A bit of history as to how the whole thing started….and a bit more
As I understand it, the history of the Vietnam War is rarely taught anymore in schools and when it is taught, the version told is slanted to the left hand side of politics. The protesters were driven by a higher sense of morality, the soldiers were driven by misguided ideals, ending up as crazy drug addicts and American politicians were driven by power hungry ambitions. One just might think that one morning a grumpy Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) woke up and decided to send 500,000 America soldiers to Vietnam on a whim, all against the will of the vast majority of Americans.
The truth is a lot messier than that.
One of the recurring problems when one studies any controversial historical matter is that the facts as they are known and available can keep changing over a long period of time. This is especially an issue where there are issues of National Security involved which will delay the release of information, many times for as much as 50 years. This is true of the Cold War, the McCarthy period, the internal workings of each President’s administration and the Vietnam War as examples. When it comes to the internal actions and discussions that involve an American President, much is shrouded in secrecy for a long time due to regulations that shield documents from release for periods up to 50+ years. As a consequence, all too often, an historical narrative gets decided upon in the early aftermath of the events that is sorta set in concrete and this is never revisited in later years as additional information is made available. The most recent example: we are just now beginning to see the internal workings of the Kennedy administration. Everything interesting and/or confidential or even embarrassing after that is sealed away.
A few examples:
- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 as traitors while many believed that they were framed and were innocent. They were convicted of passing Atomic secrets to the Soviets. The fact that they were Jewish seems to have puzzled many to no end, but that makes perfectly good sense if you know some real history (more on that below). Many years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the public release of records of the Communist Party, we find out they they were awarded medals by Stalin for the work they did, which of course was passing samples of materials and other scientific information along. With the release of the Soviet records, even their children had to accept the guilt of their parents, something they have denied for decades. The most recent revelations from the Eisenhower records also show that the evidence presented against Ethel was highly tainted by her brother who, in essence, sacrificed her only to protect his own wife. Ethel was innocent, Julius was guilty.
- Alger Hiss, one of President Roosevelt’s most senior advisors, was convicted as a Soviet spy as well. But, that could not possibly be true since it was that dastardly Richard Nixon who was instrumental on getting him exposed and eventually convicted (of perjury not espionage). He professed his ignorance until his dying day. Well, it turns out, that when the Venona project was made public, that we had encrypted messages that demonstrate his guilt as well as other corroborating information from Soviet sources. If you never heard of Venona, you are a poster child for the point I’m making. A bit more about Venona below. It remains one of history’s enduring mysteries as to how Hiss ended up at the Yalta conference as one of Roosevelt’s key advisors. But it is certain that he was able to tell the Russians just what the American bargaining positions were and how to coopt them.
- When Dwight Eisenhower left office his presidency was considered something of a non-event and he was rated at the time as something like number 25 in the list of important American Presidents. As his presidential papers have been declassified and examined again, in 2018 his consensus rating among historians had risen to #5 in that list of effective and important Presidents (after Lincoln, Washington and 2 Roosevelts). Seems that Ike did a rather superior performance as a “Hidden Hand” and made every effort (too successful perhaps for the time) to hide his immediate impact and leadership. The fact that he got us through the height of the Cold War without firing a shot or losing a single solder’s life helps a bit. It’s worth noting that he managed to get passed the first Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction, desegregated the military and the District of Columbia. You see his name any time you travel an interstate highway…”The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.”
- Joe McCarthy…the McCarthy Period, is my favorite tho. We all know that Crazy Joe was an alarmist and a drunk and completely off base when it came to the threat from Communism. Well, he certainly was a drunk….But, as the declassified records of the US Government, the records of the Communist Party of the United States and the Venona papers were to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt, he was wrong…but only in the sense that he had only a small clue as to the significance and depth of the threat. The fact is that there was a greater penetration of the US Government than he had any idea of. His real problem is that he chose the wrong targets most of the time, especially when he went after the US Army. The internal records from the Eisenhower years also provides the details as to just how Ike labored to isolate and eventually destroy McCarthy, something he did not get credit for at the time.
