A pretense for war in Vietnam

August 4, 2014

August 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the U.S. reported attacks on a Navy destroyer by North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson the authority to send U.S. forces to Vietnam to combat "communist aggression."

To provide the background to the U.S. government's war drive, we reprint an excerpt from the 2007 book Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost by SocialistWorker.org contributor Joe Allen. It is taken from the chapter "From the Overthrow of Diem to the Tet Offensive."

FROM THE end of the Second World War to 1965, the United States attempted to prevent the triumph of the nationalist forces in Vietnam without the large-scale use of its own troops. U.S. administrations tried to do this by first supporting the French in their failed effort to reconquer their former colony, which, under the leadership of the Vietminh, had declared independence following the end of the war. After the defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. strategy was to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel and create an anticommunist puppet state in the southern half of the country around the figure of Ngo Dinh Diem.
The Geneva Accords had stipulated that the country would quickly be reunited after national elections. U.S. policy, however, aimed at making the 17th parallel a permanent dividing line. As historian Marilyn Young notes, U.S. propaganda in support of its intervention in Vietnam "cast Vietnamese who lived and worked north of the 17th parallel as more foreign to South Vietnam than the Americans, for the Americans were invited as guests, while North Vietnam was an enemy country." Though the war was one of Vietnamese national liberation against American aggression, U.S. propaganda persistently presented the war as one between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. While this strategy was initially successful, by the early 1960s it was in complete disarray, as the population of South Vietnam turned increasingly to open rebellion against the Diem regime.

Lyndon Johnson making his midnight speech about the Gulf of Tonkin incident
Lyndon Johnson making his midnight speech about the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Cecil Staughton)

By the end of 1963, the Kennedy administration decided that Diem had to go in order to forestall the collapse of the Saigon government. Diem and his brother Nhu, head of the secret police, were overthrown and assassinated in a military coup directed by the CIA and U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge. Despite the removal of the Diem family, who had become a political liability, the Saigon government continued to spiral downward and the revolutionary movement led by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) continued to move forward. Diem's removal from power set off over a year of political instability that would eventually lead to the direct U.S. invasion of South Vietnam in 1965.

Regime Change in Saigon

"The emergence of an exceptional leader could improve the situation and no George Washington is in sight."
-- General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, September 1964

LYNDON JOHNSON became president of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson inherited two things from the Kennedy administration concerning Vietnam. One was a rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam, with an NLF victory on the immediate horizon. The second was a coterie of advisers who had presided over America's deepening involvement in Vietnam and who were now arguing for an even more dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement. Among these advisers were Defense Secretary William McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisers Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy. These were the men who would eventually take the United States into total war in Vietnam, but in the meantime they struggled with finding the "right man" to lead the Saigon government.

Despite the removal of Diem, the Saigon government remained on the verge of collapse. It was plagued by a series of military coups following Diem's assassination, sponsored by the United States, which further weakened it politically and militarily. Diem's immediate successor was General Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh." Many people in South Vietnam initially greeted his government with much approval and hope. Minh infuriated the Americans by making a rapprochement with the Buddhist forces that had organized massive demonstrations against the Diem regime. He began talking about possibly opening talks with the NLF. Minh also began to describe his government as "noncommunist" as opposed to "anti-communist," and raised the possibility of his government adopting a diplomatic position of "neutrality" in world affairs. This was clearly not what the Americans wanted from a military coup.

Soon after, the Americans spearheaded another military coup, this time organized by the Military Assistance Command--Vietnam, the main body that U.S. military aid and "advisers" were organized through in Vietnam. This coup, at the end of January 1964, has gone down in the history books as the "Pentagon Coup," and it brought to power General Nguyen Khanh. Nguyen seemed to be what the Americans wanted. He was committed to fighting the war against the NLF, and seemed wholeheartedly to accept military and political strategies emanating from the U.S. embassy. However, he immediately ran into a renewed wave of antiwar activity from the Buddhists and radical students of South Vietnam. Nguyen was completely thrown off balance by this and began to talk about a negotiated end to the war. In fact, the CIA learned that Nguyen had contacted the NLF in December 1964, and had had more serious contacts with them in January and February 1965. Clearly, he also had to go.

The Americans, led by the new U.S. ambassador, Maxwell Taylor, a retired general who returned to government service under Kennedy, brought enormous pressure to bear on Nguyen, who subsequently left Vietnam for exile in France. Power now passed to the military triumvirate of Generals Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Chanh Thi, and Nguyen Van Thieu. The leading figure was Ky, who became prime minister (Thieu became chief of state). Ky would hold onto power until 1967, when elections excluding anyone holding "pro-communist" or "neutralist" views delivered Ky's position to Thieu, who won with only 35 percent of the vote. Ky first came to the attention of the United States by working for the CIA in covert operations against North Vietnam in the early 1960s. He would later embarrass the United States by telling reporters that his only real hero was Hitler. Ky and Thieu were both trained by the French and had fought against their own people in the First Vietnam War. If this wasn't enough to prove their loyalty to the Americans, they pledged, on March 1, 1965, that they would never negotiate with the NLF or the North Vietnamese. They also made it clear that they would follow the lead of Washington on all military, political, and diplomatic affairs.

