LBJ, 1968, Vietnam

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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.

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26 thoughts on “LBJ, 1968, Vietnam

  1. Vietnam shaped my life. At a tender age I learned that the vaunted US Govt was lying to me. Coupled with the sudden realization that Santa was BS, I began to reevaluate my life.
    What else were they lying about? And after that I realized theat deities were BS too. So thanks in part to Vietnam I learned to be cautious where I placed my trust and to trust science more than stupid stuff people believe or advocate.

  2. Russel makes a great point: the scale of Vietnam and the draft worked together with the result that almost everybody had or knew someone who had a family member in the fight (by the late 60s). When even the smallest communities have bodies coming back, or tremendously injured young men (physical and mental injuries) everyone quickly takes notice. We also shouldn’t overlook the fact of news coverage: Vietnam was in the living rooms of people almost every night, and the point that what the government was saying about progress was orthogonal to what people were seeing and hearing was obvious.

    The “war against terrorism”, more marketing designed to scare people than anything else, is rarely discussed and is taking place in an almost complete blackout. It’s easy for people to ignore it.

  3. Re — coverup worse than the crime: I never understood that either. Nixon was astonishing in the stuff he did, especially wielding government agencies against “enemies”.

    I remember when the news about the use of the CIA to spy, in the United States, on United States citizens, in the Chaos program, came out around 73 or 74. LBJ had started it in the 60s, Nixon carried it on. A predecessor of the NSA being allowed access to communications of US citizens and abusing the hell out of what was supposed to be limited access. (Of course, even limited access is horrible and shouldn’t have been allowed, but “terrorism” and “scary non-white people” and all that other Bush bullshit held sway.)

  4. Also, there is the difference between 6 vs 60 thousand dead, counting US only, comparing Iraq plus Afghanistan vs Vietnam.

    1. And the long suspected but now known to be true interference in the peace talks by agents of the Nixon campaign. Having the president’s men break into offices of the opposition was bad: having the presidential campaign’s men actively work to continue the slaughter of US and foreign troops, as well as civilians, merely for political gain, is much worse.

  5. Another book (also a video) that provides insight into shenanigans in US politics and foreign policy and covers the LBJ period and much before and since that time, is Oliver Stone’s

    The Untold History of the United States.

    Stone is a Vietnam veteran and describes such machinations as the foundation of The Federal Reserve and Smedley ‘War is a Racket’ Butler’s unmasking of un-American activities by powerful people between the two world wars.

    The machinations by a secret elite who used their connections and media powers to persuade the British people that declaring war on Germany in 1914 was an honourable thing to defend poor little Belgium. This was another period of fractious politics and hung parliaments with strange, unknown alliances between secret elite members in the Liberal government and the secret elite opposition members lit the fuse which changed everything. Sir Edward Grey made Machiavelli look like an amateur.

    1. I’m not a fan of Stone’s: his Kennedy movie was pure bullcrap, and the comments by historians about this book (Sean Wilentz from Princeton among them) convinced me his book falls largely along the same lines. In fairness, Douglass Brinkley was slightly more kind to the book, but still seems to have concerns.

  6. I’d been wondering about the book.

    As some of you know, I spent several years as an impressionable youth in the presence of a number of just back from combat Vietnam vets, with whom I worked, and in essence, with whom I experienced, from an unsafe distance, their depressurization. During that time, the time when all the describers of history will tell you that Vietnam vets were not talking yet, they were talking. Among their stories were several oft repeated, because some of the same things happened over and over again in, under, over, or near, the jungle.

    When Stone’s Vietnam movie came out, it was really a collection of those common stories. I was amazed. It verified to me that there were common stories, and it made for me a strong connection between a visually striking depiction of reality and my exposure to personal recollections of realities by my friends.

    But the JFK movie was utter trash.

    1. Among their stories were several oft repeated, because some of the same things happened over and over again in, under, over, or near, the jungle.

      I wonder whether stories from veterans in a single war, as long as they were in similar locales and conditions, wouldn’t be similar. That is, would WWII veterans who were in Europe under similar conditions but not identical locations tell similar stories?

      Slightly related: I taught for 3 years at a small college, and got to know one of the art professors quiet well. He had been in Viet Nam for 4 rotations: his first one, then he volunteered for 3 more. He said that after he’d been there for his first time things were so bad he decided it would be better for him to stay (“I had the experience under my belt”) and take a spot than have someone new come in for him. (Take that for what you will: I believe it but then I knew him well.)

