By 1968 it was becoming clear to many Americans that the war in Vietnam was a terrible miscalculation. One of those Americans was a young government worker, speechwriter Richard N. "Dick" Goodwin, author of "Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties" (Little, Brown and Company, 1988)
In a chapter called "The Impossible War" Goodwin explains clearly how the war started and escalated. Ignited by JFK and turned into a bonfire by LBJ, the Vietnam War engulfed the United States and led to the election of Richard Nixon and what Goodwin called thirty years ago, "our more cynical age."
The war, which began as a legacy of World War II, escalated in earnest for the United States with "Operation Rolling Thunder" that "would be the largest sustained campaign of aerial attack in the history of warfare."
|Speechwriter and adviser Dick Goodwin stands with President Kennedy.|
Goodwin helps provide context and understanding by describing how the war in Vietnam started. His succinct account deserves to be remembered:
At the end of World War II, after the Japanese had been driven from Indochina, the French returned to reoccupy their former colonial possessions. In 1946 – three years before Mao Tse-Tung had conquered China – Ho Chi Minh, himself a communist, organized and led the opposition to French rule. The war against the French lasted for eight years, until, in 1954 – with the collapse of the French Stronghold at Dien Bien Phu – it culminated in victory for Ho Chi Minh. Twenty-five thousand Frenchmen had perished in the futile effort to maintain a colonialism that was being ended or destroyed throughout the third world. On the eve of defeat, the French asked President Eisenhower for direct American intervention. He refused. "Ike sent General Ridgway and me to evaluate the situation on the ground," I was later told by General James Gavin, hero of the airborne assaults that preceded the Allied invasion of Europe. "When we returned Ike asked us what we thought. Ridgway told him that intervention was a political decision, but he could give an opinion of the military situation. 'If we do go in, air strikes won't do the job. The war has to be won on the ground. To fight a ground war I would need to begin with a few divisions, building to a strength of several hundred thousand men fairly quickly. And even then I can't guarantee victory.'" If there had been any doubt in Eisenhower's mind, it was dissolved by this report from the general who had led our forces in Korea, and whose bravery, integrity and honesty of judgment were beyond question. "No one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting involved in hot war in the region than I am," Eisenhower said in February of 1954. "I could not conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of these regions, particularly with large units." Admittedly the United States had supplied the French with over 2.5 billion dollars of military and economic assistance, almost 80 percent of the French war effort. But the war was lost. Facts were facts. We would just have to write off our losses. Eisenhower was a realist. In that decisive year of 1954, with the French approaching defeat and American intervention still a possibility, two men who were to direct the unfolding Asian drama of the sixties spoke in opposition to their country's involvement."No amount of American military assistance in Indochina," said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, "can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, 'an enemy of the people' which has the sympathy and covert support of the people." Around the same time, Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, summoned by John Foster Dulles in a frantic effort to assure bipartisan support for an American intervention, told the secretary of state that he could not support any military action that did not have the full support and assistance of our allies. It was, of course, an impossible condition. Our allies had no intention of companioning us into the Asian jungles. But it was shrewd politics. Johnson had not actually refused support, but he had avoided becoming an accomplice. The memory of Korea ... was still fresh... Once the possibility of U.S. intervention was foreclosed, the game was over for France. Ho Chi Minh could not be defeated. The best the French could hope for would be a long and probably losing war of attrition against Asian multitudes. Somewhat pompously we instructed the French that no military victory was possible in Vietnam unless "proper political atmosphere" was established. "A proper political atmosphere!" Hidden in that abstraction, its inward meaning, was the key to French failure and to failures yet to come. Effective opposition to communist insurgency could come only from a people who had a stake in their own society, faith in their own future, a sense of allegiance, an identity of interests with their own government – enough so that they would fight and risk their lives for its preservation. The French commanded no such loyalty and belief, and neither, in the end, did we or the governments we selected and sustained.
|Marines in South Vietnam. (National Archives)|
"Kennedy's policy was doomed," Goodwin writes. "And it was also dangerous. By increasing the number of American advisers from six hundred to around sixteen thousand, the Americanization of Vietnam was accelerated, the likelihood that Americans would come under attack was increased, and the credibility of the government in Saigon – the perception of its independence – was undermined, increasing the ability of the Vietcong to attract adherents for their 'war of liberation.'"
But the decision to transform the war, to escalate, to fully engage in ground combat, was President Johnson's. The decision would destroy his presidency.
Johnson committed more and more American troops into Vietnam. "By April of 1967 the number was well over half a million," Goodwin writes. "And the horror of it was that almost everyone knew that the war was unwinnable – except for a president of the United States and the few ambitious, limited men who shared and served to fortify his disastrous self-deception."
The Constitution was designed by the framers to prevent the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Goodwin quotes Founder James Madison:
"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men," wrote Madison, "the greatest difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
Goodwin contends that beginning in 1965 those "auxiliary precautions were taken down, with Congress ignorant and "rendered virtually impotent," no longer a strong check on the power of the executive branch, and even the advisers and special assistants "excluded from the councils of decision" except those who told the president what he wanted to hear.
Goodwin writes, "And finally the wisdom of Madison was wholly discarded for that far more ancient maxim of Saint Matthew's Gospel that 'He that is not with me is against me,' forgetting that an admonition to follow God through an act of faith had no relevance to mortal leaders whose acts are to be judged by reason and secular conviction."
|Evacuating a casualty in a South Vietnam swamp. (National Archives)|
In 1968 there were 545,000 American troops in Vietnam. That same year both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon was elected president.
Vietnam Veterans, like my dad, who had served their nation and followed orders were vilified and unappreciated. Cynicism deepened as the 60s ended. Gifted writer Goodwin, who died last month at 86, encouraged us to remember and reflect.