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October 13, 2009

New Tomdispatch


Obama at the Precipice
Tough Guys Don't Need to Dance in Afghanistan

By William J. Astore

It's early in 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson faces a critical decision. Should he escalate in Vietnam? Should he say "yes" to the request from U.S. commanders for more troops? Or should he change strategy, downsize the American commitment, even withdraw completely, a decision that would help him focus on his top domestic priority, "The Great Society" he hopes to build?

We all know what happened. LBJ listened to the generals and foreign policy experts and escalated, with tragic consequences for the United States and calamitous results for the Vietnamese people on the receiving end of American firepower. Drawn deeper and deeper into Vietnam, LBJ would soon lose his way and eventually his will, refusing to run for reelection in 1968.

President Obama now stands at the edge of a similar precipice. Should he acquiesce to General Stanley A. McChrystal's call for 40,000 to 60,000 or more U.S. troops for Afghanistan? Or should he pursue a new strategy, downsizing our commitment, even withdrawing completely, a decision that would help him focus on national health care, among his other top domestic priorities?

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at October 13, 2009 04:47 PM

"...a decision that would help him focus on national health care, among his other top domestic priorities?"

uh, nice sentiment, except that obama's "national health care" plan and the afghanistan nightmare are all a slice from the same pie.

Posted by: anonymous at October 13, 2009 06:07 PM

Time to ask, "WHO benefitted and how from Viet Nam?"

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 13, 2009 06:41 PM

No one could have predicted...

On the bright side, Richard Cohen - who reportedly lived through the Vietnam era - wants Obama to man up and escalate in Afghanistan, so there can be no doubt it's the right decision!

Posted by: Batocchio at October 14, 2009 03:30 AM

Here's the backstory on Vietnam that you won't read about in those stodgy reputable periodicals like The Nation, for anyone interested:

From the moment China went communist in 1949, a big contingent of the US military, and especially the navy, wanted to roll back communism in China.
Macarthur wasn't the first or only right wing lunatic in the US military. Over the next two decades, others like Admirals Sharp and Moorer, Air Force Generals LeMay and Powers were some other anticommunist fanatics, and there were many more, including, of course, Admiral McCain.

Those crazy Admirals and Generals had quite an effect on Presidential decision-making from Truman right on up to Nixon. From 1950 onward, the navy brass consistently tried to start and expand wars in asia. They frequently proposed using tactical nuclear weapons against China, and sometimes they made wild proposals like creating with atomic boms a radioactive buffer zone around Manchuria. (Actually, that was Macarthur's idea during the Korean war.) This was not aberrational and NOT considered lunacy, but rather sound strategic thinking.

The navy and air force and CIA didn't like land wars in Asia using US troops, especially after Korea. They wanted to use covert action with asian troops and massive US airpower, including nuclear weapons if necessary. They schemed with Chiang Kai Shek to restore him to power, not just at the start of the Korean war (see i.f. stone's hidden history of the korean war and cumings volume 2), but throughout the 50s and early 60s, especially during both Quemoy crises, much to the irritation of Eisenhower. The navy just couldn't seem to stop trying to start a war with China.

Not everyone in the military favored rollback. The dominant policy was Europe-centered and was built on containing communism, not attacking the USSR (look what that got Hitler!), and in the fall of 1950 the rollback and containment factions had an inter-governmental civil war about which policy would prevail, while the massive defense buildup of NSC-68 was already in the offing thanks to the timely start of the Korean war.

The US inter-governmental civil war was essentially between ideological factions and agencies, the containment faction of Acheson, the State Department, and the army, versus the Asian rollback faction of Macarthur and his Pacific forces, the navy, the air force, and the FBI. Macarthur was insubordinate and angling to start an all-out war with China. Secretary of Defense and China Lobby ally Louis Johnson was forced to resign by a fed-up Truman that autumn, and Acheson, State, and the army came under attack by McCarthy. To say the mood was tense in Washington is an understatement of epic proportions.

As a small aside, to those who follow the method of looking for potential explanations for apparent coincidences, right in the middle of that intense-intergovernmental fight over whether the US would wage a world war against China and Russia, two Puerto Rican nationalists involved in groups infiltrated by the FBI drove down from Manhattan on a couple of days notice after a rebellion in Puerto Rico failed, resulting in the capture of some of their friends and family. Upon reaching Washington, the two gunmen staked out the location where Truman was staying while the White House was renovated, and they promptly tried to assassinate Truman on Nov. 3 1950. They killed one of his secret service guards, but the lead assassin was killed too. (Truman himself commuted the death sentence of the surviving assassin, and Jimmy Carter later pardoned him.)

