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Iraq increasingly echoes Vietnam

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2003

WASHINGTON A nation is sharply divided over the president's job performance. Political opponents grumble about the economy. Growing numbers of Americans say going to war was a mistake.

The time was summer 1967, the president was Lyndon B. Johnson and the war was Vietnam.

The moment proved to be a tipping point in the Democrat's presidency. Months later, as the war raged and the public ranted, Johnson recognized he couldn't go on. He stunned the nation in March 1968 by announcing that he would not seek another term.

Today, comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam are growing louder and steady reports of American troops killed on the battlefield are having a corrosive effect on public opinion of President Bush.

One of the most telling numbers of late: four in 10 Americans, 39 percent, think the United States made a mistake by sending troops into Iraq roughly the same number that said that about Vietnam in the summer of 1967.

Early on, people approved of Johnson's handling of Vietnam by a 2-1 margin, according to Gallup polls from 1965. By the summer of 1967, four in 10 thought Vietnam was a mistake, and people were evenly divided on Johnson's handling of the war. Public support then slipped steadily.

The decline in public opinion about Iraq has come more quickly for Bush.

In April, three-fourths approved of the way Bush was handling the war. In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Thursday, 54 percent disapproved and 45 percent approved. The number who say it was a mistake to send in troops has almost doubled from the 22 percent who thought so in July.

The steady trickle of U.S. troops dying in Iraq now totals more than 350 since the war began March 20. That number barely compares to Vietnam, in which thousands of U.S. troops had been killed by 1967 in a war that eventually claimed about 58,000.

John Mueller, a political scientist who wrote the book, ''War, Presidents and Public Opinion,'' said that while the death tolls differ, ''there's a considerable similarity that you get in declining support as more casualties come in.''

Unlike the Vietnam era, today's public is more exposed to each violent incident because of the Internet and round-the-clock cable television news, compared to newspaper accounts and reports on the networks' evening news in the 1960s.

''When there's more reporting of bad news, as there is with 24-7 news coverage, it can have more of an impact on public opinion,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. ''For Bush to improve in the polls, there has to be a sense that things are getting better and he will really be hurt if they get worse.''

New reports of deaths and casualties force people to assess how they feel about the war, weighing the costs against the benefits, said Steven Kull, a pollster who studies opinion on international affairs.

Some 30 years ago, Johnson faced a rebellion over the war from the political left and presided over the slowing of a lengthy and robust economic expansion.

Bush's political outlook is far different. With solid support from his Republican base, the incumbent has no GOP primary challengers and has amassed a hefty warchest that outranks his Democratic rivals. The economy is showing signs of revival.

Still, footage of car bombings in Iraq, funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and grieving families are taking a toll.

Some have even suggested that the Bush administration's descriptions of progress in Iraq compared to the escalating violence echoes the claims from the Vietnam era.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, told Newsweek, ''This is the first time I have seen a parallel to Vietnam in terms of information the administration is putting out versus the actual situation on the ground.''

Speaking of the Bush administration, another decorated Vietnam War veteran, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said last month, ''At the rate that they're going, it reminds me of the 'light at the end of the tunnel' language during Vietnam.''

Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.



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