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Selective Memory of Our Quagmire-Prone History
By J. Michael Orange with Cynthia Orange
We stood together on the grassy knoll, silent and reflective after our visit to the Texas Book Depository Museum in Dallas, when a BBC reporter approached us. He was doing interviews for an upcoming documentary that will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Among other things, he asked, "What if Kennedy hadn't been killed? What might have changed?" My wife, Cynthia, paused for a moment, looked at me, and said, "Maybe Michael wouldn't have gone to Vietnam in 1969. Kennedy wanted to pull the troops out. Maybe we would have avoided the death and destruction, and my husband and so many others wouldn't still be haunted by the ghosts of that disastrous war."
I, like so many veterans of so many wars, have asked these same "what if" questions. The stop in Dallas was the second in our quest to see how—or if—key decisions were handled in three museums we visited; decisions that resulted in the death of 58,000 of our troops and six million people in Southeast Asia (about 85% of whom were civilians). Alternative choices may have avoided thirty years of war that continues to claim the lives of US veterans through suicide.
We began with a visit to the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. I've taught classes about the history of the Vietnam War, so I knew from my research that at the end of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly promised to de-colonize Third World nations, and he specifically opposed France's efforts to retake its colony in Indochina from Japan, which had taken control during the war. After he died in 1945, the new President, Harry S. Truman, reversed FDR's positions citing his fear of communism and, after the end of the civil wars in Korea and China in 1950, the Domino Theory. This led to the bankrolling by the Truman, and later the Eisenhower administrations of France's war of aggression to recapture its former colony during the First Indochina War (1945-1954). It ended with the resounding defeat of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 by the forces of Vietnam's leader, Ho Chi Minh, who was more a nationalist than a communist.
Our visit to the Truman Library revealed only two panels that dealt with this history. The panel on the Truman Doctrine included the following: "But Truman also made a broad pledge 'to support free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.' Years later, critics argued this sweeping language helped guide the nation into a conflict in Vietnam that did not involve America's national interests." Apparently, his Doctrine exempted "subjugation by outside pressures" by the French.
The site of President Kennedy's assassination (our second stop) is chilling, and the museum contains a wealth of information about the Kennedy years. But, here again, references to his role in Vietnam are scarce. I knew that after the French defeat, the Geneva Accords temporarily divided Vietnam in half and required a reunification two years later through general elections in 1956. However, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations prevented the elections from happening because they were convinced Ho would win and establish all of Vietnam as a communist state.
We found only one panel that addressed Southeast Asia. It said, in part, "Deciding against direct intervention the Kennedy Administration encouraged all parties in the country to agree to a coalition government and withdrawal of all foreign troops. But Kennedy continued direct American involvement to contain the spread of communism in Vietnam ... and increased the number of American advisors there from 5,000 to 17,000."
What the museum ignored was that President Kennedy launched an air and ground war against the Viet Cong resistance forces in South Vietnam in 1962, in blatant violation of the Geneva Accords, primarily through the US puppet government under South Vietnam President Diem. This was after seven years of efforts to impose a Latin American-style terror state, which had killed tens of thousands of people and elicited armed resistance. The US Air Force began extensive bombing and chemical defoliation in South Vietnam, aimed primarily against the rural areas where 84% of the population lived. This was part of a program to drive several million people into strategic hamlets, where they would be surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. Had Kennedy not intervened, the insurgent forces would probably have overthrown the puppet government in a brief time and allowed the elections and reunification under Ho Ch Minh.
Kennedy began withdrawing US advisors and troops in the fall of 1963, and he approved the coup that assassinated President Diem on November 1st of that year. Weeks later, he was assassinated (11/22/63). The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, chose to reverse course and further escalate the war. The Tonkin Gulf Incident nine months later (8/4/64) gave Johnson the smoking gun rationale, even though it was based on lies and misinformation, and it paved the way for Johnson's subsequent escalation and the launch of the air war on North Vietnam in 1964. This was an eerie echo of Truman's decision to reverse the policy of his dead predecessor.
In contrast to the other two museums, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin Texas (our third stop) included many displays relevant to the Tonkin Gulf decision. One panel, titled "1964 Aftermath," summarized the major events and stated, "After consulting with his advisors, President Johnson announces retaliatory air strikes against selected targets in North Vietnam." Other panels included the official reports of the second "attack" from John J. Herrick, Captain of the USS Maddox, one of the two ships in the Gulf: "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox." A second report by the captain made half an hour later referred to the other ship in the Gulf: "[USS Turner] Joy also reports no actual visual sightings ... Entire action leaves many in doubts except for apparent attempted ambush at beginning."
While most of the information supported the President's decisions, the library also included opposing views. For example, this prescient, formerly top secret memo from Under Secretary of State, George Ball (7/1/65) stated, "The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. Should we limit our liabilities in South Vietnam and try to find a way out with minimal long-term costs? The alternative is almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of US forces, mounting US casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road." Another quote attributed to George Ball (3/25/68): "The disadvantages of the bombing outweigh the advantages. We need to stop the bombing in the next six weeks to test the will of the North Vietnamese. As long as we continue to bomb, we alienate ourselves from the civilized world."
Of the three museum/libraries, the LBJ Presidential Library clearly was the most thorough and objective as regards the decisions that led us to full-scale war in Vietnam.
We didn't have the time or the stomach for visiting the new George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. We doubt that it will honestly document the lies from the Bush Administration and the military/industrial/media complex that led to the spending of trillions of public dollars to destroy property worth billions of dollars, and most tragically, to the deaths of a million people, the vast majority of whom were civilians.
Our voluntary amnesia, to some degree perpetrated by these museums, keeps ensuring the repeat of our quagmire-prone history.
As a Marine in Vietnam, Michael Orange experienced combat in numerous search-and-destroy missions during his tour of duty (1969-70). In 2001, he published a memoir of his experiences, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam and in 2003, he completed nine months of therapy for combat-related PTSD.
Cynthia Orange is an award-winning writer who has published hundreds of articles, columns, and guest editorials in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. She is the author of several books, including Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved Ones PTSD (Hazelden, 2010), which won a Nautilus Book Award.