In his Afghan war speech at West Point and in other interviews and statements President Obama has bristled at any comparison between his Afghanistan escalation and the Vietnam War. He's right, but not in the way he means. The universally accepted view is that Vietnam is the ultimate poster war for a miserably failed, flawed, and publicly divisive war. That's true with historical revisionist hindsight, but it wasn't true then. Vietnam was actually a far easier sell for Lyndon Johnson than Afghanistan is and will be for Obama.
Not one House representative and only two Senators voted against Johnson's Tonkin Gulf Resolution in June 1964. This was Johnson's virtual declaration of war on North Vietnam. For the next three years, Congress with barely a ripple of dissent cheered Johnson on as he poured waves of American ground troops, dumped tens of millions into the war effort and shored up a hopelessly corrupt and listless South Vietnam military and successive governments.
Congress's cheerlead of Johnson's war was no aberration. The war was wildly popular among most Americans. In February 1968, polls found that less than one out of ten Americans said the US should get out of Vietnam, and less than one in four said that the US should gradually deescalate. Polls also found very little difference in support for the war between young and older voters. Nor did education make much difference either in war support or opposition. Johnson was not shackled with a war powers act that made it mandatory for presidents to consult with Congress before starting military hostilities. Congress was so pro-war then that it would not have dreamed of such legislation. The act was passed in 1971, long after Johnson exited the scene.
The fiction is that tens of millions of Americans were so angry, frustrated, and disgusted with the war that they drove Johnson from the White House. The growing surge of mostly student antiwar protests did rattle a tired and disconcerted Johnson. But overall support for the war still held firm even as he announced he wouldn't run again. Johnson's decision not to seek reelection, notwithstanding, the Vietnam War was broadly supported for most of the 1960's decade.
It's just the opposite with Obama and Afghanistan. Democrats and some Republicans either don't like the war, or at least the way Obama wants to wage it, and have thrown out a checklist of better ways to fight it. For a brief moment VP Joe Biden was one of the escalation dissenters. The sticking point is the ramp up in American ground troops. Obama doesn't have the luxury of the public support cushion that Johnson had to fight in Vietnam. He used that cushion to get whatever he wanted out of Congress, the Pentagon, and taxpayers in men and money to sustain his war.
Obama, like Johnson, will have to go back to Congress and the public to repeatedly re-sell his war. But if fighting goes bad, the casualties, and costs mount, the re-sell will be far tougher for him than it was for Johnson on Vietnam.
In one sense Obama is right to decry any comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam. Congress and the public enthusiastically backed Johnson on Vietnam until things went bad. That's a luxury Obama won't have with Afghanistan.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.
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