Monday, March 29, 2004

The Impact of Political Philosophy on Escalation and Prosecution of the War in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration: 1963-1969
By Alexander Marriott
History 481.2
Dr. Joseph A. Fry
Spring 2004





In 1796 the United States would have been lucky to be ranked as a second rank power, but its president, George Washington, saw something in the infant country that encouraged him for its future. In his farewell address the departing father of his nation advised,

“Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. … It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

Yet almost a century after Washington’s death in 1799, the United States would be embarking on a war designed to force the American example on Spanish colonies for, at best, murky reasons. Two decades after that, President Woodrow Wilson committed the nation to war, proclaiming proudly that, “We have no selfish ends to serve. … We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.” His statement was a fairly explicit declaration of American willingness to fight wars for altruism, with no American interests to protect, and to sacrifice its citizens in the process. The American sacrifice in lives for World War I came to 126,000 men dead with almost twice as many wounded for a conflict which their commander-in-chief proclaimed they had no personal selfish interest in fighting and dieing in. This was a marked and ominous contrast to the selfish rationale President Washington had proclaimed to be the only justifiable reason for the United States to go to war.

As President Lyndon Johnson came into office in November, 1963, immediately after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy, he was confronted with the decision of whether or not to commit the United States to war in Southeast Asia for ostensibly the same reasons Wilson went to war, to make the world (or at least Vietnam) safe for democracy. Former President Eisenhower had said that the point of the French war in Indochina, which ended with French withdrawal in 1954, was to guarantee the right of the region to “self-determination,” another Wilsonian staple. President Johnson could choose to follow Washington or Wilson and, unsurprisingly, he chose the latter. This ought not to have shocked anyone; not only was historical precedent, from at least 1917 but arguably from 1898, on the side of fighting a selfless war, but American political philosophy, as articulated by politicians and presidents of both major political parties, was based upon selflessness and sacrifice (for neighbor, country, and enemy) with few exceptions. It was this political philosophy that put the United States into the middle of a civil war in Vietnam in which the United States had no real and discernable interest and it was this political philosophy that fatally hampered any chance of success after U.S. troops were committed to the fight.

The grandiose notion of national self-sacrifice as a rational basis for going to war existed long before Lyndon Baines Johnson would use it to justify the American adventure in Vietnam. But it existed as a comprehensive political philosophy, not just a war rationale, and it was actively trumpeted by presidents of both major political parties. Altruism, the ethical code of self-sacrifice, was not introduced suddenly upon American politics but had always been there in the religious beliefs of most Americans, which were and still are Judeo-Christian.

Though going back to influences at the founding of the country, the rise of altruist-based political philosophy began in the Progressive Era of American politics in the late nineteenth century. But this movement would pale in comparison to the departure that would occur under Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” (which was itself an allusion to Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom”) and then Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” War, the ultimate political question, is undoubtedly influenced by domestic political philosophy. For instance it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine America in its early years going to war to assure the “self-determination” of another nation. This is partly because the United States could not have marshaled the forces for such an adventure, but also because its leaders and people would have thought such a war a waste and an unjust use of force. George Washington had said it should be through our “example” that we convince countries to adopt the political philosophy of America, not force of arms.

The policy makers of the Johnson administration who would take the United States to war in Vietnam, including Johnson himself, fully accepted the politics of self-sacrifice as a tool of national policy, even in case of war. America’s enemies in this period, from the Soviet Union to North Vietnam, also accepted this political philosophy as the legitimate foundation of their own power. Going back even further among America’s enemies, it was Benito Mussolini who characterized the life of the individual in relation to his fellows as being,

“Founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.” (Emphasis added)

His American enemy, President Franklin Roosevelt, didn’t seem to reject Mussolini’s ethics when he proclaimed that “the forces of selfishness met their match” when he was elected president. Fascist Italian and American Democrat both agreed that the problem in society to be combated was self-interest, not self-sacrifice.

