WALLA WALLA, Wash.—David Schmitz, the Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History at Whitman, drew a number of parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars during a nationwide teach-in by Historians Against the War Wednesday evening.

Schmitz is a nationally recognized authority on U.S. foreign policy and the author of five books, including the The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion (2005), and The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989 (2006). His presentation of “Iraq and the Unlearned Lessons from the Vietnam War” at 7 p.m. in Maxey Auditorium was one of 50 teach-ins held on campuses across the country on Oct. 18.

The parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars are “stunning,” said Schmitz, even though there has been almost nothing in the media about the similarities. He attributes the silence to the fact that no one wants to bring back that ugly time in American history when “we were pitted against each other.”

Schmitz, however, found many parallels. Some are listed below.

  • Support for both wars was high in the beginning at about 80 percent approval, but the public gradually withdrew support of them.
  • Both administrations insisted the United States was winning even when it became apparent the opposite was true “Stay the course” was the battle cry of President Johnson before it became President Bush’s mantra.
  • In both wars, soldiers could not easily distinguish between friend and foe and often erred on the side of their own safety, creating more anger from the indigenous population and creating a Catch-22 situation.
  • Both the Iraqi and Vietnamese governments lack(ed) legitimacy.
  • Neither the Johnson nor the Bush administration understood the culture of the “enemy.”
  • Statistics show that in the Vietnam War, and now in the Iraq war, the enemy initiates more than 80 percent of the engagements. “They are in control of the pace,” showing that the insurgents are in control of the war, said Schmitz.

Unfortunately, he added, American leaders have not yet learned the limitations of power even a superpower has. “These are unwinnable wars for superpowers. Can they drive us out? No, but it’s a war of attrition and they just need to wait until support at home wanes and we leave.”

“If in the 2006 elections, voters make a distinction between the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, then it will be a parallel to the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War,” he said, and it will be the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq. Right now, Bush still believes his own rhetoric, said Schmitz, and the president believes the United States can win the war in Iraq.

For more information, or to talk to Professor Schmitz, contact him at schmitdf@whitman.edu.


CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156

Email: parishlj@whitman