America in Vietnam:
The Four Interventions
excerpted from the book
Intervention and Revolution
The United States in the Third World
by Richard J. Barnet
World Publishing, 1968, paperback edition
American military officers had met Ho Chi Minh and his future
military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, in Kunming, China, in 1944.
At that time the Vietnamese resistance leaders were planning the
strategy which, they hoped, would sweep out the Japanese and set
up an independent government run by the Vietminh, a coalition
of left and moderate organized by Ho and other communists in 1939.
U.S. officers of the China-Burma-India theater began to supply
Ho with arms. In early 1945 Ho Chi Minh established uncertain
control over the northern regions of Vietnam. As the Chinese,
British, and U.S. troops poured back into Vietnam in the wake
of the Japanese collapse, the Vietminh extended its claims to
all Vietnam. On September 2, 1945, Ho proclaimed the establishment
of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The same month, General Philip E. Gallagher arrived to head
a U.S. military mission. An office of the OSS was set up in Hanoi
under Major Patti. Both U.S. officers supported Vietnamese independence
under Ho and opposed the restoration of French colonial rule.
On September 20, 1945, General Gallagher wrote his superior:
The Annamite party, Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, who is
the Prime Minister, is definitely in the saddle. This Ho Chi Minh
is an old revolutionist and a political prisoner many times, a
product of Moscow, a communist. He called upon me and welcomed
us most profusely, gave me a very beautiful red banner with my
name on it and some remark about the "Great American Nation,"
etc. His political party is an amalgamation of all lesser parties.
There may be some smaller bandit groups, but they are negligible,
and he has told me that, regardless of the decision of the big
powers regarding whether France would or would not be permitted
to come back in, his party expected to fight, that they are armed,
well supplied, and will resist all French efforts to take over
FIC. In this regard, it is well to remember that he is a revolutionist
whose motto is "Independence or Death."
General Gallagher broadcast over Ho's radio in 1946. Major
Patti introduced General Giap to Jean Sainteny, the leading French
official in Hanoi. The Americans flew a guard of honor of two
fighter planes over a parade in Hanoi celebrating the newly proclaimed
independence. In the United States, Newsweek magazine compared
Ho Chi Minh to George Washington. While General Giap publicly
celebrated the "particularly intimate relations" which
the Vietminh enjoyed with the United States and Ho told a State
Department official that he regarded the United States as the
"one nation most likely to be sympathetic to our cause,"
the returning French did not conceal their annoyance at "the
infantile anticolonialism" of the Americans. (The following
year Le Monde, not a notably sensational newspaper, gave circulation
to reports that the OSS was actually attempting to negotiate personal
economic concessions with Ho on behalf of General William Donovan,
the Wall Street figure who was chief of the OSS.)
On March 6, 1946, Ho and Sainteny signed an agreement recognizing
the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as "a free state with
its own government, parliament, army and finances, forming a part
of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union." In exchange
for the recognition of autonomy, Ho agreed to the return of fifteen
thousand French troops. "I am not happy about it, for basically
it is you who have won," Ho remarked at the signing. "But
I understand that you cannot have everything in one day."
The French troops returned and Paris' negotiating position toughened.
When Ho Chi Minh arrived in the French capital in the summer of
1946 to discuss the practical details of the new relationship
with France, he was greeted as a chief of state by the Paris City
Council. He laid a wreath on the Tomb of the unknown Soldier.
The Vietnamese flag flew in the streets. But the French made no
concessions The only result of the long negotiations between Ho
and the French delegation, composed mainly of conservative military
officers (including General Salan, who ten years later led the
general's revolt against De Gaulle in Algeria), was a vaguely
worded "modus vivendi" which avoided the real issues
of independence. To hedge against the results of the referendum
which they had edged to give, the French set up a puppet Republic
of Cochin China and recognized it while Ho was in France. This
tactic was frustrated shortly afterward, however, when the leader
they had installed committed suicide.
As it became clearer that the French and Vietnamese nationalists
of every political view had sharply divergent views on the process
of independence, violent clashes began to break out. The French,
accused the Vietnamese of terrorism. On November 23, 1946, they
turned the full force of their artillery on the city of Haiphong
and killed more than six thousand Vietnamese. Less than a month
later the Vietnamese cut off the water and electricity supply
for Hanoi and launched an attack. The war for Indochina had begun.
