In the 1960s, the scare of communism provided the rationale for war in Vietnam. The deception of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the resulting resolution essentially gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check in the region. Military historian and veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, Pat Proctor breaks down the half-truths and outright lies of both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations and demonstrates how they brought the United States into a conflict that cost more than fifty thousand American lives over the course of eight years.
Providing historical context that highlights how the decision to use force is made—and how it is “sold” to the American public—Proctor also explores how this dishonesty ultimately led to the unraveling of Johnson’s presidency and the credibility gap in the public political debate of the time. More than that, Containment and Credibility applies the lessons of the sixties to the growing threats of today.
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CREATING A CONSENSUS ON VIETNAM
From the beginning of his presidency in November 1963 until August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson used arguments firmly rooted in the Cold War ideology of the containment communism to justify U.S. military involvement in the conflict in Vietnam, just as John F. Kennedy had before him. Few publicly opposed these arguments or the broader Cold War foreign policy ideology of military containment of communism on which they were based. Still, despite a concerted public information campaign by the administration to build a consensus in Congress and among the public for the direct employment of U.S. military force in Vietnam, Johnson failed to persuade the public and Congress to support a military escalation in Vietnam.
On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was in the Gulf of Tonkin supporting raids by South Vietnamese commandos (with American advisors in support) when three North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked it. The attack was turned away with one patrol boat sunk and the others damaged. On August 4, the Maddox, joined by the destroyer USS Turner Joy, reported that it had again been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
President Lyndon Johnson used this incident in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964, to justify a retaliatory air strike and win a congressional endorsement — the Tonkin Gulf Resolution — to use military force to protect the sovereignty of South Vietnam from what his administration described as northern aggression.
President Lyndon Johnson inherited much of his rhetoric for U.S. military intervention in South Vietnam — founded in the ideology of containment — from his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy. While there were a few members of Congress who were publicly skeptical, President Johnson also inherited both a press and foreign policy academia that embraced the tenets of the Cold War consensus and supported America's policies in Vietnam. Most importantly, President Johnson inherited an American public that had internalized the precepts of the Cold War consensus — a public that believed the expansion of communism must be contained, sometimes by military force. The Vietnam War that Johnson inherited from Kennedy primarily entailed economic aid and military advisors. And the American public was barely paying attention to the conflict in Vietnam because it did not believe it was particularly important to U.S. national security.
The Kennedy administration, in turn, inherited the rhetoric and logic for supporting South Vietnam from the Eisenhower administration. And the Kennedy administration unabashedly echoed those justifications. One of the earliest arguments the Kennedy administration made was that the war in Vietnam was a defense against northern aggression. For instance, in a press conference on May 4, 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said the war "stemmed from a decision made in May 1959 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of north Viet Nam which called for the reunification of Viet Nam by all 'appropriate means'" in order to "'liberate' south Viet Nam" from the "remarkable success which the Government of the Republic of Viet Nam under President Ngo Dinh Diem had achieved." Rusk added that the North Vietnamese were violating the sovereignty of Laos to secure their lines of supply into South Vietnam. In November 1961, Secretary Rusk detailed the means of this northern aggression — a "campaign of propaganda, infiltration, and subversion by the communist regime in north Viet Nam, to destroy the Republic of Viet Nam and subjugate its peoples." Rusk also argued that the threat to South Vietnam was a threat to U.S. security, though he did not explain how on this occasion.
Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Johnson, unequivocally supported his president's policies in Vietnam. In 1961, when Johnson visited South Vietnam, he hailed South Vietnamese President Diem of South Vietnam as "the Winston Churchill of Asia." At the conclusion of this trip, the vice president issued a joint communiqué with President Diem that echoed the administration's arguments based on the containment of communism. Johnson stated that the sovereignty of South Vietnam was "being brutally and systematically violated by communist agents and forces from the north."
Yet Kennedy did not feel so strongly about the sovereignty of South Vietnam that he was willing to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to direct action in South Vietnam. On at least one occasion, President Kennedy misled the New York Times into running a story reporting that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell D. Taylor and the Joint Chiefs did not support sending troops to Vietnam. He did this, presumably, to inoculate himself against charges that he was not doing enough to support South Vietnam.
