I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Contemporaneous government statements about the Vietnam War

Howard Dean’s comment the other day contesting the idea that the U.S. will "win" in Iraq provoked some astounding hysteria, but another, more substantive comment which he made in the same interview was essentially ignored:

"I've seen this before in my life. This is the same situation we had in Vietnam. Everybody then kept saying, 'just another year, just stay the course, we'll have a victory.' Well, we didn't have a victory, and this policy cost the lives of an additional 25,000 troops because we were too stubborn to recognize what was happening."

Whatever else one thought of Dean’s remarks, and whatever one’s views are on the propriety of analogizing the conflict in Iraq with Vietnam, Dean’s equating of the Bush Administration’s statements about the Iraq war to the statements which Americans heard from their Government throughout the duration of the Vietnam War was absolutely, indisputably accurate as a matter of historical fact.

Much of the American population is too young to remember how it was that the combat phase of the Vietnam War dragged on from 1965 until 1975, with virtually no progress, culminating in clear American defeat.

But a review of what Americans were being told about the war as it was being waged – the falsely optimistic reports from the Executive Branch and military leaders, the endless promises of imminent improvement which never arrived, the equating of anti-war sentiment with surrender and cowardice, and even the misleading Governmental accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which manipulated a compliant Congress into initially giving Johnson war authority – reveals striking similarities in both rhetoric and substance with respect to the Government’s claims about Vietnam and Iraq.

Following are representative statements made by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, military leaders, and others regarding the Vietnam War was as it evolved. These are all contemporaneous statements made at the time, and are thus free of any retrospective interpretation or distortion.

The similarities between them and the statements we have been hearing, and continue to hear, about Iraq are self-evident and require no explanation:


Q: Major, how would you say the war was going in your sector?

A: Well, I think here, lately, the... it's going a lot better; I think we're beginning to win the people over; our operations are going better. We're actually getting VC.

Q: What evidence do you have that the... you're winning the people over?

A: Well, we've got the "strategic hamlet" program going on. And when we go out on these operations, it seems like the people are more friendly. Several times recently we've had people warn the Vietnamese troops that there was an ambush ahead, or something like that. This means the people are getting on our side.

John Kennedy Press Conference, December 12, 1962:

Q: It was just a year ago that you ordered stepped-up aid to Vietnam. Seems to be a good deal of discouragement about the progress. Can you give us your assessment?

A: No, we are putting in a major effort in Vietnam. As you know, we have uh, have about ten or 11 times as many men there as we had a year ago. They are... We've had a number of casualties. We've put in an awful lot of equipment. We've been going ahead with the strategic hamlet proposal. In some phases the military program has been quite successful. There is great difficulty, however, in fighting a guerrilla war; you need ten to one, or 11 to one, especially in terrain as difficult as South Vietnam. But I'm, uh... so we're not, uh... we don't see the end of the tunnel; but, I must say, I don't think it's darker than it was a year ago -- in some ways, lighter.

Robert McNamara, in South Vietnam, 1964:

We are here to emphasize that the United States will maintain its interest and its presence in your country. There is no question whatsoever of our abandoning that interest. We'll stay for as long as it takes. We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents.

U.S. Navy Film, omitting critical facts in order to falsely depict the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an unprovoked North Vietnamese attack on the U.S.S. Maddox:

In international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, destroyers of the United States Navy are assigned routine patrols from time to time. Sunday, August the 2, 1964, the destroyer Maddox was on such a patrol. Shortly after noon, the calm of the day is broken as general quarters sound.

In a deliberate and unprovoked action, three North Vietnam PT boats unleash a torpedo attack against the Maddox. At once, the enemy patrol boats are brought under fire by the destroyer.

Comments in 1964 reflecting newly resolute support for war in the wake of those Gulf of Tonkin claims:


First Man: Well, I think that President Johnson has done the correct thing. I really do.

Second Man: I don't think that he could have done otherwise. Especially when they attacked the American flag, yeah.

Third Man: I'm behind him on it. I'm not for Johnson. I'm for Goldwater. But I'm behind him on this.

JAMES THOMSON: The minute incident number one happened, the attack on our ships, the resolution was brought right back off the shelf, put right to Congress and of course, after incident number two, sailed through with virtually no dissent. A blank check.

SENATOR WILLIAM FULBRIGHT, war supporter:Well, I think it's a very clear demonstration of the unity of the country behind the policies that are being followed by the President in South Vietnam, and more specifically, of the action that was taken in response to the attack upon our destroyers. It shows a practically unanimous approval. It was unanimous in the House, and only two dissented in the Senate.

SENATOR WAYNE MORSE (one of two Senators to vote against the war authorization): Being in the minority never proves that you're wrong. In fact, history is going to record that Senator Greuning and I voted in the interest of the American people this morning when we voted against this resolution.

And I'd have the American people remember what this resolution really is. It's a resolution which seeks to give the President of the United States the power to make war without a declaration of war.


We do not want an expanding struggle with consequences that no one can foresee. Nor will we bluster or bully or flaunt our power. But we will not surrender. And we will not retreat. We intend to convince the Communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms or by superior power. I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me, and we will meet his needs.

GEN. WILLIAM WESTMORELAND, press conference in October 1965, after the slaughter of 155 US troops at Landing Zone Albany, in the battle of Ia Drang:

"I consider this an unprecedented victory. At no time during the engagement were American troops forced to withdraw or move back from their positions, except for tactical manoeuvres. The enemy fled from the scene."

