I was about to write that there can be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. But I almost fainted with boredom and had to stop. Who, as President Obama lengthily ponders his decisions regarding the war, wants to repeat a point that’s been made 11,000 times before? Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know by now that you can’t win a guerrilla war without winning the “hearts and minds” of the people? The American public has known this since the American defeat in Vietnam. The formerly colonized peoples of the Third World, whose hearts and minds were the ones contested, know it. American officialdom knows it. (In a recent New Yorker profile by George Packer of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to the so-called Af-Pak region, Leslie Gelb, who worked in the Pentagon in the 1960s, recalled, “Changing hearts and minds–all the smart young men thought that.”) Today, even the general in charge in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, now asking for 40,000 or more troops, knows it. He can read all about it in the new Army counterinsurgency manual produced by his boss, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. There he can learn that “political factors have primacy in COIN [counterinsurgency]” and that “arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”

But if one has repeated this point anyway (as I have, by a backdoor route), then one must go on to make the rather newer point that there is no political solution that serves the foreign invader either. The problem is structural and fundamental. Like the imperial powers of the past, the United States wants to impose its will on other countries. Yet it is different from those previous powers in at least one respect: it does not aim to rule the countries it invades indefinitely. Conscious that the American public will not support war without end, it means to leave one day. Therefore the art of victory has to be to try to set up a government that can both survive US withdrawal and serve US interests. The circle to be squared is getting the people of a whole country to want what Washington wants. The trouble is that, left to their own devices, other peoples are likely to want what they want, not what we want.

One problem flowing from this dilemma is that the more the United States does to set up such a government, the more the “Afghans themselves” (or the Vietnamese themselves or the Iraqis themselves or the whoevers themselves) are tainted by the association. If the paradox of military engagement in such a conflict is that the more you fight the more you lose, then the paradox of political engagement is that the more you rule the weaker the native component of the government becomes, and the more likely it is to collapse when you leave, as the South Vietnamese government did in 1975. That is scarcely a new point, either. For instance, as far back as 1964, Senator Richard Russell said in a phone conversation with President Lyndon Johnson, “It appears that our position is deteriorating, and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they’re willing to do for themselves.” (Holbrooke reprised the point to Packer when he commented on the Afghan government, “The more help they need, the more dependent they get…. In Vietnam, that’s exactly what happened.”)

The problem of the missing government is no detail of policy; it is fatal to the whole enterprise. And the absence is even more acute in Afghanistan today than it was in Vietnam. Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, pointed out in 1965 that the government of South Vietnam was a “non-government.” And the same year Under Secretary of State George Ball, an in-house dissenter, wrote, “The ‘government’ in Saigon is a travesty. In a very real sense, South Vietnam is a country with an army and no government.” The difference in Afghanistan in 2009? No army, either. (That’s why one difficulty that plagued Vietnam, repeated coups d’état, is one problem the United States does not have in Afghanistan.) After touring the Garmsir District in Afghanistan recently, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins wrote, “In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left.” In January a Defense Department report stated, “building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at a minimum, decades.” Yet without such a government, US policy in Afghanistan is not merely destined to fail; it is incoherent. In a sense, it is not a policy at all. There is a lot in Afghanistan that is different from Vietnam, but this much is the same or worse.

Why, when so much was learned at such cost in Vietnam, is it necessary to learn it all again, through additional bitter and futile experience? The story of the deliberations in the mid-’60s leading to the decision to fight in strength in Vietnam can help us to understand. Anyone who lived through that period and examines the record that has been made available since then has to be astonished by how much the policy-makers knew and understood about the reality of the situation even as they made their ruinous decisions. In 1965 and 1966, on the eve of the great public protests of 1967 and 1968, antiwar commentators such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, I.F. Stone, Mary McCarthy and Walter Lippmann defied the conventional wisdom emanating from the government. They articulated the realities reiterated above, as well as others. It took acuity and intellectual courage to do so. It seemed at the time that they were telling officialdom, which denied all this in public, things it did not know. And yet as we can see now, little of it was a surprise to the policy-makers. In their private deliberations, they acknowledged these things. Here, for example, is Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy, one of the architects of the policy, in a memo from October 1964 listing the problems facing the United States:

A bad colonial heritage of long standing, totally inadequate preparation for self-government by the colonial power, a colonialist war fought in half-baked fashion and lost, a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent–these are the facts that dog us today.

Kai Bird, from whose book The Color of Truth this passage is quoted, comments, “In this one long-winded sentence Bundy managed to touch just about all the points I.F. Stone, Bernard Fall or other early critics of the war would make within a year.”

