President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War

excerpted from the book

Lying for Empire

How to Commit War Crimes With A Straight Face

by David Model

Common Courage Press, 2005, paper



During the early 19th century the French set their sights on Vietnam and when diplomatic overtures failed, they opted for war. By 1893, the French had conquered much of Southeast Asia including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. When the French began to plunder the wealth of their new colonies, many resistance movements sprang up but were quickly extinguished. In 1925, Nguyen Ai Quoc, later called Ho Chi Minh, created a revolutionary movement to force the French to leave Vietnam. His movement's struggle did not succeed until after World War II.

Shortly after Ho Chi Minh's return to Vietnam on February 28, 1941, he created a broad front of patriots, peasants, workers, merchants and soldiers soon to be called the Viet Minh. Their purpose was to fight the Japanese and the French. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh into Hanoi and demanded the abdication of Bao Dai, who had been emperor of Vietnam since 1924. After seizing power, Ho Chi Minh decreed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The DRV had only ruled Vietnam for twenty days when French forces overthrew them and reestablished their authority.

In 1946, full-scale war broke out between the French and the Viet Minh in Vietnam.

For one year, beginning in the autumn of 1945, Ho Chi Minh had reached out to the United States and, invoking the principles of the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Charter, beseeched the U.S. to at least to recognize them as a trusteeship under the United Nations Charter.

Between 1946 and 1949, the United States was very ambivalent about events in Vietnam. Roosevelt had been firmly committed to the Atlantic Charter and viewed Vietnam as a flagrant example of colonial exploitation but the U.S. had guaranteed the French that its colonies would be returned after the war. The U.S. regarded the conflict in Vietnam as a conflict to be resolved by the French. Although the United States formally respected Vietnam's right to self-determination, they refused to endorse Ho Chi Minh or the Viet Minh because of Ho's communist affiliations.

The Viet Minh seemed to be gaining the military advantage over the French in 1950 when Viet Minh forces scored a number of victories along a string of French border posts. Becoming somewhat desperate, the French requested United States military assistance on February 16, 1950. A memorandum to President Truman from the Secretary of Defense, stated that:
... [the choice now] confronting the United States is to support the legal government in Indochina or to face the extension of Communism over the remainder of the continental area of Southeast Asia and possibly westward...

Following a recommendation from the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff), President Truman sent American bombers, military advisors, technicians by the hundreds, and direct military assistance which totaled $1.4 billion (the equivalent sum in 2005 would be approximately $6.5 billion).

While the Americans were providing aid to the French, China was aiding North Vietnam. One of the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. was to contain China in Korea and Southeast Asia. American leaders feared that a negotiated settlement between the French and the Viet Minh would leave the Viet Minh in power in Northern Vietnam with strong ties to Communist China. In 1952, the U. S. applied strong pressure on the French to cancel negotiations in Burma with the Viet Minh resulting in a hasty French retreat. The United States attempted to deter any further negotiations between the French and Viet Minh by threatening to withdraw all support and assistance from France.

As the war raged on and the Viet Minh forces were threatening to defeat the French, the United States, fearing a Communist victory, considered a number of options to avert a catastrophe. The United States was not willing to accept either a French loss or a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam. Either option would have placed a key country in Southeast Asia in jeopardy of communist control. The National Security Council paper stated that:
It was U.S. policy to accept nothing short of a military victory in Indo-China... [The] U.S. actively opposes any negotiated settlements in Indo-China at Geneva.

The Security Council recommended that the United States continue the war if the French were not capable of defeating the Viet Minh. President Eisenhower contemplated sending American troops to Vietnam but abandoned that option because Congressional approval was problematic. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Radford, sent a message to the Secretary of Defense, stating that "The employment of atomic weapons is contemplated in the event that such a course appears militarily advantageous." Two American aircraft carriers equipped with atomic weapons steamed toward the Gulf of Tonkin.

