Question for Discussion: How did the American
war in Vietnam threaten American democracy
and Americans' trust and faith in their
Reading: Gerster, pp. 190-197; Hoffman, pp. 417-428;
Kerry "Vietnam Veterans against the War"
President Johnson "Why we are in Vietnam"
The Pentagon Papers (web)
Video: 1994 CBS
interview with Robert McNamara,
David Brinkley: Johnson on Vietnam
History of American Involvement
in Vietnam: 1945-1975
The Debate over Robert McNamara's
Fighting the War in Vietnam
The Vietnam War at Home:
The Struggle over Hearts and Minds
1. United States War in Vietnam
2. U.S. Governments' lies about Vietnam
1. What does John Clifford Gary mean when
he argues that "Vietnam became a test of America's will"?
2. Why did the Vietnam war help shatter the
foreign policy consensus in the United States since World War II?
3. According to Gary, how did Vietnam and
Watergate help change the way Americans' basic assumptions about
their government and the United States' role in the world?
4. What are the major argument President Johnson
uses to support an American war in Vietnam?
5. Do you believe that President Johnson and
the United States are really committed to allowing every country
in the world to shape its own destiny?
6. What are Vietnam veteran John Kerry's major
arguments against the American war in Vietnam?
7. What larger lesson do you think that John
Kerry wants Americans to learn as a result of the United States'
involvement in Vietnam?
8. What does Young Hum Kim mean when he describes
the American war in Vietnam in this way: "Power demonstrated
without humility is arrogance; power used without prudence is affront;
and power mobilized without discretion is aggression"?
9. What does Senator J. William Fulbright
mean by "arrogance of power"?
10. Do you agree with Senator Fulbright that
the best way for the United States "to serve as an example
of democracy to the world...[is] by the way in which we run our
Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States
Decisionmaking on Vietnam: 1945-1967, 5 vols. (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1971, 1972). . This is four volumes of material from
the original study, plus one volume of commentary and index.
The following quotes are taken from
The Pentagon Papers:
"In 1956, almost any type of election
that could conceivably be held in Vietnam would, on the basis of
present trends, give the Communists a very significant if not decisive
"Nationalist appeal in Vietnam
is so closely identified with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet-Minh movement,
even in areas outside communist control, candidates and issues connected
with 'nationalism' and supported by the Viet-Minh would probably
be supported by the majority of the people."
"South Vietnam (unlike other countries
in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States."
"The CIA official in Saigon, Edward
Lansdale, described the government of South Vietnam in the late
1950s as an 'emerging fascist state."
"In 1964, the CIA, the State Department,
and Defense Intelligence Agency believed that the primary sources
of communist strength in South Vietnam are indigenous."
"In 1965, the President of South
Vietnam, President Thieu, according to George Ball, believed that
'the communists could still win any election held in South Vietnam.'
"When one delves
into the Pentagon Papers it becomes immediately clear why the government
wanted them kept secret, for they expose the many lies that our
government generated in order to get the American people strongly
behind the war effort. Yet, the importance of these documents goes
beyond their intrinsic historical value since they establish a precedence
of governmental deceit that would be practiced again and again."
........Jeff Drake, Vietnam Vet,
"How the U.S. Got Involved In Vietnam"
In order to understand
American involvement in Vietnam, we need to remember that Vietnam
was a rare failure for the United States. Throughout the Cold War,
the United States was able to successfully impose its control over
the internal affairs and the politics and economies of other countries.
Let's look at some of the American successes during the Cold War
in this regard. The following is a list of some of the major countries
that the United States imposed it political, economic, and military
1. In 1953, the United States overthrew
a democratic government in Iran and installed a dictator, the Shah
of Iran, who ruled with American support until 1979.
2. In 1954, the United States overthrew
a democratic government in Guatemala and installed a military dictator,
and with American support brutal military dictators dominated Guatemala
until the late 1980s.
3. In 1964, the United States overthrew
a democratic government in Brazil and installed a military dictator,
and with American support military dictators dominated Brazil until
the late 1970s.
4. In 1965, the United States overthrew
a democratic government in Indonesia and installed a military dictator,
Suharto, who then with American help killed over 500,000 people--the
people who supported the old democratic government. Suharto to this
day continues to receive American economic, political, and military
5. In 1965, the United States helped
install the brutal dictator, Mobuto, in Zaire, who killed tens of
thousands of people and looted his country of over 8 billion dollars.