Bundy’s brother McGeorge, who was national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was scarcely more hopeful. A believer in the doctrine of credibility, which held that a defeat anywhere in the world for American power would be a devastating and unacceptable defeat for it everywhere, he conceded that the US effort in Vietnam might fail but perversely argued that even an unsuccessful war would “damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done,” for “this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.” Thus to fight and fail was better for credibility–and for winning elections–than not to fight at all. Also available, in June 1964, was a definitive memo by intelligence analyst Sherman Kent debunking the principal rationale for the war, the domino theory (a close cousin of the doctrine of credibility), which held that if South Vietnam fell under the control of the North, noncommunist countries throughout Asia and even elsewhere would fall to communism.

Especially striking is the state of mind of Lyndon Johnson, whose secret belief, so sharply at variance with his public assurances, was that the cause was all but hopeless. In the taped conversations with Senator Russell in May 1964, a year before Johnson embarked on his buildup of combat troops, Russell describes the war as “the damn worst mess I ever saw,” and Johnson murmurs agreement. Russell tells the president that if it were up to him he would “get out” rather than expand the war. Johnson asks Russell, “How important is it to us?” Russell answers, “It isn’t important a damn bit,” and Johnson gloomily says of sending in combat troops, “I just haven’t got the nerve to do it, and I don’t see any other way out of it.” These nearly despairing comments are not those of a man filled with a false optimism about the course he is about to embark on.

We are accustomed to thinking that hard experience in Vietnam taught certain lessons that then, for a while, became cautionary principles. But this record reveals that most of those lessons were known–though not publicly admitted–before the big Vietnam escalation. The difference is important. If the disaster was launched in full awareness of the “lessons,” then we shouldn’t expect that relearning those lessons will be potent in stopping a similar disaster now. If they didn’t prevent the disaster the first time, why should they the second or third time? Some other lessons seem to be needed. Why, we therefore need to ask, did Johnson and his advisers steer the country into a war that even to them was looking more and more like a lost cause, or at best a desperate gamble?

In Bird’s book and in a more recent one–Lessons in Disaster by Gordon Goldstein, who helped McGeorge Bundy to prepare a book reconsidering the war–another factor moves into the foreground. Bundy’s death prevented completion of that book, but Goldstein makes use of Bundy’s notes in his own book. Seeking to understand the origins of the war, Bundy was impressed with the salience of domestic politics. In 1949 the Communist Party had come to power in China, and ever since, Republicans and other right-wingers had been accusing Democrats of “losing” China. The belief that the United States could have prevented the communist victory was a fantasy; yet the charge became one of the principal themes of Senator Joe McCarthy’s attacks on Democrats, which sent currents of fear far beyond the government and into society at large, intimidating and paralyzing a generation. The dread of being accused of lacking patriotic toughness–and above all of being accused of losing a military venture–cast a long shadow. Even Kennedy, who according to Goldstein showed remarkable independence in refusing the nearly unanimous advice from his advisers to send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam, expressed his fear of being called a “communist appeaser.” As he said to his aide Kenny O’Donnell in early 1963, “If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected.” That re-election, of course, never came.

Johnson was more deeply frightened by the right. Urged by Senator Mike Mansfield to withdraw from Vietnam, he answered that he didn’t want another “China in Vietnam.” Bundy fueled Johnson’s fears. In a 1964 memo he wrote that “the political damage to Truman and Acheson from the fall of China arose because most Americans came to believe that we could and should have done more than we did to prevent it. This is exactly what would happen now if we should seem to be the first to quit in Saigon.” In another memo, Bundy outlined a moderated version of the domino theory and went on to argue that neutrality would be viewed by “all anti-communist Vietnamese” as a “betrayal,” thus angering a domestic constituency powerful enough “to lose us an election.”

Did Bundy and Johnson’s other advisers push the country into a disastrous war in order to win an election–or, to be more exact, to avoid losing one? Motivations are never easy to sort out. On the one hand, Johnson, Bundy and the others surely gave sincere credence to the domino/credibility theory, just as Obama probably believes that the war in Afghanistan is “necessary,” in his words, “for the defense of our people.” (Unfortunately, impossible missions do not become possible because they have been dubbed necessary; on the contrary, they become quagmires.) On the other hand, that theory also meshed with suspicious ease with the perceived domestic political need, always on the president’s mind, to appear tough to the domestic audience–to do everything he could to avoid appearing “less of a hawk than your more respectable opponents,” in Bundy’s retrospective words. After thinking the matter over for thirty years, Bundy would declare the domestic considerations uppermost. In his words describing Johnson’s frame of mind at the time, “LBJ is not deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam–he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”

Former Defense Secretary McNamara agreed. Johnson, he said in an interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in 2007, “didn’t want to listen” to McNamara’s growing doubts about the war. Why? Domestic politics: he was “more afraid of the right than the left. And he was afraid that if he did anything to in any way appear to appease the North Vietnamese, he would be severely criticized by the right wing of American politics. Therefore he didn’t do it.” Johnson later confided the same. To his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin he said, “I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam.” Or, as Bundy put it to Goldstein in words that could serve as an epitaph for the era, “For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics.”