Although it mounted in savagery, it could not claim world attention.
The colonial issue of the moment was Indonesia. The Soviet Union's
delegate to the United Nations told Vietnamese nationalists who
came to see him that Russia was not interested in Vietnam. Ernest
Bevin announced in Parliament that Indochina was a problem for
the French alone. In France the communists, still hopeful of taking
power, played the role of French nationalist, not revolutionary
partisan "Are we, after having lost Syria and Lebanon yesterday,
to lose Indochina tomorrow, North Africa the day after?"
L'Humanite asked its readers.
In the United States, Secretary of State George Marshall
issued a statement on February 7, 1947, expressing the hope that
"a pacific basis of adjustment of difficulties could be found."
The French took this to mean that the Truman administration favored
a prompt negotiated settlement.
The French, however, were pursuing another course. In early
1947 they began negotiations with Bao Dai, the Vietnamese nationalist
who had served as emperor under the Japanese and, for a short
period, as supreme political adviser to Ho's Democratic Republic.
During the year the role of the left in France weakened and support
for a more militant anti-Vietminh policy gathered.
The United States first began to take a serious interest in Indochina
in the summer of 1949. From the first moment Vietnam and its Southeast
Asian neighbors caught the attention of the National Security
Managers it was seen not as a web of political conflict in desperate
need of settlement or, indeed, as an area of intrinsic importance
at all, but as a rampart to contain China, now transformed into
the world's most populous communist state. Thus Indochina became
an object of commitment in the backwash of Mao's triumph. The
Kuomintang government had fled to Formosa. and communist
... as the military situation deteriorated, the French- kept asking
for vast increases in aid. The State Department had come to the
conclusion, as Ambassador Bruce told the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, "that if Indochina went, the fall of Burma and
the fall of Thailand would be absolutely inevitable." So
convinced were they of the reality of the falling dominoes that
Bruce made it clear that it would be a long time before "it
will be safe to withdraw" foreign troops from Vietnam. Washington
had promised an extra three hundred and eighty-five million dollars
to help finance ~e "Navarre Plan," an ambitious scheme
for a reinforced effort to subdue the Vietminh. In January, 1954,
Paris had asked for four hundred American mechanics and maintenance
men, but the National Security Council decided to send only two
hundred. President Eisenhower denied that this was the beginning
of a U.S. military intervention, for as he told his press conference,
there could be "no greater tragedy.
But the moment for a major U.S. involvement in Vietnam was
at hand. The French were coming to the end of their strength.
On January 14, 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency reported
to President Eisenhower that the French garrison at Dien Bien
Phu, totaling about eleven thousand troops, was down to six days'
supply of rations. President Eisenhower began to consider seriously
the possibility of a large-scale U.S. military intervention. He
appointed a committee of the joint chiefs of staff, Allen Dulles,
and Roger Kyes, the deputy secretary of defense, to develop a
plan for aiding the French. Meanwhile the President, as he himself
described it, "carefully examined methods and procedures
calculated to win the approbation of most of the Free World"
for a military intervention.
The administration now began a series of public statements to
emphasize the gravity of the impending French collapse and to
prepare public opinion for intervention. As early as March '9
Dulles had spoken publicly about the need to take "united
action" that might "involve serious risks." On
April 7 the President told a press conference that the loss of
Indochina, under the "falling-domino" principle, would
threaten India, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to say
nothing of the territories that bordered Indochina. The next week
Vice-President Nixon delivered far stronger remarks in an "off-the-record"
talk to newspaper editors:
The United States as a leader of the Free World cannot afford
further retreat in Asia . . . if this government cannot avoid
it, the Administration must face up to the situation and dispatch
Accused in Congress of "whooping up for war,'' Nixon
was commended by the President for awakening the country to the
seriousness of the situation. "One of the boldest campaigns
of political suasion ever undertaken by an American statesman"
was Richard Rovere's judgment in his Washington Letter of April
8, 1954. "Congressmen, political leaders of all shadings
of opinion, newspapermen, and radio and television personalities
have been rounded up in droves and escorted to lectures and briefings
on what the State Department regards as the American stake in
Indo-China," he reported. The dominoes were falling so fast
in these briefings that Rovere wondered whether Dulles thought
that the United States could survive a communist victory in Indochina.
