As the number of Americans who have died from complications arising from COVID-19 continues to climb, President Trump has relished spinning the nation’s struggle to contain the virus as a “war” against an “invisible enemy.” The same language has long been used to describe America’s ill-fated involvement in the Vietnam War, which on Tuesday became the less deadly of the two tragedies, at least as far as American lives are concerned.
On Tuesday night, the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. reached 58,365, according to Johns Hopkins University, more than the 58,220 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. It took only two months for nearly 60,000 Americans to succumb to the coronavirus — the first death was reported on February 29th in Washington state — and many experts believe the death toll could actually be far higher. It took 20 years — from 1955 to 1975 — for the same number of Americans to die in Vietnam.
The death count isn’t the only similarity between the pandemic and perhaps of the most misguided war in American history. As mentioned, both featured unconventional “enemies,” as well as a presidential administration that refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation. The phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” was used often by President Nixon and others to instill hope that the nation was on the verge of ending the conflict. Trump, too, has preached about a “light at the end of the tunnel” to reassure Americans that his team has the coronavirus under control.
The association with Vietnam seems lost on the president. “People of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, ‘I am not a crook’ if you wanted to convey genuine innocence,” James Fallows wrote recently for The Atlantic. “You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.”
Trump’s ignorance here isn’t that surprising. He clearly wanted nothing to do with the war, and famously avoided conscription by way of a controversial bone spur diagnosis. As president of the United States, Trump hasn’t been able to avoid confronting the coronavirus — but he’s sure as hell tried. It’s hard to keep up with all of the instances in which he ignored warnings about the threat of a pandemic, and for weeks he downplayed the severity of COVID-19, as if he could simply will it out of existence. “One day, like a miracle, it will disappear,” he said on February 27th. When it became clear this wouldn’t happen, Trump blamed others for the toll the coronavirus has taken on the United States. “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he said during a press briefing in March. (Rolling Stone has been tracking the Trump administration’s response and found many instances of failure and dysfunction.)
On Monday, Trump was asked during a similar press briefing whether a president who presides over more American deaths in six weeks than died throughout the course of the entire Vietnam War deserves to be reelected. He responded by noting that some projected 2.2 million could die from the virus before descending into a boilerplate rant about ventilators and testing. “I think we’ve done a great job,” the president concluded, quickly tacking on that “one person is too many” before leaving the stage.