When Mussolini and the Axis powers were beaten in World War II the victorious allies chartered the United Nations, wrote a declaration of human rights for all people, and set themselves against the most brutal dictatorship in the history of mankind, which they had just recently been allied with. Did the victors discard the political philosophy of self-sacrifice which was the cornerstone of the totalitarian dictatorships they had just defeated and the cornerstone of the ones they were about to engage in cold and hot wars for the next forty years? The answer is no. Instead this political philosophy was enshrined into the United Nations and into the declaration of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in Article 29, in a fashion similar to the dead Italian DucĂ©, that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” What duties does everyone have? Those are explicitly laid out in the declaration, in the odd format of declaring things as “rights” for all, but which were also duties for others to fulfill. For instance, it was a right of everyone to work (someone needs to provide the job), to have rest and leisure, to have periodic holidays with pay (someone has to pay), to have an adequate standard of living (which someone else must provide), and to have an education (which someone would have to provide). This was in contrast to one’s right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness laid out in the Declaration of Independence; those were fundamental rights to be protected by government, not provided by it. Mussolini had commented on this idea as well, saying that,

“What does higher social justice mean? It means work guaranteed, fair wages, decent homes, it means the possibility of continuous evolution and improvement.”

Clearly, the United States and its Allies, as they entered the Cold War, had not given up on the political philosophy of self-sacrifice that had so characterized the fascist states it destroyed in World War II and the communist states that were now its enemies.

When Lyndon Johnson came into the presidency it is no surprise that he continued the trend of advancing the political philosophy of self-sacrifice begun many decades earlier and forcefully championed by his slain predecessor John Kennedy. It was John Kennedy who had promised the country a “New Frontier” which he characterized as “hold[ing] out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.” It was Kennedy that had asked Americans if they were “willing to match the Russian sacrifice of the present for the future?” Lyndon Johnson continued the appeal for altruism in his inaugural address when he said,

“Men want to be part of a common enterprise – a cause greater than themselves. Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves. Without this, we shall become a nation of strangers.”

This call for sacrifice in the Johnson administration was not relegated to the president, his advisors and cabinet officers also advanced the idea for domestic purposes.

National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy attacked the institution of private property by linking it to racist home owners who refused to sell their property to black buyers and emphatically declared “we are rich enough, and we can be decent enough, to end poverty and racism.” By decent enough he meant, willing to sacrifice one’s money, time, and property in order to achieve the goals of America’s politicians. His first comment, about being rich enough, is important to remember when America’s political philosophy of self-sacrifice was transported to South Vietnam, a country with not nearly enough wealth to support the notions of “human dignity” advanced by the Johnson administration.

Attorney General Ramsey Clark was more philosophical than most, saying,

“We must also contain our acquisitive instinct. Selfishness must be relegated to the past, when scarcity created preciousness and made men covetous. We can produce more than enough for all. …. There is no longer room enough for us to ignore one another. Service to others now best serves oneself.” (Emphasis added)

Clark was more philosophical, but no more cogent, than other administration officials. To say that scarcity was a thing of the past would suggest than the United States had reached some sort of Garden of Eden scenario in 1970. Clark seemed to be advocating peacetime rationing or the wholesale destruction of private property in order to make sure that that which was produced went to everyone regardless if they could not pay for it. He also assumed that after such actions great quantities of goods would continue to be produced. One would expect this kind of reasoning from Hanoi or Moscow, but it is disturbing to see American officials holding such ideas on governmental power and responsibility.

Johnson’s Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, would call for a “full employment program – work for all,” in his bid for the presidency in 1968. This rhetoric might have sounded good to some, but it was made with reckless abandon to the consequences and implications such programs would mean to the Constitution and the nature of the American government. Another Democratic candidate in 1968, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, made similar statements, proclaiming,

“Today the potential of the American economy is such that it has become the responsibility of society to delineate and fulfill a far broader range of civil rights than we have provided for us in the past.” (Emphasis added)

The Democratic candidates in 1968 did not include President Johnson, but he would likely not have disagreed with what was being said by Humphrey, McCarthy, or Robert Kennedy at least as far as it concerned the ethical code that characterized American politics.

President Johnson was, after all, the architect of the biggest expansion in government welfare and aid programs since Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The legislation in that expansion was collectively known as the “Great Society” legislation, implying that American society before was something other than “Great.” Johnson laid out his vision for the “Great Society” in his memoir, The Vantage Point,

“Every family in America deserves a decent home, whether a farmhouse or a city apartment, rented or owned, modest or splendid. What matters is that the home be a place for a family to live in health and grow in dignity. I have been criticized for such statements by people who think I raised hopes that can never be fulfilled, but I believe in the wisdom of the Bible—‘Where there is no vision, the people parish.’ Unless these hopes are held out and unless they are eventually realized, our system of government will undergo a drastic change, and the change may not necessarily be concerned with the Constitution. Men will not support indefinitely a system which denies them a roof over their heads and shelter and warmth for their children.”