(The-secretary a few days later said he thought it could.)
The cause of all this desperate talk was China. While there
was, according to Eisenhower, "no incontrovertible evidence
of overt participation by Chinese troops in the Indo-China conflict,"
the vision of yellow hordes pouring over the rice paddies of Asia
obsessed official thinking.
In the decade following the Geneva accords Vietnam became a personal
mission for a coalition of military officers, professors, clerics,
bureaucrats, and publicists, who joined forces in the effort to
convert the provisional zone south of the cease-fire line at the
17th parallel into a "viable" noncommunist state. In
the intellectually arid fifties, Vietnam was a unique challenge.
A testing ground for a wide variety of ideas on modernization,
guerrilla warfare, police administration, rural reform, and foreign
aid, the fledgling Asiatic country became the new frontier of
the Eisenhower administration.
Those who joined the campaign to establish and defend South
Vietnam acted from a variety of motives. Dulles had reluctantly
agreed to partition only after securing the agreement of Britain
and France to establish SEATO, a regional collective-security
organization designed to stem any further communist advances in
Asia. "The problem," Dulles had explained to Senator
Knowland as the Geneva talks were dragging to a close, "is
where to draw the line . . . we are confronted by an unfortunate
fact-most of the countries of the world do not share our view
that Communist control of any government anywhere is in itself
a danger and a threat." He now saw the problem of South Vietnam
as the need to build a new defense line. A U.S.-sponsored military
buildup was the only way to make the one-in-ten gamble pay off.
General Collins, who was sent to Saigon as special envoy,
promptly announced that the United States intended to supply the
South Vietnamese armed forces with two billion dollars in military
supplies in order to build it up to a strength of two hundred
and fifty thousand. Despite the prohibitions of the Geneva accords
against "the introduction into Vietnam of foreign troops
and military personnel as well as all kinds of arms and munitions,"
and against entering foreign military alliances, the United States
was soon paying most of the cost of running the country and virtually
the entire bill for outfitting the army and the police.
The U.S. military mission under General James A. Van Fleet,
fresh from his service in Greece, had arrived in 1950 to supervise
American aid and, occasionally, to lecture resentful French generals
on how to win the war. The mission now took over the responsibility
for training the Vietnamese army. By the end of 1956 all French
troops were gone, and by 1960 the U.S. Military Aid and Advisory
Group already exceeded the limit of six hundred and eighty-five
set by the Geneva accords.
The role of the American military in Vietnam did not become
central, however, until two years later. In the Eisenhower years
the primary emphasis was on "nation-building," a euphemism
for the campaign to persuade the premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, to govern
in a less quixotic and destructive way. Diem had been the candidate
of an unlikely group that included a Supreme Court justice, a
cardinal, a CIA-specialist in guerrilla warfare, a professor of
political science, and the editor of a socialist magazine. This
mandarin mystic, who had faithfully served in the French civil
service in the 1930s but had refused to work for either Ho or
the Japanese, had a reputation as a strong nationalist. By 1954
he had aroused the interest of a number of influential Americans,
who were looking for an instrument to discharge the responsibilities
the United States had picked up as a result of the French collapse.
To William 0. Douglas, who met Diem in Washington in 1951, this
self-exiled politician looked like the man to back, "because
he is honest and independent and stood against the French influence.''
He introduced him at a breakfast meeting to Senator Mike Mansfield
and Senator John F. Kennedy, who also enlisted as backers. Diem
possessed the rare asset of being both anticommunist and anti-French.
He was a devout Catholic, abstemious in his personal habits, and
a member of a prominent family that boasted a number of bishops.
Thus, when he came to the United States to take up residence at
the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey, it was not altogether
surprising that he became acquainted with the archbishop of New
York, Cardinal Spellman. When the French, at American urging,
accepted Diem as premier in June, 1954, in the midst of the Geneva
conference, the cardinal soon became an enthusiastic booster of
an independent South Vietnam, which he saw as a hopeful alternative
to the "surrender" of Geneva. "If Geneva and what
was agreed upon there means anything at all, it means . . . 'taps
for the buried hopes of freedom in Southeast Asia,"' he told
the American Legion. Vietnam was a victim of the communist "world
plan," and Diem was a virtuous instrument for fighting the
Cold War in Asia.
