This week we continued our look at the Vietnam War, but also focused on the Civil Rights movement.
Vietnam has many controversial aspects, including the way we fought the war. I think our massive bombing campaigns attracted Johnson for political reasons. He campaigned in ’64 on a “I don’t want to want to get too involved in Vietnam,” platform and won easily. Bombing allowed us to do something while committing relatively few men and risking relatively few lives compared to other options. At the same time, our bombing could send the message to the North that we meant business.
But our military actions have a meaning to them that extends far beyond their direct military impact. Bombing proved disastrous in a number of ways:
- Bombing, while low-risk, comes with great expense. As Martin Luther King said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the chance for us to create a decent America.”
- In jungle terrain, bombing had little to no effect on enemy movements or their ability to fight
- Bombing makes us look like a bully. Here we are, the most advanced society on earth, dropping explosives from a safe distance upon a peasant society. Human nature loves an underdog, and perhaps Americans especially loves them. Our tactics made the North Vietnamese look like the team a neutral observer would root for (we need to think in similar ways about our use of drones today — how are drone strikes interpreted by the global population?)
- Finally, one could argue that bombing sent a message not of the strength of our resolve, but of our lack of it. We know that Johnson wished desperately that the war in Vietnam would “go away.” Bombing brought little domestic fall-out initially, because it would mean relatively few casualties for us. Ho Chi Minh could easily have interpreted bombing as Johnson’s way of trying to avoid the hard questions Vietnam brought. It appears that they did just that.
We lost the battle for public opinion in the war by around 1967.
General Westmoreland’s tactics of “Search and Destroy” proved strategically ineffective in the long run. We like to think of our armed forces as tool for good. We understand that that might mean violence, but most of don’t want to think of our military primarily being used to kill others. Westmoreland did not focus on protection, but on “body counts.” How many of the enemy did we kill? This does not have the same ring, as “How many innocent lives did we protect?” though obviously that could involve killing the enemy.
The North Vietnamese certainly committed atrocities — more of them than we did and with greater scope. They usually treated civilians much worse than us, sometimes intentionally using them as human shields. Their atrocities did not get equal media attention. But I suspect that even if such atrocities had been well-reported, it may not have made much difference. We expected others, the “them,” to be the bad guys. Nothing in our national psyche or identity prepared us not to like what we saw in the mirror. One sees this self-delusion in those that said, “The only thing that can defeat America is America,” which asserts that we can attain omnipotence if only we will it.
De Tocqueville and many others have commented that when democratic armies have the support of the population they become very difficult to stop. Democratic armies naturally seek to draw strength from the people. But when they cannot do this, their effectiveness gets diminished. This is something that democratic societies must bear in mind in a way that dictatorships, for example, do not. In Vietnam, I believe that most historians would agree that we did not fashion a “way of war” that lent itself to gaining the support of the people. The North Vietnamese realized our predicament long before we did. Le Duan Thoc, a North Vietnamese strategist, commented fairly early in the war,
[We can win no matter what the United States does.] They will fight far from home and will be regarded as an old style colonial invader, in a climate to which they are not accustomed, against indigenous forces backed by China and the Soviets. If they invade the North they will face 17 million of us, and potentially hundreds of millions from China. If they use nuclear weapons the Soviets will retaliate. The more they risk, the more they alienate the international community and erode support domestically – the more too they are vulnerable to a crisis in other parts of the world. The enemy is in a weak position.
Some argue that, in fact, we could never have won in Vietnam. Eventually we would go home, and they would remain. Others counter with the argument that, had we fought in a way that focused on security for the South rather than killing the enemy, we could have won over public opinion and given the South Vietnamese government a chance to work. We in fact began to try this strategy in 1969 when General Abrams replaced Westmoreland, but by then America had given up the fight in our hearts and minds. Of course, some believe we could have won if we had fought differently, either with more bombing in Cambodia and Laos, or with a different style of fighting (perhaps fewer men and more covert operations).
We also looked this week at how the Civil Rights movement transformed over time. The enormous moral force of those that demonstrated for equal treatment overwhelmed opposition. Television brought the issue to the forefront of American homes across the country, much as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 moved the slavery question from the abstract to the real for many Americans. The movement peaked in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.
But then something happened. Violence erupted in many cities across America over the next two years, beginning with the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Student protests spiked sharply. The fringe “Hippy” movement went into the mainstream. How did this happen? At the moment when it seemed that America had become more of the kind of country it was supposed to be, why did so many subsequently turn to violence?
This paradoxical question will occupy us next week. What I suggest for now is that King’s words above may not have been merely metaphorical.