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

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