While military coups wracked Saigon throughout 1964 and 1965, a much deeper crisis was brewing in South Vietnam. By mid-1964, the various military and political strategies developed by the United States for combating the NLF were at a dead end. "Viet Cong" forces--as the United States insisted on calling the nationalists--controlled 40 percent to 50 percent of the countryside. U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency tactics, rather than strengthening the regime, were turning the mass of the peasantry against it. The strategic hamlet program, in which peasants were forcibly uprooted from their traditional villages and burial grounds and concentrated into walled camps, was a disaster. These villages were essentially concentration camps designed to separate the peasant population from the guerrillas. Where they were not torn apart by internal dissention, they were overrun by NLF fighters. Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops (ARVN–Diem's forces) deserted in droves, unwilling to defend the regime. Marine pacification expert Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson admitted that the role of the U.S. puppet regime in South Vietnam was "to loot, collect back taxes, reinstall landlords, and conduct reprisals against the people."

Historian James Gibson summed up the situation:

Strategic hamlets had failed....The South Vietnamese regime was incapable of winning the peasantry because of its class base among landlords. Indeed, there was no longer a "regime" in the sense of a relatively stable political alliance and functioning bureaucracy. Instead, civil government and military operations had virtually ceased. The National Liberation Front had made great progress and was close to declaring provisional revolutionary governments in large areas.

Finding the "right man" would not do away with these fundamental issues that at the end of the day strengthened the NLF and weakened the already weak Saigon government--class inequality, the absence of basic democratic rights, and a strong desire for the reunification of Vietnam.

The war was quickly moving beyond being a proxy war funded by the United States to becoming a full-fledged American war. By 1962, the Kennedy administration had boosted the number of U.S. military advisers to more than fifteen thousand and had authorized them to lead combat missions. By this time, U.S. pilots were also bombing North Vietnam. Despite all this, the South Vietnamese government continued to lose the war against the NLF. In the face of these mounting defeats, U.S. intelligence reported that the Saigon government was on the verge of abandoning its five northern provinces altogether. A fundamental shift in American policy was about to take place.

Manufacturing an Excuse for War

"A lie is a lie...and it's supposed to be a criminal act if said under oath, but Mr. Johnson wasn't under oath when he said it."
--Sen. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the Tonkin Gulf incident

THE NEW escalation of American involvement in Vietnam was taking place during a presidential election year. The 1964 election would ultimately pit the sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, running as a "peace candidate," against the right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was considered by many people to be a dangerous right-wing extremist. "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," Johnson assured his supporters. But despite these promises, the Johnson administration was planning behind the scenes to introduce hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops into South Vietnam after the election. "Just let me get elected," Johnson told a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of 1963, "and then you can have your war." Like many of the decisions made about U.S. policy toward Vietnam, this one was concealed from the public. This was the beginning of the famous "credibility gap" that developed between what the Johnson administration stated as its policy toward Vietnam and what it actually did.

The large-scale introduction of U.S. combat troops would mark a fundamental shift in American policy. Most Americans at this point were unaware of the deep involvement of their country in the war in Vietnam. Sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to Vietnam, as some in the Johnson administration and the military were contemplating, would require both public support and some form of congressional authorization. A resolution had already been drafted in early 1964 by the State Department for that purpose, but was shelved because of election year considerations. What was required was an "incident" to arouse both public and congressional support for war, preferably an attack on U.S. forces. The incident that they were looking for came in early August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, and it came about as a result of one of the many covert operations the United States was carrying out against North Vietnam.

On July 30, 1964, the CIA and South Vietnamese military were engaged in covert operations against North Vietnam called "34A Ops." All covert operations against North Vietnamese were run by a secret White House committee called the 303 Committee. The purpose of these operations was to identify and destroy North Vietnamese coastal radar stations. To do this, U.S. Navy destroyers were ordered to patrol well within what the North Vietnamese regarded as their territorial waters to force the North Vietnamese to turn on their radar. These patrolling operations were called "DeSoto." Once these sites were identified, the CIA agents and South Vietnamese commandos would move in and destroy them. On August 2, the navy destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats while on one of these DeSoto patrols. The Maddox sank one North Vietnamese patrol boat, while fighter jets from the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga damaged two others. On August 3, 1964, U.S. naval forces carried out more South Vietnamese raids during the night.

During the following night, the Maddox reported that it was under persistent attack from North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats, but its radar could find no target except the USS Turner Joy, which it almost fired on. The Turner Joy did not hear any torpedoes, nor did its radar find any targets, but it fired anyway. Commodore John J. Herrick, the commander of the two-destroyer flotilla in the Tonkin Gulf, reported it "doubtful" that U.S. forces were fired upon, blaming the incident on "freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen." Reporting "no actual visual sightings by Maddox," Herrick recommended a "complete evaluation before further action taken." While Herrick was doubtful about the whole encounter and wanted, in his own words, a "complete evaluation," Johnson had the incident that he desired. Though Johnson remarked later that, "For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there," he wasn't about to admit it then. Johnson immediately announced that American ships had been involved in an unprovoked attack in international waters and ordered U.S. aircraft to "retaliate" against North Vietnam on the night of August 4.