Foreign policy academics, by and large, supported the Kennedy administration's use of containment to justify its policies in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In October 1954, Hans Morgenthau — esteemed professor of international relations and author of the classic Politics Among Nations — had argued that France's military solution to Indochina was inherently counterrevolutionary and bound to fail. As early as January 1957, Hans Morgenthau had suggested that China, by virtue of its position and size, was likely to dominate Asia. In July 1961, Morgenthau questioned the application of containment to Southeast Asia, based first on the contention that it was U.S. nuclear power — rather than local forces in Europe — that had deterred Soviet aggression and, second, on the argument that the undemocratic regimes of non-communist Southeast Asia could not muster the same popular support as their counterparts in Western Europe. However, as America's commitment in South Vietnam deepened, Morgenthau gradually began to frame the conflict in Vietnam in terms of the containment of communism. By summer 1962, Morgenthau no longer questioned the need to contain communist China's ambitions in Asia; rather, he asked, "What is the place of the containment of China within the hierarchy of our foreign policy?" A month later, in Overseas, Hans Morgenthau defended the United States' objective of containing communism in Southeast Asia, claiming it was necessary to maintain the balance of power in Asia. In a November 1963 edition of Commentary, Morgenthau went further, explicitly endorsing the Kennedy administration's approach to President Diem and South Vietnam — foreign aid and military assistance to South Vietnam.
Early in the war, official optimism was extremely successful in keeping Vietnam out of the headlines. By August 1962, President Kennedy could get through an entire press conference without a single question about Vietnam being asked. The dramatic success of early government public information efforts on Vietnam was largely the result of a compliant, even sympathetic, press. The American press, consisting almost entirely of men who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, did not question either America's policies in Vietnam or the assumptions on which they were based. The Washington press corps seldom even questioned the details of the policy. For instance, when asked in early 1962 if Americans were fighting in Vietnam, the press failed to question President Kennedy's unequivocal "no," despite the fact that Americans routinely flew combat aviation missions in support of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces.
This deep internalization of Cold War preconceptions that drove America into Vietnam led the American press to go beyond simply accepting the official government justifications for U.S. involvement in Vietnam to actually furthering them. The American media engaged in self-censorship, keeping the most disturbing images from reaching the American public. Some members of the media, such as Joseph Alsop, even criticized the administration for not going far enough in supporting President Diem and South Vietnam. Correspondents on the ground in South Vietnam were not nearly as supportive of U.S. policy in Vietnam as their counterparts in Washington, but American newspapers and news magazines filtered out the pessimism of the Saigon press corps before it ever saw print.
With the press reflecting official optimism and suppressing negative news from South Vietnam, it is not surprising that the American public wasn't paying attention to the war. When the first American soldier died in combat in Vietnam on December 22, 1961, Americans, distracted by events in Laos, Cuba, and Berlin, barely noticed.
Support for America's Vietnam policy was not universal. In Congress, as early as June 1962, Senator Wayne Morse was questioning America's deepening commitment to South Vietnam. In a floor speech, Morse asked that Hans Morgenthau's article "Vietnam — another Korea?" from Public Affairs magazine be added to the Congressional Record. Morse commended Morgenthau's article for raising "some very pertinent questions to which our Government needs to give heed as we reappraise American foreign policy in southeast Asia, and with particular reference to South Vietnam." However, the article itself, while critical of the Diem regime and America's support for despotic regimes in Asia, otherwise supported many of the administrations justifications for U.S. intervention in Vietnam based on the containment of communism. Specifically, Morgenthau wrote, "Communist China pursues in Asia an overall military and political objective which parallels the objective of the Soviet Union in Europe. It is to remove the power of the United States from the continent of Asia."
Americans were, for the first time, confronted with the grim reality of the situation in Vietnam in 1963. The battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 — in which the critical assessments from U.S. troops on the ground supporting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam clashed with the glowing assessments from U.S. officials in Saigon — thrust dire assessments of the war, for the first time, onto the front pages of American newspapers. As the ruling Diem regime in Saigon came into conflict with Buddhist dissidents, the American public was next confronted with images in their newspapers and on their televisions of Buddhist monks immolating themselves to protest the Diem government. The Diem regime only compounded the sense of chaos by first cracking down on the Buddhist dissidents and then cracking down on the foreign press corps. The episode would ultimately end in a U.S.-backed coup that deposed the Diem regime and assassinated Diem.
Yet, despite the press coverage of the worsening situation in Vietnam, no major American news sources challenged the basic premise that the United States should be supporting South Vietnam. The media came closest in September 1963 when NBC News anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley directly questioned the president on the validity of the so- called domino theory. The domino theory, first posited by the President Eisenhower and his administration, held that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to communist domination of all Southeast Asia. Kennedy espoused a wholehearted belief in the domino theory and, even under cross-examination on national television, continued to support the centrality of South Vietnam to U.S. national security.
