Vietnam: The trail not taken

By LOU MARANO  |  May 15, 2002 at 8:31 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- More than anything else about Vietnam, young Americans must keep in mind that their most influential seniors have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.

This bias pervades the HBO movie "Path to War," which premiers Saturday at 8 p.m., EDT. The network bills the production as "an inside look at the men who got us into Vietnam but couldn't get us out." The narrative begins at Lyndon Johnson's inaugural ball in January 1965, and ends with the president's surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that the war had caused "division in the American house" and he would not seek reelection in the name of "national unity."

Why the emotional investment in the futility of the war? Shame, guilt, and the desire to deflect it.

Vietnam was the first war in U.S. history that elite young men, who are now running the country, avoided fighting. Older Americans in the arts, the media and academia encouraged and abetted their evasions, fostering disrespect for those who served. The anti-war movement heartened the Hanoi Politburo and hastened the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. After South Vietnam was conquered in 1975, some 1.5 million boat people cast themselves into the sea in a desperate bid for freedom, tens of thousands of our former allies were sent to "reeducation camps," and American credibility in foreign affairs was damaged for decades. "Several hundred thousand" of the boat people perished, a State Department official told United Press International Tuesday.

To admit that one's own actions or evasions contributed to this disaster is to assume a greater psychological burden than most people can bear. Representing the U.S. effort as doomed from the start assuages the conscience.

This is not to cast all opposition to U.S. involvement as self-serving. "Path to War" shows how Undersecretary of State George Ball, played with wonderful midwestern plainness by Bruce McGill, served as the principal critic of intervention within the Johnson administration. But for every George Ball there were 1,000 antiwar protestors whose hypocrisy the Iowan found "stupid and unattractive" for "declaring in sanctimonious tones that American policy is thoroughly in the wrong and that we as a nation are as brutal and viciously ambitious as the other side."

Preserving the freedom of the South Vietnamese people would have been a difficult and protracted effort, and success was not guaranteed. But those who insist the communist victory was inevitable advance arguments that have more in common with theology than historiography.

Nor did such principled critics as Ball argue that the war was wrong. "The qualifications I have are not due to the fact that we are in a bad moral position," Ball told Johnson at a meeting on July 21, 1965. He said he expected South Vietnam to come under Hanoi's control soon after U.S. forces pulled out.

"But George," the president responded, "wouldn't all these countries say that Uncle Sam was a paper tiger? Wouldn't we lose credibility, breaking the word of three presidents, if we did as you have proposed? ..."

"No sir," Ball answered. "The worse blow would be that the mightiest power on earth is unable to defeat a handful of guerrillas."

But a multi-division cross-border blitzkrieg with massed armor and artillery -- not "a handful of guerrillas" -- defeated South Vietnam in April 1975, two years after the last U.S. combat formations had departed. And although the titles at the end of "Path to War" refer to the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, they tellingly omit the fact that North Vietnam broke the agreement, resumed its aggression and won.

The movie is worth watching if taken with a grain of salt. It does a good job of depicting the situation Johnson faced at home, including his determination not to allow the war to interfere with his "Great Society" -- a legislative package to fund programs designed to improve the quality of life for all Americans. It serves as a useful reminder that the Vietnam buildup occurred at the height of the civil rights struggle. Martin Luther King's belief that his own country was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and King's view that the war was an "enemy of the poor" in the United States were trials to Johnson. It also shows how the president felt trapped by the Kennedy legacy and betrayed when Robert Kennedy turned against the war Johnson had inherited from Kennedy's late brother.

But the viewer learns almost nothing about the situation LBJ faced in Asia, and the show gives short shrift to options that might have led to a better outcome.

"Path to War" is dialogue-driven. HBO says screenwriter Daniel Giat and executive producer Howard Dratch spent more than a decade researching the script, interviewing several of the principals in the story and consulting their memoirs. Rather than trying to verify who said what to whom when, and what constitutes legitimate artistic license and what does not, this essay will explore (1) how things looked to the writer as a college student, (2) the situation in Asia in 1965, and (3) what might have been done differently.

I was not hoodwinked or coerced into going to Vietnam. As a youth I knew that with my "smart" mouth and defiant attitude, I would last about 45 minutes under communist rule before being dragged off. I was profoundly grateful to be living in democratic society, where the penalties for such traits are relatively mild. I saw no reason why my counterparts in South Vietnam, in my own and future generations, should be denied the right to be equally oppositional. The sacrifices of Americans and their allies had preserved the freedom of millions of Koreans south of the 38th parallel. I was aware that the United States was bound to South Vietnam by the Southeast Asia Treaty, ratified 82-1 by the Senate in 1955. Our SEATO ally was being invaded in stages by its larger communist neighbor. President John F. Kennedy, recently assassinated by an American defector to the Soviet Union, had pledged a "long twilight struggle" against communism in his inaugural address. Great powers do not betray allies.

So it became clear well before the big buildup of 1965 that Vietnam would be "my war." In the shower one warm spring day, I pictured maps of Korea and Indochina. It was going to be tough. Our sea and air supremacy had all but quarantined the Korean peninsula. The communists had access to the south only along 130 miles of border. South Vietnam, on the other hand, had a long land frontier with Laos and Cambodia through which the enemy could infiltrate. This spaghetti-like network of roads and paths came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

What to do? Isolate the battlefield. Cut west through Laos to Thailand at the border between the two Vietnams, blocking the North Vietnamese Army. Then the insurgency within South Vietnam could be put down, as the British had suppressed the Malayan communist rebels in the 1950s.

