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Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama
By Marvin Kalb Deborah Kalb
Brookings Institution Press
Copyright © 2011 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ford: Finally, the War Ends
My options were few. —Gerald R. Ford, Remarks at a Symposium, Cantigny, Illinois, March 5, 1997
When Gerald R. Ford picked up the fallen standard of American policy in Vietnam on August 9, 1974, after replacing the disgraced Richard M. Nixon, he felt "duty bound to honor my predecessor's commitment." In fact, each American president since Harry Truman had felt "duty bound" to "honor" his "predecessor's commitment" to Vietnam. Facing the dangerous challenges of the cold war, they formed a unique partnership on the issue of Vietnam; they became a band of brothers, determined to protect one another's reputation, and that of the nation.
The Origins of the Commitment
On April 12, 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Truman became president, Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia, lived on the far periphery of America's national interests. It was a French colony, and Truman was preoccupied with ending World War II. Only after Germany and then Japan surrendered did the new president come to appreciate the exploding challenges of the postwar world. None was more compelling than the global spread of communism. Stalin's Red Army occupied Eastern Europe, and the communist parties of France and Italy seemed on the edge of winning national elections. In Asia, Mao Tse-tung's army was sweeping toward victory in China, and Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla fighters were the emerging power in Indochina.
Truman launched an anticommunist counteroffensive that included the Truman Doctrine, which benefited Greece and Turkey; the Marshall Plan, a landmark aid program for Western Europe; the remarkable Berlin airlift, designed to break the Soviet blockade of Berlin; and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1949 the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb, breaking the American monopoly, and months later, Mao raised the red flag over Beijing. In this climate of building tension known as the cold war, Truman did not hesitate in June 1950 to involve American troops in the Korean War. It would have been politically unacceptable for Truman to stand by while another Asian country followed in China's path. Only five years after the end of World War II, the United States was again at war.
Because Truman needed France as a reliable ally against Stalinist expansion in Europe, he did not object to France's postwar reimposition of colonial rule in Indochina; and when France asked for American economic and military help, Truman quickly obliged, opening a $160 million line of credit, which expanded year after year. The United States also extended its diplomatic support, but in a manner so sloppy that Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, once described it as a "muddled hodgepodge." The United States was "willing to help" the French, Acheson told Congress, but "not to substitute for them."
And yet, within a few years, the United States did indeed "substitute" for the French. It happened quickly, at a time when the domino theory became the gospel of American policymakers. So it was no surprise that when Mao recognized Ho as leader of Vietnam in January 1950, Truman opted a month later to recognize the pliant French puppet, Bao Dai, as leader. This clash set the stage for a much deeper American involvement in Vietnam. Acheson revised his diplomatic vocabulary, tying the future of Vietnam to the security of the United States. "We are lost," he told British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, "if we lose Southeast Asia without a fight." It was the start of a slippery slope.
After the Korean War, which concluded in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower wanted no part of another large-scale American military engagement on the Asian mainland, but he did send ten B-26 bombers and 200 air force personnel to help the French in their losing effort at Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, after the Geneva Conference split Vietnam into two parts, he recognized South Vietnam as a newly independent, noncommunist nation, a member of the "free world." In early 1955 he established the U.S. Military Aid and Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon, replacing France as the major foreign supporter of the South Vietnamese regime. Finally, in 1959, Ike infused the deepening American commitment to South Vietnam with powerful words, which later were used by other presidents to justify their expansion of the war: he said he had reached the "inescapable conclusion" that America's "national interests" were linked directly to the continued independence of a noncommunist South Vietnam. Translation: America may have to go to war again to achieve this end.
John Kennedy sent "military advisers" to South Vietnam, increasing the number from 700 when he came to office to 16,000 by the time of his assassination, and Lyndon Johnson presided over a major escalation of the conflict, sending a half million U.S. troops. By the time Richard Nixon came to office in January 1969, the United States was already losing the war, facing deep dissent at home and probable defeat in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Nixon privately acknowledged, "There is no way to win this war.... But we can't say that, of course." When Gerald Ford became president, following Nixon's resignation in August 1974, the Vietnam War was flickering to a sorrowful end. The commitment Truman had commenced died in disgrace. It was Ford's responsibility to bury Vietnam, but he and his successors found that Vietnam stubbornly refused to be buried.
