For those who are tired of hearing about the Vietnam War, I am coming almost to the end of this series of posts—and then I’ll be starting in on a new book, I daresay! Young’s discussion of the years between 1963 and 1967 seems to be more of the same situation that she describes prior to 1963. This includes:
1. Willful US government (State Department, advisors, and CIA) ignorance—particularly about US mistakes
2. Layers of complexity and paranoia added to US strategizing, coming from little or no evidence
3. Disconnect between government and US public understanding of the conflict
4. Insistence upon US interest in negotiation, while actions say otherwise
About each of these, taking us into and through the Johnson presidency: the NLF insurgency in the south was very large, and worked both within and around the US-chosen government. It was related to a greater Vietnamese nationalism, but was not entirely funded or supported by the north—in fact, much of the resistance in the south came entirely from within. The CIA and the State Department apparently ignored all evidence and warning signs about the detrimental nature of the US role in the country. In what seems like a haze of paranoia and unwarranted layers of complexity, the US government strategized itself into escalating the conflict into all-out war.
As events occurred, and the news of the events made their ways back to Washington, layers of lies, misunderstandings, spins, fantasies, and interpretations seem to have been added. Particularly unsavory was the unprovoked US attack in the northern/international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, which was somehow translated into an act of retaliation against a North Vietnamese attack—at least, that’s how it was sold to Congress.
Young writes, tellingly: “Years later, as the lies were exposed and Congress tried to distance itself from the war it had sanctioned in 1964, many senators claimed that had they known the facts, they would have opposed the resolution.”(120) It sounds distressingly familiar.
What may not be familiar is the type of US presence on the ground. Westmoreland’s strategy of “search and destroy,” as it was employed by actual troops, appears to have been searching and destroying at random. Young provides lots of evidence that the US troops found ways of justifying attack on any population. In effect, the strategy on the ground was no strategy at all. After the destruction had occurred, the US and South Vietnamese troops would return to bases and southern strongholds, rather than staying in the villages. This allowed the NLF to return after the destruction, and recruit, rebuild, and govern among the remains. I am not sure how US strategy works today—it would be interesting to know if the US made any adjustments to this strategy in its modern maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another interesting note is how the US public seemed to see the conflict with much more clarity than US agencies, politicians and advisors. Whether the public in question wanted to end the war, or whether they wanted to win—either way, the public acknowledged that this was a war—not a negotiation; not a diplomatic action, and not particularly a defense of American democracy.
Another feature of this section are the actual words of Lyndon Johnson on multiple occasions. This narrative isn’t particularly kind to Johnson—after all, it’s not about his social liberalism on the domestic front, but about his rather hawkish behavior abroad. The book really highlights just how incredibly sexual Johnson’s public comments were. I had heard some of them before (he’s quite inappropriately quotable), but his comparison of infiltration and bombing of the north to seduction and rape was disturbing.
One of the questions that was raised for me, and remains unanswered, is this: what were the actual intentions of Johnson, or the US advisors? And furthermore, what was there understanding of the conflict 10, 20, 30 years later? This is the stuff of biography, and sometimes autobiography—but even if I were to read these, I think I would remain skeptical. I would like to know if the people involved really believed what they were selling to Congress and the American public, and I would like to know if their opinions changed. If so, when and why? But personal motives and the interior life are extremely difficult to locate. Anyone who is living has something to gain or lose through his story, and there’s really no way of knowing the interior regions of the heart.