It might be considered the only war the we lost, but there have been several major wars that we certainly didn’t win.
We think we won the War of 1812, but we didn’t. Our major victory — Andrew Jackson throwing back a British assault in the Battle of New Orleans — happened after the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed. But it was 1815 (I know…we probably shouldn’t call it the War of 1812 since it lasted for three years), so the hostile forces fighting in North America and the diplomats negotiating in Europe didn’t know what was happening in the other place until weeks later. The War of 1812 was a draw. We shouldn’t ever be allowed to claim victory in a war where the enemy invades the capital city, eats the President’s dinner, and then burns down the White House, U.S. Capitol, and most of the rest of Washington, D.C.
The Korean War ended in a stalemate. Technically, the Korean War never ended — there’s an armistice in effect, but there is no peace treaty.
Vietnam was a defeat. Some will claim that it ended in a stalemate like the Korean War, but it was an American defeat.
Afghanistan is still going. It’s been almost 13 years now — it’s longer than both World Wars combined, It’s longer than the Revolutionary War and Civil War combined. And we don’t know what victory looks like there.
And I don’t understand how anyone can claim an American victory in the Iraq War. Especially this week as the President prepares to address the nation about a brutal terrorist group that is destabilizing the country and region far worse than Saddam Hussein ever did. We weren’t victorious in Iraq when President Bush said so after landing on the aircraft carrier in his silly flight suit and we weren’t victorious in Iraq when President Obama said so after we withdrew all of our troops. It’s a war that we never should have started, and we did not win.
All good questions.
1. LBJ worried about the repercussions throughout the country if he exposed what was going on. Remember, this being 1968, the country was in a great deal of turmoil. I think LBJ worried that he’d be tossing a lit match into a country already soaked in gasoline which desperately needed stability, no matter who was elected. Just trying to neatly explain the whole deal would be difficult, as well, because the Chennault affair was quite complicated and the fact that Nixon might have secretly sabotaged the peace talks would require some hardcore evidence if it was the President of the United States publicly making the accusation.
First and foremost, LBJ would have to explain how this information came to his attention, and any of those revelations would have caused outrage. Was it from the fact that the United States was spying on the South Vietnamese, our supposed allies? Was it from spying the North Vietnamese or the Chinese? Was it from the fact that the U.S. had wiretapped the phones of Anna Chennault, a naturalized American citizen and working journalist? Was it possibly from wiretaps that allowed the Johnson Justice Department or FBI or whomever to listen in on phone calls made by the Republican Presidential nominee (Nixon) and the Republican Vice Presidential nominee (Spiro Agnew) as well as their top aides (mainly future Attorney General John Mitchell)? Perhaps it was a little bit of all of those things. No matter what, the answer wasn’t pretty, and it wouldn’t have been a smooth ride for President Johnson either.
On top of all that, any revelation by LBJ would have come late in October 1968, and it would have come across as a blatant October Surprise, even if it was absolutely right to blow the whistle. Again, the country was in turmoil, LBJ had made the decision not to run again in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June, and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination and police brutality during the Democratic National Convention were still fresh in American minds. It could have been seen as a last-gasp effort by LBJ to hold on to power by making these very serious allegations — LBJ privately used the word “treason” — in the hope of winning the election for Hubert H. Humphrey just a few days later.
2. No, it didn’t really make a difference in the war, and it probably didn’t make a difference in the peace talks, either. They were stalled and I doubt there was going to be a magical change of events before the election. As you mentioned, the Vietnamese on both sides of the war were not clueless about the Presidential election. I’m pretty sure that both sides were wanting to see if they could get an even better deal from Nixon if he won the election without having to be pushed in that direction. If Nixon hadn’t come to the table with an even better offer once he was inaugurated, the Vietnamese could have reverted back to the previous deal agreed upon under the Johnson Administration because it was no secret that the United States wanted to end the war and end it quickly. Our government — throughout history — has been naive, over and over again, in thinking that our political process and the events taking place in American politics aren’t observed as closely by other countries or governments as we observe them.
