Since the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent conflict much as been made of the bad intelligence that lead to the invasion. We were told that Iraq had WMD capability and were expanding their program in that regard. That intelligence was from the US and Britain primarily but not disputed by other intelligence agencies around the world. That belief turned out to not be accurate. It should be remembered though that Hussein was very cutsey with the inspectors and constantly was restricting their access and making coy comments all the time. He clearly wanted us to believe that he did have such weapons. That perception he thought gave him extra clout in negotiations. He wanted to be perceived as a dangerous man and that crossing him would cost a very high price indeed. That is not the first time in history or US history that such mistakes have been made. Others believe that the Bush administration flat out lied about the facts regarding the causi belli. That also would not be the first time our Government or Presidents was less than candid about the cause for conflict.
The Gulf of Tonkin “attack” by North Viet Nam was rightly considered the linchpin of our commitment to that war. It was the starting gun. A little reflection on those events and the immediate prior US history in that region is justified to seek a more measured understanding of that conflict and the role of our Government. We first got involved in Nam during Eisenhower’s administration after the French were ejected after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu. There was a power vacuum and it was a grave concern that the North would impose a communist style rule on the entire country and region. That was a legitimate concern. Read some histories of that era. Ike however was very cautious and truly only assisted the South in a very minor way. Ike was opposed to any serious ground warfare in that area and would not make that US policy. At the time Kennedy was elected there were only 400 US troops in Nam and they really were advisors. Yes, some of them did dangerous work when they went on missions with the South Vietnamese troops but it was a low scale operation. Kennedy wanted to make his mark on the military. The Green Berets were his darlings. They were a great outfit no doubt and he thought that type of troop would be the wave of the future. With the nuclear umbrella it was believed that the day of the set- piece field battle was over. Kennedy immediately began increasing the troop levels. At the end of his Presidency he had over 16,000 troops there. They had taken a much more active role under his Administration. He expanded the scope of the conflict exponentially. Yet when he was asked specifically at a news conference in 1962 if US troops were fighting in Viet Nam he answered “NO”. That was a blatant lie. He had his reasons to not be honest with the answer and maybe they were valid but he did lie.
In late summer of 1964 we had our Navy ships patrolling off the coast of North Viet Nam. They were in international waters and had a right to be there. It however was a very provocative move. They were gathering electronic intelligence and “showing the flag” to flex our muscles in front of the North. They were only a 10 miles off the coastline. North Vietnamese torpedo boats did attack one of our destroyers by firing some torpedos and machine gun fire. There was no damage and there were no casulties. We sank one of the attackers and immediately warned the North of grave consequences if they attacked again. The next day was stormy and the Maddox “thought” it had been attacked from electronic readings on board. The Maddox and the Turner Joy, another US destroyer, even fired at apparent targets. There was never any confirmation of being fired upon or that any enemy ships were hit with counterbattery fire. It is likely we were firing at lighting strikes. The Johnson administration put out a hue and cry and evoked memories of Pearl Harbor. Within 3 day of the first attack Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which authorized “all necessary measures to repel armed attack against the armed forces of the US and to prevent further aggression”. The last phrase approved almost anything and Johnson was off and running. McNamara and Johnson believed that if South Viet Nam failed then all of south east Asia would fall to the Communist. Plus there was lots of testosterone flowing from that Administration. The build up started under Kennedy accelerated. We went from 16,000 in ’63 to 563,000 troops in country by 1968. Johnson added troops but would not allow any attacks directly on the North except for sporadic and non strategic air attacks in the North. It was never organized to demolish the North the way we had Germany or Japan. For all his other faults Nixon did do as he promised in his campaign in ’68 and had a plan to wind down the war. The numbers tell the story. He reduced troop levels from the start of his administration. By 1972 when he was up for re-election the troop level was down to 24,000. When South Viet Nam fell in 1975 it was not really an American war any more. We had only residual troops there to support the South. We were not carrying the battle. We didn’t lose the war, we just quit. It wasn’t worth the candle anymore according to those in power. In spite of all the polemics and justifications pro or con about the war those are the facts. Johnson and Kennedy mislead the people. They thought it was for good reasons no doubt. Johnson had the more accurate reports about the likelihood of questionable nature of the alleged second attack by the North but that was not shared with the people or Congress. If the complete truth had been told he probably would have gotten the resolution anyway. The Democrats totally dominated both houses of Congress and he was in the White House. With the Bay of Pigs, the secret surrender of our missle bases in Turkey and his miscues in Nam, we were lucky that Kennedy was never our commander in chief during a real war.
If you would like an interesting read I would recommend a biography of Big Foot Wallace. He was an early Texas Ranger, Indian fighter and true frontiersman. He had a fascinating life and deserved the legendary status he attained. He was rough, raw and clever. All the attributes it took to survive and thrive in those early days on the Texas frontier. You will see some of Lonesome Dove in his life. Or maybe it is the other way around.