Combating 'Evildoers' in the Developing World: Eisenhower's Vietnam to Bush's Iraq

Seth Jacobs, Boston College

Date: February 23, 2006

Event Recap

Are the comparisons drawn in the media over the past year between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War tenable? Seth Jacobs of Boston College’s history department believes so, but with an important qualification. For Jacobs, it is the Vietnam War of the Eisenhower years, not the Vietnam of the 1960s, which offers a striking parallel to the Bush administration’s Iraqi policy. The Eisenhower administration placed God at the center of American political life in the 1950s just as Bush has in the new millennium. Eisenhower invoked God early and often in his presidency. “God’s Float” led his 1953 inaugural parade. In the mid-fifties, he supported the insertion of “under God” into the pledge of allegiance and oversaw the change of the national motto from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.” Bush’s public statements about his faith and his many references to God are well known. And his foreign policy, like Eisenhower’s before him, is informed by his understanding of Christianity. During his February presentation at the Boisi Center, Jacobs outlined a substantial record of similarities between the two administrations. Eisenhower and Bush both staffed their administrations with people of faith. John Foster Dulles, Ike’s secretary of state, was a devout Presbyterian, renowned in the press and among foreign dignitaries as a man of God first and Secretary of State second. Bush’s staff has consisted of John Ashcroft, an active member of the Assemblies of God, Condoleezza Rice, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Andrew Card, whose wife is a Methodist minister, and head speechwriter Michael Gerson, a born again evangelical. Eisenhower often opened cabinet meetings with prayer. Bush has followed suit and Bible studies are attended by over half of the White House staff. Both administrations cast their respective conflicts in the loaded religious language of crusade, and too easily divided the geopolitical landscape between “good” and “bad” nations.

The staunch religious rhetoric of the current administration worries Jacobs. He points to the “mind-lock” the Eisenhower administration suffered in its understanding of the complexities of Vietnam. The crusading mentality made it difficult for Eisenhower and Dulles to reexamine their policies and consider alternative plans when it came to intervening in Vietnam. It also clouded their analysis of Ho Chi Minh and his communist followers, a movement more about the fight for indigenous independence than a puppet of the Soviet Union. As Jacobs sees it, there are similar patterns at work in America’s involvement in Iraq. Bush’s refusal to admit any mistakes concerning the Iraq war may be a function of Bush’s “religiously-based certitude.” For Jacobs, Bush’s rigidity will bequeath the second most tragic and unnecessary “quagmire” after Vietnam.

The discussion following Jacobs’s talk was lively. Some argued that Bush’s neo-conservative ideology, rather than his religious belief, seemed the more likely origin of his Iraqi policy. Others debated the sincerity of Bush’s faith, viewing it as a mask for political manipulation. Jacobs fielded the questions and concluded that political strategy and genuine faith were not necessarily mutually exclusive.