JFK & Vietnam IV
History - World Released - Mar 30, 2013
WAR AND DEMOCRACY - Part 4 of 4
The day after he withdrew from re-election in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson flew to Chicago to speak at a convention of broadcasters.
The war in Vietnam had been going badly, despite 500,000 American combat troops, superior firepower, helicopters, jet fighters, and months of intensive bombing. Rather than face his party, which would not renominate him, Johnson went on television, announced a halt to the bombing and a reduction in ground troops, and withdrew his name from nomination.
Someone was to blame, and it wasn’t Lyndon Johnson. He told the broadcasters it was their fault. They were to blame for showing images of the war on television night after night, turning the nation against the war.
Years later, when all the principle architects of the war wrote their memoirs--General Maxwell Taylor, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor MacGeorge Bundy--what was missing was an iota of public admission that they had miscalculated. The faults were not theirs. The fault, it seems, was with this country which was not worthy of them.
They were all Kennedy men, hand-picked by Jack himself, including Lyndon Johnson. They were not men of reflection, the kind Alexander Hamilton wrote about in “The Federalist Papers” as necessary for enlightened leadership. Indeed, they either didn’t understand or didn’t trust the democratic process. They believed they were possessors of the truth and therefore they alone knew what was best for America. Collectively, they suffered from a bad case of arrogance.
When they took office in January 1961, burned in their consciousness was the loss of China to the communist in1949 and how it had cost the Democrats the 1952 election. Both Kennedy and Johnson were determined not to let South Vietnam “be another China” and talked of stopping Communism there, in Southeast Asia. “If we don’t, it will spread to Hawaii,” said presidential advisor Walt Rostow. Not to be outdone, Johnson said communism must be stopped or it will reach California.
What Kennedy initiated as spin control--manipulating the facts to show the Army of South Vietnam was winning the war--Johnson took to the next level: flat-out lying.
It began with the 1964 presidential election. While Johnson was planning in secret to send American combat troops to Vietnam and to bomb Hanoi starting in 1965, he presented himself as the peace candidate. At the same time, he painted his opponent Barry Goldwater as the war candidate. Yes, Goldwater and not Johnson would send American boys off to die in the Vietnam jungles and would (as Johnson implied) nuke Hanoi. Crazy Barry.
It worked better than Johnson dreamed. He was elected in a landslide. Lost in the euphoria was the fact that the nation thought it had elected the peace candidate.
To legitimize the Vietnam War, Johnson initiated a bit a fiction known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was an attack by three North Vietnamese PT boats on an American destroyer named the Maddox. McNamara would testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Maddox was in neutral waters and the attack was unprovoked when in fact the ship was in North Vietnamese waters and the attack was decidedly provoked. The result was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which meant Congress was “all in” should the United States go to war with North Vietnam.
Therefore, in April of 1965, two battalions of Marines landed in South Vietnam-- the first of more than 2.5 million Americans to fight there--without a congressional declaration of war. It was to be, as the Kennedy men liked to say, a limited war. Being rational, intelligent men schooled in the best universities--and utterly lacking in wisdom--they knew best.
Having deployed American ground troops, Johnson began fudging the numbers, withholding the exact number of troops in Vietnam, and hiding the escalating costs of the war. All the while, he was hoping the Administration’s strategy of ever-increasing pressure on North Vietnam would result in a quick settlement. It was a strategy dreamed up not by the Joint Chiefs of Staff but by McNamara and his team of systems analysts.
The idea was to mount ever-increasing pressure on the North--more ground troops, more fighting, more fronts, and to follow it up with strategic bombing raids of Northern oil refineries. Surely, North Vietnam had a breaking point: it was a matter of increasing pressure until they broke and agreed to negotiate a settlement.
How long would it take? Six months. Maximum. That was the time-frame McNamara gave Johnson.
Six months passed, and another six months, and before long the bombing was an ongoing daily routine, with ever more targets. How much bombing could North Vietnam withstand? Plenty, as it turned out. There was no limit to the amount of bombing Hanoi could absorb, short of dropping a nuclear bomb and making it a desert. The idea was discussed. The expression, “We destroyed the village to save it,” was coined during the Vietnam War.
Acting as if he were a domestic president and not the war president he was becoming, Johnson concentrated on domestic policies, in particular his Great Society program to end poverty in America. But his combined domestic and war budget would spread only so far, so Johnson began to hide the real costs, hoping against hope that North Vietnam would capitulate any day.
What Johnson failed to do was to re-examine his Vietnam war policy after the first six months, or even after the second six months. The war and the bombing continued unabated, and no one in the Johnson Administration stopped to asked why. By now, Johnson had squeezed out all the naysayers from his Administration. There was no one left to say, “Mr. President, the six months are up; the bombing isn’t working; perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our position.”
Indeed, everyone was on board and with the program, exactly as Johnson demanded of his people. McNamara and his bean counters kept compiling data and reporting to the President that everything was on track and the war was being won. But isn’t that what they always said, even before sending American combat troops?
It never occurred to them that while the United States was conducting a limited war, North Vietnam was fighting total war. Johnson’s main focus was not on the war but on enacting the Great Society. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh’s consuming interest was winning independence for his country.
