Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnamby Robert Mann
A landmark work of narrative history, A Grand Delusion is the first comprehensive political history of the Vietnam War and the politicians and policymakers who waged it. Spanning the years 1945 to 1975, it is the definitive story of the well-meaning, but often misguided, American political leaders whose unquestioning adherence to the crusading, anti-communist Cold War dogma of the 1950s and 1960s led the nation into its tragic misadventure in Vietnam. This is a piercing analysis of political currents and an epic tragedy filled with fascinating characters, antagonisms and beliefs that divided the nation.
New York Times Book Review
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The "Loss" of China
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The congressional election returns were hardly surprising, considering the momentous events of the previous year. President Harry Truman and his Democratic Party had endured an especially turbulent political seasonand the voting on November 7, 1950, reflected the political misfortunes that had befallen the White House. While the president confidently predicted an electoral endorsement of his foreign and domestic policies, a restless and disgruntled nation expressed precisely the opposite. Voters were worried about the course of the Korean conflict and disturbed that Truman and his State Department had allowed China to fall into communist hands in late 1949. They were largely indifferent to the president's liberal Fair Deal proposals. Perhaps most significant, many voters were not as eager as Truman to reject the charges of communist infiltration that Senator Joseph McCarthy had leveled against the State Department. Where there was smoke, there might be fireand the reckless Wisconsin Republican had generated plenty of smoke.
Earlier in the day, after voting in his hometown of Independence, Missouri, a beleaguered Truman returned to Washington to await the election results. That evening, as he and his military and White House aides cruised the Potomac River on the presidential yacht Williamsburg, the depressing election news arrived over radio telephone: in the Senate, Republicans had come within two votes of seizing control. The Democrats' 54-to-42 margin had all butdisappearedand, with it, most chances that Truman would have his way with the new 82nd Congress. In the House, the Democratic losses were just as distressingtwenty-seven Democratic seats now belonged to the Republicans.
It was a severe blow. Truman appeared to blame himself for the losses. At first, he tried to lessen his shock by consuming generous quantifies of bourbon. One aide later remarked it was the only time he had ever seen Truman drunk. Finally, at 9:00 P.M., weary and depressed, he turned in for the evening. The next morning, the Chicago Daily News summed up the election's import in a front-page story. "President Truman's policies were stingingly repudiated," the paper reportedand its characterization was beyond dispute. Truman had not only lost five crucial votes in the Senate; voters had rejected the Senate's two Democratic leaders, leaving Truman and his troubled legislative agenda adrift in uncertain and treacherous waters. A coalition of Republicans and southern Democratshostile to most of Truman's Fair Deal agendawould now have a working majority on a host of issues. Some even speculated that the decidedly more conservative majority might elect a southernerRichard Russell of Georgia or Harry Byrd of Virginiaas majority leader. Regardless who ran the Senate, Truman knew that his ambitious domestic agenda was dead.
The defeats of Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois and the Democratic whip, Francis Myers of Pennsylvania, were the sharpest rebukes and left the Senate Democrats in disarray. While the two men had not always been strong or innovative legislative strategists, the president could usually rely on them to champion his programs and defend him against the verbal assaults of conservative Republicans. Now the fates of his foreign and domestic policies would depend on the questionable loyalty of a narrow, more conservative Senate majority.
Other losses were also disheartening. The election claimed Armed Services Committee Chairman Millard Tydings of Maryland and Labor Committee Chairman Elbert Thomas of Utah. The Maryland veteran had fiercely disputed McCarthy's charges of communism in the State Department and, thus, had drawn the withering enmity of McCarthy's rightwing loyalists. At least two new members had gained entrance to the Senate with charges that their opponents were communist sympathizers. In Florida, conservative Democrat George Smathers had knocked off incumbent Democrat Claude Pepper with a barrage of innuendo and invective. With help from Smathers and his supporters, the Florida incumbent became, among other things, known as "Red" Pepper, In California, an ambitious House member named Richard Nixon scored a decisive victory over his liberal Democratic opponent, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, by questioning her patriotism and her adherence to Truman's China policies. Nixon dubbed her "the Pink Lady." She, in turn, named him "Tricky Dick."
In every region but the South lay the dead political bodies of Truman's House and Senate supporters. It was not as devastating as the absolute repudiation Truman had suffered in 1946, when Republicans seized both houses of Congress, but it was an electoral disaster by almost any definition. "Senate Democrats," Newsweek observed in the aftermath, "were a battered army whose command post had been blown up."