Are these events too distant from the present to be relevant to Obama’s deliberations regarding Afghanistan? On the contrary, what is uncanny about the current debate is precisely the degree to which it displays continuity with the Vietnam debate. The Obama administration knows it. A few months before he became special envoy, Holbrooke, who was an official in Vietnam in the mid-’60s, favorably reviewed the Goldstein book in the Times, praising it for offering “insight into how Bundy, a man of surpassing skill and reputation, could have advised two presidents so badly.” We can imagine that Holbrooke would not like this to be said of him a few decades from now. Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal have revealed that the Goldstein book has become required reading at the White House. Lessons of Vietnam are flowing through other channels as well. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual, with all its talk of winning hearts and minds, is pure Vietnam. To most Americans, Vietnam taught one big lesson: “Don’t do it again!” To today’s military, Vietnam has taught a host of little lessons, adding up to “Do it better!” The military has in effect militarized the arguments of the peace movement of the 1960s. Are the hearts and minds of the local people arrayed against the United States? Then be nice to them. (In a Washington Post column supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan, David Ignatius cited the fact that US troops are issued petty cash to buy Afghans soda and other goodies.) Are civilian casualties discrediting the American effort? Cut them to a minimum, as General McChrystal is seeking to do (with mixed success). Is corruption in the client government rampant? “Pressure” it to be honest.

Along the political track, the lessons of the past have also been transmitted down to the present. The experience of Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, was decisive. He proposed to end the war, which by then was unpopular with the public, yet lost the election in a landslide. The defeat seemed to confirm the fears that had haunted Johnson: those who oppose or lose wars lose elections. That lesson instilled in the Democratic Party a bone-deep fear of “McGovernism,” which has continued to this day.

And so, hanging over the scene, still, are the political pressures that go back almost fifty years, to Vietnam, or even sixty years, to the myth that the United States lost China. There is an unmistakable continuity that runs from McCarthy’s attacks on Truman and his administration for “appeasement” and even “treason” clear down to Dick Cheney’s and Karl Rove’s and Glenn Beck’s refrains assailing Obama for opposing the Iraq War, not to speak of Sarah Palin’s charge during the election that he had been “palling around with terrorists.” (The Republicans even call Obama a “socialist,” as if the cold war had never ended.) We have no internal records of the administration’s decision-making, nor of course any thirty-or-forty-years-later rethinking and bean-spilling, so we cannot know how much domestic factors weigh in the deliberations. It might be hard to tell even if we did possess these. Yet it is no secret that Obama’s support for the war in Afghanistan served as protection against charges of weakness over his policy of withdrawing from Iraq. (We might go as far as to say that in having a second war to support while opposing the war in Iraq, Obama had a political opportunity never available to Johnson, all of whose eggs were in the Vietnam basket.) In the words of foreign policy old hand Morton Abramowitz to Packer, “Obama…to show he was tough, made Afghanistan his signature issue because he wanted to get out of Iraq.”

In short, in strictly political terms, the Vietnam dilemma has been handed down to Obama virtually intact. Now as then, the issue politically is whether the United States is able to fail in a war without coming unhinged. Does the American body politic have a reverse gear? Does it know how to cut losses? Is it capable of learning from experience? Or must it plunge unchecked over every cliff it approaches? And at the heart of these questions is another: must liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right when it comes to war and peace? Must presidents behave like Johnson, of whom his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, later said, “It would not have made any difference what anybody advised him–he would have done what he did [in Vietnam]…. It was fear of the right wing.” What is the source of this raw power, this right-wing veto over presidents, Congresses and public opinion? The person who can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history–and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama as he considers what to do in Afghanistan.

Recently Obama paid a night visit to Dover Air Force Base to view the homecoming of the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The event, as these returns always are, was minutely choreographed, every step and gesture planned in advance, as if molded and slowed by the pressure of death. Obama saluted in slow motion, in unison with four uniformed soldiers, then walked in step with them past the van that had just received the remains from a cargo plane that had brought them home. No one spoke. On the one hand, it seemed that Obama might have been absorbed more deeply into the military, to have been caught in its somber spell. On the other hand, his presence seemed a silent public vow, as he makes his decisions, to keep his mind fixed on matters of life and death, not on the next election. His actions in the weeks and years ahead will tell which it was.