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Undeclared War and three Presidents--Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon

What a contrast. On January 17, 1961, in his farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of what he described as a threat to our democracy. He called it “the military-industrial complex,” a formidable union of defense contractors and the armed forces. Eisenhower spoke as someone who had seen the horror and lingering sadness of war, saying that "we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

Three days later, on January 20, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as our nation’s 35th president. While campaigning for office, Kennedy spoke of a “missile gap” and the need to “get this country moving again” in order to offset the gains made by the Soviet Union. The foreign policy Kennedy was inheriting from Eisenhower, and from Truman before him, had two essentially unquestioned central goals: containing communism and preventing world war. Kennedy believed in that consensus. America must be strong and unafraid to display a show of arms if need be. Unwillingness to do so, said Kennedy, was a sign of weakness. “We dare not tempt them with weakness,” Kennedy said on the steps of the Capitol that day. “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. . . .” The United States, Kennedy was declaring, needed more arms from the military-industrial complex. And it must be ready to move quickly in small wars, too—needed new military options, to contain communism without blowing up the world.

Among the hotspots in the world when Kennedy took office—Berlin, Formosa, Korea, Iran, and Southeast Asia—it was Southeast Asia, notably South Vietnam, that Kennedy chose to contain communism. The impact of his decision would divide the United States and adversely impact two successive presidents.

JOHN F. KENNEDY (1961 - 1963) Entering office, John Kennedy was handed—in poker parlance—a royal flush. America was not at war. There was no “missile gap”—Russia wasn’t even close. Militarily, the U.S. was the most powerful nation on the planet. The economy was strong, and resources were abundant. Technologically, the U.S. led the world in every category—automobiles, trains, airplanes, ships, computers, communications systems, education, infrastructure, home appliances, you name it. And, after a delayed start, NASA would soon overtake Russia in the race to the moon. Other than the festering sore of denying civil rights to African Americans, America had never been stronger economically or militarily. John F. Kennedy entered the White House on inauguration day with little to concern him other than discovering that all the antique chairs were reproductions!

U.S. involvement in Vietnam started small, with about 600 American military advisors stationed in and around Saigon, a number in line with the Geneva Convention. Kennedy was looking for a small conflict to exercise his belief in the viability of "limited warfare", while at the same time showing Khrushchev that he was one tough-son-of-a-gun, not to be trifled with. Vietnam would be that place. This was in 1961, before anyone in the U.S. had ever heard of Vietnam, never mind being able to locate it on a map. Indeed, only two American soldiers stationed in Saigon were known to have perished up to this time.

The road to American involvement in the Vietnam War was paved with a series of small, seemingly insignificant decisions, made without a lot of thought or investigation or soul-searching, small decisions that Kennedy believed could easily be reversed and therefore were in line with keeping his options open. However, once he upped the ante toward the end of 1961--sending 3,300 aircraft and doubling the number of American advisors (breaking faith with the Geneva mandate)--the press took notice and began sending journalists to cover the war.

Thus, the decision to withdraw became increasingly difficult. By the summer of 1962, Vietnam was making the front page of newspapers across the country. For Kennedy, it meant Vietnam was now a very real issue calling into question American resolve and prestige, demanding more of his attention, and eliciting more and more questions from the press. And it only grew worse as he upped deployment to 11,500 American soldiers by the end of 1962, and 16,000 by the end of 1963. By then, Kennedy was appearing on the network newscasts—CBS, NBC, and ABC—defending his Vietnam policy.

Kennedy did not live to see the outcome of his Vietnam policy, which would lead to an undeclared war, a war that at its peak deployed more than half-a-million Americans soldiers, most of them ages 18-22. Whether or not Kennedy would have managed the war differently than Lyndon Johnson will never be known. However, the advisors Kennedy picked and relied upon in 1961-63, such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and MacGeorge Bundy, were the same people Johnson relied upon in 1964-67.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON (1963 - 1969) - It was Lyndon Johnson’s bright, shining moment. Speaking before a joint session of Congress seeking passage of the Voting Rights Act, he said: “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem, because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustices.” Johnson paused, and—echoing the civil rights movement theme song—he added, “And we shall overcome.”

Lyndon Johnson was brash, pushy, a sycophant when he had to be, and utterly merciless on subordinates. He ascended to the presidency only through the tragic assassination of John Kennedy. However, it’s questionable whether Kennedy ever could have been as effective as Johnson in getting a mountain of liberal legislation through congress.

Johnson spear-headed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and legislation that created Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Head Start, which offered early education for the poor. He urged passage of the Clean Air Act, to reduce air pollution, and the Wilderness Act, which protected 9.1 million acres of Federal land. He pushed the Higher Education Act, which increased federal aid to universities for scholarships and low-interest loans for students. And he pressed for passage of the Freedom of Information Act, which made the workings of government more transparent than ever before. Alone, these Acts would have insured Johnson a place among the nation’s greatest presidents, and possibly alone as our nation’s greatest domestic president. What damaged his presidency—and divided the nation—was his management of the Vietnam War.

