Fifty years ago, on March 8, 1965, although few Americans could see it at the time, President Lyndon Johnson embarked on a war in Vietnam that would fundamentally transform both societies. He opened up a new phase in the U.S. military's ongoing goal of keeping afloat the Saigon government.
The United States was using the airfield near Da Nang as a base of operations for the bombing of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The landing of 3,500 Marines (two battalions) in the port city was to protect a U.S. airbase from National Liberation Front (NLF) attack and it marked a turning point in what would become a gigantic commitment of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the war's chief architects whose mea culpa came 30 years too late, estimated that the war cost the lives of over three million Vietnamese. Fifty-eight thousand Americans also died in Vietnam over the course of the conflict, with about 250,000 wounded.
The following month, Johnson sent to Vietnam two more Marine battalions. The process of escalation had begun. And by 1968 the U.S. military presence in Vietnam grew to over 500,000 soldiers.
The U.S. airbases in the south had become targets for NLF assault, such as the one at Pleiku, given the fact that many Vietnamese didn't like the idea of a foreign power setting up shop in their country and using its real estate as a base to bomb their relatives in the north.
Johnson's special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, assured the president that "Pleikus are like streetcars," meaning the U.S. wouldn't have to wait long for a pretext for "retaliatory" bombing. On February 24, 1965, the U.S. launched "Operation Rolling Thunder," a "sustained reprisal" air war in "retaliation" for Vietnamese hit-and-run strikes against U.S. bases. For the next three years "Rolling Thunder" made 100-plane bombing raids a daily routine in Vietnam (with a few "pauses" thrown in largely for U.S. public consumption).
In what has become a kind of footnote in history because Vietnam overshadowed it, on April 14, 1965, President Johnson sent 23,000 Marines into the Dominican Republic to crush what he considered an anti-U.S. revolution on the island. Foreign capitals, especially in Latin America, generally viewed the intervention as a heavy-handed expression of old-style Yankee imperialism (which it was). But a Harris poll taken in May 1965 showed that 57 percent of Americans approved of Johnson's handling of both the escalation in Vietnam and the Dominican invasion.
On May 6, 1965, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in his first address to the Senate, said that President Johnson's Dominican invasion, along with his Vietnam policies, were part of a "seamless web" that relied too heavily on brute military force. Kennedy called Johnson's choice to escalate the war in Vietnam "a deep and terrible decision." He sought what he called a "third course" for the United States in Vietnam, one where the political conflict in Saigon would be ironed out through negotiations and possibly a coalition government.
In both Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, Kennedy criticized the Johnson Administration for failing to differentiate between Communists and non-Communist nationalists. "I do not believe we should be under the self-delusion that this military effort will bring Ho Chi Minh or the Vietcong to their knees," he said.
Over the course of the next three years it was as if the war's blowback and toxicities leached back into the United States' body politic. American society had become so polarized that even the daughters and sons of the ruling elite were rebelling. The Vietnam War laid bare all of the contradictions and hypocrisies of America's Cold War foreign policy. It showed the world how far the United States would go to fight the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
Like the neo-cons today who always see a silver lining for the United States even when their policy prescriptions prove to be catastrophic, LBJ's Secretary of State Dean Rusk claimed that the bombing, the "free fire zones," the cluster bombs, the napalm, the defoliants, and all the rest of the carnage was justified because (in his crackpot realist worldview) "we" really showed them Russkies how far America would go to stand by its allies.
Too bad Secretary Rusk remained incapable of seeing that the maniacal death machine that he helped unleash in Vietnam proved to be a public relations disaster for the United States in Western Europe (and much of the rest of the world) as well as a propaganda bonanza for Soviet leaders who said: "Look at what the Americans are doing in Vietnam -- and they think they can lecture the world about democracy and freedom?"
By 1968, the Vietnam War had so torn apart the Democratic Party that Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy both challenged President Johnson for the party's nomination. The assassination of Kennedy on June 6, 1968, and the rioting that ensued at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago after the party rejected a peace plank in the platform, altered the nation's perception of Democrats and foreign policy. This assessment continues to reverberate whenever you hear a right-winger scream that Democrats are "appeasers," just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did before a joint session of Congress on March 3rd.
Still A Lot to Learn
These days, it has become far more difficult to teach the history of America's war in Vietnam because one of the chief lessons of that war we thought we had learned ("No More Vietnams") has been soundly disproven in recent years.
The Iraq debacle erased that presumption pretty thoroughly.
The Iraq War had its own "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" in the form of non-existent "weapons of mass destruction." It had its own "light at the end of the tunnel" discourse when Thomas Friedman and other prognosticators always saw real progress in Iraq just "six months" over the horizon, which became known as "Friedman Units."
Like Vietnam, the Iraq War had its own body counts and mounting civilian death toll and even its own My Lai massacre in the form of the torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison.
Vietnam had "Hamburger Hill"; Iraq had Fallujah.
After the end of the conflict Vietnamese civilians suffered for years from land mines, unexploded cluster munitions, and birth defects and cancers brought to them by Monsanto, the manufacturer of Agent Orange. Iraqi civilians, too, have suffered birth defects and cancers from the depleted uranium rounds the U.S. fired all over the place, and from the toxins left behind in myriad forms, even from burning waste.
In Vietnam and Iraq civilians suffered the highest number of casualties and deaths.
Like Vietnam, the Iraq War spawned a peace movement (even breaking all records internationally for citizens who tried to stop a war before it began). The February 15, 2003 demonstrations were so massive, that even the New York Times had to acknowledge it as being a significant representation of popular will. (President George W. Bush dismissed it as a "focus group.")
Iraq had its own "domino theory" where Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-cons promised that toppling the government in Baghdad would have a salutary effect on other nations in the region. And like Vietnam, the Iraq War's popularity among the American people plummeted as it wore on and the initial justifications for the war proved to be based on deception.
Iraq has given us roughly the same Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide rates among returning veterans and the same dismal welcome home of wounded soldiers by a strained Veterans Administration health system.
And like Vietnam, when it comes to Iraq no one has been really held accountable for perpetrating the worst crime any public servant or government official could ever commit: Lying your country into war.