Vietnam - Opposition to the War
Fearful of losing Vietnam, yet deterred by fear of provoking war with China, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to champion an in-between course of military pressures, one that got America good and committed (enraging domestic dissent from doves), but one with weapons and target restrictions that precluded fully committing US military power (enraging hawkish critics on the right).
Disillusionment with the war began to surface during the mid-1960s in two widely different groups - those who argued that the United States was wasting lives and resources in Southeast Asia and those who believed that the nation was not adequately supporting its men sent to fight a decisive battle in the struggle against communism. The sudden and violent attacks that erupted during the Tet holidays of 1968 followed official assurances of progress, timing that increased the corrosive effect of the offensive on national resolve.
Initially, most Americans backed Washington's Vietnam policy. A dangerous situation seemed to be developing, one which the US government referred to as the "domino theory" -- if South Vietnam were allowed to fall to communism, so eventually would the rest of Southeast Asia. But as the war dragged on and a military victory appeared more and more elusive, public opposition became more vocal.
President Johnson believed that the United States had to support South Vietnam. Many other Americans agreed. They believed that without American help, South Vietnam would become communist. Then, all of Southeast Asia would become Communist, too. As Johnson's term began, his military advisers told him the Communists were losing the war. They told him that north Vietnamese troops and Viet. cong forces would soon stop fighting. On February sixth, however, the Viet Cong attacked American camps at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. The Johnson administration immediately ordered air attacks against military targets in the north.
Some observers in the United States questioned the administration's policy. For example, a leading newspaper writer, James Reston, said President Johnson was carrying out an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam. Johnson defended his policies. He said withdrawal would not bring an end to the conflict. He said the battle would continue in one country, and then another.
In March 1965 the first American ground combat troops arrived in south Vietnam. Congress supported the president's actions at that time. However, the number of Americans who opposed the war began to grow. These people said the war was a civil war. They said the United States had no right, or reason, to intervene. For six days in May, the United States halted air attacks on North Vietnam. The administration hoped this would help get the North Vietnamese government to begin negotiations. The North refused. And the United States began to build up its forces in the South. By July, one-hundred twenty-five thousand Americans were fighting in Vietnam.
By the summer of 1965, US ground forces in Vietnam prevented Hanoi from exploiting the weakness of the Saigon government and bought time to try to build political stability in South Vietnam. But in 1966, the political if not the military initiative remained in the hands of the North. A growing American casualty list and the uncertain prospects of driving Hanoi out of the war gradually converted the near-unanimous approval of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution into widespread Congressional and popular opposition to the war.
Hawks, as the initial strategy was found not to be productive, believed that the US should have shifted to something faster. They advocated early use of strategic bombers on strategic targets, aided by naval bombardment, mining, blockades to knock out North Vietnam's relatively modest military-industrial complex, destroying their ports, destroying their surface-to-air missiles at the beginning of the war. They called for a rapid escalation, using air power to take out North Vietnamese ammo dumps, oil storage facilities, key transportation infrastructure such as bridges, key road intersections. After this preparation, hawkscalled for introducinf ground troops to go into the north and accept their surrender. From the hawk perspective, the Johnson Administration's gradual escalation of the war gave the North time to adapt, and did little to break their will to resist.
A number of authors including General William C. Westmoreland (A Soldier Reports), General Bruce Palmer, Jr. (The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam), Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context), Norman B. Hannah (The Key To Failure: Laos and the Vietnam War), and Colonel Charles F. Brower, IV (Strategic Reassessment in Vietnam: The Westmoreland "Alternate Strategy" of 1967-1968), have stated or implied that the US should have used its military forces during the Vietnam War to move into Laos and physically block the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These authors have all claimed that such a use of US forces would have dramatically changed the outcome of the Vietnam War. They have likewise laid some blame for America's failure in the war on those who could not see the utility of this course of action or somehow blocked its implementation.
The Vietnam War was viewed differently by different people. Such authors as Harry G. Summers argue that it was a conventional war which the US failed to recognize as such. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., states the opposite and argues it was the conventional approach to the situation which doomed the attempted solutions.
Doves became angry. Anti-war demonstrations took place in the cities of San Francisco and Chicago. More and more students began to protest. They wanted the war to end quickly. Writer James Reston commented that the anti-war demonstrations were not helping to bring peace to Vietnam. He said they were postponing it. He believed the demonstrations would make Ho Chi Minh think America did not support its troops. And that, he said, would make President Ho continue the war.
Local and state elections were held in the United States in late 1966. The war in Vietnam had an effect on those elections. The opposition Republican Party generally supported the President's war efforts. Yet it criticized him and other Democrats for economic problems linked to the war. The war cost two billion dollars every month. The price of many goods in the United States began to rise. The value of the dollar began to drop. The result was inflation. Then economic activity slowed, and the result was recession.
To answer the criticism, Administration officials said progress was being made in Vietnam. But some Americans began to suspect that the government was not telling the truth about the war. Several news writers, for example, said the number of enemy soldiers killed was much lower than the government reported.
Opposition to the war and to the Administration's war policies led to bigger and bigger anti-war demonstrations. Studies were done to measure Americans' opinion on the issue. In a study in July 1967 a little more than half the people questioned said they did not approve of the President's policies. Yet most Americans believed he would run again for President the next year.
Johnson strongly defended the use of American soldiers in Vietnam. In a speech to a group of lawmakers he said: "Since world war two, this nation has met and has mastered many challenges -- challenges in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin, in Korea, in Cuba. We met them because brave men were willing to risk their lives for their nation's security. And braver men have never lived than those who carry our colors in Vietnam this very hour."
The Tet Offensive was particularly tragic for the South Vietnamese populace. It also reverberated loudly back home in America. In particular, it negatively impacted American public opinion, calling into question Pentagon and Johnson Administration claims that America was winning the war.
Americans at home saw a different picture. Many Americans were surprised, even shocked, that the Communists could launch such a major attack against South Vietnam. For several years, they had been told that Communist forces were small and were losing badly. Claims of progress in the war, already greeted with skepticism, lost more credibility in both public and official circles. As a result, popular support for the Administration fell even more.
The media remained wedded to the proposition that the Tet Offensive was an unmitigated disaster that proved the war could not be won. Walter Cronkite, who made a quick trip to Vietnam in late February 1968 after the Tet Offensive had been roundly defeated and VC all but neutralized, disregarded on-the-spot briefings he received to this effect. He returned to the United States, and in a 27 February broadcast, described the Tet offensive as an American defeat and recommended the US negotiate a way out of the war. President Johnson, after viewing this broadcast reportedly declared, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Thus, even though the enemy was thoroughly defeated in Vietnam, thanks to U.S. media, the enemy won the war where it most counted - in the United States.
Democrats who opposed President Johnson seized this chance. Several ran against him in the primary elections held before the party's presidential nominating convention. These included Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy and McCarthy did well in the early primary elections. Johnson did poorly.
A Gallup Poll from the year 2000: "Looking back, do you think the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?" Sixty-nine percent, yes; 24%, no. A CBS News/New York Times poll that same year: "Looking back on the war in Vietnam, do you think we did the right thing in getting into the fighting in Vietnam? Or should we have stayed out?" The right thing, 24%; stayed out, 60%.
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