Other Americans saw Diem's role as slightly different from
militant nationalist or Cold War fighter. Vietnam became the passionate
concern of various liberals, who, while strongly anticommunist,
were troubled that the United States could not provide a decent
alternative. Many of them were college professors or younger officers
in the Central Intelligence Agency or the foreign-assistance bureaucracy,
who believed that the competition with Russia and China for the
control of the underdeveloped world would ultimately be decided
by the "battle for men's hearts and minds." Military
aid and massive retaliation in themselves were sterile instruments.
The new diplomacy demanded a conscientious effort to construct
welfare-state institutions in primitive economies; in short, to
stimulate a controlled revolution from the top to forestall an
uncontrolled one from the bottom. The most celebrated exponent
of that view was Colonel Edward Lansdale, who had worked for the
CIA in helping Ramon Magsaysay put down the Huk insurgency in
the Philippines. Dulles, who had been impressed with Lansdale's
success, sent him to Vietnam, just as Dien Bien Phu was falling,
to look for a Vietnamese Magsaysay. The colonel also decided that
Diem was the man and became a passionate partisan of the premier
in his subsequent fights with the U.S. army.
But, the most vocal private supporters were the International
Rescue Committee and later the American Friends of Vietnam. This
Vietnam lobby, unlike the China lobby of the 1940'S; was made
up not of old Asia hands and conservatives but of liberals for
whom the Cold War overshadowed all else. The International Rescue
Committee, which had been set up to handle the flow of refugees
from Hitler's Europe, now concentrated on resettling refugees
from communist countries. The president of the Committee, Leo
Cheme, went to Vietnam in late 1954 and wrote the subscribers
to the Research Institute of America service, an organization
he also headed, that the effort to keep Vietnam noncommunist depended
upon unstinting support for Diem. Cherne, who had also met Diem
when he was at the Maryknoll Seminary, became a principal propagandist
for the South Vietnamese government.
The United States National Security Managers has their primary
interest, which was to contain China and maintain a worldwide
reputation for the United States as a nation willing and able
to put a stop to insurgent movements.
Since these interests often conflicted, the United States
made it clear on more than one occasion that its interests were
paramount. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge told reporters that the
United States would be justified in staying in Vietnam even if
the government asked the Americans to withdraw, since a pullout
"would certainly shake our position in Berlin." When
some of the governments that succeeded Diem after his assassination
in November, 1963, attempted to explore a political coalition
with the insurgents, U.S. officials moved decisively to block
the possibility and to continue the war.
In Vietnam the U.S. intervention steadily deepened in the 1950s
as U.S. officials tried to protect their earlier investments.
These investments included not only the vast sums of prior years
but also their personal reputations. Men had begun to build careers
on a series of claims. Academic advisers had written in journals
about the success of the Land Reform or the Education Projects.
The volunteer propagandists had gone far out on several limbs
in predicting the coming triumph of Diem's democracy. The military
had filled the pages of the military journals with extravagant
promises of the successes of "counterinsurgency." Thus
they pressed continually for more effort, more commitment, to
make these promises come true. They kept demanding just a few
more men, just a few more months, in order to postpone the accounting
which would measure performance against promise.
The U.S. intervention grew increasingly direct as the political
fabric of South Vietnam, fragile from the first, began to unravel.
Diem's dictatorship, supported with a network of informers, military
tribunals, and corrupt functionaries, declared war not only on
the communists, who until 1957 were quiescent, but also against
any group whose personal loyalty was not assured. Indeed, more
noncommunists than communists ended up in Diem's jails. "There
are still people in our ranks who must be eliminated," the
official journal Cach Mang Quoc Gie wrote in 1959. "Their
crimes equal in gravity those of the communists and the nation
must consider them as traitors.... We now have all the means necessary
to terminate the criminals."
Diem's despotism, his shameless favoring of Catholic refugees
from the North over the rest of the population, and his persecution
of all political dissidents produced the coalition against him
that he dreaded. A core of Vietminh members had remained behind
in the South after the Geneva partition, who became the principal
activators of the new insurgency, which was also made up of army
officers and dissidents of varied political views. In 1957 the
Dai Viet and the National Salvation Movement, both as anticommunist
as they were anti-Diem, organized guerrilla units and a clandestine
radio to oppose the government. In 1958 a radio station calling
itself the South Vietnam Liberation Front began to broadcast.
