Harry R. Targ Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II MEP Publications, Minneapolis, 1986, 150-157.
(I was one of eight members of a socialist delegation to Vietnam in March, 2011. We visited the tunnel system used by the Vietnamese to escape U.S. military action and the “peace village” where victims of agent orange are cared for. Our travels took us to Sa Pa in the North, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue,’ and Ho Chi Minh City. We saw budding new societies, energetic young people, development projects everywhere, carefully documented celebrations of the Vietnamese culture of resistance and painful remembrances of the American war in Vietnam. The history below is a reminder of that war in the 1960s.)
The Vietnam War Escalates
The U.S. concern for the Third World in the 1960s is most brutally exemplified in its growing involvement in the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower years the United States replaced the French as the predominant colonial power in South Vietnam. What later became referred to as "America's commitment" resulted from the U.S. statement of respect for the Geneva Accords, the Eisenhower promise to aid Diem, the commitment to the security of Indochina in the SEATO treaty, and the full-scale military assistance received by Diem from 1955.
Kennedy acknowledged the escalating civil war in South Vietnam shortly upon taking office. Vice-President Johnson was sent to South Vietnam in May, 1961, to assess the progress of the counter guerrilla war there. He recommended that the United States continue its support to the Diem regime: “The basic question in South East Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a 'Fortress America' concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends” (Sheehan 129).
The Kennedy administration added four hundred Special Forces troops to the contingent in South Vietnam and one hundred civilian advisors to aid in setting up the "strategic hamlet" program, designed to move peasant villagers away from areas influenced by NLF forces. In the fall of 1961 General Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt Rostow were sent to South Vietnam to study the situation. They returned recommending the introduction of U.S. ground troops, advice that was endorsed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rusk and McNamara argued that the fall of South Vietnam would be a prelude to the fall of the rest of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. A loss in Vietnam would also create a right-wing backlash within the United States, much like the backlash that followed the "fall of China."
With these recommendations, the Kennedy administration began a gradual escalation of direct U. S. involvement in the South Vietnamese civil war. U.S. troop strength went from several hundred to ten thousand by 1963. Meanwhile, the stability of the Diem government was declining. The strategic hamlet program was generating recruits for the NLF, since it was disrupting life in the countryside. Casualties among the South Vietnamese army and government officials grew. Opposition from Buddhists and students to Diem's harsh rule was becoming more intense.
On May 8, 1963, the army shot into a nonviolent Buddhist demonstration. Buddhists later committed suicide in public protest against the Diem regime. In August, 1963, the South Vietnamese police and military invaded Buddhist pagodas and schools and arrested many dissidents. After a visit to Vietnam in September, 1963, McNamara and Taylor predicted that the United States would be able to end its involvement in the country by 1965. The head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, General Harkins, predicted in November, 1963, that victory was just months away. While these optimistic assessments were being made, as they were to be made throughout the war, opposition to Diem within the ruling clique itself was growing. South Vietnamese generals were ready to oust Diem. U.S. officials in South Vietnam agreed in their evaluations of Diem's chances to maintain control of the country. Some U. S. officials, like former Ambassador Frederick Nolting, were personal friends of Diem and remained committed to him, while others, such as the then-acting ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and members of the CIA were opposed.
Finally, on November 1, 1963, with the support of Lodge and the CIA, Diem was overthrown by the South Vietnamese military, and one of the generals assumed office. This was to be the first of eleven governments during the remainder of South Vietnamese history. John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
At the time of his death, there were fifteen thousand U.S. troops in South Vietnam, a dramatic increase from the Eisenhower commitment but a small amount compared with what was to follow shortly. Troop commitments during the Kennedy administration were small, but Kennedy and his advisors established the military infrastructure, mobilized the academic expertise, and communicated an official rationale for escalating the U.S. struggle against the Third World. Military intervention was coupled with policies designed to encourage "economic development." The impression Kennedy wished to leave with the world was that the interests of the United States and the Third World were in fact identical. The Vietnamese people were to learn just the opposite.
President Johnson's Confrontation with the Vietnamese People
Shortly after Kennedy's death, Secretary of Defense McNamara reported to the new president, Lyndon Johnson, on South Vietnam. McNamara said the situation was bad, that if the United States did not act a new Communist or neutral government would be in power in South Vietnam within three months. The government that replaced Diem was indecisive, and the NLF was gaining support in the countryside. The secretary of defense counseled that the United States should keep a close watch on Southeast Asia and be prepared to act.