BTW – If the Venona Project does not ring a bell, it is one of the very best examples of secrets kept long and well which when finally made public shed light where there was only darkness before. Worth a few minutes of your time to learn about. In summary, the Venona project was a super-secret project in the government to decipher messages sent by the Soviets, usually from and to their embassies in the US. The Soviets had engineered what was essentially an unbreakable code system with which to encrypt their messages….that is, until and unless they got careless. Their confidence in the system was such that they did not even try to hide the messages as they were sent in plain text after encryption. But they did sometimes get careless which allowed some of the message texts to be decoded. The project ran for 20+ years and provided an unprecedented view into their activities. One can find a more detailed description of the program in the Wiki page for the topic.
A somewhat off-topic digression related to the Rosenbergs: As I stated above, it was surprising and seemingly impossible that these 2 individuals could have been members of the Communist Party and spies for the Soviet Union. One of the key reasons for that conclusion was simply the fact that they were practicing Jews and that appeared to be such a contradiction as to make the charge impossible. But, lets step back a bit and take a look at the state of the world in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
There were 5 major countries at the time and in alphabetical order they were: France, Germany, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, list these same countries in a different order: their intolerance (aka antisemitism).
The absolute worst was France. It was still recovering from the impact of what is known as “The Dreyfus Affair” which involved the framing of a Jew, who was an exemplary member of the French Army, as a German spy who was convicted and was sent to Devil’s Island and only released when the true facts of how the military framed him were finally revealed. The stain of antisemitism ran deep in France, so much so that when Hitler conquered France in the Second World War and wanted the Jews rounded up in Paris, it was the French police who did the dirty work for them, not the Gestapo. You will not find that in any French history book. In all the postage stamps released by the French boasting about their heroes in the war, there is no mention of the collaboration nor of the Jewish victims. Take a look at current headlines and you will continue to see the continuing evidence of the strain of hatred that still runs deep in France.
Closely following was Germany. The rise and acceptance of Hitler is clear evidence of that. In the late 1930’s and 1940’s they were certainly worse than France. Hitler simply drew upon the German frustrations that grew out of their treatment after the First World War which he blamed upon the Jews. It was an article of faith in the Nazi world that the loss in the first world war were due in large part to the work of the Jews as they were incapable of accepting the fact that their “invincible” army could suffer defeat otherwise. All of this runs consistently thru all the writings and speeches of Hitler.
Surprise #1: The next worst was the United States. While Jews were generally tolerated, there was a long history of antisemitism in America. In a 3-volumn study of the experiences of the Jews in America (found in New Mexico while on vacation), we find that in the early days of the Republic, there was no animosity against Jews as evidenced by letters from leaders such as George Washington. Later, with the mass emigration from European nations in the latter part of the 1800’s, their antisemitism was one of the imports they brought with them. By the start of the 1900’s, there was a recurring theme that the Jews had come to control too much of the American economy and the country turned decidedly against the Jews. True, Presidents like Wilson and Roosevelt had included Jews in their administration but the world has a 2000 year history of governments using the intelligence and management skills of Jews when it served their purposes. That terrible racist film, “Birth of a Nation” was first screened in Wilson’s White House. Franklin Roosevelt knew well what was going on in Europe and the Death Camps; he was personally briefed by eye witnesses, complete with pictures. Yet, he refused to allocate a single aircraft to interdict or destroy the means the Germans had for transporting Jews to the camps. To him, No Jew was worth the risk of a single American airman or aircraft. George W. Bush, on a visit to one of the camps was brought to tears and stated that “they should have bombed the railroads”, or words to that effect. An entire ship of refugees fleeing Europe was turned away from New York on Federal orders…returning to Europe where all were sent to the death camps. Some of this serves to explain the guilt we as Americans felt after the war was over and the brutal facts were made public. We owe an eternal debt to General Eisenhower for making these facts immediately public and forcing the press to report them.
