Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: How did the American
war in Vietnam threaten American democracy
and Americans' trust and faith in their

Reading: Gerster, pp. 190-197; Hoffman, pp. 417-428;
Kerry "Vietnam Veterans against the War" (web);
President Johnson "Why we are in Vietnam" (web);
The Pentagon Papers (web)

Video: 1994 CBS interview with Robert McNamara,
David Brinkley: Johnson on Vietnam

Daily Class Web Links

History of American Involvement
in Vietnam: 1945-1975

The Debate over Robert McNamara's
In Retrospect

Fighting the War in Vietnam

The Vietnam War at Home:
The Struggle over Hearts and Minds

Daily Class Outline

1. United States War in Vietnam

2. U.S. Governments' lies about Vietnam

Daily Class Questions

1. What does John Clifford Gary mean when he argues that "Vietnam became a test of America's will"?

2. Why did the Vietnam war help shatter the foreign policy consensus in the United States since World War II?

3. According to Gary, how did Vietnam and Watergate help change the way Americans' basic assumptions about their government and the United States' role in the world?

4. What are the major argument President Johnson uses to support an American war in Vietnam?

5. Do you believe that President Johnson and the United States are really committed to allowing every country in the world to shape its own destiny?

6. What are Vietnam veteran John Kerry's major arguments against the American war in Vietnam?

7. What larger lesson do you think that John Kerry wants Americans to learn as a result of the United States' involvement in Vietnam?

8. What does Young Hum Kim mean when he describes the American war in Vietnam in this way: "Power demonstrated without humility is arrogance; power used without prudence is affront; and power mobilized without discretion is aggression"?

9. What does Senator J. William Fulbright mean by "arrogance of power"?

10. Do you agree with Senator Fulbright that the best way for the United States "to serve as an example of democracy to the world...[is] by the way in which we run our own society"?

Daily Class Notes
The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam: 1945-1967, 5 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, 1972). . This is four volumes of material from the original study, plus one volume of commentary and index.

The following quotes are taken from The Pentagon Papers:

"In 1956, almost any type of election that could conceivably be held in Vietnam would, on the basis of present trends, give the Communists a very significant if not decisive victory."

"Nationalist appeal in Vietnam is so closely identified with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet-Minh movement, even in areas outside communist control, candidates and issues connected with 'nationalism' and supported by the Viet-Minh would probably be supported by the majority of the people."

"South Vietnam (unlike other countries in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States."

"The CIA official in Saigon, Edward Lansdale, described the government of South Vietnam in the late 1950s as an 'emerging fascist state."

"In 1964, the CIA, the State Department, and Defense Intelligence Agency believed that the primary sources of communist strength in South Vietnam are indigenous."

"In 1965, the President of South Vietnam, President Thieu, according to George Ball, believed that 'the communists could still win any election held in South Vietnam.' "

"When one delves into the Pentagon Papers it becomes immediately clear why the government wanted them kept secret, for they expose the many lies that our government generated in order to get the American people strongly behind the war effort. Yet, the importance of these documents goes beyond their intrinsic historical value since they establish a precedence of governmental deceit that would be practiced again and again."
.Jeff Drake, Vietnam Vet, "How the U.S. Got Involved In Vietnam"

In order to understand American involvement in Vietnam, we need to remember that Vietnam was a rare failure for the United States. Throughout the Cold War, the United States was able to successfully impose its control over the internal affairs and the politics and economies of other countries. Let's look at some of the American successes during the Cold War in this regard. The following is a list of some of the major countries that the United States imposed it political, economic, and military control over:

1. In 1953, the United States overthrew a democratic government in Iran and installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran, who ruled with American support until 1979.

2. In 1954, the United States overthrew a democratic government in Guatemala and installed a military dictator, and with American support brutal military dictators dominated Guatemala until the late 1980s.

3. In 1964, the United States overthrew a democratic government in Brazil and installed a military dictator, and with American support military dictators dominated Brazil until the late 1970s.

