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FEW WARS in American history have had as profound and lasting an influence on domestic politics, culture, and economics as the Vietnam War. Of course, few wars in American history were as unpopular or as contentious as that war. And those that were, such as the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, took place in periods well before the telecommunications age that made any war potentially, in the words of the journalist Richard Arlen, "a living-room war."
The Vietnam War was a long war. The Pentagon dates U.S. participation from 1961, when the GIs "in country" were still mainly advisers to their South Vietnamese allies, to 1973, when the last American combat troops left the country. But it was an issue in American politics before 1961 and especially after 1973, when virtually every major American military or diplomatic crisis raised the specter of another Vietnam and all the anguish that word came to mean for those who lived through the era. Two of the major appraisals of the Vietnam War use the word "ordeal" in their title, two others use "tragedy," while still others refer to a "quagmire," the "suicide of an elite," an "unholy grail," the "war at home," "The Vietnam Wars," and a "wounded generation."
Most of those books concentrate on the failure of the United States to defeat the Communists in Southeast Asia. But all recognize the impact of U.S. involvement in Vietnam on the home front. More than most wars, the Vietnam War affected every American institution, including the military, the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, the political parties, the media, religious organizations, the educational system, labor unions and corporations, and marriage and the family. Most important of all, beginning in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam experience led some Americans to lose a good deal of faith in their government, and many others to question what their leaders were telling them about foreign affairs.
There was a time in recent American history when presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy appeared on television to announce a crisis and their constituents did not challenge their description of the problem. Not anymore. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), one of the most erudite of American politicians, reported that "The biggest lesson I learned from Vietnam is not to trust government statements." In a related vein, low voter turnouts in elections and widespread cynicism about politicians have a good deal to do with the way the Vietnam experience affected Americans.
The fact that Vietnam was the nation's longest war suggests that its impact has to be at least as profound, lasting, and varied as the two world wars, both of which helped determine the contours of the domestic political terrain for several generations. But, unlike most American wars, political, social, and economic developments had a good deal to do with the diplomatic and military strategies adopted by the presidents and their advisers. Domestic political considerations, including the congressional and presidential election cycles, were never far from their minds as they fashioned military tactics and strategies and contemplated decisions about escalation, de-escalation, and negotiation. The seemingly endless limited war in a modern democratic society posed problems for American decision-makers confronted by few other political leaders in world history. The story of domestic politics and the Vietnam War is far more complicated than that for most other American and, indeed, international wars.
The history and analysis of decision-making during the Vietnam War is itself far more complicated than simply examining the impact of domestic politics. At each critical juncture, military and diplomatic concerns weighed heavily with presidents and their advisers. I will concentrate only on the domestic political variable, an important-but not always the most important-variable in the decision-making process.
The United States first became involved in Southeast Asia during World War II when, as leader of the victorious Allies, it had to make plans for the future of those countries and colonies that had been taken over by the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. In 1940, after the Germans defeated the French, Japan informally seized France's colony in Vietnam. During the war, Washington offered token military and political support to the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh's Communist-dominated coalition that was waging a guerrilla war for independence in Vietnam against the Japanese and the French.
More important, President Franklin D. Roosevelt seriously contemplated not supporting the return of the colony to France at war's end. Although most Americans knew nothing of the smaller conflict in Vietnam or Roosevelt's plans for that remote territory-an obscure issue compared to the war raging on the European continent and in China and in the Pacific-they generally opposed colonialism as practiced by their European allies. Their knee-jerk anti-imperialism had little effect on Roosevelt and Truman's ultimate decision not to support independence for Vietnam. A minor decision they never formally announced, it was barely noticed among far more important decisions in the tumultuous spring and summer of 1945.
Harry Truman's decisions from 1946 through 1953 to support the French effort to suppress the Viet Minh revolution barely turned up on most Americans' radar screens. Considering the many crises of the early cold war years that directly involved the United States, including the Korean War that began in 1950, few American officials outside the Pentagon and the State Department expressed interest in the far-off war in Vietnam. There was a time, however, during the first part of 1954, when that war briefly became a serious issue in the United States.