A safer place for Jews was Great Britain. Over the centuries, there had been an up and down attitude to the Jews but in general, there was no governmental prejudice against Jews in Britain. The Brits had an empire that spanned the globe and while there were certainly themes of racism present, there were no historical periods where they had expelled the Jews or formally treated them as less than human. Keep in mind that it was the British, and especially the British Navy, that went to war to shut down the slave trade, long before the American Civil War, something is usually forgotten but remains one of the greatest moral acts in world history. Later it was the British, led by Lord Balfour who pressed for and helped create the modern state of Israel.
And a final surprise: the least antisemitic nation of the 5 was the Soviet Union. It may seem at first that this makes little sense as the Communist theory rejects religion and the Jews generally practice their religion. But, while rejecting religion as “the opiate of the masses”, Marxism is remarkably free of racism and antisemitism. This was, in fact, one of their main attractions and one that was celebrated in their literature, propaganda and even on their postage stamps. One of Lenin’s and Stalin’s closest allies was Leon Trotsky who was Jewish. He was later expelled for ideological reasons and murdered in Mexico on Stalin’s orders but that had nothing to do with his ethnicity or religion.The fact that Marx rejected racism and antisemitism is perhaps all the more surprising as Czarist Russia was rife with both. From Czarist Russia came the source for the volumn known as “The Protocols Of Zion” which is one of the most obscene texts ever published and which is revered in many Muslim nations as a true story. It is worth repeating that the lack of racism or prejudice in Marxism has always been one of the most attractive features of the philosophy, especially to people in the less-developed parts of the world.
So, put yourself in the position of an American Jew in the 1920’s and 30’s at the depths of the Great Depression. You live in a nation that is generally hostile to your kind and distrusts you. The economic system that you have lived within has crashed and burned with 25% of the population unemployed and many starving. Income and welfare distribution looks unfair at its core with no hope of a resolution or correction. As something of what passes at that time as an intellectual, you have read the Communist Manifesto and the works of Karl Marx (I have read them, have you?….just asking). Is it any wonder that many would be drawn to a political system that promised economic equality with no accompanying racism or antisemitism? Granted that the promise and the reality of Stalin’s rule are quite different but you are not aware of that since the harsh truth of the Soviet system never gets out. You never know that Stalin has and will murder 25 million of his people…something not known until much later.
So many Jewish intellectuals and scientists are brought to the conclusion that the Communist system is a better system than Capitalism. Some of these are the men and women that will later be caught up in the dragnet of the McCarthy period and who will deny their affiliations, only to admit the truth on or near their deathbeds. Among them also are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They are among the scientists working in the Manhattan project and when it becomes clear that the US has turned against the Soviets and will not share their discoveries, decide to take matters into their hands and cooperate with other Soviet spies and transfer information, equations and even bomb material to the Soviets. For that they were caught, tried and executed.
So…it is not such a mystery after all when you know the full story…..
And so it is with the true (or truer if you prefer) history of how we happened to get ourselves involved in Vietnam. What is overlooked for the most part is an old saying: “The Victor writes the History” and this is true with Vietnam. You see, we’re not the only country that has museums and archives…the Vietnamese (The North Vietnamese at the time) do as well. Much of their written records has been made available for study since relations were “normalized” during the Clinton Presidency. They also have museums, document archives and monuments that are public. And all of these have provided a window into their actions, motivations and thinking. A few folks have taken a deep dive into those records and provided a more accurate record of events. The book “Triumph Forsaken” spells out the findings in the most thorough manner that I have as yet encountered.