The anthropologist Gerald Hickey reports that by 1958 the National
Liberation Front, already called Vietcong by the South Vietnamese
government, was operating in the villages. Although in 1958 Radio
Hanoi attacked the Front in a number of broadcasts for losing
patience in the Geneva settlement and for advocating a prematurely
radical program, it appears that the guerrilla activities, which
in most cases started because of local political conditions in
South Vietnam, came increasingly under the direction and coordination
of Hanoi. U.S. intelligence reported at the time that Ho Chi Minh
was initiating acts of terrorism in the South to put pressure
on Diem to keep his agreements but that he did not contemplate
a violent overthrow of the Diem regime.
When John F. Kennedy came to the White House, he was the first
American President to have visited Vietnam and to have acquired
some firsthand impressions. In 1951 he made a congressman's junket
to Indochina, became acquainted with Edmund Guillion, a foreign-service
officer critical of the Acheson policy of supporting the French,
and came away convinced that the United States must find a new
way to relate to the revolutionary developments of Southeast Asia.
Some of these ideas he expressed in a speech to the Senate three
years later, during the critical week in which Dulles and Admiral
Radford were trying to enlist support for an air strike against
Dien Bien Phu:
I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military
assistance in Indo-China can conquer . . . "an enemy of the
people" which has the sympathy and covert support of the
people.... For the United States to intervene unilaterally and
to send troops into the most difficult terrain in the world, with
the Chinese able to pour in unlimited manpower, would mean that
we would face a situation which would be far more difficult than
even that we encountered in Korea.
In a meeting with outgoing President Eisenhower the day before
taking office, the President-elect listened to his predecessor
describe the mounting guerrilla activity in Laos, which, he said,
was the key to all Southeast Asia. If the United States could
not get its allies to act with her-and once again Britain and
France were against a SEATO intervention in Indochina-the United
States, Eisenhower urged, "as a last desperate hope"
should "intervene unilaterally." Recalling the Marshall
mission to China, Eisenhower warned against a settlement that
would permit communists a role in the Laotian government. The
outgoing secretary of defense observed that the United States
could move a division into Laos in twelve to seventeen days.
Taylor and Walt Rostow, the leading guerrilla-warfare advocates
of the administration, to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission. Kennedy
had been disturbed by a speech of Khrushchev's delivered two weeks
before his own inaugural in which the Soviet leader declared "a
most favorable attitude" toward wars of national liberation,
mentioning in particular the one in Vietnam. Kennedy saw Vietnam
as a test case for Khrushchev's theories as well as for the American
doctrines of counterinsurgency. He was thus psychologically prepared
for the advice Taylor and Rostow brought back: The United States
should take over certain tasks of the war, including airlifting
and reconnaissance. A force of about ten thousand combat troops
should be sent. Rostow proposed a policy of "graduated retaliation"
against North Vietnam-in plainer words, the United States should
bomb them to force them to stop giving military aid to the Vietcong.
The report mentioned some political reforms, too, but conceded
that Diem would not make them voluntarily. The only hope was that
an increased U.S. presence could work "de facto changes in
Diem's method of government."
Some suggested that perhaps Diem ought to be replaced. "Our
trouble," J. K. Galbraith, then ambassador to India, remarked
prophetically, "is that we make revolutions so badly."
The United States was now "married to a failure" and
must "see it through." Kennedy resisted the recommendation
to send troops: "The troops will march in; the bands will
play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have
forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops.
It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off and you have to
take another." But by the end of the year the President had
authorized a new U.S. military command in Vietnam under a four-star
general. In early l962 two air-support companies of three hundred
men arrived in Saigon, the first of a steady succession of small
increments that would bring the level up to about twenty-five
thousand by the summer of 1964. The President had rejected major
military intervention as a conscious policy but he had set in
force the bureaucratic momentum that would make it a certainty.
"When the right cause is identified and used correctly,"
General Lansdale continued to argue, "the anti-Communist
fight becomes a pro-people fight." These sensible maxims
for manipulating the politics of divided countries seemed more
and more irrelevant as the Diem regime played out its final tragic
moments. On May 8, 1963, Buddha's birthday, Diem, now under increasing
influence of the Nhus, banned the display of religious flags,
thus provoking riots, to which he responded with a bloody repression.
