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Not Just a Crime But a Blunder

How Presidents and Policymakers Fell Victim To Their Own Delusions Over Vietnam

A GRAND DELUSION America's Descent Into Vietnam; By Robert Mann; Basic Books: 822 pp., $35

April 22, 2001|TOWNSEND HOOPES | Townsend Hoopes is the author of numerous books, including "The Limits of Intervention," 'The Devil and John Foster Dulles" and "FDR and the Creation of the U.N."

From the vantage point of 2001, aspects of the Vietnam saga seem surreal, but they churned and confounded American society for more than 25 years. "A Grand Delusion" is yet another exhaustively comprehensive indictment of the disastrous encounter between the United States and Vietnam, but its focus on the politics of the struggle between the Senate and the presidency provides a perspective different from most other accounts.

Robert Mann, a veteran aide to two senators, has written a Senate-insider's book. It is a considerable achievement, albeit a depressing reminder of the compounded misjudgments of four presidents and the wholesale lies and illegalities of two. A primary feature of the book is the political tension over U.S. foreign and military policy beginning in the 1950s, and it delineates how domestic political decisions about these issues led to the country's eventual full-scale military involvement in Vietnam. Mann seriously faults Congress for "abdicating [its] constitutional responsibilities regarding Vietnam," but his analysis demonstrates that the legislative branch was really no match for the organized initiatives and manipulations of the executive branch, whose inherent advantages were, almost to the end, buttressed by a wide-spread public belief in Cold War fundamentals. These included the lethal corollary that, owing to the "loss" of China, severe political retribution awaited any new president who presided over the loss of any additional "free world" territory.

The first tendrils of American commitment to the problem in Vietnam appeared when the Truman administration, facing the menacing Soviet threat to Europe, decided to create NATO in 1949. The need for French participation and continental geography gave Paris decisive leverage to demand U.S. material support for its doomed colonial war in Indochina. The 1954 Geneva Conference was a major opportunity to settle the Indochina issue, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were not prepared to oppose powerful segments in Congress or the media, which held that any concessions to "communism" were anathema. France faced the prospect of a military debacle and wanted out. Led by able British diplomacy, Russia and China agreed to join in a Big Power guarantee of a settlement based on a north-south partition of Vietnam and a commitment to hold all-Vietnam elections two years later. But Dulles persuaded Eisenhower not to sign, and the United States' refusal led to a chain reaction of abdication by Russia, China, Britain and all other potential guarantors of the settlement. South Vietnam had been set adrift.

Vietnam was mostly on the back burner during the second Eisenhower administration. Media coverage was thin, and official reports routinely supported the efforts of the new prime minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese nationalist who hated the French and the communists. Diem soon proved to be a political disaster, an implacable autocrat resistant to social reform who saw all opposition as subversive and was determined to suppress it.

President John F. Kennedy inherited a rapidly deteriorating situation. By 1961, Diem had created a police state, filling jails and camps with 65,000 people suspected of communist activities while demonstrating a total ignorance of economics and a total disinterest in political reform. Viet Cong guerrilla violence, supported by wider segments of the population, was becoming unmanageable, and there loomed the threat of a military coup by frustrated army leaders. Kennedy's advisors wanted a radical shift from assistance to "limited partnership" involving U.S. participation in the planning and conduct of South Vietnamese offensive military operations. There were a few prescient voices in opposition: Undersecretary of State George Ball told Kennedy such a shift would mean that "within five years, we'll have 300,000 men in the paddies and the jungles and never find them again." The Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, warned the president that "South Vietnam ... could become quicksand for us .... It is not an American war."

Torn by conflicting advice, Kennedy ended up hedging. Unable to force reform on Diem but refusing to authorize "combat" units, he increased the level of "military advisors" to 16,000. Mann writes that, like Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy "firmly believed he lacked the political freedom to ignore" the domino theory involving China's "perceived hegemonic lust for Southeast Asia." But the author also cites the Mansfield papers and other sources to confirm Kennedy's developing conviction that all U.S. forces would have to be withdrawn from Vietnam. "But I can't do it until 1965-after I'm reelected," the president told Mansfield. Even then, Kennedy was aware that such action risked a McCarthy-like firestorm: "I'll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don't care."

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