AMONG THE DIFFERENCES between the Vietnam war and the one that threatens in the Middle East is that this time, the president's popular backing started to fade before the first shot was fired. It might have faded faster if today's army were a drafted cross-section of America rather than an all-volunteer force.
The Persian Gulf intervention is strictly an executive-branch exercise. Mr. Bush denies any need for a congressional declaration to make war. Conceivably, because today's is a volunteer army the president considers it his own mercenary force, to be employed without regard to legislative or mass opinion. And because these troops are volunteers, they include a higher-than-ever proportion of minorities and young people who choose military service as a better job than they could get as civilians.
The percentage of women in this force is sharply higher than in Vietnam, while that of blacks and Hispanics is about 2 1/2 times their proportion of the U.S. population. But the political climate in which they may be asked to fight differs more dramatically than the statistics of race and gender.
At about this stage of the Vietnam intervention, Lyndon Johnson had just signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most important single legislative stroke against discrimination since the 19th Amendment gave women the vote in 1920. As the first U.S. combat units arrived, Johnson was pushing hard for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I will never forget the night, while Martin Luther King was marching at Selma, when Johnson stood in the well of the House and adopted the pledge of the civil-rights movement: "We shall overcome." The bill passed, as did an immense Great Society program to help the downtrodden.
Whatever reservations black troops had about going into combat in those years, they knew that the government that sent them there was supportive, indeed devoted to improving the lot of people like themselves back home.
Blacks now make up about 12 percent of our population, but a reported 29 percent of the troops in Operation Desert Shield. That is the highest level of minority involvement in any U.S. military venture. And for the first time, women make up a noticeable percentage of combat-support units, not just hospitals and rear-area offices.
I doubt that Mr. Bush had those facts in mind when, two weeks before this fall's election, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990. But we can be sure that some of the American women and blacks in the Saudi desert took notice.
This year's bill was designed to restore civil-rights law to where it stood before being weakened by a Supreme Court dominated by Reagan appointees. Mr. Bush and his conservative advisers objected. To meet their concerns, the bill's backers accepted no less than 30 amendments. Nevertheless the president vetoed it, maintaining that the bill would introduce "the destructive force of quotas" into U.S. business.
Sponsors, opponents and even Mr. Bush had to concede that the bill itself would not impose quotas. The bill actually states that nothing in it "shall be construed to require or encourage quotas." But Mr. Bush and his handlers insisted that to avoid litigation, employers would tend to create quotas of their own.
The principal way in which the bill would expand civil rights is to allow women and religious minorities to sue for damages for harassment or discrimination. For this reason, the president's veto was protested as widely by women's groups as by old-line civil-rights advocates.
Whether this disappointment plays any part in women's opinion about the Persian Gulf intervention is uncertain, but the two run together. There is a wide gender gap in polls on whether the United States should go to war. Women object to spending so much money there when it is needed for welfare, child care and the environment. One poll reports a measurable shift away from the GOP in women's voter registration.
If Mr. Bush was impressed by popular reaction against his veto, it did not show in his first political decision after the election -- appointment of William Bennett as party chairman.
This move had to be calculated: In Louisiana, ex-Klan official David Duke had just run a strong Senate race on opposition to affirmative action. In North Carolina, Jesse Helms' re-election campaign got a final push from that issue. And the same attitude has been a constant throughout Mr. Bennett's career.
Early next year, Mr. Bush will have a chance to change his mind when Congress passes the civil-rights bill again. Late the year after, women and minorities will help decide whether his calculations pay off.