Johnson also called for congressional approval of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. On August 7, 1965, the Senate voted 98 to 2 and the House of Representatives voted 441 to 0 in favor of the resolution. 18 The resolution allowed Johnson "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." Congress did not repeal it until 1971. Johnson then had the legal authority to wage the expanded war that he wanted in Vietnam. He waited until after the November 1964 election to invade South Vietnam. The marines landed in Danang on March 8, 1965--the beginning of a U.S. troop buildup that would eventually number more than five hundred thousand soldiers. Seven years of war followed, as the strongest military machine on earth unleashed its savage fury on one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Price of Empire

"Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere."
--Lyndon Johnson, 1964

WHY DID the United States choose the course of total war in Vietnam? Why did they believe they could win a war against a nationalist movement that defeated the French a decade earlier? Inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations it was recognized that the client regime created by them was highly unstable and enormously unpopular. In sharp contrast, the popularity of the NLF was acknowledged and its military capabilities taken very seriously. Why didn't the U.S. government accept something short of total victory--such as the various proposals for a coalition government and neutrality in Saigon? The NLF itself was prepared to accept such a proposal. In fact, Charles De Gaulle, president of France, was proposing such a plan for all of Southeast Asia at the time.

The Johnson administration chose war because anything less than a total victory of U.S. imperialism would be seen as a defeat. As Lyndon Johnson put it in 1964, "Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere." This wasn't some peculiar perspective of Johnson and his advisers; it flowed from the position that the United States found itself in after the Second World War as the guardian of the capitalist world. The United States emerged from the war as the dominant capitalist country, with a string of military bases circling the globe. Like the British Empire in the nineteenth century, it would find itself embroiled in conflicts and wars in remote parts of the globe in order to ensure that its "credibility" was not undermined. The failure of the United States to intervene could be taken as a sign of weakness by its chief rival, the USSR, or by indigenous national liberation movements. Vietnam was the weakest link in the chain of American imperialism during the Kennedy and Johnson years.

Soon after Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, General Edward Lansdale met with Kennedy and Walt Rostow and presented a report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. The thrust of Lansdale's report was to urge increased support for the Diem regime. Kennedy, turning to Rostow, said: "This is the worst one we've got, isn't it?" After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and after being bullied by Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna summit, Kennedy was determined not have another defeat on his hands. Kennedy wanted to reestablish U.S. "credibility" in the world. In his own words, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place."

Kennedy escalated U.S. involvement in South Vietnam to the point where the United States was essentially fighting a proxy war on the ground. After the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the Vietnam question became magnified even more through the lens of superpower rivalry. "The Cuban crisis did not so much ease the Cold War as direct it into channels, ones less likely to produce nuclear conflict," according to military historian Michael Sherry. The stabilization of a pro-American regime in Saigon or a victory of the National Liberation Front would have a dramatic impact on the ability of the United States to influence Third World nations.

The Kennedy administration set the course from which Johnson could not stray. In March 1965, John McNaughton, assistant secretary of defense, was asked by his boss, Robert McNamara, to summarize U.S. political strategy and war aims in Vietnam. McNaughton began by attacking any support for a political settlement in Vietnam that would lead to a U.S. withdrawal. This, he argued, would "be regarded in Asia, and particularly among our friends, as just as humiliating a defeat as any other form." He went on to summarize U.S. war aims: "U.S. aims: 70 percent--To avoid a humiliating defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20 percent--To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10 percent--To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life." This sentiment was also echoed by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor. "If we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs," he wrote, "the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America will be disastrous."

While the United States believed it faced enormous difficulties in Vietnam, it was sure that it could overcome these difficulties through the sheer weight of its enormous economic and military power. Rostow exuded the arrogance of this way of thinking when he wrote in 1964 that victory in Vietnam "flows from the simple fact that at this stage in history we are the greatest power in the world--if we behave like it." Michael Sherry sums up the mindset of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations: "What defined the arrogance of leaders was not blindness to such difficulties but confidence that they could overcome them. They were both desperate and arrogant--but not about the same things: fearful about South Vietnam, but sure about American power."

While Vietnam did not have any direct economic or strategic importance to the United States--without a great natural resource like oil or a command of vital sea lanes, like the Panama Canal--it took on great political importance. Success or failure there involved what American political leaders would call "credibility," "resolve," or "commitment" at different points in time. War in Vietnam was the price to be paid for having a global empire and an arrogant leadership who believed that they could bully anybody into line. Though it tried to justify its intervention in Vietnam by saying that it was fighting foreign "communist aggression" against South Vietnam directed by Moscow and Beijing, the only aggressors and foreigners in Vietnam were Americans.

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