3. I think Richard Nixon was probably one of the most brilliant men to ever serve as President but — like Bill Clinton, who is also near the top of the list when it comes to most intelligent Presidents — he couldn’t help doing stupid things. Sometimes, when you’re smarter than almost everybody else, you do dumb things because you believe others wouldn’t think you’d ever do something so dumb. People like that can justify anything to themselves. I can tell you exactly how Nixon probably justified it to himself. He likely told himself that he lost to JFK in 1960 because of dirty tricks in Illinois and in Texas, LBJ’s home state, but that he kept quiet about it. He probably told himself that LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and that LBJ was unfairly (in Nixon’s mind) placing the power of the Presidency behind Hubert H. Humphrey (who happened to be Vice President, an even closer way to tie him to the Administration) and would do everything he could to defeat Nixon, just as the Kennedys and their allies had done in 1960. He probably decided that if dirty tricks were going to be played, he wasn’t going to get beat again and sent back into the corporate world like after 1960. And after telling himself all of these things, Nixon had convinced himself that the world was against him, that his back was against the wall, that the Democrats were once again trying to yank the Presidency from his hands, and that it was not going to happen this time.
Listen, if I think about something long enough and run it over in my head again-and-again, I can justify just about anything to myself and convince myself that it is in my best interests. And I’m not nearly as brilliant as Nixon was, and I’d like to think that I’m not nearly as vindictive, either. Nixon was on a whole different level, in terms of intelligence, resentment, or ruthlessness.
I feel pretty comfortable with assuming that there was probably a point during his six years as a prisoner of war where Senator McCain was being brutally tortured by his North Vietnamese captors in the “Hanoi Hilton” and thought, “Okay, I definitely don’t like this war.”
No, the main reason for the War on Drugs was to establish a relatively consistent policy for drug prevention and interdiction. I’m sure the War on Drugs was helpful for some petty targeting of Vietnam protesters, but there were many other ways to repress the Vietnam protests without creating a large, bureaucratic, national drug policy with overlapping authority from numerous government agencies.
There are so many great books about Vietnam that I would fail to mention too many of them if I tried. Instead, I’ll let my readers suggest their favorites in the comments or replies to this answer.
I will suggest one book in particular about LBJ and Vietnam. That book is General H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. It is critical of President Johnson, but it’s also a very deeply-researched study by a military man about how military leaders, the Pentagon, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara failed LBJ with the information that they presented him about Vietnam.
While Clinton was a student at Oxford, he was drafted and supposed to be inducted into the army in July 1969, but Arkansas Senator William Fulbright allegedly pressured Colonel Eugene Holmes, the head of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, to admit Clinton into the ROTC — which would result in a different draft classification for Clinton and allow him to receive a deferment. Clinton had promised to leave Oxford and enroll in law school at the University of Arkansas in order to enter the ROTC program and receive a draft deferment since the military required a student to be attending classes full-time before they could be admitted to a University’s ROTC program. Colonel Holmes supposedly bent to the pressure and admitted Clinton to the ROTC program which resulted in Clinton receiving a deferment that allowed him to avoid induction into the Army. However, instead of enrolling at the University of Arkansas and joining the ROTC, Clinton returned to England for another year at Oxford. The temporary ROTC status was enough to keep Clinton out of the Army.
While Clinton has denied that he received any preferential treatment or lied about enrolling at the University of Arkansas and joining the ROTC in order to evade the draft, he also wrote a revealing letter just a few months later to the same Colonel Holmes who headed the ROTC department at the University of Arkansas. Clinton’s letter to Colonel Holmes, written on December 3, 1969 while Clinton was in England attending Oxford, allows us to better interpret his actions and his thinking at the time (all emphasis in bold letters is mine, not Clinton’s):
Dear Col. Holmes,
I am sorry to be so long in writing. I know I promised to let you hear from me at least once a month, and from now on you will, but I have had to have some time to think about this first letter. Almost daily since my return to England I have thought about writing, about what I want to and ought to say.
First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I have ever been. One thing which made the bond we struck in good faith somewhat palatable to me was my high regard for you personally. In retrospect, it seems that the admiration might not have been mutual had you known a little more about me, about my political beliefs and activities. At least you might have thought me more fit for the draft than for ROTC.
