Thursday, June 1, 2017

Early decisions and politics: U.S. in Vietnam

Here, in the paragraphs below, is something interesting from The History Channel. Among the other factors that interest me in this brief article, I take special interest in the fact that the laudable goal of protecting the South Vietnamese from Communists was complicated and undermined by the self-serving, short-sighted domestic interests of American political leaders; similar U.S. political interests would be among the central problems plaguing the noble motives and sacrifices (e.g., more than 58,000 American dead) during America's long not-so-Cold War involvement in Vietnam. As always is the case here at Informal Inquiries, I welcome your comments:

[Dateline: 1 June 1964]

Top U.S. officials concerned about the Vietnam War gather for two days of meetings in Honolulu. Attendees included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Gen. William Westmoreland, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and CIA Director John McCone, among others. Much of the discussion focused on the projected air war against North Vietnam, including a list of 94 potential targets. There was also a discussion of the plan for a joint Congressional resolution.

The meeting was convened to develop options for President Lyndon B. Johnson in dealing with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vietnam. In March 1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara had reported that 40 percent of the countryside was under Viet Cong control or influence. Johnson was afraid that he would be run out of office if South Vietnam fell to the communists, but he did not want to employ American military power on a large scale because of the impact that such actions might have on his Great Society domestic programs. Upon returning from the meeting in Honolulu, several of Johnson’s advisers, led by William Bundy, developed a scenario of graduated overt pressures against North Vietnam, according to which the president, after securing a Congressional resolution, would authorize air strikes against selected North Vietnamese targets. Johnson rejected the idea of submitting the resolution to Congress because it would “raise a whole series of disagreeable questions” which might jeopardize passage of the administration’s civil rights legislation. However, the idea of such a resolution would surface again in less than two months.

In August 1964, after North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers, in what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident, McNamara and Rusk appeared before a joint Congressional committee on foreign affairs. They presented the Johnson administration’s arguments for a resolution authorizing the president “to take all necessary measures” to defend Southeast Asia. Subsequently, Congress passed Public Law 88-408, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving President Johnson the power to take whatever actions he deemed necessary, including “the use of armed force.” The resolution passed 82 to 2 in the Senate, where Wayne K. Morse (D-Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) were the only dissenting votes; the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives. President Johnson signed it into law on August 10. It became the legal basis for every presidential action taken by the Johnson administration during its conduct of the war.


  1. I believe that it was Pozzo di Borgo who said that you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. Since about 1943, the United States has had the power to win nearly every battle that it has engaged in. This has not, however, meant that it has been able to arrive at a satisfactory peace or even armistice in every case. Was there ever a stable and accepted government in South Vietnam for the US to support?

    Johnson wasn't exactly a free agent. He had inherited a policy and a cabinet from Kennedy on the one hand. On the other, he did not have Eisenhower's security against reproaches by the passionately anti-Communist parts of the Republican Party. He also seems to have had less responsible military advice than Eisenhower had had some years earlier.

    1. Yes, George, you make some very good points, and I think the problem goes back further. FDR, for example, wanted the French to abandon colonial domination of Indochina at the end of WW2, which might have helped the region, but he was not supported by others (including Churchill, whom he respected, and DeGaulle, whom he despised), which meant the French remained a colonial dominator in the region, and the continuing French colonial presence emboldened an already agitated Communist named Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh insurgents; in other words, the bloody seeds were sown then (if not sooner) for the many problems that would occur in Vietnam in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.