The Other Other Vietnam Syndrome

Everyone knows the "Vietnam Syndrome." And then Spencer Ackerman identified the Other Vietnam Syndrome -- the right's obsession with blaming the opponents of misguided wars for the wars' failures, rather than the people who launched them. There's also, however, what I'll call the Other Other Vietnam Syndrome -- the deep, dark, fear lurking in the hearts of all too many progressive leaders that opposing any war, anywhere, anytime will doom you to political oblivion. To wit: PPI President Will Marshall:

"There is a cautionary lesson for today's Democrats in the early 1970s, when their party generally sided with the public in thinking that the Vietnam War was botched beyond repair and the United States needed to get out," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. As a result of Democrats' perceived excesses and close association with anti-war protests, he said, the party got a reputation for being averse to any use of force and too quick to blame America first for international problems.

"That reputation put Democrats in the political doghouse for three decades," Marshall said. "So I think those who are mindful of history will shy away from trying to take over Iraqi policy by, for instance, cutting off funding for the war. The fact is, you really can't conduct U.S. foreign policy from the House of Representatives. It's folly to even try."

It would be foolish to deny that there's some truth to this account. But at the end of the day, I think this analysis amounts to very, very little. This version of the Decline and Fall of the New Deal Coalition, for one thing, always manages to evade the central role of race. The midcentury Democratic Party relied on securing the votes of white supremacists to obtain electoral majorities. Once the Democrats turned decisively away from the politics of white supremacy, they lost this edge, and southern voters took themselves and their generally conservative views into the GOP.

Meanwhile, after the debacle of 1972 -- where war-related issues definitely played a role -- it took the Democrats not thirty years, but four years to get back into the White House. Had Jimmy Carter and the Democratic congress of the late-1970s ran the country in a really impressive manner, the crack-up years of the early seventies would have just been a historical blip. But Carter made a lot of errors early in his presidency, the congressional leadership got cocky and didn't cooperate with Carter to make his administration a success, he inherited a bad macroeconomic situation and ran into bad luck relating to oil prices, and by the end he'd become very unpopular. Then came Ronald Reagan and the rest you know.

Meanwhile, the essence of the problem with anti-war politics in the Vietnam Era was that you had mainstream anti-war sentiment being tarred by associations with genuine radicalism and pervasive fears of social disorder. During a period of frequent violent urban rioting, a movement heavily invested in large-scale public demonstrations was frightening. You had the draft-dodging and associated illegal activities. You had people chanting "Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!" and prominent campus groups calling for the violent overthrow of the American government. Things like that.

I, too, would be seriously worried if contemporary opposition to the Iraq War started going down that path. But there's no evidence that it is. Anti-war politics in the contemporary United States is being led by a range of perfectly mainstream, law-abiding politicians ranging from yuppie liberals like Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi to gritty pro-defense dudes like Jim Webb and John Murtha. There's no rioting in the streets, nobody's calling veterans baby killers (every Wizards game I go to they announce at halftime the presence of recovering wounded soldiers from Walter Reed and every time they do it everybody stands and cheers), nobody's saying the United States should embrace Salafi Islam -- it's just a very different situation in almost all of the relevant respects.

Last but by no means least, when thinking of the impact of Vietnam on the Democratic Party it's important to recall that, in effect, JFK and LBJ started the war, then mishandled the war, and only then became associated with over-the-top anti-war politics. The optics of that back-and-forth were very bad in a way that opposing a war the other guy started and then mismanaged aren't.