George H.W. Bush Warned Iraq War Would 'Not Be Another Vietnam': Relive Newsweek's 1990 Cover Story

The following special report was published by Newsweek in 1990, following a statement from then-President George H.W. Bush about America's strategy in the embroiled Persian Gulf. He told the American public, "This will not be another Vietnam." On November 30, 2018, the former president died at 94 years old. Here is Newsweek's full cover story, as it was printed, below.

George H.W. Bush
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at the World Leadership Summit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 21, 2006. The 92-year-old has reportedly been hospitalized in Houston. Reuters

Vietnam hangs in the collective subconscious like a bad dream, a psychic wound that leaves the patient forever neurotic. It hovers over politicians and policymakers, the past that will not die. For the baby boomers who saw their first body bag on the nightly news, for the onetime company commanders who now sit with stars on their shoulders in the corner offices of the E-Ring of the Pentagon, for the mothers whose sons are now but names on the Wall, the message echoes on and on: Never again.

So last week George Bush decided to answer the question that has shrouded his Persian Gulf policy since the first warships and planes headed off in harm's way last August. "In our country, I know that there are fears of another Vietnam," he told the nation last week. "Let me assure you, should military action be required, this will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war." He ticked off a litany of differences between Then and Now: the "forces arrayed are different; the resupply of Saddam's military would be very different; the countries united against him in the United Nations are different; the topography of Kuwait is different, and the motivation of our all-volunteer force," he concluded, in an oblique reference to the frightened draftees who were thrust into an unwinnable war in Vietnam, "is superb."

The president's message, say his top advisers, was aimed as much at Saddam Hussein as it was at the American public. The memory of Vietnam is global; it remains the great American misadventure of the modern age. For the Iraqi strongman, the moral of Vietnam is that America lacks the will to fight, that once the body bags start coming home, the protestors will take to the streets and demand that the living come home with the dead. Saddam has memorized the lesson of Ho Chi Minh: that no matter how superior America's force in the field, it cannot win without the hearts and minds of the American people behind it.

Bush, too, knows the lessons of Vietnam. He knows that Lyndon Johnson destroyed his presidency by failing to give peace a chance before it was too late. He knows that Johnson waited for four years -- and thousands of American casualties -- before openly trying to talk peace with the enemy. Johnson was already politically finished when he sent a delegation to Paris in May 1968 to negotiate with the North Vietnamese; in the same speech he announced the peace talks, Johnson also announced that he would not seek another term as president. The president had no choice; his party was in revolt along with the rest of the country.

Bush's decision to send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad to meet with Saddam was taken as much to head off a congressional revolt and quell popular unrest as it was to seek a settlement to the crisis. All week long a parade of former soldiers and statesmen-- all of them with vivid and often personal memories of Vietnam-- had counseled restraint and caution in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sending Baker, said Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, a Democratic member of Armed Services, was "politically brilliant. It bought Bush time." Whether it wins peace is less certain. Baker's mission is risky. He cannot appear to be delivering an ultimatum. On the other hand, he cannot seem to be inviting concessions. After all, this was the president who said that he would never negotiate with terrorists, and Saddam is a hostage-taker and terrorist on a far grander scale than the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. If Saddam senses that U.S. resolve is weakening, he may just decide to sit tight. America's partners in the international coalition strangling Saddam may decide to ease their grip-- and cut their own side deals.

33. George H.W. Bush
Only two vice presidents have ever been elected president: Martin Van Buren (1836) and George H.W. Bush (1988). BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images

Cold War: The announcement to send a special envoy came less than 24 hours after Bush had secured international backing to use force. By a 1202 vote, with only Cuba and Yemen in dissent and China abstaining, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution to authorize the use of force if Saddam failed to quit Kuwait by Jan. 15. It was a powerful demonstration of international resolve, one that would have been impossible during Vietnam, when the world was divided between East and West and the communist nations would automatically veto any move by the free world. Freed from the stasis of the cold war, Bush had achieved what the founders of the United Nations had only dreamed of: true collective security against the forces of aggression. It did not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill that Bush seemed more intent on winning the support of foreign countries than his own duly elected lawmakers. "Presidents do not go to war," grumbled Sen. John Glenn. "It is the nation that goes to war, and the people must understand and support the decision if we are to avoid the disasters of the past." He did not need to identify which disaster he had in mind. Bush and his men were well aware of the growing restiveness in the American body politic. The White House briefly considered summoning Congress back into special session to vote on a war resolution of its own, but backed down, partly for fear the resolution would so divide Congress that the president would lack a clear mandate even if he won.

