Tag Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam And Modern Memory

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A member of the CIA helps evacuees up a ladder onto an Air America helicopter on the roof of 22 Gia Long Street April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.

MILITARY TIMES By Edward F. Palm

Vietnam today is what we had tried to make it: a free-market consumer society. The tragedy of it is that over 58,000 Americans and some 2 million Vietnamese had to die just so that Vietnam could get there on its own timetable rather than ours.

The great majority of us served honorably and proved ourselves to be better than the muddle-headed politicians who had sent us. That’s something to be proud of.

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“Back in the mid-80s, an Army officer of my acquaintance succinctly summed up the mood of the post-Vietnam military: “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” he observed, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.”

He was right. He had intuited the largely unspoken, but widely understood, politically correct attitude toward our humiliating defeat. Vietnam had been an aberration, the kind of war we would never fight again. And the less said about it, the better.

Ironically, this same spirit of denial and revision has spread to American society in general in recent years. It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s America, so long as you remember that war the way President Reagan portrayed it, as a “noble crusade,” and so long as you profess utter admiration for our armed forces and unwavering support for our current crusades.

Thursday, April 30, marked the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon — and the end of our Vietnam misadventure. The Vietnam War I remember, and later studied, was anything but a “noble crusade.” It was a profoundly existential experience. Survival was the only moral touchstone, and getting through to our rotation tour dates the only goal we cared about. All the Marines I knew “in country” were profoundly skeptical of the official rationales for why we were there and increasingly embittered by the reluctance of the South Vietnamese to fight their own war.

My fellow Vietnam veterans seem to have forgotten how traumatized we were about all this. We have been co-opted, bought off with belated handshakes and glib expressions of gratitude. We have forgotten what really occasioned all the bitterness and fueled the post-traumatic stress of our generation.

It wasn’t that the country failed to welcome us home or to honor our service with parades. It was the discovery that our leaders had lied to us about the nature and the necessity of the war and that the conduct of the war put the lie to the ideals and values in which we had all been raised to believe.

Would that we all knew then what we know now. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. Early on, he had appealed to us to help dissuade France from reclaiming its former colony at the end of World War II. But we needed France’s help in blocking communist expansion in Europe, and the ensuing Cold War clouded our judgment. We feared falling dominoes. By 1950, we were mired in Korea and bankrolling France’s Indochina War. With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we took over. We sent in intelligence operatives to subvert the Geneva Accords, especially the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam under whichever government the majority chose. Having defeated the French, Ho Chi Minh was the hands-down favorite to win. The South Vietnamese president we had installed, Ngo Dinh Diem, was almost as alien to his own people as we were. Ho Chi Minh had cornered the market on Vietnamese nationalism, and out in the countryside, most of the people seemed to want no part of what we were selling.

What’s worse, once we had taken over in our own right, we began to take that indifference personally. Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t forced to fight with one hand tied behind our back. We unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II. We declared free-fire zones. We defoliated large areas with Agent Orange. We made liberal use of close-air support and indirect fire weapons with little regard for the so-called “collateral damage” such weapons inevitably inflict.

Racists that we were, we dehumanized the Vietnamese as “gooks” and “slopes.” Unable to distinguish friend from foe, we viewed them all as potential threats. Hence, the worst atrocity of the war — the My Lai Massacre. Hell hath no fury like a country scorned, especially one that considers itself to be exceptional and eminently deserving of admiration and emulation.

This is not to say that, because we were wrong, the other side was wholly righteous. They resorted to terror. They mistreated our POWs. They were hardly magnanimous in victory. But the irony is that we seem to have won after all.

So how then should those of us who served in Vietnam feel about participating in such an unnecessary and misguided war? While so many of our contemporaries sat in self-indulgent safety and comfort, we put ourselves on the line. Some of us went in believing. Others suspended judgment or even went against our better judgment. But the great majority of us served honorably and proved ourselves to be better than the muddle-headed politicians who had sent us. That’s something to be proud of.”

https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2020/04/30/vietnam-and-modern-memory/

Edward Palm

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A native of New Castle, Delaware, Edward Palm served as an enlisted Marine with the Combined Action Program in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Returning to the Marine Corps in later life, Palm served as the Marine Officer Instructor with the NROTC unit at University of California, Berkeley and taught English at the Naval Academy before retiring as a major in 1993. His civilian academic career included appointments as a tenured professor and college dean. He now lives in Forest, Virginia. Contact Ed Palm at majorpalm@gmail.com

The Vietnam War Echos In Warfare And Politics Today

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Image: “Fine Art America

By Ken Larson

My comrades and I who served in the Vietnam War are reminded of that period when reading the words of our leaders in the recent Washington Post Freedom of Information Act victory in the courts.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/

We remember clearly the friends, innocence, physical and mental health lost in battle. We see the continuing implications of similar conflicts in which our country has since been involved.

Our conclusion is that war has become a racket and the capitalistic gain threat within the Military Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about as he left office has materialized.

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The U.S. today is about to approve another National Defense Authorization Bill, well in excess of $700 Billion .

As the STRAFOR article below conveys, similar geopolitical conditions to today existed 50 years ago.

Yet we have continued to approve this catastrophic money burner and debt creator https://www.usdebtclock.org/ in the interest of National Security making defense companies rich. It cannot continue.

STRATFOR WORLDVIEWWeighing the Geopolitics of the Vietnam” War

SUMMARY

“South Vietnam’s capital city, Saigon, fell to invading North Vietnamese troops on April 30, 1975. The image of an overloaded Huey helicopter on top of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, frantically loading refugees, was forever seared into the American mind. It was the ignominious end of more than a decade of involvement by the United States in Vietnam.

Ultimately, Washington’s failure to win the war in Vietnam resulted from factors beyond the conflict zone. The United States was heavily constrained by its global commitments — principally its need to secure Western Europe against Warsaw Pact invasion. Washington could not align military capabilities with realistic political goals to justify bringing the full might of U.S. armed forces to bear to defend its peripheral interests in Vietnam. Unable to comprehend North Vietnamese resolve and incapable of bringing about a swift victory, the United States’ will to continue the war crumbled as the human cost mounted. Today, the dominant narrative among the American public is that Vietnam was a crushing American defeat. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, however, it is apparent that Vietnam had only a limited impact on the overall U.S. position within the broader context of the Cold War.

The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War resulted from the evolution of U.S. grand strategy in the wake of World War II. As part of the overall containment structure that Washington hoped to set in place around the Soviet Union — and eventually China as well — a network of allied countries became necessary to block the spread of communism. Many allies found themselves in direct proximity to the communist states America wanted to contain. This meant that any future war between the West and the Soviet Bloc would not be fought in the NATO heartland, but on the far-flung fringes of the two camps’ spheres of influence.

At the root of Washington’s alliance structure was the promise of U.S. support, hardened by what was supposed to be seen as a clear guarantee of assistance should the worst happen. In a divided Europe, for example, an attack on West Germany would be treated as an attack on the United States. Washington had given its word to assist, but by doing so, it put its credibility on the line. Despite written obligations, it was a constant struggle to fully convince the NATO allies that the United States, an ocean away, would truly risk nuclear war to defend West German soil in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion.

A wave of helicopters from the 1st Air Cavalry Division fly over an isolated landing zone during Operation Pershing, in the region of the Bong Son Plain and An Lao Valley of South Vietnam, Jan. 3, 1967.
A wave of helicopters from the 1st Air Cavalry Division fly over an isolated landing zone during Operation Pershing, in the region of the Bong Son Plain and An Lao Valley of South Vietnam, Jan. 3, 1967.

This ambiguity was not lost on Moscow, and Russia continued to probe and pick at the perceived fault-lines in the American grand plan. By manufacturing crises, the Soviets hoped to generate a crippling uncertainty in America’s allies while emboldening their own clients. The Soviet insinuation was that, at a critical moment, the United States would not make good on its promises. So, when the United States found itself more and more involved in Vietnam, Washington was less interested in what Saigon was thinking or doing, or its virtues as a government, and more concerned with how its other allies, especially those in Europe, perceived the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to check the spread of communism within an allied country. When it came due for the United States to live up to its word, it was the international community and not Saigon that Washington looked toward. 