The wave of suicides by self-immolation of Buddhist monks aroused
horror and sympathy in the United States and mobilized internal
opposition in Vietnam. Madame Nhu's offhand remark to a U.S. TV
man that "all the Buddhists have done for this country is
to barbecue a monk" revealed more about the state of the
Diem government than official handouts could overcome. While Kennedy
was assuring the country that "we are going to stay there"
because withdrawal would mean the collapse of all Southeast Asia,
Diem was preparing a war on pagodas and bonzes that would totally
expose the demented fury of his regime.
Now Kennedy moved against him. He told a television interview
that the chances of winning the war were "not very good"
unless the Vietnamese government took steps to win back popular
support. This meant "changes in policy and perhaps . . .
personnel." The U.S. officials in Saigon were divided on
whether to withdraw support from Diem. General Harkins, the military
commander, and Ambassador Nolting, as well as Richardson, the
CIA chief, had staked a great deal on making the relationship
with Diem work. The new ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, who arrived
in late August, joined what was now the consensus of the foreign
service and other nonmilitary officials. Diem could not be saved.
In October the White House reported the judgment of General Taylor
and Secretary McNamara that "the major part of the United
States military task can be completed by the end of 1965"
and that one thousand U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end
of 1963. They also announced the suspension of the Commercial
Import Program, a one-hundred-million-dollar-a-year expenditure
designed to subsidize purchases by the South Vietnamese government.
The effect of suspension was to turn the businessmen, who lived
on these subsidies, against the regime. Payments to the Vietnamese
Special Forces were also cut off, thus encouraging the army to
move against Diem. The increasingly Kafka-like atmosphere of Saigon
was now in the thrall of rumor. Nhu was reportedly negotiating
with the Vietcong, Hanoi, and Paris. According to Roger Hilsman,
there were repeated intelligence reports that Nhu "had been
attempting to set up a secret channel of communications with Hanoi."
The Americans, allegedly, were directing a coup to bring Diem
On November 2 Diem and Nhu were murdered.
Diem's assassination let loose a flood of events that swiftly
transformed the character of the American crusade. The first military
junta, under General Duong Van Minh, fell after two months before
the pressures of more enterprising generals, led by General Nguyen
Khanh. "A necessary move to prevent neutralists from taking
over the government,'' The new military leader explained to Ambassador
Lodge, who promptly pledged full American support to the junta.
There were now sixteen thousand U.S. military advisers and thirty-five
hundred civilians attempting to spur on a South Vietnamese army
of four hundred thousand men against a force which U.S. military
spokesmen at the time described as a "hard core" of
twenty-five thousand guerrillas, supported by eighty thousand
"irregulars" and perhaps three hundred thousand "sympathizers"
(civilians who sheltered or fed the Vietcong). The guerrillas
brought more and more territory under their control and grew increasingly
bold. Just before the fall of Diem the Vietcong had blocked the
highway from Saigon to Hue and forced all the vehicles off the
road into a clearing, where their occupants were subjected to
a lecture before being allowed to proceed. Vietcong attacks on
strategic hamlets, still a major project of the regime, mounted.
So also did the rate of assassination of local leaders. General
Harkins continued to talk of "victory" being only "months
away," but the eight-year experiment to create a separate
South Vietnamese national identity was crumbling fast. "The
old regime has destroyed all political life," General Minh
explained to a French newspaperman a few days before his own removal
by General Khanh.
The Johnson administration refused to consider negotiations while
the political life of the Saigon government was ebbing away. In
the view of the National-Security Managers, what was needed was
not disengagement, as Kennedy had hinted in the last days of the
Diem regime, but rather a dramatic show of increased commitment.
By early summer, 1964, Secretary Rusk was instructing newsmen
"to report that the U.S. commitment to Viet Nam was unlimited,
comparable with West Berlin.'' This meant, as President Johnson
made explicit, that the United States was prepared to risk war.