4. In 1965, the United States overthrew a democratic government in Indonesia and installed a military dictator, Suharto, who then with American help killed over 500,000 people--the people who supported the old democratic government. Suharto to this day continues to receive American economic, political, and military support.

5. In 1965, the United States helped install the brutal dictator, Mobuto, in Zaire, who killed tens of thousands of people and looted his country of over 8 billion dollars. The United States continued to support the brutal dictator Mobuto until just the last few years, when we are now calling him "a relic of the Cold War." If he is a relic, he is the United States' relic!

6. In 1973, after America had withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States overthrew a democratic government in Chile and installed a brutal dictator, Pinochet, who killed tends of thousands of people--people who supported the old democratic government. With American economic, political, and military support, the brutal dictator Pinochet dominated Chile until the late 1980s.

Given this successful record of overthrowing democratic governments, why should the United States believe that it couldn't impose its control over Vietnam? We had successfully imposed our will and political, military, and economic control over much larger, more powerful countries.

But before we can answer this question, we need to answer a larger, more important question: Why did the United States, while claiming to fight the Cold War in the name of preserving and protecting democracy and freedom throughout the world, overthrow democratically-elected governments and installed brutal military dictatorships that violated the basic rights and freedoms of their peoples? Wasn't the United States acting just like our Soviet Communist enemy was acting in Eastern Europe? Weren't we denying people the very freedoms that we charged the communists with threatening throughout the world. Many of my students in the past have concluded in imposing our will on other countries and denying them the very democratic freedoms we claim we were fighting for the United States became like the Soviet Communist enemy we were fighting. So why did we act like the communists and deny other peoples their basic rights and freedoms?

The United States believed throughout the Cold War that it must be allowed to lead the free world. Our government believed that it knew what was best for other countries and peoples. Our leaders concluded that peoples in backward, less developed countries were not ready for their freedom; they could not be trusted to decide what was in the best interest of their governments and societies. Fearing communist subversion of these backward and weak countries, the United States believed that it should impose strong authoritarian leaders, more often than not military dictators, on these countries and peoples. We believed that only strong, military rule would protect these countries and people from dangerous "communist subversion." American leaders hoped that someday with the United States leadership and the guidance of strong authoritarian rules, these countries and peoples would be ready for democracy, ready to be trusted to shape and control their own governments, societies, and lives. Until that time, the United States had a responsibility to guide and tutor these countries and peoples.

But this begs a larger question: Did the American people know that their government was undermining the rights and freedoms of other peoples in the name of democracy? Did the United States government go to the American people and explain their larger Cold War strategy and win their support for overthrowing democratic governments and installing military dictators? No, the American government did not tell the American people. American leaders correctly feared that the American people would not support the United States overthrowing democratic governments in the name of democracy and defeating communism. Government leaders realized that the American people would not accept the massive contradiction between our larger goals of protecting and defending freedom and democracy in the Cold War and our own undemocratic and "communist-like" actions of denying other peoples their basic rights and freedoms. Just as the United States government didn't trust backward countries and peoples to make the necessary decisions to shape and control their democratic governments and societies, it didn't in the end trust the American people to make the right decisions in order to defend democracy and freedom. As a result, just as the United States was denying other peoples' their democratic rights and freedoms, so too was the American government denying Americans the right to shape and control their government and society.

In order to protect its secrets and hide the truth from the American people, government officials lied to the American people throughout the Cold War. Americans were not told about the dark side of the United States' Cold War struggle with communism. Tragically and ironically, in order to fight and win the Cold War the United States threatened and undermined its own democratic institutions and freedoms. The struggle over American involvement in the Vietnam war in the 1960s and early 1970s brought these growing Cold War contradictions to the light of day. By the late 1960s, it was increasingly clear to many Americans that their government had systematically lied to them about United States involvement in Vietnam. I believe that Americans were more shocked by this government lying and deception than they were by the 58,000 Americans who died. If American leaders were lying to the American people, was the United States a democracy? If the government didn't trust the people to shape and control the government and society, was America still a democratic society? Was the government threatening to undermine the very democracy it claimed it was fighting for in the Cold War? These are some of the serious questions raised by American involvement in Vietnam.

