By Robert K. Brigham

The following text is a collection of excerpts from Professor Robert K. Brigham’s recently released book, Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

The war in Iraq is now a major conflict, costlier in lives and treasure than any other U.S.-led war since 1975. The outcome in Iraq will have a dramatic impact on U.S. foreign policy for years and will drastically alter the geopolitical future of the Middle East. With so much riding on the outcome in Iraq, President George W. Bush urges the nation to stay the course, arguing that America’s vital national security interests are at stake.


Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam
Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam

Yet the war in Iraq was predicated on weapons of mass destruction that were not found and an alliance between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group that did not exist. This grim assessment of the war and its false pretexts are especially haunting because the issues raise the kind of mistakes, misjudgments, and myths that led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At that time, the context was the spread of communism and falling dominos in Southeast Asia. U.S. policymakers claimed Vietnam was the front line of the Cold War, and the future of the free world depended upon success in that faraway place.

But is Iraq another Vietnam? Is history repeating itself? Since the first days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, supporters of the war have cautioned the public not to view this conflict as another Vietnam. They rightfully point to several important distinctions, most involving military operations. It is clear, from an operational and strategic standpoint, Vietnam and Iraq are very different conflicts. First, in size and scope, the Vietnam War simply dwarfs the war in Iraq. Second, Vietnam began as an insurgency and escalated into a conventional war; in Iraq, the war started as a conventional invasion and deteriorated into a guerrilla war. The strategies used in both wars also differ dramatically. So, too, do the armies the United States sent into harm’s way in Vietnam and Iraq. The insurgencies also share little in common, and Iraq has no charismatic figure like Ho Chi Minh to represent the civil-military movement in the public’s eye. Furthermore, outside of the Middle East, there is little if any support for the insurgents. In sharp contrast, Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (NLF) enjoyed the sympathy of people in many nations, including the United States.


Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam
Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam

Yet despite the overwhelming number of differences, several similarities may be more important to the outcome in Iraq and the long-term future of U.S. foreign relations. First, in Iraq, like Vietnam, the original rationale for going to war has been discredited. Second, in both cases the new justification became building stable societies. Third, with declining public support for the war, it is likely that an “Iraq Syndrome” will develop that will limit future U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

The problem Bush faces in Iraq is similar to the problem Lyndon Johnson faced in Vietnam. In both cases, according to John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion, the public gave substantial support to the effort as troops were sent in, but that support evaporated as the war dragged on.1 In Vietnam, public opinion polls clearly showed that a majority of Americans supported Johnson’s 1965 decisions to send combat troops there and to give them offensive missions.2 Likewise, the Bush administration initially enjoyed enormous support from a majority of the American public when U.S. troops invaded Iraq.3 In each case, however, public support declined sharply in the early stages of the conflict because reluctant supporters were quickly alienated.4 Although the erosion slowed as approval was reduced to hard-core supporters of the war, overall public opinion never recovered to preinvasion levels. By 1967 less than half of the American people supported the war in Vietnam, and that remained the high-water mark for the remaining seven years of war.5 For Mueller, Iraq is noteworthy because the decline in support has been faster than most experts predicted. In his view, this phenomenon has occurred because the American public “places far less value on the stakes in Iraq” than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam.6 Much as during the Vietnam era, a mood is also growing in Congress that the president has overstepped his constitutional authority, and this mood deepened especially after revelations about the Bush administration using wiretaps without legal warrants.

In April 2004, during a period of particularly heavy American and Iraqi casualties, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) declared in a Washington speech, “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”7 During a subsequent television interview, Kennedy said, “We’re facing a quagmire in Iraq, just as we faced in Vietnam.” He particularly cited the lack of information: “We didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves into in Vietnam. We didn’t understand what we were doing in Iraq. We had misrepresentations about what we were able to do militarily in Vietnam. I think we are finding that out in Iraq as well.”8 Kennedy’s comments helped convince others to speak out. Senator Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) also saw similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, concluding, “The gnawing and growing feeling that the goal of achieving U.S.-style democracy in Iraq is unattainable is reminiscent of the feeling that gripped America during Vietnam.”9 His colleague, Robert Byrd (D–W.Va.), rose on the Senate floor to say, “Now, after a year of continued strife in Iraq, comes word that the commander of forces in the region is seeking options to increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground if necessary. Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam.”10