The occasion for a spectacular show of commitment materialized
shortly before ten P.M. on the night of August 4. The destroyer
Maddox and her sister ship Turner Joy radioed that they were under
attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats. (For the Maddox, which
had been serving as protection for South Vietnamese vessels carrying
out raids in the Tonkin Gulf, this was the second encounter with
enemy PT boats in two days.) There is considerable question as
to the location of the encounter and its exact character. (The
destroyers were undamaged.) There is also question, in view of
the swiftness and scale of the retaliatory air raids on North
Vietnam that followed less than twelve hours after the radio message
was received, whether the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin was the
inspiration or merely the pretext for a show of force desired
for quite other reasons. Whatever the motivation, the attack provided
a brief political stimulant for the Khanh government. The general
publicly exulted in the raids, which demolished three naval bases,
oil depots, and twenty-five boats; attempted to tighten his control
over Saigon by outlawing strikes, imposing censorship, and increasing
police intimidation; and boasted that he now had support for a
march to the North. Polls in the United States showed eighty-five-percent
approval for what the President called a "limited" response.
In the first flush of shock and relief that greeted the Tonkin
incident, the President secured a joint resolution from Congress
empowering him to "take all measures ... to repulse aggression
and prevent further aggression."
The long period of creeping escalation was now at an end. The
U.S. commitment was about to take a series of quantum jumps...
Secretary McNamara revealed the real reason for the U.S. escalation,
which began with the regular systematic bombing of North Vietnam
in February, 1965, and the dispatch of over one hundred thousand
men in one hundred and twenty days in the summer of that year,
when he admitted that the Vietcong were "approaching possible
victory." According to Senator Mansfield's report, "a
total collapse of the Saigon government's authority appeared imminent
in the early months of 1965." The United States rushed in
its divisions to avoid a "disaster." As General Westmoreland,
the U.S. commander, put it, "Early in 1965 we knew that the
enemy hoped to deliver the coup de grace by launching a major
summer offensive to cut the Republic of Vietnam in two with a
drive across the central highlands to the sea. I had to make a
decision and did. I chose a rapid build-up of combat forces."
Operation Rolling Thunder, the bureaucratic code designation
for the bombing campaign of North Vietnam, was ostensibly begun
as retaliation for a Vietcong attack on a U.S. headquarters near
Pleiku in which seven U.S. soldiers were killed and one hundred
and nine wounded. The swiftness of the air strikes, which followed
only hours upon transmission of the first reports of the Pleiku
incidents, indicates that, like the Tonkin incident, it was a
convenient occasion for carrying out a military mission that had
long been planned. President Johnson, according to Newsweek correspondent
Charles Roberts, told him that the decision was made "in
October, 1964, at the height of the presidential election campaign."
In newspaper interviews and before committees of Congress,
McGeorge Bundy and others emphasized the importance of the bombing
for the political survival of the Saigon government. And, indeed,
it did have the desired effect on those politicians in South Vietnam
who stood to gain personally by the escalation. "The happiest
day of my life," General Ky, head of the Vietnamese air force
and soon to become head of government, exclaimed when he heard
of the raids. He understood that the escalation meant increasing
power for the military in South Vietnam and for himself in particular.
The means that a large power selects to intervene in a small
one's affairs determines the political complexion of the client
country. Having decided to characterize the problem of Vietnam
as primarily military and to defer political repair until "victory,"
the United States had little choice but to promote and support
those politicians who were dedicated only to military resistance.
Despite continued talk about "pacification" and, later,
"constitutional reform" and other efforts to attack
the political causes of insurgency, these approaches received
less and less attention as the military program shifted into high
By 1967 it was largely an American war fought with a rain
of bombs at a rate that exceeded the monthly tonnage of bombs
dropped on Nazi Germany at the height of World War II. Despite
five hundred thousand men and more, mastery of the air over South
Vietnam, and increasing bombardment of strategic and economic
targets in North Vietnam, the war was not going well for the United
States. The Vietcong continued to recruit more men. They returned
to villages once "cleared" by costly and bloody "search-and-kill"
operations. The South Vietnamese army played less and less of
a role. Little progress had been made on building a political
basis for the restoration of peace. Much of the South Vietnamese
population, to the confusion and fury of their American protectors,
continued to cooperate with the Vietcong and refused to warn the
Americans when guerrilla attacks were coming. As the casualties
mounted, Vietnamese and American, the escalation made more evident
than ever the political and moral bankruptcy of one country using
military force to stop a political movement in another.
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