The Courage to Confess: Why Was The Vietnam War Doomed To Fail?
The Montreal Review, December, 2009
In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, recuperating from gall bladder surgery, raised his shirt to show his scar to assembled reporters. David Levine immortalize the moment with a caricature popular as "The Vietnam scar." Levine's drawing originally appeared with Vietnam: The Turning Point
in New York Review of Books
, May 12, 1966
There are truths. One of them is that everything conceived in a lie has no future. Some believe in this simple pre-modern saying, others - not. But there is more: if a lie is a result of mistake it needs to be confessed in order to be forgiven and forgotten. Some are strong enough to confess, others - not. The war in Vietnam started, at least officially, as a lie with the adoption of Tonkin Declaration, later it turned out a mistake and the President Lyndon B. Johnson did not have the courage to admit if not the lie, at least the mistake. This weakness cost him the dream to stay along with Lincoln and Roosevelt in the pantheon of the greatest American presidents. But what is really tragic is that this unconfessed mistake cost nearly 60 000 American lives and more than a million Vietnamese victims. The story of Vietnam War, like many other stories about wars and conflicts, shows how fragile is our world, how easy the human weakness can mix with political power in a fusion that causes death.
The reasons for Vietnam War were complex. This was an inherited conflict, three American presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy) had been involved in Indochina before Johnson. The war was part of the biggest conflict dividing the world after the Second World War - the Cold war or the struggle between the communist world led by Soviet Russia and the so-called "free" capitalist world dominated by the United States. Two days after the assassination of Kennedy, Johnson vowed that he would not let Vietnam fall under the communists. Johnson had no impressive foreign policy experience and knowledge, but he had "excellent" Harvard educated advisers (Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk) and he relied on their advice. Vietnam was necessary for him to show in the coming elections in 1964 that he is a tough person, resolved to build a Great American Society and simultaneously to manage the communist threat. A limited, successful, painless war in Vietnam would give him a chance to assert his posture as a great president with victories at home and abroad.
The war had started two months before the elections without an official declaration by the congress, but only on the base of doubtful claims about an "unprovoked" North Vietnamese attack against American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson won the elections with landslide majority thanks to his progressive plans for improvement of education, conservation of American nature, consumer protection, civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. At that time, the war seemed unnoticed by the wide American public.
Johnson, and his advisers, believed that the war would be short and successful. He had no intentions to send American boys to fight and die in Asia. He had a plan for a Great Society. He and his advisers believed that America has the technology, money and experience to win this war without significant casualities. And, yes, what could be more predictable than the world superpower to defeat one of the most backward societies in Asia? America would check the advance of the communist North, would suppress Ho Chi Minh's communists, and would show its willingness to deter the spread of Russo-China's influence. That was the plan. Actually, that was the desired outcome. The Administration did not have a real plan. Years later, Johnson would admit that there was no "any plan for victory militarily or diplomatically." 1
At this time, the Administration reflected on three basic questions concerning Indochina: to continue the politics of Kennedy, which was advisory help, military and financial support of South Vietnam's regimes, to start massive air bombardment on North Vietnam, or to start incresing bombardment until the communists give up. They choose the gradual bombardment. They did not seriously ask do they know the character of the Vietnamese, do they know the motives that drove this little nation to oppose America, the guerrillas against Saigon, they did not know why was Ho Shi Minh fighting - because he was a communist, a protégé of the Soviets and Peking, or because he was a nationalist. If he was a nationalist, how vicious he would be and how long he would keep fighting? How big were his stakes, and how much he was ready to sacrifice? These were the really imoprtant questions, America was ready only for a limited war. Vietnam would prolong, if it could, this conflict to infinity. Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea." 2 Johnson had more important domestic goal, to build the Great Society; Vietnam was in the periphery in any sense. Before the actions being taken, nobody around Johnson asked the question about the real stakes. Among his advisers, only Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to persuade the President that this war is doomed to fail. Nobody (perhaps except Ball) expected that Vietnam would kill the Great Society.
In Vietnam War, Johnson had two main enemies - the time and the number of deaths that America could sustain. Ironically, McNamara's plan for success in Vietnam was the following: "The body count was a measurement of adversary's manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy's objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which the Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain. "This guy McNamara," they [critics] said, "he tries to quantify everything." Obviously, there are things you cannot quantify; honour and beauty, for example. But things you can count, you can count. Loss of life is one, when you are fighting a war of attrition." 3 At the end, it turned out that the Americans are those who experienced casualties greater than they could sustain. And they lost the war.