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The carnage of November 1950 was, in large measure, the first electoral reaction to a series of unfortunate political and foreign policy developments that had begun in the late summer of 1949. In September, Truman had stunned the American public when he announced that the Soviet Union had recently detonated an atomic bomb. Since the end of World War II, America's sole possession of the bomb had been regarded as the most effective deterrent to another World War and had firmly secured the nation's status as the world's most powerful military force. It was a distinction that comforted an American public still weary from the turmoil and sacrifice of nearly four years of World War. Truman's staggering announcement, however, changed the essence of the Cold War and reordered America's worldview. No longer a war of words waged with strong rhetoric and competing economic assistance, a new militaristic Cold War had dawned. Some believed that a military showdown between the United States and the Soviets was now inevitable. Those fears appeared more justified than ever in January 1950, when Truman announced that the nation would respond to the Soviet bomb test by developing a hydrogen bomba device vastly more destructive than any existing atomic weapon.
U.S. relations with the Soviets had turned sour in the aftermath of World War II and had only grown more adversarial in subsequent years. With increasing alarm, Truman's foreign policy and defense advisors had come to see a Soviet Union bent on imposing communism on the rest of the worlda chilling declaration that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill eloquently expressed in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in early 1946. "From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war," Churchill said, "I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness." While Truman, having accompanied Churchill to Missouri for the speech, did not immediately endorse the former British leader's thesis, U.S. foreign policy soon reflected the president's deep distrust of Stalin and his communist regime. In particular, the visionary thinking of George F. Kennan, a Russian scholar and Foreign Service officer stationed in Moscow, greatly influenced official attitudes toward the Soviets. It was Kennan who turned official heads when he asserted that the nation's approach to the Soviet Union "must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." Thus was born the nation's "containment" policy in Europe, aimed at Soviet expansionism and later widened, to Kennan's dismay, to include military opposition to communism around the globe.
Events in early 1947 had placed the United States in direct conflict with the Soviets' perceived hegemonic aims. In February, Great Britain informed the Truman administration that it could no longer afford to keep the peace in Greece and Turkey in the wake of a budget crisis that forced the country to withdraw half of its military force from the region. From Athens, U.S. diplomats sent word that the British withdrawal would almost certainly mean the collapse of the Greek government. The message was clear: if the government fell, it would fall in the lap of a totalitarian government with close ties to the Soviet Union. In a foreshadowing of the later rationale for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, one of Truman's advisors warned that the outcome might be that "the whole Near East and part of North Africa" were "certain to pass under Soviet influence."
Without consulting its leaders, Truman quickly demanded that Congress appropriate $400 million in aid to prop up the governments of Greece and Turkey. Dominated by members of their isolationist Midwestern wing, congressional Republicans were initially cool to the idea. But Truman had one important Republican ally: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a former political isolationist himself, who urged the president to present the threat of Soviet expansionism to Congress and the nation in the starkest of terms. The only way to get the aid, Vandenberg advised, was to "make a personal appearance before Congress and scare the hell out of the American people." On March 12, 1947, Truman, before a joint session of the House and Senate, did just that, painting the picture of a world teetering toward communist domination. In articulating a set of principleslater known as the Truman Doctrinethe president declared: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
In May, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved Truman's plan and, thus, set the nation on a determined and idealistic forty-five-year crusade against communismfrom Europe to Africa to Latin America to Southeast Asia. The Truman doctrine was a major turning point in U.S. foreign policy, not simply because Truman identified the Soviet empire as a totalitarian threat to the rest of the world (this had already been articulated), but because the United States had, for the first time, intervened on behalf of nations threatened by communism.
Still reeling from the news about the Soviets' atomic test, Americans were far more aroused in October 1949, when Mao Tse-tung's communist forces in China finally drove General Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army from the mainland onto the island of Formosa. For years, China had held a special place in the hearts of many churchgoing Americans who regarded the nation as the world's most fertile field for Christian evangelism and Chiang as a devout Christian. American churches and Christian organizations had supported missionaries in China for generations and had developed a deep and lasting affection for the country and its people. Thus, many Americans were shocked and heartbroken by the communist victory, largely unaware that Chiang actually ruled a corrupt and undemocratic regime destined to fall of its own weightalthough its collapse was greatly hastened by an effective, intense, and ideologically driven communist opposition.