A Small Part of a Big Standoff

Vietnam was one small piece of a much bigger security challenge for Washington, with little intrinsic geopolitical value of its own. The real battles of the period — political and otherwise — were in Central Europe. Europe had to be prioritized, for if its resources and industrial capacity fell to the Warsaw Pact, the United States and its remaining allies would be unable to compete on either an economic or a military basis. For North Vietnam, however, the commitment to national unification was absolute. It pursued its own fundamental geopolitical interests and would give everything to achieve a victory — a single-minded devotion reflected in the horrendous casualties it suffered and the decades of conflict it endured. In the spectrum of conflict, the North Vietnamese were willing to embrace totality. This resolve was backed up with the support of powerful benefactors, namely the Soviets and the Chinese. From the United States’ perspective, committing the resources of the entire country against the North Vietnamese flew in the face of rational wisdom. Washington just had too many other interests. The conflict was ultimately decided by this imbalance of resolve.

A U.S. Air Force F-100 bombs a military target near Saigon on Feb. 8, 1965. The argument remains that the United States could have beaten North Vietnam by committing more forces.
A U.S. Air Force F-100 bombs a military target near Saigon on Feb. 8, 1965.

The argument remains that the United States could have beaten North Vietnam by committing more forces. While this may be accurate, the United States, burdened by its greater contest with the Soviet Union, could not afford to trade the security of its global commitments for a localized victory in Vietnam. The fact of the matter remains that the defense of Indochina was only worth a certain amount of blood and treasure. The U.S. military was saddled with self-imposed constraints and only allocated limited resources to the campaign that, ultimately, proved insufficient for an extended nation-building effort. The United States had to think about strategic balance elsewhere and was limited in what it could realistically commit. Securing the resources required to defeat a massive foreign-sponsored insurgency in the dense Vietnamese jungle had little chance of finding political backing. The fact that the American public deeply opposed the war — a direct result of Vietnam’s murky strategic significance — further eroded the tenuous support for U.S. operations in Vietnam.

Provisional Revolutionary Government fighters seize control of the presidential palace in Saigon after the fall of the city. May 3, 1975. The fact that the American public deeply opposed the war -- a direct result of Vietnam's murky strategic significance -- further eroded the tenuous support for U.S. operations in Vietnam.
Provisional Revolutionary Government fighters seize control of the presidential palace in Saigon after the fall of the city. May 3, 1975.

Once troops were committed, the rationale of Washington’s grand strategy maneuvered the United States into a damning position. U.S. leaders believed that by circumventing the conflict, and showing that the United States was willing to welch on its promises, irreparable fissures could have weakened the alliance structure Washington had fought so hard to construct. Conversely, being unable and unwilling to fully commit to a conflict over a peripheral interest, a clear victory could not be assured, especially against a dedicated and well-supported enemy. 

Limited Geopolitical Impact

The United States did not retreat from the world in the wake of Vietnam. Still determined to contest Soviet influence but eager to avoid overcommitting itself again in the developing world, Washington became more judicious in its use of military force. Instead of relying on direct interventions, Washington shifted the burden of fighting to its clients across the world, providing less direct assistance when necessary. These shadowy operations were well suited for areas of peripheral importance. When they failed, their costs were relatively small; when they succeeded, they often had an outsize impact. This was demonstrated during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union found that it was not prepared to pay the costs of a long counterinsurgency against U.S.-backed mujahideen.

A line of captured South Vietnamese soldiers walk through the streets of Saigon on April 30, 1975, escorted by communist troops. The Vietnam War is popularly remembered as a U.S. defeat at the hands of an enemy a fraction of its size but, from a broader geopolitical perspective, it is hard to say what the United States really lost.
A line of captured South Vietnamese soldiers walk through the streets of Saigon on April 30, 1975, escorted by communist troops.

The Vietnam War is popularly remembered as a U.S. defeat at the hands of an enemy a fraction of its size but, from a broader geopolitical perspective, it is hard to say what the United States really lost. The human cost of the war was certainly tremendous. Some 58,000 U.S. soldiers gave their lives in the conflict, and the war exacerbated huge social rifts in American society. Millions of Vietnamese perished on both sides — along with hundreds of thousands of people in Laos and Cambodia. Both victor and vanquished inherited a country broken by decades of war.

For the United States, the war was over in 1975. For the people of former Indochina, war would continue until 1979, consuming untold millions of lives. Yet, Washington’s worst fears did not materialize with the fall of Saigon. The United States retained its overall combat power and U.S. allies did not break from NATO en masse. The Soviets did not cross the Fulda Gap into West Germany, emboldened by a supposedly conspicuous collapse of U.S. resolve. Perhaps the U.S. refusal to empty its garrisons in Western Europe was far more meaningful a sign for America’s allies and adversaries than an iron commitment to Vietnam. Ultimately, for the United States, the geopolitical cost of the war was greatly overestimated.”

https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/weighing-geopolitics-vietnam-war

Vietnam’s Struggle to Overcome the Legacy of US Bombs

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“GEOPOLITICAL MONITOR”

“In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped around 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities in an attempt to turn the tide of the war between the US-backed south and the communist-controlled North.

A significant proportion of bombs failed to detonate on impact, and remain buried just beneath the surface in the countryside. “

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“The recent Hanoi summit attended by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thrust Vietnam into the global spotlight; a rare moment of publicity in the modern era for a country which dominated the world’s attention through the unfolding horrors of war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet the hosts were left disappointed when the summit collapsed, after failed talks on de-nuclearization prompted the US delegation to depart early for Washington. Five decades earlier the US had been in no rush to leave despite a similar sense of impending mission failure, instead sending thousands more troops and sticking around to bomb Vietnam for eight years from 1965-1973. While the summit leaves no lasting impression, the legacy of unexploded bombs and toxic contamination from the war remains.

Just days after dialogue faltered in Hanoi, a huge 350kg US-made war-era bomb was unearthed 400km further south in the central province of Quang Binh, as a family dug foundations for their new house. The live air-dropped bomb, discovered close to the busy national highway 1A, was one of the largest found in recent years. The area was evacuated and the bomb later safely defused by demining experts. While deaths or injuries were avoided, the find is a stark reminder of the lingering risk from US bombs.

The effects of Agent Orange also persist in central areas of Vietnam, where soil and waterways remain contaminated after toxic defoliants were sprayed by the US to deny forest cover to Viet Cong troops.

With Vietnam back out of the media glare after the Hanoi summit, and with global attention fixed on new conflict hot-spots in the Middle East, there is concern over the future will of foreign governments and international donors to clear unexploded ordnance from former battle zones in Indochina. Given Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ foreign policy and desire to cut funding overseas, there are also doubts over whether the US commitment to help Vietnam heal from the war is set for the long-term.

The lasting impact of US bombing raids on Vietnam

Since hostilities ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, accidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) have claimed more than 105,000 victims across the country, killing at least 38,900 and leaving 66,000 injured. Meanwhile 7% of Vietnamese citizens, or 6.2 million people, have a disability, while 13% live in households with at least one disabled occupant. UXO explosions are a major contributory factor to Vietnam’s high disability rate, in many cases leaving victims with crippling conditions such as lost limbs and blindness. Agent Orange has also been blamed for an unusually high rate of severe birth defects.

Farmers and scrap metal collectors most often fall victim to UXO blasts after coming into contact with ordnance in rural areas. Children are also disproportionately affected, with thousands having suffered injuries after mistaking spherical-shaped cluster bomblets for toys. Since the mid-1990s, a number of organizations have run risk education classes to help educate local communities of the hidden danger.

Added to the immediate physical effects on those caught up in accidents, UXO contamination has had a wider socio-economic impact. Tens of thousands of victims require long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological support, placing a strain on Vietnam’s healthcare system. In microeconomic terms, UXO can have a devastating effect, removing the earning capacity of the main breadwinner in families and placing a double burden on relatives in the form of providing care and making-up for lost income. The prevailing threat of UXO also restricts agriculture and development in rural areas near the former demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, where fighting was most intense. Quang Tri province, along the old dividing line, is worst-hit: up to 84% of land here is contaminated, compared to 15% nationwide.

