Vietnam, war, and the United States

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For more information, see: Vietnam War.

Interactions among Vietnam, war, and the United States go back much farther than many realize, including having a direct influence on the Japanese attack at the Battle of Pearl Harbor. In early 1941, the U.S. had troubled relations with Vichy France, which controlled what was then French Indochina.

Nevertheless, U.S. domestic politics and policy formation were based on a succession of national policies, as well as perceived domestic political responses to them.

Indochina and the Second World War

For more information, see: Indochina and the Second World War.

Nationalist attempts at Indochinese revolution, accelerating with a declaration of independence in September 1946. There were several nationalist movements, both non-Communist (e.g., Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang) and Communist (e.g., Indochinese Communist Party; the Viet Minh became the dominant revolutionary force. From 1946 to 1948, the French reestablished control, but, in 1948, began to explore a provisional government. A serious nationalist movement was clearly underway by 1948.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. gave two conditional embargoes to Japan, on metal and oil, which would be withdrawn only if Japan withdrew from Indochina. Japan considered expansion into Southeast Asia, as well as the Western shipments, as a matter of national security,[1] and, for its internal reasons, chose war as a means of achieving its resource goals.[2]

French Indochina, containment and anticolonialism

Roosevelt died shortly before the end of the Second World War, so the final wartime policies and initial postwar policies were enacted under Harry S Truman. The containment policy started under Truman but was continued under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Following World War II, there were many issues worldwide with colonial states. In general, the U.S. did not support the restoration of colonial rule, but it was also developing a containment policy toward Communism. In 1945, China was in civil war, and some of the Vietnamese politicians in exile were in China. An Office of Strategic Services team, commanded by MAJ Archimedes Patti, had been in China with the Vietnamese, and moved south with them.[3]

The formal containment policy would not emerge until 1947, in the Truman administration, but Washington was already uncomfortable with relations with any Communist organization, internal or external. Under the Eisenhower administration, some officials, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur Radford had recommended U.S. military intervention to help the French hold Dien Bien Phu. This idea gained very little momentum, and was firmly rejected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the focus of U.S. interest moved to the Geneva conference on the future of Indochina. Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, vigorously opposed any relations with Communist parties.

American priorities were greatest in Europe, and support for the French was seen as needed for a quid pro quo for support of NATO.

After the Geneva Conference, all of the governments involved in the Accords, with one significant exception, anticipated that France would remain in Vietnam. The exception was the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), under a symbolic head of state, former emperor Bao Dai. Its actual leader, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, was a nationalist, although personally autocratic in a Confucian context. At first, the U.S. sought a three-way partnership with France and the RVN.[4]

While the RVN was not in full-fledged guerrilla war, the strong U.S. commitment to containment caused it to regard a strong military presence, balancing the Communist north and its potential Chinese and Soviet sponsors. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed in 1954, although due to French protest, Cambodia, Laos, and the RVN were not allowed to join. Its members were:

  • Australia
  • France
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • Philippines
  • Thailand
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Republic of Korea (South Korea)

It was never a strong alliance. Pakistan withdrew on November 7, 1973. France withdrew on June 30, 1974. The organization was dissolved on June 30, 1977.

Since France, beset by domestic politics and the Algerian War, had no clear policy, the U.S. directly communicated its support to Diem.[5] France did not accept U.S. military dominance, nor was there unanimity within the U.S. government.

U.S. support of the early Republic of Vietnam

Even though military considerations were paramount at the civilian level, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were, at first, opposed to a greater U.S. role in training what was called the "Vietnamese National Army".[6]

Dwight D. Eisenhower (DDE) administration thinking

Every President brings strengths and weaknesses to office. Eisenhower, having held the highest military rank, involved the military in planning more than did later presidents, but was absolutely unafraid to direct and overrule them. He was strongly anti-Communist, for a variety of reasons, including the early machinations of Joe McCarthy, the thinking of John Foster Dulles, and what he saw as Soviet expansionism in Western Europe, with China as a proxy for the Soviets.