Truman and his State Department knew the truth and understood that the president could have turned the tide in China's civil war only by massive military intervention. That would have meant making the country a U.S. protectoratesomething that even Chiang's most ardent supporters opposed. In truth, U.S. efforts to save China had been far from paltry. Since the end of World War II the United States had given $3 billion in economic and military assistance to the Nationalist governmentwith little to show for it. The communists routed Chiang's poorly trained and unmotivated troops over and over. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson aptly observed, the Nationalists failed because "the almost inexhaustible patience of the Chinese people in their misery [had] ended. They did not bother to overthrow this government. There was really nothing to overthrow. They simply ignored it throughout the country." Additional U.S. aid to China would have been wasted. "There is no evidence," Acheson accurately told Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Connally in March 1949, "that the furnishing of additional military materiel would alter the pattern of current developments in China."
That Chiang was a corrupt leader in charge of an inept army was obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of China. Truman's political enemies, however, saw China's woes in a far different light. Foremost among those critics was Time publisher Henry Luce, born in China to missionary parents, who argued that the communist victory was a result of American irresolution, not Chiang's perfidy. "At no time in the long chronicle of its failure [in China] had [Truman's administration] displayed a modest fraction of the stamina and decisiveness which had checked communism in Europe," Time said in a vitriolic broadside against the Truman administration in August 1949.
Congressional Republicans exploited the developments in China with a relentless assault on the Truman-Acheson foreign policy. Leading Republicans echoed Luce's charge that while Truman and Acheson were preventing communist expansion into Western Europe, they had, in the words of New Jersey Republican H. Alexander Smith, "left the back door wide open in Asia." In the Senate, California Republican William Knowlandwhose intense devotion to Chiang earned him the mocking title "Senator from Formosa"led a vigorous Republican attack on Truman and Acheson. Truman's policies, he charged, had "accelerated the spread of communism in Asia" so much that "gains for communism there have far more than offset the losses suffered by communism in Europe." Chiang's corruption and inept leadership notwithstanding, Knowland charged that the "debacle solely and exclusively rests upon the administration which initiated and tolerated it." Truman and Acheson, he suggested, were guilty of "appeasement," as well as "aiding, abetting and giving support to the spread of communism in Asia."
Further compounding the political damage were allegationspartly truethat some U.S. Foreign Service officers had systematically disparaged and undermined Chiang while expressing their admiration and support for the Communists, thereby abetting the Nationalists' defeat. Senate Republican leader Robert Taft, in arguing that the United States could have prevented the communist victory, charged that Truman's State Department was "guided by a left-wing group who obviously have wanted to get rid of Chiang, and were willing at least to turn China over to the communists for that purpose."
U.S. disillusionment with Chiang, however, was nothing new, nor was it indigenous to a small coterie of Foreign Service officers. It dated back to early 1942, when General Joseph Stilwell arrived to oversee military operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. Given the task of repelling Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia, Stilwell quickly concluded that Chiang, was far more interested in preserving his crumbling regimethat is, fighting the Chinese Communiststhan in stopping Imperialist Japanese aggression. Unable to persuade Chiang to provide the troops needed to oppose Japan, a frustrated Stilwell finally suggested that communist forces should be enlisted for the fight. Supporting Stilwell were a handful of respected State Department China expertsmen like John Patton Davies, John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincentwho shared an intensive disdain for Chiang and urged U.S. pressure to force him to reform. Taft, Knowland, and other conservatives thought it even more appalling that the "China hands," as they became known, had expressed respect for Mao's communist disciples, particularly their personal asceticism, espousal of self-government, and the easy way they moved among the peasants. In October 1944, at Chiang's insistence, Roosevelt finally recalled Stilwell.
In late 1945more than a year after President Franklin Roosevelt had dispatched Major General Patrick Hurley to China to persuade Chiang to unify the Nationalist and communist forces against Japanthis newest general resigned and blamed his failure on the China hands. In a letter to President Truman, Hurley charged that "the professional Foreign Service men sided with the Chinese Communist armed party and the imperialist bloc of nations whose policy was to keep China divided against herself." The China hands, Hurley said, "continuously advised the Communists that my efforts in preventing the collapse of the National Government did not represent the policy of the United States."
The fall of China was a call to arms for the conservative Republicans. Frustrated by their inability to regain the White House after seventeen years in political exile, they sensed the makings of a potent campaign issue. Chiang's Nationalist government, they alleged, did not fall because of economic and political forces beyond the control of U.S. policymakers; liberal Democratic foreign policy experts, sympathetic to communism, had "lost" China and thereby jeopardized U.S. national security.
