A lesson from the Vietnam War

| January 03, 2007

It appears the president is about to embark on a disastrous course of troop increases in Iraq that makes this war look more and more like Vietnam. So, let's go back to 1966, when the United States began the year with 185,000 troops there and ended it with 385,000 on their way to a half-million. A debate was raging then just like the one we're in now: Should we get out? Escalate? Negotiate? Expand into neighboring countries fueling the fighting?

A wise Indy reader dropped off a copy of the Aug. 9, 1966, issue of Look magazine in which the editors approached five experts with the question: "Suppose the President asked you, 'What should we do now?'" The debate is frighteningly familiar, as these excerpts show:

Hans Morgenthau, political science professor at the University of Chicago and consultant to the Department of Defense: Winning would take a million troops and destruction of the country that risked Chinese or Soviet intervention. Instead, "The aim of our policy must be to avoid getting more deeply involved in it and to extricate ourselves from it while minimizing our losses.... The Saigon government is hardly worthy of the name; and the great mass of the people of South Vietnam prefer an end to the war rather than a fight to the finish with the Vietcong."

Henry Kissinger, then a little-known Harvard professor of government: "An American withdrawal under conditions that could plausibly be represented as a Communist victory would be disastrous.... Negotiations are likely when Hanoi realizes that its political apparatus in the countryside is being systematically reduced, and that this process will accelerate the longer the war lasts."

Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor of The New York Times: "U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam should be doubled to a figure of 500,000 to 700,000 men to enable U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to patrol areas that have been Communist sanctuaries for years.... [I]f we lose, our children and grandchildren will face tomorrow a far worse problem than we face today."

Herman Kahn, director of the Hudson Institute: "Our present policy is the only realistic alternative the United States really has. It is a hopeful policy. If we are patient, resolute, realistic, that policy can probably realize our goals."

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former assistant to presidents Kennedy and Johnson: "A program of limiting our forces, actions and objectives still holds out the possibility of an honorable resolution of a tragic situation. A program of indefinite escalation offers nothing but disaster...."

About 7,000 U.S. forces had been killed in action in Vietnam by the end of 1966. Another 40,000 would die after that as the U.S. fought, negotiated and finally withdrew in 1973. The Vietcong were victorious in 1975. The question is: What would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had taken Hans Morgenthau's advice?

Read the full 1966 Look article


Download a PDF of the Aug. 9, 1966, Look article, entitled "What Should We Do Now?" (9.9MB).

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