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The Vietnam War: Who is to Blame?

Once it became clear that America had lost the war, the reasons for the failure had to be rationalized and explained.  Fortunately, there were plenty of boogeymen available to take the blame.

Everyone makes mistakes.  It is human nature. When I make a mistake or say something stupid, I own up to it, or at least that is the goal.  I suspect a lot of people follow this guide.  Not only is it the right thing to do, but in admitting error and conceding fault, you diffuse the “blame game.”  You can then move on to solutions.  But not many humans are in positions of such power that a mistake or bad decision changes world history.  Apologies cannot erase those mistakes and can sometimes lead to financial hardships or even prison.  Admitting fault in decisions that had led to so much death and destruction would be nearly impossible to rationalize.

Fortunately for humans, we have developed an alternative approach to admitting fault.  It allows us to deflect from the core issue and turn attention to something and somebody else.  Whether the scapegoat had anything to do with the bad decision is irrelevant; and if it is a political issue and you can pin blame on your opponent, then it is a “win-win.”   It was that alternative approach that the decision makers and their supporters took in the wake of Vietnam, that I believe planted the seeds of division, and staked claim to patriotism and national honor.   As the Vietnam failure became evident and Watergate crimes were revealed, others jumped on the scapegoating bandwagon to blame everybody and everything, except the individuals who accepted and executed the errant foreign policy which had led to such catastrophic results.

The “Liberal” Media

While reporting on the Vietnam War, journalists were embedded with the military.  Reporters were right there when soldiers killed civilians and torched their homes.  In May 1966, Morley Safer of CBS, reported with video images of U.S. soldiers burning down villages as peasants begged and pleaded to be left alone.  U.S soldiers burned them anyway because the villagers were believed to be harboring the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese communists).  Were they ordered to do it?  Yes.  Did they want to do it?   Some did, yes.  This has come to be known as the famous “Cam Ne” report.  During the follow-up interview with the soldiers, Safer captured their response that they had no feeling for the people of the village.  There was no empathy.  That interview and those images were beamed back to American television sets and inflamed an already growing anti-war movement.

How did President Johnson respond?  Johnson called the head of CBS, Frank Stanton and lit into him, accusing the network head of desecrating the American flag.  The military demanded that Safer be recalled from Vietnam with the soldiers feeling that they had been stabbed in the back.  Safer received death threats and started carrying a weapon.   Some called CBS the “Communist News Network.”   Note here the similarities in arguments that we hear today.  Morley Safer did not lie.  The video camera filmed the truth.  The soldier who said he had no empathy or feeling for the peasants whose thatched hut he just burned down, answered the question on camera.  There is no dispute.

What was missing was context.  Not the context of the mission or what the soldiers were trying to accomplish.  Rather, journalists and soldiers alike did not fully understand who they were fighting let alone the why behind the mission.  The objective that commanders communicated did not seem to coincide with what troops encountered on the ground.  Villagers were poor peasants.  They did not look like communist sympathizers but rather just peasants.  But in many cases, that is exactly what they were and as such, soldiers had been given an order to search and destroy.  Additionally, reporters failed to pick up on the war’s psychological impact on American troops and while that may not have been their job, it could have helped put the images that American’s saw into perspective.  This gap would continue to widen into the later years of the war when American troops were proven to have killed innocent men, women, and children.  Indiscriminate killing of innocents was reported back to American households again, inflaming the anger already felt for Vietnam.

But even prior to the Safer incident, journalists who were embedded with the military, reported what they observed while out on missions with foot soldiers.  David Halberstam was stationed out of Saigon in the early 1960s (during the Kennedy Administration) and spent time with troops in the Mekong Delta fighting the Vietcong (South Vietnamese Communists).  I have forgotten how long he was stationed there, but he quickly recognized and then reported that the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) was no match for the North.  He noted the corruption in the South Vietnamese puppet government and opined on further U.S. involvement.  And this was in the early 60s.  It was obvious even then.  The military wanted Halberstam removed from his station and he left in 1964.  He was there for 2 years.

Walter Cronkite

But it was Walter Cronkite who is best remembered for changing public opinion about Vietnam.  Cronkite was an esteemed journalist and anchor of the CBS Nightly News.  Families all over the country invited him into their homes every night to inform and educate.  It was Walter Cronkite, among others that interrupted normal daytime programming to announce that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.  America trusted Walter Cronkite.  He was known for integrity.  In February 1968, Cronkite and his executive producer, Ernest Leiser traveled to Vietnam to interview soldiers and military officers in the wake of the Tet Offensive.  It was his editorial commentary that he read, on air February 27, 1968, that historians point to as a seminal moment in altering popular support for the war.  His report titled:  “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” went as follows:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.    Walter Cronkite,. February 27, 1968

In later interviews, Cronkite downplayed the impact he had on changing public opinion but the common understanding, at least when I was in school, was that this report was a gamechanger.  Within weeks, LBJ narrowly won the New Hampshire primary (in his re-election bid) and withdrew from the presidential race.  From there, we can just check off the long list of events that occurred in 1968, none of them good.  Assassinations, riots, drugs and more military defeats.