A Ford, Not a Lincoln
Like many veterans who had served in World War II, Ford returned to find a different America. He had gone to war an "isolationist," believing that the United States should avoid "entangling alliances." Grand Rapids, Michigan, was his world—"a strait-laced, highly conservative town" of "hard-working and deeply religious" Dutch immigrants. Furniture was the principal industry, football the principal sport. But after the war, while there were still Dutchmen in Grand Rapids, everything else had changed: General Motors, auto parts, labor unions, and a comparatively large influx of southern blacks had moved into town. Ford, back from his naval duty in the Pacific as an officer on the USS Enterprise, a combat aircraft carrier, checked out the new Grand Rapids and realized that the war had changed him, too. He later acknowledged, "I had become an ardent internationalist." Prewar, his heroes were football players; now, his hero was a politician, the esteemed Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who stunned the GOP establishment by supporting the foreign policy of Democratic president Harry Truman. "The U.S.," Ford wrote, echoing Vandenberg's sentiment, "could no longer stick its head in the sand like an ostrich."
In 1947 Ford stumbled upon a political opportunity that he could not resist. He had been working as a lawyer deeply engaged in community affairs. He loved people and politics. His Republican representative in Congress, Bartel J. (Barney) Jonkman, an old, "fervent isolationist" on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was bucking both Truman and Vandenberg in opposing the Marshall Plan. "No, no, no," he would rail from his privileged perch on Capitol Hill, not a penny for American aid to Europe. In Grand Rapids, a few Republicans, Ford among them, wondered whether Jonkman was too much of a political anachronism to represent their changing community. "Leave him be," Ford was advised. "He can't be defeated." But in June 1948 Ford decided to challenge Jonkman in the GOP primary. To everyone's amazement, he beat him and then, in the election, overwhelmed the Democratic opponent, winning almost 61 percent of the vote. Foreign policy was the issue, and Ford successfully attached himself to Vandenberg's internationalist philosophy. Grand Rapids had entered the world.
When Ford arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1949, he found himself in the company of, among many others, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, all three of whom were to precede him to the White House, where they made the unfortunate decisions that led the United States into the longest, most divisive foreign war in its history, a war that it ultimately lost. Ford proved to be an effective member of Congress, capable of listening, learning, and legislating and, when appropriate, cozying up to party leaders.
In the summer of 1953, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, Ford visited Vietnam, then under the "nominal control" of the French, who seemed to have "no real plan for combating Communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh." Three words in his travel diary conveyed his impression of the French colonial regime: "speeches, pictures, ballyhoo." The French thought they would win the war. "They laid on a big briefing," outlining "their strategy to crush Ho and his forces." Four months later, Ford noted, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. "Spit and polish, it turned out, was no match for the jungle fighting expertise of the Viet Minh." Ford was clearly not impressed by the French, but he was by the communists. Shortly after the French collapse, the United States stumbled into Vietnam as principal backer of the anticommunist cause.
Many years later, Ford opened up to Bob Woodward and Christine Parthemore of the Washington Post that "there was a fundamental mistake made back after World War II, when the French had committed to support the Vietnamese." If France had not returned to Indochina, its old colonial empire, and if the United States, consistent with its anti-colonial tradition, had strongly objected to France's return, even threatening to cut its economic and military aid, then, Ford believed, the United States could have avoided getting trapped in the Vietnam quagmire. But France did return to Indochina, the United States did not object, and ultimately, after Dien Bien Phu, the United States replaced France in a colonial war. "We were on the wrong side of the locals," Ford concluded. "We made the same mistake that the French did, except we got deeper and deeper in the war. We could have avoided the whole darn Vietnam War if somebody in the Department of Defense or State had said: 'Look here. Do we want to inherit the French mess?'"
During the Eisenhower years, Ford acted like the Eagle Scout he had once been. He backed Ike when the United States threw its support behind the de facto creation of two Vietnams after the 1954 Geneva Conference; when it dumped Emperor Bao Dai and installed the autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem; when it began to slip military advisers into South Vietnam; and when Ike, in a major statement of policy, declared in 1959 that the survival of an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam was in the "national interest" of the United States. During the 1950s, though he had his doubts, Ford never raised an objection to U.S. policy in Indochina, reflecting the broad indifference of congressional leaders to White House policymaking, especially when the White House was in Republican hands.