Southeast Asia as a threat to containment

In the late Eisenhower administration, the U.S. was quietly concerned with the expansion of North Vietnam. Although it is somewhat unclear when the U.S. firmly knew of the North Vietnamese decision to take control of the south, it is now known that the key decision was made in May 1959, the date commemorated in the name of the 559th Transportation Group, established to build what was to become the Ho Chi Minh trail; other logistic groups also were created at the same time. [7]

It was the Pathet Lao that most concerned the Eisenhower, and early Kennedy Administrations. In 1959, clandestine military advisors were sent to Laos, under a program originally called Operation HOTFOOT. Brigadier General John Heintges, headed the "Program Evaluation Office", the cover name for the program. [8]

Domino theory

According to Robert McNamara, the "domino theory" drove the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations. [9] He said that Southeast Asia was the topic most fully discussed between Eisenhower and Kennedy; see a CIA statement in 1964.

John F. Kennedy (JFK) administration thinking

While JFK's popular perception was as activist both domestically and in foreign relations, people that knew him, and his immediate circle, had a more complex view. David Halberstam suggested that, while in his campaign,

...had summoned the nation's idealism, but was at least as skeptical as he was idealistic, curiously ill at ease with other people's overt idealism, preferring in private the tart and darker view of the world and of mankind of a skeptic such as Robert Lovett[10] Kennedy differed from Johnson in his basic choice of advisers, tending more to the intellectual and technocratic than Johnson's preference for experienced politicians with whom he shared what he considered a pragmatic vision.

Pre-presidential relationship to Southeast Asia

The concern that a Communist takeover of a Southeast Asian nation, although initially assuming Laos rather than South Vietnam, continued into the first years of the Kennedy Administration. The Kennedy and Diem families had had a relationship going back to the mid-fifties. The National Security Agency set up a 24-hour monitoring watch on Laos and Thailand. [11]

Kennedy builds a staff

Many of Kennedy's close staff came from Harvard University and other places seen as intellectual and technical. Later, Richard M. Nixon would use "Harvard" as an epithet in describing sources of advice.

Kennedy's immediate circle believed their view of history, involving containment of the Soviet Union, had been validated; they looked to developing nations for challenges. Ironically, the theoretician of containment, George Kennan, had become increasingly dubious about the U.S. and NATO role in stopping Communism. [12]

Early Kennedy involvement in Southeast Asia

John F. Kennedy, however, also became concerned with South Vietnam, and started to send overt advisers. This appealed to strongly anticommunist parts of the U.S. political system, but was not widely publicized. Compared with organized Eastern European and Cuban exiles in the U.S., there was little widespread constituency in the U.S. for any of Southeast Asia.

Kennedy was fascinated by special operations forces, far more than had been Eisenhower, the commander of vast conventional armies. JFK is remembered as the patron of United States Army Special Forces.[13] While the first covert operatives went into Laos under Eisenhower, the involvement escalated under Kennedy.

In the early sixties, the U.S. continued to provide advisors and supplies. The U.S. established signals intelligence facilities in the South, and the first American fatality was a member of an intelligence unit. While the South Vietnamese were taught some basic signals intelligence techniques, the more sensitive collection and analysis techniques were not shared, only the conclusions.

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) administration thinking

Johnson was driven by several factors, but he was fundamentally focused on domestic affairs, where Nixon's chief interest was the reverse. Johnson's personality, however, was as important as his political emphasis. As opposed to Kennedy, he was personally insecure, and hated dissent — which he often avoided by avoiding advisors with strong independent opinions. According to his Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, "he both hates and craves good advice...until you knew him well you couldn't always tell what detail was missing in something that you were proposing or you were trying to get him to decide.[14].

Johnson's motives were different from Kennedy's, just as Nixon's motivations would be different from Johnson's. Of the three, Johnson was most concerned with U.S. domestic policy, with protecting his 'domestic legacy'. Karnow quotes his comment to his biographer, Doris Kearns, as

"I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, I would be seen as a coward and my nation seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe."[15]

Johnson distrusted the military, but wanted to maintain the appearance of effective consultation with them. [16] To Johnson, Vietnam was a "political war" only in the sense of U.S. domestic politics, not a political settlement for the Vietnamese. He also saw it political in the sense of both his personal, and the U.S., position vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

Johnson and Kennedy Administration holdovers

His personality was quite different from those of key JFK advisers, but he formed close bonds with some. Above all, he was comfortable with Robert McNamara, JFK's Secretary of Defense; Dean Rusk, Secretary of State] under JFK, and McGeorge Bundy, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

It is not unfair to say that Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy (RFK) despised one another. Johnson was not happy that McNamara retained a good relationship with RFK, going back to the John F. Kennedy Administration days; McNamara felt torn by the situation. RFK had received, in February 1967, a North Vietnamese communication that he considered a peace feeler. While McNamara insisted that RFK had not leaked it to Newsweek, which printed it in the February 5 issue, Johnson said to Kennedy,

The war will be over this year, and when it is, I'll destroy you and every one of your dove friends. You'll be dead politically in six months.[17]

More and more, RFK positioned himself as the peace candidate and LBJ as the war candidate. On May 19, 1967, McNamara sent a memorandum to LBJ, saying the "war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped." [18] This was the real breaking point between McNamara and LBJ, although it became visible when Clark Clifford replaced McNamara on March 1, 1968, after Tet.