One aside – Some of those Vietnamese museums had to be “sanitized” when John Kerry became the Democratic nominee for President to run against George Bush. It was not considered “politically correct” for them to be praising him (and Hanoi Jane and others) for all the moral support and assistance he gave to their efforts to turn the public against the war. That notorious picture of Jane Fonda sitting in an Anti-Aircraft battery wondering where the American planes were had to go as well. No fear, I have copies along with the audio recording of her comments….the traitor cannot hide from the truth.
And what about that John Kerry fellow? Was he not treated badly by those “Swift Boat” folks? Was he not a hero with medals to prove it. Again, the truth is a tad more complicated.
I should add that when Kerry announced his intention to run for the Presidency, that I was hit with the scary thought: “How could I vote against the first, and likely only, Vietnam Vet to run for the Presidency”. After all, his opponent was a man who at best had used family connections to place himself into a situation that just about guaranteed that he would not server overseas…..And then along came the “Swifties”…
As starters, the normal tour in Vietnam for an Army soldier was 12 months. John Kerry served only 5 months. His tour was shortened by the fact that the rules stated that a person was sent home if and when they earned 3 Purple Hearts. Hope you say the movie Forrest Gump…remember that he was hit in the “buttocks”? Well much the same happened to Kerry, but (no pun intended) it was a self-inflicted wound.
In fact, 2 of those Purple Hearts were self-inflicted wounds and there were reliable witnesses to both whose testimony was never questioned or doubted. In the first case, on a training mission, he was spooked and shot a grenade launcher at a rock which sent a rock splinter into his hand. He applied for a Purple Heart and was laughed at but somehow managed to get one anyway. How that happened is unknown as he has never allowed his military records to be examined although on at least 5 times he committed to their release to the public.
In the second case, he threw a grenade into a bin containing rice and failed to get out of the way in time….his buns suffered as a result.
Finally it is worth noting that after the Kerry/Bush election, all of the charges made by the Swifties were examined as for reliability and with only a few minor exceptions, all that they accused Kerry of was demonstrated to be correct. I followed it pretty carefully as I was one of the first to pick up on their charges and among the first 100 person to make a donation to the group so that their video ads could be broadcast.
So…where do we start?
Well, we’ll start in 1887….long before LBJ became president.
In that year, the political unit known as French Indochina was officially formed from 3 separate geographical units in that region. The maneuverings and small wars that led up to this point can be left out, but even they can be traced as far back as the 17th century and are generally based upon “traditional” colonial interests related to trade and cheap goods and cheaper labor, sometimes of the slave variety. From this point forward, the French gradually expanded their reach and control over the region until it included what are presently the nations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Fast forward to 1939 when the Germans defeat the French in World War 2 at which point the effective control of the region fell to the Japanese, which continues until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Personal note: I have postage stamps from this region and times
Throughout this entire time period, there had been periodic attempts at revolutions driven by a desire for independence from France and later from Japan.These became more intense after 1945, in part due to the intense and harsh treatment of the population by the Japanese. Further complicating matters was the attempted re-imposition of French colonial rule, after all, they wanted to maintain their “empire”. Things got rather complicated with interventions by the Chinese, French and actions by the Japanese to split up French Indochina into the independent countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It was during this time that we first hear of Ho Chi Minh as a leader of a group opposed to the Japanese (and supported by the United States) and his creation of an independence movement.
Over time, Ho Chi Minh and his Communist movement grew in strength and gained the recognition of China and the Soviet Union. His revolution culminated in the final defeat of the French forces in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Pho. It’s worth noting that as the French became more and more desperate in their attempts to defeat the insurgents, they turned to the US for assistance. The US President, Dwight Eisenhower, was agreeable to help and even contemplated the possible use of Atomic weapons….but with one major demand – that when the conflict was over, that the French would grant independence to their colony in the South. The French refused the condition, determined to retain their “empire”…. they lost the war and the “rest is history”. I personally know one person who traveled to Saigon as a part of the effort required to allow the bombers with their A-Bombs to successfully navigate to the area. I personally know another person who has seen the plans that were drawn up by the military for the effort…still a classified document. One bit of enormous irony – Eisenhower conferred with Congress about the possibility of intervention and one of his strongest opponents was the Majority Leader in the Senate…Lyndon Johnson.