If Bush was wary of the power of Congress, so was Congress. The Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to declare war. But in modern times Congress has shirked that responsibility. Congress whined that Lyndon Johnson had weaseled his way to war with his flimsy Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. But when Congress wanted to stop the Vietnam War, the lawmakers needed only to pull the plug by refusing to authorize funds. The fact is that Congress wants to be consulted, that members of Congress want to make speeches and posture-- but that they are all too willing to leave the responsibility for war on the shoulders of the president.

The strongest dissenting voices last week came from the foreign-policy and military establishment that has grown up since Vietnam. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen Gen. David Jones and Adm. William Crowe are creatures of the post-Vietnam consensus on committing troops to combat. This consensus was most clearly articulated by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984. Weinberger set forth a half-dozen conditions that must be met before America goes to war: American interests must be vital, the American people must be fully in support and the war must be a last resort. Basically, it was a prescription for never going to war, since it is hard to imagine a war that would satisfy all the requirements. The Pentagon would support small wars that would be over in a few days at the cost of no more than a platoon-- a Grenada or a Panama. But it never wanted to go through a protracted losing war like Vietnam, which the brass still believe was lost because their hands were tied.

Henri Huet / AP

No 'halfway effort': Bush made it very clear that he would not repeat Lyndon Johnson's mistake of backing into a war by increments. "I will never, ever agree to a halfway effort," he told the nation last week. The Pentagon would not allow anything less. Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Stall, made an all-out effort a condition of the Pentagon's support when he agreed to support the intervention in the Gulf last August.

In fact, a war against Iraq would not be Vietnam redux. The United States gradually ratcheted up its forces in Vietnam. First came the American "advisers," then some air power, followed by Marines to protect an airfield, then ground troops for combat. But it took from 1961, when the first advisers were deployed in significant numbers, until 1969, to build up American forces to their peak of 540,000. Bush, by contrast, will have some 400,000 American troops in the desert within five months of dispatching his first Marine. In Vietnam, American forces were restricted from going after certain targets; for example, they were warned not to hit Soviet ships in Haiphong Harbor. They were told to stay out of Laos and Cambodia, thereby affording the North Vietnamese valuable sanctuaries. North Vietnam was constantly resupplied with arms and ammunition by its communist sponsors in Moscow and Beijing. Saddam, once a well-supplied Soviet client, has been cut off by a global embargo. Ho Chi Minh was able to supply his forces along a well-camouflaged jungle trail that bore his name. Saddam's supply lines will be across open desert, where American warplanes cannot fail to see lumbering convoys. Americans were out-foxed by the Viet Cong's guerrilla tactics. U.S. soldiers have always been better at wars of attrition-- blunt force-- than clever tactics. In Kuwait, the United States will be striking Iraqi soldiers in static defense positions. Sheer firepower will count for more than guile.

Still, there is the question of staying power. Iraq, after all, fought eight years against Iran without breaking. Iraqi forces may not be quick or mobile, but they are good at digging. Digging them out will be a hard, violent slog. Saddam is counting on his soldiers, inspired by Allah as well as the threat of summary execution, to hold fast against the softer Americans. America's force in the field seems to be more willing than its Vietnam predecessor. The soldiers in the desert volunteered for service; they were not drafted like many of their Vietnam counterparts. Too much can be made of the differences between then and now. More than half the men who died in Vietnam were in fact volunteers, not draftees. Furthermore, while American boys volunteered, many of them did not go into the service thinking they'd actually have to fight. During the great cold-war standoff, a full-scale conventional war seemed highly unlikely to the average grunt. The small wars, like Panama, were fought by elite troops, Rangers and paratroopers, who wanted to see action. To create an all-volunteer army, the Pentagon had to offer good salaries and generous benefits. Soldiering became a job with security and good fringes, like travel and college loans. In many ways, the modern army is more domesticated than the Vietnam version. In 1971, only 14 percent of top sergeants were married, versus 71 percent today. Granted, there is a certain assumption of risk when the tool handed a worker is an M-16. Still, if many of America's soldiers are less than gung-ho, they cannot be blamed. And what was true in Vietnam is still true: the well-off and well educated will not be dying in foxholes. Minorities are even better represented than in Vietnam-- while roughly 12 percent of the Vietnam forces were black, about 30 percent of active duty Army troops in the desert are African-American.