The United States continued to support the brutal dictator Mobuto
until just the last few years, when we are now calling him "a
relic of the Cold War." If he is a relic, he is the United
6. In 1973, after America had withdrawn
from Vietnam, the United States overthrew a democratic government
in Chile and installed a brutal dictator, Pinochet, who killed tends
of thousands of people--people who supported the old democratic
government. With American economic, political, and military support,
the brutal dictator Pinochet dominated Chile until the late 1980s.
Given this successful record of overthrowing
democratic governments, why should the United States believe that
it couldn't impose its control over Vietnam? We had successfully
imposed our will and political, military, and economic control over
much larger, more powerful countries.
But before we can answer this question,
we need to answer a larger, more important question: Why did the
United States, while claiming to fight the Cold War in the name
of preserving and protecting democracy and freedom throughout the
world, overthrow democratically-elected governments and installed
brutal military dictatorships that violated the basic rights and
freedoms of their peoples? Wasn't the United States acting just
like our Soviet Communist enemy was acting in Eastern Europe? Weren't
we denying people the very freedoms that we charged the communists
with threatening throughout the world. Many of my students in the
past have concluded in imposing our will on other countries and
denying them the very democratic freedoms we claim we were fighting
for the United States became like the Soviet Communist enemy we
were fighting. So why did we act like the communists and deny other
peoples their basic rights and freedoms?
The United States believed throughout
the Cold War that it must be allowed to lead the free world. Our
government believed that it knew what was best for other countries
and peoples. Our leaders concluded that peoples in backward, less
developed countries were not ready for their freedom; they could
not be trusted to decide what was in the best interest of their
governments and societies. Fearing communist subversion of these
backward and weak countries, the United States believed that it
should impose strong authoritarian leaders, more often than not
military dictators, on these countries and peoples. We believed
that only strong, military rule would protect these countries and
people from dangerous "communist subversion." American
leaders hoped that someday with the United States leadership and
the guidance of strong authoritarian rules, these countries and
peoples would be ready for democracy, ready to be trusted to shape
and control their own governments, societies, and lives. Until that
time, the United States had a responsibility to guide and tutor
these countries and peoples.
But this begs a larger question: Did
the American people know that their government was undermining the
rights and freedoms of other peoples in the name of democracy? Did
the United States government go to the American people and explain
their larger Cold War strategy and win their support for overthrowing
democratic governments and installing military dictators? No, the
American government did not tell the American people. American leaders
correctly feared that the American people would not support the
United States overthrowing democratic governments in the name of
democracy and defeating communism. Government leaders realized that
the American people would not accept the massive contradiction between
our larger goals of protecting and defending freedom and democracy
in the Cold War and our own undemocratic and "communist-like"
actions of denying other peoples their basic rights and freedoms.
Just as the United States government didn't trust backward countries
and peoples to make the necessary decisions to shape and control
their democratic governments and societies, it didn't in the end
trust the American people to make the right decisions in order to
defend democracy and freedom. As a result, just as the United States
was denying other peoples' their democratic rights and freedoms,
so too was the American government denying Americans the right to
shape and control their government and society.
In order to protect its secrets and
hide the truth from the American people, government officials lied
to the American people throughout the Cold War. Americans were not
told about the dark side of the United States' Cold War struggle
with communism. Tragically and ironically, in order to fight and
win the Cold War the United States threatened and undermined its
own democratic institutions and freedoms. The struggle over American
involvement in the Vietnam war in the 1960s and early 1970s brought
these growing Cold War contradictions to the light of day. By the
late 1960s, it was increasingly clear to many Americans that their
government had systematically lied to them about United States involvement
in Vietnam. I believe that Americans were more shocked by this government
lying and deception than they were by the 58,000 Americans who died.
If American leaders were lying to the American people, was the United
States a democracy? If the government didn't trust the people to
shape and control the government and society, was America still
a democratic society? Was the government threatening to undermine
the very democracy it claimed it was fighting for in the Cold War?
These are some of the serious questions raised by American involvement
Let's now look at what the government
told the American people about why the United States was involved
in the Vietnam war? What were the lies the government told to win
the support of the American people. The government knew that if
it told the people the truth they would have in no way supported
American involvement in Vietnam from 1945 on.
