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Obama’s Vietnam Syndrome

NEW HAVEN – There can be no military resolution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. Writing that sentence almost makes me faint with boredom. As US President Barack Obama ponders what to do about the war, who wants to repeat a point that’s been made thousands of times? Is there anyone on earth who does not know that a guerilla war cannot be won without winning the “hearts and minds” of the people? The American public has known this since its defeat in Vietnam.

Americans are accustomed to thinking that their country’s bitter experience in Vietnam taught certain lessons that became cautionary principles. But historical documents recently made available reveal something much stranger. Most of those lessons were in fact known – though not publicly admitted – before the US escalated the war in Vietnam.

That difference is important. If the Vietnam disaster was launched in full awareness of the “lessons,” why should those lessons be any more effective this time? It would seem that some other lessons are needed.

Why did President Lyndon Johnson’s administration steer the US into a war that looked like a lost cause even to its own officials? One possible explanation is that Johnson was thoroughly frightened by America’s right wing. Urged by Senator Mike Mansfield to withdraw from Vietnam, he replied that he did not want another “China in Vietnam.”