New York – Sentient humans like to benchmark their successes and failures. So it’s understandable that in trying to put the coronavirus’s toll in perspective, some Americans have fastened their eyes on one particular grim milestone: The 58,300-plus deaths in the United States from COVID-19 over the last three months have now surpassed U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War (58,220 deaths recorded from 1956 to 2006, according to the National Archives).
But juxtaposing those casualty figures is one thing. It’s something else entirely to call the coronavirus “Trump’s Vietnam” — a historical analogy that’s getting increasing screen time. At a White House news conference earlier this week, for instance, a reporter asked, “If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be re-elected?” To be clear: U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus will go down as a landmark failure of leadership. But to compare his feckless mendacity and the senseless deaths it has so far caused to the U.S. conduct of the Vietnam War is also to commit a form of historical malpractice — one that obscures Trump’s culpability and slights an earlier, greater American tragedy.
The two events are radically different in cause, scope and ultimate consequence. Put in the simplest actuarial terms, the wars in Indochina led to more than 5 million deaths; the current global toll of the pandemic is about 215,000. One represents an inexorable collision of history’s seismic plates; the other is a tremor that, in the case of the U.S., has badly rattled a termite-infested house tended by a malicious and incompetent landlord.
Say what you will about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, but it was a national project that germinated for more than a decade before the first U.S. combat troops came ashore on South Vietnam’s beaches in 1965. Steeped in established strategic doctrine and carried out by a well-resourced, fully staffed military and civilian bureaucracy, the war also enjoyed majority public support. Not until August 1968 (the peak year for the number of U.S. soldiers deployed as well as killed) did a majority of Americans regard the decision to send troops to Vietnam as “a mistake.” Notably, public opinion was not polarized along party lines.
Contrast that with Trump’s response to the pandemic: a toxic blend of ad hominem attacks and ad hoc policy administered by denuded Cabinet agencies run by yes-men (and the occasional yes-woman). Public approval of his handling of the coronavirus crisis crested at just under 50 percent on March 25 — far below the usual crisis poll bump enjoyed by his predecessors — and even that was driven largely by Republican respondents.
With vast powers at their disposal, all presidents bear ultimate responsibility for what happens during their tenure. That is particularly true for Trump, whose mercurial autocratism and tendency to run roughshod over his Cabinet, political custom and the Constitution have few, if any, modern American parallels.
Were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the two presidents who prosecuted the war, untruthful narcissists responsible for some monstrous decisions? Yes, but ask yourself: If either of them was on the ballot this year against Trump, would your choice not be clear? Like Munich, Pearl Harbor and the Marshall Plan, the Vietnam War is no stranger to analogical abuse, even with the best of intentions. Think of the late great Richard Holbrooke, who looked at Afghanistan and couldn’t stop seeing Vietnam. But as the British philosopher Joseph Butler once put it, “Everything is what it is, not another thing.” In a more practical sense, calling the coronavirus “Trump’s Vietnam” in effect lets him off the hook. Vietnam was a national tragedy with a huge enabling cast, from Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” to Nixon’s “silent majority.” There’s plenty of blame to go around.
But there’s a difference between blame and responsibility. When it comes to America’s involvement in Vietnam, Nixon, Johnson and even Kennedy would surely accept the latter. With the government’s response to the coronavirus, Trump accepts neither. History will eventually render its judgment on his failures — with no need for any specious analogies.
James Gibney is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at The Atlantic, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and The New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.