The President's Surprising Rationale for the Iraq War: Vietnam

With his approval rating at a new low of 29 percent, his most trusted political adviser gone, and U.S. troops in Iraq suffering the worst helicopter disaster since 2005, it's not surprising that President Bush might try to boost support for his Iraq policy by turning to the rhetoric of a past wartime president. But who would guess that he'd choose President Nixon?

Addressing a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., Bush invoked the bloody aftermath of the Vietnam War, saying the United States must stay the course in Iraq or suffer the humiliation of defeat and the guilt of abandoning our allies.

By drawing parallels to Vietnam, many observers were left to wonder why the president would point to America's least successful and least popular war ever as justification for continued fighting in Iraq. His audience seemed to back him up.

Despite the popularity of the speech and the Iraq War in that hall, criticism quickly followed the president's remarks, with historians, veterans and politicians drawing their own parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and questioning not only the president's understanding of history but his motives for bringing up what remains a controversial and painful subject in many American homes.

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush told the Missouri VFW members. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"

"Then as now, people argued that the real problem was America's presence, and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end," Bush said. "The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be," he added.

The president often references history when urging patience on Iraq. Much of his speech Wednesday compared early criticism of U.S. intervention in Japan and Korea with criticism of the war in Iraq, but he has made a point in the past not to equate Iraq and Vietnam too much.

In 2004, Bush criticized those who would compare the wars with one another, saying, "I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It's hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation's interest."

Bush avoided comparison with Vietnam for two reasons, said Thomas Biersteker, a professor of international relations at Brown University and a Vietnam War expert.

"He chose to distance himself from Vietnam because of his own lack of involvement and because Vietnam is generally not considered a resounding success in popular memory. It is striking that he has begun to rely on arguments strikingly similar to those of Richard Nixon," Biersteker told

Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., a Vietnam veteran and staunch critic of the Iraq War, also noted that much of the President Bush's rhetoric echoed the language of Nixon in the late 1960s, who called on Americans to be patient after almost a decade of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

"Today, we hear the same misleading rhetoric coming from this administration. In Vietnam, we were talking about 10 years of patience and in the end a U.S. military solution did not work. Now, five years into the war in Iraq, the president continues to seek a U.S. military solution to an Iraqi civil war. There will be no real progress in Iraq until key political, economic and diplomatic improvements are made by the Iraqis," Murtha said.

In the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1976, Vietnam underwent a difficult transition as the country unified under a communist government. As Bush described in his speech, some American allies were persecuted for their support of the United States.

"President Bush is correct that one legacy of our departure from Vietnam was the abandonment of some of our closest allies, mass refugee flows, and re-education camps," Biersteker said.

"But staying longer will not necessarily mitigate those outcomes in Iraq, for which he and his core advisers ultimately bear the burden of responsibility ... The fundamental lesson of Vietnam is to know when to stop relying on military force. Bush still hopes and believes that if we just stay the course we'll be OK. It was disastrously wrong then for leaders to believe their own rhetoric in the hopes that things will turn out the right way and it is disastrously wrong now," he said.

Bush's allies in Congress supported his notion that U.S. troops should not be hastily withdrawn from Iraq, but were reluctant to mention the Vietnam comparison.

"In his remarks today, President Bush correctly asked the question that is on the minds of many of the men and women fighting al Qaeda in Iraq: 'Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground?'" House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

But for many listeners -- some of them veterans of the Vietnam War -- the president's comparison was not only inaccurate, it was distasteful.

"I think it's really regrettable to me that the president really has learned nothing from Vietnam," said Bernie Reilly, a West Point graduate, Vietnam vet and father of a son who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It is perfectly right to compare Iraq with Vietnam," said Barry Romo of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "We got into Vietnam with a lie about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and we got into Iraq with a lie about WMD."