Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 22nd: A Day Which Lives in Infamy

Three assassinations mark the killing off of modern American Progressivism:
  • John F. Kennedy (22-Nov-1963)
  • Martin Luther King (4-Apr-1968)
  • Robert F. Kennedy (6-Jun-1968)
Gordon M. Goldstein, author of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," writes in today's
Los Angeles Times that this day, 45 years ago, was
"was the single most significant day in the history of the Vietnam War."

In 1961, JFK had inherited from the Eisenhower administration an insignificant commitment in Indo China, limited to military supplies and advisors. A steady military supply of equipment from Hanoi coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail was designed to overthrow the Saigon regime and unify Vietnam and complete its national transition from a French colony.

During his first years in office, Kennedy's advisors pressured him to send in American ground troops. Civilian 'hawks', Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy steadily argued for American military intervention in the Vietnam civil war. According to Goldstein, they estimated that to prevent the national unification of Vietnam under the Communist regim in the north, it would take more than 200,000 pairs of American boots on the ground.

Goldstein weighs in on a controversial issue for historians. He believes that, had he lived, Jack Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam early after winning re-election to a second term. To his advisors,

Kennedy was not receptive. Long before becoming president, he had spoken out in Congress against the disastrous French experience in Vietnam, citing it as a reason the U.S. should never fight a ground war there. In the summer of 1961, he said he had accepted the conclusion of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who counseled against a land war in Asia, insisting that even a million American infantry soldiers would not be sufficient to prevail. He would offer military aid and training to Saigon, but he would not authorize the dispatch of ground forces.

Over the three years of his presidency, Kennedy sometimes invoked hawkish rhetoric about Vietnam. He also increased the military advisors and training personnel there to roughly 16,000. But McNamara and Bundy both came to believe that Kennedy would not have Americanized the war -- even if the price was communism in South Vietnam.

Kennedy realized that the inability of the United States to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- the lines of infiltration and resupply from North Vietnam -- would make it impossible to defeat the insurgency. "Those trails are a built-in excuse for failure," Kennedy told an aide in the spring of 1962, "and a built-in argument for escalation." Kennedy was so dubious he declared to White House aide Michael Forrestal that the odds against defeating the Viet Cong were 100 to 1.

In early 1963, Kennedy told Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who opposed increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam, that he would begin withdrawing advisors from South Vietnam at the beginning of his second term in 1965. Kennedy disclosed the same plan to Roswell Gilpatric, his deputy secretary of Defense. But the tragedy in Dallas in November 1963 changed everything.

. . . . . If Kennedy had lived, he would have enjoyed enormous advantages in 1965. In a second term, Kennedy would have been invulnerable to the electorate. . . . He had established a firm practice of overruling his advisors when necessary. And he would have entered his final four years as the champion of the Cuban missile crisis, a national security accomplishment that would have dramatically strengthened his hand. Bundy retrospectively argued.
So he does not have to prove himself in Vietnam. He can cut the country's losses then. He can do it by refusing to make it an American war.
That Kennedy as commander in chief was not provided the opportunity to determine a different fate for the United States in Vietnam deepens the tragedy of his loss and also underscores his profound legacy, still richly relevant 45 years later. . . . .

Besides a profound sense of historical tragedy, what lessons can we draw from remembrance of how this trail of tears started 45 years ago today?


  1. I can remember each of those days as if they were yesterday. There are just some things that never leave you. I would share those memorable occasions but that would be akin to me providing a resume on line. I think I will skip that :-) Great post Vigil!!

  2. Vigilante: I was told that he was against the war in Vietnam, which he characterized a "war with the French." I was told he had already begun the process of withdrawing soldiers from Vietnam behind the scenes and was going to make the plan public after re-election. Unlike that idiot Bush, who didn't listen to Powell, who knew something about fighting war on enemy grounds, he listened Gen. MacArthur and decided that this war was not being won by the French (Remember: The French got their high-brow arrogant asses kicked at Den Ben Phu in 1954, I believe); and it wouldn't be a good war for us either. I was told that he had already withdrawn 5,000 troops before he was assassinated.