President Johnson's State of the Union Address, 1966

The enemy is no longer close to victory. Time is no longer on his side. There is no cause to doubt the American commitment.Our decision to stand firm has been matched by our desire for peace.

And we will continue to help the people of South Vietnam care for those that are ravaged by battle, create progress in the villages, and carry forward the healing hopes of peace as best they can amidst the uncertain terrors of war.

And let me be absolutely clear: The days may become months, and the months may become years, but we will stay as long as aggression commands us to battle.

President Johnson's State of the Union Address, 1967

So our test is not whether we shrink from our country's cause when the dangers to us are obvious and close at hand, but, rather, whether we carry on when they seem obscure and distant -- and some think that it is safe to lay down our burdens. . . .

Our men in that area -- there are nearly 500,000 now -- have borne well "the burden and the heat of the day." Their efforts have deprived the Communist enemy of the victory that he sought and that he expected a year ago. We have steadily frustrated his main forces. General Westmoreland reports that the enemy can no longer succeed on the battlefield.

So I must say to you that our pressure must be sustained -- and will be sustained -- until he realizes that the war he started is costing him more than he can ever gain.


And may I say that despite public opinion polls -- none of which may I say have ever been friendly toward a nation's commitment in battle -- despite criticism, despite understandable impatience, we mean to stick it out, until aggression is turned back and until a just and honorable peace can be achieved, until the job is done. That is the policy of the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States and the Congress of the United States. So let people understand that.

General Westmoreland and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Ernest Wheerler, November 16, 1967:

REPORTER: How do you see it, General?

GENERAL WESTMORELAND: Very very encouraged. I've never been more encouraged during my entire, almost four years in this country. I think we're making real progress. Everybody is very optimistic that I know of, who is intimately associated with our effort there.

GENERAL EARLE WHEELER (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): We feel that on the military side there has been substantial progress over the past two years, that in the last six months, the progress has been even more rapid than in the 18 months before that.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON, December 22, 1967:

All the challenges have been met. The enemy is not beaten but he knows that he has met his master in the field.

Gen. William Westmoreland, February, 1968:

While he expected the siege to continue for a few more days, he said, there were signs it was "about to run out of steam."

The next day, Westmoreland's headquarters put out this communiqué: "Although the enemy raided numerous cities and towns throughout the republic and achieved some temporary success, they have failed to take and hold any major installations or localities. Although some enemy units are still occupying positions in a few cities, they are rapidly being driven out."

War hawk Joseph Alsop, column in The Washington Post, February 1, 1968

"We are already engulfed in another spate of warnings that all is hopeless in Vietnam because of the attack on the U.S. Embassy and the other V.C. efforts in Saigon and other cities. In reality, however, this flurry of V.C. activities in urban centers will almost certainly prove to have just the opposite meaning in the end. The nearest parallel is probably the fruitless Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots in the Second World War's final phase."

GEN. EARLE G. WHEELER, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, excusing the photographed 1968 execution of a bound prisoner by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan:

Wheeler expressed a "sense of revulsion at barbarous acts and summary executions," but then added that the killing outside the Vietnam pagoda had happened "more in a flash of outrage" than in an act of cold blood.


Now to meet the needs of these fighting men, we shall do whatever is required.Make no mistake about it. I don't want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise. We are going to win!

Gen. William Westmoreland, March, 1968:

In 1968 a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.

President Nixon, May 5, 1969

We can have honest debate about whether we should have entered the war. We can have honest debate about the past conduct of the war. But the urgent question today is what to do now that we are there, not whether we should have entered on this course, but what is required of us today.

President Nixon, November 3, 1969:

For the future of peace, precipitate withdrawal would thus be a disaster of immense magnitude.

A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends. Our defeat and humiliation in South Vietnam without question would promote recklessness in the councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest. This would spark violence wherever our commitments help maintain the peace-in the Middle East, in Berlin, eventually even in the Western Hemisphere.

Ultimately, this would cost more lives. . . . .

The defense of freedom is everybody's business-not just Americas business. And it is particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace. . . .

And now we have begun to see the results of this long overdue change in American policy in Vietnam: After 5 years of Americans going into Vietnam, we are finally bringing American men home. By December 15, over 60,000 men will have been withdrawn from South Vietnam-including 20 percent of all of our combat forces. The South Vietnamese have continued to gain in strength. As a result they have been able to take over combat responsibilities from our American troops. . . . .

Two other significant developments have occurred since this administration took office: Enemy infiltration, infiltration which is essential if they are to launch a
major attack, over the last 3 months is less than 20 percent of what it was over the same period last year. Most important-United States casualties have declined during the last 2 months to the lowest point in 3 years.

None of this proves that Iraq is Vietnam. It may be that what was said year after year in Vietnam to justify the continuation of the war was false and inaccurate, whereas the same exact things being told to us today about Iraq are true.

But what it does prove is that Howard Dean's statement was historically factual:

"I've seen this before in my life. This is the same situation we had in Vietnam. Everybody then kept saying, 'just another year, just stay the course, we'll have a victory.' Well, we didn't have a victory, and this policy cost the lives of an additional 25,000 troops because we were too stubborn to recognize what was happening."

Many of Bush's statements and those from our Generals and war pundits are not just similar but almost verbatim to what was said in Vietnam in order to convince the public to support ongoing war and to attack those who favored an end to the war. Because all of this occurred almost 40 years ago, memories have faded and many, many people did not live through it.

For that reason, it is incomparably valuable to go back and review what was being said at the time. If nothing else, it enables one to assess the Bush Administration's claims about Iraq with some historical perspective.

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