From December, 1963, until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, the Johnson administration had been supporting secret military operations in South Vietnam and against the North, and at the same time was planning broader U.S. involvement in the war. U.S.-supported raids and attacks on the North were carried out in the spring of 1964, air strikes were made against targets in Laos, and destroyer patrols were maintained in the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnamese waters. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had proposed escalation of the war and extensive bombing in January, 1964. William Bundy of the State Department was preparing a scenario for U.S. escalation in May, 1964, a scenario that would include requesting a resolution of support for administration action by Congress. Meanwhile, members of the administration were making public statements warning of the need for greater U. S. involvement and periodically claiming that U. S. participation in the Southeast Asian war could end within two years.
President Johnson, planning for his own campaign for election against right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, gave no public clues to the conclusions being reached by his advisors concerning the U.S. role in Vietnam. While Johnson was preparing for brutal war in Vietnam, U.S. liberals were supporting him as the "peace candidate." The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the immediate pretext for implementing the scenario of escalation. Two U.S. ships were purportedly attacked by North Vietnamese boats on August 2 and 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a result of the "attack" the United States sent fighter-bombers to counterattack North Vietnam. The president then brought a resolution to Congress asking for authority to do what he deemed necessary in support of the "independence and territorial integrity" of South Vietnam and Laos.
What does seem clear is that the Johnson administration had been planning escalation in support of the South Vietnamese government in early 1964, and that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the vehicle used to generate congressional and public support for the actions already planned. Tom Wicker reported an unnamed official as saying: "The Tonkin resolution was then brought out of Johnson's pocket to be used as the basis for legitimizing the planned expansion of the war-all that had been needed was an event to set things in motion" (224-25). The Gulf of Tonkin incident, then, could have been a third "staged" event in the critical junctures of U. S. foreign-policy history: the exploitation of the Greek civil war in February, 1947, being the first and of the North Korean "invasion" of South Korea being the second. Staged or not, all three events provided opportunities for marshaling public support for escalating U.S. imperial policies.
After the election of the "peace" candidate in November, the Johnson administration continued its planning for escalated war to defend the faltering South Vietnamese government and army. An NLF attack on a U.S. military installation at Pleiku in February, 1965, created the rationale for beginning the bombing of North Vietnam that would continue unabated for three years. The Pentagon Papers suggest that the bombing of North Vietnam had been decided on in September, 1964, when presidential candidate Johnson was opposing Goldwater's bombing proposals. The bombing campaign, code-named Operation Rolling Thunder, was designed to force the North Vietnamese to sue for peace and hence pressure its allies in the South to stop fighting. The effect of the bombing was just the opposite. North Vietnamese resolve to support the NLF increased, the Soviet Union continued material support of the North, and the efforts of the NLF in the South were increasingly successful in winning popular support. Then Johnson ordered U.S. troops into offensive action against the NLF and sent twenty thousand more combat troops to South Vietnam, while trying to restrict public access to information about this new commitment. In a significant speech at Johns Hopkins University, the president called for a major Marshall-Plan effort to rebuild all of Southeast Asia, and, at the same time, likened the North Vietnamese to the Nazis in the 1930s. If the United States acted like the Europeans after Munich, then all of Southeast Asia would fall to this new form of totalitarianism. Johnson also raised what may be called the "puppet" theory of aggression in Southeast Asia: the NLF, still largely indigenous South Vietnamese, was a puppet of the North, which, in turn, was a puppet of the Chinese Communists and ultimately of the Soviet Union.
In June, 1965, because of the deteriorating situation in the South, General Westmoreland, head of U.S. forces in Indochina, requested forty-four battalions of troops. By July, Johnson had agreed to the Westmoreland request, and by year's end there were 184,314 U.S. soldiers engaged in ground combat in South Vietnam. The pattern of requests for more men, coupled with promises of victory, was to continue for three years as death and destruction were unleashed on Vietnamese society. By this time opposition to the U.S. war effort had begun to grow. A largely student-based antiwar movement began demonstrations, first on campuses and later in the streets. Dissent began to appear from more "legitimate" sources as well. Senator J. William Fulbright and other members of his Senate Foreign Relations Committee held public and televised hearings on the war and in the process attacked the following official administration arguments: that the United States had a moral commitment to support the South Vietnamese government, that the war was really "aggression from the North" rather than a civil-war situation, that the United States had to crush this "war of national liberation" so that Communists would learn the lesson that such wars never work, and that U.S. prestige was at stake. Despite the growing movement against the war, U.S. escalation continued.