Let's now look at what the government told the American people about why the United States was involved in the Vietnam war? What were the lies the government told to win the support of the American people. The government knew that if it told the people the truth they would have in no way supported American involvement in Vietnam from 1945 on.

In 1965, President Johnson went before the American people and gave a speech, "Why We Are in Vietnam," trying to convince Americans that they should support their government's efforts to win the Vietnam war. Let's look closely at what Johnson told the American people in this speech. He begins by declaring that "Americans and Asians are dying for a world where each people may choose its own path to change." Johnson argues:

"We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure."

Johnson declares that the United States is fighting for the freedom and independence of democratic South Vietnam. He claims that this free and democratic country has been attacked by a "communist conspiracy" directed by China. The communist, he charges, are trying to deny the South Vietnamese the right "to guide their own country in their own way." Johnson warns that if we don't protect the freedom and democratic independence of South Vietnam, the rest of the countries of the "free world" will not trust America to come to their defense against communist aggression. If we don't stop the communists in South Vietnam, then other countries will fall to the communists and we will see "falling dominoes" of country after country becoming communist. Johnson concludes that in order to protect the free world and live up to its pledge to defend freedom and democracy throughout the world, the United States must defend South Vietnam and defeat the communist conspiracy against Vietnam.

This is what President Johnson told the American people about why we were in Vietnam. But in recently released tapes of phone conversations Johnson had with his top advisors in 1965 and 1966, we know that privately Johnson had a very different perspective on the Vietnam war. In a recently released tape, Johnson is heard telling McGeorge Bundy that Vietnam was a mess, that the war couldn't be won, and that the war wasn't worth fighting. In fact, in 1966, David Brinkley recounts Johnson's top aides telling him that the war couldn't be won, and even if we won, it wouldn't be worth anything. After airing these sentiments, on aide then asked Johnson why he just didn't get out of Vietnam if he believed this. President Johnson said: "Because I don't want to be the first American President to lose a war." Just imagine if the American people knew that their own President didn't believe in the war and was only fighting it to save his reputation and save the Democratic party from charges that they were soft on communism. Even now, hearing the truth about Vietnam makes Americans who grew up in that era angry and bitter. Clearly, President Johnson deceived Americans about the war in Vietnam.

But let's look at the larger historical involvement of the United States in Vietnam. We have looked at the lies the government told its citizens, let's now look at the truth the government dared not tell Americans. This historical truth is even more shocking because much of it can be verified by the U.S. government's own secret history of the Vietnam war. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a historical study of American involvement in Vietnam. In 1971, this top-secret government was released to the New York Times. Imagine how American's felt when they read in their newspapers the government's own history of American involvement in Vietnam, realizing that their government had systematically lied to them about Vietnam since 1945. If the government had lied to them about this, what else had the U.S. government lied to them about?

Let's look at the history of United States involvement in Vietnam from 1945. First of all, in order to understand the Vietnam war, you need to understand that Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia were conquered by the French in the 1870s. From the 1870s to the 1940s, the French brutally ruled and exploited the wealth, resources, and labor of Vietnam and Indochina. The Vietnamese hated its French colonial rulers. In 1940, France fell the Nazi Germany, and France itself became a colony. After France fell, Japan conquered French Indochina and tried to replace French colonial rule with Japanese colonial rule. The Vietnamese soon took up arms against the Japanese. In fact, between 1941 and 1945, the United States worked closely with the Vietnamese resistance forces led by Ho Chi Minh. After World War II, Ho Chi Minh, who had been our close ally, asked the United States to force France to give up its imperial control of Vietnam and Indochina. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese resistance leaders drew up a Vietnamese Declaration of Independence:

"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness....

"Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice....

"For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country....The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty."

But instead of supporting his old military ally, Ho Chi Minh, President Truman decided to side with the French. He accused the Vietnamese independence leaders of being communists. From 1945 to 1954, the United States bankrolled the French efforts to retake Vietnam and Indochina as French colonies, spending over 2 billion dollars. After World War II, France was do destroyed and bankrupt that it could not support a prolonged war with the Vietnamese.