On February 18, 1954, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France announced that in late April, the above countries and any other parties concerned would meet in Geneva in April to seek a solution to the eight year conflict in Vietnam. Differences among the allies appeared to be irresolvable. The Soviets, preoccupied with domestic issues, were hoping for a reduction in

... During the Geneva Conference, the interested parties to the conflict in Vietnam hammered out a set of accords on July 21, 1954. To resolve the Vietnamese issues, the Accords specified that:

* there would be a ceasefire in Vietnam;

* there would be a temporary division of North and South Vietnam to be drawn at the 17" parallel;

* Ho Chi Minh and his government would rule North Vietnam; o Ngo Dinh Diem would rule a non-communist state in South Vietnam; o an election would be called in 1956 to allow the people to vote for the government of their choice in a reunited Vietnam.

Both the United States and South Vietnam refused to sign the Geneva Accords because American intelligence reported that Ho Chi Minh would win an election in a united Vietnam. Neither country was willing to risk a united communist Vietnam.

North Vietnam was very disposed to pursuing elections with South Vietnam. President Eisenhower believed that in a vote in a united Vietnam, 80% of the Vietnamese people would vote for Ho Chi Minh as their great liberator.

Until 1965, the United States and the Diem government were waging war against the people in South Vietnam. The enemy in South Vietnam was anyone suspected of being a communist and all members of the Viet Minh. People were rounded up and placed in reeducation centres and prisons, villages were destroyed, and many suspects were murdered. There was a swelling of hatred toward Diem and the Americans between the years 1954 and 1961. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent, document the repression by noting that:

With peaceful settlement successfully deterred, the United States and its client regime turned to the task of internal repression, killing tens of thousands and imprisoning tens of thousands more. Diem supporter and advisor Joseph Buttinger describes "massive expeditions" in 1956 that destroyed villages, with hundreds of thousands of peasants killed, and tens of thousands arrested by soldiers in regions "controlled by communists"...

William Blum confirms the repression in the south by noting that:

... [with] the elections cancelled, the nation still divided, and Diem with his "mandate" free to continue his heavy, tyrannical rule, the turn to violence in South Vietnam became inevitable. As if in knowledge of and preparation for this the United States sent 350 additional military men to Saigon in May 1956, an "example of the U.S. ignoring the Geneva Accords stated the Pentagon study." (Pentagon Papers)

Furthermore, Diem destroyed the traditional autonomy enjoyed in the villages by abolishing village council elections for fear that the Viet Minh might win. Diem endeavored to destroy his enemies in the south by seeking out not only the Viet Minh but also their supporters, arresting them, torturing them, and frequently killing them. The campaign to eliminate his enemies alienated the peasants even further because of the fact that the Viet Minh implemented j more progressive agrarian policies.

The impact of the repressive measures and ineffective policies was that the Diem government lost the support of the people in South Vietnam. Philippe Devillers, in the Pentagon Papers, remarked that:

It was thus by its home policy that the government of the South finally destroyed the confidence of the population, which it had won during the early years, and practically drove them into revolt and desperation. The nonCommunist (and even the anti-Communist) opposition had long been aware of the turn events were taking. But at the beginning of 1960 very many elements, both civilian and military, in the Nationalist camp came to a clear realization that things were moving from bad to worse, and if nothing were done to put an end to the absolute power of Diem, then Communism would end up gaining power with the aid, or at least with the consent, of the population

Historian Arthur Schlesinger also reports in the Pentagon Papers that:

Diem's authoritarianism, which increasingly involved manhunts, political reeducation camps, and the "regroupment" of population, caused spreading discontent and then armed resistance in the countryside... few scholars believe that the growing resistance was at the start organized or directed by Hanoi. Indeed, there is some indication that the Communists at first hung back... it was not until September, 1960 that the Communist Party of North Vietnam bestowed its formal blessing and called for the liberation of the south from American Imperialism.

Hatred of the United States was growing as money, arms, and advisors poured into South Vietnam to bolster the power of Diem. The Americans were perceived as just another colonizer following in the boot prints of Japan and France.

At this point, the U.S. was in so deep, and committed to rolling back what it called communism but which was, in fact, a democratic expression of the Vietnamese people, that it would have been virtually impossible for a U.S. president to start telling the truth. The entire government apparatus was built on a lie and for a president to take any position resembling honesty would have been devastating to the general aims of U.S. policy.

When J.F. Kennedy took office in 1961, conditions in Vietnam were beginning to deteriorate. The impact of the war in Laos, the question of assistance to South Vietnam, the increasing Buddhist riots, and the problem of Diem's leadership converged to the point where Washington was forced / to make some difficult decisions.

... The counter-insurgency war against the guerillas in South Vietnam war doomed to failure unless the rural population was brought under control because they provided a base of support for the National Liberation Front and its military wing, the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). The GVN (Government of South Vietnam) and the United States referred to the members of these two groups as the Viet Cong. Viet Cong is the contraction of the two Vietnamese words, "Vietnamese" and "Communists." To gain control of the population, the GVN would gather people from areas threatened by guerrillas and concentrate them in centralized locations or fortified hamlets. Once physical security was established, the peasants would then be the subjected to a pacification program that was designed to encourage the peasants to identify with the Diem government. The peasants were provided with materials to build homes for themselves and to build fortifications for the hamlet. This strategy of controlling the rural population was called the Strategic Hamlet Program which could only succeed if the peasants were willing to be transferred to these fortified hamlets. When they resisted, the United States engaged in bombing and defoliation to drive the peasants into the strategic hamlets. (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent) On August 1962, Diem produced his pacification program which included 2,500 completed hamlets and 2,500 more under construction.

The Strategic Hamlet and Pacification programs failed because of the farmers' resentment of being displaced from their land and forced to resettle in hamlets.

In April 1963, Diem banned the traditional Buddhist flag just prior to a major festival to celebrate Buddha's birthday. There were between three and four million practicing Buddhists in South Vietnam and 80% of the population were nominal Buddhists (population South Vietnam: 1011 million). Buddhists in Hue, the centre of Buddhist learning, defiantly flew their flag despite the order. The local administration's failure to take action encouraged them to continue to fly their flags and, on May 8, Buddhists in Hue met to celebrate Buddha's birthday with their flags held high. Diem viewed the flags as a challenge to his authority and ordered local authorities to disperse the crowds. When the local officials needed assistance, government troops arrived and killed nine demonstrators and wounded fourteen. Buddhists reacted by launching a nationwide protest. On May 9, 10,000 people demonstrated in protest of the killings. The rioting quickly spread from Hue to Saigon and became a full-blown political crisis.

Kennedy gave Lodge a mandate to manage American policy in Vietnam in other words, to support the coup plotters. On November 1, 1963, General Minh executed coup against Diem who was murdered along with his brother.

... Twenty-two days after the Diem coup, J.F.K. was assassinated and VicePresident Johnson (L.B.J.) became president. Three days after assuming the presidency, L.B. J. endorsed the policies of his predecessor.

The theory that Kennedy was at least thinking about withdrawing from Vietnam is entirely false. According to Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History:

In April 1961, Kennedy created a "task force" to prepare economic, social, political and military programs aimed at preventing Communist "domination" of South Vietnam... He agreed to send an additional hundred military advisors to Vietnam... A11 the rhetoric now emanating from his administration reiterated its resolve to stop Communism in Southeast Asia.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, give a synopsis of Kennedy's polices in South Vietnam claiming that:

The Kennedy administration escalated the war in South Vietnam, engaging U.S. military forces directly in bombing, defoliating, and "advising" combat troops from 1961 to 1962 as part of an effort to drive several million people into concentration camps ("strategic hamlets")..."

Edward Herman, in Beyond Hypocrisy

... from our first entry in support of the French, then with our imported leader "Diem", and up to the time of the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973, we refused to negotiate a political settlement because we had no political base in Vietnam... South Vietnamese governments were installed and overthrown by the United States until it had gotten into place two former French mercenaries, Ky and Thieu who were willing to fight until the end.

Not long after signing the Geneva Accords, the United States and South Vietnam commenced a series of covert operations headed by CIA agent Lucien Conein who trained squads of anti-communist South Vietnamese. The operation involved assassinating and abducting officials in the north, destruction of military installations, establishing bases, organizing local cadres, and propaganda campaigns. In 1964, the covert intelligence effort was code-named Operation Plan 34A or 34 Alpha.

To intimidate the North Vietnamese, Washington ordered Commander in I Chief Pacific Admiral Ulysses Grant Sharp, Jr. to station a task group in the Gulf of Tonkin and conduct aerial reconnaissance. The carrier Ticonderoga and the destroyer Maddox initiated the naval operations. General William C. Westmoreland, the military commander in South Vietnam, asked for and received the authority to broaden the scope of the 34 Alpha operations by shelling radar sites, defence posts, and other coastal targets. The new operation commenced July 30-31 against Hon Me and Hon Ngu, two islands in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In retaliation, on August 2, 1964, the North Vietnamese conducted an attack against the Maddox during which two North Vietnamese patrol boats were severely damaged by the Maddox. Both patrol boats came under attacked by planes from the Ticonderoga which sank one and further damaged the other.

On August 4, 1964, the National Security Agency (NSA) warned the Maddox of another possible attack. An hour after NSA's warning, the Maddox claimed that she had radar contact with three or four unidentified vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. The pivotal incident, which had a critical impact on American involvement in South Vietnam, occurred when, allegedly, the unidentified vessels attacked the Maddox. The Ticonderoga launched aircraft to assist the Maddox and C. Turner Joy but stormy seas, low clouds, and thunderstorms thwarted any attempts by the American pilots to locate any Vietnamese ships. Captain John J. Herrick, captain of the Maddox, recommended a thorough investigation of reports from the crew of radar contact, visual sightings, and weapons fire which could have been attributable to the stormy seas, darkness, and inexperienced, nervous crewmen. There was no damage as a result of these alleged attacks.

Despite the request for an investigation by Captain Herrick who was not convinced that there was a second attack, Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara reported to Congress that there was "unequivocal proof" of a second "unprovoked attack" on U.S. ships. McNamara's account was backed by the administration including President Johnson. As well as lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, McNamara denied any American involvement in South Vietnamese operations including 34 Alpha and the DeSoto operations.

Since then, McNamara has admitted that his statements regarding the Gulf of Tonkin were false. According to Captain Ronnie E. Ford, in Shedding New Light on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident:

Former Secretary of Defence McNamara recently visited Hanoi, where he met with Communist Vietnamese Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap. McNamara also invited the Vietnamese to participate in a conference of top Vietnam War decision-makers to, according to press reports of the visit, "correct the historical record." During his visit, Giap told McNamara that "absolutely nothing" happened on August 4, 1964. McNamara later endorsed this statement by his former adversary.

President Johnson exploited the Gulf of Tonkin incident t1 ask Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to declare war on North Vietnam and conduct the war as he saw fit without approval from Congress. Congress overwhelmingly approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which allowed the President "to promote the maintenance of international peace / and security of Southeast Asia."

On August 4, 1964, President Johnson delivered a speech to the American people explaining what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin and his proposed response. In his speech, he stated that:

Renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply. The initial attack on the destroyer Maddox, on August 2, was repeated today by a number of hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes... repeated acts of violence against the Armed Forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply... Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression against the United States of America... (Department of Communication at Texas A & M University)

Based on a lie, Congress had given Johnson the authority to conduct the war as he saw fit, another example of "lying for empire." Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution there was a massive build-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam, eventually to 550,000 people, a massive escalation of the war which posed a myriad of risks given the tensions of the Cold War and the conflicts in other countries in Southeast Asia.

William Blum, in Killing Hope, states that:

Perhaps the most significant fabrication was that of the alleged attack in August 1964 on two US destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam. President Johnson used the incident to induce a resolution from Congress to take "all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces" to prevent further North Vietnamese aggression... Serious enough doubts were raised at the time about the reality of the attack, but over the years other information has come to light which has left the official story in tatters.