Indeed he was not. Several national publications jumped on the Vietnam bandwagon, including Newsweek, which ran “The Vietnam Factor” on its April 19 cover. Bob Herbert of The New York Times claimed the United States was repeating the Vietnam experience in Iraq. “We have been there, done that, and now we are doing it again,” he wrote in an editorial in September 2004.11 His colleague at The Washington Post, Robert Kutner, editorialized that the Iraq conflict “is becoming more and more reminiscent of the Vietnam disaster. American troops mostly stay in heavily fortified barracks. When they do venture out, their sweeps don’t achieve durable pacification. Militants and young men of fighting age are long gone by the time American bombardments start.”12 Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College in London and one of the most respected military historians in the world, wrote, “Just as Vietnam became McNamara’s war, Iraq has become Rumsfeld’s war.”13

In November 2005, House member John Murtha (D-Penn.) stunned his colleagues by calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha, one of the top House Democrats on military spending, said U.S. troops were the primary target of the insurgency and Americans had become a “catalyst for violence.”14 In a speech reminiscent of the intense Vietnam-era debates in Congress, Murtha concluded it was time to bring the troops home.15 The usually hawkish Murtha set off a firestorm in Washington that concluded with a Senate vote to press the Bush administration for concrete steps toward troop withdrawals but drew (sharp) protest from Vice President Cheney. Cheney told reporters that politicians who compared Iraq to Vietnam and criticized President Bush were engaging in “dishonest and reprehensible” behavior.16 Murtha fired back about “guys who got five deferments and [have] never been there and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.”17


Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam
Images of magazines critical of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam

Another Vietnam veteran, William Nash, a retired U.S. Army major general who also served in the Persian Gulf and Bosnia and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has found Iraq and Vietnam eerily similar. In his view, the United States is once again fighting a protracted war with the wrong tactics. “Now we have Vietnam [in Iraq]. You’ve got a sovereign government over there, a big embassy, and 140,000 U.S. soldiers. And our ability to influence political decisions is finite.”18 Similar comments have come from Anthony Zinni, a fellow Vietnam veteran who also served with U.S. forces in Somalia and who preceded Tommy Franks and John Abizaid as chief of Central Command in the Middle East. Zinni has noted a similarity between Iraq and Vietnam because in both cases overall military strategy is flawed: “Some strategic mistakes are very similar,” and in both cases the White House is trying to “draw the American people into support of the war by cooking the books. We did it with the Gulf of Tonkin situation... and here we have had the case for WMD [weapons of mass destruction] as an imminent threat for not using international authority to go in.”19

Even supporters of the war in Iraq are drawn to the Vietnam analogy. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has repeatedly used the debacle in Vietnam as evidence that the United States needs to send more troops to Iraq. Early in the war when Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that 132,000 U.S. troops could defeat the insurgency in Iraq, an angry McCain publicly disagreed, stating, “The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives.” McCain concluded his remarks with a prophetic warning that if the United States did not send more troops, it would risk “the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam.”20 Several other Republicans have joined McCain in calling for more troops, arguing that in their absence the United States will face “another Vietnam.”21 Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam veteran and often considered one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, has criticized the war from its very beginning.

As public support for the nation-building effort in Iraq dwindles, the Bush administration can expect Congress to pressure it to announce plans for a troop withdrawal. Just as in Vietnam, the president will face increasing criticism from Congress as the war’s costs mount. And just as Johnson did before him, President Bush also faces opposition to withdrawal from some conservatives, many of whom form the core of his support base. They contend a premature U.S. withdrawal will precipitate a bloody civil war in Iraq. In their view, the president must establish more of a military presence in Iraq, not less. Like Johnson, then, Bush is feeling pressure both from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And in another parallel to Vietnam, the middle ground in Iraq is shrinking and perhaps even becoming an untenable position to maintain. If the Vietnam War is any guide, fear of the consequences of withdrawal is perhaps the most paralyzing factor facing the Bush administration today.

In Iraq, as in Vietnam, talk of a U.S. withdrawal stokes fears of a subsequent bloodbath. The Bush administration rightfully worries that premature withdrawal from Iraq will precipitate a chaotic and bloody civil war there. The president seems determined to stay the course to avoid such a fate, even if this means extending the U.S. commitment beyond the public’s willingness to support such a measure. Growing sectarian violence in Iraq threatens the Bush administration’s fragile domestic coalition on Iraq, and U.S. public opinion polls highlight growing support for a U.S. withdrawal.22 Many observers in Washington see no easy way out.