Johnson's priorities

Given Johnson's domestic priorities, George Ball, who believed the U.S. should focus on Europe rather than Vietnam, thought Lyndon Johnson would have great domestic problems if he disengaged immediately, which would have seemed a rejection of Kennedy. "What concerned me then as it did much more intensely even later was that the more forces we committed, the more men we committed to Vietnam, the more grandiloquent our verbal encouragement of the South Vietnamese was, the more costly was any disengagement."[19]

Bundy said, "the fact that the President had not had formal diplomatic experience to any great extent was no true measure of the degree of his exposure to major questions in foreign affairs...there was certainly a gap in his experience in the sense that he was not widely and easily acquainted with the people concerned with the conduct and management of international affairs both in the United States and outside the United States.[14]

Johnson saw the war in terms of its effects on domestic politics and made decisions based on domestic considerations. He did not want to be known as the Democrat who "lost Vietnam." As a believer in the "domino theory," he worried that other countries in Southeast Asia would fall to Communism if the line was not held.

The only alternative to containment, he believed, was rollback, as advocated by Barry Goldwater. "Why Not Victory?" Goldwater asked; because it means nuclear war, Johnson retorted, as he used the rollback issue to overwhelm Goldwater in the 1964 election.[20] To be consistent with Johnson's policies, the Air Force revised its manual of air doctrine, to state that "total victory in some situations would be an unreasonable goal."[21]

Equally important to Johnson as what happened in Asia was what was happening at home, especially in the minds of the voters.[22] To Johnson, Vietnam was a "political war" only in the sense of U.S. domestic politics, not a political settlement for the Vietnamese. Having been a Democratic Senate leader in the early 1950s who had to defend against Republican charges that the Democrats had "lost" China and failed in Korea, Johnson did not want to have to counter similar charges.

"I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went," he vowed.[23]

He tried several different strategies, but running through them all was a policy of controlling popular perceptions. The American people were never to become alarmed at the magnitude of the problem; White House policy was to keep reassuring the nation that everything was going fine in Vietnam, and that LBJ could be trusted to handle the situation in his own way.[24]

The decision to take a major pro-containment stand

Johnson was deeply committed to containment. Drawing from a paper from Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton:

"The central lesson of our time," Johnson told a John Hopkins audience in April 1965, "is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next." He continued, "We must say in southeast Asia--as we did in Europe--in the words of the Bible: 'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.'": [25]

Privately. he felt that if he lost Vietnam to the communists, everything he wanted to work for at home--civil rights, the War on Poverty, and his Great Society--would also be lost.

"I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression," he explained years later, and "there would follow in this country an endless national debate--a mean and destructive debate--that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy."[26]

U.S. military involvement began to increase in 1964 and 1965, the Gulf of Tonkin incident indicated a new level of intensity, when North Vietnam explicitly became part of active operations.

He was concerned about what was called the "falling domino" effect; he thought the fall of neighboring states would be rapid, but others looked for great damage in slow motion, as in a 1964 CIA estimate:

We do not believe that the loss of South Vietnam and Laos would be followed by the rapid, successive communization of other states of Southeast Asia. Instead of a shock wave passing from one to the next, there would be a simultaneous, direct effect on all Far Eastern countries. With the possible exception of Cambodia, it is likely that no nation of the area would quickly succumb to communism as a result of the fall of Laos and South Vietnam. Further, a spread of communism in the area would not be inexorable, and any spread that would happen would take time — time in which the situation might change in any of a number of ways unfavorable to the Communist cause....The loss of South Vietnam and Laos to the Communists would be profoundly damaging to the US position in the Far East, most especially because the US has committed itself persistently, emphatically, and publicly to preventing Communist takeover of the two countries.[27]