The Viet Minh, who had been besieging a major French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, appeared on the verge of winning a dramatic military and, especially, psychological victory. When the French asked for assistance, the Eisenhower administration contemplated air strikes to relieve the garrison, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, even recommending the use of tactical atomic bombs if a conventional raid proved impractical. Radford's suggestion to use atomic weapons was dismissed by the president and his advisers because they knew that few Americans, let alone foreigners, would accept the use of such horrendous weapons for a cause that did not seem to impact national security.
As for a conventional raid, Eisenhower insisted on the advance approval of congressional leaders, among other conditions, before he would agree to intervene. He knew that the key leaders in both parties, including Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), strongly opposed becoming involved in a war to save a French colony, even from communism. They had been distressed in January when they had not been consulted about the administration's dispatch of two hundred technicians to aid the French effort. Massachusetts Democratic senator John F. Kennedy warned that no amount of military aid to the colonial overlords could beat "an enemy of the people which has the support and covert appeal of the people." Eisenhower, who privately agreed with such sentiments, was pleased to be able to use congressional opposition as one of his reasons for refraining from intervention.
During much of his administration, the president found more support for his internationalist and noninterventionist policies from Democrats than from Republicans. The senator with the most expertise in Asia, Mike Mansfield (D-MT), had been a professor of Asian history. He worked closely and quietly, as was his wont, with Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on their Vietnamese policies, serving as both a valued adviser and an intermediary with the Senate. He maintained a similar relationship with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
When Eisenhower's more hawkish vice president, Richard M. Nixon, hinted (in an off-the-record remark that became public) that the White House was considering intervention in Vietnam, the administration was greeted by a firestorm of opposition from bipartisan congressional leaders and the media. After extricating the country from an unpopular war in Korea the preceding year, the president knew that launching even a limited strike in what appeared to be a comparable war would be even more unpopular.
Instead the United States grudgingly attended the Geneva Conference in 1954, at which the French ended their war with the Viet Minh. The southern half of Vietnam was temporarily left in the hands of their former ally, Emperor Bao Dai, and the northern half in the hands of Ho Chi Minh. The Geneva Accords provided for national elections to be held within two years, at which time the Vietnamese would choose their new unified government. At this point the United States decided to draw the line at the 17th parallel and not permit the southern part of Vietnam to fall to communism. In 1953, Eisenhower had referred positively to the way France was "holding the line of freedom" against "Communist aggression." Now it would become the United States' task to support, in Eisenhower's words, the "falling domino" whose capture by world communism would lead to other losses to the West in the region and beyond.
This was not simply a case of balance-of-power politics. Implicit in the domino theory for Southeast Asia was the importance of that area's raw materials-rubber, rice, tin, oil, tungsten, and the like-to the U.S. economy and those of its European allies. American economic planners also believed they needed to develop new markets in Southeast Asia to make up for the closure of the China market after the 1949 triumph of the Communist revolution. Since John Hay's Open Door Notes at the turn of the century, American strategists had linked Asian policy to free markets and the potential significance of that region for the American economy. In the 1950s they were especially concerned with safeguarding the region for the economic development of Japan, which had become a major cold war ally in the Far East.
Eisenhower never made a formal announcement of his nation's acceptance of France's burden in South Vietnam. At no time during the 1954-1955 transition period was there a specific day when the French handed over their colony to the United States. That is perhaps why so few Americans knew what their president was getting them into. Those who did supported the decision. John Kennedy referred in a 1956 speech to the American "finger in the dike" in South Vietnam that kept "the red tide of communism" from drowning that nation.
Kennedy delivered that speech before the American Friends of Vietnam (AFV), a lobby and support group for the new government of the Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem. The popularity of the idea of building a free, democratic Vietnam was reflected in the membership of the AFV, which included senators from the right such as William F. Knowland (R-CA) and from the left such as Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN), and even Mansfield, who later became a prominent critic of the American enterprise in Southeast Asia.
