Re-thinking Vietnam

April is the pucker factor for Vietnam Veterans.  Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army on April 30.  Every anniversary Vietnam vets are told again that their service, suffering and sacrifice was for nothing, that their comrades died in vain.

But is it true?

In 1989, the War Atrocity Museum in the city still called Saigon displayed the photograph of the arch war criminal, Dwight Eisenhower.  The Vietnamese consider him the primary villain because he did not sign the Peace Accord between France and Vietnam but signed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) agreement committing the US to defend South Vietnam.  More foreign troops, other than US, fought in Vietnam under the SEATO Treaty than fought in Korea under the UN flag or in the “Coalition” in Iraq. 

Eisenhower, like Truman, knew that the Korean War could not be won because China would not accept American forces on its border.  When China entered the war US and UN forces avoided defeat only because Korea was a peninsula and the allies controlled the air and the sea.

Eisenhower told Kennedy on the eve of the inauguration that the only way to save South Vietnam was to occupy Laos to prevent infiltration of troops and supplies across South Vietnam’s long, rugged border.  But Eisenhower didn’t occupy Laos because a Chinese army could not be contained in Southeast Asia short of nuclear war.

In the fall of 1963, asked by David Brinkley if he believed the domino theory, Kennedy said, “I believe it...China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Vietnam went, it would...give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists.”(1)
The situation was more precarious than some may remember.  Thwarted in Europe by Truman’s Containment Policy Kruschev boasted that Soviet-sponsored wars of “national liberation” would continue.(2) 1962, the Cuban missile crisis. 1963, South Vietnam President Diem assassinated.  A month later Kennedy assassinated.  1964, China threatened to attack Taiwan and tested a nuclear bomb.  Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, allied itself with North Vietnam and China.  British ships and Australian troops were sent to defend Malaysia from Indonesia.  India was in the Soviet orbit and it was feared if it slipped behind the Iron Curtain, Pakistan would follow. 

Also in 1964 were three Gulf of Tonkin incidents.  The destroyer, E. Turner Joy was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.  Reinforced by the Maddox, both ships reported they were under attack.  That attack has never been verified.  In the third incident, the US Navy sank a North Vietnamese gunboat.  In 1966 Singapore warned that if SEATO failed in Vietnam Southeast Asia would fall to communism.  North Vietnam occupied part of Laos and Cambodia was in its sway.  Neither Thailand nor Burma seemed able to stand alone.  That would leave Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan isolated.  That was Eisenhower’s domino theory.  It wasn’t about San Francisco.

Johnson would not permit General Westmoreland to move troops into Laos believing the threat of war with China was too great.  Westmoreland would later say, “...we have to give President Johnson credit for not allowing the war to expand geographically.”(3)  Johnson formed ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asia Nations), providing eight years for those countries to prepare themselves so that none fell to Communism. 

Nixon’s plan for ending the fighting in Vietnam included withdrawal of US troops, acceptance of a Communist Vietnam(4) and conclusion of the “Containment Policy.”  In 1972, Nixon went to China and the two nations agreed to normalization of relations.  In 1973, Brezhnev went to Washington to conclude an arms agreement.

The Cold War was over, and there can be little doubt who won it.  There can also be little doubt of the contributions to that victory by those who flew the Berlin Airlift, stood by their tanks in West Germany and fought in Korea and Vietnam.

Nixon left the White House in disgrace and was replaced by Ford.  Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense and Cheney chief of staff.  The CIA believed that the Soviet Union was in chaos and would collapse.  Rumsfeld disagreed, saying in 1976, “The Soviet Union has been terms of expanding their capability to increasingly improve the sophistication of those weapons.”

Ford appointed a commission, “Team B” including Paul Wolfowitz to investigate Soviet intentions.  Team B reported that the Soviets had developed new WMD including nuclear-armed submarines that were undetectable by US technology.

According to “The Power of Nightmares,” a BBC documentary, the CIA called the secret Soviet arms program “a complete fiction.”  Dr. Anne Cahn of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1977-1980, stated, “And if you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about weapons systems...they were all wrong.”

Melvin Goodman, head of the CIA's Office of Soviet Affairs, 1976-87, stated, “...(Plan B’s) mission was to create a much more severe view of...Soviet intentions. . .about fighting and winning a nuclear war.” (5)

Reagan, with little evidence, feared that the collapsing Soviets would launch a suicidal nuclear attack and wanted a missile defense and the capability to fight a nuclear war for up to six months.(6)  With the USSR cracking apart and Reagan disgraced by Iran/Contra and charged with international terrorism, the two countries returned to détente.  The collapse of the Iron Curtain revealed that there was no secret Soviet arms program, no undetectable Soviet subs and no increase in the Soviet arms budget.  The “arms race” was a race for US military contracts.   

When the Soviets raised an Iron Curtain over eastern Europe and tried to expand into Greece, Turkey, the East and the Middle East the containment policy became necessary and Korea and Vietnam inevitable, and it was essential that the US win the Cold War.  Nevertheless, after 1973, if we the people and our political, military and industrial leaders had had less faith in the seductive power of Communism and more faith in freedom and democracy we might have escaped the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about.

(1) “In Retrospect Vietnam was not a pointless war,” Walt W. Rostow, Journal Of the Vietnam Veterans Institute, Volume 5, Numbers 1-4, 1996
(2) “In the early 60s, Kruschev declared that Soviet-sponsored wars of ‘national liberation’ would allow communism to spread despite the standoff in Europe.”  “McNamara, Memoirs, and Military Strategy,” Stephen Cimbala, Journal Of the Vietnam Veterans Institute, Volume 5, Numbers 1-4, 1996

(3) “In Retrospect Vietnam was not a pointless war,” Walt W. Rostow, Journal Of the Vietnam Veterans Institute, Volume 5, Numbers 1-4, 1996

(4)  In 1972, Kissinger told China that the US would accept a Communist Vietnam (National Security Archives at George Washington University {})

(5)  The Power of Nightmares, BBC2, written and produced by Adam Curtis, Jan. 18-20, 2004; also, reports about the BBC program, Thom Hartmann, Dec. 7, 2004, published by Common Dreams (, and Andy Beckett, The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2004

Extended quotes:

Rumsfeld: "The Soviet Union has been busy.  They’ve been busy in terms of their level of effort; they’ve been busy in terms of the actual weapons they’ve been producing; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding production rates; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding their institutional capability to produce additional weapons at additional rates; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding their capability to increasingly improve the sophistication of those weapons. Year after year after year, they’ve been demonstrating that they have steadiness of purpose. They’re purposeful about what they’re doing."

Cahn:  “They couldn't say that the Soviets had acoustic means of picking up American submarines, because they couldn't find it. So they said, well maybe they have a non-acoustic means of making our submarine fleet vulnerable. But there was no evidence that they had a non-acoustic system. They’re saying, ‘we can’t find evidence that they’re doing it the way that everyone thinks they’re doing it, so they must be doing it a different way. We don’t know what that different way is, but they must be doing it.'

“I would say that all of it was fantasy. I mean, they looked at radars out in Krasnoyarsk and said, ‘This is a laser beam weapon,’ when in fact it was nothing of the sort...And if you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong.”

Goodman: “Rumsfeld won that very intense, intense political battle that was waged in Washington in 1975 and 1976. Now, as part of that battle, Rumsfeld and others, people such as Paul Wolfowitz, wanted to get into the CIA. And their mission was to create a much more severe view of the Soviet Union, Soviet intentions, Soviet views about fighting and winning a nuclear war.” 

“Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy,” Andrew Cockburn, 2007

(Published in San Antonio Express-News, April 29, 2007)

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