Tying it together

Soon, the perception of those in support of Vietnam was that the media were against the war and were fanning the flames of public opposition to it.  Moreover, the thought went, if the media opposed the war, it must be because they sympathized with the communists.  Ergo, the media must be liberal and potential communist propagandists.

Food for thought.  If you believe that your cause is just and that communism is an existential threat to not just capitalism but to western civilization, then you are likely to conduct policy under the idea, ‘ends justify means.’  When you fail to achieve your objective and do so spectacularly on national television, it cannot be the fault of those who tried to save the world from totalitarian and atheist oppression.  Those efforts could not have failed because the military did not understand that it needed to win “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.  And that failure was most definitely not a result of getting whipped by a peasant army in a third world country that knew how to fight a guerrilla war against the most powerful army in the world.

It had to be the liberal media.  The liberal media and their allies.

War Protesters, Civil Rights Activists, Draft Dodgers and the Decline of the State

A few weeks ago, I posted comments after reading Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happenedher recollection of the 2016 presidential election.  I discussed my own recollection of her entry onto the national stage when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.  But the “backlash” was not limited to Hillary, it was directed at Bill Clinton too.  He was the first viable baby boomer presidential candidate running against President George H.W. Bush, a World War II fighter pilot shot down over the Pacific and nearly killed by the Japanese.  A hero, from a patrician Republican family, Bush represented the generation that saved the world from totalitarianism but also mired us in Vietnam.

The presidential election soon became not just a referendum on America’s domestic and foreign policy, but on Bill Clinton’s actions during the Vietnam War.  In 1991 and 92, I did not understand why it mattered.  Now I do.

During the ’92 campaign, a letter surfaced in which the future president wrote to the head of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas in 1969, inferring that the Colonel helped Clinton avoid the draft.  Clinton had not only avoided the draft but had actively protested America’s involvement in the war both here and abroad.  As a Rhode’s Scholar to Oxford in England, Clinton helped organize protests – in Britain – against U.S. foreign policy.   Hillary Clinton too went from a supporter of Barry Goldwater to an anti-war Democrat in the span of her 4 years at Wellesley College.  This only made the target on her back easier to hit.

Conservatives and Republicans portrayed Bill Clinton as a draft dodger and political chameleon, who even as a young 20-year-old calculate how his decision would affect his future ambition.  His patriotism was questioned as was his honesty (the latter was fair given the lack thereof on other topics – but not necessarily the draft).  In some ways, that election was a referendum on where we were in accepting and forgiving our fellow citizens for decisions made some 25 years ago.  Bringing Senator Al Gore of Tennessee on as his Vice President helped a bit, given that the Senator served in the war while his father, Al Gore Sr., at the time the Senator of Tennessee was openly against American involvement, helped quell some of the noise, but the controversy remained.  Ironically, Clinton’s marijuana use was also a campaign issue.  The infamous, “I never inhaled” answer to a question from a moderator on one of those Sunday shows made even Clinton’s most hardened supporters cringe.

I had always been confused by the 1992 campaign rhetoric.  I talk about it as it related to Hillary in the What Happened post.  But the emphasis on Vietnam and Bill Clinton’s anti-war stance toward it seemed nonsensical at the time.  I was 20 years old and had understood the war as a failure.  To me, a young liberal, the 60s, and 70s were a time of youth awakening and social progress, an era to continue and celebrate, not condemn.  I did not understand why protesting a war that history had deemed to be unjust, was now a political liability.

The other perspective

The anti-war protests began in the mid-60s and intensified as the body count increased.  But perhaps more specifically, the protests increased when it became clear that the government was lying about our progress toward victory.  When the Pentagon Papers were released in 1971, they just confirmed what most Americans intuitively already knew:  that the American government, both parties, knew early on that the war was unwinnable and that maintaining troop levels guaranteed more American deaths.  But time and time again, we did it anyway with no strategic or rational motive.

But to supporters of the war and to those who saw it as part of the fight against that existential threat of communism, the truth did not matter.  And I say this respectfully as, at the time, these were men in the conservative movement and Republican Party that had built an ideology based on an alternative governing approach.  Small government, low taxes, less regulation and vehemently anti-communist was part of the conservative pitch and to those individuals, both in and out of government, it was part of a crusade to save humanity.  Vietnam was part of that crusade and the protesters were seen as aiding the enemy.