Tet and its consequences

While the actual losses to the Communist side, in the January 1968 Tet Offensive, were catastrophic, that period was also a turning point in U.S. political and public opinion. Giap, prior to the offensive, saw the battlefield situation as deadlocked, and the true center of gravity to be American public opinion. [28]In particular, he distrusted military advisers, but had a quick rapport with Robert McNamara, whose structured, quantitative personality was the antithesis of Johnson's. Nevertheless, Johnson liked and respected McNamara, for saving money for domestic programs, dominating the uniformed military, and being extremely responsive to the President. [29] McNamara wrote that Johnson was "tortured" about Vietnam.[30]

Ideology vs. Strategic/operational understanding

Under the Johnson, and to a lesser extent the Kennedy assumption, the basic U.S. strategic assumption was that North Vietnamese behavior could be changed by compellence, or by some form of attrition, perhaps signalled to the North Vietnamese.

There was also an assumption that the U.S. involvement was necessary due to the containment policy in effect from the Truman administration on. This assumed that the North Vietnamese actions were controlled by the Soviets and, to a lesser extent, by the Chinese. Changing to a more "realist" or detente strategy under Nixon challenged the assumption that Communist expansion in Southeast Asia had to be stopped as a mere part of a worldwide grand strategy. Instead, an assumption grew that the Southeast Asian conflict was more regional.

There also were confusing messages about "losing" Vietnam, as if it was owned by the U.s. or France. There is a misperception that the United States Army was defeated in combat by a Viet Cong guerrilla force. Under the Vietnamization doctrine, United States military forces left the Republic of Vietnam under the civilian control of the military, and at the orders of a U.S. government that recognized American public opinion did not regard the survival of South Vietnam as a critical issue.

Desperate people, clinging to helicopters during the 1975 fall of South Vietnam, were not American military forces. While some combat troops briefly reentered South Vietnam to provide security for the evacuation of U.S. personnel, Operation FREQUENT WIND, the 1975 collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South), under conventional attack by the People's Army of Viet Nam (North) did not involve the U.S. military. It had been quite public, since 1972, that the South Vietnamese were on their own. While moral issues have been raised about whether they should have supported, the reality was that there was no popular or Congressional support for intervention, and Kissinger and Nixon reflected Machiavelli's view that politics were amoral.

Several other factors were important in the formation of public opinion. This was the first war to have near-real-time battle footage televised to the American public.

While the United States lost none of the battles, it lost the war because it did not define reachable political goals. From 1945 to 1964, people with expertise in the area, but with no special ornithological definition, argued about the proper role of the United States in the region, and about the viability of the Republic of Vietnam. From 1964 to 1972 debate raged between "doves" (who wanted the US to disengage, for a variety of reasons) and "hawks" (who wanted to win, for some definition of "win").

Analysis of objectives, of civil-military relations

Speaking of wars in general,

Nothing is more divisive for a government than having to make peace at the price of major concessions. The process of ending a war almost inevitably invokes an intense internal struggle if it means abandoning an ally or giving up popularly accepted objectives...the power structure of a government is not made of one piece — even in dictatorships. Political factions contend for influence, government agencies and military service maintain their own separate loyalties and pursue partisan objectives, and popular support keeps shifting. — Fred Charles Iklé, [31] pp. 59-60

Many believe victory, although the criteria for "victory" were never clearly defined, was thrown away because, as General Hamilton H. Howze said when Saigon finally fell to the Communists in 1975, "America itself lost much of its will to fight and the politicians and the press began their program of vilification." Howze's rhetoric says more about the military's role in society and its own battered self image than it does about Vietnam. Much of the intensity of the debate during the 1960s sprang not from what was happening in Asia, but what was happening on the home front.

A comment from one mid-level soldier, to become an apparently victorious commander in a later war, may be illustrative. A lieutenant colonel hospitalized for back surgery at the time, wrote (his emphasis)

I hated what Vietnam was doing to the United States and I hated what it was doing to the Army. It was a nightmare that the American public had withdrawn its support: our troops in World War I and World War II had never had to doubt for one minute that the people on the home front were fully behind them. We in the military hadn't chosen the enemy or written the orders — our elected leaders had. Nevertheless, we were taking much of the blame. — H Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., [32], p. 181

COL (ret.) Harry Summers, a strategic analyst and author, observed that the protest movement was directed not at the civilian makers of policy, but at the uniformed executors of policy. [33] Other soldiers, however, have described the U.S. involvement as essentially in support of U.S. domestic political agendas, starting from a reflexive, Eisenhower-Dulles militant anticommunism. [16]