Johnson not only failed to give accurate economic projections, he failed to ask Congress for a necessary tax raise. In fact, he would have his own military planners be less than candid with his own economic planners, a lack of candor so convincing that his economic advisers later felt McNamara had seriously misled them about projections and estimates.
The result was that Johnson’s economic planning was a living lie, and his Administration took the nation into economic chaos: the Great Society programs were passed but never adequately funded; the war itself ran into severe budgetary problems; and the most important, the failure to finance the war honestly, would inspire a virulently inflationary spiral that would effect the administrations of three future presidents.
The irony of it all was that the cost of the war itself was not enough to destroy the economy; it never cost more than 3.5 percent of the gross national product, and there were never any real shortages. It was not the war that destroyed the economy, but the essentially dishonest way in which it was handled.
Years later, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan read through the entire documented history of the war, the Pentagon Papers, and came away with one impression above all and it was this: the government of the United States was not what he had thought it was; it was as if there were an inner U.S. government, what he called “a centralized state, far more powerful than anything else, for whom the enemy is not simply the Communists but everything else, its own press, it own judiciary, its own Congress, foreign and friendly governments--all these are potentially antagonistic.”
This “centralized state” was in fact a secret government, whose primary business was national security through the use of covert and often illegal operations, that Congress and the nation knew nothing about.
“It has survived and perpetuated itself often using the issue of anti-communism as a weapon against other branches of government and the press,” Sheehan continues, “and finally, it does not function necessarily for the benefit of the Republic but rather for its own ends, it own perpetuation; it has its own codes which are quite different from public codes. Secrecy was a way of protecting itself, not so much from threats of foreign governments, but from detection from its own population on charges of its own competence and wisdom.”
Presidents come and go, said Sheehan, but this secret government continues, and every outgoing President tends to rally the side of each incumbent President. And why not? It’s a handy tool to have, if you’re President; a way to counter dirty tricks with dirty tricks, foreign or domestic. The problem is it flies in the face of democracy.
What Johnson did was subvert the democratic process by preventing any possible debate in Congress of whether or not the war was necessary or worth fighting. Johnson took it all upon himself. He was the arbitrator. He decided what was best for the country, rather than trusting the intelligence of citizens and taking them into his confidence. He asked 18- and 19-year old kids to fight and die in a war half-a-world away, and the only justification he could offer amounted to, “Take me on faith.” When the kids protested, Johnson blamed the press.
The Founding Fathers knew about war. War is ultimate in its demands. One’s money can be refunded if the government errs in withholding taxes. A solder’s limb and life, once lost, however, cannot be given back. They are irretrievable. Ancient Athens, which some of our Founders considered a worthy model for the new American republic, could not go to war, could not demand that any of its citizens risk their lives for it in war, without securing the agreement of citizens in assembly.
The Founders went to great lengths to create a government of checks and balances to prevent rulers from making arbitrary decisions. The Founders wanted a government that would think long and hard before it committed itself to something as horrific as war.
The belief that democratic governments cannot be arbitrary, Walter Lippmann said, is based on “the higher law, the spiritual essence without which the letter of the law is nothing but the formal trappings of vested rights or the ceremonial disguise of willfulness.” He continues: “Constitutional restraints and the Bill of Rights, the whole apparatus of due process of law in courts, in legislatures, among executives are but the rough approximations by which men sought to exorcise the devil of the arbitrariness in human relations. Among a people which does not try to obey this higher law, no constitution is worth the papers it is written on.”
Without this spirit of higher law governing the conscious of men, bad things happen. Principles lose their force. Politics and policies fail. People are sent off to die in undeclared wars. The worst excesses of the American experience have come in defiance of the moral spirit--from slavey to lynching, from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, from the Palmer raids to Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, from the rebellion of the Southern states to the war in Vietnam.
The wartime example of England is a great example of how a democratic government is supposed to act. Even with the nation under siege, Winston Churchill was painstakingly deliberate in explaining publicly the course of events and his choices. It was vital to morale and victory, he believed, not only that the people pass upon the decisions of government through their elected representatives but that they take their share of the responsibility. Edward R. Murrow, who reported from London during those dark and threatening years, wrote:
“The thing that impressed me most was not the demonstration of physical courage . . . (not) Dunkirk, or the Battle of Britain. . . . The most important thing that happened in Britain was that this nation chose to win or lose the war under the established rules of parliamentary procedure. It feared Nazism but did not choose to imitate it. Mr. Churchill remained the servant in the House of Commons. The government was given dictatorial power, but it was used with restraint.”
If Johnson had allowed the democratic process to run its course, as he swore he would do when taking office--lest we forget, he swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution--it’s very likely our involvement in Vietnam would have been far more limited, if indeed we had become involved at all. And Johnson’s dream of ending poverty in America would have had a chance of becoming a reality. By taking it all on himself, Johnson lost everything.
The real losers were the 58,000 Americans killed in action, the 240,000 Americans wounded in action, and approximately one million Vietnamese who were killed, many of them noncombatants. As of 2012, Vietnam is still suffering the effects of war with the United States.
I am indebted to the following books:
“The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs” by George W. Ball
“Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina” by Bernard B. Fall
“Washington Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer
“The Making of a Quagmire” by David Halberstam
“The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam
“Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that led to Vietnam” by H.R. McMaster
“The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis” by Bill Moyers
“President Kennedy: Profile of Power” by Richard Reeves