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9-08-2015, 22:44

THE US DURING THE 1960s

The 1960s were one of the most turbulent decades in American history. The US fought an unwinnable war in Vietnam thousands of miles from home with young men in a largely conscripted army. Protests against war increased as ultimately more than half a million men were sent to Indo-China and as the brutality of the fighting became clear to Americans at home. It was, furthermore, a decade of unprecedented black protest and of an unusually violent backlash against political leaders, black and white. Three assassinations were especially shocking: of President Kennedy in 1963, of his brother, and presidential contender, Robert in 1968 and, shortly before, of Martin Luther King, the leading nonviolent voice in the civil rights movement. The murders of the two Kennedy brothers were shown on television, reaching into practically every American home. Was the US still governable? In Dallas on 22 November 1963 a tragedy unfolded before the nation’s eyes. The smiling president, his radiant wife beside him, was riding in a slow motorcade, waving to the crowds. When his car reached a point opposite a dreary office building, the Texas School Book Depository, shots rang out from an upstairs window. The president fell backwards; a bullet had passed through his head and throat. Lee Harvey Oswald, an unbalanced 24-yearold ex-marine attracted to communist causes and to the defence of Cuba, recently returned from the Soviet Union and with a Russian-born wife, had assassinated President Kennedy. The right in America accused the communists of an assassination plot; others from the left claimed that irreconcilable conservatives had plotted the murder of a popular and liberal president. There appeared to be awkward facts that did not sit with the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. In a bizarre scene, captured by the television cameras a few days later, Oswald was in turn slain by a nightclub owner before he could give evidence at his trial. Violence was again seen to be a strong undercurrent in American society. The vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, who had been completely overshadowed by Kennedy, now stood in the limelight. Unelected to the office, he would have to see out the remaining fourteen months of the presidency. Lyndon Johnson was the eldest son of a small farmer married to the daughter of a prosperous lawyer. He had climbed the political ladder the hard way, with much careful calculation, entering Washington politics in 1937 as a congressman who fervently admired Roosevelt. By the time he came to serve in the Senate, eventually becoming Senate Majority Leader in 1955, he had become much more conservative, reflecting the majority of his Texan electorate. His skill in managing the Senate, applying his persuasive powers to individual senators in what became known as the Johnson Treatment, earned him a reputation for effectiveness among Washington insiders. Johnson might have echoed the words of Robert Louis Stevenson and declared that his politics were ‘to change what we can, to better what we can . . .’. This meant reconciling reformers and those opposed to social change, persuading the more liberal legislators that half a loaf was better than none, and those who were more conservative that acceptance of some reform would avert the danger of more fundamental and undesirable change. But, as vice-president, Johnson had made little impact nationally; that all changed as he stood grim-faced next to Jackie Kennedy aboard Air Force One as he was sworn in as president. Appearances proved deceptive. The Kennedy image and dynamism seemed to have died with the assassinated president as the older man, who had already suffered one heart attack, started his term of office with the words, ‘Let us continue.’ Johnson proved much more successful than Kennedy in gaining congressional approval for the moderate measures already sent to Capitol Hill, where they had lain logjammed by the opposition of Congress. Bills for foreign aid, for wider access to college and university education, and for tax reductions to stimulate the economy all passed into law. Among the most significant legislative leftovers from the Kennedy administration but enacted under its successor was a bill concerning civil rights. ‘Civil rights’ meant, in effect, legislation to remove the discrimination and disabilities suffered by non-white Americans, the great majority of whom were African American. Between 1950 and 1980 the total population of the US increased from 152.3 million to 227.7 million. The majority of those Americans classified as ‘non-white’ were ‘black’, that is, 15 million in 1950 and 26.6 million in 1980. The Hispanics from Puerto Rico (US citizens) and Latin America are the secondlargest ethnic minority, numbering 14.6 million in 1980. The population from Asia also increased rapidly; joining the Chinese and Japanese immigrants of the late nineteenth century, there now came a large influx of Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese. But it was the African Americans who led the civil rights protests with a success that influenced other ethnic minority movements. The decade from the early 1960s to the early 1970s became one of stark contrasts, the federal administration, Congress and the Supreme Court playing a leading role in supporting civil rights and intervening against the attempts by the Southern states to