So the counter-culture, the protesters (all of them, not just anti-war) were blamed, along with the media for losing the Vietnam War.  There was a great article on VOX last May about the conservative response to Watergate.   The reporter reminded us that conservatives in the think tanks and at the journals (those with the power to drive conversation), hated Nixon for reasons that they laid out in the post.  But they viewed Watergate scandal, not as a criminally inclined President who had abused his power but instead, as the result of liberals realizing the decline of the New Deal state.  That the “liberal media, the anti-war agitators, the communists and all the other enemies of the people,” were all trying to undo the results of the 1972 election.  Further, Nixon’s behavior was not a reflection of criminal or moral character but instead, evidence that executive power had grown too powerful.

In a twisted turn of logic, conservatives – and again, these are influential people, they edit journals, teach on college campuses, they help foster the next generations – helped create excuses for America’s failures of the 60s and 70s. Where the rest of us saw failure stemming from bad decision making and in the Nixon’s case, criminal activity, the right rationalized events so that in their mind, America would have won and would be great, if not for the evil, unpatriotic, atheistic liberals.

Taking the argument forward a few decades, progressive policy, or whatever the conservative movement might define as liberal, has been linked to America’s decline.  In the 80s, the secular conservatives who focused on fiscal and foreign policy joined with evangelical Christians, again positioning “liberals” as an enemy of the state.  Conservative political operative Roger Aisles founded FOX News and turned it into a conservative media giant.  In time, others joined the marketplace, all catering to that population segment that had come of age during Vietnam and believed that the war could have been won, if not for these unpatriotic and unAmerican forces.  These liberal forces had led to America’s decline.

Vietnam Guilt

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington D.C.

Finally, we cannot overlook the guilt that American’s still feel toward the Vietnam War.  My generation and younger did not experience it specifically and those younger than me may have no understanding of the guilt we feel toward the war and its veterans.

I was 12 days shy of 10 years old when the Vietnam War Memorial was opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  No, I do not remember the day or the ceremony.  I was 10.  But I remember controversy and a lot of discussions around the memorial itself.  I remember President Reagan speaking, maybe not at the memorial but somewhere and sometime during his presidency, that it was time for the country to reconcile itself and to heal.

It had only been a few years since the war’s end and yet Vietnam was not part of the national discourse.   At 10, I had no idea of this, of course, I would learn about Vietnam Guilt much later.  I first visited the Memorial as a freshman in high school, so that would have been 1989.  At that time, there was still a permanent structure next to the wall for veterans representing soldiers that were still Missing in Action.  Even then, many believed that Americans were still alive in North Vietnamese prisons.

America did not treat Vietnam War veterans well when they came home.  There were no parades.  No rotary lunches.  No heroes welcome.  Conventional wisdom and historical interpretation are that everyone just wanted to forget.  Twenty years of blood and treasure, the nation itself torn apart, an economy in meltdown, and international standing questioned on the heels of a presidential resignation, we wanted to turn the page.  So we pretended that it never happened and in doing so, failed to appreciate the impact that those years had on our people, culture and those that actually fought the fight.

No one in my family fought in Vietnam.  My father signed up for the National Guard and thankfully, his unit was never called up.  In the 6 years he served (2 weeks per summer, one weekend per month), the closest he got to danger was likely the post-tornado “riot control” after a twister ripped through Topeka in the late sixties.  Had he been drafted and served a tour, my life would have been drastically different.  How different?  Well, that part is impossible to know.  But it would have been different.  All I have to do is read about or listen to the stories of vets who returned home to disrespect and anger.

I think this, combined with the alternative meaning and rationale that conservatives assigned to the war led to our hypersensitivity to the flag and to our national anthem.  The current NFL kneeling drama is not the first in the modern era.  In 1989, the Supreme Court in Texas vs. Johnson struck down federal and state laws banning flag burning, citing that the act was protected by the First Amendment.  It was a 5-4 decision but interestingly, the conservative justice, Antonin Scalia voted to overturn the legislation and to uphold the First Amendment.  There have been attempts to pass flag burning amendments to the constitution ever since.

Certainly, the NFL protest is linked to race and police brutality but by choosing the flag as the focal point of the protest, players have invoked a deep-seeded regret.  But amazingly, it is unlikely that many have linked their outrage to their internal guilt, or if they are of a younger generation, realize that this learned response is a result of their parents’ generation’s regret over their own behavior 30 years ago.

Where are we?

The guilt we feel toward Vietnam veterans juxtaposed with the anger some of us have toward the institutions and ideologies we believe have caused America’s decline have gotten so out of hand that many do not even believe facts anymore.   Did our loss in Vietnam result in the election of Donald Trump?  Not directly.  But I can trace how we got here and will state emphatically, the root cause was the refusal to seek and believe the truth.  Not those aiding and comforting the enemy.

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