Johnson kept Congress out of the policy making process, and Congress did not assert its authority over the making of war. McNamara said that two key senators, Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen, who, respectively, were for and against escalation, advised Johnson to keep Westmoreland's June 1965 requests for more troops out of Congress. They believed that the debate, whatever the result of the debate, would hurt the war effort. "That was the answer Johnson wanted to hear, but it was the wrong answer. There is no 'right' moment to obtain popular consent for military action through a vote of congress...The fact is that it must[34] be done &mdash even if a divisive vote risks giving aid and comfort to our adversary."[35]

More of a political threat were "hawks" like GOP Senator Barry Goldwater, articulate spokesman for the nascent conservative movement, and Democratic Senator John Stennis, the chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee.[36]

Johnson feared that if Congress had a voice it would push for a more aggressive, expensive war that would sabotage his high-spending low-tax "Great Society" domestic program. Even worse, Congress might reject his forced-negotiations strategy and insist upon a roll-back strategy aiming at the defeat and conquest of North Vietnam.

Vietnam as an issue in the 1964 elections

In the election Johnson battled Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, warning vehemently that Goldwater's "Why Not Victory" rollback strategy would produce a nuclear war with the Soviets. Surprisingly little discussion of Vietnam took place. Virtually all the information and advice that reached Johnson and McNamara in 1963-65 was deeply pessimistic: the consensus was that the South Vietnam government was too corrupt, and its army was too inefficient, to withstand the Communists. The only chance for containment--a slim one--was to have American soldiers take command of the war and defeat the Viet Cong forces on the ground, while hurting North Vietnam just enough to convince them to negotiate.

Johnson was sensitive to the cycle of getting legislation passed, as well as frequent public opinion polling; he and McNamara apparently believed that the enemy thought on a similar time scale.

Late in 1967, even before Tet, a plurality of U.S. citizens believed the U.S. had "made a mistake" in sending large combat forces to Vietnam, although that did not equate to a plurality being "antiwar". The attitude was more reflective of "now that we're there, let's win or get out." Johnson's traditional power base was falling away. Previous supporters in the press, notably Walter Cronkite, saw no potential for victory. [37]

Clark Clifford, a long-time Washington insider, first expressed his concern to Johnson after returning from a September 1967 visit. obviously made me wonder a little about our judgment when it apparently was not consistent with the judgment of these countries out in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific who'd lived with this kind of problem for a good deal longer than we had. [this was a] nagging, uneasy, vague feeling

within me... But I continued to be a full supporter

of our policy[38]

McNamara had written a November memorandum, privately to Johnson,

Continuation of our present course of action in Vietnam would be dangerous, costly in lives,and unsatisfactory to the American people...Nothing will break [the North's]] will other than the conviction that they cannot succeed, [which they will not reach] unless and until they conclude the U.S. is prepared to remain in Vietnam for whatever period of time...the American public, frustrated by the slow rate of progress, fearing continuing escalation, and doubting that all approaches to peace have been sincerely probed, does not give the appearance of having the will to persist."[39]

McNamara later learned Clifford disagreed with his memo, saying the future depended on "accomplishing our purpose". McGeorge Bundy commented "we are simply not going to go on at the current rate for that length of time."

GEN Earl Wheeler, on February 28, delivered a Joint Chiefs of Staff request for large troop increases, including mobilizing the reserves. Johnson, whom Clifford described "as worried as I have ever seen him", directed Clifford to "give me the lesser of the evils."[40] Analysis of Communist losses in Tet were actually suggesting a counteroffensive might be real, but political perspective had long since overtaken pure military considerations. [41] Ironically, Tet was both a military defeat for Vo Nguyen Giap and caused him to lose power within the North Vietnamese government, but the psychological effect on U.S. politics was very real.

Clifford was named Secretary of Defense on March 1, replacing McNamara, who wrote "I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired. Maybe it was both."[42] Clifford said,

I believe one of the reasons the President selected me to succeed McNamara was that he felt I supported his policy strongly. I did support his policy ... and I think what he wanted was a man who would

stand there strong and forthrightly and resolutely and the President wouldn't have to worry about that particular fellow... I was perfectly prepared to do that. The trouble with it was that as I went through that inquiry

into the whole subject of Viet Nam my opinion changed.[43]

Prior to this period, Johnson had largely kept the war out of detailed electoral politics. Since Johnson had not declared his candidacy, it was only his supporters message that voting for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who was challenging Johnson on this issue, was a vote for the enemy. In the first primary, New Hampshire, the Democratic vote was almost a tie between Johnson and McCarthy, with polls suggesting the vote was more anti-Johnson than anti-war. A few days later, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy, making it clear the war would be an issue. Party advisers, such as James L. Rowe, told Johnson that he had become the "war president" and could spell the end of the Democratic Party. [44]

Johnson announced, on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for reelection.