Local and international demining efforts since the 1990s

For more than 20 years since the mid-1990s, a collection of experienced international NGOs has been working to rid Vietnam of UXO alongside local state-run agencies and the Vietnamese armed forces. In recent years, Danish Demining Group (DDG), Mines Advisory Group (MAG), and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have been among those operating in central areas to clear land and provide risk education.

The Vietnamese government has also been working to improve national-level infrastructure in recent years to better co-ordinate and oversee the demining effort. In 2013, a military-run Vietnam National Mine Action Centre (VNMAC) was established, while last year Hanoi formed Steering Committee 701 on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, to propose new solutions and mobilize civil society actors both at home and abroad to confront war legacy issues.

The government is hoping to make greater inroads into combatting the harmful legacy of UXO in the coming years, and aims to clear 800,000 hectares of bomb-contaminated land by 2025. However, this only represents a small percentage of the affected area, which totals at least 6.1 million hectares. The true figure may turn out to be even higher once a full survey has been completed. It is estimated that the removal of all UXO items in Vietnam will take up to a century and cost an eye-watering US$10bn.

Speaking at a global mine awareness conference last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said UXO was still holding the country back four decades after the guns fell silent. ‘‘Although the war has been over, the severe consequences of landmines, UXO and toxic chemicals still exist, affecting human health and living environments. Many people have lost their lives or suffered the loss of a part of their body, or lost their loved ones’’. Phuc added the presence of UXO still limits socio-economic progress.

Concerns over future US and global demining support

In the past year, new funding has been announced from the UK, Norway, and South Korea to continue demining activities in the worst-affected provinces. In mid-2018, South Korea committed US$20m for survey and clearance in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh, while a deal was signed with the NPA to fund work in Quang Tri until 2022. Late last year, funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was announced to support the work of MAG in Quang Tri. Yet the US remains the main source of external funding, providing over 90% of total foreign assistance for UXO projects in Vietnam in 2017.

Between 1993-2017, the US has invested at least US$119.3m for UXO-related programmes in Vietnam. For two decades, the network of in-country demining operators has relied primarily on US finance to expand their vital work. There are now concerns that under the more isolationist and inward-looking administration of President Trump – intent on cost-cutting on projects abroad which are not deemed in the national interest – sustained US help for the UXO clean-up in Vietnam appears more uncertain. And with the Vietnam War fading into distant memory, other foreign funding sources are also fragile.

Will war legacy issues remain central in US-Vietnam ties?

Does the US have a moral obligation to help Vietnam recover from a conflict which is now condemned widely in the West and increasingly viewed as an aggressive act of Cold War-era misadventure? Former president Obama appeared to hold that view, stating his belief on a 2016 visit to Laos that the US had a duty to help Vietnam’s neighbour ‘heal’ from the pain caused by past US actions in the region. It is unclear whether the President Trump, and future US presidents, will share such sentiment. There are positive signs: the US recently completed an operation to remove Agent Orange toxins from land near Da Nang airport, and is due to start decontaminating a larger site at Bien Hoa air base later this year.

In the four decades since the war ended, geopolitical realities have shifted and the rapid rise of China has pushed Vietnam and the US closer together faster than anticipated. Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, relations between the two former enemies have blossomed, most ironically in the field of defence. The Hanoi-Washington security relationship has been evidenced since Trump came to power by a rising frequency of high-level visits. Trump has visited twice, while State Secretary Mike Pompeo and former Defence Secretary James Mattis have also made trips to take part in high-level exchanges.

The US has focused mainly on improving Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities in the context of the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is a major claimant state and is opposed to China’s expansive claim. Last year, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang port for four days, marking the first visit by a US carrier since the war. The US has also transferred a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese navy, funded the acquisition of 24 45-ft patrol boats – 12 of which have already been delivered – and granted Vietnam US$26.25m to boost its maritime security capacity during 2017-2018. Once an enemy, Vietnam is now one of the US’ most dependable security partners in Southeast Asia.

In this context, a long-term US commitment to fund UXO clearance in the coming decades would not only be in the interests of Vietnam’s prosperity and continued economic development, cementing its recovery from the war. It would also be in the US’ national interest, helping to cement its growing ties with Hanoi as it aims to refocus on the Indo-Pacific, while signalling its recognition of the harm caused in Vietnam. Only when the last bomb is cleared, can the shared horrors of the war be fully lain to rest.”

https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/vietnams-struggle-to-overcome-the-legacy-of-us-bombs/

First Vietnamese-American General Takes Command of US Army Japan

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Vietnamese American General Takes over in Japan

“STARS AND STRIPES”

“The U.S. military’s first Vietnamese-American general has assumed command of U.S. Army Japan.

Maj. Gen. Viet Xuan Luong will be responsible for 2,500 soldiers, civilians and family members throughout 16 installations in mainland Japan and Okinawa.”


“To the leaders and troopers of U.S. Army Japan, I’m ready to join your family, and it will be an honor to fight by your side,” he told hundreds of people attending the ceremony.

It’s been a long journey for the son of a Republic of Vietnam Marine Division major who as a 9-year-old evacuated from Saigon with his parents and seven siblings a day before the city fell to North Vietnamese forces.

He credits his father with inspiring him to serve the country that rescued his family. He was selected as a Carnegie Foundation Great Immigrant in 2016.

Luong, who in 2014 became the first Vietnamese-American general, has commanded from rifle platoon up to flag level.

He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment during a deployment to Iraq from 2005 to 2006, as well as the 3rd Brigade, 101st Infantry Division in Afghanistan in 2010-11. He also served as chief of staff at U.S. Army Central.

Gen. Robert Brown, U.S. Army Pacific commander, told Luong he was stepping into big shoes.

“Commanding U.S. Army Japan is an enormous task and awesome responsibility and Jim Pasquarette really did a tremendous job leading this force through some challenging times,” Brown said. “Several [Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force] commanders told me they think he was the best U.S. Army Japan commander they’d ever worked with.”

Pasquarette will soon pin on a third star and become the Army’s deputy chief of staff, G8, in charge of overseeing the funding and fielding of Army programs to meet force needs.”

https://www.stripes.com/news/first-vietnamese-american-general-takes-command-of-us-army-japan-1.544588

What Was the Vietnam War About?

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Vietnam All About

A group of South Vietnamese army soldiers and an American soldier with two captured Vietcong suspects, in Plaines des Joncs, South Vietnam. Credit Tim Page/Corbis, via Getty Images

“THE NEW YORK TIMES”

“If we continue to excuse American conduct in Vietnam as a well-intentioned, if tragic, intervention rather than a purposeful assertion of imperial power, we are less likely to challenge current war managers who have again mired us in apparently endless wars based on false or deeply misleading pretexts. 

Just as in the Vietnam era, American leaders have ordered troops to distant lands based on boundless abstractions (“the global war on terror” instead of the global threat of “international Communism”).

And once again, their mission is to prop up governments that demonstrate no capacity to gain the necessary support of their people.”


“Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy.

During the war years, America’s leaders insisted that military force was necessary to defend a sovereign nation — South Vietnam — from external Communist aggression. As President Lyndon B. Johnson put it in 1965, “The first reality is that North Vietnam has attacked the independent nation of South Vietnam. Its object is total conquest.”

Even more disturbing, Johnson quickly added (following a script written by his predecessors Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy), the Communists in Vietnam were supported and guided by the Soviet Union and China. Therefore, the war in South Vietnam was not an isolated, local conflict, irrelevant to American national security, but rather one that was inseparable from the nation’s highest priority — the Cold War struggle to contain Communism around the globe. Further raising the stakes, policymakers warned that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, neighboring countries would inevitably fall in turn, one after another, like a row of dominoes.

