TCS Daily

Was the Iraq Election like Vietnam 1967? Or America 1864?

By Noel Sheppard - February 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Several critics of the Second Iraq War have attempted to throw cold water on those celebrating a successful and surprisingly stable Iraqi election over the weekend by pointing out that similar joy and optimism emerged after elections in Vietnam in 1967. Specifically, a few detractors have highlighted a New York Times article that ran on September 4 of that year in which Peter Grose reported:

        "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of 
        turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong 
        terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

        "According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered 
        voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened 
        by the Vietcong.

        "The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy 
        the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment 
        of the nation's election based on the incomplete returns reaching here."

We all know what happened in Vietnam, so the implication is obvious: See how badly the optimists misjudged the meaning of an election back then? Well, that's how badly they are misjudging what's happening in Iraq now.

But the critics may want to consider the following remarks made in the wake of another closely watched election:

        "The overwhelming majority received... and the quiet with which the election 
        went off, will prove a terrible damper to the rebels. It will be worth more 
        than a victory in the field both in its effects on the rebels and in its influence 

        "We cannot have free government without elections, and if the rebellion 
        could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim 
        to have already conquered and ruined us."

These statements were uttered more than 140 years ago by General Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln respectively after the latter was re-elected president in 1864 while the United States was deeply divided.

The similarities between the recent Iraq election and the US election one and a half centuries ago are startling, and quite revealing. For instance, due to the split in the US at the time, there were many politicians in 1864 who felt that the election should be postponed. However, according to Illinois Periodicals Online, President Lincoln never considered it:

        "Although he was worried about his ebbing political fortunes, Lincoln 
        gave no thought to canceling or postponing the election. Holding a general 
        election in wartime entails considerable risk, but Lincoln believed that to 
        postpone the election would be to lose republican government itself."

Furthermore, this fabulous outcome to Iraq's first real elections in fifty years might precipitate an eventual demise to the insurgency if history indeed does repeat itself. According to IPO:

        "Lincoln's victory had a devastating impact on popular morale in the 
        Confederacy, which rapidly disintegrated in the aftermath of the election. 
        Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Galena, one of Lincoln's staunchest 
        supporters, pointed to this meaning of the election when he wrote: 
        'The re-election of Mr. Lincoln by such an overwhelming and 
        unprecedented popular majority, must show the rebels and the foreign 
        powers that the American people prefer to go thro' with this thing at 
        whatever cost of treasure and blood. The news of the result I have no 
        doubt has made all rebeldom quake.'"

As for what the future holds, it is difficult for people in the midst of an event to understand its potential historical significance. In rare occasions, incidents such as Pearl Harbor, or the attacks on our nation in September 2001, are easily recognized for their lasting posterity.

However, just as Lincoln could not possibly divine the success of abolition and reconstruction in November 1864, it is impossible at this moment to presage the state of Iraq in the next few years, or what this will mean for the future of the region.

To be sure, blind optimism should always be avoided, and in this sense the critics who raise the spectre of Vietnam have a valid - though potentially too cautionary -- point. But judging from the expressions on the faces of those with purple-stained fingers last Sunday, it's clear millions of Iraqis who tasted freedom this Election Day enjoyed it and desperately yearn for more. And much like our elections in 1864, let's hope this will be the catalyst for uniting a divided nation.

Noel Sheppard is an economist and writer residing in Northern California. He welcomes your comments at


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