      He was a Marine, in an expeditionary unit. In his fourth go-round he was assigned to work in the beginnings of the Phoenix assassination program. He said it was at then, for the first time (and he said he managed not to have to go out on the missions), he was truly scared, not because of the work, but because of having to work with CIA and their hand-picked operators: “Those men killed often, didn’t care who they killed, and loved it.” was his line. He left at the end of that rotation.

      Sounds eerily similar to the sleazy stuff Bush had the CIA and the mercenaries in Blackwater doing.

  7. >>>That is, would WWII veterans who were in Europe under similar conditions but not identical locations tell similar stories?

    Yes, I think they would, but I think they didn’t.Despite the belief in silence of Vietnam vets, WWII vets were even quieter. I grew up among WWII vets, including my father. My father had a few stories about getting almost wiped out by rockets in London, but I never heard from neighbors. I did hear from a couple of vets over time, and the stories had almost no similarities.

    But, if they actually had related them more copiously, I suspect there would have been common themes, but very different from Vietnam. EG, a LOT of Americans were involved in D-day, or the march across Europe. Anzio and the French Beaches would have had some similar stories. The enemy in WWII had a lot of tanks, and I think there were similar experiences with them.

    Back to Vietnam: The biggest difference I observed among my vet friends was the often conflicting or evolving set of a) reasons they went, b) what they thought about it all soon after arriving, and c) why they eventually left.

    1. “WWII vets were even quieter”

      My father-in-law missed D-Day, but was in Battle of the Bulge and his unit met the Russians at some river. He was trying to deal with “certainty he would die” after fighting in Europe stopped and they were told to get ready to go to the Pacific, until that phase ended.

      Now you know as much about what he did in WWII as I do, and as his children, including my wife, know.

  8. Actually, of the two or three stories I heard from my father, that was one of them as well: He came back to the US after VE, and was put right on a train to California where he would then be deployed to occupy Japan.

    To the day he died, he thought the A-bomb bombings in Japan were a good idea, if tragic.

    1. I don’t remember whether my father-in-law was in England waiting to come back or on the Queen Mary with a bazillion other troops on the way back when he found out.

      Last story, promise: the father of my best man told us he knew we were going to get into the war so he enlisted in the Navy before Pearl Harbor. Enough early that he and others got to request (with no certainty it would happen, obviously) where they’d like to go. He asked for some assignment in South America, and got it. He said slot of his buddies went to Pearl Harbor.

  9. OK … *MY* father’s version of that story: He was in the Army Air Corps. He knew about the planned glider invasion, because he was in on it, on the building the gliders and airplanes side of it (he got a medal for upgrading their system of building the planes so they got done faster, thus defeating Hitler).

    Anyway, he really wanted to see combat in Europe and he wanted to fly there in a glider. He needed, though, to have 20-20 vision, which he did not have. So he memorized the eye chart, then took the eye test.

    But of course, they had changed the eye chart. The glider group he was working with had no survivors.

  10. A great book about America’s involvement in Vietnam from the perspective of an American who volunteered to be there from the beginning (~1962) is Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie. John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”.

    Another book providing the perspective of a North Vietnamese colonel who fought against the Americans is “Following Ho Chi Minh – Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel”, by Bui Tin; (translated from Vietnamese).

    And from the perspective of the “peasants” and local folk who bore the burdens of that war: “After Sorrow – An American Among the Vietnamese”, by Lady Borton.

    1. A great book about America’s involvement in Vietnam from the perspective of an American who volunteered to be there from the beginning (~1962) is Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie. John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”.

      Yes, Sheehan is good, if a weighty read. I’d recommend Chickenhawk, Robert Mason’s memoir of his service as a helicopter pilot and Karl Marlantes’ lightly fictionalised memoir Matterhorn also outstanding.

  11. I’m not a fan of Stone’s

    One should not judge the book under discussion by any other of Stone’s works, also look at the broader cloth of the book rather than just the post WW2 era. Of course historian’s from ‘traditional’ institutions would not like their versions of history challenged, a version which the y have likely spent a life-time bolstering. It is in the nature of history that the details change when new information or facts come to light. Heck we are still finding new things about operations and mores of the RN during Nelson’s day and even of that man himself.

