Most of us have some familiarity with the fact that we failed in Vietnam, though many might debate the reasons for this failure. Some see the fight as essentially hopeless, from an American point of view. When General Petraeus asked historian Stanley Karnow (author of Vietnam, a History) for advice about fighting in Iraq based off of his knowledge of Vietnam, Karnow responded that the biggest lesson was that we should not have been there in the first place.
Perhaps true, but not very helpful to Petraeus.
Others, like Max Boot, argue that had we fought the war in a different way — as a small, counterinsurgency war, we could have drastically lowered the financial and human cost of the war, maintaining political will at home while fighting more effectively abroad. Others, like General Westmoreland himself, argued that had the “gloves come off” and we bombed more heavily and used more troops, we would have had success.
Given this, I wasn’t sure what Brian Van DeMark could offer in his book, Into the Quagmire, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. Van DeMark concentrates not so much on the military side, but the political side of South Vietnam, and the internal debates within the Johnson administration over what to do about the eroding South Vietnamese government. What surprised me was that almost no one in Johnson’s circle of advisors had any real optimism that military action would work to achieve their objectives. Johnson and others astutely recognized that the chaos of South Vietnam’s political situation stood as their main problem. Military action in defense of a an unstable government would almost certainly do nothing to stabilize the regime.
Some argued that our presence would only destabilize them, doing their “dirty work” for them while at the same time making them look weak in the eyes of the South-Vietnamese themselves. Dean Rusk had more optimism than most, but even he realized that our military action had a limited chance. McGeorge Bundy thought success, “unlikely despite our best ideas and efforts,” and believed that the U.S. plan of action was, “likely to stretch out and be subject to major pressures both within the U.S. and internationally.” Johnson saw, “no point in hitting the North if the South is not together.” Ambassador Maxwell Taylor told Johnson that “intervention with ground combat forces would at best only buy time and would lead to an ever increasing commitments, until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially foreign country.” Johnson’s friend Senator Mike Mansfield wrote him that,
Under present conditions [the U.S. sticking to bombing exclusively] Hanoi has no effective way of retaliating against the air-attacks. But if we have large numbers of troops in Vietnam, the Communists would meaningful U.S. targets against which to launch their principal strength, [infantry]. Hanoi could strike back at us by sending main forces into the South.
And so on, and so on.
So why did Johnson end up committing more than 1/2 million men into a war that few believed we could really win?
Part of the logic came from Ass’t Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, who argued that South Vietnam’s dire condition required dramatic, “life-saving” intervention that might possibly give them a chance to live. It probably wouldn’t work but was, “worth a shot.” Along with this, ancillary concerns about China and the Domino Theory had their place. But Van DeMark’s narrative shows that Johnson’s concerns about the domestic politics drove much of his Vietnam policy. This makes sense, for Johnson shone on the domestic scene, and this is where his strengths lay. It makes sense that he put his energies here.
Johnson wanted desperately to pass his “Great Society” legislation, and needed broad congressional support to do so. He feared that inaction in Vietnam would provide enough ammunition to his critics to derail his domestic agenda. Taking action, any action, would show his “tough” stance on communism and rob the right-wing of political leverage against him. As Bundy said,
In terms of domestic politics, which is better: to ‘lose’ now or to ‘lose’ after committing 100,000 men? The latter, [f]or if we visibly do enough in the South, any failure will be, in that moment, beyond our control.
And beyond political reproach from the right.
I can sympathize with Johnson in many ways regarding Vietnam. He inherited a very sticky situation that he had no part of creating. The loss of China, Johnson knew, helped lead to the rise of McCarthy. With Cuba going communist and opportunities lost in North Korea, something it seemed, “had to be done.” In the end, our failure in Vietnam involved poor judgment and bad choices from many different people besides Johnson. In the end, no one’s perfect.
But you can’t stop there. As Polybius stated,
I find it the mark of good [leaders] not only to know when they are victorious, but also to know when they are beaten.
Johnson does deserve a great deal of criticism for using real troops who would both inflict and suffer real death to prop up his domestic agenda. Politics, after all, involves a kind of unreality where crafted image only sometimes leads to substance. To use real lives to bolster an image is in my mind, to commit a definite evil in hopes of an imagined, or possible good. It’s a poor foundation on which to build, and often does not even accomplish what you hope for, since one builds upon image, upon sand.
There also seemed to be a blind “hope against hope” mentality that reasoned, “Failure is quite likely, but we have to do it, so therefore it can work. This sense of feeling trapped, of having ultimately no choice in the matter, strikes me as succumbing to fate, a moral laziness that leads to willful blindness. As Toynbee wrote,
. . . the prospects of man in Process of Civilization depend above all on his ability to recover a lost control of the pitch.
In Johnson’s case, he did get his Great Society legislation passed, but almost certainly would have anyway with or without Vietnam. Our troubles in Vietnam surely helped contribute to Nixon’s election in ’68 (though to be fair, Nixon was not nearly the conservative that Goldwater was, with his overtures to the Soviets, China, the creation of the EPA, etc.). Johnson lost his presidency, and Democrats lost the White House. This seems to me like reality asserting itself, a natural result of an unnatural policy.
One sees a similar principle at work with rookie NFL quarterbacks. Many think that what rookie qb’s need is a an effective running game to take the pressure off the need to pass, to avoid “third and long” situations. I agree with commentator Mike Lombardi, however, who said that rookie quarterbacks don’t need a running game so much as they need a good defense. A good defense will always keep games close, which allows the offense to avoid the need to throw all the time, and force the issue to get big plays and catch up.