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 forces.

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 down.

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 gear.

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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