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Vietnam. Myths, Realities, and the Use of a Historical Analogy. I. Myths of Vietnam.

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Vietnam l.jpg


Myths, Realities, and the Use of a Historical Analogy

I myths of vietnam l.jpg

I. Myths of Vietnam

  • Overall story: The military knew how to win the war, but antiwar protests and inaccurate news reports (such as the portrayal of Tet as a defeat) biased the public against continuing the fight. In the end, wealthy young college students ended up undermining the war effort and even attacked the troops.

    • Problem: Mixes “untestable” counterfactual propositions (what would have happened if only…) with false but believable statements (myths).

    • Solution: Identify what can be tested and look at the data.

A the myths of tet l.jpg

A. The Myths of Tet

1. The weak version: Tet proved the US was losing the war

  • Reality: Tet was a crushing victory for the US/ARVN. The civil war/insurgency virtually ended within a year of Tet (replaced by interstate war). NLF was 75% Southern before Tet, only 20% Southern a year later.

    2. The stronger version: Tet was a victory, but the media’s portrayal of it turned Americans against the war.

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a. The stronger version: Data

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a. The stronger version: Data

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b. The Stronger Version: Details

  • Reality: American support was declining before Tet and continued to decline after Tet. Cumulative battle-deaths match levels of support well: 15% drop in support each time casualties increased by factor of 10 (100, 1000, 10,000). This explains 90% of variance in opinion!

    • Interesting: The military commander (Westmoreland) treated Tet as a defeat, requesting 206,000 more soldiers after the battle was over

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Battle-Deaths and Support for Wars

Afghanistan (Not a Mistake)


Afghanistan (Support War)

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B. The Myth of the “Silent Majority”

  • Claim: Wealthy young college students were likely to oppose the war, while blue-collar older workers were likely to support the war.

  • Actually 3 claims:

    • Wealth = Opposition

    • Youth = Opposition

    • Education = Opposition

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1. Test: Income and War Support

  • Results vary from year to year. General trend = early opposition by poor, later opposition by rich, less opposition by middle class

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2. Test: Education and War Support

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3. Test: Age and War Support

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C. The Myths of Protest

1. Claim: The peace movement turned people against the war

  • Reality: Major demonstrations (10,000 or more people):

    • Did not affect support for the war

    • Did not affect Presidential popularity

    • Slightly increased support for President’s handling of war

  • Reality: Demonstrators were unpopular (average rating of 28 on a 100-point scale in 1968)

  • Interesting: Little correlation between attitude to protesters and support for war

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2. Claim: Protesters targeted military personnel

  • Example: Protesters spitting on returning soldiers (unconfirmed urban legend)

  • Partly True: Protesters calling troops names

    • Out of 380 articles in major papers (1965-71) that discussed both protesters and troops:

      • No known cases of returning troops being targeted

      • 6% of events had anti-troop element, usually confrontation between demonstrators and troops called out to face them: chants of “fascists” etc (soldiers assigned to police duties)

    • Interesting: Only small (13%) difference in approval of student demonstrators between Vietnam vets and nonveterans in 1975

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D. The Partisan Myth

  • Claim: Democrats opposed the war, Republicans supported it

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Test: Party and War Support

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Another Test: Campaign Ads

“Raymond Massey” -- 1964

“Vietnam” – 1968

“Young Vets” -- 1972

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D. The Partisan Myth

  • Claim: Democrats opposed the war, Republicans supported it

    • Reality: Each party was more likely to oppose the war when the other party was in power

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E. The TV Myth

  • Claim: TV coverage of the gritty reality of war – or misrepresentation of reality – caused viewers to turn against the war.

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1. Test: Gritty reality?

  • 1965-1970 = 2300 evening news reports on Vietnam

    • Only 76 showed both fighting and casualties within view

  • Gear prevented most close-up shots (nearly impossible to film while prone) or instantaneous reporting in the field (Vietnam was a videotape war).

  • All three networks agreed not to air recognizable images of US dead (feet only, not faces)

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2. Test: A New Kind of War?

  • Compare Korea and Vietnam support against casualties:

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Battle-Deaths and Support for Wars

Afghanistan (Not a Mistake)


Afghanistan (Support War)

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3. Test: Media Bias and Opinion Journalism

  • Before Tet: Speakers in favor of war quoted 26.3% of the time, speakers against war quoted only 4.5% of the time

  • After Tet: 28.4% supporters, 26.1% opponents

    • Opponents: 49% are government officials, 16% are reporters expressing opinions, 35% are antiwar activists or soldiers

    • What happened? Bias towards official sources  change in reporting when officials turned against the war

  • Media opposition actually lagged public opposition! Opponents consistently underrepresented compared to share of US population

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F. Half-Myths: Partially True Statements Accepted as Wholly True

1. Claim: African-American soldiers bore a disproportionate share of combat deaths

  • Reality: Statement was correct when made in 1966 (24% of Army combat deaths in 1965!)