Three decades later, Robert McNamara, a key architect of the Vietnam War who served as defense secretary for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, renounced those wartime claims — the very ones he and others had invoked to justify the war. In two books, “In Retrospect” (1995) and “Argument Without End” (2000), McNamara conceded that the United States had been “terribly wrong” to intervene in Vietnam. He attributed the failure to a lack of knowledge and judgment. If only he had understood the fervor of Vietnamese nationalism, he wrote, if only he had known that Hanoi was not the pawn of Beijing or Moscow, if only he had realized that the domino theory was wrong, he might have persuaded his presidential bosses to withdraw from Vietnam. Millions of lives would have been saved. If only.

In fact, however, in the 1960s, when McNamara advocated massive military escalation in Vietnam, he simply rejected or ignored any evidence that contradicted Cold War orthodoxy. It’s not as if contrary views were unavailable. In the work of the scholar-journalist Bernard Fall, the pages of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, speeches at university teach-ins and antiwar rallies and countless other venues, critics pointed out that after World War II the United States made a clear choice to support the French effort to re-establish its colonial rule in Indochina, and eventually assumed the bulk of France’s cost for the first Indochina War. It should have been no surprise, therefore, that Vietnamese revolutionaries perceived the United States as a neocolonial power when it committed its own military forces in the next war.

Moreover, critics argued, the primary roots of opposition to the American-backed government in Saigon were indigenous and deep rooted, not just in North Vietnam, but throughout the South.

Indeed, from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s the bulk of Communist-led fighting was carried out by southern guerrillas of the National Liberation Front, known to its enemies as the Vietcong. Only after the war was well underway did large units from North Vietnam arrive on the southern front. Antiwar opponents also challenged the claim that South Vietnam was an “independent nation” established by the Geneva Accords of 1954. Those agreements called for a temporarypartition of Vietnam to be shortly followed by a nationwide election to choose a single leader for a unified Vietnam. When it became clear to both Saigon and Washington that the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh would be the overwhelming victor, the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, with American support, decided to cancel the election.

Thus began a two-decade failed effort to build a permanent country called “South Vietnam.” The government in Saigon was never a malleable puppet of the United States, but it was nonetheless wholly dependent on American military and economic support to survive against its enemies, including many non-Communist parties and factions in the South.

Armed with these criticisms, many opponents of American policy in the 1960s described Vietnam as a civil war — not like the relatively clear-cut North-South division of the American Civil War, but a nationwide struggle of Communist-led forces of the South and North against the American-backed government in the South. By 1966, this analysis was even embraced by some mainstream politicians, including Senator William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran as an antiwar presidential candidate in 1968. Both men called attention to the “South Vietnamese civil war” to emphasize the strength of the southern insurgency and the failure of the Saigon government to gain the broad support of its own people.

By 1972, the idea that Vietnam posed a threat to Cold War America was so discredited, it sometimes sounded as if America’s only remaining war aim was to get back its P.O.W.s (President Richard Nixon bizarrely claimed that Hanoi was using them as “negotiating pawns”). Even more mind-boggling were Nixon’s historic 1972 trips to Beijing and Moscow. Many Americans wondered how Nixon could offer toasts of peace to Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev while still waging war in Vietnam. As the journalist Jonathan Schell put it, “If these great powers were not, after all, the true foe,” then the war in Vietnam “really was a civil war in a small country, as its opponents had always said, and the United States had no business taking part in it.”

But alongside the “civil war” interpretation, a more radical critique developed — the view that America’s enemy in Vietnam was engaged in a long-term war for national liberation and independence, first from the French and then the United States. According to this position, the war was best understood not as a Cold War struggle between East and West, or a Vietnamese civil war, but as an anticolonial struggle, similar to dozens of others that erupted throughout the Third World in the wake of World War II. When the French were defeated by Vietnamese revolutionaries (despite enormous American support), the United States stepped in directly to wage a counterrevolutionary war against an enemy determined to achieve full and final independence from foreign control.

This interpretation was shared by many on the antiwar left, including Daniel Ellsberg, the once-hawkish defense analyst who turned so strongly against the war that he was willing to sabotage his career by making public 7,000 pages of classified documents about the history of the Vietnam War, the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg made his argument most succinctly in the 1974 documentary “Hearts and Minds.”

“The name for a conflict in which you are opposing a revolution is counterrevolution,” he said. “A war in which one side is entirely financed and equipped and supported by foreigners is not a civil war.” The question used to be, he added, “might it be possible that we were on the wrong side in the Vietnamese war. We weren’t on the wrong side; we are the wrong side.”

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Moreover, no other foreign nation deployed millions of troops to South Vietnam (although the United States did pressure or pay a handful of other nations, Australia and South Korea most notably, to send smaller military forces). And no other foreign nation or opponent dropped bombs (eight million tons!) on South and North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The introduction of that staggering lethality was the primary driver of a war that cost three million lives, half of them civilians.

Once again, the United States has waged brutal counterinsurgencies guaranteed to maim, kill or displace countless civilians. It has exacerbated international violence and provoked violent retaliation.

Our leaders, then and now, have insisted that the United States is “the greatest force for good in the world” that wants nothing for itself, only to defeat “terror” and bring peace, stability and self-determination to other lands. The evidence does not support such a claim. We need a new, cleareyed vision of our global conduct. A more critical appraisal of the past is one place to start.”

How the Vietnam Tet Offensive Undermined American Faith in Government

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TET Offensive

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam on December 25, 1967, a month before the Tet Offensive.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 

I had a recent conversation with an old acquaintance from the Tet Offensive 50 years ago.  We met on the 1968 Vietnam battlefield as enemies and later became friends by accident in civilian life when we met again at a U.S. airport in 1998.

 What’s It Like To Meet Someone You Fought Against In War 

We agree the following article in “The Atlantic” is an excellent footnote to history on how the Tet Offensive, that enormously effected the two of us, also dramatically impacted the faith of Americans in the U.S. government regarding truth in foreign interventions.  –Ken Larson


“THE ATLANTIC”

“Tet shaped the world within which we live today: In an era when Americans still don’t fully trust government officials to tell them the truth about situations overseas, and don’t have confidence that leaders, for all their bluster, will do the right thing.

Tet is an important reminder that for liberals and conservatives sometimes a little distrust is a good thing. Particularly at a time when we have a president who traffics heavily in falsehoods, Tet showed that blind confidence in leaders can easily lead down dangerous paths.”


“When Americans wince upon hearing presidents make proclamations about foreign policy, the legacy of the 1968 Tet Offensive looms large.

On January 30, at the start of the sacred Vietnamese holiday of Tet, which celebrated the start of the new lunar year, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launched a massive military offensive that proved the battle raging in Southeast Asia was far from over, and that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration had grossly oversold American progress to the public. Although U.S. troops ultimately ended the offensive successfully, and the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong suffered brutal loses, these bloody weeks triggered a series of events that continue to undermine Americans’ confidence in their government.

The Tet offensive came after several months of the North Vietnamese modifying their strategy. Rather than a battle of attrition, the leadership planned to launch a massive assault that aimed to undermine the morale of the South Vietnamese as well as the American public. Since December, the North Vietnamese had been conducting a series of attacks meant to send U.S. forces in the wrong direction. Johnson and his military advisors fell for the trick. The president and General William Westmoreland had focused on potential attacks against a U.S. Marine base in Khe Sanh. Johnson kept asking military leaders if they were prepared to defend the base and he kept promising congressional Democrats and Republicans that he had received their assurances everything would be fine.

Meanwhile, Johnson had conducted a massive public relations blitz in the end of 1967 to convince the public that the war was nearing a conclusion and that the United States was winning. The Progress Campaign, as it was sometimes called, deployed large volumes of data to convince the media that the communists were losing on the battlefield and that their numbers were diminishing.

Westmoreland told Meet the Press on November 19, 1967 that the U.S could win the war within two years and then proclaimed at the National Press Club on November 21 that “the end begins to come into view.” In November 1967, according to the Harris poll, confidence in the president’s Vietnam policies rose by 11 points (from 23 to 34 percent). In his State of the Union Address on January 17, Johnson sounded downright optimistic, even though he acknowledged that the U.S. faced major challenges overseas and that victory in Vietnam would take some time. As he asked Congress to pass a tax surcharge to help pay for the escalating costs of the war, while continuing to fund the Great Society, the president declared that the enemy was testing the “will” of the nation to “meet the trials that these times impose.”