And despite the dramatic events in Vietnam, the American public still took little notice. Sixty-three percent of Americans were not even paying attention to Vietnam. The majority of those who were paying attention to Vietnam wanted stronger action rather than withdrawal.
To be sure, Americans were distracted by civil rights demonstrations in the southern United States and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on the national mall. Still, another reason that Americans were not paying attention to Vietnam may have been that they did not see it as particularly important to U.S. security. A White House poll on Cold War issues that concluded in March 1963 found that only 34 percent of Americans believed that it was "extremely likely" or "very likely" that Vietnam would "lead to [a] major East-West 'Collision.'" By comparison, Berlin (54 percent) and Cuba (63 percent) were seen as the most likely flashpoints for conflict between the communist and free worlds.
More promising for the administration's case for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, however, according to this same poll, "Communist China" was seen as a growing threat. In March 1963, 64 percent of Americans saw China as being a threat equal to, or even greater than, the Soviet Union within the next two years. When asked about the next ten years, 71 percent of Americans saw Communist China as a greater or equal threat.
While most Americans did not see supposed communist aggression in Vietnam as a threat to U.S. national security, they did embrace many of the precepts of the Cold War consensus. This same poll found that 60 percent of Americans had "acute concern over National Defense, 57 percent of Americans believed that "Russia 'wants war' — now or later," 67 percent found "Cold War issues 'alarming,'" 58 percent believed that "world tensions [were] 'almost impossible' to relax," and 68 percent of respondents believed "use of nuclear weapons [was] certain in a new world war."
When President Johnson took office, he wanted to continue his predecessor's measures to shore up the teetering government in South Vietnam. To sustain public support for the present level of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, Johnson adopted the public communications strategy of his predecessor: using the ideology of containment to justify intervention. However, as the situation in South Vietnam worsened, the Johnson administration began to develop contingency plans for direct U.S. military intervention in the conflict. From the beginning, the administration believed it needed a congressional resolution of support before it could intervene. Members of the administration also realized that there was insufficient support for intervention in Congress to gain passage of such a resolution. The administration eventually concluded that it needed a pretext in the form of a North Vietnamese provocation before it could seek a congressional resolution in support of U.S. military intervention.
The American public largely favored the status quo in Vietnam when President Johnson took office, thought the public was not terribly concerned about the region. According to a Gallup poll from mid-December 1963, less than a month after the assassination of President Kennedy, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that the United States should stay in South Vietnam. But they did not believe that the conflict should be escalated; when asked, "Do you think that we should do more than we are now doing in Vietnam," 47 percent said America should do "about the same" as it was currently doing, while 21 percent said America should be doing "less." By way of comparison, nearly two thirds of Americans supported "stronger measures including a blockade" in dealing with Cuba. When asked, explicitly, if they would support sending "more American troops to Vietnam in order to fight the communists" if "U.S. Military authorities" said they were necessary, only 47 percent said they would approve, while 36 percent said they would disapprove, and the remainder were undecided.
Just days after taking office, the Johnson administration established the Kennedy administration's practice of painting the conflict in Vietnam as part of the global struggle to contain communist expansion as official government policy. A National Security Action Memo from only four days after President Kennedy's assassination, written by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, stated that it was the "central object" of the nation to help South Vietnam "to win their contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy." A key element of this strategy, Bundy wrote in the same document, was to "develop as strong and persuasive a case as possible to demonstrate to the world the degree to which the Viet Cong is controlled, sustained and supplied from Hanoi, through Laos and other channels."
This was not just rhetoric; the president did believe the so-called domino theory — that communist aggression by North Vietnam represented a threat to all of Southeast Asia. Moreover, he believed that the United States had a commitment to South Vietnam. In a private phone conversation with Secretary of Defense McNamara, President Johnson insisted that the secretary insert comments on Vietnam into a speech that the president would give later that evening to a congressional reception at the White House. When asked what these comments should say, it was President Johnson who suggested, "I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. Now we ... uh ... we could pull out of there, the dominoes would fall, that part of the world would go to the Communists." The president also believed Vietnam was part of the West's global struggle to contain of communist expansion. In this same phone conversation, Johnson told McNamara that the United States had "kept the communists from spreading" in Southeast Asia, just as it had "in Greece and Turkey with the Truman Doctrine" and with "Western Europe by NATO."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Containment and Credibility"
Copyright © 2016 Pat Proctor.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Creating a Consensus on Vietnam,
Chapter 2: The "Americanization" of the Vietnam War,
Chapter 3: Political Stalemate,
Chapter 4: The Collapse of Credibility,
Chapter 5: Ending America's Vietnam War,
Chapter 6: Refighting the Vietnam War,
About the Author,