  3. Vig, how can 45 years have passed? I remember hearing about JFK's assassination as a young child at school. I couldn't stop sobbing.

    I agree with that America would have withdrawn and not fought in Viet Nam had Kennedy lived. But, MacDaddy, as far as the "high-brow arrogant" French, they were smart enough to get out and let us foot the bill. Kennedy, felt Vietnam needed to be won by the Vietnamese, not by Americans.

    Damn, Mike, that's a story I'd like to hear. You are right. This is one of those memorable occasions that never leave you. For me, it's not history, but an acute memory.

  4. The assassination of John Kennedy marked the first ascension of a war-happy (though never in combat himself) Texan squandering tremendous amounts of American money and lives in a war that benefited few besides KBR.

    Did we learn? Twice since then, we've sent a Texan to the Oval Office (although the third Texan never won cleanly,) and what did we get each time? Yep. WAR.

    Hopefully, this country will never make that mistake again. Texas politicians are scum, even the ones you might think you like.

  5. Trail of tears? Read more about the trail of tears' unknown excesses: Here's is the Concerned Sargeant's letter reporting one Mai Lai a month. Written in 1970, it was declassified only in 2002. And here's the context. We Americans have no idea of tears.

  6. Jolly Roger, exception to political Texas scum: Ann Richards. I admire her daughter, Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood. Ann Richards would have been a great president; and I would probably vote for Cecile, also.

    We can, however, blame Texas for voting Bushit over Richards as governor. He never won either presidential election and I don't recognize him as president. The next 56 days can't go fast enough for me.

    Thanks, Boris. Trust The Nation to print the truth. I read the article and the letter—chilling description of the battles. As against the war as I was (and am), and as much as I thought I knew, I didn't know much about the horrific reality.

    I'm conflicted about LBJ as scum, who did so much for Civil Rights and social programs, yet I can't forget Viet Nam.

    Yet, in 1965, LBJ had the following conversation with Mike Mansfield [from NPR:

    LBJ: My judgment is, and I'm no military man at all. But. . . if they get a hundred and fifty [Americans], they'll have to have another hundred and fifty. And then they'll have to have another hundred and fifty. So, the big question then is: What does the Congress want to do about it?...And I think I know what the country wants to do now. But I'm not sure that they want to do that six months from now.

    NPR: Opinion polls in spring of 1965, showed Americans favoring military action in Vietnam two to one. But Johnson knew that support would erode if expanded fighting sent more Americans home in body bags. In a June 21, 1965, call with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Johnson described with almost stunning prescience how the future might - and in fact, would - unfold, with domestic opposition growing to a distant war the U.S. did not know how to win."

    [Entire article]

    I always wonder whether LBJ wanted to get involved with 'Nam or whether the public, in fear of the continuing Cold War, pushed him into the fray.

    Of course, others call him "a crook who abused the power of his office, a liar, self-centered, crude, abusive man. He deserves credit for forcing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act after a lifetime of being the key strategist of the Southern block of the U.S. Senate, a role in which he filibustered and blocked every anti-Lynching and Civil Rights bill." Bill Moyers has a different perspective.

    As concerns Texas politicians, LBJ was an enigma, maybe only semi-scum.

  7. I think LBJ had his heart in the right place, if not his head. Unlike Bush he didn't wage war so he could ensure re-election. He actually believed it was the right thing to do. As to Texans I know a lot of them, but there are few I like.

  8. Thank you, Mike. In many ways, I greatly admired LBJ and I loved Lady Bird who was way ahead of environmental issues. She had a foundation to support planting wildflowers native to each state.

    LBJ's escalation in Viet Nam broke my heart. I will say one thing for him—he knew when to quit. And then we got Nixon. After that, LBJ didn't look so bad.

    BTW, all the good Texans are in Austin.

  9. The 2nd & 3rd tragedies, the deaths of MLK & RFK, left Progressives without a leader to contest with the America's fist war criminal, Richard M. Nixon. All the Liberals could put up was LBJ's sychophant Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Progressivism lay dormant for forty years.