On April 7, 1965, at John Hopkins University, in a speech defined by some analysts as the most influential Johnson`s foreign policy speech, the future of the "limited war" in Vietnam was settled. On the surface, the speech is pledging for "unconditional negotiations," promising help for development and reconstruction of North Vietnam if the communists agree to compromise. The interesting fact about this speech is that talking about peace and negotiations it actually cleared the way for further escalation. Johnson, a great communicator and dealmaker, hoped to reach a deal with Ho Shi Minh; he believed that if Ho Shi Minh refuses compromise, Johnson has no chance but impose it. Bombardment and limited ground actions had not worked; therefore, the massive ground invasion would finish the job. It was clear that Ho Shi Minh would not accept ceasefire under American conditions.
Let`s analyze the speech. It starts with a suggestion that behind Hanoi is the "shadow" of Communist China that intends to submit all Asia under the yoke of the communist totalitarianism. "Why are these realities our concern?" asks Johnson. The answer is because in 1954 America promised to defend South Vietnam, and because America cares about the world. The U.S. does not want to "shake the confidence" of its allies and so, it does not want to increase the unrest and instability. An abandoned Vietnam will lead to a domino effect in the region. "Central lesson of our time," says Johnson, "is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied." America is responsible for the defence of freedom in the world. This is an idealistic battle. "We want nothing for ourselves," says Johnson. He explains the escalation of the war in the recent months with the intensification of North's aggression. "We do this to slow down aggression... And we do this to convince the leaders of North Vietnam... of a very simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw..." After these words comes the offer for "peaceful settlement." The goal is creation of an "independent South Vietnam." Johnson says that the offer for "unconditional peace" had been stated "fifty times and more" without any success. "We have no desire to see thousands to die, Asians or Americans." But America will oppose one nation to conquer another nation. And here, a little lapse from the general idealistic tone, Johnson says that America will oppose because its "own security is at stake." The President quickly returns to idealism with a talk about the "dream," in which the human conflicts are resolved not through wars, but by "law and reason," we are all humans, we all need the same - peace, love and hope. The speech finishes with the following: "Every night before I turn the lights to sleep, I ask myself this question "Have I done everything that I can do to unite this country?.. Have we done enough..."
Biographers and friends say that Johnson had been suffering of nightmares since childhood. I suspect that he really asked himself hard questions every night before fall asleep. Someone somewhere said that L.B.J. did not differentiate the lie from the persuasion. The April 7th speech was well written and persuasive. At the time of its delivery, it was interpreted as a peace proposal, as an intention for ending the war. But if we examine it more carefully, we will notice that 2/3 of it were devoted to defence of American actions, even the peace proposal was actually serving the justification of escalation - the U.S. offered peace "fifty times and more" and it was not accepted. The speech was entitled "Peace without Conquest," it was delivered a month after the dispatch of the first ground troops, few months later the number of the American troops would start rise sharply. This was a defensive speech; it was a justification for action. There were hints for peaceful settlement of the conflict, but the general accent was on the communist threat, on the American duties, on the reluctance of Hanoi to cooperate, and on justification of the continuing military efforts.
The story of Vietnam War as a tragedy. A tragedy for an ambitious president that could be remembered with his contribution in development of civil rights; a tragedy for a nation that was struggling to balance its ideals with its realities, and a tragedy for another, a smaller nation, that passed through the hell of the war suffering enormous casualties for nothing. The war ended in 1973, Vietnam became communist and independent, and the threat of domino effect did not realise. In the end of the Cold War Vietnam has opened its doors for the American companies and investments.
In his last speech in Austin (December, 1972) Johnson said, "If our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome." 4 We know that people propagate most passionately the things that they see as most difficult to achieve. Johnson lacked the courage to stop this war at its beginning, and later he was not sure if his heart is right. The words of his last speech are words of a man with experience and wisdom. They should be remembered.
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1 Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam , (Random House, 1995), pp. 190-191.
2 Ho Chi Minh. Letter to Martin Niemoeller. December, 1966. quoted in Marilyn B. Young. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York, NY. Harper, 1991, p. 172.
3 Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam , (Random House, 1995), (John Hollitz, Thinking through the Past ( Houghton Mifflin, 2004 ) p. 292)
4 The italics are mine