I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in in this political year...Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."[45]

According to his appointments secretary, he made the announcement not for fear of losing, but he said that if he did not seek reelection, he would be free to explore all options to conclude the war. If he did run, however, politics would interfere. "What if the opportunity came late in the campaign; I might want to wait until after the election for fear it might be misinterpreted and cost us votes," he once said, "and then the opportunity might have been lost." [46]

POW-MIA issue

Navy LT Everett Alvarez was shot down during a raid following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and became the first American prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnamese hands. Others had been captured by the Viet Cong.

The North Vietnamese refused to follow the Third Geneva Convention toward POWs, used them in propaganda broadcasts, and more and more evidence came out about their being treated harshly.

Even more controversial was the matter of Americans missing in action (MIA). This was especially an issue with aircrews, where a plane was shot down, but it was impossible for the US to tell if there were survivors. In some cases, the North Vietnamese did acknowledge POWs, but an increasing number of MIAs were unaccounted-for. Over an indeed emotional issue, there grew an increasingly strong American movement to get accounting for the MIAs and better treatment for the POWs.

The return of some POWs after the Paris Peace Talks alleviated some concerns but raised others. A number of Americans were convinced that the North Vietnamese were still holding living MIAs. One of the most influential of these Americans was H. Ross Perot, then an influential businessman.

Nixon Administration

Nixon had not personalized the conflict as much as Johnson, who seemed to want personally to dominate Ho. Johnson was focused on domestic politics, and indeed, had it not been for the war, might have seen much more of his Great Society come to fruition. Nixon, instead, was most interested in world affairs, and saw detente with China and the Soviet Union as an alternative to containment.

Nixon did not see withdrawing from Vietnam, a matter essentially peripheral to the interactions of the great powers, as "losing" it. Arguably, Nixon never believed the U.S. "had" Vietnam, and it was properly in an Asian sphere of interest. Nevertheless, he came from an anti-Communist background and hesitated to withdraw immediately. Just as he was later able to go to China, in 1972, and have it regarded as a triumph while a Democrat would probably have been attacked for weakness, Nixon might well have been able to withdraw from Vietnam shortly after re-election. His drawing the war out another four years did not save the Republic of Vietnam, or the lives of 20,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese. [47]

He did, however, gain political capital by ending the unpopular draft and being perceived as moderate, through his "peace with honor" policy. That policy had three parts, two overt and one initially kept secret from the U.S. public:

  1. The Paris Peace Talks, pressuring South as well as North Vietnam
  2. Ending the draft and publicly "strengthening an ally"
  3. Bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia, and eventually overtly attacking it, with the side effect of destabilizing Prince Norodom Sihanouk so that Lon Nol could eventually overthrow him &mdash and eventually be replaced by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.

Reagan Administration

In 1986, Perot pressed, in Congress, for a new POW-MIA commission. He traveled to Hanoi as an individual, with a proposal for economic aid to Vietnam that would have a quid-pro-quo of more Vietnamese cooperation on POW-MA issues.

At this time, the Reagan Administration had a strong policy that Vietnam should withdraw its troops from Cambodia before the US offered any incentives. Staff on the National Security Council felt Perot was being manipulated by the Vietnamese, and undermining Administration policy. James Kelly, one of the NSC staff involved, said "I felt the Vietnamese were playing him like a kids' player piano," and said he would resign if Perot's proposal was accepted. During these disputes, Perot increasingly felt Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near Eastern and Pacific Affairs, Richard Armitage, was the key opponent to his ideas. Armitage had exposed some sensational frauds, but had not directly interacted with Perot. Perot tried and failed to get him fired. He would, however, block his nomination for Secretary of the Army in the George H.W. Bush Administration. [48]