  • Reality: Statement was incorrect at end of war (12% of total combat deaths in Vietnam)

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2. Claim: Politicians micromanaged and limited support for military

  • Micromanagement? Civilians micromanaged air campaign for political purposes (bargaining, fear of escalation)

  • Military resources? Westmoreland got everything he asked for from 1965 to 1968.

  • Military Goals? Survey of 110 generals who served found 70% never knew what the US objective was.

  • Military attitudes to withdrawal? The military liked “Vietnamization.”

    • 1974 survey of all generals who served: 58% wholly agreed with it, 36% conditionally agreed, only 6% disagreed.

    • The next year, the North defeated the South in a matter of weeks.

    • Implication: Military officers misjudged the political basis of defense.

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II. Unanswered Questions

  • Could we have won? Some answers:

    • No – The NLF and NVA were prepared to accept higher casualties than the US. Escalation (conventional or nuclear) would have brought in China or the USSR on the side of the NLF/NVA or caused a war in Europe.

    • Yes – Escalation would have worked

      • Conventional: Invade South Vietnam’s neighbors

      • Nuclear weapons

    • Yes – Doing the same thing earlier would preserve support

      • Maximum force instead of incrementalism

      • Strategic hamlets and local defense instead of Search & Destroy

    • Yes – Provide aid and air support in 1974-1975.

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B. Why did North Vietnam keep fighting? Especially since…

  • “Losing” meant only the status quo, not extinction or even loss of territory or political power

  • Morale was critical, especially during insurgency phase

  • Prior willingness to compromise (Geneva 1954)

  • Korean example suggested compromise

  • US was really good at killing Vietnamese:

    • 730,000 Communist battle-deaths

    • Hundreds of thousands of civilians killed

    • North Vietnam + Communist-controlled areas of South = only 20 million people max!

    • 3.6% battle-deaths is almost unprecedented (a few examples in the World Wars – even Japan lost fewer in WW II)

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III. Comparison to Iraq

  • How appropriate is the Vietnam analogy?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of single-case historical comparisons?

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A. Vietnam vs Iraq: Beginning

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B. Vietnam vs Iraq: Military Statistics

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Monthly US KIA: Vietnam vs Iraq

Iraq to June 2008

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C. Goals

  • What was the US goal in Vietnam? How would we know when it was achieved?

  • What is the US goal in Iraq? How will we know when it is achieved?

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D. What does Vietnam prove about Iraq?

  • Is Vietnam the right analogy, or would Malaya (successful counterinsurgency) or World War II (defeating dictators and establishing democracy) be better?

  • Is there a system for picking the right historical analogy?

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What do Americans think? (2005)

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D. What does Vietnam prove about Iraq?

  • Is Vietnam the right analogy, or would Malaya (successful counterinsurgency) or World War II (defeating dictators and establishing democracy) be better?

  • Is there a system for picking the right historical analogy?

  • What kind of data about the past do we need to make foreign policy decisions in an uncertain present?

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E. Iraq: Determinants of Support

1. Casualties: Steeper decline than Vietnam

  • Prewar poll (Oct 2002):

    • 51% support war given 100 US dead

    • 46% support war given 1000 US dead

    • 33% support war given 5000 US dead

  • Intrawar polls:

    • 1% approval loss/100 US deaths (to 2004)

    • 1500 dead (early 2005) = same support as Vietnam at time of Tet (20,000 dead)

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2. Public Support: Vietnam vs. Iraq

~ Average – initial relationship was reverse

^ Increase up to “some college,” decrease thereafter

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2. Public Support: Vietnam vs. Iraq

~ Average – initial relationship was reverse

^ Increase up to “some college,” decrease thereafter

* Averages – relationship reversed (but gap smaller) after 1969

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3. What does the public know?

a. Casualties – mostly informed

  • Question: Since the start of military action in Iraq, about how many US soldiers have been killed? To the best of your knowledge, have there been around 500, around 1500, around 2500, or around 3500 military deaths in Iraq?

    • Source: Pew Research Center

    • Field Date - Apr 7-16, 2006

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Recent Decline in Knowledge

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b. Details – Uninformed

  • Terrorism -- How many 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis – none, some, or most? (2002)

    • 44% said some or most (In 2006: 24%)

    • 17% said none (CORRECT)

  • Geography – 2/3 of Americans age 18-24 still can’t find Iraq on a map (Feb 2006)

  • WMD – Post-major ops poll (June 2003)

    • 33% thought US forces had found WMD (In 2006: 26% said Saddam had them when the US invaded)

    • 22% thought Iraq had used WMD against US troops!

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