Friday, August 7, 2009
The Vietnam War: “Save your luck , your ammo and your blood for when it really counts.”
By Richard K. Munro
Who was to blame for the Vietnam debacle? Some blame LBJ –he must bear the most responsibility- but others blame Nixon for ‘lengthening the war.” There is no question that commitments of prior presidents ‘set the trap’ of the Vietnam-Indochina quagmire. The roots of the disaster go back to France’s colonial past and France’s defeat in WWII. But the US involvement was a direct result of US foreign policy from Truman to Ford.
After WWII the French returned to reoccupy Indochina which had been “liberated” by the Japanese during WWII. The French Army was not particularly well equipped and they scraped the bottom of the barrel for recruits. Some of their Legionnaires were former German soldiers and it was no uncommon for French soldiers to be partially disabled (one eyed or one armed) and still be on active service. Nonetheless, the Truman Doctrine gave military aid to France and NATO helped secure the French homeland. This enabled France to attempt to reassert its colonial rule. But this time the French were facing well-equipped and highly motivated Communist insurgents. Things went from bad to worse for the French and in 1954 they were utterly defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower refused to send US troops at that time since he had just ended the Korean War and wisely did not want the US to get involved in another land war on the mainland of Asia. At the Geneva Conference of 1954 France gave up Indochina which was slit it three countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (North and South). The division of Vietnam was ‘temporary ‘ awaiting elections (never held). In the meantime Ho Chi Minh solidified his Communist dictatorship in the North. Though the USA did not send combat troops in the 1950’s Eisenhower gave over 1 billion dollars in aid to South Vietnam. The justification had its roots in Truman’s policy of containment and the ‘domino theory.” The rational was we had to contain Communism in South East Asia or Indonesia, Malaya , Singapore and Australia were at risk. Secretary of State Dulles put together SEATO (now defunct). The US had few allies in Vietnam. Australian and South Korea were the only allied nations to send significant troop support. Britain, France and USA’s NATO allies stood apart; in fact many of them traded food , fuel and war materiel to North Vietnam. North Vietnam would receive massive support from the Soviet Union and Red China (including hundreds of thousands of “volunteer” laborers who freed North Vietnamese from the fields to fight). President Kennedy followed the example of Truman and Eisenhoer and by 1963 he had sent 16,000 US troops to South Vietnam, chiefly advisors and trainers. On November 2, 1963, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were arrested and murdered by ARVN military army officers. It appears this coup had the backing of the CIA. Kennedy had declared in an interview, “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists... But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.... [The United States] made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate—we may not like it—in the defense of Asia.” We can never know if Kennedy would have sent combat troops to South Vietnam in 1965 as LBJ later did.. But one can make a case –since Kennedy had refused to send the Marines to Cuba- that Kennedy would not have risked the unpopularity of a major war so far from the centers of power. We do know that Kennedy was a strong anti-Communist and believed in counter insurgency and supported the strengthening of US Army Special Forces (nicknamed the Green Berets).
Upon the assassination of Kennedy himself, November 22, 1963 Lyndon Johnson became president. In retrospect, it is ironic that LBJ becamse so closely identified with the Vietnam war because he ran as the “peace candidate” against Barry Goldwater who was depicted as an extreme hardliner. It appears that LBJ was ready, willing and able to intervene in South Vietnam militarily as soon as he had a causus belli.. There was a naval incident with the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin August 2, 1964. The Maddox had been scouting North Vietnamese waters and the North Vietnamese apparently responded with an attack on the US vessel. Within hours LBJ launched retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam. this sparked the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution August 7 1964. It passed 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate. The only two Senators to vote against the resolution were Sen. Wayne Morris (D-Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska.). Gruening prophetically said the resolution was a “predated declaration of war”. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution empowered president Johnson to “repel attacks” on US forces to “prevent further aggression.” Later critics of the wr would call the full-scale use of military forces ‘illegal” because war was never declared by Congress.
LBJ’s policy was to strengthen ARVN by first increasing its air cover. This led to the need of larger US airbases on Vietnamese soil and of course to provide security for these bases the US began to expand its ground forces (called ‘escalation”) in South Vietnam 1964-1965. The US began Operation Rolling Thunder to begin carpet bombing of North Vietnam with B-52’s. But bombings were limited for political reasons; Haiphone Harbor was never mined or blockades and many critical dikes were also not bombed. LBJ’s policy seemed to be “show the flag , spill blood and hang tough.” LBJ may have made a critical mistake by not declaring a State of Emergency or war. One result was that US Forces were filled with many short term draftees; as much as 1/3 of US combat forces in the Army would be lost each year. By 1965 there were 184,000 US troops in Vietnam. As the ARVN forces seemed incapable of stopping Vietcong attacks of US Air bases and South Vietnamese cities, president Johnson sent US Marines and US Army combat units.. The first major battle between US Forces and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN plus Vietcong units) was in November 14-18, 1965 in the Ia Drang Vallley.. The US forces came within an inch of being wiped out but were saved by heavily artillery and air support. It is significant that the ARVN (South Vietnamese) forces scarcely played any role in the battle. By 1967 there were 485,000 troops in Vietnam and by March 1969 (the Nixon presidency) there were 540,000. President Nixon soon withdrew the US Marines and began a policy of “Vietnamization”.