  1. Oral Statement on Indochina and the Oil Embargo Handed by the Japanese Ambassador (Nomura) To the Secretary of State on August 6, 1941
  2. "War Responsibility--delving into the past (3) / Matsuoka, Oshima misled diplomacy", The Yomiuri Shimbun, August 13, 2006
  3. Patti, Archimedes A. H. (1981), Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's Albatross, University of California Press
  4. , Chapter 5, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960", Section 1, pp. 179-214, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1
  5. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eisenhower's Letter of Support to Ngo Dinh Diem, October 23, 1954, vol. Department of State Bulletin. November 15, 1954, pp.735-736
  6. , Chapter 5, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960", Section 2, pp. 215-241, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1
  7. Goscha, Christopher E. (April 2002), The Maritime Nature of the Wars for Vietnam (1945-75), 4th Triennial Vietnam Symposium, Texas Tech University Vietnam Center
  8. Holman, Victor (1995). Seminole Negro Indians, Macabebes, and Civilian Irregulars: Models for the Future Employment of Indigenous Forces. US Army Command and General Staff College.
  9. , Robert S. McNamara interview"The Cold War, Episode 11: Vietnam", Cable News Network, June 1996
  10. Halberstam, David (1972), The Best and the Brightest, Random House, p. 4
  11. Hanyok, Robert J. (2002), Chapter 3 - "To Die in the South": SIGINT, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Infiltration Problem, [Deleted 1968], Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency
  12. Halberstam, p. 7
  13. Halberstam, pp. 123-124
  14. 14.0 14.1 Mullholan, Paige E. (January 1, 1969), Oral History Interview with McGeorge Bundy, Interview 1, pp. I-3 to I-4 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LBJ-Oral-Bundy1" defined multiple times with different content
  15. Doris Kearns and Merle Miller, quoted in Karnow, p. 320
  16. 16.0 16.1 H. R. McMaster (1997), Dereliction of Duty : Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, HarperCollins, ISBN 0060187956, pp. 52-53 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "McMaster" defined multiple times with different content
  17. McNamara, p. 260
  18. McNamara, p. 266-271
  19. Mullholan, Paige E. (July 8, 1971), Oral History Interview with George W. Ball, Interview 1, p. I-8
  20. The History Channel (September 22, 1964), Goldwater attacks Johnson's Vietnam policy
  21. Pauly, John W. (May-June 1976), "The Thread of Doctrine", Air University Review
  22. McMaster, p. 86
  23. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975 (1991) quoted p. 304
  24. McMaster, pp. 88-89
  25. McNaughton, John T. (10 March 1965), Paper Prepared by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McNaughton): Action for South Vietnam, vol. Foreign Relations of the United States, "McNaughton Paper 1965 - FRUS 193"
  26. Quoted in Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), p. 252.
  27. Sherman Kent for the Board of National Estimates, Memo 6-9-64 (for the Director of Central Intelligence): Would the Loss of South Vietnam and Laos precipitate a "Domino Effect"
  28. Karnow, pp. 535-536
  29. McMaster, pp. 53-54
  30. Robert S. McNamara (1995), In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books division of Random House, p. 191
  31. Iklé, Fred Charles (1991), Every War Must End, revised edition, Columbia University Press
  32. Schwarzkopf, H Norman, Jr. (1992), It Doesn't Take a Hero, Bantam
  33. Summers, Harry G., Jr. (1995), On Strategy: a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio
  34. emphasis in original
  35. McNamara, pp. 191-192
  36. Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings. (2006); Michael S. Downs, "Advise and Consent: John Stennis and the Vietnam War, 1954-1973." Journal of Mississippi History 1993 55(2): 87-114. Issn: 0022-2771
  37. Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, p. 545-548
  38. Clark Clifford (7/2/69), Oral History II interview, 7/2/69 by Paige Mulhollan, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. II-15
  39. McNamara, pp. 307-308
  40. Karnow, pp. 551-552
  41. Palmer, Dave R. (1978), Summons of the Trumpet, Presidio Press, pp. 208-210
  42. McNamara, p. 311
  43. Clark Clifford (7/14/69), Oral History II interview, 7/14/69 by Paige Mulhollan, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. III-9
  44. Karnow, pp. 558-559
  45. Karnow, p. 565
  46. Jones, James R. (March 30, 2008), Why LBJ bowed out: Politics, his legacy, mortality and the war led to his decision to walk away from power.
  47. Donaldson, Gary (1996), America at War Since 1945: Politics and Diplomacy in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp.120-124
  48. James Mann (2004), Rise of the Vulcans: the History of Bush's War Cabinet, Viking, ISBN 0670032990, pp. 173-176