I’ve been thinking about, and reviewing history of, the Vietnam War. I don’t have a lot to say about this right now, but there are a few items I’d like to bring up.
First, a small thing. People often talk about the Vietnam War as a war that involved the French. Someone will say, something about how the Americans really screwed up with the Vietnam War, and someone will reply, “well, it was really the French first, then the Americans.” That is technically true. But, the war fought by the French in Vietnam and the war fought by the Americans in Vietnam were really two different (and of course, related) wars. Sometime the French war is called the First Indochina War, and the American war is called the Second Indochina war. The first war ended with the partitioning of Vietnam into North and South. Before that partition, things were a certain way, with respect to who was fighting who, where, and for what reason. After that partition, things were a different way, with respect to who was fighting who, where, and for what reason.
The American War version of the Vietnam War started in the mid 1950s, but for several years was not really America fighting in a war. It developed in the early 1960s and ran into the 1970s. The American war was a futile act from the beginning, and that futility was recognized by most of the people directly involved. But it could not end because of honor, or a sense of fear of damaging perception. Kennedy said that he should end the war now, at one point, but could not get re-elected if he did. Johnson could not allow the United States to lose a war, and withdraw was consider a loss. The whole thing was blindingly stupid.
And 1968 was a key year in that war, both in Vietnam and in American society. A recent book, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval, looks at that one year from an interesting perspective:
1968 was an unprecedented year in terms of upheaval on numerous scales: political, military, economic, social, cultural. In the United States, perhaps no one was more undone by the events of 1968 than President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Kyle Longley leads his readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of what Johnson characterized as the ‘year of a continuous nightmare’. Longley explores how LBJ perceived the most significant events of 1968, including the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, and the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His responses to the crises were sometimes effective but often tragic, and LBJ’s refusal to seek re-election underscores his recognition of the challenges facing the country in 1968. As much a biography of a single year as it is of LBJ, LBJ’s 1968 vividly captures the tumult that dominated the headlines on a local and global level.
I’ve only read about 20% of it, skipping around, but it is confirming and enlightening in various ways.
I’m reading, in detail (and there are a lot of details) Michael Beschloss’s Presidents of War, and while I’m still on the Spanish American War, I have some news for you vis-a-vis the Vietnam war. I heard it said a while back, by a historian, that before Vietnam, America was seen to have always engaged in moral wars, and done so honorably. But that really does not seem true. At the time of the War of 1812, the Mexican war, and the Spanish American War, there were plenty of voices asking about the morality of those wars. In all three cases, what might have been a response to some sort of aggression or international slight turned at one point or another into a pure land grab, with the fact that American hostilities abroad were such a land grab being loudly pointed out and complained about by some, denied by the White House and others, and eventually, lauded as having been a great idea post hoc. I suspect World War II was a sort of moral cleansing war for America. It wasn’t a land grab, and the bad guys were really extra bad. And yes, we got a little land, but not too much.
People dealing with Trump today, but too young to have experienced Nixon, probably have learned recently that Trump was worse. But, the late 1960s and early 1970s were worse in a different way: We had Vietnam going on. That was not the kind of conflict Afghanistan or Iraq are. I’m not sure what difference this makes exactly, but it might be too easy to equate, or contrast, Nixon and Trump and make mistakes. The tenor of society was different than compared to now in many ways.
Also, a final bonus thought. It is said that the cover-up is worse than the crime. That is almost never true. It was not true of Nixon, it is not true of Trump. What might be true is that you get caught for the cover-up more easily than the crime in some cases. But mostly, that is a thoughtless irrelevant saying that is singularly unhelpful.