Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Vietnam War stalemate machine

Paul Rosenberg looks at George McGovern and his opposition to the Vietnam War in George McGovern: The road not taken Aljazeera English 10/25/2012.

What particularly caught my attention about this article was a reference he makes to Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam:

With the release of LBJ's White House tapes, it became clear why McGovern's private entreaties had no effect: LBJ did not need to be convinced that the Vietnam War was bad policy. He already knew and believed that himself, but he believed even more that he'd be impeached if he failed to fight.

Mann's book clearly established the origins of Johnson's thinking: How the Democrat's dramatic -though brief - loss of the Senate in the wake of the Korean War, elevated Johnson to Minority Leader, making him the point man responsible for regaining the majority. There were many more actors than two in Mann's book. But the contrast between these two is most instructive. Both men knew what was right, and both men did what seemed politically expedient for a time.
I haven't read Mann's book yet, so I don't know what may be distinctive about his findings.

But the fact that Presidents, including Johnson, feared very bad political repercussions if they didn't press forward with policies they knew to be bad policy in the larger scheme of things isn't a new analysis. The longest chapter in Daniel Ellsberg 1972 book Papers on The War was titled, "The Quagmire Myth and The Stalemate Machine." There he shows that Presidents from Truman through Johnson made decisions on the Vietnam War that were aimed at preventing immediate military disaster and the bad domestic political repercussions they expected that would involve. He argued in the introduction to the book, quoting a 1969 memo of his own, "that the long-run goal four Presidents [Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ] had chosen to pursue in Indochina - the permanent exclusion of the Indochinese Communist party from open politics, and ultimately its destruction as an organization - had always been beyond their reach. What was always likely to result from their efforts was what had happened: defeat in the North, stalemate in the South."

Ellsberg discussed six decisive decision-making points:

  • Truman's decision in 1950 to subsidize the French colonial war in Indochina
  • Eisenhower's choice in 1954 to forego direct American military intervention accompanied by a progressively hardening defense of South Vietnamese strongman Ngô Đình Diệm (0901-1963)
  • Kennedy's decision in 1961 to send military advisers to support Diem's South Vietnamese military effort
  • Kennedy's ill-fated 1963 decision to back the overthrow of Diem, which resulted in Diem's assassination
  • Johnson's decision in 1964 to bomb North Vietnam after the infamous Tonkin Gulf incident
  • Johnson's decision in 1965 to undertake massive, continuing bombing and "to accept open-ended ground force commitment" to preserve a non-Communist South Vietnam

As 1950 opened, Mao Zedong's Communists had taken full power in China, with the exception of the island of Taiwan. A full-blown Red Scare was already under way even before Sen. Joseph McCarthy announced his still-undisclosed alleged list of Communists in the State Department in Wheeling, West Virginia, of February 9, 1950. Ellsberg quotes from that speech of the alcoholic Senator who managed to produce a great deal of political malpractice over the next four years, "How can we account for our present situation ulesss we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man."

No, that stuff didn't start with Glenn Beck.

McCarthy claimed in a Senate speech of March 30, 1950, "It was not Chinese democracy under Mao that conquered China, as Acheson, Lattimore, Jessup and Hanson contend. Soviet Russia conquered China and an important ally of the conquerors was this small left-wing element in our Department of State." Not matter how slim the probability of "winning," there was little debate within the

McCarthy was sleazier and more dishonest than most. But there was bipartisan consensus on much of this attitude, and not just from Dixiecrats, either. Ellsberg quotes Congressman John F. Kennedy in a speech of January 25, 1949:

Mr. Speaker, over this weekend we have learned the extent of the disaster that has befallen China and the United States. The impressibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State.

The continued insistence that aid would not be forthcoming unless a coalition government with the Communists was formed was a crippling blow to the National Government.

So concerned were our diplomats and their advisers, the Lattimores and the Fairbanks, with the imperfection of the democratic system in China after twenty years of war and the tales of corruption in high places that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a non-Communist China.

Our policy, in the words of the Premier of the National Government, Sun Fo, of vacillation, uncertainty, and confusion has reaped the whirlwind.

This House must now assume the responsibility of preventing the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all of Asia. [my emphasis]

The Kennedys were generally on friendly terms with Joe McCarthy, but that's another story.

Obviously, the ability of foreign policy opinion-makers to inflate threats and scare the hoo-hoo out of themselves and the public also didn't begin with the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 09/11/2001. As Ellsberg wrote, "Fear of McCarthy's and McCarthyism's power at the polls may always have been overdrawn, even in 1950-52, and still more3 so today. ... From one point of view, of course, what matters in explaining the behavior of Congressmen and officials is what they believe their risks to be, and what risks they are willing to take." On the other hand, looking at things from the perspective of 2012 when the Republican Party sounds more every day like the White Citizens Council circa 1960, it would be hard to say that those fears were entirely irrational.

This was the ugly, panicky, poisoned political context in which the Truman Administration decided to extend $10 million of aid to South Vietnam in May, 1950, at a time when $10 million was serious money. Ellberg wrote:

No matter how slim the probability of "winning," there was little debate within the government as to whether the open-ended direct aid policy we commenced in May, 1950, with a first installment of $10 million, was worthwhile. It could - and did - buy a stalemate; and the alternative was to add the Democrats' "loss" of Indochina to their "loss" of China. that was enough to know. To postpone the loss of Tonkin [Vietnam] beyond the tenure of the Truman Administration evidently seemed worth more than the several billion dollars - and the French and Vietnamese lives - that it cost. [my emphasis]
As an example from the Kennedy Administration, he cites a much quoted article by Kenneth O'Donnell, "LJB and the Kennedys" from Life magazine 08/07/1970. It is usually referenced in connection with Kennedy's second-term intentions with regard to Vietnam. But Ellsberg cites it in the context of Kennedy's judgment of the McCarthyist political danger he perceived was involved:

The President told Mansfield that he had been having serious second thoughts about [Sen. Mike] Mansfield's argument and that he now agreed with the Senator's thinking on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam.

"But I can't do it until 1965-after I'm reelected," Kennedy told Mansfield.

President Kennedy felt, and Mansfield agreed with him, that if he announced a total withdrawal of American military personnel from Vietnam before the 1964 election, there would be a wild conservative outcry against returning him to the Presidency for a second term.

After Mansfield left the office, the President told me that he had made up his mind that after his reelection he would take the risk of unpopularity and make a complete withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. "In 1965, I'll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don't care. If I tried to pull out completely now, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected." [my emphasis]
Kennedy had a more realistic-minded view on foreign policy than he had shown as a Congressman in 1949. As Ellsberg noted, "Mansfield was subsequently quoted in interviews as confirming in substance this report."

Ellsberg didn't elaborate as much on what Johnson's particular political fears were on the Vietnam War. But he made it clear that he saw LBJ continuing the previous pattern:

In brief: A decade before what [Arthur] Schlesinger[, Jr.] calls Kennedy's "low-level crisis" in South Vietnam, the right wing of the Republican Party tattooed on the skins of politicians and bureaucrats alike some vivid impression of what could happen to a liberal administration that chanced to be in office the day a red flag rose over Saigon. ...

Many of the paradoxical features of U.S. escalating decisions as seen from the inside - the "discrepancies" between chosen policies, on the one hand, and internal predictions, recommendations, and long-term aims on the other - can thus be seen to reflect conflict between domestic political requirements on outcomes and domestic political constraints on means.
He adds in a footnote that he is "not saying that only calculations of domestic political interest enter or determine these decisions; nor would I deny that such calculations, themselves, may reflect class or corporate interests."

I should add here that Ellsberg's chapter that I've been citing is, from a poli-sci geek viewpoint, a brilliant piece of analysis, not only of the Vietnam-related decision-making itself but also of the institutional pressures for just-good-enough solutions to difficult problems. I'm impressed with that every time I go back to it.

In Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), Doris Kearns [Goodwin] quotes from what she represents as verbatim notes of his extensive post-Presidential interviews with Johnson on the subject of his domestic political calculations on the Vietnam War:

Oh, I could see it coming all right. History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers: the Spanish-American War drowned the populist spirit; World War I ended Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom; World War II brought the New Deal to a close. Once the war began, then all those conservatives in the Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society. You see, they'd never wanted to help the poor or the Negroes in the first place. But they were having a hard time figuring out how to make their opposition sound noble in a time of great prosperity. But the war. Oh, they'd use it to say they were against my programs, not because they were against the poor-why, they were as generous and as charitable as the best of Americans - but because the war had to come first. First, we had to beat those Godless Communists and then we could worry about the homeless Americans. And the generals. Oh, they'd love the war, too. It's hard to be a military hero without a war. Heroes need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic. That's why I am suspicious of the military. They're always so narrow in their appraisal of everything. They see everything in military terms. Oh, I could see it coming. And I didn't like the smell of it. I didn't like anything about it, but I think the situation in South Vietnam bothered me most. They never seemed able to get themselves together down there. Always fighting with one another. Bad. Bad.

Yet everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression. And I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate-a mean and destructive debate - that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam.

"For this time there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy's commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming all right. Every night when I fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward me: 'Coward! Traitor! Weakling!' They kept coming closer. They began throwing stones. At exactly that moment I would generally wake up ... terribly shaken. [my emphasis]
Kearns explained of this passage:

Did Lyndon Johnson believe all this? Yes ... some of the time. Was it true? Some of it; and the rest was not simply pure illusion. For even Johnson's most grotesque exaggerations were always constructed on some fragment of reality, so that they could never be totally disproven by factual evidence or unanswerable logic alone, only by rejecting his judgment for one more reasonable, more consonant with the known facts.

Johnson's description of the nature of the challenge in Vietnam was, of course, a product of his unique personal qualities. But it is important to remember that many others shared this view, although they would not have expressed it with such color or hyperbole. And they, like Johnson, derived their convictions from historical experience. [my emphasis]
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