Ironically, Johnson had doubts about the war from the start. But with the Vietcong stepping up fighting in 1964, and Johnson not wanting to appear weak, he ordered in more advisors and more weapons and related equipment, plus the construction of air bases from which to launch retaliatory bombing missions. Relying on the advise of Kennedy’s advisors—whom Johnson admired and had retained—he approved every request for more military aid, despite believing in his heart-of-hearts that once embedded in Southeast Asia the U.S. military would find it extremely difficult to get out. As if to erase his doubt about the war, Johnson would not tolerate dissent in the high level meetings that would decide how the war was being prosecuted. He demanded unanimous decisions from his advisors—perhaps as a means of sharing blame should the war go badly.

By 1968, with 550,000 troops deployed in Vietnam and no end in sight— and Americans protesting in streets and universities across the nation— the war indeed was going badly. After the Tet Offensive confirmed Johnson’s worst fears, he ordered a stop to the bombing, requested peace talks with North Vietnamese leaders, and announced he would not seek a second term as president.

There was more than enough blame to go around—Robert McNamara, MacGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and now General William Westmoreland—but in the end it was the man at the top who was forced to bear all of it. Johnson knew: his sparkling domestic legacy was tarnished by a war he didn’t want and was never fully committed to. American lives lost on Johnson’s watch—35,000.

RICHARD M. NIXON (1969 - 1974) - How to explain the Nixon presidency? How to explain the intoxicating highs and the crushing lows, the continuation of the Vietnam war, detente with China and Russia, the landslide reelection of 1972, Watergate, and his forced resignation from office? How to explain the man himself? “Nixon was our most Shakespearean president,” says historian Elizabeth Drew. “He brought us into tragedy and made us go through it with him.”

Nixon ran for president in 1968 and won in an election that was a referendum on the Vietnam War. While campaigning, Nixon alluded to a “secret plan” for ending the war. In fact, he had no plan, secret or otherwise. Still, there was nothing to prevent him from calling a truce and pulling American troops out. It was not his war, but Kennedy's and Johnson's. The war was deemed not winnable—the Tet Offensive had shown that—and the inept and incredibly corrupt South Vietnamese government was not worth saving, and over half of Americans wanted an end to U.S. involvement. Indeed, Vietnam wasn’t even a crucial piece of the Nixon-Kissinger grand plan then in the planning stages—detente with China and Russia. Only Nixon was plagued with the very malady that had plagued his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson—saving face. Like Johnson before him, Nixon did not want to be “the first president to lose a war.”

“Peace with honor” was the Nixon mantra. To get it, he ordered a gradual pull-out of troops while vainly seeking negotiations with leaders in Hanoi whose strategy was to play a waiting game in order to get the best deal possible. And, like Johnson, Nixon turned to arial bombing of North Vietnam to pressure them to the negotiating table. But he went farther than Johnson in targeting parts of Cambodia and Laos, often with “secret” and unauthorized bombings that Congress knew nothing about. A settlement was finally reached—nearly five years after Nixon took office—at a cost of an additional 21,000 Americans lives, not to mention at least one million Vietnamese lives, and the destabilization of Cambodia that resulted in the death of at least on million Cambodians. Was the negotiated settlement any better than the one he could have gotten in 1969? Most historians say no.

By then, Nixon was elected to a second term and deeply embroiled in the Watergate scandal. “Watergate” was named after the Watergate office building in Washington D.C. where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered. The Nixon White House ordered a break-in for reasons that remain sketchy. What is clear is the break-in was illegal, and the subsequent coverup fatal to the Nixon presidency. The break-in was one of many “dirty tricks” ordered up by Nixon to get even with his perceived enemies that, in his mind, were legion—the press, political rivals, intellectuals, the Eastern elite, Hollywood actors, liberal members of his own party, among many. He even drew up an “enemies list” to be certain none of them were ever invited to White House functions. They were all out to get him, Nixon said in closed meetings with his most trusted advisors. Now, ensconced inside the White House with all its levers of power—entitled as it were—it was Nixon’s turn to get back at them. The clumsy Watergate break-in blew the lid off. As the nation watched on their television sets, investigations and congressional hearings ensued that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, in August 1974—the end of a sad, sordid story.

Had Nixon pulled out of Vietnam after taking office in 1969, it’s likely Watergate never would have happened. So says Nixon White House aid John Ehrlichman. It was the release of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent planting of bugs that led to the Watergate break-in, says Ehrlichman. Had the war been over, the Pentagon Papers would no longer have mattered. Perhaps. Vietnam and Watergate aside, Nixon achieved many accomplishments while in office, including his historical opening of diplomatic relations with China and achieving detente with Russia, the funding of Amtrak, the constitutional amendment granting eighteen-year-olds the right to vote, the end of the military draft, large increases of funding to supports the arts, the Consumer Protection Act, and more. Moreover, as the result of new laws enacted during his time in office, Nixon presided over a dramatic expansion of the regulatory state.

"Rail as he did against ‘big government,’” writes Elizabeth Drew, “in the end Nixon accepted the premise that the federal government can do good things for the people. He was the last Republican president to do so.”

- END -

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