Walt W. Rostow, Johnson's national security adviser from 1966 to 1968, is played by Gerry Becker. In a phone interview Sunday from his home in Austin, Texas, Rostow said he hadn't seen "Path to War" and couldn't comment on it. I had called to ask him about interdiction, but he surprised me by stating, without being asked: "I believed that we should cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I still hold to the view, and I expressed that view, but I did it properly, because I have great affection and respect for what Johnson was doing at home and abroad."

Rostow said the war was primarily about the balance of power in Asia, a continent Johnson believed would become at least as important to the United States as Europe. The president's reluctant decision in July 1965 to send large U.S. forces to Vietnam was made in the context of a larger Asian crisis. This context is perhaps the most important missing element in the historiography of the war, the former national security adviser said.

"In 1965 the Malaysian confrontation was on," Rostow said. Indonesia's leftist leader, Sukarno, had vowed to crush the new state, Singapore withdrew from the federation, and a communist insurgency broke out in Sarawak. At the same time, regular North Vietnamese forces were entering South Vietnam.

Rostow said Sukarno was maneuvering with China and the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, to effect a communist takeover of his own country. In this "nutcracker" the small nations of the region, including Thailand, would be caught between two giants -- China to the north and Indonesia to the south. "There were few doubters of the domino theory in the Southeast Asia of mid-1965," Rostow said.

Of course, in the fall of that year, the attempted communist coup in Indonesia backfired. Tens of thousands of communists were killed, and the PKI was destroyed.

Rostow said that at least as early as April 1965, Johnson viewed the containment of communism in Vietnam as a way of buying time for a strong, regionally organized, independent Asia to emerge. By April 1973 Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew was able to predict, accurately, that even if the communists took over in Vietnam, it did not follow that dominoes would fall, as they would have earlier. By this measure, the Vietnam War was a success.

Our "gift of sanctuary" to the North Vietnamese Army in Laos and Cambodia inevitably rendered the war long and inconclusive, Rostow said. Never has a guerrilla war -- or a war dependent on external supply -- been won when one side was granted sanctuary by the other. Blocking the trail network on the ground would have forced NVA troops to mass, and two or three reinforced infantry divisions plus U.S. airpower could have dealt with them on favorable terms.

Rostow said since the war Gen. William C. Westmoreland, U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964-1968, has been invited to speak in North Vietnam. "We heard from the North Vietnamese a number of times -- Westmoreland knows about this. They much respected his military part in Vietnam. It turned out that all of the North Vietnamese said, 'Why didn't you cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail?'"

He referred to John Prados' 1999 book "The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War." Prados gives the account of Bui Tin, the North Vietnamese officer who accepted the surrender of the Saigon government in 1975. In 1990, filled with disgust at the "reeducation" camps and communist officials extorting bribes from desperate boat people, he fled to France. Bui Tin once asked Gen. Le Trong Tan (1914-1986), former NVA chief of staff, what he would have done to win the war if he had been an American general. Tan replied that if the Americans had cut the trail and assumed defensive positions, "We would have been stuck. We would never have been able to fight and win as we did."

In his own memoir, "Following Ho Chi Minh" (1999), Bui Tin wrote: "If Johnson had granted Westmoreland's requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi could not have won the war."

Rostow told UPI that Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk rejected the option because they had been "traumatized" by the China's unexpected intervention in the Korean War "when we moved up the Yalu" River in November 1950.

"I believed it was a false analogy," he said. "The Yalu abutted onto Manchuria. ... And it was a very sensitive area. Whereas the boondocks around the southern part of China were very difficult terrain ... more than 200 miles away" from the place in Laos where it would have been logical to cut the trail.

"Johnson made a quite firm decision not to let American troops outside the borders of (South) Vietnam, and in my view that was the wrong way to fight the war," Rostow said.

He was asked if Johnson and Rusk were the main opponents of interdiction.

"Yes, but also (Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara was all over the lot," he replied.

After a recent preview of "Path to War" at the French Embassy in Washington, panelists were asked if -- in retrospect -- the United States could have done anything to win the war. I was astonished to hear the reply of Harry McPherson, special counsel and speechwriter to LBJ, who is known as a dove on the war.

McPherson's said the idea of cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the only one that had made any sense to him.

I told Rostow of my surprise and wondered why McPherson didn't express that belief as a presidential adviser.

"He didn't believe it back then," Rostow said. "He sort of got it in retrospect, I think. And he's a very nice man, incidentally. That was not his view at the time.

It's very significant that he should come up with this now."

"Path to War" is directed by Hollywood veteran John Frankenheimer. In most historical dramatizations, the actors are more physically prepossessing than those they portray. This is not true in "Path to War."

Alec Baldwin is too human to capture Robert McNamara's intimidating, icy arrogance. Clark Clifford, who succeeded McNamara as secretary of Defense, was taller, handsomer and possessed of more serpentine charm than Donald Sutherland. Dean Rusk had more quiet dignity than John Aylward brings to the role. English actor Michael Gambon effectively mimics Lyndon Johnson's voice and facial expressions, although he sometimes loses control of his "Texas" accent. But Johnson was BIG. He would get in people's faces and grab their clothes. Gambon, although not a small man, lacks LBJ's physical presence.

Felicity Huffman, however, more than does justice to Lady Bird Johnson, the president's supportive and understanding wife. The former first lady, now 89, was hospitalized on May 2 after a stroke left her unable to speak.

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