42. George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush inspired the Japanese word, “Bushusuru,” meaning “to do the Bush thing” aka vomit in public, which Bush did during a dinner with the Japanese prime minister in 1992. REUTERS/Win McNamee

Eve of war: The generals who command these men seem confident of victory. But overconfidence is a generic disease among generals on the eve of war. This is particularly true of Air Force generals, who are forever predicting that air power can win the day, quick and clean. Strategic bombing had at best mixed results in World War II, and it was mostly a failure in Vietnam. The highly exposed Iraqi forces in Kuwait seem like a more promising target. The awful experience of war, though, is that what can go wrong, will go wrong: missed targets, death by "friendly fire," equipment failure in the desert conditions harsh to high tech.

Even if the United States wins militarily, there is a nagging question that the administration has not yet satisfactorily answered. "What happens after you defeat Iraq?" asks Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The United States may succeed only in replacing one aggressor with two: Iran and Syria. The whole region could be radicalized, endangering moderate regimes like those in Egypt and Jordan. "All you do by defeating Iraq is remove the immediate threat," says Luttwak. "But you do nothing to remove the long-term threat of instability waiting in the wings." That, in turn, could draw the United States into a deeper quagmire.

The president knows that war would be a gamble. Yet he seems truly resolved to take the risk if Saddam does not back down. Bush is not known for vision, especially on the domestic front, but he has a very clear idea of America's role in the world. It is the same one that inspired him to enlist as a naval aviator in 1942 at the age of 18: to stop armed aggression. "This will not stand," said Bush on the first weekend after Saddam seized Kuwait, and it was clear from his tone and manner that he meant it. He is not unmindful of the costs. In a dramatic moment last week, a reporter asked Bush if he would be willing to sacrifice one of his own children to the cause. Taking off his glasses, he said, "I know what it's like to have fallen comrades and seeing young kids die in battle." He repeated that "this will not be a Vietnam," and vowed to back each soldier "to the hilt with American firepower." But he never wavered from his willingness to use force.

Lyndon Johnson was also a creature of the postwar world. As a congressman, he cheered when Harry Truman announced in 1947 that the United States would come to the defense of "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Johnson believed that America had to stand up to aggression in Vietnam, or we will "have to pull our defenses back to San Francisco." Yet he hated the Vietnam War from the first-- "that bitch of a war," he called it. He feared it would wreck his Great Society programs and derail his domestic agenda, along with his popularity. Johnson fancied himself a "war leader" in the mold of Lincoln and Churchill, but he refused to make hard choices about putting the economy on a war footing or calling up the Reserves. In the end, determined to have both guns and butter, he launched the nation on an inflationary spiral that nearly ruined the economy in the 1970s.

Bush does not want to repeat Johnson's destructive dithering. One reason he wants to move quickly-- and not wait for sanctions to work over the next year or 18 months-- is that he is afraid a prolonged standoff will bleed the world economy. He was deeply affected when Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel told him last month that higher oil prices were crippling Eastern Europe's attempts to launch a capitalist democracy.

Doctors found changes in mitochondria of veterans of the first Gulf War suffering from a variety of mysterious aliments Andy Clark / Reuters

Betting his presidency: The risks are enormous. Bush is betting his presidency, well aware that Vietnam cost LBJ his. If war cannot be contained, if it envelops the Mideast and halts the flow of oil, recession will become world depression. But more important than the future price of oil is America's future role in the world. Even after the United States lost Vietnam, the basic world order remained unchanged. True, America became briefly isolationist, even though George McGovern's "Come Home America" campaign failed to win him the White House. But the basic division between East and West, and America's role as guardian of the so-called Free World, remained unchanged. Now, with the end of the cold war, that stable, if scary, structure has been wiped away. It is up to Bush to create a new order. If the international coalition arrayed against Iraq wins, either by bluffing him out of Kuwait or forcing him out, then collective security will have been given a critical boost. If the United States fails by loss of will or force, there will be no one to replace America as global policeman. Saddam-- and future aggressors like him-- will be emboldened. In a nuclear future, with even small nations armed with nuclear and chemical weapons, that will be a dangerous way indeed. The president is right that the Persian Gulf crisis is not Vietnam. In many ways, it is more important.

This story originally appeared in the December 10, 1990 issue of Newsweek. Additional reporting done by John Barry, Ann McDaniel and Douglas Waller.