In light of world developments, the allegation seemed plausible. Less than five years after the end of World War II, Russia had, indeed, made substantial gains throughout the world. As U.S. News & World Report observed in early 1950, "Communist governmentsmany of them led by men trained in Moscoware in command of nations ruling almost 800 million people." The result, the magazine reported, "is that the West finds it has lost more than 1 billion people from its sphere in less than 60 months." A "Red Tide," it seemed, was consuming the nations of the world. And Truman's stubborn refusal to dispatch a military mission to bolster Chiang's exiled regime only served as further proof to the Republicans that Democrats could no longer be trusted to stop the march of communism across the world stage. "This is the year," the liberal New Republic observed.
when the feverish fear of Communism is fanned higher by elections; when the men who legislate our futures think less of a hundred million votes in Asia than of a thousand votes in the Fourth Ward; when any gesture of conciliation to end the cold war is smeared as a surrender by an opposition whose dearest ambition is to pin the communist label on our chief of state.
But the demagoguery was not confined to the Republican Party. Some conservative Democrats, aware of their constituents' alarm over the communist victories, also fanned the flames of fear. Speaking to a veterans group in January 1950, U.S. Representative John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts said Truman should send troops to Formosa and blamed him for Chiang's failure in China. "What our young men had saved, our diplomats and our president frittered away." The nation must now "prepare ourselves vigorously," he said, "to hold the line in the rest of Asia."
If the "loss" of China was a call to arms for Republicans, the conviction in January 1950 of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official charged with perjury for lying about his Communist Party activities, gave them even more ammunition against Truman. Although not among the country's top diplomats, Hiss was well regarded by his colleagues and was among the advisors President Roosevelt had consulted at the Yalta Conference in early 1945. It was at Yalta, conservatives alleged, that Roosevelt had sentenced millions of Eastern Europeans to communist slavery by acceding control over their nations to the Soviet Union. Hiss's perjury conviction (the three-year statute of limitations on his alleged espionage activities had expired) vindicated Republican Congressman Richard Nixon and other members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) who exposed Hiss's communism during the committee's wide-ranging investigation.
The Hiss conviction gave Truman's foes yet another opportunity to buttress their argument that a decade of treachery and treason by liberal Democrats had reaped a whirlwind of communist gains throughout the world. Hiss, they alleged, was the thread that connected the "fall" of China to the "giving away" of Eastern Europe. South Dakota Republican Karl Mundt, a former HUAC member, wondered aloud about "what influence Alger Hiss might have had in writing a pro-Soviet foreign policy toward China" and suggested that Hiss had engineered "that most calamitous of all decisions at Yalta by which we agreed to give to the Russians control of the Communists in China." To Mundt and other conservatives, the Hiss case suggested a State Department crawling with Communists.
To be sure, Acheson's subsequent public defense of Hissthe brother of a close family friendonly made matters worse for Truman and increased the Republicans' antipathy toward the secretary of state. It did not help that only six days after Hiss's conviction, authorities in England arrested German-born Klaus Fuchsa noted physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Projectfor passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Arrested in connection with Fuchs were two New Yorkers, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. "How much more are we going to have to take?" Republican Homer Capehart of Indiana asked the Senate on February 9. "Fuchs and Acheson and Hiss and hydrogen bombs threatening outside and New Dealism eating away at the vitals of the nation! In the name of Heaven, is this the best America can do?"
To regain the White House and Congress, the Republicans would have to do much more than smear a few mid-level diplomats. Maximum political gain would result only if the "plot" to support Soviet communism could be traced to the higher echelons of Truman's administration. For this purpose, Acheson made the perfect villain. The son of an English-born Episcopal bishop, Acheson exuded an air of East Coast intellectual elitism that masked his lifelong devotion to liberal democratic causes. A committed New Dealer, he served briefly in Franklin Roosevelt's Treasury Department and later as FDR's assistant secretary of state for economic affairs. In Truman's administration, he had distinguished himself as an effective and brilliant under secretary of state. To his friends, he was a warm and witty man with an impressive intellect and a high degree of personal rectitude. To his enemies in Congress, however, Acheson was an arrogant, intellectual snob who communicated an infuriating air of superiority. As Truman biographer Alonzo L. Hamby observed,
Angry Republicans, most of them embittered isolationists, saw [Acheson] as representing all the trends that had disturbed them for the past twenty years: the rise of the welfare state and big government, the dominance of an Ivy League-northeastern establishment, the embrace of a Europe they considered distant and corrupt, the "loss" of China, the specter of international Communism. He would become the focal point of a politics of revenge bent on deposing Democrats and restoring "true Americanism" in Washington.
Although Republicans saw political gold in their attacks on Truman, Acheson, and the State Department, they never anticipated that the primary standard-bearer in their unseemly election-year enterprise would be a dishonest, second-rate senator from WisconsinJoseph McCarthy.
Meet the Author
Robert Mann has served as an aide to two U.S. senators and is the author of a widely praised book on the civil rights movement, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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