In 1965, President Johnson went before
the American people and gave a speech, "Why We Are in Vietnam,"
trying to convince Americans that they should support their government's
efforts to win the Vietnam war. Let's look closely at what Johnson
told the American people in this speech. He begins by declaring
that "Americans and Asians are dying for a world where each
people may choose its own path to change." Johnson argues:
"We fight because we must fight
if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own
destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally
Johnson declares that the United States
is fighting for the freedom and independence of democratic South
Vietnam. He claims that this free and democratic country has been
attacked by a "communist conspiracy" directed by China.
The communist, he charges, are trying to deny the South Vietnamese
the right "to guide their own country in their own way."
Johnson warns that if we don't protect the freedom and democratic
independence of South Vietnam, the rest of the countries of the
"free world" will not trust America to come to their defense
against communist aggression. If we don't stop the communists in
South Vietnam, then other countries will fall to the communists
and we will see "falling dominoes" of country after country
becoming communist. Johnson concludes that in order to protect the
free world and live up to its pledge to defend freedom and democracy
throughout the world, the United States must defend South Vietnam
and defeat the communist conspiracy against Vietnam.
This is what President Johnson told
the American people about why we were in Vietnam. But in recently
released tapes of phone conversations Johnson had with his top advisors
in 1965 and 1966, we know that privately Johnson had a very different
perspective on the Vietnam war. In a recently released tape, Johnson
is heard telling McGeorge Bundy that Vietnam was a mess, that the
war couldn't be won, and that the war wasn't worth fighting. In
fact, in 1966, David Brinkley recounts Johnson's top aides telling
him that the war couldn't be won, and even if we won, it wouldn't
be worth anything. After airing these sentiments, on aide then asked
Johnson why he just didn't get out of Vietnam if he believed this.
President Johnson said: "Because I don't want to be the first
American President to lose a war." Just imagine if the American
people knew that their own President didn't believe in the war and
was only fighting it to save his reputation and save the Democratic
party from charges that they were soft on communism. Even now, hearing
the truth about Vietnam makes Americans who grew up in that era
angry and bitter. Clearly, President Johnson deceived Americans
about the war in Vietnam.
But let's look at the larger historical
involvement of the United States in Vietnam. We have looked at the
lies the government told its citizens, let's now look at the truth
the government dared not tell Americans. This historical truth is
even more shocking because much of it can be verified by the U.S.
government's own secret history of the Vietnam war. In 1967, Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a historical study of American
involvement in Vietnam. In 1971, this top-secret government was
released to the New York Times. Imagine how American's felt when
they read in their newspapers the government's own history of American
involvement in Vietnam, realizing that their government had systematically
lied to them about Vietnam since 1945. If the government had lied
to them about this, what else had the U.S. government lied to them
Let's look at the history of United
States involvement in Vietnam from 1945. First of all, in order
to understand the Vietnam war, you need to understand that Vietnam
and Laos and Cambodia were conquered by the French in the 1870s.
From the 1870s to the 1940s, the French brutally ruled and exploited
the wealth, resources, and labor of Vietnam and Indochina. The Vietnamese
hated its French colonial rulers. In 1940, France fell the Nazi
Germany, and France itself became a colony. After France fell, Japan
conquered French Indochina and tried to replace French colonial
rule with Japanese colonial rule. The Vietnamese soon took up arms
against the Japanese. In fact, between 1941 and 1945, the United
States worked closely with the Vietnamese resistance forces led
by Ho Chi Minh. After World War II, Ho Chi Minh, who had been our
close ally, asked the United States to force France to give up its
imperial control of Vietnam and Indochina. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese
resistance leaders drew up a Vietnamese Declaration of Independence:
"All men are created equal. They
are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among
these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness....
"Nevertheless, for more than eighty
years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty,
Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed
our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity
"For these reasons, we, members
of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,
solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a
free and independent country....The entire Vietnamese people are
determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to
sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence
But instead of supporting his old military
ally, Ho Chi Minh, President Truman decided to side with the French.
He accused the Vietnamese independence leaders of being communists.