This is the beginning of the lies the American government told the American people. President Truman did not go to the American people and ask them for their support to support France reconquer its colonies? He knew that the American people would not support the United States efforts to deny freedom and democracy to the Vietnamese. How could Truman explain to Americans our commitment to fight the Cold War for freedom and democracy and our efforts to deny freedom to the Vietnamese? If it was wrong for the Soviet Union to conquer Eastern Europe, why wasn't it wrong for the United States to help the French reconquer Vietnam? President Truman and American leaders would not chance telling the truth to the American people, fearing that they would oppose American involvement in Vietnam.

In 1954, despite American economic and military support, the French were on the verge of defeat in Vietnam. French forces were surrounded at Dienbienphu. Faced with defeat, the French asked the United States to drop atomic bombs on the Vietnamese forces. When President Eisenhower asked Congress if the United States could intervene to stave off a French defeat, the Congress said no, declaring that it wanted "no more Koreas." Faced with Congressional opposition, the United States was forced to allow the French to admit defeat and surrender to the Vietnamese. But the United States would not accept defeat that easily.

In 1954, the United States, China, the Soviet Union, France, and Vietnam all sat down at the peace talks that ended the French-Vietnamese war. All these parties signed the 1954 Geneva Accords ending the war. The Geneva Accords temporarily divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam. Supporter of the French and the United States would settle in the South, and supporters of Vietnamese independence would settle in the North. This division was created in order to create a cooling-off period after a bitter war for independence. In 1956, the Geneva Accords stated that there was to be an all-Vietnam election that would settle once and for all who would lead the independent nation of Vietnam. Looking at the Geneva Accords, there never was an Independent South or North Vietnam, there was only one country, the country of Vietnam.

However, between 1954 and 1956, refusing to admit defeat, the United States set up an Independent government and nation in South Vietnam. After the CIA told American leaders that the majority of Vietnamese would support Ho Chi Minh and the people who we called communists, the United States decided that it wouldn't allow an all-Vietnam election, violating the Geneva Accords. After blocking the elections in 1956, the United States then recognized the Independent government of South Vietnam. But, according to the Pentagon Papers, "South Vietnam was essentially the creation of the United States." The United States then help install a brutal dictator, President Diem, in South Vietnam. Diem, with American support, soon went about consolidating his power by killing all of his political opponents and terrorizing the population into accepting his rule. By the late 1950s, the top CIA official in South Vietnam, Edward Lansdale, described the emerging government of South Vietnam as "an emerging fascist state." This was supposedly the independent, democratic South Vietnam that Johnson said America was supporting.

Faced with the growth of this fascist state in South Vietnam, the Vietnamese formed a resistance movement in the early 1960s, calling themselves the National Liberation Front or the Viet Cong. According the the Pentagon Papers, only the Viet Cong had the support of the majority of the people in the countryside of Vietnam. Faced with this growing guerrilla movement in South Vietnam and North Vietnamese support for the Viet Cong, the United States and the CIA stepped up their efforts to crush the Viet Cong and sabotage and harass North Vietnam. By October 1963, President Diem had so lost the support of his own people, that the United States had him assassinated and a new dictator appointed. But by 1964, the Viet Cong controlled over half of South Vietnam, so the United States organized another coup and tried to find a dictator who could win some marginal support from his people. But the more the United States supported brutal dictators in South Vietnam and tried to crush the Viet Cong, the more the Vietnamese people challenged American domination and supported the Viet Cong. Faced with a deteriorating situation, the United States created a military incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to justify full American military involvement. President Johnson lied to Congress and the American people and claimed that American destroyers had been attacked by the North Vietnamese without provocation, when in fact they were firing on North Vietnamese ships. As a result of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Congress gave the President broad authority to send American forces into Vietnam in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

By 1965, President Johnson's aides were telling him that without massive American military involvement Vietnam would fall because the South Vietnamese army would not fight to protect the American-controlled military dictator. In fact, in 1965, the dictator of South Vietnam, President Thieu, told the United States that "the Communists could still win any election held in South Vietnam." Faced with American defeat, President Johnson order 500,000 American troops into Vietnam and gave his speech, "Why We Are in Vietnam" But despite massive American military involvement, massive American bombing, and massive American-supported killing of Viet Cong supporters, the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were losing the war. The more the United States used brutal military power to force its domination and control over South Vietnam, the more the Vietnamese people challenged American rule and were willing to fight against the United States and the dictator of South Vietnam.