Maybe the timing of that assassination attempt during a moment of extreme tension between factions within the US government is coincidental, but at the time of the assassination attempt Acheson and the army were beating the rollback faction of Edgar Hoover and Macarthur and the China Lobby that favored Chiang Kai Shek, which is to say the pro-nuclear-war faction. Then again, perhaps it was no coincidence, because people ideological and power-hungry enough to maneuver to start a nuclear war might not flinch at assassinating a President, especially if they hate his guts as much as Edgar Hoover hated Harry Truman’s guts.

During the following two decades, the battle between the right wing rollback faction and the internationalist containment fation was hotter than the Cold War. Macarthur and the rollback faction lost the battle to control US policy in 1950, so the Korean war did not expand into an all-out war with China, neither in 1950 nor during the following years despite efforts to collude with Chiang to get that done. An attack on China could easily have brought in the USSR and turned into a nuclear war, but Eisenhower wouldn't sign off on that or relinquish the decision, so there was no World War III.

But the rollback faction didn't go away, and it didn't stop trying to get control of foreign policy. (In fact, it ultimately succeeded with Reagan's election.) The CIA, originally aligned with the Europe-centered containment faction, became increasingly involved in Asian covert war within China, including Tibet and the border with all the countries of Southeast Asia. This went on well into the 60s. Everything in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, was ultimately about China. The Vietnam war happened not because Vietnam was so important, but because the rollback faction never gave up on the ambition to liberate China and certainly wasn't going to let communism spread in Asia.

After Eisenhower left office, the efforts of the rollback faction continued. The CIA tried to manipulate JFK with the Bay of Pigs, believing he lacked the experience and the nerve to let that fiasco happen without calling in air support. They were wrong. Even before that, JFK had refused to follow the Pentagon's recommendations on Laos, and then during the Cuban Missile Crisis he didn't bomb the Russian missile installations, prompting General LeMay to call the outcome the greatest defeat in US military history, which showed just how important it was to LeMay to avoid nuclear war.

Ultimately, JFK ordered the beginning of withdrawal of advisers from Vietnam, following which his head was blown off by a mysterious man who, it was reported during the first few days, had defected to the USSR and seemed to have communist and pro-Castro connections. That created yet another danger of nuclear war, one that LBJ used to convince Earl Warren to preside over his infamous commission, which historians in future centuries might call the Snowjob Commission. It turned out later, after the danger of nuclear war subsided, that Oswald was not quite what he had initially seemed, even if he wasn't what the Warren Commission said either.

Even before JFK was buried, LBJ announced that he wasn't going to be the President who lost Vietnam, like China had been lost. That LBJ had the loss of China on his mind is certainly understandable, because the rollback faction had already shown many times by then that it played for keeps. And LBJ, who had been riding in that same motorcade and thus received a demonstration of sorts, wasn't about to let that happen to him.

But LBJ had a dilemma. Although he didn't want to lose Vietnam, he didn't want to lose power either, and if he unleashed the navy and the air force, they might manage to bring China into the war through a tried-and-true method like their handiwork at the Gulf of Tonkin. LBJ didn't want that. A war with China couldn't be won quickly without using nukes and could become a nuclear nightmare involving the USSR. It would certainly have destroyed LBJ's support from the Northern liberals who had supported JFK. War with China could easily have gotten out of hand, especially because the navy and air force wanted it to, and once missiles and bombs start flying, it's hard for a President to control where they land. Both LBJ and McNamara intimated at times, then and later, that such scenarios came close to happening in the 60s more than once. That is the fundamental reason that McNamara remained in his position, the most hated Secretary of Defense in history, even after JFK's assassination.

From LBJ's perspective, he had only terrible options. He didn't have the guts to try to pull the US out of Vietnam, as JFK had begun to do, beacuse he had seen what that could lead to. But he was scared to let the navy and air force start bombing campaigns against North Vietnam that might lead to a wider war with China which could turn nuclear. To him, neither of those were appealing scenarios at all, and that seems human enough. One would think that most people, if forced to choose between doing something that could result in having one's heads blown off or taking a chance on starting a nuclear war, might get depressed.