On the one hand, if the Bush administration stays too long in Iraq, American citizens will grow weary and press their representatives to alter U.S. foreign policy fundamentally, as occurred following the Vietnam War. An “Iraq Syndrome” will join the “Vietnam Syndrome” in dominating all foreign-policy discussions. If, on the other hand, the Bush administration pulls out of Iraq before it can stand on its own against the insurgents, that same public will no doubt compare Bush’s policy to that of Nixon’s “decent interval.”

Throughout 1971 and 1972, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, made it clear to Hanoi and its allies in Moscow and Beijing that the United States was willing to strike a deal to end the war following the November 1972 U.S. presidential elections. Kissinger secretly met with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai in Beijing on July 9, 1971, in preparation for Nixon’s 1972 visit. Kissinger told Zhou the United States would exchange its complete withdrawal of U.S. troops for the return of American POWs and a cease-fire throughout all of Indochina. Kissinger declared that Nixon thereafter would need a guarantee there would be an interval—described variously as “a reasonable interval,” “a sufficient interval,” “a decent interval”—between the cease-fire and a resumption of hostilities between North and South Vietnam.23 In a follow-up meeting, he pressed his Chinese host on the timing of such hostilities, arguing they could not resume immediately. “All we ask,” Kissinger concluded, “is a degree of time so as to leave Vietnam for Americans in a better perspective.”24 If a month after a U.S. withdrawal “the war starts again, it is quite possible we would say this was just a trick to get us out and we cannot accept this. If the North Vietnamese, on the other hand, engage in a serious negotiation with the South Vietnamese, and if after a longer period it starts again after we are all disengaged... it is much less likely that we will go back [to Vietnam] again.”25

The president liked the plan, as long as it coalesced after the 1972 U.S. election. When South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu realized what Kissinger and Nixon had in mind, he wept openly. The Nixon administration would eventually ask South Vietnam to sign an agreement that forced a U.S. withdrawal, released U.S. prisoners of war, and provided no military or political guarantee for the security and longevity of South Vietnam. South Vietnam was being forced to commit suicide. However, Nixon and Kissinger had done their homework. They recognized there was little support in the United States for prolonging the war after the election the Saigon government called for in 1971. In that election, President Thieu won by a landslide, primarily by disqualifying his political opponents. Despite the Nixon administration’s efforts to force Thieu into a truly democratic election, the South Vietnamese president managed to keep the election a one-man race. The Nixon administration learned it could not count on democratic elections in South Vietnam to bring peace or to precipitate a U.S. withdrawal. More important, after that the Saigon government lost the faith of a majority of the American people.

Today in Iraq there are similar fears. Many Americans are growing weary of the way the new government in Baghdad is running its affairs. For example, in early February 2006, the newly elected Baghdad government announced it was nominating Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term. For most foreign observers, however, al-Jaafari’s nomination did not come as welcome news. He did little in his first term to stem the torture and indiscriminate arrests in Sunni neighborhoods, and many of the economic programs he supported were an unmitigated disaster. Many Sunnis in Iraq also fear al-Jaafari owes his position to a deal struck with followers of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Support from al-Sadr comes at a cost, and that cost might cause many Americans to turn their backs on the nation-building experiment in Iraq. Clearly, al-Sadr and his followers, who control many of the Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and Basra, want a Taliban-style government in Iraq and closer ties with U.S. enemies in Iran and Syria. Since the nomination, attacks against U.S. troops by the Mahdi Army have increased dramatically. If Iraqi elections produce such chaos, many Americans will lose faith and demand a U.S. withdrawal, just as they did in Vietnam. Under enormous political pressure, Baghdad eventually withdrew al-Jaafari’s nomination in April 2006. However, the proposed coalition in the new prime minister’s office will also face an uphill struggle trying to unite the people of Iraq.

The Bush White House has been fortunate that the American public is registering its disapproval of the war primarily through public opinion polls and its representatives in Congress. Unlike the Johnson and Nixon administrations, President Bush has been spared massive antiwar protests. During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets. The most dramatic demonstration came on October 21, 1967, with a march against the Pentagon. As many as 35,000 protesters walked from the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River to the “nerve center of the war.”26 They formed a human chain around the Pentagon, trying to levitate it and exorcise its evil spirits. Many protesters tried to convince soldiers protecting the building to leave their posts. Toward the end of the evening, a serious clash broke out between antiwar activists and federal marshals who had been called in to keep the peace.

