Friday, February 04, 2011

Apologies and Forgiveness: Reflections on the Vietnam War Under Kennedy and Johnson

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. In this passage I discuss the long-term impact of the Vietnam War's early years, from 1961 to 1967, on subsequent American politics.

Aware that he might not win in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson worried about the erosion of political support at home. He faced a re-election campaign in 1968. In 1967, he had been forced to raise taxes to pay for his “Great Society” programs and the Vietnam War. The public would accept higher taxes only if an end to the Vietnam War was in sight.

At the same time, his commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, sent Johnson a memo suggesting that in order to meet military objectives he would need another 200,000 troops in addition to the nearly 500,000 troops already there. Yet, Johnson knew that an expansion of American involvement on that scale would be a political disaster.

Fearing the anti-war movement’s apparent momentum, Johnson tried to disrupt it by dispatching CIA agents, in violation of U.S. law, to spy on peace advocates. The agency compiled dossiers on more than 7,000 citizens. Grand juries indicted draft resisters while the FBI infiltrated the peace movement and attempted to discredit its leaders by spreading false information about alleged sexual affairs, crimes and other fabricated misdeeds that reached family members, friends and sometimes the media. Undercover FBI agents provocateurs incited activists to commit illegal acts just so they could be arrested. These illegal activities of the FBI, part of its COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), were not uncovered until Senate investigations in the mid-1970s.

Unable to suppress public dissent against his Vietnam policy, the president sought to eliminate disagreement within his cabinet. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had expressed too much skepticism to Johnson about the war, and LBJ quietly fired him, replacing him with Clark Clifford, a lawyer and a Washington insider widely thought to be more of a hawk than McNamara. (In fact, after the communist Tet Offensive in early 1968, Clifford would form a group within Johnson’s inner circle to persuade the president to draw down forces in Vietnam.)

No figure in American politics had played a more complicated, contradictory role in the Vietnam disaster than McNamara. One of the chief architects of the war, and an enthusiastic supporter of Operation Rolling Thunder (the relentless bombing campaign against North Vietnam), the former Ford Motor Company executive has since tried to reshape his image, to place blame for the war squarely on Johnson, and to suggest that he had much in common with war protestors like Norman Morrison, the Quaker anti-war protestor who burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon.

“I remember reading that General [William Tecumseh] Sherman in the Civil War, the mayor of Atlanta pleaded with him to save the city and Sherman essentially said to the mayor, just before he torched it and burned it down, ‘War is cruel. War is cruelty,’” McNamara told filmmaker Errol Morris in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War."

“. . . He [Sherman] was trying to save the country. He was trying to save our nation and in the process he was prepared to do whatever killing was necessary. It’s a very, very difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in. [Norman] Morrison was one of those. I think I was.”

Since 1965, Morrison’s widow had struggled to understand her husband’s act and the Vietnam War itself. Anne Morrison Welsh told author Christian J. Appy in an interview for the book "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides" that for years she suppressed the urge to mourn, to feel resentment over her husband’s suicide, or to do anything that might harm the anti-war movement. Anger came years later. Her son with Norman, named Ben, was diagnosed with cancer. But until then, “ . . . The war was still going on and I wanted to honor Norman’s memory and his sacrifice,” she said. “I wanted to work to end the war in every way I could. So I didn’t give myself liberty to grieve.” She continued:

"Then in 1970, Ben got sick. He was eleven. At first we thought it was just growing pains. But it got worse, so we went to the doctor and found out it was cancer. We went to Sloan Kettering and for almost five years we tried to save his life. We saved his leg but we didn’t save his life. He died in 1975.

"When Ben was really sick, I felt anger toward Norman for the first time. I had remarried and I had support from my husband but it was not the same as having Ben’s dad present. I thought, 'God, Norman, why aren’t you here?' . . . Around 1990 or ’91 I really let my emotions out. Finally my daughters were at an age where we could sit down together and really look back at what their dad had done. Christina was so hurt by her father’s leaving because she loved and remembered him well and he didn’t even tell her good-bye. I had shielded them, and the act kept them from wanting to look at it. We just talked about it and expressed our anguish and our grief and our sadness. We were finally able to face what it did to our family.”

