The Saigon Factor

Is Iraq the new Vietnam? Written last year this article is still very relevant. Despite being drubbed in Presidential and Congressional elections, Democrats still fantasise about Iraq as the new Vietnam.

The Saigon Factor

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 30 July 2004

Democrats are becoming increasingly excited by the view that Iraq is Bush’s Vietnam. This is important to them because the Democrat mythology says President Johnson was brought down by the Vietnam War. He won in 1964 by what remains the biggest margin any Democrat has won in the last 60 years, and withdrew from the primaries just four years later to avoid humiliation. Democrats see evidence that Iraq has already moved from being a popular action to being unpopular.

The trouble with this mythology is that it is not the whole story. The Democrats were not, after all, swept from power by Eugene McCarthy. Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, was defeated by Richard Nixon. Nixon ran for re-election four years later with the Vietnam War still going on. This time Democrats gave the electorate a real choice – and 49 states chose Nixon. While it is easy to dismiss this as being down to Nixon’s dirty tricks, the evidence is pretty clear that McGovern’s challenge was simply not popular.

In the ’68 election it was Democrat divisions over Vietnam and over civil rights that were the key issues. Johnson took brave actions on both these matters which he felt were right for the country, and did so knowing perfectly well that he was destroying his party. On civil rights he picked up a challenge that Kennedy had been too nervous to touch and on Vietnam he continued Kennedy’s policy. The first was controversial among Democrats from day one, and the second increasingly became so.

Leading Democrat Senators such as Robert Byrd – still in the Senate today – and Al Gore, father of the future Vice-President, along with Democrat Governors such as George Wallace vehemently opposed racial integration. A much smaller number of Republicans – including Senator Goldwater – opposed the civil rights legislation on constitutional grounds, despite a demonstrable personal support for racial integration.

A second group of largely different Democrats – though also including Al Gore – came to oppose the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Johnson, who knew both Kennedys well and shared a mutual loathing with Bobby, assumed that Bobby was going to attack him for not being tough enough on Communism, and was very surprised when Bobby jumped on the anti-war bandwagon.

While the Democrats were busy undermining their own President, the Republicans were largely united behind him – at least on both these issues. Republicans overwhelmingly supported both racial integration (though a small number doubted Johnson’s tactics) and the Vietnam War.

It was against this background of deep Democrat divisions, including a third party run for the Presidency by Governor Wallace, that the Democrats lost in ’68. They remained divided in ’72 and the Republicans remained united.

So the lessons for Iraq are very different to the ones Democrats like to paint. Divided parties lose, especially in wartime. The Democrats were divided, both in government and in opposition, and both times they lost.

Although Democrats are now coalescing around the Kerry-Edwards ticket, it is clear that the party remains divided on Iraq too. In Congress the Democrats split almost down the middle on Iraq, with a small majority of Senators, including Kerry and Edwards, voting in favour of the war and a small majority of Congressmen voting against.

Democrat hopes of an Iraq quagmire will prove to be in vain. The Vietnam War became unpopular with increasing numbers of people as it dragged on for ten years. The main part of the fighting in Iraq was over in 20 days. Servicemen and their families overwhelmingly support the Iraq War. In Vietnam, significant numbers of soldiers had been drafted. And those who were either not drafted or not posted to Vietnam constantly feared that they might be.

For these reasons, Iraq will never be as unpopular as Vietnam was, but insofar as it remains controversial, it will be the divided Democrats who suffer the electoral consequences, just as they did more than three decades ago.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 30 July 2004

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