In another dramatic protest in April 1971, now known as Dewey Canyon III, Vietnam veterans returned their medals to Congress after making angry speeches about the war. During that protest, a young John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asking, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry was a member of a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), an organization that had considerable influence in some middle-class communities.

Although growing numbers of Iraq veterans are organizing against the war, their numbers are small compared with what VVAW mounted. Cindy Sheehan’s protest at the Bush ranch over her son’s death and the war in Iraq does not yet mirror a larger trend. The Bush administration has been spared the volatility of the 1960s and 1970s, but the American public clearly is growing war-weary. Furthermore, a number of retired U.S. generals have been openly critical of Secretary Rumsfeld and the plans for Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s ouster. In many important ways, the protest against the war in Iraq—as limited as it is—might be as powerful as was the protest against the Vietnam War. Gold-star mothers and army generals have a way of grabbing the public’s attention, and it will be difficult for the Bush administration to ignore these important, rational voices of protest.

Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar
Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar

Robert K. Brigham is Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar. He is author of numerous books and essays on American foreign relations, including Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, written with Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight (PublicAffairs, 1999).

Photo Credits: Covers: Copyright © 2006 Time Inc., Copyright © 2006 Time & Life Pictures, Copyright © 2006 Newsweek; Brigham photo: Monica D. Church







  1. John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” Foreign Affairs 84 (November/December 2005), p.44.
  2. Hazel Erskine, “The Polls: Is War a Mistake?” Public Opinion Quarterly 34 (Spring 1970): 134–150.
  3. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “The Public Struggles with Possible War in Iraq,” January 30, 2003.
  4. Susan Page, “Poll: American Attitudes on Iraq Similar to Vietnam Era,” USA Today, November 15, 2005, p. 1.
  5. Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935–1971, 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1972). 1972–1977 and later volumes: (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources).
  6. Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” p. 45.
  7. As quoted in John Mulligan, “Historians, Soldiers hesitant to Call Iraq Another Vietnam,” Providence Journal, April 25, 2004, p. A8.
  8. As quoted in John Mulligan, “Historians, Soldiers hesitant to Call Iraq Another Vietnam,” Providence Journal, April 25, 2004, p. A8.
  9. Bartholomew Sullivan, “The Road from Tet to Falluja,” Commercial Appeal, May 30, 2004, p. B3.
  10. Susan Page, “Is Iraq Becoming Another Vietnam?”, USA Today, April 14, 2004, p. 1A.
  11. Bob Herbert, New York Times, September 27, 2004, p. A27.
  12. Robert Kutner, Washington Post, November 7, 2004, p. B7.
  13. Lawrence Freedman, “Rumsfeld’s Legacy: The Iraq Syndrome?”, Washington Post, January 9, 2005, p. B5.
  14. Charles Babbington, “Hawkish Democrat Joins Call,” Washington Post, November 18, 2005, p. A1.
  15. Babbington, “Hawkish Democrat Joins Call,” p. A1
  16. “Cheney Calls War Critics ‘Opportunists,’” MSNBC News Service, 9:00am, November 17, 2005.
  17. Babbington, “Hawkinsh Democrat Joins Call,” p. A1.
  18. Jonathan Rauch, “Iraq is NO Vietnam, but Vietnam Holds Lessons for Iraq,” National Journal 36 (September 11, 2004): 2710-2711.
  19. Anthony Zinni, “Making Vietnam’s Mistakes All over Again,” New Perspectives Quarterly 21 (Summer 2004): 24-28.
  20. Barbara Slavin, “McCain: Force Levels in Iraq Inadequate,” USA Today, November 5, 2003, p. A1.
  21. Barbara Slavin, “McCain: Force Levels in Iraq Inadequate,” USA Today, November 5, 2003, p.A1.
  22. Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” p. 46.
  23. China, Dr. Kissinger Office Files, Box 97 and Polo I, Kissinger Briefing Book, July 1971 Trip to China, National Security Council, Box 850, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
  24. As quoted in Jussi Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 225.
  25. “Memorandum of Conversation, 20 June 1972, 2:05-8:57 A.M., Oval Office” Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
  26. Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 178-179.