apply state laws to suppress black protest and demonstrations. At the same time the federal government sought to banish poverty through an expansion of social security entitlements and payments. It was thus a decade of reform not witnessed since Roosevelt’s New Deal. But there was an important difference: unlike in the 1930s, in the 1960s the US was riding an economic boom that seemed selfgenerating provided administrations just kept spending. The 1960s also saw a loosening of customary restraints, as a new generation made news by rejecting sexual furtiveness and taboos. But the liberal hope of integrating society, the African Americans and the whites and the other ethnic minorities, of lessening the gulf between rich and poor, of establishing a consensus on America’s mission to lead the free world, ended instead in bitter conflict and deep disillusionment. At the close of the period a president facing impeachment left the White House in disgrace, Richard Nixon becoming the first president to resign his office. Officers of the respected Federal Bureau of Investigation, the incorruptible ‘Untouchables’ who had broken the gangsters of the 1930s, were now revealed as having infringed, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the civil liberties of American citizens. The Central Intelligence Agency had likewise become virtually a law unto itself, and the seamy side of Washington politics caused widespread disillusionment with the whole process of government. Ten years earlier, in the South, the black protest movement of the 1960s gathered such force that it overwhelmed the efforts of Democrats, enjoying widespread support from their fellow whites, to ‘keep the niggers in their place’. The enforced segregation of the African American citizens and the humiliations to which they were daily exposed to remind them that they were ‘inferior’ racially – a system that was called apartheid in South Africa – was very much alive and well in the US in the 1960s, and not only in the South. In the nation’s capital, Washington, discrimination would prove a serious handicap to America’s claims to lead the free world in newly independent Africa and elsewhere. ‘Whites only’ signs could still be seen prominently posted in many eating places in the South. But thousands of African Americans would no longer accept this state of affairs. Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, had risen to prominence as one of the leaders of the mass protests in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950s. The black churches were the one place African Americans could gather in large numbers without being harassed by state laws used against demonstrations and African American meetings. The black people in Montgomery, inspired by King’s doctrine of non-violent militant protest and unafraid of arrest and imprisonment, achieved two things by asserting their rights. The black protest movement gained self-confidence and a sense of its own strength; it also brought black protest in the South to national attention. In a decade when the new magic of television could carry pictures of police setting their dogs on unarmed protesters and could convey the determined mood of black people and their leaders into millions of American homes, it prompted localised black protests and brought sympathy and support from all over the country. The violence perpetrated by white Southerners on unarmed civil rights supporters shocked most Americans. Seeing and not just reading about it made a considerable difference. In 1960 four young black students sat down at an ‘all-white’ luncheon counter in a Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were not served. Soon sit-ins spread everywhere. What was new was that the African Americans were taking the initiative, not just waiting on Congress, the courts or the federal government to assert and protect their rights. Black and white segregation on buses travelling from state to state was already illegal; yet even this right had to be asserted, because many laws which in theory safeguarded black people from discrimination were not being enforced. In 1961, Northern African Americans supported by whites attempted to travel through the Southern states by bus. These Freedom Riders, as they came to be called, many of them students, were set upon and brutally attacked in the South, and their buses were burnt. They were deliberately challenging the Kennedy administration to protect their rights. Robert Kennedy, the attorneygeneral, eventually provided federal protection from mob violence but not from illegal arrest. He was hoping to reach acceptable compromises in the South when the time for such compromises was long past. The efforts of the administration were concentrated on civil rights legislation, above all to prevent the debarring of black votes by intimidation and by spurious literacy requirements in the Southern states. It was held up in Congress. In August 1963 Martin Luther King and other black leaders organised a great march on Washington of 200,000 people, both black and white, warning of a ‘whirlwind of revolt’ if racial injustices were not remedied. But the Kennedy administration had drawn the sting of this protest by identifying itself with the protesters. Kennedy was undoubtedly persuaded of the moral rightness of the black cause, but, though he hated violence, he resented having the administration’s hand forced by black militancy. He felt he could not act too far ahead of Congress