But there were other things that were beyond its control.

It was American policymakers who wanted to fight a war of attrition from 1965 -1969.

It was American policymakers who wish to ignore that it was a regional war waged by Hanoi that violated the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia.

It was American policymakers who forced RVN to bad peace deal. It was American policymakers who decided to build RVNAF into a capable fighting force on the model of the US military and then decided to defund that very same military designed to protect its sovereignty and territory integrity. RVN could not defend itself without the wherewithal from the US while Hanoi received the same war making capabilities from the USSR, China, and the East bloc.

It was American policymakers and politicians who chose to ignore the conditions of the Paris Accords by passing Church Cooper Admendment to undercut the means in which the US could enforce Accords if the North Vietnam violated the Accords.

The lesson of the Vietnam War is simple: a US ally, in time of war, is at the whim and mercy of the fickleness US foreign policy. Small countries beware of the US staying power and committments.