The events of May 12 in and concerning the Vietnam War remind us of the necessity to be clear about one’s objectives and what it takes to achieve them, by showing how speaking and acting without such clarity places one’s fortunes at the enemy’s mercy.
On May 12, 1961, U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, having met South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dihn Diem, called him the “Churchill of Asia.” Under President John F. Kennedy’s new administration, the U.S. would no longer respond to the Communist world’s aggressions massively “at times and places of our choosing.” Kennedy seemed to have taken seriously Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev’s statement that communism would expand through the Third World. Henceforth, the U.S. would meet aggression anywhere by bolstering local allies. Vietnam would be the test of whether Khrushchev’s or Kennedy’s view of the future would win out. Johnson was expressing Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam and to its president in no uncertain terms.
By the time that commitment ended fourteen years later, the U.S. government had cycled some twelve million Americans in and out of Vietnam and its surroundings. But events showed that it had never considered doing whatever might have been necessary to take that commitment seriously.
Three years later, on May 12, 1964, after the U.S. government had fostered the murder of the “Churchill of Asia” because he had been insufficiently pliable to America’s purposes, Robert McNamara, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Defense Secretary, met with his hand-picked successor Nguyen Khanh. McNamara, however, was less clear about how the U.S. would redeem its commitment than he was about what the U.S. would not do: “we do not intend to provide military support nor undertake the military objective of rolling back Communist control in North Vietnam.” But guaranteeing North Vietnam’s survival meant that North Vietnam got to decide what level of pressure it would be willing to sustain to achieve its victory.
Any doubt that the North would control events dissipated after May 24, 1964. Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s opponent in that year’s election, called for using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the North’s lines of communications and to defoliate its forests. Calling Goldwater a warmonger, Johnson foreclosed even isolating the Southern battlefield. Later, he reconfirmed that decision by rejecting military recommendations for mining the North’s harbors and destroying its railroad connections to China.
Hence on May 12, 1965, North Vietnam refused even to receive U.S. ambassador to Moscow Foy Kohler’s offer (known in Washington as “Operation Mayflower”) of a bombing pause in exchange for the mere hope of future “constructive gestures.” Thenceforth, as the U.S. placed ever greater pressure on itself, U.S. offers got ever sweeter. By May 12, 1968 the North’s post-Tet offensive was shelling or invading 119 South Vietnamese towns and military installations simultaneously, including Saigon. On the same day in May a year later, the number of places under attack had risen to 159.
The strategic aimlessness of U.S. military operations also increased the pressure that the U.S. government was placing on itself. North Vietnam’s 29th infantry regiment had occupied strong defensive positions atop Ap Bia mountain. On May 10, 1968 elements of the 101st Airborne division set about dislodging them, killing 597 Vietnamese at the cost of 56 Americans dead and 420 wounded during eleven assaults. On May 28, they abandoned what had become known as “Hamburger Hill,” only to have the North Vietnamese re-occupy it.
The Vietnam War had become Hamburger Hill writ large: losses incurred with victory foreclosed. But why had victory been foreclosed? About that, there was no dispute: because the U.S. government had come to believe that pursing any rollback of any communist regime—indeed even raising the possibility thereof—risked nuclear war. Foreclosing that risk is why the U.S government had forsworn victory in Korea. It is why the Kennedy Administration had rejected “massive retaliation,” withdrawn from Europe the U.S medium-range missiles that the previous administration had placed there, guaranteed the survival of Castro’s Cuba, and embraced what it thought would be “safe” wars in places like Vietnam.
Had U.S. officials considered that the same dynamic of self-deterrence which had led them to abandon “massive retaliation at times and places of our choosing” would also lead them to succumb to any local aggressions that the communist great powers chose to back, they would have seen the truth that there is no such thing as “safe wars,” wars which Henry Kissinger defined as “wars you can afford to lose.” Had they seen that truth, they might well have matched their words and deeds more closely.