LBJ had only one other option. He could send US ground troops into South Vietnam and try to pacify the countryside enough to end the war before 1968, in which case he might get reelected. But if that didn't work, he would likely lose the election, just as a very unpopular war in Asia had destroyed Truman. So he needed a massive commitment of troops that could get results fast. It didn't work.

LBJ wasn't crazy. If a person doesn't understand the whole backstory to the Vietnam war, it seems like he made an idiotic choice, but he didn't. He just didn't think like a statesman, because he wasn't one. He made a decision about war and peace based too much on questions of his personal safety and his reelection prospects. His was a lonely decision, and but it's hard to feel sorry for him. Sending half a million ground troops to South Vietnam, which did not border China, probably seemed better than risking nuclear war or having his head blown off, but it was still wrong. And it turned out a few years later, it probably wasn't that much better than getting his head blown off. He reportedly didn't enjoy his post-Presidential years, and he didn't like his Secret Service detail. Imagine that.

What's the real lesson of all that for the war in Afghanistan?

Here are some possibilities (I'm sure there are more):

Some factions with the military during the 50s and 60s were crazier and more dangerous than people realize.

The National Security State can cover up all sorts of things for a very long time.

Powerful factions here do at least as many rotten things as they do elsewhere, but they make sure that their crimes will look like someone else's doing.

Making things look like someone else's doing is really easy.

No farflung remote outpost is too inconsequential to keep ideological militarists from destroying the country and potentially the whole world over it.

A President should always do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may, because cowardice is punished even more cruelly than courage.

Peace is always the right decision.

Posted by: N E at October 14, 2009 11:24 PM

Very interesting..

For a more in depth view of Johnson and Vietnam, see Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers...

...and, coincidentally, I see in Russ Baker's Family of Secrets that the way Johnson "persuaded" Warren to head the infamous commission was by blackmailing him about a "little incident in Mexico City."

Posted by: artguy at October 15, 2009 02:41 AM


Blackmail is such a harsh word. LBJ told poor Earl Warren that his President needed him to help prevent a nuclear war, which wouldn't have seemed so crazy to someone reading about Oswald's past in the New York Times right after the assassination. The "blackmail" was simply lend a hand or let millions of people die. That was kind of an easy choice for Warren if you look at it that way.

Posted by: N E at October 15, 2009 07:52 AM

The answer is---NOBODY benefited from Viet Nam. WE need to elect a better class of warmongers---The kind that know how to WIN a war.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 15, 2009 10:54 AM

N E:

Maybe we're just arguing semantics...

At the beginning of the call to Russell, Johnson insists that Khrushchev had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the assassination. But then he threatens to release a Hoover report that he insinuates will possibly start a war with Russia, hence the 40,000,000 possible deaths.

Sounds like blackmail to me. Of course, it also sounds like LBJ Politics, 101.

He also tells Russell that all the commission will have to do is verify a report that Hoover has already written about the assassination. So much for their in depth investigation...

Posted by: artguy at October 15, 2009 09:15 PM


Sorry, I didn't mean to quibble. You're on the right path to understand how the Warren Report came into being, and why.

A great book on the Warren Report is Professor Gerald McKnight's Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, Kansas University Press, 2005. That book doesn't disappoint. It took 40 years for the public record to be sufficient for it to be written, but it doesn't leave many unanswered questions about the important events you mention.

That was very worthwhile of you to mention Ellsberg in your first comment. His wisdom is starting to seem ancient now, which is unfortunate.

Posted by: N E at October 15, 2009 11:42 PM

" Sending half a million ground troops to South Vietnam, which did not border China, probably seemed better than ... having his head blown off, but it was still wrong."

Wow! Talk about low expectations! Two million Vietnamese dead and 58,000 of my citizens killed. On the other hand I didn't risk getting my head blown off.

Posted by: empty at October 17, 2009 02:07 AM


LBJ was no hero, but the idea of just one head getting blown off can be very upsetting if that head is on your shoulders

Posted by: N E at October 17, 2009 08:38 AM

"A President should always do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may, because cowardice is punished even more cruelly than courage.

Peace is always the right decision."

Wha...? who kidnapped N E and replaced him with this other guy?

Posted by: not me at October 19, 2009 05:46 PM