The Vietnam War

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Compare and contrast the Vietnam War and the War on Terror.

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The main point of similarity between the two is that both were "undeclared" conflicts conducted with Congressional approval. The American role in the war in Vietnam escalated slowly until 1964, when an attack on an American ship in the Tonkin Gulf led Congress to give President Lyndon Johnson expansive powers to conduct a war in the region. Similarly, the War on Terror began when Congress authorized President George W. Bush to conduct war against terrorist organizations and the nation-states that support them. Individual conflicts within the War on Terror, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could also be compared to the American experience in Vietnam, which was itself part of a broader global struggle against communism. Also like Vietnam, some aspects of the War on Terror are very controversial. But the war in Vietnam was contained to Southeast Asia, while the War on Terror is much broader in scope. It involves an American presence, especially covert operations, in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. This is an important difference, and the War on Terror perhaps is best compared to the Cold War, the international struggle that was the context for Vietnam, rather than the Vietnam War itself.

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The Vietnam War and the War on Terror have many striking similarities, and the most obvious and particular one is the public's reaction to the conflict. Prior to the Vietnam War, most of the conflicts in which America involved itself were overwhelmingly supported in the public eye. The advent of television and real-time documentation of the devastation of the war, coupled with the disenfranchisement felt by veterans returning home and not being properly cared for, led to widespread dissent about the benefits of the conflict. In that same way, the War on Terror is largely decried as senseless violence and a veiled attempt at taking resources for the nation's own interests.

Both conflicts also were tangentially related to the United States's interests, which caused further disagreement about their benefits. The Vietnam War was waged to stop the spread of communism, and the War on Terror was intended to stop the spread of terrorism and extremism, particularly in the wake of the first foreign terror attacks on American soil (9/11).

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There are many more contrasts than there are points of comparison between these two “wars.”

The main comparison between the two is that they both are/were very difficult wars to win.  This is because neither of these wars could be won in a conventional, military sense.  In wars like WWII, it was easy to know how to win.  We would simply have to take enough territory from the enemy to make them surrender.  But neither the War on Terror nor the Vietnam War could be won in this way.  We were not willing to invade North Vietnam and overthrow its government, so our only choice was to try to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese.  We cannot kill all the potential terrorists in the world so we have to try to get people to feel more positively towards us.  In both cases, it is hard to win and it is not even easy to know when we have won.

Outside of that, the two wars are very different.  In Vietnam, we fought against a country (North Vietnam) and its agents in the South.  In the War on Terror, we are not fighting against any country.  In Vietnam, much of the fighting could be done conventionally.  We could bomb targets in North Vietnam and we could attack North Vietnamese army units.  We have no large targets to bomb in the War on Terror and no enemy units to attack.  In Vietnam, we could negotiate for peace with North Vietnam.  In the War on Terror, there is no one with whom to negotiate.  In Vietnam, once we pulled out, the war was over.  If we give up on the War on Terror, it is likely to get worse for us.  The North Vietnamese did not want to attack the United States.  The terrorists do want to do this. 

Thus, we can see that there are similarities between the two “wars.”  However, the differences are more numerous and more important.

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