Iraq Picture Today Bleaker Than Vietnam Ever Was

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Iraq Picture Today Bleaker Than Vietnam Ever Was


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


Bush policymakers recoil every time they hear the word Vietnam in the same sentence with Iraq. Nevertheless, the comparisons are apt and frightening.

Once again, the United States is sinking into quicksand in a foreign civil war with little or no understanding of the meaning of the moment, of local culture and history--and with no exit strategy in sight.

Actually, the Iraq picture today is bleaker than Vietnam ever was. This will become more apparent as we approach the politically motivated June 30 deadline for turning over authority to yet undisclosed Iraqi leaders.

Asked earlier this month by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert to whom the United States would turn over government authority in Baghdad, U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremmer, as if recognizing aloud the bind the United States is in, responded: "That's a good question."

Given recent widespread insurrection in Iraq, some war critics have likened the moment to the 1968 Vietnam Tet offensive. That insurrection blew a hole in the Washington story line that the United States was winning the war.

I maintain, however, that Iraq today is not Vietnam 1968. It is Vietnam 1954. That was the year the United States first began to set up the Saigon government. That was the year the United States first struggled to build a nationwide pro-American police and military force in Vietnam. That was the year a pro-American leadership was installed in Saigon.

This time, however, Washington is in a much different and more perplexing situation. This time Bush and his nation-building planners lack a charismatic national figure like Ngo Dinh Diem, the Vietnamese mandarin-like Catholic, plucked from a New York seminary, who became the first president of Vietnam.

And this time Washington lacks within Iraq, as it had found in Vietnam, a solidly pro-American base that could serve as the germ of the fledgling new government. This time there are no Iraqis who will fight to the death against local insurgents. This time there are no equivalents of the transplanted Catholic refugees from northern Vietnam.

Some history is helpful.

French missionaries settled in Vietnam in the 16th century. Conversions began then. Catholics grew in numbers through the mid-19th century when Vietnam became a colony of France. By then Catholics comprised some 7 percent or more of the Vietnamese population. These Catholics had a pro-Western orientation.

Vietnam fell to Japan during World War II, but the French moved back in 1945, drawing on their Catholic base to again administer Hanoi. That was the same year the French in earnest took on the Vietminh and Ho Chi Minh for control of Indochina. The war lasted nearly nine years, ending in a major military defeat for the French at Dien Bien Phu. By then the United States was paying for 80 percent of the costs of that war. …

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