The United States: Still the World’s Indispensable Nation?

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy: its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe. Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world. Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution all of its own, as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

The attacks challenged President Bush to reposition America in the world. He would not be content with basking in historically high opinion ratings, or in the warmth of global sympathies. For Bush, September 11 was a clarion call to right the wrongs of the Cold War, to end the tradition of coddling tyrants as long as they sang America’s song. The nation found itself in the aftermath of the attacks of being in a position of great strength and yet also great sympathy, not a usual occurrence. In that moment it had the opportunity to do great things, to indeed herald a Second American Century. By accepting the sympathies of the world and by turning that emotion into positive action that could have bound the nations of the world together against terror, the United States could have demonstrated true benevolence and foresight. However the attacks on New York and Washington produced a wave of sympathy for the United States that the current administration has proved unable to transform into popular support for its policies. By moving into Iraq, the nation squandered its inheritance of compassion. Under Bush, the assertive multilateralism of Clinton was replaced by a determined unilateralism, cloaked by a scant “coalition of the willing.” His moves in Afghanistan appeared to be considered and met with support; his moves into Iraq, long sought by the Project for a New American Century, were less welcomed and proved contentious.

In his speeches and in his comments, President Bush painted a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. By establishing a clash of civilisations, Bush removed the middle ground and in a world of grey, black and white may be bold but will always be viewed as extreme. In this campaign, there is no middle ground, no possibility of disagreement on detail with the US strategy, for such disagreement would be interpreted as a betrayal of “good” ideology. As Bush declared in January 2002, “We need not be focused on one person, because we’re fighting for freedom and civilized civilization.”

The challenge that President Obama has struggled to address is of addressing the future direction of the United States. Successful leaders, whether one agreed or disagreed with their motives or intentions, presented a vision of an American future that the nation could aspire to. Whether that was an embrace of Manifest Destiny or a challenge of a New Frontier, both Republican and Democrat presidents have found a way top show Americans the next step in their national journey. Those presidents that have failed to achieve greatness have often don so due to their unwillingness to offer a vision of a better tomorrow. Thus far President Obama has struggled to define America’s place in the world or a direction that he intends to chart in a second term.

Some have sought to contrast President Obama to Jimmy Carter and it is an interesting, if not completely accurate comparison to make. Both men were honourable, honest and moral individuals who were seen to be remote and often guilty of adopting an air of moral superiority that made them hard to empathise with, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, for example. However, despite similarities, this is not 1980, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, and vitally, Obama has not faced an internal rival as Carter did in the form of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these differences, President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronal Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term. His re-e-lection is far from certain and his campaign could not suffer form the injection of some well-intended optimism. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Perhaps. But so do administrations.

Kill or Capture: The Continuation of Bush Policy

In a new book, Kill or Capture, Daniel Klaidman reveals the distinction between the foreign policy initiatives that Barack Obama campaign on and his record in office. It is significant that such a publication has finally made its way to the mainstream media. Since his election I have been researching the Obama administration and its variance from the Bush years. In 2011 I produced a paper entitled “What’s So Extraordinary about Rendition,” which was published in the International Journal of Human Rights and was subsequently presented in a wider form at an international conference in Europe. My efforts to suggest a pattern of behaviour that extended from Clinton to Bush to Obama caused me to be labelled as a ‘neo-fascist.’ It is apparent that many, especially in Europe, simply do not wish to accept the possibility that Obama has continued Bush era policies.

In this increasingly media-driven age it is widely believed and reported that new administrations bring about new policies and signify a break from the past. Such was the reaction to the election of Barack Obama. The election of the first non-white president of the United States was presented as a form of cathartic ablution; an attempt to dismiss the previous eight years as an aberration and to signify a change from the past. Covered in Nobel garlands and the apparent adulation of the globe, Obama apparently signified a return to ‘traditional American principles,’ upon which the republic was founded: liberty, justice and freedom. It was believed that with his election, had come an apparent end of neo-conservative rule dominated by a policy of pre-emption and the implementation of Extraordinary Rendition.

However, to believe this to be the case is to misread history and to misjudge the United States of America and its political philosophy. Far from being a City on a Hill, the United States has often acted in a manner that appears to undermine its high-minded ideals. From Lincoln to Lyndon and from Wilson to W, what differentiates presidents is their language rather than their actions, their tone rather than their tools. Whether they were domestically focused Democrats or internationally focused Republicans, the inhabitants of the Oval Office have often placed human rights a distant second to the priority of National Interest. It is how this concept has been defined that differentiates administrations, rather than any great concern about the global good.

Far from being radical, the Bush Administration was continuing and expanding upon a policy that had been formalised by Bill Clinton, and adhered to by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, none of which was reported on nor seemingly cared about by the American public. Indeed, rendition, long before it was considered to be extraordinary, was a policy that was devised, developed and initiated by Bush’s Democratic predecessor in a war on terror that was being waged by the United States long before the election of George W. Bush, in a contradiction between the values the United States claimed to be defending and the methods utilised in the process.

Long before everyone’s favourite Toxic Texan was elected, the White House was waging a war on Terrorism. Since the 1800s, the United States has “rendered” criminal suspects from overseas to be tried in the United States, and the U.S. Supreme Court twice endorsed criminal prosecutions after such ‘renditions to justice.’ In 1986 President Reagan authorized a rendition operation to deal with the terrorist suspects who might have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. Government officials acknowledged on the record the “rendition to justice” program that delivered those suspects to U.S. jurisdiction, and afforded detainees the due process crime suspects normally receive in that country.’ The Supreme Court upheld the government’s power to prosecute people who were seized in these abductions and kidnappings irrespective of their legality under international law in the 1992 case of United States v. Alvarez-Machain.

Clearly these practices, of bringing suspects surreptitiously to the United Sates to stand trial, differs by degrees from the policies engaged in post 9/11, but they were the harbinger of things to come, and may still have constituted a violation of international law. Lest anyone think that this is a Republican Rendition policy, it is important to note the evolution of the policy under the Clinton Administration and the emergence of a war on terror long before September 11, 2001. Indeed, an examination of policy and procedures at this time, as well as interviews with leading administration officials, reveals the origins not only of Extraordinary Rendition, but also the Axis of Evil and a focus on bin Laden as Public Enemy Number One. At home as well as abroad, the Clinton administration was fighting a war that would go unnoticed by many until it exploded above the streets of New York in 2001.

In the aftermath of September 11 2001, international terrorism would obtain a new dimension, but in the years prior to the attack the Clinton administration was not lapse in its efforts. Since 1993 more terrorists were arrested and extradited to the United States than during the totality of the previous three administrations.” In addition, covert operations were also being initiated to expel terrorists to nations with less stringent human rights policies than America. In 1996, the administration began a process of persuading allies to arrest terrorists and ship them to a third country without legal process, in an exercise known as rendition. In Albania, U.S. intelligence officers guided authorities to five members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who were flown to Egypt and executed after a military trial. Between 1996 and 2001, CIA Director George Tenet admitted that more than 50 Al Qaeda terrorists had been dealt with in this manner in an effort to “break the organisation brick by brick.”

Long before this practice became public knowledge, the DCI was far from being its sole advocate. Samuel Berger, Clinton’s second term National Security Advisor referred to it as ‘a new art form.’ Before Berger took over at the NSC, the process has been formally established in Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 39, dated June 21, 1995. This document had been prepared not in response to an international outrage, but in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist incident in Oklahoma City. Rendition began as pre-9/11 practice intended to facilitate the judicial process and only after 9/11 became a deliberate effort to evade legal prohibitions against torture.

Egypt looms large in the rendition process, and tales that have emerged from Mubarak’s prisons make awkward reading for those who seek to somehow suggest that rendition only became ‘extraordinary’ once Clinton left the White House. There was a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship at play. As Jane Mayer has noted in the New York Times, “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.” Every suspect the Americans rendered to Egypt had previously been convicted in absentia and attorneys at the CIA cleared all operations. This began with what is considered the first rendition of this era, of Talaat Fouad Qassem, who was picked up by Croatian police in Zagreb in September 1995. The Americans questioned him aboard a ship in the Adriatic, before turning him over to the Egyptian authorities who had sentenced him to death in absentia for his role in the assassination of President Anwar el Sadat.

It is vital to recall that whilst all of this was going on, no one was paying the slightest notice. The American people were busy getting wealthy and the media and Congress were too busy focusing upon the president’s inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The world was generally at peace with itself and with the United States and the president was wildly popular both at home and overseas, something not even his impeachment could alter.  Which is to say that rendition was being conducted by a Democratic president with the tacit agreement of America’s allies against known perpetrators of extreme violence and nothing was reported in the press and the populace was un-concerned.