They will not support such a system particularly when they are told by their leaders, whether at home or in the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that they have an absolute right to housing, warmth, shelter, food, healthcare, unemployment insurance, or anything else which must be requisitioned from others. Note also that President Johnson cited the Bible as a source of philosophical inspiration, a source which, as already mentioned, promotes the ethics of self-sacrifice.

In 1972 the Democratic Party nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern and he certainly did not reverse the politics of self-sacrifice. He went an explicit step further, condemning altruism’s opposite credo, individualism,

“I believe that new American will have, first among his characteristics, the understanding that his capacity for grace – his love and concern for his fellows – is more significant and necessary than an unbridled individualism or an intellect devoid of compassion.”

Interestingly, one person who would have agreed with Senator McGovern was the leader of Communist North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. He also singled-out individualism as the enemy and,

“The worst and most dangerous vestige of the old society … Individualism runs counter to revolutionary morality. The least remaining trace of it will develop at the first opportunity, smother revolutionary virtues and prevent us from wholeheartedly struggling for the revolutionary cause.”

And what was revolutionary morality? It required that one “devote one’s life to struggling for the Party and the revolution” and “to put the interests of the Party and the laboring people before and above one’s own interests. To serve the people wholeheartedly. To struggle selflessly for the Party and the people and to be exemplary in every respect.” (Emphasis added) Ho Chi Minh is more explicit in his condemnation but the implications are the same.

It seems, so far, that only the Democrats were the intellectual partners of Ho’s communists and Mussolini’s fascists, but their Republican opponents who made up the other half of the domestic political equation were just as much in the same ideological club. The quintessential “anti-communist” Republican standard bearer, Richard Nixon, is a case in point. After the close election of 1968, Nixon promised,

“In pursuing our goals of full employment, better housing, excellence in education; in rebuilding our cities and improving our rural areas; in protecting our environment and enhancing the quality of life – in all these and more, we will and must press urgently forward.”

These are hardly the words of someone who fundamentally rejected the politics of self-sacrifice. Nixon then when on to reject capitalism, the opposite system of communism which the United States had declared to be its enemy, further when he said, “We have shared our wealth more broadly than ever. We have learned at last to manage a modern economy to assure its continued growth.” (Emphasis added) Capitalism as a social system doesn’t allow for governmental management. Governmental economic management is the tool of command economies or those economies which are compromised by command elements, not a capitalist system.

Incidentally, Nixon was wrong about finally learning how to properly manage an economy. By 1971 inflation was ballooning and Nixon turned to the “bread and butter” of command economies to stop it, wage and price controls. It was the “anti-communist” Nixon, not the liberal Democrat Johnson, who used instruments which even Nixon admitted “crush economic and personal freedom.” It was Nixon who extended the ideology of only having a strong economy so as to gain more taxes in order,

“To achieve the great goals to which we all are so firmly committed: To help those who cannot help themselves. To feed the hungry. To provide better health care for the sick. To provide better education for our children. To provide more fully for the aged. To restore and renew our natural environment, and to provide more and better jobs and more and greater opportunity for all of our people.”

Some might think that maybe he was steering a middle course because of the close election in 1968, but after he easily defeated Senator McGovern Nixon’s tune did not change. Nixon restated his administration’s commitment “to ensure better education, better health, better transportation, a cleaner environment,” in effect, everything he had been doing before, which had been to advance the politics of self-sacrifice.

One exception to all of this in mainstream American politics was the Republican candidate in 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was also just as explicitly philosophical as Ramsey Clark though the two men obviously didn’t agree about much. About economic interventionism Goldwater proclaimed,

“I would seek a greater role for the Federal government in removing restrictions rather than imposing new ones – at every level of the economy. I stand on the side of individual responsibility and individual choice and creativity. I stand against the gray sameness of growing government, against the conformity of collectivism – regardless of excuses.” (Emphasis added)

Goldwater was clearly not ashamed of individualism, nor did he think it ought to be “relegated to the past.” In contrast to the way in which the politicians of self-sacrifice would fight the Vietnam War and the advice they offered the American ally of South Vietnam, Goldwater suggested,

“I pledge that the America I envision in the years ahead will extend its hand in help, in teaching, and in cultivation, so that all new nations will at least be encouraged to go our way – so that they will not wander down the dark alleys of tyranny, or the dead-end streets of collectivism. We do no man a service by hiding freedom’s light under a bushel of mistaken humility. I seek an America proud of its past, proud of its ways, proud of its dreams, and determined actively to proclaim them.” (Emphasis in original)

In Goldwater there was a politician who declared that America should selfishly pursue its aims abroad and resist self-sacrifice and collectivism within. Goldwater proclaimed that America should not hide or be ashamed of its message of freedom and individual rights. Goldwater was, however, defeated handily in the election of 1964 and any chance of reversing the politics of self-sacrifice at home and abroad was defeated with him.

Dominant American political philosophy in the years of the Johnson administration and the years before and after it was clearly that of self-sacrifice. The one major challenge to that dominance by Barry Goldwater was easily defeated and the road lay clear to apply that philosophy both at home and abroad. When Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam it was for the familiar “noble” selfless reasons that inspired the “Great Society” legislation. With the victory of self-sacrificial politics at home it is no shock that those same politics predominated in the push to war in Vietnam.

President Johnson had as much to do with the advent of the politics of self-sacrifice in foreign policy as he did domestically. In other words, that trend had been under way well before he came into office. Wilson’s justifications for getting involved in World War I, but also his fourteen points (which can be viewed as his objectives in the war) are full of policies that had nothing to do with America’s intererts. Franklin Roosevelt allied the United States with Soviet Russia, which had made a secret pact with Nazi Germany to split up Poland, with reckless disregard for the consequences of arming and supplying a totalitarian dictatorship. In the long-run this was counter to all of America’s interests as it greatly contributed to a forty year Cold War where the world was at the brink of nuclear annihilation. Collective security arrangements (what George Washington may have characterized as “foreign entanglements”) like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) under President Truman and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) under President Eisenhower were tying the United States into nearly automatic war in all parts of the world should any of the signatories by attacked by a non-signatory. This automatic war without regard to whether or not it was in the interests of the United States was a dangerous precedent and contributed to the decision to fight in Vietnam.

President Kennedy was told by his Secretaries of State and Defense, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, that the United States should get involved in Vietnam because,

“The loss of South Vietnam to Communism would not only destroy SEATO but would undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere. Further, loss of South Vietnam would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to divide the country and harass the administration…”

Dean Rusk’s reasons for supporting the war were concise, saying simply, “For me, the issue at stake in Vietnam was collective security.” In other words, if the United States didn’t defend South Vietnam then the security of the United States would be jeopardized as it had signed a treaty saying it would protect other countries as if they were American soil. Even Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, characterized this type of war rationale as having “the least obvious relationship to previous concepts of national security.”

Kissinger summed up the selfless war rationale developed by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy as one where,

“The freedom of every single independent nation had become the national objective, irrespective of those nations’ strategic importance to the United States.”

Holding the defense of freedom as “one and indivisible,” as President Eisenhower deemed it, made it America’s duty to stop tyrannical government all over the planet by implication. This eliminated the real difference that existed between Western Europe and Vietnam, between an area the United States had imperiled by arming and supplying the Soviet Union and another that had been fighting an anti-colonial war against the Japanese and then the French.

Dean Rusk, who as a young man “found in socialism the answers to living sensibly,” had said to Kennedy that losing South Vietnam would “destroy SEATO” and would “undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere.” His tune changed in the Johnson administration, insisting that the United States was “not trying to save face; we were trying to save South Vietnam.” Rusk continued to insist after the war was over that he and the Johnson administration were acting in a pure and selfless way, pointing out that,

“We didn’t ask Hanoi to surrender an acre of ground or a single soldier. We didn’t try to destroy North Vietnam, invade its territory, nor did we support or encourage a South Vietnamese attack on North Vietnam, nor did we seek to change the regime in Hanoi or its affiliations with the Communist world.”

One might, and should, ask how the United States ever expected to save South Vietnam by not demanding anything of what was characterized as the aggressing party? The United States demanded unconditional surrender from the aggressors it had fought it World War II, but told South Vietnam to not do anything to North Vietnam.

While shooting down any notions of selfishness in American foreign policy, perhaps to avoid the “calamity of private gain,” Rusk inserted an undeniable and unavoidable duty to justify American intervention, stating “that the United States must help the South Vietnamese repel aggression from the North.” (Emphasis added) A further proviso was added that “as long as the South Vietnamese were prepared to fight for themselves, we had to help them.” (Emphasis added) Why must the United States do so? Presumably it was to save South Vietnam, but those things which would directly assault the North Vietnamese state apparatus and take away its power to make war in the South were taken off of the table by Rusk and the administration to show the selflessness of the American war effort.

During a thirty-seven day bombing pause in December of 1965 Rusk and the administration drew up “Fourteen Points for Peace.” The name itself smacked of Wilsonian foreign policy and included among those points was a point by point elimination of selfish interests. Point seven stated, “We wanted no bases in Southeast Asia,” point eight stated, “We did not desire to retain U.S. troops in South Vietnam after peace was assured,” and point twelve stated, “We preferred to use our resources for the economic reconstruction of Southeast Asia rather than for war. If there was peace, North Vietnam could participate in a regional effort to which we would contribute at least one billion dollars.” Even giving a billion dollars to the region, implying some of it would go to communist North Vietnam, was not enough for people demanding more sacrifice (and no war), like historian Howard Zinn who said,

“The best way we can show our concern for both the economic well-being and the political freedom of the Vietnamese is to take the billions that have gone for death and turn them to the service of life. We should offer several billions in economic aid to North and South Vietnam, with no strings attached.” (Emphasis added)

Neither of these approaches could be justified without the politics of self-sacrifice dominating the home front and, by extension, foreign policy.

President Johnson, extolling selflessness at home also called for more abroad in stating,

“Our objective is the independence of South Viet-Nam and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves—only that the people of South Viet-Nam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way. We will do everything necessary to reach that objective, and we will do only what is absolutely necessary.” (Emphasis added)

It’s an odd ethics that sees the death of over 50,000 American soldiers as moral when their country sent them for no national gain or purpose. But that is precisely the ethics of self-sacrifice that led President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk to see such loss as a moral duty on the part of the United States.

The congress was no more willing to question this altruistic rationale than the administration. The congress gave the authority for an expanded war to President Johnson in the form of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which said, among other things,

“Whereas the United State is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protect their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work our their own destinies in their own way….” (Emphasis added)

The war aims of the United States were to help the South Vietnamese secure their own freedom, not defend the United States. And so the march to war in Vietnam was secured by the entrenchment of the politics of self-sacrifice in America, both at home and abroad. With the decision to go to war for the freedom of the South Vietnamese, what did the Johnson administration choose to do to win that war? The answer is unsurprising. The politics of self-sacrifice were packed up and shipped across the Pacific Ocean to a country created by the failure of the Geneva Accords of 1954, which had called for the unification of North and South Vietnam by a national election. The results were tragic for both the country the United States was “helping” and for the thousands of Americans who died while fulfilling the non-selfish mission of their country, many of them being pressed into their demise.

In the 1959 epic movie Ben-Hur the antagonist, Roman tribune Messala, is asked by his predecessor Sextus, “How do you fight an idea? Especially a new idea?” to which Messala replied, “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. I’ll tell you how. With another idea.” In a CBS television documentary in 1964, journalist Marvin Kalb alluded to this concept in saying, “It’s exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to beat an ideology with technology. You cannot do that.” Those in the Johnson administration would have been wise to heed Messala’s and Kalb’s words, for certainly those in Hanoi knew them and lived by them.

One of the principle leaders of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, told the people of Vietnam that,

“Nation and socialism are one. For us Vietnamese, love of country now means love of socialism; it means devoting all our zeal, strength, intelligence and talent to the building of their socialist homeland.”

The North Vietnamese were fighting for something. Certainly their nation was part of it, but the ideology of that nation was very clearly defined and that ideology was socialism. Ho Chi Minh confirmed this in 1960 when he wrote, “I gradually understood that only socialism and communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery.” This ideological cause fueled the fight for the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong insurgents, leaving Defense Secretary McNamara saying, “I didn’t think these people had the capacity to fight this way. If I had thought they would take this punishment and fight this well, and could enjoy fighting like this, I would have thought differently at the start….” Dean Rusk was equally flabbergasted, saying, “Hanoi’s persistence was incredible; I don’t understand it, even to this day. The North Vietnamese suffered enormous casualties.” Parts of the explanation of U.S. failure in Vietnam lies in the lack of philosophical solutions provided by the United States to South Vietnam and with American ambivalence to what kinds of regimes were running the government of South Vietnam in Saigon.

The problems began before President Johnson took office, going back to at least President Eisenhower’s ambassador to South Vietnam Elbridge Durbrow’s proposed measures to enhance the support of the peasants for the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Among his suggestions, Ambassador Durbrow called for Diem to,

“establish [a] mechanism for increasing [the] price [a] peasant will receive for paddy crop beginning to come on market in December, either by direct subsidization or [the] establishment of state purchasing mechanism.”

The price control, one of the tools of the command economy that Nixon had said would “crush economic and personal freedom,” was suggested for use a decade earlier than Nixon would use it in America.

The American “idea” to combat socialism and communism was “anti-communism” which is actually no idea at all for it encompasses everything so long as it is “anti-communist.” This was confirmed by numerous statements by administration officials; officials like William Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, who said very plainly that, “Our requirements were really very simple—we wanted any which would continue to fight.” (Emphasis added) Dean Rusk, in the lead-up to Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination, wanted to make sure that the United States would “pick up the pieces and try to work with whatever leader and government emerged.” (Emphasis added) When Johnson’s South Vietnam Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, was leaving his post he, like Ambassador Durbrow, drew up a list of proposals, a “ten point program for success,” which might have been more aptly named the “ten point program for a garrison state.” The first point was to “Saturate the minds of the people with some socially conscious and attractive ideology, which is susceptible of being carried out,” (Emphasis added) another point was to “Issue permits for the movement of goods and people,” and another to “hold a curfew.” What on earth does the first point mean, “Some socially conscious and attractive ideology?” Communism is a “socially conscious” and “attractive” ideology, but if the requirement was “anti-communism” then Mussolini’s fascism could have stepped in under Lodge’s ambiguous and dubious words. Perhaps Ambassador Lodge could have suggested market capitalism and limited government but that might have opened up room for charges of hypocrisy since even the United States had abandoned those ideas.

One of the leaders supported by the United States, South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, had, according to Ambassador and General Maxwell Taylor, “professed major admiration for Adolf Hitler.” Disregard for the governments and leaders the United States would aid in Vietnam contributed to the lack of any cause for the South Vietnamese people to fight for, except perhaps to avoid the certain oppression they would face under Communist rule, but, thanks to the United States, they suffered that in the South as well. Henry Kissinger pointed this principle out, saying that,

“The non-Communist countries of Indochina [did not] practice anything like the democracy of our European allies, throwing into question the moral purpose of the war.”

Lack of concern over what government ruled in Saigon and who ruled it, except when revolution was about to topple that regime as in the case of Diem, would lead to disaster when America and its ally turned to pacification of the South Vietnamese peasants and countryside. Perhaps the simple fact that a government claiming to represent an area and a people had to “pacify” those very same people and land should have been a clue to the Johnson administration that things were not as they should have been. But again, the administration “had” to defend South Vietnam and work with “whatever” government ruled there.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara would cite as a lesson from the Vietnam War that the United States did not “have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.” That it took such a calamity to realize this is disturbing, but it is no less disturbing what McNamara thought of as the “image” of the United States that was shaping South Vietnam. With Rusk’s admitting that “we never gave serious consideration to withdrawing” and that “we had no choice but to support the regime in power” it is worth the time to look at what Pacification under the government of President Nguyen Van Theiu and Prime Minister Ky meant for those who were being “pacified.”

The emphasis up to now has been on the politics of self-sacrifice driving American political decisions at home and abroad and that continued to be the case in the fighting of the war and pacification. The callousness displayed by the United States would have been expected of selfish motives according to the Communists in Hanoi but had the United States a real interest in Vietnam it would have not blown the South apart and left the North Vietnamese state intact. Again, the politics of self-sacrifice dominated the thinking, even to the point of the grotesque. Dean Rusk readily admitted that his conscience was troubled by the way bombing tactics in North Vietnam were decided,

“On my conscience are those times—more than I care to remember—when we asked our pilots to fly their missions the ‘hard way’: to attack targets by more heavily defended routes, but routes which would reduce the risk of civilian casualties. We did this knowing American lives would be lost.” (Emphasis added)

This is a whole level of seriousness above time and money being sacrificed, the Secretary of State and the rest of the Johnson administration were perfectly willing to sacrifice American pilots to save people in North Vietnam, people who might very well have been working for or supporting the communist regime. Again, such action should not have surprised anyone given the domestic political philosophy that dominated the United States and the willingness of its leaders to carry it out.