    As for Wilentz, not that I know this historian but here are some words from elsewhere:

    Wilentz is pissed off because he understands Untold History is a damning indictment of an entire worldview – that of his political patrons and all comfortable establishment historians like him. And that worldview is genuinely a matter of life and death for all Americans in 2013.”

    “…if Wilentz’s understanding of history is correct, U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.

    Looked at through that lens, Stone and Kuznick’s perspective explains a lot more about the world than that of Wilentz. The Warsaw Pact is gone, but NATO remains, and in fact has expanded eastward. The embargo against Cuba was not lifted at the end of the cold war but intensified. The U.S. habit of supporting overseas coups, both successful (Honduras) and not (Venezuela, Gaza), endures.

    If you doubt the truth about US foreign policy in for example Central and South America then I suggest:

    Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
    by Greg Grandin


    Bitter Fruit
    The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

    by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer

    Of course there was Chile, Argentina and more recently Venezuela with Haiti along the way. The US has conducted economic warfare across the globe on an unprecedented scale. As did the European states, especially Britain before them, ‘The Scramble for Africa’ etc.

    Back to LBJ, read about his reactions to the USS Liberty massacre by Israel during ‘The Six Day War’ ( good book by Jeremy Bowen by that title) in James Bamford’s ‘Body of Secrets’ Chapter ‘Blood’.

    1. If you doubt the truth about US foreign policy

      I’m not sure where you got that from my comment. I am aware of the other things you mention. I don’t trust Stone because his history is to let his philosophy and story-telling flair get in the way of an honest telling, and honest review, of history.

      Nor am I surprised that there are people who disagree with Wilentz, but I’m not impressed at all with the article by Schwarz you link to: repeated references to “established” and “liberal” positions are too often the code words for a weak argument, and that’s what Schwartz puts forward (IMO). Not surprising, since Huffington Post is known more as a lightweight site for scientific woo and arguments hewing to political philosophy than fact-based argument.

      Nobody here, certainly not me, says or believes the US has been perfect, nor even consistently good or rational, in its foreign policy. I am saying I don’t trust Stone’s representations.

  12. LS “If you doubt the truth about US foreign policy”
    dean “I’m not sure where you got that from my comment.”

    OK Maybe I didn’t express that in the best way, the statement was not aimed at you specifically maybe I should have written:

    “If one doubts the truth about US foreign policy…”

    …repeated references to “established” and “liberal” positions are too often the code words for a weak argument…

    Or not as the case may be.

    History that you think you know may be false for the most credentialed of historians can be subject to bias for all manner of reasons some mendacious in intent as is explored in the book ‘Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War ‘ which uncovers cases of History being made, written up and distorted by those immediately involved in fell events. It also describes the ongoing efforts to bury ‘unfortunate records’.

    The final chapter of ‘Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War’ informs, a must read:

    The last paragraph rounds things up but do read the whole chapter and also the book if you can. Also look up the works of Professor Carroll Quigley mentioned in the chapter.

    “After a century of propaganda, lies and brainwashing about the First World War, cognitive dissonance renders us too uncomfortable to bear the truth that it was a small, socially advantaged group of self-styled English race patriots, backed by powerful industrialists and financiers in Britain and the United States, who caused the First World War. The determination of this London-based Secret Elite to destroy Germany and take control of the world was ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of honourable young men who were betrayed and sacrificed in a mindless, bloody slaughter to further a dishonourable cause. Today, tens of thousands of war memorials in villages, towns and cities across the world bear witness to the great lie, the betrayal, that they died for ‘the greater glory of God’ and ‘that we might be free’. It is a lie that binds them to a myth. They are remembered in empty roll calls erected to conceal the war’s true purpose. What they deserve is the truth, and we must not fail them in that duty.”

    Now I happen to know that Germany had deployed before war was declared continental ferry vessels painted in the colours of a British railway company that used similar ships to effect a disguise to escape detection and sinking whilst dropping mines. One was caught and sunk by a Royal Navy patrol vessel, a scout cruiser, the rescued German survivors of which found themselves, those that had survived this double explosion, in the water again when the RN ship hit one of the mines dropped.

    1. WTF???
      Capital s Secret
      Capital e Elite

       ‘Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War ‘ 
      Capital h in history.
      Capital s in secret ( again!)
      Capital o in origins.