Side note related to Eisenhower and Atomic weapons. It has often been reported that Ike had opposed the use of the A-Bomb against Japan at the end of the Second World war and this then leads to the conclusion that he opposed them in general. While his opposition to the use in Japan is certainly validated in the Eisenhower records, it usually leaves out the reason why…..he opposed their use against a purely civilian target…he was fine with their use if the target was a military one. He simply saw them as a bigger bomb, nothing more or less with useful military uses.
That fact was amply demonstrated by the threats he made to use Atomic weapons if needed to break the stalemate of the Korean war. He personally visited Korea after his election and vowed that the US would not tolerate the continuation of the trench warfare indefinitely. He made it very clear thru diplomatic channels that unless there was swift movement to resolve the conflict, he was prepared to use A-Bombs in Korea and even in China as needed. Noone dared to challenge his word and the negotiations quickly moved to seal the armistice. He certainly meant what he said when he said “Never fight a land war in Asia”, something Johnson never took to heart.
Back to the main thread…
Negotiations between the parties (France and the Communists) eventually culminated in 1954 with the Geneva Conference which created a partitioned Vietnam and a plan for elections in 1956 to decide unification of the North and South. The elections never took place as neither side was willing to take a chance on a defeat.
The North then began an effort to infiltrate and subvert the South, with the hope of an eventual forced unification. In the guerilla war that ensued, the North was successful for a time but the South, led by its President, a fellow named Ngô Đình Diệm, gradually gained the upper hand. The army in the south was getting some minor assistance from the US in the form of materials and a small group of Special Forces. The South Vietnamese army and its personnel were quite loyal to Diem and well led. In the personal papers of Ho Chi Minh, he recalls how he once imprisoned Diem and that he was the only person that Ho had any fear of. The records from the North show that they knew they were loosing and were moving to give up on the entire effort. The South was winning the war, the population was remaining loyal and there was no talk of a greater involvement by the US.
However, all that changed in November, 1963.
Diem was not popular, despised is a more accurate attitude, by the upper folks in the Kennedy administration. He was a Catholic in a Buddhist nation, did not believe in Freedom of the Press or Freedom of Speech or most other “Freedoms” as we have in the Bill of Rights, and was very harsh in the manner in which he handled criticism, especially from those Buddhist’s. He was not a “Liberal” when the US was being lead by folks who thought that all our friends should be just like us, or could be made into liberal democracies if we helped, demanded and pushed hard enough. Problem is that Diem knew his country and people better than we did by far and rejected the changes we demanded. That November it culminated in a coup, proposed in the Kennedy White House with Kennedy’s support and approval and engineered with the direct assistance of the CIA, which resulted in his removal from office and his murder.
Problem was – we had no idea of what would come next. There was no clear choice as to who would take his place and where they stood with respect to the war or how much authority they might be able to command or how the Army felt about them. As a consequence, a fatal power vacuum was created both in the Army and the Government.
Sound familiar? – How about Iraq?
For the next 2 years or so, the military situation deteriorated in the South and gradually swung to the favor of the North as the South’s army disintegrated as a consequence of poor leadership, corruption and frequent changes in all the leadership positions both in the Army and the government. No one who assumed power generated any confidence in the soldiers as a result of the rampant corruption…which Diem had controlled simply by killing those who played the corruption game. As I said, he was not the nicest guy in the world.
By this time Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and the situation was on his plate to handle.
Bottom line: we took a winning situation and blew it up in the name of “Nation Building”…and the rest is history.
I must add at this point that I had initially intended to stop this narrative at this point as progressing further into the story necessarily involves matters of controversy and emotion. But then, some of that has already been introduced. And the emotions remain as strong today as they were 25 or years ago. As I write this, 50 years ago precisely today, I was in Vietnam and as soldiers over the centuries have observed, a part of me remains there and always will.
