Well before President Biden's decision to follow through on former President Trump's commitment to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, comparisons had been drawn between our efforts in the region and America's second-longest war, Vietnam. 

The similarities are easy to see. Both lasted roughly the same length of time (Afghanistan only beat Vietnam in length by 5 months). Both resulted in the fall of a US-backed government to one with a philosophy it had become America's mission to contain.

In this episode of YDHTY, we explore whether the similarities between the two wars run deeper than this with Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Ken is one of the foremost experts on the presidential recordings of Johnson and Nixon and the politics of the Vietnam War.

One of the most striking things about our conversation was the fact the greatest similarities had more to do with what was going on at home than what was happening abroad.

You can listen to the full recording below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or via other apps here.

Show Notes

In August of 1960, Robert Kennedy commissioned a poll by the Simulmatics Corporation - a company that pioneered the use of voter data in campaigns. His brother was running 6 points behind his opponent, Richard Nixon, and they hoped the poll would give them some insight on how to catch up.

One of the key findings was that Kennedy needed to attack Nixon's foreign policy experience, as that was an area voters viewed him as strong. What's noteworthy is that the poll didn't recommend any particular policy, just that Kennedy give himself the appearance of being stronger and more competent in this regard than his opponent.

This poll explains both why American voters tend to be ambivalent to military entanglements abroad and why presidents are more inclined to prolong foreign conflicts when it appears they'll lose. Both LBJ and Nixon knew Vietnam was unwinnable, yet also knew the consequences of withdrawal would be politically disastrous.

Nixon himself drew out negotiations with the Viet Cong in the early 1970s so withdrawal would happen after the election in 72 at the cost of 20,000 American lives and countless more Vietnamese. It should be noted that, while the war is often depicted as ubiquitous in the minds of American voters in the Vietnam Era, Nixon won by a landslide in 72 despite mounting US casualties.

On the other side of that coin, it was Ford who took the blame when America withdrew. His successor, Jimmy Carter, stumbled similarly in a botched attempt to rescue American hostage held in Iran.

Looking at Afghanistan through this lens, a few things become clear.

First, is that maintaining operations in the country almost a decade after the mission of killing Osama bin Laden had been achieved was good politics. There's little reason to believe Afghanistan would ever have become the western-style democracy Americans wanted or that a withdrawal would have ended differently if we spent more time in the region.

The second is that Biden is clearly paying a political price for the outcome, despite not being the person who started the war or the one who negotiated its end. Since the withdrawal, his approval ratings have fallen into negative territory for the first time in his presidency.

The last, and possibly most important lesson, is how the binary nature of America's political dialogue can have disastrous consequences. While Trump can be credited for being the first Republican candidate to speak out against America's forever wars, this had been a major issue of both the Green and Libertarian parties for almost 10 years prior.

Getting back to Simulmatics' polling, presidential candidates don't have to recommend any specific foreign policies, they just have to appear stronger than their opponent. In a two way race, your opponent only has to be worse than you. In a three or four way race, you have to be better.

It's noteworthy that peer nations with multipartisan democracies don't have the same appetite for the use of military force America does. It begs the question: If American voters had a wider array of policy choices to choose from, would they be as willing to accept forever wars, and would we be as inclined to start them in the first place?