or of white opinion in the South. The process of education was a gradual one – too gradual for the African Americans. Kennedy’s modest civil rights proposals were still held up in Congress on the day of his death. Johnson then speedily pushed them through with the help of Robert Kennedy, who carried on as attorney-general. But violence continued against the black people and the volunteers from the north who were exercising their rights to meet and protest. In Mississippi three black and two white civil rights workers were beaten to death. The frustration of the African Americans was aroused not merely by the hostility that prevented them from exercising their voting rights but by a whole range of discriminatory practices. Unemployment among black people was three times as high as among whites; black schools were inferior to those of whites in the more prosperous suburbs. And they were not only black – they were also poor. Few African Americans had overcome their disadvantages to rise to the middle class; few possessed the necessary education to better themselves. Equal opportunity, even where it existed in federal employment, was of little use to the majority of black people without an improvement in their basic living conditions. In the slums of the big cities black people lived in overcrowded, ratinfested ghettos. Crime was rife, the people demoralised. The high-minded oratory of love and passive resistance uttered by leaders such as Martin Luther King inspired many African Americans to join in the stirring freedom-song ‘We shall overcome’. But other, more radical black leaders also won an increasing following. They did not call for brotherly love and integration with white society, a sharing of Christian values and materialist aspirations. The African Americans were gaining their national freedom and their self-respect in Africa – why not in America too? The appeal of these black leaders was to a sense of self-identification, ‘black is beautiful’, and a rejection of white values, among them the ‘capitalist system’ of oppression. In the North Malcolm X was preaching a heady mixture of protest, revolt and separate black nationhood. ‘I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream – I see an American nightmare’, he declared. Then in February 1965 he was assassinated. Elijah Muhammad led a black religious movement, turning African Americans from mainstream American religions to the Muslim faith, which had won many converts in Africa. To emphasise their separate identity his followers changed their names; the best known was the unbeaten world heavyweight boxing champion who adopted the name of Muhammad Ali. There were now many African Americans for whom passive resistance was not enough. The Black Panthers armed themselves, ready to defend black people with the gun. By the close of the 1960s, when federal laws had brought little change in the living conditions of the majority in the ghettos, the doctrine of separateness and violent protest – Black Power – had won over many new adherents. The violence that exploded in New York’s Harlem in 1964 was spontaneous rather than organised, but it spread through the ghettos from coast to coast in the next few years. The presence of white police, the symbol of white authority, could now spark a whole area of a city into an orgy of destruction. One of the worst city riots erupted in the black Watts community of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. Indeed, summer after summer, when the heat made the overcrowded ghettos least bearable, violence would break out in cities all over America. In 1967 parts of Detroit and Newark were set alight; after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968, there were riots in hundreds of towns across America. King’s funeral brought white and black leaders briefly together in a show of unity and revulsion against the racist fanaticism that endangered the lives of all prominent African Americans. But fundamental obstacles to racial reconciliation could not be suddenly removed. They exist still. Desegregation made slow progress in education and job opportunities. With successive civil rights measures and increasing federal enforcement of these laws, spectacular progress was made, however, in one area – black voting rights. A cynic might observe that the African Americans tended to vote Democrat, and it was Johnson’s Democratic administration that had taken action. Nonetheless, the hold of the racist white politicians was broken. In 1952 only one in five of the Southern African Americans had been able to register for the vote; by 1968 it was three out of five, the same proportion as white voters. Black people began to hold important city offices too. By 1977 seventy-six American cities had elected black mayors. Where the majority of African Americans failed to make substantial inroads was in health care, housing, income and economic power. The ghettos persisted. Almost three decades of protest and violence have not much changed the economic disadvantages of the majority of black people in employment, especially of teenagers. By the end of the 1970s one in three African Americans had incomes below the poverty line, and the position of black youths and black women was made worse by the higher incidence of family breakdowns as many mothers with young children became dependent on welfare. But educational opportunities have given a minority of African Americans middleclass incomes and status, perhaps as many as