In resolute fashion, Johnson went on to promise that “America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.” Max Frankel of The New York Times reported, “Whereas a year ago he promised ‘more cost, more loss and more agony’ in the war, this year he emphasized the positive, what he called the ‘marks of progress,’ and dwelt less on the whole issue of the war than in the previous two speeches.”

Then the situation took a bad turn a few weeks later. The crisis of Tet began in the early morning of January 30, the start of the year of the Monkey. In Saigon, NLF fighters attacked the American embassy. A 20-year-old soldier, Chuck Searcy, recalled waking up after an evening of drinking and movies, that when the sirens went off he assumed it was a drill and they would be able to go back to sleep. “But then a captain came around the perimeter in a jeep with a loudspeaker announcing that this was not a practice alert … It was the moment when the war became a reality for us, because up to then, Saigon had been considered a very safe area and quite secure and basically an area that would never be attacked.” The fighting continued until 9:15 the next morning. Nineteen enemy soldiers would lose their lives in the battle for the embassy; five Americans were killed. This was just one of many onslaughts that took place as the communists conducted their offensive in five major cities, 36 provincial capitals and smaller hamlets across the country.

Desperate to stop the public fallout, on January 31, Johnson ordered Westmoreland to hold daily press briefings to “convey to the American public your confidence in our capability to blunt these enemy moves, and to reassure the public here that you have the situation under control.” Johnson warned legislators that the anti-war protests in the U.S. were being triggered by allies of the communists. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately told Johnson, “I think it shows two things, Mr. President. First, that they have more power than some credit them with … My guess is that we will inflict very heavy losses on them, both in terms of personnel and materiel and this will set them back some, but after they absorb the losses, they will remain a substantial force.”

After the initial shock and awe, U.S. troops mounted a fierce and effective counter-attack, one of the most successful military operations of the war. When it was all over in late February, the communists suffered over 40,000 deaths, including some of their most skilled troops. The fighting ended when the U.S. and South Vietnamese recaptured the city of Hue.

Yet the military victory turned into a political disaster for the administration. Johnson tried to stop the political bleeding from the realization that the Vietnam War was not ending any time soon.

The Tet Offensive showed that Johnson and Westmoreland were lying about having “reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” as Westmoreland famously had said.

The media coverage of Tet provided reporters with unprecedented access to the images of the conflict as the battles moved into the cities, and they delivered. One of the most famous images from the period was that of a South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the national police, putting a bullet in the head of Nguyen Van Lem, a captain in the Vietcong. The photograph, taken by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams on February 1, confirmed the brutality of this conflict to many Americans. Life magazine’s cover on February 16 featured a photograph of two North Vietnamese soldiers with Chinese AK-47 automatic rifles, guarding Hue, with an article by Catherine Leroy called, “The Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture.”

The images on television were just as bad. The coverage shifted from smoke and helicopters to soldiers fighting to recapture ground in a brutal war. “There, on color screens,” one observer noted, “dead bodies lay amidst the rubble and the rattle of automatic gunfire as dazed American soldiers and civilians ran back and forth trying to flush out the assailants.” Walter Cronkite famously signed off his broadcast challenging the president and joining journalists who had increasingly been saying that the government was not telling the full truth. “Who won and lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout but neither did we … For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience in Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” ABC anchor Frank McGee followed up a few days later telling viewers “The war is being lost” while his colleague Frank Reynolds said it put the president’s credibility “under fire.”

Inside the White House, the historian Robert Dallek found that Johnson’s advisors were shaken. Following one meeting of foreign policy advisors, Joseph Califano reported that they were “beyond pessimistic.” The new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, recalled that “It is hard to imagine or recreate the atmosphere in the sixty days after Tet. The pressure grew so intense that at times I felt the government might come apart at its seams. Leadership was fraying at its very center—something very rare in a nation with so stable a government structure.” Clifford said that in early March he made his “overwhelming priority” as Secretary “to extricate our nation from an endless war.”

“The element of hope has been taken away by the Tet Offensive,” noted Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “People don’t think there is likely to be an end.” Newsweek ran a cover story on February 19, with Westmoreland on the cover, entitled “Man on the Spot.”

By the time that Tet ended, Johnson was left with a massive credibility gap that overshadowed everything he had done on domestic policy. By March, when anti-war Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy performed unexpectedly well in the New Hampshire primary, the polls had really turned on the president and the war. An initial spike in public support from Tet in February, with a notable increase in hawkish sentiment about Vietnam, turned hard against the administration in March. 49 percent of Americans thought the war was a mistake; only 41 percent thought it was the right decision. Only 35 percent believed that it would end within the next two years. His overall approval ratings for handling the war fell to a meager 26 percent. On the last day of the month, with his support plummeting, Johnson shocked the nation by going on television to announce that he would not run for reelection.

When rumors circulated that Westmoreland had asked for 206,000 more troops in response to Tet, Americans were outraged and the apparent blindness of the people in power. The Democratic Convention in 1968 was a disaster, as liberal Democrats and the anti-war movement opened up a civil war. Ironically, the person to reap the most benefits from the war was Richard Nixon, the next president of the United States, who lied and deceived the public about Vietnam in ways that even Johnson could not have imagined.

Besides the damage that Tet imposed on Johnson, the surprise attack and the revelation that the administration had vastly oversold the prospects for success were a severe blow to public confidence in American government leaders to tell the truth and to do the right thing.

The right also took its own lessons from Tet and other parts of the increasingly critical wartime coverage, namely that the media could not be trusted. As reporters focused on Tet as evidence of failure, hawkish Democrats and Republicans were quick to note, rightly so, that the U.S. counter-offensive had been successful. Johnson felt this way and tried to hammer away on the point that the media was misrepresenting what happened. For decades, coverage of Tet would remain to conservatives a symbol of why the “liberal establishment” could not be trusted to give the public a realistic assessment of national security issues.

For much of the nation, however, the specifics of Tet were beside the point. The real story was the context of the disastrous policies in Vietnam that cost thousands of American lives every month, undermined the nation’s moral authority in the Cold War, and didn’t seem to be working. As the historian Fred Logevall has argued, Tet is not the sole culprit behind the shattered faith from Vietnam, as opposition to the war and the realization of government falsehood had been growing for several years. But Tet still packed an extraordinarily powerful punch on a nation primed to be disillusioned. Based on what they were seeing in the winter of 1968, the communists in North Vietnam remained strong and determined, and promises that the war was ending were simply not true.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/how-the-tet-offensive-undermined-american-faith-in-government/550010/

US Could Have Almost 16,000 Troops in Afghanistan Next Year

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“MILITARY TIMES”

“The expected deployment of hundreds more U.S. Army trainers to Afghanistan early next year will probably increase the total number of American forces there to almost 16,000, according to U.S. officials.

 There are about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan from other NATO and partner nations.”


“At least 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, after President Donald Trump decided to send about 3,800 troops to the country this fall to strengthen efforts to advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. All those extra troops are already in the country, U.S. defense officials said.

The Army’s new security force assistance brigade is being built and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and will head to Afghanistan early next year. Senior U.S. defense officials cited ongoing discussions about whether other American forces would leave when the training unit arrives or whether the trainers would add to the U.S. military footprint already there.

The officials said Pentagon leaders, primarily U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had initially set a tentative cap of about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But they said Mattis has made clear he is committed to a force level based on military needs, not an arbitrary number. As a result, the officials said they believe the trainers will add to the total U.S. force number in Afghanistan, and not come in as replacements.

The officials weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the troop numbers and insisted on condition of anonymity.

Calculating the actual number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been an ongoing problem.

The Pentagon in August acknowledged having about 11,000 American troops there, after long camouflaging the total in misleading accounting measures and red tape. Under the Obama administration, troops were capped at 8,400. But that limit was routinely exceeded. Commanders shuffled troops in and out, labeled many “temporary” and used other personnel accounting tactics to artificially keep the public count low.

