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Aug 25, 2005 10:04 am

The Great Society War

I picked up George C. Herring's America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, which I hadn't read since freshman year of college, to refresh my memory about the other big muddy and the other big fool. It's a good basic primer, if a bit short. I picked up a few things from it, some of which apply to our current mess.

I'd forgotten how close Eisenhower was to direct intervention in Vietnam. Two sticking points for Ike, which help preserve his reputation for not being as dumb as he looked: congressional authorization and multinational cooperation."Sensitive to Truman's fate in Korea [Ike and Dulles] were unwilling to act without backing from Congress." Not getting much from the feelers they sent out, when the Brits refused to cooperate, that sealed the deal on direct intervention.

The book also confirmed my impression that in the '50s and '60s, the US military leadership was nuttier than the civilians. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Arthur Radford, wanted to use tactical nukes to relieve the French at Dienbienphu (rock around the clock). In '54 the"Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up detailed contingency plans for deploying US forces, one provision of which was that nuclear weapons would be used if it was militarily advantageous." Post-Vietnam, the situation has been reversed, with the uniformed leadership more cautious and more realistic than the civilians.

Of course, the administration lied its way into war, misleading Congress about the circumstances surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and securing a broad resolution (with very little debate) from Congress that, as LBJ put it, was like"grandma's nightshirt--it covered everything."

I don't think Vietnam is a perfect parallel to Iraq, but there are common themes. Chief among them the fresh-faced can-do optimism and historical naivete that is our birthright. We mean well, most of us, we really do. But we don't know what we're doing, and we break things.

"Dammit," [Johnson] exploded on one occasion,"we need to exhibit more compassion for the Vietnamese plain people... We've got to see that the South Vietnamese government wins the battle... of crops and hearts and caring."

Crops and hearts and caring--and massive civilian loss of life, as well as unintended consequences at which the mind reels:

"In Cambodia itself, U.S. actions contributed to one of the great tragedies of recent history.... the American invasion forced the North Vietnamese to move out of their sanctuaries and into the heartland of Cambodia. Whether as a direct or indirect consequence of the American invasion, North Vietnam initiated large-scale support for the Khmer Rouge insurgents fighting Lon Nol. In the particularly brutal civil war that followed, the United States ... unleashed thousands of tons of bombs on Cambodia. The ultimate tragedy was that from beginning to end, the Nixon administration viewed its ally as little more than a pawn to be used to help salvage the U.S. position in Vietnam, showing scant regard for the consequences for Cambodia and its people."

Walter McDougall, in his terrific book Promised Land, Crusader State, really had Vietnam nailed, as the"Great Society War." As with LBJ's approach on the home front--solve complex social problems by setting loose the social workers, planners, and social scientists--so too with nation-building in South Vietnam:

McNamara put more than a hundred sociologists, ethnologists, and psychologists to work 'modeling' South Vietnamese society and seeking data sufficient 'to describe it quantitatively and and simulate its behavior on a computer.

And he quotes Col. Harry Summers:

"[Vietnam was] the international version of our domestic Great Society programs where we presumed that we knew what was best for the world in terms of social, political and economic development and saw it as our duty to force the world into the American mold--to act not so much as the World's Policeman as the World's Nanny."

If Vietnam was the"Great Society War," perhaps Iraq is the"Compassionate Conservative War."

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