The AFV was based in East Lansing, Michigan, because one of its key figures, Professor Wesley Fishel, was also head of Michigan State University's aid program (MSUG) to South Vietnam. Beginning in 1955 the university provided teachers and trainers of public and police administration for the Diem regime. Some of the training involved controversial secret-police tactics, and several members of the presumably academic MSUG program were operatives of America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A sensational expose about the police training and the CIA appeared in 1966 in the radical magazine Ramparts, which featured a cover drawing of President Diem's sister-in-law as a Spartan cheerleader. The expose led to considerable agitation at MSU and elsewhere for universities to halt their involvement in such programs and any others involving classified research.
But that was later, in 1966. Few Americans objected when the United States and President Diem decided against holding nationwide elections in Vietnam in 1956, as required by the Geneva Accords, because they feared that Ho would win. Most were not even aware of the decision. Diem held his own elections, as a sop to a United States that always wants its allies to at least appear democratic. He received more than 98 percent support in a rigged plebiscite held only in the South. American advisers had suggested that he report a more modest 60 percent support.
Vietnam first appeared as an election issue, albeit a minor one, in 1956. The hapless Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, attacked Eisenhower from the right for permitting half of Vietnam to go Communist at the 1954 Geneva Conference. But the refrain, "Who lost Vietnam?" never resonated with the American public the way that "Who lost China?" had in the 1952 election. Despite the bipartisan consensus in support of containment from 1946 through 1967, the Democrats were perceived correctly as more willing to negotiate with the Communists and less committed to military solutions to international problems. It was impossible for Stevenson to make his soft-on-communism charge stick to Eisenhower.
When President Diem paid an official visit to the United States in 1957, he was hailed as the "savior" of his country, a "miracle man." In truth he was an authoritarian ruler, surrounded by corrupt advisers and generals, who often disregarded American advice about reforms that might win over the hearts and minds of his people. In 1959, Albert M. Colgrove, a journalist with the Scripps-Howard newspapers, published a series of articles about corruption and the lack of democracy in Vietnam. These led to other stories about Diem's shortcomings and ultimately to congressional hearings on the U.S. aid program. Here was the first example of a mainstream American journalist bringing home such bad but entirely accurate news of Vietnam to his readership. Despite clear evidence that Diem was failing to create a democratic society, a healthy economy, and a dependable military, the hearings ended with bipartisan support for continuing the South Vietnamese project. In fact, in 1959, Senator Gale McGhee (D-WY), who investigated the aid program, thought that it could become a "showcase" for the United States. This was the only time during the 1950s that the U.S. role in Vietnam appeared on the front pages for a sustained period of time.
Yet a Vietnam-like country, Sarkhan, was the center of The Ugly American, a 1958 best-selling novel. The authors, William Lederer, a naval officer, and Eugene Burdick, a political scientist, were not the usual novelists. They had an explicit agenda, hoping to influence the "foreign aid debates" in Congress with their portrayal of the effective counter-insurgency activities of tough American intelligence officers and diplomats against Communists in their fictional Southeast Asian country. Within a year, Lederer claimed that there were "twenty-one pieces of legislation being introduced into Congress which include the words 'The Ugly American.'" Senator Kennedy, who had carved out a niche for himself as an expert on Third World revolutions, sent a copy of the novel to each member of the Senate. The small guerrilla war depicted in The Ugly American soon appeared in real life in South Vietnam.
Diem's military forces, trained by Americans, had to contend with a Communist-led insurrection that began in 1958. In 1959 the North Vietnamese assumed control of the insurrection and, in 1960, helped to create the National Liberation Front, which the Americans and South Vietnamese called the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese Communists. This was still a low-level affair in 1959 when President Eisenhower announced that "the loss of South Vietnam would ... have grave consequences for the United States and for freedom."
Excerpted from AT THE WATER'S EDGE by Melvin Small Copyright © 2005 by Melvin Small.
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|1||Saving South Vietnam, 1945-1963||3|
|2||Winning an election while losing a war, 1963-1964||23|
|4||Democrats fall out, 1966||63|
|5||The opposition grows, 1967||82|
|7||The politics of polarization, 1969||125|
|8||A war at home, 1969-1971||147|
|9||Four more years, 1971-1972||173|