In 1966 more bombings were ordered and troops sent. The latest of several generals heading the South Vietnamese government, Nguyen Cao Ky, had taken power in 1965 after several coups. His statement of admiration for Hitler was broadly reported in the mass media, since it had become impossible any longer for the media to portray the United States as preserving democracy.
In 1967 the level of bombardment was again raised, from sixty to eight hundred raids per month. Johnson did not support proposals by the military to increase troop strength to 670,000, to end bombing target limits, invade Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, and attack the harbor of Haiphong in the North. Even with the "constraints" placed on the military, however, large areas of South Vietnam had been declared "free fire zones," one-third to one-half of the people of Southeast Asia had become refugees, 100,000,000 pounds of herbicide were dropped on South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, one-seventh of South Vietnam had been sprayed to destroy crops, and thirty-six percent of rice-growing swamps had been made unfit for cultivation by 1974. Between 1965 and 1971, 142 pounds of explosives per acre had been dropped on Vietnam (584 pounds per person), 118 pounds detonated per second-all of this equivalent to 450 Hiroshima bombs. The land was being mutilated by the murderous Johnson policies, malaria was spreading, and timber and rubber industries destroyed (Nathan and Oliver 369-70). During the Johnson years the population of Saigon had swelled, and with wartime profiteering came incredible corruption, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Finally, by the end of 1967 more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam than had been dropped during the entire European phase of World War II.
Despite the enormous firepower unleashed against the Vietnamese people, the NLF and North Vietnamese armies launched a massive assault on several South Vietnamese cities on January 31, 1968, during the Tet holiday. The Vietnamese suffered large casualties but gained military control of cities and rural areas throughout Vietnam. The U.S. military defined their counterattack as a victory, but key decision makers and the public knew that the war was leading to defeat. Three years of genocidal application of force had not reduced the spirit or resistance of the Vietnamese people.
In broad historical perspective, the Tet offensive may have provided the decisive impetus to the decline of U. S. global power. General Westmoreland requested another 206,000 troops after Tet. Clark Clifford, a corporate lawyer who had advised Democrats on foreign policy since the Truman administration and had recently replaced McNamara as secretary of defense, began a quick review of U.S. Vietnam policy. He communicated to Johnson his conclusion that the war was not winnable and therefore that Westmoreland's request should not be granted. Dean Acheson, the longtime cold warrior, told Johnson the same thing. While still wishing to pursue the war, Johnson gave in to the advice of Clifford and Acheson. The war had been so costly in men (139,801 casualties) and materiel, the value of the dollar had declined on the world market, the image of U.S. military power had been so tarnished, and the opposition in the streets had reached such a fever pitch that key sectors of monopoly capital, whom Clifford and Acheson represented, had become war critics.
On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he was restricting the bombing to below the nineteenth parallel in the hope that the initiative would bring negotiations, and that he would not be a candidate for the presidency in 1968. The North Vietnamese responded with an offer to negotiate a full bombing halt. The Johnson administration insisted upon a reduction of North Vietnamese battle activities in the South. Despite a verbal stalemate, offensive action declined during the summer of 1968 and increased in the fall as the United States failed to respond to the decreased intensity of combat.
Finally, with the Democratic presidential candidate trailing in the opinion polls, Johnson fully halted the bombing on October 31, 1968. The primary source of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was the Vietnamese people. Domestic opposition to the brutal war played its part as well, however. The U.S. working class, not as demonstrative as students, had opposed the war more than any other group in society, according to polls; even so, worker opposition increased after Tet.
Activities of the antiwar movement also became more intense and incorporated more and more people. Radical groups, while not developing sophisticated theory, began to talk of the interconnections between war, racism, and poverty. Groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) talked of the Vietnam War as a by-product of the structure of imperialism. These views countered earlier explanations that emphasized a misguided and overly zealous anti-Communist outlook.
Corresponding to the antiwar sentiment among the corporate elites represented by Clifford and Acheson was a reformist electoral movement to end the war. Senators Eugene McCarthy and later Robert Kennedy entered presidential primaries and scored victories over President Johnson. Tensions within the society were heightened when Senator Kennedy and civil rights leader and later antiwar activist Martin Luther King were assassinated. Finally, in the summer of 1968 thousands of antiwar activists and other dissidents came to the Democratic national convention in Chicago, where they were brutally beaten by the Chicago police. The Democrats ignored McCarthy's victories in the primaries and the massive protest against the war outside the convention and selected Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as the presidential candidate. To a large extent, as slogans of the time ran, the war had indeed been brought home.