In last week’s columns, I sought to explain, with relevant examples, how politics relate directly to how politicians act, beyond their words.
This is why Vietnam caused Lyndon Baines Johnson’s withdrawal from public life. The most effective president in modern history refused to absorb any more the insults and calumny from an aroused public. He declined to take the blame for a war he never started, but was trying to end by eliminating the opposition.
Harry S Truman began the mess by allowing Charles de Gaulle to transport French Foreign Legionnaires to post-World War II Indochina that included Vietnam. Mr. Truman’s decision overturned his late elected boss; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dedicated to breaking up colonial empires. He succeeded with London; FDR failed with Paris. It took years and lots of blood for citizens of colonized countries to fight their way free, to become independent nations.
When Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower occupied the White House, the victorious general assigned American troops to strengthen Saigon’s regime. In his abbreviated term, Jack Kennedy replicated Ike’s policies and added special forces designed for the new warfare. Lyndon Johnson followed Mr. Kennedy’s example; with his usual impatience, the Texan tried to stop the constant deaths and wounding in Southeast Asia by expanding the U.S. military forces.
Richard Nixon continued his predecessor’s determination of how to fight the war, while distancing himself from the battlefield strategy; the tactics were whopping the hell out of North Vietnam’s forces and locally recruited Viet Cong – but with no conclusion in sight. While retaining the votes of anti-war partisans, the Republican president extended the fighting to Cambodia and Laos, the other two colonies that the French called Indochina.
The point of this twisting knee-bone-connect-to-the-hip-bone narrative is to understand the basis on which the Vietnam War claimed 58,193 American lives, according to official figures; nearly double were wounded, some horribly, in a war that was none of America’s business. (By the way I supported the conflict, almost down to the end.)
It was simply a colonial war with Washington picking up France’s “white man’s burden;” the phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling during England’s battles in India, and its failed effort to paint Afghanistan British imperial red. From history we know no empire lasts. The same lesson Americans learned in Iraq; the colonial power in that instance was Israel fearing for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
A good friend, married to a Navy flier during Vietnam, blames politicians for the conflict’s eventual loss, citing Mr. Nixon’s asserting U.S. forces would never invade Cambodia at the same time her husband was in Cambodia. She did not accept the objective fact in that war presidents from Jack Kennedy on were trimming sails to conform with polls and demonstrations.
Somehow, this highly intellectual friend buys the military rationalizing the Vietnam War could have been won but for stabs in the back by politicians. She knows this was the argument chiefly responsible for the rise of Adolph Hitler based on World War I. In truth, Germany was running out of wartime essentials and depleting resources, including manpower, while America pumped up the Allies in all categories, especially with fresh troops, commanded by Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing.
As columns last week cautioned, sincere words are subject to circumstances and actions not foreseen at the time promises were made. To believe politicians deliberately ignore popular sentiment defines a non-elected dictator; not the reality of America since its conception.
Elected officials worship at the ballot box; their very future relies on heeding public sentiments. The inconsistencies in national policy may be traced directly to efforts to please the popular mind. There are exceptions.
Plowing straight ahead on principle can be rarely seen. President Eisenhower did it when he ordered Israel, France and England out of the Suez Canal, which ruined many months of plotting and inveigling that resulted in their joint attack. Barack Obama pushed for universal health care despite a demonstrated apprehension by the public and politicians he was going much too fast.
Lyndon Johnson presents a first-class example for steamrolling the public will; he did it with Medicare and Civil Rights in addition to the war in Vietnam. In the end, he appeared a broken man, undone by sticking to lofty principles instead of hard-scrabble politics by which he scrambled to the very top post in this nation.
Later politicians confirmed from LBJ’s history that it’s politically unwise to divorce their acts from what the people say they want. In other words, the issue was confirmed.