From 1945 to 1954, the United States bankrolled the French efforts
to retake Vietnam and Indochina as French colonies, spending over
2 billion dollars. After World War II, France was do destroyed and
bankrupt that it could not support a prolonged war with the Vietnamese.
This is the beginning of the lies the
American government told the American people. President Truman did
not go to the American people and ask them for their support to
support France reconquer its colonies? He knew that the American
people would not support the United States efforts to deny freedom
and democracy to the Vietnamese. How could Truman explain to Americans
our commitment to fight the Cold War for freedom and democracy and
our efforts to deny freedom to the Vietnamese? If it was wrong for
the Soviet Union to conquer Eastern Europe, why wasn't it wrong
for the United States to help the French reconquer Vietnam? President
Truman and American leaders would not chance telling the truth to
the American people, fearing that they would oppose American involvement
In 1954, despite American economic
and military support, the French were on the verge of defeat in
Vietnam. French forces were surrounded at Dienbienphu. Faced with
defeat, the French asked the United States to drop atomic bombs
on the Vietnamese forces. When President Eisenhower asked Congress
if the United States could intervene to stave off a French defeat,
the Congress said no, declaring that it wanted "no more Koreas."
Faced with Congressional opposition, the United States was forced
to allow the French to admit defeat and surrender to the Vietnamese.
But the United States would not accept defeat that easily.
In 1954, the United States, China,
the Soviet Union, France, and Vietnam all sat down at the peace
talks that ended the French-Vietnamese war. All these parties signed
the 1954 Geneva Accords ending the war. The Geneva Accords temporarily
divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam. Supporter of the French
and the United States would settle in the South, and supporters
of Vietnamese independence would settle in the North. This division
was created in order to create a cooling-off period after a bitter
war for independence. In 1956, the Geneva Accords stated that there
was to be an all-Vietnam election that would settle once and for
all who would lead the independent nation of Vietnam. Looking at
the Geneva Accords, there never was an Independent South or North
Vietnam, there was only one country, the country of Vietnam.
However, between 1954 and 1956, refusing
to admit defeat, the United States set up an Independent government
and nation in South Vietnam. After the CIA told American leaders
that the majority of Vietnamese would support Ho Chi Minh and the
people who we called communists, the United States decided that
it wouldn't allow an all-Vietnam election, violating the Geneva
Accords. After blocking the elections in 1956, the United States
then recognized the Independent government of South Vietnam. But,
according to the Pentagon Papers, "South Vietnam was essentially
the creation of the United States." The United States then
help install a brutal dictator, President Diem, in South Vietnam.
Diem, with American support, soon went about consolidating his power
by killing all of his political opponents and terrorizing the population
into accepting his rule. By the late 1950s, the top CIA official
in South Vietnam, Edward Lansdale, described the emerging government
of South Vietnam as "an emerging fascist state." This
was supposedly the independent, democratic South Vietnam that Johnson
said America was supporting.
Faced with the growth of this fascist
state in South Vietnam, the Vietnamese formed a resistance movement
in the early 1960s, calling themselves the National Liberation Front
or the Viet Cong. According the the Pentagon Papers, only the Viet
Cong had the support of the majority of the people in the countryside
of Vietnam. Faced with this growing guerrilla movement in South
Vietnam and North Vietnamese support for the Viet Cong, the United
States and the CIA stepped up their efforts to crush the Viet Cong
and sabotage and harass North Vietnam. By October 1963, President
Diem had so lost the support of his own people, that the United
States had him assassinated and a new dictator appointed. But by
1964, the Viet Cong controlled over half of South Vietnam, so the
United States organized another coup and tried to find a dictator
who could win some marginal support from his people. But the more
the United States supported brutal dictators in South Vietnam and
tried to crush the Viet Cong, the more the Vietnamese people challenged
American domination and supported the Viet Cong. Faced with a deteriorating
situation, the United States created a military incident in the
Gulf of Tonkin in order to justify full American military involvement.