When John Kennedy became president in 1961, Ford supported his Vietnam policy too. When Kennedy proposed a foreign military aid bill containing a considerable sum of money for South Vietnam, many in the GOP rose in opposition. Ford, however, organized a moderate coalition of Vietnam supporters in both parties and saved the legislation. He also backed Kennedy's controversial decision to send more than 16,000 military advisers to South Vietnam.
Toward the end of his life, Ford entered a world of academic speculation that had intrigued and baffled scholars for many years: if Kennedy had lived and then had won a second term in 1964, would he have pulled American forces out of Vietnam? Ford never bought into that speculation. "If Kennedy regretted his decision to commit U.S. ground forces to Vietnam," he said, "he kept his regrets to himself. Nothing he did before he died suggests to me that he harbored such regrets—much less that he intended to withdraw the troops and, in effect, acknowledge his error in sending them there in the first place."
On November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was sworn in as president, Ford "just couldn't believe it." In many respects, he admired Johnson. LBJ had been "extraordinarily effective" as Senate majority leader up until 1961, and as vice president "he had done well too." But in Ford's judgment Johnson did not measure up to being a president. Even after his landslide victory in the 1964 election, Johnson acted in ways that troubled Ford. LBJ loved his Great Society program. And yet he allowed himself to slip more deeply into the war in Vietnam. Ford wondered whether the war would disrupt the Great Society and whether the war could even be won. Ford saw him as "a President in anguish, haunted by the specter of [Kennedy] ... governed by memories of the 1950s, when the debate over 'who lost China' helped to poison American politics" and "influenced ... by the harsh memory of Munich, where appeasement only led to W[orld] W[ar] II[,] a conflict of unimaginable savagery."
But when President Johnson called, Ford saluted. "Jerry," Johnson said, "I want to appoint a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.... I want to have two members from the House. Hale Boggs is going to be one, and I want you to be the other." Ford agreed, and his participation in the commission raised his stature in the House, on television, and in the nation. In January 1965 he defeated the House minority leader, Charles Halleck, to take over the House's top GOP post. He saw the job as a major step toward becoming Speaker of the House, at the time his ultimate dream in national politics. Political public relations were part of his new duties; he was to put a pleasant Midwestern face on House Republicans. Everett Dirksen, a marvelously colorful character from Illinois with a deeply resonant voice, had the same job for Senate Republicans. Thus on television a new duo in American politics was born: the Ev and Jerry show. Once a week, the broadcast sparkled with their criticism of the Democrats and their defense of the Republicans. It was a political hit. On only one issue did the nation's two top Republicans ever disagree: Vietnam. Dirksen always supported Johnson's foreign policy, even as he plunged the country more deeply into a costly war; Ford, on the other hand, openly opposed Johnson's periodic bombing pauses, favoring a more effective use of the air force, meaning more bombing, not less. Ford also attacked Johnson's "shocking mismanagement" of the war, believing that the president could not have both guns and butter, and that one day he would have to raise taxes and pay the political price. In March 1968 Johnson shocked everyone, including Ford, by announcing that he would not run for reelection. Vietnam had become too much of a burden.
In 1968 Richard Nixon campaigned as the candidate with what became known as a "secret plan" to end the war. He did not, in fact, have a secret plan but wanted to oversee a "strategic retreat" from Vietnam, a very difficult wartime maneuver; he sought to emulate none other than Charles de Gaulle, who managed to extricate France from the Algerian War with a degree of national honor. Perhaps, Nixon hoped, he could accomplish the same thing in Vietnam. Out with honor, he thought, assuming incorrectly that Vietnam was similar to Algeria, and Vietnamese similar to Algerians.
In his memoirs, Ford asked some relevant questions about Vietnam. Had U.S. civilian and military leaders really analyzed Vietnam's history and culture? Did they have a clear strategy? At the end of the day, did the American commitment in Vietnam make sense for the United States, globally in terms of its reputation and nationally in terms of societal tranquility and budgetary sacrifice? "The answer to these questions," Ford conceded, "is probably no." But he then asked another question: "Can we win this war?" He reflected that in the late 1960s, "I felt certain—given four basic assumptions—that we would prevail":
—If the United States used its military power "fully and appropriately."
—If the South Vietnamese could raise their military prowess to the level where they could defend themselves without American forces.
—If the South Vietnamese people would rally around their flag and support the war effort.
—If the United States, meaning Congress, would continue to fund the war effort, which was costing more and more each year.
Excerpted from Haunting Legacy by Marvin Kalb Deborah Kalb Copyright © 2011 by Brookings Institution Press. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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