- - Sunday, February 8, 2015


Fifty years ago today, the first American combat troops were committed to South Vietnam by President Lyndon B. Johnson — an event that marked the beginning of a long, complex and frustrating war depicted by many today as America’s first defeat. No doubt, the engagement’s statistics are riveting: More than 2.5 million soldiers were dispatched to the area, 58,200 were killed in action and 3 million sorties dropping 8 million tons of bombs were effected, the largest in the history of warfare.

To label the war as an American defeat is the luxury of retrospective thinkers and not the mentality of leaders at the time of the outbreak and eventual escalation of the war. All wars have to be judged in the context of the times when they occurred. For example, when World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939, it was absolutely clear that Americans were opposed to getting involved, as a result of their less-than-sanguine memories of American participation in World War I. President Franklin Roosevelt had other ideas, but public opinion held firm on non-intervention. Only when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was war with Germany a fait accompli. Adolf Hitler made the most colossal mistake of his life, declaring war on the United States because he had a pact with the Japanese that required such action. Had he not honored the agreement, America’s role in the European theater would have been tenuous.

Even with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the historian must take into consideration another context, the government’s assessment of the Asian nation at the time. Strong evidence suggests the United States broke the Japanese code that indicated an attack was imminent, but they simply didn’t believe it. Widespread was the thinking at the time that although diminutive, yellow-skinned people might fight similar groups, they certainly wouldn’t take on a nation conspicuous for its tall, white population. For that reason, too, the European theater in World War II would be fought first after Dec. 7, 1941, with Japanese aggression put on the military back burner.

When the North Koreans in June 1950 invaded South Korea, the United States under President Truman faced an embarrassing context, namely, an unwise delineation made earlier that year by his secretary of state of a defense perimeter of nations against communist threats that didn’t include Korea. Rather than doing nothing, Truman took advantage of several developments at the time that made a United Nations effort a better tactic. First, the U.N. was in its infancy with a sterling reputation; second, its first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, was committed to a U.N. response to the aggression; third, the Soviet Union could have vetoed the action but at the time was boycotting the Security Council because that body refused to recognize the new communist government in China. Ergo, the Korean War represented a 16-nation global coalition that contained communist aggression without the prospect of a widened war.

As for President Johnson in 1965, a still different context emerged. The worrisome foreign policy issue was the “domino theory” that took hold among Washington leaders beginning in the 1950s and 1960s as the Cold War deepened. The theory — based upon what happened in the Soviet takeover of Eastern European countries after World War II — argued that if one country in Asia fell to communist regimes, neighboring, uncommitted ones would follow suit. With Vietnam in Southeast Asia divided into two countries after 1954, it appeared increasingly certain as years passed that the communist-dominated northern nation, supplied by both the Soviet Union and China, was intent on taking over South Vietnam as well.

That the Johnson administration decided to take a firmer stance than its predecessors met with widespread approval by the American public. After bombs were dropped on a North Vietnam army camp in early February 1965, polls found a 70 percent approval rating for the action, with 80 percent supporting actual American boots-on-the-ground involvement in Vietnam. Adding to the public’s commitment was a riotous demonstration of 2,000 in Moscow that attacked the American Embassy. By year’s end, Time magazine named Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of American forces, as its “Man of the Year.”

To be sure, public support of the Vietnam War declined as American casualties mounted, troop increases mushroomed as a result of a return to the military draft and battle victories were elusive. But the long endeavor from 1965 to 1973 illustrated that American commitment to defend the right of self-determination of nations against communist oppressors would be exercised, no matter the risks, sacrifices and tangible results — an emboldened legacy more than sufficient for dealing with future crises and threats, such as the rise of radical Islamic terrorists.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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