The conventional wisdom among most Republicans is that while the United States had serious difficulty in Vietnam during the early years, by the early 1970s things were turning around, and victory was on the verge. Unfortunately, the craven Democrats in Congress bowed to widespread anti-war sentiment and forced the Ford administration to end almost all support to South Vietnam, allowing the North Vietnamese to win the war in 1975. In the GOP version of the story, this decision was a disastrous mistake.
There has been a lot of talk lately about what the Vietnam War tells us about Afghanistan. According to the Republicans, the United States is once again at the crossroads of losing another critical war because of feckless Democrats, only this time in Afghanistan. They contend that while, yes, the United States has mismanaged the war over the past eight years, Washington has now found a formidable military leader in General Stanley McChrystal. He knows how to defeat the Taliban and keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. However, the major obstacle he faces isn't in Afghanistan, it's here at home: the American public is war-weary and the Democrats -- who control both Congress and the White House -- have no enthusiasm for the greater sacrifices that General McChrystal recommends.
This narrative is unconvincing for at least two reasons. First, the United States was not close to victory in Vietnam by the early 1970s, because the South Vietnamese army could not stand on its own. This was manifestly apparent in 1971 when that army invaded Laos and was badly chewed up by North Vietnamese ground forces. To stand any chance of holding off Hanoi's offensives, the South Vietnamese army needed massive amounts of American airpower, which effectively meant that the U.S. military would have to continue fighting in Vietnam indefinitely just to maintain a stalemate. That hardly qualifies as being on "the brink" of victory.
there is little reason to think that the United States can decisively defeat
the Taliban, mainly because they can melt into the countryside or go to
Pakistan whenever they are outgunned, returning to fight another day (just
as they did after the initial U.S. victory
in 2001). Furthermore, the Karzai regime, corrupt and incompetent, stands
little chance of ever truly being able to rule the country and keep the Taliban
at bay, which means that the American military will have to stay there to do
the job for many years to come.
But even if success was at hand in Vietnam and the United States could in the near future win quickly in Afghanistan, there is a second and more important flaw in the Republican narrative: Victory is inconsequential.
The United States suffered a clear defeat when South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, but it hardly affected America's position in the global balance of power. The domino theory proved unfounded; instead, communist Vietnam invaded communist Cambodia in 1978 and one year later Hanoi was at war with communist China. More importantly, losing in Vietnam had no adverse effects on America's competition with the Soviet Union. Indeed, 14 years after Saigon fell, the Cold War ended and the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet.