Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Celebration of Defeat?

When did the Vietnam War start? Of course we mean the ‘American war’ in Vietnam. Everyone knows when the French Vietnam War began – in 1945 when the forces of defeated France returned to Indochina, denied the Vietnamese independence, and attempted to resume control of their colonies.  The date of America’s ill-fated involvement in that faraway land, however, is more ambiguous.

Dating America’s major wars has rarely been difficult or controversial. Absent or present a constitutional declaration of war, the trigger events have been beyond dispute – the Battle of Lexington and Concord triggered the Revolutionary War; Fort Sumter, the Civil War; and Pearl Harbor, America’s World War II; while North Korea’s crossing the 38th parallel brought the US into the Korean War.

Why should we care what year our Vietnam began? Mercifully, it’s long over. For those who caught the Vietnam Memorial ceremony in Washington this past Memorial Day, the issue must have been somewhat puzzling. President Obama chose the occasion to solemnly declare the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. At the same time, he announced the launch of an official Vietnam War Commemoration that is to last 13 years, until 2025. Where did all this come from? Well, the Congress, presumably in a bipartisan spirit, mandated the Secretary of Defense to plan a commemoration back in 2006, and the Pentagon brought forth a preliminary plan in ’10. Why then wait two years for the launch, what’s the significance of 2012?

The President chose to couple the opening of the commemoration with a significant anniversary, the 50th of the war, but counting back from this year would mean the Vietnam War started in 1962. A strange choice, as we shall see. First of all, US involvement in the fate of Vietnam goes back much further, moving forward in time in what might be called mini and maxi escalatory steps. It began in 1950 when President Truman sent military aid to the French struggling against the Viet Minh, a national communist insurgency in Indochina, and established the MAAG-I (Military Advisory Assistance Group-Indochina).


If one had been on the other side fighting the French colonialists for Vietnamese independence, US aid would most likely have been felt to be an unfriendly act. Of course, Truman was acting in the context of the then-intense early Cold War, assisting a US ally, France, against an adversary being armed by our enemy, the Soviet Union. Still, imagine if the French had chosen to lend military support to the Redcoats trying to suppress the American colonial rebellion instead of coming to our assistance in our long revolutionary war to gain independence. We would have surely regarded that as a hostile act, an act of war.

Ike, President Eisenhower, continued our involvement in Vietnam even after the Viet Minh decisively defeated the French in ’54, and the great powers at Geneva split the newly independent country into two parts divided roughly at the 17th parallel. North Vietnam was supported by the USSR, while South Vietnam became a client state of the US. Under the Geneva Agreements, Ike sent several hundred US military advisors to help the South build an army. When the guerrilla insurgency from the North began against the regime in the South in the late ‘50s, US advisers accompanied South Vietnamese units in the field in what was in effect a Vietnamese civil war.

Advisors were armed although under orders not to participate in combat, but it was dangerous duty, and the first US advisors were killed in hostile action with insurgents in 1959. By the end of his second term in ‘60, Ike found ways around the Geneva limits, and the US had nearly 900 military personnel on the ground in the Republic of Vietnam, as the South was formally known.

A decade of US arms and men in the middle of a small war in a distant country – could that be regarded as the genesis of America’s Vietnam War? To be fair to the President, he did say in his Memorial Day address that we must measure our initial involvement by a ‘major operation’. So let’s for the moment hold in abeyance Washington’s choice of 1962 and consider alternate years that could have been construed as the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Even if we consider individual years of the first half of the ‘60s, we’re still looking at a war we slid into. Or to use the more apt metaphor, we gradually slipped into a quagmire. Nevertheless, let’s consider other candidates from which to start the count toward a 50th anniversary, working backward. Why not the year 1965 when the first Marine combat units went ashore at Danang and ‘Rolling Thunder’, the systematic bombing campaign of the North, commenced. In the popular mind that has long been considered our biggest escalatory step, the first introduction of US combat troops and the commencement of what became known as Lyndon Johnson’s war.


1965Marines hitting the beach in South Vietnam

We know from the leaked Pentagon Papers that the Johnson Administration had previously undertaken secret contingency planning for full-scale US involvement in the ongoing civil war in Vietnam. As the planning documents revealed, what would be needed was a trigger event, a pretext to justify the escalation, especially since President Johnson (LBJ) had won election in ’64 on a policy of dovish restraint. In February ’65, the enemy obliged by attacking the US barracks at Pleiku and a nearby helicopter base, killing nine Americans and seriously wounding 76.

National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy happened to be in-country and rushed to the scene. Seeing the carnage, he telephoned the White House recommending Pleiku as the pretext. Operation ‘Flaming Dart’ was quickly set in motion with 49 fighter-bombers launched from two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea hitting military targets in North Vietnam. Billed as retaliation, the operation was in fact a rehearsal for Rolling Thunder the following month.  1965 certainly made a good war-start year as the United States carried out extensive large scale offensive operations for the first time.

Another possibility for Pentagon planners preoccupied with an anniversary date would have been 1964, a year of major covert and overt operations against the North. That was the year my brother Jeff Sharlet was sent back into Vietnam from his base in the Philippines. Assigned to Phu Bai, the Army Security Agency’s (ASA) most forward base just below the 17th parallel, Jeff and fellow Vietnamese linguists were involved throughout the spring in the highly classified OPLAN 34A. The US was secretly training South Vietnamese commandos for infiltration across the border, with ASA guys keeping in touch with them by radio. The fact that the op was obviously penetrated and most of the infiltrators quickly captured or killed didn’t make it any less war-like. To Jeff, it certainly felt like he was in a war.

But 1964’s main claim as the start of the war was the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August, a live-fire, very public event as it turned out. A US destroyer also operating under OPLAN 34A, sailing in international waters off the coast of North Vietnam, was attacked by enemy PT boats. The attackers were driven off, but LBJ, under the misapprehension that a second attack had followed against another destroyer, ordered an air strike. Planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation attacked coastal vessels and struck shore facilities in the North.


1964 - Carrier operations, South China Sea

Even though the strike was advertised as a one-off affair, how many fighter-bomber sorties does it take to constitute a major op? Far more significant, however, was Congress’s war-fevered near-unanimous passage of the vaguely worded Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a document that LBJ and then President Nixon used as cover to conduct the war for the next eight years.

Another candidate-year for those more cynically inclined would have been 1963, the year President Diem of South Vietnam was overthrown and assassinated. The coup plotters were South Vietnamese generals, but they had asked for and been given a ‘green light’ by Washington since Diem was considered a corrupt and ineffective war leader. A CIA man known personally to the plotters served as the generals’ liaison to the US Embassy, while Jeff and a small ASA team had been quietly brought into the country to play a clandestine support role.

Being complicit in taking out the head of state of a sovereign country certainly constituted a very hostile act, perhaps an act of war. Would backing a coup by military forces be considered a ‘major operation’? Either way as post-coup South Vietnam soon descended into political infighting among the generals, thus adversely affecting the war effort, the United States, in a manner of speaking, acquired ‘ownership’ of the war in that fateful year of 1963.

Finally, for those looking at the broad sweep of history, an argument could be made that our war in faraway Vietnam began with President John F Kennedy (JFK) during his first year in office, 1961. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was raging, and in his memorable Inaugural Address JFK had thrown down the gauntlet to our powerful adversary on the other side of the world. But then JFK was saddled a few months later with the Bay of Pigs fiasco on the shores of revolutionary Cuba, a military and political disaster for the young president.

That wasn’t the end of his freshman year difficulties. In June, JFK met Khrushchev and afterward candidly told a journalist he had been bested in debate with the tough, experienced Soviet leader. The Soviets had taken the measure of the new President and judged him weak. That same summer they set in motion a major crisis over West Berlin, culminating in the erection of the Berlin Wall, a humiliating setback for JFK and the West.

The battered young President, looking for a way to recover his prestige, paid a visit that fall to the Special Forces training camp at Fort Bragg. Conferring his presidential blessing upon the group, which specialized in irregular warfare, counterinsurgency in the parlance of the day, JFK granted them the right to officially wear their distinctive headgear, a green beret. In the Green Berets, he foresaw a force to contest Khrushchev’s backing of so-called ‘Wars of National Liberation’ in Third World countries like Vietnam.


Green Beret M/Sgt Donald Duncan

Acutely aware that he had to take dramatic action to restore his credibility as a leader, JFK looked around the globe for a place he could demonstrate his toughness and concluded “Vietnam looks like the place.”* He significantly stepped up the US presence in South Vietnam. From his predecessor he had inherited a small advisory group that had been providing military advice to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in their fight with the elusive North Vietnamese-inspired guerrilla insurgency. The enemy force, called the Liberation Army of Vietnam was soon pejoratively dubbed the Viet Cong or VC, a name that gained in respect as the guerrillas demonstrated their combat skills and courage.

The VC operated by stealth in the mountains and jungles of the interior, striking suddenly and lethally, and just as quickly withdrawing before superior counterforce could be brought to bear. Kennedy decided to meet them on their own terms, and by the end of his first year he had nearly quadrupled the US advisory force in South Vietnam to over 3,000 men, including many Green Beret teams, as well as squadrons of helicopters for tactical mobility and fighter-bombers manned by US pilots. 

Since the Pentagon was casting about for a precise year from which to date the war for a 50th anniversary, why not have called 1961 the beginning of the American war in Vietnam, Kennedy’s war? That would have meant launching the 13-year Vietnam War Commemoration in 2011, but that decision would have ignored the presidential election cycle, not a good idea from the White House point of view. Aside from the axiom that it’s always a good for an incumbent seeking re-election to issue positive announcements in an election year, was there anything else possibly to be gained by instead declaring 2012 the anniversary of US involvement and the beginning of the commemoration?

In the short term, yes, according to a cable news pundit. Apparently, the President did not do well with veterans in the ’08 election, and two states that may be in contention as swing states, Virginia and North Carolina, are both heavy in veterans. Taking a longer view though, might there be a downside to ignoring other very plausible years for the war’s inception and instead positing 1962? Judge for yourself. In his Memorial Day speech at the Wall on Memorial Day, President Obama expressly referred to a major American operation in January ’62. He was alluding to the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac, not far from the capital Saigon, which commenced a few days after New Year’s.

Ap Bac is an odd point of departure for a long term celebration. The outcome was a major victory for the Viet Cong despite being outnumbered 10:1, heavy ARVN casualties, and, although the advisors were only in a combat support role, significant US losses – nearly a dozen Americans killed or wounded, five choppers shot down, and the rest riddled with VC bullets. An omen of what was to come?

Starting the commemoration in 2012 based on a major setback in 1962 and then concluding it in 2025, 13 years later on the 50th anniversary of the 1975 fall of Saigon as the last Americans scrambled to escape, makes for a symmetry of defeat quite appropriate for our ill-fated venture, but an unusual way of honoring veterans of the war.

*D Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972), 77




1 comment:

  1. The US was shouldering 80% of the cost of the French war by 1951. After the disastrous defeat of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in '54, we were already ankle deep in the quagmire. By '62 we were sinking fast, and by '65 we were "waist deep in the Big Muddy" when "the big fool said to push on". France lost over 75K troops, the US over 58K, and for what.

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