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From a decade’s experience with U. S. involvement in Vietnam, Ambassador Bullington draws meaningful parallels to the current situation in Iraq. His insights might guide our response to the president’s speech of January tenth—and warn of the consequences of failure in Iraq. —Ed.

by J.R. Bullington

“History never repeats itself. At most, it sometimes rhymes.”
– Ernest May, Harvard history professor

Professor May’s dictum is one of the relatively few bits of wisdom I retained from my graduate studies long ago. I have on several occasions found it useful in trying to understand current events.

In reviewing the President’s January 10 speech announcing a new strategy for Iraq and the background materials issued by the White House to support it, as well as the report of the Iraq Study Group, I discovered several “rhymes” with the Vietnam War, in which I was extensively involved during the first half of my Foreign Service career, both in Vietnam and in Washington.

For example:

• In the press briefing on the speech, an anonymous “Senior Administration Official” said, “If the prior strategy was to clear, hold and build, we cleared but did not hold, and the build never arrived.” This was equally characteristic of the first years, through mid-1968, of our involvement in Vietnam, when what we called “pacification” was at most only a secondary part of the war effort. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, General Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” strategy, seeking victory by attrition, was replaced by General Abrams’ “clear and hold” strategy, backed by much more robust support for our South Vietnamese allies. It was only then, as pacification became not “the other war” but the only war, that we began to make real progress in countering the insurgency.

• In spite of spending hundreds of billions on the war, we have failed to properly support and equip the Iraqi armed forces and police. I recall that many of us in Vietnam noted with growing dismay between 1965 and 1968 that we had ample resources to send battleships and B-52s and U.S. Army divisions against the enemy, but could not find funding to equip the South Vietnamese forces with modern basic infantry weapons such as the M-16 rifle. Most of them were still using World War II M-1s, while their Communist foes had the superb AK-47. This changed after 1968, with the policy of “Vietnamization” of the war.

• The Iraq Study Group and other observers have noted the failure to effectively integrate American military and civilian resources and bring them to bear on the critical “hold and build” phase of combating the insurgency. The President’s new strategy implicitly acknowledges this by pledging to “further integrate our civilian and military efforts.” There was a comparable failure in Vietnam until 1968, when creation of CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) finally brought all the U.S. agencies involved in pacification together in a single, unified organization, focused on supporting the South Vietnamese, that made it possible for the new “clear and hold” strategy to be effectively implemented.

There are several other “rhymes” in these documents, especially with the period before 1968. These include a large and growing number of internal refugees that need to be dealt with, an unstable and ineffective national government, and a serious shortage of American trainers and advisers who speak the language and understand the culture.

But the most important “rhyme” of all may be the development of fierce opposition to the war by a majority of the American people and their congressional representatives, opposition marked by an ever harsher tone and deepening mistrust of anything the Administration reports or proposes about the war.

It’s hard to understand why the lessons from our Vietnam experience were apparently forgotten when we went to war in Iraq and found ourselves faced with an insurgency.

The principal issue today, however, is whether such lessons can now be applied, along with other strategic and tactical changes announced by the President on January 10, to achieve a reasonably successful outcome in Iraq…or at least to avoid yet another “rhyme,” an Iraqi version of the helicopters on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975. All Americans should fervently hope the answer is positive, since failure in Iraq will almost certainly have consequences much worse and longer lasting than those that attended our failure in Vietnam.

Extending the Vietnam analogy to the present situation in Iraq offers some grounds for hope, but stronger grounds to brace ourselves for disaster.

On the positive side, even though few Americans realize it, following the 1968 Tet Offensive and the strategic and tactical changes implemented in its wake, South Vietnam and the U.S. defeated the Communist insurgency. That is, by 1972 almost all of the populated areas of the country were pacified and secure, the Viet Cong insurgents were no longer a major factor in determining the outcome of the war, and the South Vietnamese, with U.S. air and logistical support but without U.S. ground units, had turned back the first of the North’s conventional military assaults. It was not insurgents, but the conventional Army of North Vietnam, with its armor and artillery and division-size units, rebuilt and re-supplied after the repulse of its 1972 offensive, that in 1975 defeated the Government of South Vietnam, a government whose armed forces we had crippled in 1973 and 1974 by eliminating most of their funding and cutting off most of their supplies.

On the gloomy side, the success of the counter-insurgency effort in Vietnam, even after we finally got the strategy right and began to implement it effectively, took three years. Moreover, the climate of mistrust for any claims of success by the Administration meant that few Americans would believe what the evidence showed. Success in this sort of warfare is inherently difficult to measure, gradual rather than dramatic, and much more visible in hindsight than when it is happening. By 1973, American public opinion, and especially the Congress, had so strongly turned against the war that it proved to be politically impossible to provide even the relatively small amount of support to the South Vietnamese that would have given them a reasonable chance to maintain their independence.

The most important element of the President’s new Iraq strategy is not the temporary “surge” of 21,000 American troops, but a new focus on providing long-term security for the population, putting the Iraqis in the lead, and providing them the training and equipment they need to succeed. This may well be, as critics suggest, too little and too late, and too dependent on the performance of an Iraqi government that has thus far proved disappointing, just as our 1968 strategy change that led to success against the insurgency in Vietnam could not prevent the ultimate loss of the war. But the alternative of setting in motion a speedy and irreversible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq offers even less hope of avoiding catastrophe.

How much time do we have to achieve success in Iraq before our political system requires a rapid and total American disengagement, no matter what the long-term consequences may be for both our national interests and our honor? No one knows for sure, but that time is most likely measured in months, two years at the most.

I fear we will soon hear another Iraq-Vietnam rhyme, sad and somber.


J. R. Bullington
J. R. Bullington

Ambassador Bullington served at the Consulate in Hué, the Embassy in Saigon, and with CORDS in Quang Tri, 1965-68. He was on the NSC’s Vietnam Special Studies Group, 1969-70, and the State Department’s Vietnam Desk, 1973-75. His other Foreign Service assignments were in Southeast Asia and Africa, and as Dean of the State Department’s Senior Seminar. After the Foreign Service, he was at Old Dominion University, and was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-06. He is a graduate of Auburn, Harvard, and the U.S. Army War College. He is currently retired in Williamsburg, VA., and serves as a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board of directors.


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