McNamara did not witness Morrison’s death but said the event haunted him. Years later, when he had admitted publicly that Vietnam had been a mistake (though he put ultimate responsibility on President Johnson and not himself), Anne Welsh said she was moved. “In 1995 I read Robert McNamara’s 'In Retrospect' and felt moved to express my appreciation to him for his acknowledgment that the war was a mistake,” she said. “I just felt it was unusual for a public official to admit error, even decades later in hindsight. So I wrote him a letter. It obviously moved him, perhaps in part because most of the reactions to his book were negative, even venomous.” Welsh said McNamara phoned her in response.

"He said he was gratified and surprised by the forgiveness I had expressed. We had an amazingly relaxed conversation, almost as if we knew each other. He talked about how he hadn’t been able to talk to his family about Norman’s death even though they were all deeply affected by it and wanted to talk. I said that I hadn’t talked enough about it with my children either in those years. So I just felt this little bit of kinship with him as a parent and a human being. It was almost as if we hadn’t been on opposite sides of the chasm that had split our country apart.”

The reconciliation between McNamara and Welsh would not be the norm in post-Vietnam America. In the years that followed the Kennedy-Johnson debacle in Vietnam, the war more often divided than united public opinion. Just as the shadow of the Civil War shaped American politics for a half-century after the last shot was fired, political debates since the 1960s have largely centered on the meaning of the war and its ultimately unsuccessful conclusion.

Some liberals would argue that the Vietnam War symbolized the perils of American hubris, the notion that this nation is the world’s policeman and has the right to impose its political and economic priorities on the world. “What makes us omniscient?’ McNamara would say, articulating one of the major lessons he learned from Vietnam. “Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation on Earth today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan. Not Germany. Not Britain. Not France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we better re-examine our reasoning.”

"The United States cannot force an unpopular regime on another people without paying a high price, such liberals would argue. The United States cannot successfully present itself as a defender of democracy when it backs oppressive regimes like the government of South Vietnam on the pretense that such dictatorships are anti-communist. The American effort failed in large degree because the government did not live up to the values embodied in the United States Constitution."

Some conservatives would argue that Johnson failed to “win” the war because he was unwilling to pay the political price and held back from using the full might of the American military. Johnson’s half-measures, these conservatives would suggest, represented appeasement of communists in the Soviet Union and China who were determined to dominate the world. Vietnam, conservatives like Ronald Reagan would insist, had been a worthy cause and had failed because of a lack of will on the part of weak politicians.

“[W]ho can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just?” President Reagan asked in a speech at the Washington, D.C.., Vietnam Memorial in 1988. “It was, after all, however imperfectly pursued, the cause of freedom; and they showed uncommon courage in its service. Perhaps at this late date we can all agree that we've learned one lesson: that young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win.”

The Vietnam War has been an issue in almost every presidential election in the ensuing four decades. Dissatisfaction with Johnson’s war helped Richard Nixon win the presidency in 1968, and Nixon would cruise to reelection in 1972 partly by accusing Democratic nominee George McGovern of being soft on the North Vietnamese and partly by announcing a peace agreement with the communists just before Election Day. Democrat Jimmy Carter promoted his presidential bid by emphasizing his honesty to a public well aware of the dishonesty of Johnson and Nixon on the Vietnam issue.

Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the White House vowing to restore American military might supposedly lost in the wake of the Vietnam fiasco. After directing a brief and successful war in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in 1991, Bush spoke of the U.S. overcoming a “Vietnam Syndrome” of defeatism.

Controversies erupted over prominent politicians’ use of college deferments or National Guard service to avoid Vietnam combat: Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle; Democratic President Bill Clinton; and Republican President George W. Bush, to name a few.. America was involved in two wars in 2004, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but much of the presidential campaign centered on George Bush’s National Guard service and on Republican efforts to discredit the two Purple Hearts earned during the Vietnam War by Democratic nominee John Kerry.

The deep political divisions opened by the Vietnam War were already shaping American life by December 1967. In the next year these divisions would produce the collapse of a presidency, two political assassinations, another series of race riots, a major political convention marked by police beating and tear–gassing demonstrators, and the election of a new president promising “law and order” who would be forced out of office after he was accused of lawbreaking. Americans watched in bewilderment as a government collapsed in France, another government crushed a student rebellion in Mexico, the Soviets sent tanks to unseat a reformist communist government in Czechoslovakia, and the Vietnamese communists proved that the “light at the end of the tunnel” for the American military was an illusion.

No one doubted America’s importance to the world, but its power seemed diminished and useless to tame international chaos. “[T]he destiny of the human race depends on America,” the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver said. “... like passengers in a jet forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks and madmen fight for the controls."


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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