Both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton authorised kidnapping and forcible abductions to bring fugitives to a country where they would stand trial for the crimes of which they were accused. None of this was criticised at the time yet these renditions were just as illegal under international law as what would come to be known as extraordinary rendition. The policy that emerged under George W. Bush, however, has been damned with some going so far as to equate it with ‘the Nazi operation called Nacht und Nebel or ‘Night and Fog.’’ There was no public or governmental outcry concerning rendition prior to 9/11 so one must question the degree to which the reaction can be seen as part of a concerted effort to attack the specific administration for any reason, as much as it was about the actual policy itself. Put another way, was the public reaction against rendition, or was this reaction a vehicle to further attack an already contentious and in many circles, unpopular administration?

Of course this approach to policy was all meant to end as of noon on January 20, 2009 with the arrival of the Obama Administration. Yet whilst the overriding sentiments of anti-Americanism have clearly subsided, this has had little to do with a change in policy. Obama may well be the world’s president of choice, but Dick Cheney’s view of the world has not been expressly repudiated by Obama. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has denounced the Obama Administration for adopting policies that “mimic the Bush Administration’s abusive approach.” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizner has lamented that Obama “has chosen to continue the Bush administration practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course.”

President Obama may have signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques, but his administration reaffirmed the rendition program, a move deemed to be ‘Extremely disappointing,’ according to the ACLU. There have been more predator drone attacks in Obama’s presidency than under Bush; the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay remains open. It’s change you can believe in, just not the sort that many wanted.

When asked about Rendition at his confirmation hearing, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta noted that suspects would no longer be kidnapped, sent overseas and tortured. However, he added, ‘Renditions where we return an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and then they exercise their right to try that individual and to prosecute him under their laws-I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.’ Clearly the Obama administration has chosen to return to a public stance on rendition that is akin to the previous model exercised by the Clinton White House.

These issues raise serious questions pertaining to the American sense of mission and of exceptionalism. It is hard to ascertain how they do anything but undermine such aspirations. Obama entered the Oval Office with great hopes and aspirations and with the expectation of world opinion. It is hard to see how much of this remain intact on the world stage with so few major alterations from the Bush Strategy, regardless of stated intent. This is not necessarily Obama’s fault. As president, there is, paradoxically, only so much that he can do, but the world expects so much more. There is in addition the two great double standards at work: The double standard to which great nations are always held, of either interfering too much or not often enough; and the contradictory nature of American foreign policy, of oscillating between imperial designs and latent isolationism. Solving these dilemmas will not be rectified anytime soon.

It is an historical fact that a policy of rendition predated and the presidency of George W. Bush and indeed, has continued under his successor. What changed, arguably, was the scope of the operation, not the institution itself. What changed was the public and media response to the policy, which appears to have been a backlash against the administration, as much as it was against the policy itself. The policy, therefore, not only caused offence, but was then used as a vehicle to further justify an anti-Bush mentality. Just as there was a fascination with the President’s sex life in the 1990s, so to, it would appear, was there an obsession with all things Anti-American under George W. Bush. Some referred to this as Anti-Americanism. It is perhaps more appropriate to refer to ‘anti-adminstrationism’. The focus on all things bad under Bush and the apparent capacity to overlook similar occurrences under both Clinton and now Obama, seem to justify this perspective.

Just as Bismarck once noted that the processes involved in the preparation of laws and sausage should remain hidden from public view, so too perhaps, should the policies involved in winning a struggle against those who no longer adhere to classic models of confrontation. With the publication of Kill or Capture, the wider public will have an opportunity to consider for themselves the distance travelled by President Obama from the policies that he campaigned against, yet now appears to have adopted as his own.

America’s Food Supply Chain Network

Forgive me for saying this, but I am sure I am not alone: I have never really given a whole lot of thought to how the food on my table arrives in front of me. Sure, I’m old enough to recognise that there is a whole lot more products available year round than there ever used to be, but like most people I’m working for a living and not pondering the ins and outs of every element of life.

The latest offering from PBS, however, makes one really stop and wonder. In its new show, America Revealed, presenter Yui Kwon, takes audiences across the United States to explain exactly how it is that the nation ticks on a day-to-day basis. The first show, Food Machine, examines the systems and networks that ensure that Americans, and indeed those far beyond America’s shores, keep eating day after day.

This fast-moving, highly kinetic show is a real eye-opener. In an age of high impact, low yield television, PBS has hit gold with a programme that is beautifully produced, informative and engaging. The show reveals the technical and logistical miracle that is America’s food supply chain, stretching from coast to coast.

The show reveals the importance of irrigation to the Californian agricultural industry, the extraordinary changes that industrial farming has brought to the American landscape and turned desert into fertile high yielding farmland. The irrigation network in California is truly remarkable, with the state’s farmers using 80% of the state’s water, delivered via a network of underground man-made rivers and piping systems. It doesn’t come cheap, however, with water accounting for 50% of farming budgets.

The information contained in the show is remarkable. It reveals the manner in which practises have changed to ensure productivity has matched growth in demand; explains the reasoning for circular, as opposed to square fields (its all about central pivot irrigations!) and explains the dominance of corn in the American diet, which accounts for 80% of farming output.

The show also raises some worrying issues with regard to the use of fertilizers, antibiotics and Genetically Modified food crops. If this is having an impact on the bee population (which is another fascinating element of the show) then one wonders what effects they are having on the human consumers?

The show doesn’t hold back from considering some of the side effects, in particular the impact on American waistlines. One impact of the improved supply chain is that foods that were once considered celebratory, or reserved for special occasions, are now routine and as a result Americans are now on average consuming 600 more calories per day than they were 30 years ago. The results are visible all around you!

The figures involved are revealing: 4 million agricultural workers are constantly moving around the nation as work cycles and harvesting patterns dictate their location. 100 years ago, a third of all Americans lived on farms in a Jeffersonian-style agrarian   society. Today, less than 2% of Americans feed the remaining 98%.

America Revealed: Food Machine is a fascinating and insightful documentary that reveals the degree to which bees, machinery and people are on the move constantly, ensuring that American demand is constantly met with an endless supply of food, even if it is more than they really need!

America Revealed: Food Machine premiers in the UK on June 20. or can be viewed on-line HERE 

PBS broadcast in the UK on Sky channel 166 and Virgin Media channel 243

Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London.

Memory and Memorial: Obama and Vietnam 50 Years on?

This week the President of the United States quite correctly marked Memorial Day with a series of visits to military sites and memorials. His keynote address was at the Vietnam Memorial on Washington’s National Mall, a memorial that has itself been the subject of great controversy over the years.  During the address President Obama announced that the United States will be holding a 13-year period of observation, commencing May 28, 2012 and ending on November 11, 2025 to mark the dates of the Vietnam War.

This is fascinating for many reasons. I have often asked my students, most of whom are American, to pinpoint the start of the Vietnam War. It is, of course, a trick question, deliberately designed to get them to think and to question preconceived ideas. For a start, which Vietnam War am I asking them to consider? There have been many. Secondly, if they narrow it down to the one involving the United States, which particularly phase am I asking them to consider?  Dates are eventually thrown about like confetti; everything from the mid 1950s through to 1968. May 1962 never gets a mention.

There is no doubt that, as the President observed, the treatment that Vietnam veterans received was little short of a national disgrace in many, though not all, cases. But there is something odd about this 13-year nation observation, its timing and the identification of a ‘start date’ for the war.

A Little History

The American experience in Vietnam began earlier than many realise. In 1941, President Roosevelt believed that a possible occupation of Vietnam would give Japan a base in South East Asia, which would threaten rubber supplies, required by the US defence industry. This led to the freezing of Japanese assets in the U.S that helped provoke the attack on Pearl Harbour. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh, whom the US had backed,  proclaimed the Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Having established rulers in Cambodia and Laos, the French reinstated Bao Dai as Head of State in Vietnam in an attempt to re‑assert colonial rule. By the end of 1953, the United States was spending $1 billion a year to keep the French forces in Vietnam.

On May 7, 1954 massive attacks finally overwhelmed the French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Before their beleaguered retreat, the French had pleaded with the United States for direct military assistance. The Joint Chiefs proposed an air strike, the Vice‑President Richard Nixon suggested, “putting our boys in.” When the Congress expressed reservations, President Eisenhower sought British support. Prime Minister Churchill refused. Failing to achieve foreign support, Eisenhower retreated from unilateral intervention in Vietnam. He soon wrote Vietnamese Prime Minister Diem promising American support “in developing a viable state, capable of resisting subversion through military means.”[i] In return Eisenhower expected reform in Vietnam. Reform would mean improvement for the nation and therefore the people. If the people could see that their lives were improved due to American aid, why would the country want to become communist? President Eisenhower justified American involvement in Vietnam by invoking ‘The Domino Theory’. This premise was based on the notion that if Vietnam were to become communist, the whole of South East Asia would follow. This was accepted even though China had fallen five years previously and had failed to produce such a chain reaction.

In January 1961, the responsibilities of Vietnam passed to President John F. Kennedy. As a Congressman, Kennedy had visited Vietnam in 1951, reporting that America was “allied to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of Empire. Without the support of the natives there is no hope of success in South East Asia.”[ii] As President, Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s policy of sending military advisers to South Vietnam, increasing the aid during 1961 and 1962. After the Bay of Pigs disaster of March 1961, Kennedy remarked “We have a problem making our power credible, the place to do so is Vietnam.”[iii] Despite assuring the world that “America would pay any price to ensure the survival and the success of liberty,”[iv] the President steadfastly refused to commit combat units to Vietnam, despite the over‑whelming pressure to do so from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The troops will march in, crowds will cheer, and four days later everyone will have forgotten.” Kennedy quipped. “Then we’ll be told we have to send in more troops.”[v]

The President realised that if the war became a white mans’ affair, America would lose as surely as the French had. Kennedy was aware that America had drawn a line in Vietnam, and that he could not abandon it lightly. The President was in the position of being apparently unable to withdraw from the conflict, whilst refusing to adopt a policy of total war. Having convinced the Soviets of American credibility in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Kennedy began to reassess the American position in Asia. Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported back from Vietnam that One thousand troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1963, and that the United States would be able to withdraw all military personnel by the end of 1965.”[vi]

This plan was outlined in the Top Secret national Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, 1963. This was the order to start the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. “It’s their war,” President Kennedy stated “they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.”[vii] This stance was a serious deviation from the cold war policies of the past, and many speculated that it would be indicative of Kennedy’s second term. The President realised that he would be labelled as being “soft on communism”.[viii] He described his policy thus;  “If the American people do not want to use troops in Cuba how can I ask them to remove a Communist regime 9,000 miles away?”[ix] His sentiment was strengthened by the murder of Diem on November 1,1963. “A high level meeting in Honolulu on November 20, 1963 apparently adopted an ‘accelerated plan’ for reducing troop commitments.”[x]

This new policy was to be short lived. Within weeks President Kennedy was assassinated and the American responsibility in Vietnam fell to Lyndon Johnson. John F. Kennedy had never been an advocate of fighting a land war in Asia, Agreeing with general Douglas McArthur that to do so would be futile.”[xi] Lyndon Johnson however saw the situation in a different light. As Vice President he had visited Vietnam and had given Diem his word that America would fight to defend his country, referring to the corrupt leader as “the Winston S. Churchill of South East Asia.”[xii] This was contrary to American policy at the time, but Johnson saw that he had given his word, and he intended to keep it. To Kennedy, Vietnam had been a distant war, and one to be avoided. To Lyndon Johnson, it was almost personal.

One of Johnson’s first acts as President was to sign National Security Action Memorandum 273, reversing Kennedy’s withdrawal policy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, so long in favour of strong military intervention in Vietnam, finally had a President who would fight in Asia. Having been elected in his own right in 1964, President Johnson began the build up of troops in Vietnam with military landings at Danang in March 1965. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted President Johnson the capacity to wage undeclared war in Vietnam though few in Congress could have predicted Johnson’s escalation. Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air strikes against the north, went on daily from March 1965 until November 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs. The war would cost Johnson the Presidency, it had cost many more their lives. But the war did not end there. President Nixon dragged the war on for another five years, costing another 19,000 American lives. Ultimately, “The real domino to fall was American public opinion.”[xiii]

The American sense of mission, a paranoid fear of communism and McCarthy Red Scares prompted American action in Vietnam, which escalated to fill the void left by the French withdrawal. The assassination of President Kennedy prevented a 1965 American withdrawal, and President Johnson, having gambled his presidency upon military victory could not be seen to accept a negotiated settlement. Fear of being the first U.S. President to lose a war prevented Lyndon Johnson from accepting the 1968 verdict of his Cabinet that the war was now un­-winnable. The same dread permeated the soul of President Nixon, who spread the fighting into the state of Cambodia. Political fear cost the lives of thousands of young American troops, and countless more Vietnamese.

Obama and Vietnam

Nowhere in this historical record does the date of May 28, 1962 loom large. The decision of the Obama Administration to identify this date is seemingly without merit, except for current political considerations. The administration appears determined to promote the role of Commander-in-Chief to bolster the president in his campaign for re-election. This was evident in the recent ‘One Chance’ commercial that received such criticism for Obama’s inability to share the success of bid Laden’s demise with those who actually carried out the attack. It is also evident in his utilisation of the Memorial Day ceremonies to address Vietnam in a whole artificial manner. From the details previously referenced, it is clear that many dates loom large as potential ‘start dates’ for the American war in Vietnam, but May 28 1962 is not one of them. The United States had military advisers in Vietnam under Eisenhower. Kennedy refused to end in ground troops, choosing instead to continue with Ike’s use of advisers. Only after the 1964 election did the Marines land at Danang, heralding the start of the American land war.

One of the reasons that pinpointing the start of the war is so difficult is that no one wants to admit responsibility for it. Admirers of Eisenhower point to JFK’s build up of advisers. JFK advocates highlight his inheritance of advisers in Vietnam and his refusal to commit ground troops as well as his plans to withdraw during 1964. LBJ’s admirers highlight his inheritance of Kennedy’s advisers, the terrible circumstances surrounding his ascension to the presidency and suggest it was all Kennedy’s doing.

The irony here is incredible for anyone wishing to seek it: No one did more to enhance Obama’s standing in the 2008 primaries than the Kennedy family. Their decision to back Obama over Hillary was a huge event. Now, to thank them, Obama is officially blaming JFK for starting the Vietnam War. This is a truly horrendous mistake that makes a mockery of Kennedy’s repeated efforts to avoid the conflict and defy the military leaders calling for the insertion of ground troops.

One wonders what the reaction would have been to this speech had it been made by George W. Bush. One can picture historians rushing to TV studios lamenting his poor understanding of history, his attempt to whitewash the past and his obvious attempt to besmirch the memory of a Democratic Administration.

There were a series of dates that the President and his Administration could have chosen as a potential start date for he Vietnam War, either before or after 1962. I am indebted to Dr. Erik Villard for his insights into this issue. The administration chose a date after consultation with four military service historical offices, but this does not beam that this was a correct decision. Simply picking a date because of some vague relevance to a single helicopter raid in January 1962 or to the formation of MACV in February 1962 is not enough of a reason to make a really important declaration to signify the commencement of operations and therefore of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

An earlier draft of this work was denounced as “an attempt to use Vietnam as a political tool to serve right-wing conservative ideological ends.” This could not be further from the truth. Ii is instead an appeal for accuracy in an assessment of history and a recognition of the importance of the president’s remarks. In this announcement, President Obama has done a great disservice to the Kennedy family who did so much to ensure that he reached the White House. It can only be hoped that this announcement is soon lost to history and that Obama’s efforts to whitewash history are quickly ended.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London


[i] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,18

[ii] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,15

[iii] Stanley Karnow, “Vietnam: A History,” London: Random House, 1991, 265

[iv] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 274

[v] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 725

[vi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 614

[vii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 587

[viii] Kim McQuaid, “The Anxious Years,” New York: Basic Books, 1989, 22

[ix] Jim Marrs, “Crossfire, “ New York, Carroll & Graf, 1989, 307

[x] Horowitz, Carroll & Lee, ”On The Edge,” St. Paul MN: West Books, 1990, 440

[xi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 110

[xii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 119

[xiii] George Tindall, & David Shi, “America: A Narrative History,” Third Edition, New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992,24

JDB and Monocle Radio

Very pleased to report that I was interviewed alongside the always wonderful Kathleen Burk yesterday on Monocle Radio. We were in discussion with Steve Bloomfield about the potential for a Mitt Romney presidency and what the implications of this may be.

The interview will broadcast on Monday and I will seek to post a copy of it once I have it.