Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART NINE
Making War: Vietnam

America passed through many sobering experiences during the 1960s, but none so chastening as the war in Vietnam. For ten years, from 1950 to 1960, the United States propped up anticommunist governments in South Vietnam as a part of the American containment of worldwide communism. But Vietnam in those years was only a minor theater in the Cold War. The internal situation in Southeast Asia became more complicated and dangerous in the 1960s, as civil wars threatened pro-Western governments in South Vietnam and Laos. This caused neither fundamental policy reevaluation nor gloom in Washington. For it was just at this time that two of the most energetic and confident administrations in American history came into office -- the liberal governments of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Without doubting American assumptions or power, these administrations increased the commitment in Vietnam as the situation worsened, and in 1965 Johnson accepted full-scale war by landing American combat troops and bombing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the communist state to the north of the 17th parallel. This decision met no important public opposition. It seemed just another incident in the American defense of liberty. Both might and right were assumed to be still on our side.

Three years later the disaster of the Vietnam intervention spread before us: some 535,000 American soldiers were unable to achieve victory; military deaths had gone over 50,000; the economic cost ran to $30 billion a year; and the country was more divided over the war than over any conflict since 1861. The President who bore the most conspicuous responsibility for the intervention, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been unseated. None of this had been dreamed of by those who initiated the Vietnam involvement. Clearly, colossal miscalculations had been made. We had underestimated the enemy and overestimated ourselves. Most fatal, we had allowed ourselves to lose sight of the relation between means and ends, between what was at stake and what would therefore be the appropriate effort and risk.

How could such a foreign policy blunder have been committed by a nation with one of the most sophisticated and vast intelligence-gathering networks in the world, a stable democracy led by men of unusual intelligence? This question had occupied some of our best minds in the years since 1967, when the magnitude of the error became evident even to men in the government itself. Generally speaking, there have been two broad positions on this question. There is the position held by those we might call the Incrementalists, who see a series of miscal-

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