NEWSWEEK presents the surviving counterarguments in a well reasoned sidebar by Senator John Kerry; Kerry deserves another Silver Star for his determined rebuttal, which says in effect that he who misreads history is doomed to repeat it. Yet with our foundering adventure in Afghanistan making ever more controversial demands at the moment, it could be that a few additional paragraphs of neglected history might restore some perspective.
The fact is, the United States began to involve itself in Vietnam in 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower — who hated the idea of our involvement in a land war in Asia and repeatedly turned down requests for massive support by the French and ultimately advised his successor to stay out — was misadvised by his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and refused to sign a pending peace treaty in Indochina to which we had earlier agreed and which would have established a unified Vietnam. We subsequently sponsored the resettlement of a million or so Roman Catholics from the North, most of them transported on U.S. Navy vessels, around what quickly became the Republic of South Vietnam. Then we installed Bao Dai, the first of a series of ineffectual Catholic rulers over what was in essence a Buddhist country, and attempted to steer the politics of the region by means of a sizeable CIA station in Saigon.
By the time John Kennedy was in place as president in 1961 a friend of his father’s, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic monk, was in charge in Saigon and attempting to quell what amounted to a generalized uprising of Buddhist villagers against the newly arrived Catholic infrastructure. These were the first Viet Cong. But Diem was losing control, and early in his presidency Kennedy authorized the introduction of 16,000 U.S. soldiers, almost all of them on station to maintain our squadrons of helicopter gunships, expected to support the Diem administration functionaries.
The revolt spread. As JFK would acknowledge unhappily to the upstart New York Times reporter David Halberstam, the widely publicized “Buddhist barbecues” of the period arose out of deep-seated popular disaffection. Once Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency he was equally pessimistic, but could not – as he regularly wailed to Doris Kearns Goodwin – allow it to appear that he was less of a man than his predecessor, and ratcheted up our exorbitantly expensive involvement until we had half a million troops in Vietnam and ultimately over 50,000 people killed.
Over the course of what ultimately became fifteen years of military involvement we tried everything imaginable – armored assaults, saturation bombing, the entire play-book of anti-insurgency technology. Nixon’s attempts to “Vietnamize” the conflict and draw down our troop involvement failed, totally, and all but invited full-fledged invasion from the North. Every month the Vietnamese population came increasingly to regard us as invaders and occupiers and became more receptive to their cousins in Hanoi. NEWSWEEK’s implication that the Phoenix Program was a prototype on which to base current approaches comes over as particularly far-fetched to those of us who suffered through those years of compounding strategic blunders. I knew Bill Colby well, and he was troubled – haunted – until the day he disappeared by the extent to which Phoenix, which he developed, led to the abrupt extermination of perhaps 40,000 individuals, rarely on the basis of tangible evidence, many murdered to settle private grudges or on the whim of some overblown local potentate. It would be hard to come up with an approach better guaranteed to alienate the populations we were purportedly liberating.
Perhaps the final paradox is the fact that, once we were out of Vietnam, the ideological dominoes we expected to fall never really fell, the economic and geopolitical forces in the region came into play, and today Vietnam is a respected nation all over Southeast Asia and a valuable trading partner of ours. What were we fighting about? It could be the real lesson for us is that no society can accept being dominated by foreigners, demeaned by their occupation, sacrificed to their purposes. It could be that it is time we learned this lesson.
Burton Hersh is the author of “J. Edgar and Bobby” and “The Old Boys” and is currently working on a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy. To learn more about Hersh visit www.treefarmbooks.com.