President Johnson lied to Congress and the American people and claimed
that American destroyers had been attacked by the North Vietnamese
without provocation, when in fact they were firing on North Vietnamese
ships. As a result of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Congress gave
the President broad authority to send American forces into Vietnam
in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
By 1965, President Johnson's aides
were telling him that without massive American military involvement
Vietnam would fall because the South Vietnamese army would not fight
to protect the American-controlled military dictator. In fact, in
1965, the dictator of South Vietnam, President Thieu, told the United
States that "the Communists could still win any election held
in South Vietnam." Faced with American defeat, President Johnson
order 500,000 American troops into Vietnam and gave his speech,
"Why We Are in Vietnam" But despite massive American military
involvement, massive American bombing, and massive American-supported
killing of Viet Cong supporters, the United States and its South
Vietnamese ally were losing the war. The more the United States
used brutal military power to force its domination and control over
South Vietnam, the more the Vietnamese people challenged American
rule and were willing to fight against the United States and the
dictator of South Vietnam.
This is the situation that John Kerry
faced as a solider in Vietnam. In his speech before the Senate in
1971 testifying against the war, John Kerry charged that the Vietnam
war was a lie, that the majority of the people were against the
United States, and the only way for American troops to survive in
the midst of a hostile population was to brutally kill and terrorize
the South Vietnamese. In committing these violence acts and opposing
the will of the Vietnamese people, Kerry argued, the United States
was threatening its own democratic values and institutions. Having
gone to Vietnam believing President Johnson's lies, veterans like
John Kerry came home to challenge the lies and atrocities perpetrated
by the United States government.
Faced with increasing American opposition
to the war, President Johnson in March 1968 announced that he was
beginning peacetalks to end the war and that he would not run for
President in 1968. In fact, as a result of growing American opposition
to the war, Richard Nixon ran for President in 1968 promising to
end the war in Vietnam. He said he had a secret plan to end the
war, but he didn't really specify what it was.
After Nixon was elected President in
1968, he tried to threaten North Vietnam and the Viet Cong with
the atomic bomb. He threatened to start dropping atomic bombs unless
the Vietnamese accepted American domination of South Vietnam. But
the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong called Nixon's bluff; they
knew that the United States would explode in tumultuous riots and
demonstrations if America began dropping atomic bombs. Facing the
complete failure of his secret plan to end the war, President Nixon
decided to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia, trying to destroy
the Vietnamese opposition. But in 1970, when President Nixon went
before the American people and told them that the United States
was invading Cambodia and Laos, but he was still keeping his promise
to end the war, the United States people exploded in protest. They
felt that Nixon had lied to them when he said he was committed to
ending the war. It seemed as if Nixon and the United States government
was purposefully violating the will of the people, who wanted an
end to the war.
The anger, division, and bitter cynicism
that grew out of Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam war divided the
nation. And with the publication of the Pentagon papers, more and
more Americans felt that their government had lied to them about
the war. It is in this context of increasing anger and bitterness
towards President Nixon and the government that Nixon concludes
that he must take charge. Feeling his enemies and the increasing
American opposition to the war in Vietnam is a threat to the nation,
Nixon decides to use the power of the government to crush his enemies.
And thus Watergate becomes the final tragedy of the American involvement
in Vietnam. President Nixon and the United States government actually
try to silence the collective voices of the American people. Nixon
believes that he is President and he must be allowed to do what
he thinks is best for the United States, despite what the American
people want. Because the American people can't be trusted to make
the right decisions, President Nixon believes he has the right and
the power to force his will on the people. This would create the
worst threat to America's democratic institutions in American history.
One commentator argued that Nixon was on the verge of becoming a
But Watergate wasn't to be the final
tragedy of the Vietnam war. In 1994, former Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara admitted that he knew from the beginning that the
Vietnam war war was a lie and could not be won. He even claimed
in an interview that he stayed on as Secretary of Defense between
1961 and 1968 because he believed that he could reduce the number
of American casualties in the war. But this revelation was very
disturbing because throughout the 1960s, McNamara was the chief
American supporter of the war. He constantly was on TV promising
that American could and was winning the war. But now he tells us
that this was all an act, all a lie. When asked why he didn't go
public with his doubts about the war, McNamara said that he "couldn't
have been effective" in ending the war. However, the truth
is that if he had resigned from office and challenged the war, he
would have been called a communist and his career and reputation
would have been ruined. Only long after it really mattered does
McNamara now come forward with the truth. Despite more than 25 years
after he left the government, Americans were outraged by McNamara's
revelations. McNamara had opened old war wounds and revealed that
the wounds and bitterness created by the Vietnam war are still very
much a part of Americans' collective memory.