So, lets start with an attempt to understand the actions of LBJ…..
It has been a consistent theme in the domestic political arena for as long as I can remember that the Democrats have been “soft” on our enemies, be they the Communists or Islamic terrorists. Without taking a position one way or another as to the accuracy of the charge, it is at least important to understand the root cause of the charge. And the root cause of this charge lies in the aftermath of World War 2.
It became clear fairly quickly after the end of the war that our relationship with the Soviet Union, and Communists in general, had to be seriously reevaluated as a consequence of their actions post-war. It was clear that we had a new adversary who wanted to harm us and that their political philosophy was aimed at our destruction. The first evidence of this was the outcome of events in China. The forces that we had supported against the Japanese, led by Chang Kai Shek, were soundly defeated by the Communists let by Mao Zedong, leading to a regime in China that was anti-American. As we had invested enormous resources in the success of Chang, it came as an abrupt shock that all of this had been lost. This was additionally painful given our total success in the last war. My own step-father had been one of the soldiers who was directly involved in that part of the war as he was a control tower operator at one of the air fields that supported the “Flying the Hump” operation. In my scrap books are pictures he took of an attack on his airfield by Japanese aircraft.
What resulted was best expressed in the rhetorical question “Who lost China?”, the answer to which was – the Democrats under Roosevelt and Truman. When the Chinese sent their army to fight and kill Americans in Korea, the charge took on very special meaning. The question and charge was to haunt domestic politics for several decades with echoes up to the present day.
Add to this some details related to Johnson personally. At the start of the war he was already in Texas politics and was one of the first, if not the first, member of the Congress to volunteer for duty. And he was awarded with a Silver Star, the second highest award for valor in combat. But here is where the story gets rather weird….Reports vary but the consensus of the events related to that award is as follows: his only first hand experience even remotely related to combat was as a member of a flight crew that was on a “joy ride” to make an observational pass over a Japanese held island in the Pacific. But, surprise, surprise, several Japanese fighter planes intercepted their aircraft, giving everyone a scare but causing no damage or injury. For that, simply being on the plane, taking no action himself, he was given a Silver Star…an action purely political in nature and wholly undeserved.
So, now back to the narrative….
From the murder of Diem in 1963 to mid-1964, the situation in South Vietnam had gradually deteriorated. President Eisenhower had warned about the effects of a Communist takeover in the region, a view that came to be known as the “Domino Theory” and LBJ was haunted by the thought that he might be the next to have the label “Who lost Asia” pinned on him. He needed an excuse to do something to reverse the trend and what is known as the “Tonkin Gulf Incident” gave him what he needed.
The US Navy had been performing intelligence patrols along the coast of North Vietnam for some time when the destroyer USS Maddox was approached and later attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo craft on 8/2/1964. While it is possible that the event was something of an accident of the wrong people being in the wrong place at the right time, there has never been any doubt that the US ships were in act attacked. The same is not true of a second supposed attack that occurred later which has been determined to be a hoax.
Johnson used the event to get Congressional authorization to use military force in South Vietnam, something that passed Congress by huge majorities and which became the legal basis for the subsequent war. The authorization was title the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” and Johnson used it to immediately begin a rapid increase in the number of US military personnel in the region.
On 2/7/1965, a US compound in the city of Pleiku was attacked by the Viet Cong, killing 9 Americans, injuring 128 and damaging or destroying 122 aircraft. The course of events was changed permanently as a result. On 3/9/1965 the first significant American ground forces, the US Marines landed at DaNang….
From here, the story becomes one of the progress (or lack thereof) of the war which is not of real interest on my part as we already know the end result. But I would like to speak to 3 separate issues and events that are of importance to this writer. These are:
- The racial aspect of the war
- The question of “could this war have been won”?
- The final betrayal