Historian Richard Hunt hit upon the influence of self-sacrifice in the pacification programs supported by the Johnson administration,

“Under Lyndon Baines Johnson, the United States enthusiastically embraced a unique nation-building mission in South Vietnam that had its origins in the same presidential impulses that gave birth to the Great Society and the April 1965 offer to North Vietnam of a billion-dollar economic development program for the Mekong River valley region on a scale to dwarf the Tennessee Valley Authority.”

The “impulses” referred to are the ideas of self-sacrifice and altruism as a political philosophy. Since the United States “had” to support whatever government was able to stand and claimed to be willing to fight the North Vietnamese a box was self-imposed. Leverage the United States may have had with all of the money and soldiers it was pumping into South Vietnam was abdicated by the narrow view of Rusk and others that the United States couldn’t leave. When tyranny reigned in the South the United States only wanted to know that the war would continue.

The strategic hamlet program, a pacification effort begun under the Diem regime, consisted of forcibly removing peasants from their land into “agrovilles” or hamlets with ramparts and barbed wire fences “which restricted their freedom.” Truong Nhu Tang, a Vietcong official who escaped Vietnam after the Communist takeover, has said that, under the strategic hamlet program, “a great many country people were alienated,” which is unsurprising given the government’s desire for “physical control of the people.” The United States did nothing to stop these actions and so the abuses of the various South Vietnamese regimes became more outlandish.

Social scientists were running all over South Vietnam during the war to chronicle and study the pacification efforts of the South Vietnamese and Americans to, presumably, judge their effectiveness. One of these people, a RAND Corporation staffer R. Michael Pearce observed the village of Duc Lap, which had been a part of the strategic hamlet program, and his comments are revealing of the short-sighted and ham-fisted way these pacification efforts were implemented. An old woman was walking towards Duc Lap until,

“She stopped in the middle of the runway and would not move: ‘She claimed she had lived on this land for 70 years, and the government had taken her land without asking. Furthermore, they did not even allow her to remove the bones of the nine family graves under the spot where she stood.’”

By mid-1966 Pearce concluded that the “villagers’ attitude towards the [government of South Vietnam] appeared, in general, to be worse than it was before pacification began.” The pacification efforts were working so poorly that by late 1966 a Saigon official confidentially told a reporter, “Frankly, we are not strong enough now to compete with the Communists on a purely political basis. They are organized and disciplined….” It was about this same time that journalist David Halberstam characterized society in South Vietnam as “rotting.” Halberstam would later say that the Americans “reflected the old feudal order” in Vietnam, unable to convince “them that our enemy is their enemy – in part because we have never understood their enemy.” (Emphasis in original)

The Phoenix program was implemented as an effort to find National Liberation Front (NLF) and Vietcong operatives, but, as Truong Nhu Tang has pointed out,

“In many places the program was carried out in a lackadaisical and ham-handed fashion. Often Phoenix existed primarily in name, though at time it flowered into indiscriminate terror, as ordinary villagers were arrested, along with Front operatives, and tortured or arbitrarily executed.”

This torture was justified by an American officer by way of cultural relativism, torture just being one of the “methods and practices that we are not accustomed to.” (Emphasis in original) As horrible as such an excuse is it was rather predictable given that President Johnson had said, “I thought we had spent too much time and energy trying to shape other countries in our own image.” Remember this is virtually the same as one of the lessons Defense Secretary McNamara claims to have learned from the Vietnam War. Why were the leaders of the United States so ashamed to spread its message to other nations, especially since it may have been the only thing to save South Vietnam, assuming South Vietnam wanted to be saved? Barry Goldwater had called it “mistaken humility” that caused America’s leaders to hide “freedom’s light” but the true cause is much closer to shame.

This is not revolutionary but elementary. America had been founded on the idea that the government was limited, specifically to Article One, Section Three of the Constitution with very limited duties to fulfill and a very limited number of rights to secure. This vision of government was at odds with the “Great Society” which called for greater government action to secure greater numbers of “rights.” There can be no other explanation for why an American administration would not only embroil the United States in a war in which it had no interests, but also refuse to impart the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to a supposed ally in need of help.

One of the seminal thinkers of the twentieth century, the philosopher Ayn Rand, said of the war when South Vietnam was conquered (or in North Vietnamese doublespeak, “liberated”) in 1975,

“In compliance with modern politics, the war was allegedly intended to save South Vietnam from communism, but the proclaimed purpose of the war was not to protect freedom or individual rights, it was not to establish capitalism or any particular social system – it was to uphold the South Vietnamese right to ‘national self-determination,’ i.e., the right to vote themselves into any sort of system (including communism, as American propagandists kept proclaiming).”