Trump has changed the policy, giving Mattis the authority to adjust troops levels based on military requirements and effectively eliminating the cap. Both Trump and Mattis have insisted repeatedly they don’t want to talk publicly about troop numbers in Afghanistan because they don’t want to give information to the enemy.

The influx of U.S. trainers underscores the military’s renewed focus on building up Afghan forces so they can better fight the insurgents and take control of their own country’s security. The goal is to reverse setbacks experienced by Afghan forces in recent years, as the Obama administration steadily reduced U.S. troop levels.

At the same time, however, the U.S. has been pressing NATO allies to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan forces and bolster the U.S.-led counterterrorism fight against Taliban, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other fighters.

In addition to the U.S. forces, there are about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan from other NATO and partner nations. The NATO mission focuses on training Afghans, and not combat or counterterrorism operations.

NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels this week to discuss the effort in Afghanistan and hear from allies on how many more troops they’re willing to deploy to the war.

Speaking to reporters after meetings with northern European leaders in Finland on Tuesday, Mattis said he sent letters to some allies, asking them to increase their troop commitment in Afghanistan.

“There was feedback from a number of nations, both formally and informally,” he said during the flight to Brussels. He said some are increasing their numbers, while others are working through their government processes to get decisions.”

https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2017/11/08/us-could-have-almost-16000-troops-in-afghanistan-next-year/

 

What Went Wrong in Vietnam and Why it Matters in Afghanistan

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What Went Wrong in Vietnam

The setting sun silhouettes a U.S. Marine firing his rifle into suspected North Vietnamese positions at the encircled the Sanh Base, March 18, 1968. (AP Photo)

“MILITARY TIMES” David Skidmore, Drake University, via AP

“In the Vietnam era, as today, the United States found itself engulfed in a seemingly never-ending war with mounting costs, unclear goals and few signs of success.  Muddling through offered presidents a politically safer short-run alternative to withdrawal or major escalation.

A similar dynamic appears at work in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, where Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have each accepted stalemate over the riskier options of retreat or decisive escalation.”


 

“The ghosts of the Vietnam War no doubt hovered over a recently assembled conclave of President Donald Trump’s advisers as they deliberated over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, successive presidents faced much the same options: Withdraw, decisively escalate or do just enough to avoid losing. Like his predecessors in both wars, Trump chose the middle path – incremental escalation with no clear exit plan. Although Trump called it a “plan for victory,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson candidly admitted that the additional American troops will likely do little more than “stabilize the situation.”

How can we to explain the seeming preference of U.S. presidents for muddling through – whether in Afghanistan or, 50 years ago, in Vietnam? This has been a central question in a course on the Vietnam War that I have offered for the past 30 years. In it, we look for answers in a fascinating debate among former officials that emerged in the late stages of the war.

Down a slippery slope

Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger offered one point of view in his 1967 book “The Bitter Harvest.” A onetime adviser to John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger compared Vietnam to a quagmire: The first step into a quagmire inexorably draws one down a slippery slope. Schlesinger argued that officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations stumbled blindly into Vietnam without understanding where the U.S. commitment would lead. Escalation proceeded through a series of small steps, none of which seemed terribly consequential. Each succeeding step was taken in the optimistic belief that a little more effort – a bit more aid, a few more troops, a slight intensification of the bombing – would turn things around by signaling American resolve to stay the course. Faced with this prospect, the reasoning went, the North Vietnamese communists would sue for peace on American terms.

These flawed expectations, Schlesinger argued, arose from a decision-making system characterized by “ignorance, misjudgment and muddle.” A dysfunctional bureaucracy fed presidents misleading and overly rosy intelligence. The Vietnam War debacle, in other words, arose from inadvertence and folly.

Just don’t lose

In separate pieces, this interpretation of what went wrong was challenged by Daniel Ellsberg and Leslie Gelb. Both Gelb and Ellsberg had formerly served as Defense Department officials during the 1960s, and both helped to compile the famous “Pentagon Papers.”

Gelb and Ellsberg reached similar conclusions about the sources of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Ellsberg argued that policymakers during the Kennedy and early Johnson administrations followed two rules:

  • Do not lose South Vietnam to communism, and
  • Do not involve the U.S. in a large-scale ground war in Asia.

Each rule drew upon recent precedent. The “loss” of China to communism in 1949 led to charges that Democrats were “soft on communism” and a wave of McCarthyite hysteria at home. On the other hand, the public would also not tolerate another ground war similar to the unpopular Korean engagement.

The perceived domestic political costs of either extreme – withdrawal or unrestrained escalation – steered Kennedy and Johnson toward the middle. As long as feasible, each president did enough to avoid losing South Vietnam but shunned the direct commitment of U.S. troops that military advisers insisted would be necessary to bring victory.

By 1965, the deteriorating political and military situation in South Vietnam cut this middle ground from beneath Johnson’s feet. The minimum necessary to stave off defeat now required the commitment of American combat troops. Even once this line had been crossed, however, troops were introduced in a gradual manner and Johnson balked at imposing higher taxes to pay for the war.

As Kennedy and Johnson anticipated, public support for the war waned as U.S. casualties mounted. Richard Nixon responded to these domestic pressures by undertaking “Vietnamization,” which gradually reduced American troop levels even while prolonging U.S. efforts to stave off a communist victory.

Ellsberg refers to this as a “stalemate machine.” Policymakers acted in a calculated manner to avoid losing for as long as possible, but understood that their policies could not bring victory. Stalemate was a conscious choice rather than a product of overoptimism or miscalculation.

While echoing Ellsberg’s account of the domestic constraints on U.S. policy, Gelb added two sets of international constraints. Withdrawal was ruled out because policymakers believed in the domino theory, which predicted that the loss of South Vietnam would set off a cascade of communist victories throughout Southeast Asia. They also feared that the U.S. would lose credibility with its allies if we failed to put up a fight in South Vietnam. For these reasons, as well as fears of a right-wing backlash, Kennedy and Johnson were unwilling to walk away from Vietnam.

Yet Kennedy and Johnson also feared the international risks of major escalation, Gelb argued. An invasion of North Vietnam raised the possibility that either China or the Soviet Union would intervene more directly or retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the world. In an age of nuclear weapons, the U.S. preferred to keep the Vietnam conflict limited and to minimize the risks of superpower war.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Gelb and Ellsberg rejected Schlesinger’s argument that policymakers were overly optimistic and lacking in foresight. Rather, they saw policymakers as generally pessimistic, recognizing that the next step along the ladder of escalation would not be sufficient and that future steps would be necessary just to maintain a stalemate. With victory viewed as infeasible, presidents chose stalemate as the least bad among a set of terrible options. Presidents had no clear exit strategy, other than the hope that the enemy would weary of the conflict or that the problem could be passed along to the next president.

Instead of blaming bureaucratic bumbling, Gelb argues that “the system worked.” The bureaucrats did exactly what top policymakers asked them to do: Avoid losing Vietnam for more than a decade. The problem lay rather in the underlying assumption – never questioned – that Vietnam was a vital interest of the United States.

Who was right?

I’d contend that Gelb and Ellsberg make a more convincing case than Schlesinger. Muddling through offered presidents a politically safer short-run alternative to withdrawal or major escalation.

Against an entrenched Taliban insurgency, U.S. policy has been driven by the need to stave off the collapse of weak local partners rather than the pursuit or expectation of military victory. Even President Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan provided fewer than half the troops requested by the military. On the other hand, Obama later retreated from his own stated deadline for total withdrawal, opting to leave 11,000 troops in place. Now Trump has also reneged from previous pledges to disengage from Afghanistan, instead sending additional troops.

It may be that the logic of the stalemate machine is built into the very concept of limited war. Or that it is a predictable consequence of how presidents manage the constraints posed by American politics. In any case, the histories of U.S. military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan should serve as warnings to future presidents who might be tempted to again jump onto the treadmill of perpetual war.