Let me try to explain. As you know, I worked for two years in a very minor position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I did it for the experience and the salary but also for the opportunity, however small, of working every day against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam. I did not take the matter lightly but studied it carefully, and there was a time when not many people had more information about Vietnam at hand than I did. I have written and spoken and marched against the war. One of the national organizers of the Vietnam Moratorium is a close friend of mine. After I left Arkansas last summer, I went to Washington to work in the national headquarters of the Moratorium, then to England to organize the Americans for the demonstrations Oct. 15 and Nov. 16.
Interlocked with the war is the draft issue, which I did not begin to consider separately until early 1968. For a law seminar at Georgetown I wrote a paper on the legal arguments for and against allowing, within the Selective Service System, the classification of selective conscientious objection, for those opposed to participation in a particular war, not simply to “participation in war in any form”.
From my work I came to believe that the draft system itself is illegitimate. No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation.
The draft was justified in World War II because the life of the people collectively was at stake. Individuals had to fight, if the nation was to survive, for the lives of their countrymen and their way of life. Vietnam is no such case. Nor was Korea an example where, in my opinion, certain military action was justified but the draft was not, for the reasons stated above.
Because of my opposition to the draft and the war, I am in great sympathy with those who are not willing to fight, kill, and maybe die for their country (i.e. the particular policy of a particular government) right or wrong. Two of my friends at Oxford are conscientious objectors. I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of them to his Mississippi draft board, a letter which I am more proud of than anything else I wrote at Oxford last year. One of my roommates is a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again. He is one of the bravest, best men I know. That he is considered a criminal is an obscenity.
The decision not to be a resister and the related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead. I do not think our system of government is by definition corrupt, however dangerous and inadequate it has been in recent years. (The society may be corrupt, but that is not the same thing, and if that is true we are all finished anyway.)
When the draft came, despite political convictions, I was having a hard time facing the prospect of fighting a war I had been fighting against, and that is why I contacted you. ROTC was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and resistance. Going on with my education, even coming back to England, played no part in my decision to join ROTC. I am back here, and would have been at Arkansas Law School because there is nothing else I can do. In fact, I would like to have been able to take a year out perhaps to teach in a small college or work on some community action project and in the process to decide whether to attend law school or graduate school and how to begin putting what I have learned to use.
But the particulars of my personal life are not nearly as important to me as the principles involved. After I signed the ROTC letter of intent I began to wonder whether the compromise I had made with myself was not more objectionable than the draft would have been, because I had no interest in the ROTC program in itself and all I seemed to have done was to protect myself from physical harm. Also, I began to think I had deceived you, not by lies because there were none but by failing to tell you all the things I’m writing now. I doubt that I had the mental coherence to articulate them then.
At that time, after we had made our agreement and you had sent my 1-D deferment to the draft board, the anguish and loss of my self-regard and self confidence really set in. I hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion brought sleep. Finally, on Sept. 12 I stayed up all night writing a letter to the chairman of my draft board, saying basically what is in the preceding paragraph, thanking him for trying to help in a case where he really couldn’t, and stating that I couldn’t do the ROTC after all and would he please draft me as soon as possible.
I never mailed the letter, but I did carry it on me every day until I got on the plane to return to England. I didn’t mail the letter because I didn’t see, in the end, how my going in the army and maybe going to Vietnam would achieve anything except a feeling that I had punished myself and gotten what I deserved. So I came back to England to try to make something of this second year of my Rhodes scholarship.
And that is where I am now, writing to you because you have been good to me and have a right to know what I think and feel. I am writing too in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice, or if it is clear, the conclusion is likely to be illegal.
Forgive the length of this letter. There was much to say. There is still a lot to be said, but it can wait. Please say hello to Col. Jones for me.
It’s just to hard to say. We don’t know what JFK would have done differently than LBJ. Many historians claim that JFK wanted to pull out of Vietnam prior to his assassination, but Ted Sorensen — one of JFK’s closest advisers — said that not even Kennedy had any idea what he wanted to do in Vietnam. I think the Vietnam War was like the opposite of King Midas’s touch, destined to be a disaster for any President who touched it.