This is the situation that John Kerry faced as a solider in Vietnam. In his speech before the Senate in 1971 testifying against the war, John Kerry charged that the Vietnam war was a lie, that the majority of the people were against the United States, and the only way for American troops to survive in the midst of a hostile population was to brutally kill and terrorize the South Vietnamese. In committing these violence acts and opposing the will of the Vietnamese people, Kerry argued, the United States was threatening its own democratic values and institutions. Having gone to Vietnam believing President Johnson's lies, veterans like John Kerry came home to challenge the lies and atrocities perpetrated by the United States government.

Faced with increasing American opposition to the war, President Johnson in March 1968 announced that he was beginning peacetalks to end the war and that he would not run for President in 1968. In fact, as a result of growing American opposition to the war, Richard Nixon ran for President in 1968 promising to end the war in Vietnam. He said he had a secret plan to end the war, but he didn't really specify what it was.

After Nixon was elected President in 1968, he tried to threaten North Vietnam and the Viet Cong with the atomic bomb. He threatened to start dropping atomic bombs unless the Vietnamese accepted American domination of South Vietnam. But the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong called Nixon's bluff; they knew that the United States would explode in tumultuous riots and demonstrations if America began dropping atomic bombs. Facing the complete failure of his secret plan to end the war, President Nixon decided to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia, trying to destroy the Vietnamese opposition. But in 1970, when President Nixon went before the American people and told them that the United States was invading Cambodia and Laos, but he was still keeping his promise to end the war, the United States people exploded in protest. They felt that Nixon had lied to them when he said he was committed to ending the war. It seemed as if Nixon and the United States government was purposefully violating the will of the people, who wanted an end to the war.

The anger, division, and bitter cynicism that grew out of Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam war divided the nation. And with the publication of the Pentagon papers, more and more Americans felt that their government had lied to them about the war. It is in this context of increasing anger and bitterness towards President Nixon and the government that Nixon concludes that he must take charge. Feeling his enemies and the increasing American opposition to the war in Vietnam is a threat to the nation, Nixon decides to use the power of the government to crush his enemies. And thus Watergate becomes the final tragedy of the American involvement in Vietnam. President Nixon and the United States government actually try to silence the collective voices of the American people. Nixon believes that he is President and he must be allowed to do what he thinks is best for the United States, despite what the American people want. Because the American people can't be trusted to make the right decisions, President Nixon believes he has the right and the power to force his will on the people. This would create the worst threat to America's democratic institutions in American history. One commentator argued that Nixon was on the verge of becoming a dictator.

But Watergate wasn't to be the final tragedy of the Vietnam war. In 1994, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted that he knew from the beginning that the Vietnam war war was a lie and could not be won. He even claimed in an interview that he stayed on as Secretary of Defense between 1961 and 1968 because he believed that he could reduce the number of American casualties in the war. But this revelation was very disturbing because throughout the 1960s, McNamara was the chief American supporter of the war. He constantly was on TV promising that American could and was winning the war. But now he tells us that this was all an act, all a lie. When asked why he didn't go public with his doubts about the war, McNamara said that he "couldn't have been effective" in ending the war. However, the truth is that if he had resigned from office and challenged the war, he would have been called a communist and his career and reputation would have been ruined. Only long after it really mattered does McNamara now come forward with the truth. Despite more than 25 years after he left the government, Americans were outraged by McNamara's revelations. McNamara had opened old war wounds and revealed that the wounds and bitterness created by the Vietnam war are still very much a part of Americans' collective memory.

2002 by Chris H. Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002: Last Modified: 22 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL: http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/vietnam.htm
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