How the Vietnam War Broke the American Presidency

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Vietnam Broke the Presidency

WG600; Photos: Associated Press; Bettman Archive; Corbis; Fred W. McDarrah; Getty; Horst Faas; Kevin Schafer; Michael Ochs; PhotoQuest

“THE ATLANTIC”

The war undermined the country’s faith in its most respected institutions, particularly the military and the presidency. The military eventually recovered. The presidency never has.

[It] opened the credibility gap. What we’ve learned since has only widened it.”


“On April 30, 1975, when the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the Vietnam War, the most consequential event in American history since World War II, ended in failure. More than 58,000 Americans and as many as 3 million Vietnamese had died in the conflict. America’s illusions of invincibility had been shattered, its moral confidence shaken.

It did not happen all at once, this radical diminution of trust. Over more than a decade, the accumulated weight of critical reporting about the war, the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and the declassification of military and intelligence reports tarnished the office. Nor did the process stop when that last chopper took off. New evidence of hypocrisy has continued to appear, an acidic drip, drip, drip on the image of the presidency. The three men who are most responsible for the war, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon, each made the fateful decision to record their deliberations about it. The tapes they left behind—some of them still newly public, others long obscured by the sheer volume of the material—are extraordinary. They expose the presidents’ secret motives and fears, at once humanizing the men and deepening the disillusionment with the office they held.

For most of American history, that office conveyed authority, dignity, and some measure of majesty upon its occupant. The great presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts—came to be viewed not merely as capable executives but as figures of myth: They were heroic, selfless, noble, godlike. Time has a way of burnishing reputations. But as late as the middle of the last century, Americans were inclined to view even incumbent presidents with reverence. Faith in the presidency may have reached its apogee soon after the Second World War. The public generally trusted Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to be honest and well intentioned and to put the interests of the nation above their own.

It is no coincidence that the last president to inspire such trust was also the last president elected before the Vietnam War began in earnest. Kennedy’s charisma, and his military bona fides, encouraged Americans to believe in their young president as he confronted a complicated and dangerous world. His promise, in his inaugural address, that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty” reinforced Americans’ vision of their country as a muscular force for good around the globe.

As president, Kennedy immediately faced the challenge of how to use that power. He refused to send American troops to secure a pro-Western government in Laos. But after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and having been bullied by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, he made a different calculation when it came to the continuing crisis in Vietnam, one influenced by domestic political concerns. Kennedy confided to an aide: “There are just so many concessions that one can make to the Communists in one year and survive politically.” With the Vietcong gathering strength in South Vietnam, he felt he had to act.
If not for his untimely death, Kennedy’s legacy might have been sullied while he was in office. Instead, not until the Pentagon Papers were published did Americans discover that he and his administration had harbored misgivings about the political and military progress in Vietnam but never shared their reservations with the public, even as they steadily increased America’s commitment of special forces and military “advisers.”In August 1963, disturbed by the authoritarian South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diêm’s failure to win over the populace or thwart the Communist insurgency, Kennedy approved a plan to encourage a cabal of dissident generals to overthrow Diêm’s regime. In November, rebel troops seized key installations in Saigon and promised Diêm and his ruthless brother Ngô Đình Nhu safe passage out of the country. As soon as the brothers surrendered, they were murdered by rebel leaders. South Vietnam plunged into chaos, and a bad situation got worse.On November 4, 1963, shortly after the coup, Kennedy recorded his thoughts about what he had allowed to happen. The Kennedy who speaks on this rarely heard tape is not the bold young man of the inaugural address, but a president consumed by doubt, even remorse. He rues having made such a crucial decision without adequate consideration.

Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place. It culminated three months of conversation … which divided the government here and in Saigon … I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of … August in which we suggested the coup … I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference … I was shocked by the death of Diêm and Nhu … The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether … public opinion in Saigon … will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not-too-distant future.

Kennedy did not live to learn the answer to his question. He was murdered in Dallas 18 days later.

Lyndon Johnson inherited both the presidency and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vietnam. As vice president, he had opposed the Diêm coup, and he now dreaded being drawn more deeply into the conflict. He hoped the South Vietnamese would “get off their butts and get out in those jungles and whip hell out of some Communists,” he told an aide. “And then I want ’em to leave me alone, because I’ve got some bigger things to do right here at home.” Yet, like Kennedy, he allowed political calculations to affect his approach to the war.

It was not until the 1990s that most of the Johnson recordings began to be processed, digitized, and made accessible to the public—they are still not fully transcribed, and some remain classified. But the 700 mesmerizing hours of tape that are available cast new light on the inner workings of his presidency. In public, Johnson confidently reassured the country that the war in Vietnam was going well. Privately, his frustrations and misgivings were on excruciating display. In May 1964, less than six months before the presidential election, Johnson confessed to National-Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy that he did not know what to do.

johnson: I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing—the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell … It looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed … I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.

bundy: It is, it’s an awful mess …

johnson: I just thought about ordering those kids in there, and what in the hell am I ordering [them] out there for?

bundy: One thing that has occurred to me—

johnson: What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country? …

bundy: Yup. Yup.

johnson: Now, of course, if you start running the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

bundy: Yup. That’s the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us …

johnson: It’s damned easy to get in a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.

Johnson’s doubts about whether the war was winnable or worth fighting persisted throughout his presidency. But he could not countenance being seen as the first commander in chief to lose a war. In 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the president that even if he committed more men, the chances of victory were no better than one in three. Johnson still decided to escalate.

As American casualties mounted and news filtered back home that the war was not going nearly as well as the White House had been claiming, the public’s faith in Johnson began to wane. Politicians and journalists described a “credibility gap”—the space between the president’s assertions and the facts on the ground. Skepticism eventually gave way to disillusionment with the presidency itself.Richard Nixon’s presidency carried that process of disillusionment much further. Nixon’s fondness for audio recordings is notorious. We rightly remember that it was transcripts revealing the president’s crude, cutthroat willingness to conceal his crimes that shocked the nation and forced him from office. But we often forget that the war and the Watergate scandal were inextricably intertwined. Before the White House Plumbers botched the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, they attempted to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, by stealing files from his psychiatrist’s office.

When audio of the Nixon tapes eventually became public in 1980—2,658 of the 3,400 hours are now accessible—Americans could hear for themselves just how cynically the president had approached the war. On tape, he is frequently ruthless, amoral, and self-interested. Nixon had promised peace with honor, but as he weighed the consequences of American withdrawal, chief among his concerns was the potential effect on his reelection in 1972 if Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, returned to this worry again and again, including on May 29, 1971, in a conversation not released to the public until 1999:

kissinger: The only problem is to prevent the collapse in ’72 … If it’s got to go to the Communists, it’d be better to have it happen in the first six months of the new term than have it go on and on and on.

nixon: Sure.

kissinger: I’m being very cold-blooded about it.

nixon: I know exactly what we’re up to …

kissinger: But on the other hand, if Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam go down the drain in September ’72, then they’ll say you went into these … You spoiled so many lives, just to wind up where you could’ve been in the first year.

nixon: Yeah.

The revelations of the Nixon tapes destroyed his presidency and further eroded American faith in the office itself. The presidents of the post-Vietnam era have never managed to fully restore that faith, and lately, it seems, confidence in the chief executive is at a new low, even if tape recorders are no longer running in the Oval Office.

But we needn’t succumb to the cynicism often on display in the Vietnam recordings. The war may have robbed America of its innocence, but it also reminded us that the duty of citizens in a democracy is to be skeptical—not to worship our leaders, who have always been fallible, but to question their decisions, challenge their policies, and hold them accountable for their failures.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/how-americans-lost-faith-in-the-presidency/537897/

Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust

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American soldiers watching helicopters landing as part of Operation Pershing in South Vietnam in 1967. CreditPatrick Christain/Getty Images

“THE NEW YORK TIMES” By

“America didn’t just lose the war, and the lives of 58,000 young men and women; Vietnam changed us as a country. For many people, it eroded the notion, once nearly universal, that part of being an American was serving your country.

It made us cynical and distrustful of our institutions, especially of government.

In the early spring of 1967, I was in the middle of a heated 2 a.m. hallway discussion with fellow students at Yale about the Vietnam War. I was from a small town in Oregon, and I had already joined the Marine Corps Reserve. My friends were mostly from East Coast prep schools. One said that Lyndon B. Johnson was lying to us about the war. I blurted out, “But … but an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!” They all burst out laughing.

When I told that story to my children, they all burst out laughing, too. Of course presidents lie. All politicians lie. God, Dad, what planet are you from?

Before the Vietnam War, most Americans were like me. After the Vietnam War, most Americans are like my children.

But not everything about the war was negative. As a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, I saw how it threw together young men from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and forced them to trust one another with their lives. It was a racial crucible that played an enormous, if often unappreciated, role in moving America toward real integration.

And yet even as Vietnam continues to shape our country, its place in our national consciousness is slipping. Some 65 percent of Americans are under 45 and so unable to even remember the war. Meanwhile, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our involvement in Syria, our struggle with terrorism — these conflicts are pushing Vietnam further into the background.

All the more reason, then, for us to revisit the war and its consequences for today. This essay inaugurates a new series by The Times, Vietnam ’67, that will examine how the events of 1967 and early 1968 shaped Vietnam, America and the world. Hopefully, it will generate renewed conversation around that history, now half a century past.

What readers take away from that conversation is another matter. If all we do is debate why we lost, or why we were there at all, we will miss the truly important question: What did the war do to us as Americans?

CYNICISM

Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying in the war: the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, the number of “pacified provinces” (and what did “pacified” mean, anyway?), the inflated body counts.

People talked about Johnson’s “credibility gap.” This was a genteel way of saying that the president was lying. Then, however, a credibility gap was considered unusual and bad. By the end of the war, it was still considered bad, but it was no longer unusual. When politicians lie today, fact checkers might point out what is true, but then everyone moves on.

We have switched from naïveté to cynicism. One could argue that they are opposites, but I think not. With naïveté you risk disillusionment, which is what happened to me and many of my generation. Cynicism, however, stops you before you start. It alienates us from “the government,” a phrase that today connotes bureaucratic quagmire. It threatens democracy, because it destroys the power of the people to even want to make change.

You don’t finish the world’s largest highway system, build huge numbers of public schools and universities, institute the Great Society, fight a major war, and go to the moon, which we did in the 1960s — simultaneously — if you’re cynical about government and politicians.

I live near Seattle, hardly Donald J. Trump territory. Most of my friends cynically deride Mr. Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, citing all that was wrong in the olden days. Indeed, it wasn’t paradise, particularly for minorities. But there’s some truth to it. We were greater then. It was the war — not liberalism, not immigration, not globalization — that changed us.

RACE

In December 1968, I was on a blasted and remote jungle hilltop about a kilometer from the demilitarized zone. A chopper dropped off about three weeks of sodden mail and crumpled care packages. In that pile was a package for Ray Delgado, an 18-year-old Hispanic kid from Texas. I watched Ray tear into the aluminum foil wrapping and, smiling broadly, hold something up for me to see.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s tamales. From my mother.”

“What are tamales?”

“You want to try one?” he asked.

“Sure.” I looked at it, turned it over, then stuck it in my mouth and started chewing. Ray and his other Hispanic friends were barely containing themselves as I was gamely chewing away and thinking, “No wonder these Mexicans have such great teeth.”

Photo

Karl Marlantes at home in Oregon just before shipping out to Vietnam in 1968.

“Lieutenant,” Ray finally said. “You take the corn husk off.”

I was from a logging town on the Oregon coast. I’d heard of tamales, but I’d never seen one. Until I joined my company of Marines in Vietnam, I’d never even talked to a Mexican. Yes, people like me called people like Ray “Mexicans,” even though they were as American as apple pie — and tamales. Racial tension where I grew up was the Swedes and Norwegians squaring off against the Finns every Saturday night in the parking lot outside the dance at the Labor Temple.

President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military in 1948. By the time of the Vietnam War, the races were serving together. But putting everyone in the same units is very different than having them work together as a unit.

Our national memory of integration is mostly about the brave people of the civil rights movement. Imagine arming all those high school students from Birmingham, Ala. — white and black — with automatic weapons in an environment where using these weapons was as common as having lunch and they are all jacked up on testosterone. That’s racial tension.

During the war there were over 200 fraggings in the American military — murders carried out by fragmentation grenades, which made it impossible to identify the killer. Almost all fraggings, at least when the perpetrator was caught, were found to be racially motivated.

And yet the more common experience in combat was cooperation and respect. If I was pinned down by enemy fire and I needed an M-79 man, I’d scream for Thompson, because he was the best. I didn’t even think about what color Thompson was.

White guys had to listen to soul music and black guys had to listen to country music. We didn’t fear one another. And the experience stuck with us. Hundreds of thousands of young men came home from Vietnam with different ideas about race — some for the worse, but most for the better. Racism wasn’t solved in Vietnam, but I believe it was where our country finally learned that it just might be possible for us all to get along.

SERVICE

I was at a reading recently in Fayetteville, N.C., when a young couple appeared at the signing table. He was standing straight and tall in Army fatigues. She was holding a baby in one arm and hauling a toddler with the other. They both looked to be about two years out of high school. The woman started to cry. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “My husband is shipping out again, tomorrow.” I turned to him and said, “Wow, your second tour?”

“No, sir,” he replied. “My seventh.”

My heart sank. Is this a republic?

The author and veteran Karl Marlantes discusses the legacy of the Vietnam War in a clip from “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September.Video by PBS

The Vietnam War ushered in the end of the draft, and the creation of what the Pentagon calls the “all-volunteer military.” But I don’t. I call it the all-recruited military. Volunteers are people who rush down to the post office to sign up after Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center gets bombed. Recruits, well, it’s more complicated.

When I was growing up, almost every friend’s father or uncle had served in World War II. All the women in town knew that a destroyer was smaller than a cruiser and a platoon was smaller than a company, because their husbands had all been on destroyers or in platoons. Back then it was called “the service.” Today, we call it “the military.”

That shift in language indicates a profound shift in the attitudes of the republic toward its armed forces. The draft was unfair. Only males got drafted. And men who could afford to go to college did not get drafted until late in the war, when the fighting had fallen off.

But getting rid of the draft did not solve unfairness.

America’s elites have mostly dropped out of military service. Engraved on the walls of Woolsey Hall at Yale are the names of hundreds of Yalies who died in World Wars I and II. I counted three who died in Vietnam and none since.

Instead, the American working class has increasingly borne the burden of death and casualties since World War II. In a study in The University of Memphis Law Review, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen looked at the income casualty gap, the difference between the median household incomes (in constant 2000 dollars) of communities with the highest casualties (the top 25 percent) and all the other communities. Starting from almost dead-even in World War II, the casualty gap was $5,000 in the Korean War, $8,200 in the Vietnam War, and is now more than $11,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, the lowest three income deciles have suffered 50 percent more casualties than the highest three.

If these inequities continue to grow, resentment will grow with it. With growing resentment, the already wide divide between the military and civilians will also widen. This is how republics fall, with armies and parts of the country more loyal to their commander than their country.

We need to return to the spirit of the military draft, and how people felt about service to their country. The military draft was viewed by most of us the same way we view income tax. I wouldn’t pay my taxes if there wasn’t the threat of jail. But as a responsible citizen, I also see that paying taxes is necessary to fund the government — my government.

People would still grumble. We grumble about taxes. People would still try to pull strings to get more pleasant assignments. But everyone would serve. They’d work for “the government,” and maybe start to see it as “our government.” It’s a lot harder to be cynical about your country if you devoted two years of your life making it a better place.

Let the armed services be just one of many ways young people can serve their country. With universal service, some boy from Seattle could find himself sharing a tamale with some Hispanic girl from El Paso. Conservatives and liberals would learn to work together for a common cause. We could return to the spirit of people of different races learning to work together in combat during the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War continues to define us, even if we have forgotten how. But it’s not too late to remember, and to do something about it.”