The ... purpose of the bombing was to defoliate South Vietnam. American troops were not as skilled at fighting guerrilla warfare as the Viet Cong forcing American policymakers to shift the war from jungle warfare to conventional warfare by destroying the jungle. Destroying vegetation also destroyed rice and deprived the enemy of a major source of food. The main herbicide defoliant was called Agent Orange which is highly toxic to humans. Approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed in Southeast Asia.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent, describe:

... The combined ecological, economic, and social consequences of the wartime defoliation operations have been vast and will take several generations to reverse"... there is no way to estimate the human effects of the chemical poison dioxin at levels "300 to 400% greater than the average levels obtaining among exposed groups in North America."

The damage caused in the south included 9000 hamlets, 25 million acres of farmland, 12 million acres of forest, one-and-a-half-million dead cattle, the creation of one million widows, and approximately 800,000 orphans.

Agent Orange is a chemical weapon and clearly qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction. It was also aimed primarily at foliage in the jungle which is clearly a civilian target. Many civilians died or were severely burned by Agent Orange and many American soldiers who had handled the defoliant experienced effects many years later. Therefore, the use of Agent Orange, authorized by President Johnson on March 9, 1965, was a war crime. It should also be noted that this weapon of mass destruction was used in South Vietnam against the people whom the United States were supporting in this war.

Napalm, a sticky substance which disperses over a wide area and ignites, was another chemical used to defoliate the jungles in South Vietnam. Edward Herman, in Beyond Hypocrisy, refers to the effects as follows:

it burns at 800 to 1300 degrees centigrade and may continue to bum for fifteen minutes, causing deep, severe bums with a very high death rate-about half of those wounded by napalm die from the burns. Among those suffering phosphorus bums, about three fourths die ...

The Vietnam War caused massive destruction to the land, factories, and infrastructure of North and South Vietnam. It was also devastating to Cambodia and Laos. The estimated death toll in South Vietnam was over 3 million and in North Vietnam over 30,000. By way of comparison, U.S. casualties, though devastating, were far smaller in number. The number of U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam was 540,000. American deaths numbered 58,152, those seriously wounded, 153,303.

Headquarters for the Viet Cong was suspected of being situated in Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was located in Laos and Cambodia, was used for troop movements and supply routes. The United States, in attempting to destroy these targets, was responsible for the death of another one million people, bringing the total death toll for Indochina to over four million. Tens of millions of people in Indochina were displaced from their homes. People are still suffering the effects of the war as Noam Chomsky points out in Necessary Illusions:

Thousands of Vietnamese still die from the effects of American chemical warfare." He [Amnon Kapeliouk] reports estimates of one-quarter of a million victims in South Vietnam in addition to the thousands killed by unexploded ordinance... Kapeliouk describes the "terrifying" scenes in hospitals in the South with children dying of cancer and hideous birth deformities...

Dr. Le Cao Dai, a Hanoi surgeon, and other doctors observed the effects of Agent Orange and its impact on people and the environment. They concluded that the millions of gallons of Agent Orange that poured down on South Vietnam during the Vietnam War caused liver and other cancers, immune-deficiency diseases, miscarriages, birth defects and persistent malaria. Vietnamese estimates show that 400,000 people have been killed or injured by Agent Orange and it has contributed to the birth defects of 500,000 children. (Robert Dreyfuss, Mother Jones)

Many of the 2.6 million U.S. vets who served in Vietnam have complained about a litany of ailments that have been traced to exposure to Agent Orange. The Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to compensate 270,000 vets registered with the Veteran Affairs Agent Orange Program for respiratory cancers, soft tissue sarcoma, prostate cancer and skin diseases. (Robert Dreyfus, Mother Jones)

The multiplicity of lies and war crimes of a number of presidents that were needed to defend the American sphere of influence in South-East Asia resulted in widespread and massive destruction in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. President Johnson contributed his share.

Lying for Empire

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