      Run a fucking mile from such things. The writers have not got the basics so they ain’t gonna have the specifics.
      There’s no fucking way an academic who is serious uses a term like Secret Elite unless it’s the name of a person, a self named organisation or club, or a company called the Secret Elite Widget Manufacturing Co.

      That said, I’m sure the origins of WW1 are interesting, and indeed very important to document with rigour. Extreme rigour.
      Its self evident that people who carry on with capital letters like this , never mind terms like secret elite, ain’t into extreme rigour.
      I say this whilst maintaining great respect for the commenter Lionel A.

      Li D

    2. Ummm. Re my last comment. I felt a little niggle in the back of my mind and checked something at random. Here’s Wikipedia on what I would call Guns, germs, and steel : The fates of human societies.
      Except wiki dosnt call it that!!!!!
      It’s all capitalised bullshit.,_Germs,_and_Steel

      Ummmm Hmmmm grrr.
      Oh fuck this weird shit in book titles.

      I maintain staunchly that a use of
      ” Secret Elite ” is pathetic academia.
      Hoy Greg, if you perchance were documenting some goings on in some community, would you ever use such a term?
      It just seems of paranoid American loonytoons who discuss Jews and banks and chemfuckingtrails.

  13. Since we are talking about books related to Vietnam, from an earlier review post:

    The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

    With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal.

    The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.

  14. Oh fuck this weird shit in book titles.

    Nothing weird about cap’s appearing appearing in book titles, happens all the time. The bug bear I have with book titles is when the same book has a different title each side of the pond.

    As for your beef with ‘Secret Elite’ when one is discussing a loose, almost amorphous group one need a label to pin down the concept. Nothing untoward about this.

    As a retired naval guy myself, aviation side, and having once dated a female direct descendent of Nelson as well as having an ancestor on the Victory at Trafalgar I have been studying maritime history fort many decades and the period of the First World War has many strange sequences of events difficult to put down to negligence or tardiness. Such have puzzled me for decades so the book cited makes sense as does its follow up:

    Prolonging The Agony

    I have a considerably library on the subject and from that I have gleaned how ineffective the Naval blockade was not from any lack of duty of the crews of the tired old cruisers firstly deployed, cruisers of a class of which one member Hawke occidentally rammed RMS Olympic in the Solent before the war.

    The dangers faced by the crews when using small open boats in mountainous seas (I have been through those waters and force 10s and 11s not unheard of even in summer) to intern contraband offenders only to have those vessels freed by the Foreign Office without a satisfactory explanation.

    One excellent account is by a junior officer Alexander Scrimgeour who’s jottings about his time on the ‘Northern Patrol’ in the old cruiser HMS Crescent have since been published as ‘Scrimgeour’s Scribbling Diary’, which sadly only go as far as 1916 Scrimgour being lost with the battlecruiser Invincible at Jutland.

    1. Thanks for reply Lionel A.
      I think one of the things that particularly irks me about the term is that it sort of strangely subtly um, invites?, the reader to fill in the gap with their own personally biased bogey men.
      There’s something really airy fairy about it.
      I could write about um, jeez, I dunno, Romanian publishing in the 1890s and how it was influenced by a secret elite that I don’t even identify.
      Who might a reader guess is the Secret Elite?
      Yanks? Poms? Jews? The yellow peril? Muslims? Communists? Capitalists? Mormons? Sikhs?
      Blog writers from Minnesota! Sorry Greg.
      It’s just such a dubious terminology.
      Who instigated genocide in Tasmania? Secret Elite? Well maybe if a researcher can’t get the sources. Why not say it?
      Not only are they secret they good at being secret and so there’s no sources, but rest assured, there’s baddies out there beyond the sources. Cue that twilight zone music.
      Who killed JFK? Oh the fuckin capital s Secret Elite of course.
      Who pushes vaccinations and fluoride in tapwater? The SECRET ELITE!!!!!!!! SHEEPLES!!!
      Who’s hiding aliens and creating the climate change hoax? Yeah the Secret fucking Elite.
      Lol! Do you sorta see what I’m getting at Lionel?
      I’m trying to imagine say,an authoritive history of say, Micronesian expansion, and have it interspersed with ” Secret Elite “. Fuck that. And for exactly the same reason I’m thinking fuck that about something on WW1.
      I do hope you understand.

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