The American people supported containment from the 1940’s until 1960’s but from the very star there was a “credibility gap” because LBJ was not completely honest with the American people about the economic cost (over $100 billion dollars and the effectiveness of the US campaign. The can be no question television played a part in demoralizing the American people into believing the war was unwinnable. The economic cost caused high interest rates, inflation and higher taxes. It could be argued serious long-term economic damage to the USA., The draft was unfair because ‘college deferments’ meant middle and upper class American males could avoid military service. The abolition of the college deferment led to widespread unrest on US campus in 1968-1969. The American people began to become divided into ‘Hawks” (who were anti-Communist and supported the war) and Doves (peaceniks who favored ending the war immediately) . The turning point was the TET OFFENSIVE of January 31, 1968. Though the attack was thrown back –with great difficulty- Tet resulted as a political victory for the Vietcong.. There is no question LBJ rapidly lost popularity because of the war especially within the Democratic party. LBJ had won in a landslide in 1964 but my 1968 his popularity was rated at 16% by some polls. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn) opposed LBJ, and though LBJ won the New Hampshire primary in March 1965 McCarthy won 42% of the vote. Soon after Robert Kennedy entered the race. On March 31, 1968, LBJ went on live television to announce that he would not run for reelection. In May 1968 Johnson announced that peace falks would begin in Paris. Meanwhile, Kennedy won a series of primaries culminating in his June 1968 primary win but tragically was assassinated shortly there after. The split in the Democratic party led to chaos in the 1968 Democratic Convention and Hubert Humphrey was picked as a ‘compromise candidate”. Richard Nixon running as a peace candidate “with a secret plan to end the war” won in a very close election primarily because George Wallace siphoned off millions of votes in the South that had voted form LBJ previously. Nixon’s election changed US policy in Vietnam and gradually the US began withdrawing combat forces though briefly the USA surpassed 500,000 troops in March 1968. Nixon won re-election in 1972 over a dovish candidate named George McGovern. Nixon continued Johnson’s policy of peace talks but they dragged on successfully for over three years. Secretary of State Kissinger warned the North Vietnamese that there would be ‘grave consequences” if they failed to conclude the peace talks. The Vietnamese communists remained intransigent and Nixon responded with the “Christmas Bombings” (Operation Linebacker) 18th of December to the 29th 1972. Over 30 US bombers were lost, chiefly to Soviet built SAM-2 missiles. Talks resumed in January 1973 and President Nixon ordered all US offense operations to cease. The US gradually and peacefully withdrew its forces. Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, though in retrospect it was somewhat of a booby prize, in my opionion. But Nixon would not be at the helm as his presidency ended in disgrace due to the Watergate scandal; on August 9, 1974 Nixon resigned. and President Ford became president. After the elections of November 1974 the Democrats once again held a big majority in the House and Senate. In January 1975 North Vietname under its gifted General Giap launched an all out offensive in South Vietnam. Without US ground forces the ARVN forces, despite some desperate stands by ARVN Marines, South Vietnam collapsed. It was 1965 all over again except this time there were no US Army or US Marine combat brigades to stop the offensive. Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) fell on April 30, 1973. The photographs of the US evacuating the US embassy by helicopter are iconic More than 58,000 American servicemen and women lost their lives from 1959-1973 and in addition more than 300,000 Americans were wounded many critically. I visited Walter Reed hospital in 1976 and there were still war casualties in the hospital still in comas or in serious condition. When the war ended the official death count was 55,000 but over the years that number has inched up as hospitalized soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines succumb to their wounds. Over three million Vietnamese were killed in the war. Over 125,000 South Vietnamese fled Vietnam in April 1975. to settle in the USA. In the following years over 500,000 Vietnamese would flee from Vietnam to the USA.
The history of the Vietnam War is very instructive. There is no question it was a lesson as to the limits of US power. Many presidents both Republican and Democrat contributed to the debacle. It was a big mistake to impose an weak and unsatisfactory regime in South Vietnam without much popular support. It was a big mistake to fight the war as a police action with limited international support. It was a big mistake not to declare a state of emergency or war and to try to fight a difficult war with marginally motivated short-term draftees. It was a big mistake to fight such a limited war without and clear objectives or goals. In subsequent wars the USA has been more successful because they rely on a smaller but highly trained all volunteer professional force. It was a mistake to wage war in Vietnam because Vietnam was far from the centers of power. One could argue that US Naval and Air Power could have contained the Communist movement to the mainland without a land intervention.. The social and economic costs of the Vietnam War were very great. Never again will there be a near unanimous vote for military intervention as there was in 1964; the unanimity on foreign policy caused by WWII and the Cold War was smashed by the tensions of the war. It can be argued that the bitter divisions caused by the war are still festering in the early 21st century. Both parties are to blame but I remain firmly convinced that the true architect of the defeat was President Johnson. For this reason and for the economic and social damage caused by the war, I rate LBJ as one of the worst presidents of the 20th century. Kennedy and the presidents prior to him had only sent limited forces and no combat troops. President Nixon gradually withdrew US combat forces in a war as to avoid a massacre or defeat of US forces on the ground. President Ford was helpless in face of Congressional opposition to do anything to stop the final Communist offensive. If the Vietnam War teaches us anything it teaches us that war is a tricky, dangerous and expensive proposition. Do not shed your blood and your treasure until the issue at hand is truly critical and threatens the national security of your nation. Save your luck , your ammo and your blood for when it really counts.