The War Nobody Won 8

Millions of Americans shared Gus Wilson’s sentiment. And their disenchantment, which came to be known as the Vietnam “syn¬drome,” discouraged U.S. presidents from undertaking hazardous ventures abroad during the decade following the war.
Had it not been for Vietnam, the Carter administration might have acted to block revolutionary movements in Angola and Ethiopia, or to protect the Shah of Iran against Islamic fundamentalists. President Reagan had pledged during his election campaign in 1980 to restore America’s preeminence in the world, yet he remembered as well that Vietnam had been a political liability for his predecessors. So, after more than two hundred U.S. marines perished in a terrorist bomb attack against their barracks in Beirut in October 1983, he prudently withdrew the rest of the contingent instead of escalating the force— as Lyndon Johnson might have done. Shortly afterward, however, he invaded the tiny Caribbean resort island of Grenada and ousted its leftist leaders, whom he described as Cuban surrogates. The comic opera operation, which lasted less than a week, afforded him an opportunity to flex America’s muscles and to satisfy the nation’s nos¬talgia for its former supremacy—without raising anxieties at home. He also exhorted Congress to provide aid for efforts to crush the Communists in Central America, contending that the Soviet Union and Cuba were using them to menace U.S. security. But he was consistently rebuffed by most Americans, who flinched at the possi¬bility of a long jungle war in Central America that seemed to be a replay of the long jungle war in Vietnam.
The refusal by the U.S. public to become embroiled in Central America contrasted sharply with its attitude toward the mounting insurgency in South Vietnam two decades before.
By the end of 1963, America was spending $400 million annually in Vietnam. Some twelve thousand U.S. military advisers were serv¬ing there, and fifty of them had been killed over the previous four years—even though they were officially barred from engaging in bat¬tle. Yet a survey disclosed that 63 percent of Americans were paying “little or no attention” to the situation. Nor, in August 1964, did Congress question a dubious “incident” in the Tonkin Gulf off North Vietnam but, with only two dissenting votes, passed a resolution authorizing President Johnson to deploy U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The disregard for Vietnam at the time was further mirrored in the fact that, until the first U.S. marines landed in Danang in March 1965, only five full-time American correspondents were stationed in Saigon.
By comparison, polls conducted during the 1980s showed that the U.S. public was closely tracking events in Central America to prevent any involvement in the hostilities there. Most conceded that the spread of Communism in the area might imperil the United States, yet they regarded the risk to be preferable to American intervention. Or as David Reichart, a Michigan schoolteacher, explained to the New York Times: “I don’t want Communism to come into this hemisphere, but I don’t think the people of this country should be responsible for having to go in and fight.” Sensitive to such views, Congress limited military aid to the regimes of Central America and leaned on the Reagan administration to keep U.S. advisers in the region under tight supervision. Thus the fifty-five American military advisers in El Sal¬vador at the time were prohibited from accompanying Salvadoran army missions, and even from carrying arms larger than a pistol. In 1983, three U.S. officers revealed to have participated in combat were promptly relieved of their duties.
Nearly every study of U.S. opinion indicated that Americans saw Central America as “another Vietnam.” By a ratio of two to one, replies to a Washington Post poll in 1982 raised the analogy, which also pervaded a New York Times survey. “Vietnam went on year after year,” said Carl W. Koch, Jr., of Collingswood, New Jersey, “and I’m afraid that we’ll get into El Salvador in the same way.” Amid this mood were evocations of the isolationism that had permeated America before World War II. “It seems like we’re always getting pulled in by other people’s problems,” remarked Cynthia Crone of Payne, Ohio. “We’ve got enough problems of our own to deal with.”
The Vietnam “syndrome” indirectly produced the biggest scandal of the Reagan years. The president had desperately sought funds for the anti-Communist “contras” struggling to subvert the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua, but Congress, attuned to public opinion, spurned his appeals. William Casey, the CIA director, thereupon enlisted senior members of the White House staff, notably Oliver North, a U.S. marine lieutenant colonel, and Vice Admiral John Poindexter, in a secret plan to finance the contras through illicit arms sales to Iran. Casey died of a brain tumor before the scandal broke. North and Poindexter, both convicted, received light sentences. Reagan, con¬fused and uninformed, escaped with only his image blemished. He later claimed, however, that U.S. pressures on the Sandanistas led to their defeat in the election held in Nicaragua in 1990.
Before leaving office in January 1989, Reagan reached an accord with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to curb strategic weapons. Gorbachev’s drastic domestic reforms, coupled with the Soviet with¬drawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, persuaded Americans that they had “won” the cold war—a triumph that, in their view, more than compensated for the humili¬ation of Vietnam.
Most Americans applauded President Bush late in 1989 when he sent U.S. troops to Panama to seize General Manuel Noriega, its leader and a suspected drug dealer—an action that, like Reagan’s thrust into Grenada, was fast and cheap. Beginning in August 1990, Bush under¬took the biggest U.S. military commitment overseas since Vietnam by deploying a massive American force to the Persian Gulf to defend Saudi Arabia following Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Imposing an embargo on Iraq, the United Nations enjoined Hussein to withdraw. He refused—and, in January 1991, Bush went to war against Iraq. The memory of Vietnam seared the minds of many Americans during the buildup, and it continued to trouble them after hostilities erupted. But if the two wars differed objectively, the perception of their similarity was a reality.
Vietnam had essentially been a civil war in which the United States supported its anti-Communist client against a Communist adversary backed by the Soviet Union and China. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was blatant aggression condemned from the outset by the international community, including the Soviet Union, China and most Arab states. Communist guerrillas benefited from the jungles and rice fields of South Vietnam, where American troops could not distinguish friend from foe among the peasants, and the shortage of bombing targets in North Vietnam rendered U.S. strategic air raids largely ineffective. In Iraq, on the other hand, the desert terrain suited conventional tactics, the enemy could be identified and military installations were both plentiful and relatively easy prey to America’s ultramodern missiles and aircraft. It was impossible to isolate the Vietnamese Communists, who received vast shipments of Soviet and Chinese supplies and were able to retreat to sanctuaries in nearby Cambodia and Laos. Iraq, which depended on imported food and spare parts, was vulnerable to eco¬nomic sanctions.

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