Written in October, 2017, after first broadcast of Ken Burns’ Vietnam on PBS.
Regrettably, I was one of the millions of Americans who believed the “domino” argument from our leaders in the early 60s: If Vietnam went Communist, they told us, then all of southeast Asia would be lost. I supported the war, even as I prayed that my Army Reserve unit would never be called up to fight it.
What I did not know at the time was that our new President, who had inherited the war from President Kennedy, was saying one thing in public and another thing in private. Had I heard his conversation with Senator Richard Russell in May of 1964, I would have opposed the massive expansion of our commitment (which included only a few thousand advisors at that point), and expected President Johnson to withdraw.
But the tape of that conversation was not released until a few years ago. Listening to it, and watching the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam on PBS, tells me that America can do the wrong thing even when our president and some leaders know it’s the wrong thing.
Here is the excerpt from the Johnson/Russell conversation. It is no “Profile in Courage.”
RICHARD RUSSELL: It’s … the damn worst mess I ever saw, and I don’t like to brag. I never have been right many times in my life. But I knew we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there….
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Well, that’s the way that I’ve been feeling for six months.
RUSSELL: It appears our position is deteriorating. And it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less that they’re willing to do for themselves […] It’s a hell, a hell of a situation. It’s a mess….
JOHNSON: How important is it to us?
RUSSELL: It isn’t important a damn bit, with all these new missile systems.
JOHNSON: Well, I guess it’s important to us….
RUSSELL: From a psychological standpoint….
JOHNSON: Now, the whole question, as I see it, do we, is it more dangerous for us to let things go as they’re going now, deteriorating every day-
RUSSELL: I don’t think we can let it go, Mr. President, indefinitely.
JOHNSON: Then it would be for us to move in?
RUSSELL: We either got to move in or move out.
JOHNSON: That’s about what it is.
RUSSELL: You can make a tremendous case for moving out […]
JOHNSON: Well, they’d impeach a President …that would run out, wouldn’t they? …Outside Morse, everybody I talk to says you got to go in, including Hickenlooper, including all the Republicans — none of them disagreed with him yesterday when he made the statement “we have to stand.” And I don’t know how in the hell you’re gonna get out unless they tell you to get out.
RUSSELL: It’s the only issue they got […] It’s a tragic situation. It’s just one of those places where you can’t win. Anything you do is wrong […] If we had a man running the government over there that told us to get out, we could sure-get out.
JOHNSON: That’s right, but you can’t do that …
RUSSELL: Of course you’d look pretty good, I guess, going in there with all the troops and sending them all in there, but I tell you it’ll be the most expensive venture this country ever went into.
JOHNSON: I just haven’t got the nerve to do it, and I don’t see any other way out of it.
RUSSELL: It’s one of these things where “heads I win, tails you lose.”
JOHNSON: I mean, yes, and from the standpoint that we are party to a treaty. And if we don’t pay any attention to this treaty, why, I don’t guess they think we pay attention to any of them.
RUSSELL: Yeah, but we’re the only ones paying any attention to it.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that’s right […] I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of a lot less.
RUSSELL: I know, but you go send a whole lot of our boys out there-
JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s what I’m talking about. You get a few. We had 35 killed-and we got enough hell over 35-this year […] The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it, every one of them, even Dirksen.
In July of 1965, fourteen months after he told Richard Russell that he thought the war was unnecessary, President Johnson sent the first of what became 2.7 million Americans (9.7% of their generation) to Vietnam [including 250 men from the unit upstairs from my unit in the Army Base in South Boston (now a design center)], where they fought and died in a war that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3.5 million Vietnamese (including 2 million civilians, north and south) before it ended a decade later.
The war might have been much shorter except for what many think of as the treasonous behavior of the next President to inherit the war, Richard Nixon.
In 1968, faced with ever increasing opposition to the war, including rioting in the streets, Lyndon Johnson took himself out of the Presidential race and tried to start peace talks with the North Vietnamese. In the late summer of that year, Richard Nixon, who had won the Republican nomination for President, secretly sent an envoy to the South Vietnamese government leaders telling them not to participate in the peace talks, because if he got elected (and he was running ahead of the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey) he would get them a better deal.
Johnson found out about this through bugs in the Vietnamese Embassy and wiretaps, and called Nixon to tell him not to do anything like that. Nixon said he would never do such a thing (you can listen to the tape), and Johnson did not call him a liar because he was unwilling to reveal that we had bugs and taps.
Nixon campaigned on a “Secret Plan” to end the war. Had he said it would take seven more years, cost the lives of tens of thousands more American troops, and ended in a loss; he would never have won the election, but he didn’t, and he did.