She summed up her point in saying, “The military collapse of South Vietnam was preceded by the philosophical collapse of the United States some decades earlier.” Many forces contributed to that collapse, but the end result was the triumph of the politics of self-sacrifice and its own subsequent splintering. The leftist protestors of the Vietnam War agreed that self-sacrifice was the just ethical code but differed as to its application; remember Howard Zinn didn’t dispute the ethics of self-sacrifice, but argued that instead of sacrificing money in war the United States should just hand over the billions to the Vietnamese, North and South.

The politics of self-sacrifice won out domestically, then in foreign policy, fueling the escalation in South Vietnam, and then, when boxed in by that foreign policy and too ashamed of America’s founding philosophy, the United States attempted to bomb and buy its way to victory. Even the term “victory” didn’t mean what it normally meant, the United States fought to prevent the fall of South Vietnam and fought only in response to the North Vietnamese, hence the year upon year slog of seemingly no progress.

The politics of self-sacrifice led the United States to war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson had relatively little to do with its ascendancy in American politics, but he was its main proponent in the 1960’s. Success, or victory, in Vietnam wasn’t impossible after the commitment had been made, but it was unlikely given the rationale and justifications offered by men like Johnson, Rusk, and McNamara. Johnson had chosen to follow the Wilsonian path and the results were as tragic as they had been in 1918 when over one hundred thousand Americans lay dead on the Western front. The ironic thing is that the one party to benefit from the American war in Vietnam was the Communist Party. From all the great propaganda they were able to derive, not only from the bombing of North Vietnam, but also from the bludgeoning the Americans and South Vietnamese visited upon South Vietnam governments and its people, who were supposed to be helped by the war. Perhaps Howard Zinn was actually right; since political altruism was the order of the day, the United States may have been better off paying a ransom to North Vietnam rather than forcing over fifty thousand American citizens into a foreign land to die for nothing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Halting Signals
Alexander Marriott 3/23/2004

In a constitutional history class that I’m taking I recently heard an interesting idea. The class was studying the way the US Supreme Court changed its stance on economic interventionism during the years of the Great Depression. The case in point was Nebbia v. New York in which Mr. Nebbia was prosecuted for selling milk at a price below the state imposed minimum price. One student opined that the law was passed to allow dairy farmers earn enough money to “survive” and, thus, what’s so bad with that?

One problem is that the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith referred to is effectually blocked by such laws. What Smith was talking about was prices. Prices are signals in the marketplace that allow for the allocation of resources. Capitalism, which has no role for the government in the economy (aside from contract enforcement and protection of individual rights), relies solely on the signals of prices for allocation of labor, natural resources, intermediate goods, in effect everything involved in the mutually beneficial transactions of the free marketplace.

In the case of Mr. Nebbia, one sees that the state imposed a price floor that was above the market price which, while possibly helping dairy farmers, hurt sellers like Nebbia. He chose to sell below the price floor, in a mutually beneficial transaction and was arrested for it. The Supreme Court was no help to him, finding that it was a perfectly legitimate use of the state “police power” to regulate the price of milk, given the severity of the depression.

The economic consequences, let alone the moral abhorrence of state bureaucrats deciding on prices, of this kind of legislation are as follows. The price of milk dropped to levels that couldn’t sustain some dairy farmers because the supply of milk outpaced demand. Clearly those dairy farmers who could no longer operate and produce milk efficiently would be better off seeing this market signal and move on to devote their labor resources to other endeavors. However, dairy farmers (probably the ones producing the most milk) decided to use a state legislature, willing to exercise more power, to gain an artificially high price along with the enforcement power of that state to force compliance at the point of a gun.

Consumers and sellers who would otherwise have traded money for milk at the lower market price were prevented from doing so through state coercion. A few citizens were helped while the milk consumers were clearly hurt and the state was able to expand its authority and realm of available powers, which in the long run helped no one.

All of this was in itself a signal that the American Revolution and the ideology of freedom that had caused it was dead in American politics, though the Nebbia case was merely foreshadowing of the trampling the founders and their ideas were to take under Franklin Roosevelt’s impotent legs, but more importantly, his impotent mind.