Vietnam: sour smell of defeat?

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 18 August 1967</strong>

Forty years ago Andrew Kopkind, this magazine's Washington correspondent, wrote a prophetic assessment of America's war in South Vietnam in which he argued that the conflict was lost. In August 1967, President Lyndon B Johnson was in denial, pouring in tens of thousands of troops to win a military victory. But US public opinion was hardening in favour of withdrawal and Congress was growing more hostile by the day.

Selected by Robert Taylor

At some point in the last three weeks, America lost the will to pursue the war in Vietnam. It would be easier to see just what that means if the notion of 'national will' were at all clear. Like 'national character', it seems at most to be merely an accumulation of general perceptions: Most people think the French are arrogant and the Germans mean; most people think that the war is hopeless. The failure of will has to be inferred from several ambiguous indicators: a majority of the public now disapproves the President's conduct of the war; the presidential popularity is lower than at any time since the last days of the Truman administration; aspiring Republican candidates have began to attack US Vietnam policy; several old hawks have become instant doves.

Above all, there is hardly anyone who will claim that the war is not stalemated, or worse. The New York Times last week devoted more than a full page to a report from its best Saigon correspondent, detailing the extent of the stalemate. The toll of American causalities is rising (12,500 dead, 75,000 wounded), the disintegration the South Vietnamese army is at hand, ‘pacification’ is a crude joke, the elections are played as farce, the enemy’s strength is increasing, no progress has been made in capturing territory from the National Liberation Front. Occasional bursts of optimism from commanders (the Army Chief of Staff says there is ‘a smell of success' in Saigon) are universally discounted.

The sense of defeat, or the expectation of it, does not lead naturally to a Consensus for quick for quick liquidation. Politicians who are particularly sensitive to the moods of their constituents may soften, but the independent types become harder. While George Romney moves to dove-dom, Senator John Stennis, of Mississippi, makes a case for escalated bombing. Romney is trying to encompass anti-Johnson sentiments and carve out some political space on the liberal side of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Stennis, from Mississippi, has a national 'constituency’ of military men (he is the Pentagon’s champion in the Senate) and can get away with murder. Last week he called the naval commander in the Pacific, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, to testify in ‘secret’ hearings; this week he predictably released to the press those portions of Sharp’s testimony which support the US bombing policy.

Those who can, try to have it both ways. Rep. Gerald Ford, the Republican leader in the House, has attacked the President for lacking ‘any clear, coherent and credible military plan for bringing this bloody business to a conclusion’. His suggestion as to stop ‘pulling our air-power punch’, and bomb the range of industrial (and presumably civilian) targets in North Vietnam that have so far not been destroyed. But at the same time, Ford pleaded with the President to send no more troops to Vietnam. And the import of his speech seemed to be that if the US could not win ‘cheaply’ through air-power, it had best get out.

Mr Johnson has chosen to respond to the new noises by taking Representative Ford’s first suggestion, and ignoring the second. We will have wider bombing and more troops — more even than Secretary McNamara recommended. For the President is locked into the war so tightly that it would be hard for him to leave even if he wanted to. The US is the only government’ of South Vietnam. It runs a colonial economy, a vast military establishment and the lives of millions of people. The careers of the most powerful men in this country are intricately bound up with the US enterprise in Vietnam, and they will not lightly submit themselves to disgrace. The French, with a much more unstable domestic situation than the US has even now, suffered a coup and went to the brink of civil war before they could pull out of Algeria. It is difficult to believe that it will take less to end the ‘bloody business’ in Vietnam.

The ‘responsible’ solutions of the political dissenters seem almost irrelevant. Robert Kennedy somehow manages to find the mainstream on any given topic at any one time. And he has now plunged in with the idea that irregularities in the September elections in Vietnam would be a ‘good reason to begin a withdrawal. Last year Kennedy was excited about negotiation with the NLF; six months ago he was for an end to the bombing. Now he and like- minded liberals have seized upon the elections issue. They have even persuaded President Johnson to warn the Vietnamese to keep things as clean as possible.

But the President is already preparing the official lines, and it is nothing like an ultimatum. William Bundy (McGeorge’s brother) said on Tuesday that no one really expected the South Vietnamese to come up to America’s high standards. At best, Bundy said, the elections would be as fair as the late-l9th-century American model. In Vietnamese terms, that means that no one seriously opposing US-Saigon policy can run, that only certifiable ‘friendlies’ can vote, and that if there is any doubt about a victory for General Thieu and Marshal Ky, the ballot boxes will be adjusted.

There is no good reason to believe that the President sill use the elections as a pretest for de-escalation, any more than he wanted to use the Kosygin overtures last winter, or the 'feelers’ to the NLF thrown out by a few South Vietnamese leaders over the years. He agreed to the removal of Diem and Nhu precisely because he doubted their ‘will’ to carry on. He would let the generals do away with such new attempts by a Saigon government. The ‘peace offensive’ tentatively scheduled for September offers no more hope of success than the other spectaculars of the same genre.

So the paradox grows. The country does not want the war and the President does not want to end it. The only possible hope of solution now seems to be the defeat of Lyndon Johnson next year — by a Republican who is committed to withdrawal. But even that scenario is flawed. A dove-like Republican president could easily find that he was boxed in as surely as Johnson and that the military has a tight hold on major war policy decisions. He might also fear, as Johnson reportedly does, that the domestic reaction to obvious defeat would be super-McCarthyism: it is one thing for people to want an end to war and another to face up to the consequences. Nothing in the American experience suggests that, pride and ‘honour’ can be threatened without severe social dislocation. And there will be those who will be doing their best to dislocate.

The whole scenario would be invalidated, of course, if a ‘bombing’ Republican were elected. And in any case, events may transpire between now and November l968 that are out of the control of ordinary politicians. The militant Buddhists in Vietnam are threatening disruptive action when the generals are elected in Saigon. The raids in the far North may indeed bring retaliation from China. There could be other 'Vietnams' in Latin American or, for that matter, in the black ghettos of the US. The only certitude is that American military and political policy in Vietnam is a total wreck, there and here. Why did no one think that the massive machine sent to destroy the will of the enemy to resist would turn against its masters?

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet