Vietnam: Retrospective Part 5 of 8
Truman certainly never evidenced any great love for the French. It is rumored that he directed the newly formed CIA to secretly assist the Viet Minh and the French were most upset when they discovered this. The resulting flap was but one more grievance that ultimately led De Gaulle to chase NATO out of his country.
There were many among the Viet Minh who fought for freedom from colonial rule, and who did not want to trade French masters for Soviet ones. They formed a government in the south of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem. It was an unfortunate choice.
American diplomats worked feverishly though unsuccessfully, to establish a popular civilian rule in South Vietnam. The unrelenting pressures of a communist invasion from the north made this impossible.
The Americans began patrolling the South China Sea when it became evident that the Soviets were shipping vast supplies of war materials through Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam. It was obvious that the newly minted Viet Cong, led from North Vietnam, were preparing to mount a major offensive. It was clear that South Vietnam was going to be hard pressed to defend itself unless something was done. The American excuse to act was delivered by North Vietnamese naval vessels that attacked American warships in international waters.
Anti-war protesters long argued that the attack on one of the American warships, the destroyer Maddox, was a hoax. The problem for them is that such an attack legitimized American involvement.
Under international law, an attack on a vessel is an attack on the nation under which that vessel is flagged, and is a casus belli - a cause for war. In other words, an American warship is a floating extension of the nation. Attacking it is the same as attacking Cleveland.
A second American destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, joined the Maddox and the patrol was continued. The jittery crews misread radar and sonar signals, and the two ships began maneuvering and firing on phantom attackers. These incidents, one real and one imagined, led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
“Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal [sic] any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” – Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 7, 1964
Politicians recognize that popular support for a war is just as important as a nation's armed forces. Without it, they cannot sustain the strategic support needed to wage war. Fearing that the general population will not be able to grasp the complexities of diplomacy, they fashion slogans and sound bites that will inspire the public.
I was about to begin my last year of law school when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress and President Johnson ordered the mining of Haiphong harbor as well as strategic air strikes against North Vietnamese military installations. Our involvement escalated from that time and I was determined to enlist. As a sailor and Coast Guard certified operator of vessels, I endeavored to become an officer in the U.S. Navy, but they were slow in responding to my application. Thus, I entered the Army on March 3, 1966, approximately nine months after my graduation. I enlisted to fight the global communist threat. I did not march to war with “Remember the Maddox” on my lips. Indeed, I never heard those words uttered.
America has a long history of phantom attacks that led to war. “Remember the Maine” inspired Americans to go to war with Spain. The USS Maine, an American battleship anchored in Havana harbor, was purportedly sunk by the Spanish without provocation – in fact, it was destroyed by an explosion resulting from the accumulation of gases in its coal bunkers. Most recently, America invaded Iraq in search of phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – though none were ever found. The vilification of President Bush for purportedly lying about WMD in Iraq to justify that war is reminiscent of the vilification of President Roosevelt for purportedly engineering the attack on Pearl Harbor as an excuse to drag the United States into World War II.
Ultimately, Roosevelt led us to war in Europe because he decided that the vital interests of America were threatened there. Johnson led us to war in Vietnam for the same reason. No, North Vietnam did not threaten us directly – rather, as a client state of the Soviet Union, it threatened to help spread communism and shrink the free world. Engaging the communists in southeast Asia was a logical extension of the Truman Doctrine of Containment of Communism.
Containment never worked. So long as Stalin's dreams of world domination were allowed to play out unopposed, it was able to seep across borders – thus, the foundation of the Domino Theory. Indeed, the war in Vietnam was America's last attempt at containment. President Nixon replaced it with Detente wherein the Soviets and the Free World would attempt to get along like any two sensible rattlesnakes stuck in the same burlap bag.
Containment failed in Vietnam for one reason only – lack of will. The American people gave up on the effort. The antiwar movement won the day and the communists won the territory even though they had lost the war. Thus, this loss may be directly attributable to the failure of Johnson to craft a better slogan to inspire the general populace. As I said, I never heard “Remember the Maddox,” and few in America heard the clarion call to battle. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution had a flaw that the antiwar movement picked at like a sore until it burst and the will to fight deflated.