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  CHAPTER 17 Vietnam and the Political Costs of War If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated, he unquestionably would have gotten us quickly out of Vietnam following his reelection in 1964. JFK had made up his mind: we were coming out. Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, was strongly behind him, and the young president had high enough approval ratings that he could have pulled it off without much backlash. He had already announced in October 1963 plans to withdraw 1,000 of the 16,732 personnel then in Vietnam by the end of the year and had endorsed recommendations to withdraw the bulk of American personnel by the end of 1965.1 But Kennedy did not live and the United States became mired in a war in Southeast Asia that dragged on until 1975, a dozen years after he was slain and two decades after President Eisenhower first sent a batch of US military advisers to a Southeast Asian country few Americans had ever heard of. By the time the Vietnam War ended, more than fifty-eight thousand Americans had been killed, Lyndon Johnson’s dream of a Great Society was gone, his presidency was in ruins, the American economy had been wrecked, and political reputations on both the right and the left— including my own—had been forever damaged. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian soldiers and civilians had also been killed, their villages burned, and their major cities reduced to rubble, all raising the sad, retrospective question: for what? Returning US soldiers were shamefully shunned by Americans who were against the war, creating a strain 1. Robert A. Caro The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Vintage Books 2013), 402–3, 534–35. 264 CHAPTER 17 on our national psyche that is still palpable today. And, in the end, of course, we lost the war at a horrendous fiscal and societal cost. Like most Americans, I started out supporting LBJ and our efforts in Vietnam. Call it patriotism, or just faith that our leaders knew what they were doing. The stated justification was that communists from North Vietnam were trying to take over democratic South Vietnam, and if they were not stopped there, communism would spread to neighboring countries. This, in turn, would create a global threat to the United States and other Western democracies. It was called the “domino theory ,” and our advisers—and later our troops—were sent to Vietnam to halt communist aggression before the next domino could be tipped. But, like many Americans, the more I learned about Vietnam and the longer the war dragged on, the more I grew to oppose it. Seeing Vietnam with My Own Eyes US involvement in Vietnam was already escalating by the time I arrived in the Senate in 1965. JFK had increased the number of military personnel in South Vietnam to sixteen thousand, up from the nine hundred advisers Eisenhower had sent.2 Reports of a 1964 naval engagement involving US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin prompted Congress—in an election year—to enact a resolution that gave President Johnson broad powers to use military force in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war. This move gave LBJ the opportunity to be seen as militarily tough and determined to stop the spread of communism. In Washington in those days, there was still a powerful anticommunist hangover that could be traced to the vicious crusade waged against communists (real or imagined) by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. McCarthy had helped defeat my father and had even intimidated President Eisenhower, among others. American political leaders who lived through those days, including John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, did not want to be seen as complicit in communist expansion . By 1965, Johnson had begun deploying regular US combat troops to Vietnam. Public support for the deployment was high, and General 2. Eisenhower had turned down a French request to send in troops to bail out the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, besieged by Viet Minh freedom fighters supported by communist China. The French presence in Indochina ended soon after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. 265 VIETNAM AND THE POLITICAL COSTS OF WAR William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, predicted victory by the end of 1967. The new young Democratic senator elected from Maryland believed him. In early fall 1965, I was eager to see the situation with my own eyes, so I...


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