a third. The effect of this rise of a black middle class has been to divide black society. It has not made the ghettos less violent or better places to live in; indeed, some areas of New York City, with their burnt-down and dilapidated housing, began to look like the bombed cities of Europe in 1945. But in the mid-1960s, violence at home was mirrored by violence abroad. In 1964 the human and material costs of the war in Vietnam were still insignificant for Americans. Johnson saw no reason why the nation’s growing wealth should not be simultaneously applied to assist South Vietnam and to fund programmes at home ensuring the welfare of all of America’s citizens. In November 1964 he won the presidential election by a landslide over a right-wing Republican, Barry Goldwater. But a significant conservative backlash had developed against the Democratic notions of reform through federal-led action. These ‘radical conservatives’ wanted a return to American self-reliance, less government and a much tougher war on communism. Their time was to come with the election of Ronald Reagan two decades later. During his short first term in office Johnson had already established an outstanding record as a reformer who got things done; a tax-reduction bill and a civil rights bill had been approved by Congress. In his first State of the Union message Johnson declared ‘unconditional war’ on the greatest national blemish – the poverty and destitution amid plenty of a large segment of American society. Between 1964 and 1967 the Johnson administration spent just over $6 billion on anti-poverty programmes, food stamps, job training, small business loans and communityaction programmes to motivate the poor to help themselves. Even this proved to be too little, and federal aid did not always help the most needy. That large enough tax revenues could be generated to help all the poor and that a huge statedirected programme would work without large sums being squandered or lining the wrong pockets turned out to be illusions. The aid was not all wasted. State education and college education received extensive support and improved both in quality and in the number of students benefiting. In its provision of a welfare and medical ‘safety net’ for the poor and elderly, the US was far behind what was being provided in most West European countries. Even so, interest groups such as the American Medical Association protested against ‘socialised medicine’. In 1965 Johnson secured the passage of the Medicare legislation; financed through tax and administered by the social security system, it provides for hospital and nursing-home care for the elderly. Medicaid made federal funds available to help the needy. Unfortunately medical costs through the years soon proved an almost bottomless pit. Between 1964 and 1968 Johnson, supported by a compliant Congress, provided the leadership that passed into law these Great Society programmes, which included the federal funding of urban renewal. It is fashionable now to decry these social programmes and to label them as failures. The problems of poverty and of the lack of equal opportunities were too deep and extensive to be eradicated by Johnson’s Great Society programmes. But millions of Americans were helped, not least the elderly, and new educational opportunities have provided a ladder for social advancement. Nonetheless, the US government was only providing what was regarded as a matter of course in France and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. As entitlements to aid expanded over the next two decades in the US, the total cost threatened to make social security insolvent. In the 1980s the Reagan administration began cutting back the Great Society programmes while increasing defence expenditure, so running up the largest budget deficits of any American administration. During the early years of his presidency Johnson judged that American economic growth could fund the Great Society programmes without the need to increase taxation, which was politically unpopular. In the course of 1966 opinion polls showed that support for him had dropped from 63 to 44 per cent. Why? The reasons are not hard to find: the black riots in the cities exposing the shortcomings of the Great Society, the tribulations of an economy beset by rising inflation, the shadow of the escalating war in Vietnam, and the president’s apparent loss of interest in social reform as he grew more absorbed in his efforts to bring the war to a victorious conclusion. The ‘silent majority’ no doubt still regarded as unthinkable the possibility that the US might not win a war, but the revolt against American involvement in Vietnam began to encourage an increasingly vociferous opposition, exasperated by the hollowness of repeated claims that victory was around the corner. Meanwhile, the brutality of the war in Vietnam was vividly portrayed on millions of television screens: the attacks on poor peasants, the burning of their huts, the heartlessness of combatants. Civil rights and Vietnam protests linked up – was this a black man’s war? In 1967 Martin Luther King spoke out, ‘This madness must cease.’ How the Johnson administration came to lose direction has been chronicled in documents, such as the leaked Pentagon Papers. In September 1964, before any substantial US commitment had been made, Johnson had asked his advisers whether ‘Vietnam was worth all this effort’. His scepticism was met with the unanimous response that the loss of South Vietnam would be followed in time by the loss of all south-east Asia. Johnson’s error was his failure to question that ‘expert’ judgement; by ‘loss’ in this context was meant the communist domination not only of South Vietnam but also of Malaya, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, possibly even of the Philippines. Exactly how this could actually occur was never explained; it was just assumed. So South Vietnam became the Cold War front-line state of Asia, as West Germany was in Europe – though the analogy was a false one. The whole of south-east Asia did not turn communist and the communists in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were later to be locked in struggles among themselves with rival communist Soviet and Chinese backing. This nationalist, inter-communist rivalry was not anticipated or understood in Washington. In August 1964, in a controversial incident, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin; despite US claims, it is not certain that the destroyer did not itself provoke hostilities. Two days later there was allegedly a second attack, though there is doubt whether it occurred at all. But the significance of these incidents was the strong reaction in the US. With the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress granted Johnson the widest discretion to repel armed attack on US forces and ‘to prevent further aggression’; the president was empowered to take all ‘necessary steps, including the use of armed force’ to assist any nation covered by the SEATO treaty that asked for assistance ‘in defence of its freedom’. That blanket authorisation applied to South Vietnam. It meant the president could practically go to war in Vietnam without formally declaring war or seeking congressional support for war. At the time Congress did not anticipate the consequences of the resolution, nor was American public opinion much excited by it. Nor, indeed, did Johnson in 1964 anticipate a large-scale US war effort. The Tonkin Resolution was simply intended to give him the discretion to punish the North Vietnamese, but it was nonetheless regarded as essential to bring stability to an independent and non-communist South Vietnam in order to counter Khrushchev’s claim to have the right to support ‘wars of national liberation’. Secretary McNamara had by now enunciated the ‘domino theory’ in justification for US involvement. Yet in August 1964 Vietnam was still seen by the public as no more than a minor problem: the US would need only to flex its muscles for the communists to back down. Seven months later, in the early spring of 1965, the punishment of the North Vietnamese was stepped up as US bombing raids against military targets began. This was Operation Rolling Thunder, which was expected to bring victory without costly US losses. Airfields in South Vietnam that served as bases for these raids soon came under communist land attack. Escalation followed: in March 1965 US marines were sent to defend the US airbases; before long they came to be used not only in defence but in widerranging combat missions. A consensus was reached by Johnson’s advisers. The Vietcong could be defeated, and the North Vietnamese would be forced to negotiate once they realised they could not win. It was assumed that the pattern seen during the Korean War could be repeated and that the Vietcong without North Vietnamese backing amounted to no real threat. Robert McNamara’s ‘military option’ was approved by everyone, not least by the congressional leaders consulted. But approval was not quite universal: one man warned that, by increasing the numbers of US combat troops and the frequency of bombing raids, the US still would not achieve its aim of stabilising a noncommunist South Vietnam. The under secretary of state George Ball advised the president against military escalation. Johnson too was sceptical at first, asking if the North Vietnamese would not be able to match any American escalation. But in the end he was persuaded that America’s standing throughout the world would suffer disastrously if the US ‘abdicated leadership’ and showed irresolution. Communists would only continue their aggression. One general spoke of the need for 500,000 men and a conflict that would last five years. The president hoped that a combination of increasing military pressure on the ground and punishment from the air, provided it was coupled with peace offers, would force the North Vietnamese to call off the conflict and accept the existing division of Vietnam. The South would be saved for the free world. But President Johnson’s gut instincts made him uneasy and hesitant. The momentous decision to plan for a major war was taken in the White House in July 1965, after extensive discussion by the president and his closest advisers. There was little recognition that the South Vietnamese were fighting among themselves and that the North Vietnamese were also Vietnamese. Worst of all, by painting such a catastrophic scenario it seemed justifiable to avert it by virtually any means. From some 175,000 combat troops, American involvement by the end of 1967 had risen to 525,000. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong matched and outpaced the US build-up. The impact of this on Vietnam is described elsewhere, but victory over the communists proved as elusive as ever. General William Westmoreland, commanding US forces in South Vietnam, then called for further large reinforcements. But how much more would American public opinion take, with American casualties mounting daily? Throughout 1967 the assessment made by the military and intelligence services on the ground war was optimistic: American troops and their South Vietnamese allies were grinding down the enemy. This was the reassuring message given to the American people – with steadfast determination the war would be won. Then followed a rude awakening. During the Vietnamese Tet holidays, on 31 January 1968, the Vietcong mounted a huge offensive, penetrating several towns in an attempt to destroy the morale of the South Vietnamese and Americans, who believed that their power was confined to the countryside. In the end the communists were bloodily repulsed, but the terrible scenes of fighting shown on American television screens convinced most Americans that US soldiers should be brought home. The ability of the communists to penetrate and even to hold their positions in a number of South Vietnamese towns hitherto believed to be firmly in South Vietnamese and American hands succeeded in undermining American morale in their longest and most unsuccessful war. The president’s assurances that the Tet offensive was the most disastrous Vietcong defeat of the war were perfectly true, but they carried little conviction. Nothing was coming right. The dropping of 1.2 million tons of bombs a year had not broken the determination nor destroyed the fighting capability of the North Vietnamese. All diplomatic efforts to bring them to the conference table through a carrot-and-stick approach of alternately halting and resuming the bombing had also so far proved fruitless. The year 1967 was supposed to have brought victory. But early in 1968, after the Tet offensive, Washington was forced to the awful conclusion that the US could no longer win the war. Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the military response, had lost faith in the prospect of victory and on 1 March 1968 was replaced as secretary of defence by Clark Clifford. The president could see no alternative. The issue: should another 206,000 troops be sent to Vietnam, bringing numbers there to almost three-quarters of a million? Clifford and the president’s advisers rejected the increase. The only hope now was that a continued war of attrition would break North Vietnam’s will before American public opinion, shaken by the Tet casualties and the diminishing hopes for success, demanded withdrawal. Demonstrations against the war grew apace in 1965. The young of the more privileged and better-educated social groups of the 1960s felt a new sense of liberation, a fresh vitality demanding that they challenge the assumptions of their elders. Protests and demonstrations erupted. In April 1965, 25,000 marched to the White House. In October a National Committee to end the war in Vietnam was formed. Early in the following year the highly respected Senator J. William Fulbright began public hearings to find out whether any national interest was served by the war. The contrast with public attitudes to the defeat of Japan and Germany in the Second World War or even to the Korean War could not have been greater. America was deeply split. Johnson still enjoyed the support of the majority, but a powerful opposition was forming. The most affected were the young men called up to register for the draft with the possibility of being sent to Vietnam. Before the war ended for American servicemen in 1974, 110,000 had burnt their draftcards and 40,000 young men had evaded call-up by leaving for neighbouring Canada and for Europe. It was clear to Johnson by the spring of 1968 that the Americanisation of the war, the sending of more than half a million combat troops to Vietnam, had become insupportable. His political position at home had been severely eroded by the war. He was challenged by a ‘peace candidate’, Senator Eugene McCarthy, and also by Robert Kennedy, both seeking the Democratic nomination to run for the presidency in November that year. On 31 March 1968 Johnson announced his decision not to seek re-election; he also indicated that there would be a measure of disengagement from the war, reflecting the new consensus among his advisers, including former hawks. That same March, Johnson announced a partial bombing halt and invited the North Vietnamese to begin peace talks. The response from Hanoi early in April was surprisingly positive. But hopes of an early peace quickly faded as the almost interminable negotiations in Paris followed a tortuous path from their commencement in May 1968 to their conclusion almost five years later in January 1973. Nevertheless March 1968 marks the time when the US took the first step to disengage from Vietnam. It was left to Kissinger and Nixon to complete the process, to try somehow to save South Vietnam and bring the war to an ‘honourable’ end. The presidential election of 1968 was overshadowed by tragedy. In the run-up on 5 June, while celebrating his victory in the Californian primary, the almost certain Democratic contender Robert Kennedy was assassinated in full view of the television cameras. Personalities do matter in history. With Eugene McCarthy now eliminated, the choice for Democratic candidate fell on an old liberal, the vice-president Hubert Humphrey, whose association with Johnson’s Vietnam policies had discredited him among many liberal supporters. In Chicago there were large demonstrations against his candidature, brutally dispersed by police. All this boded ill for Democratic prospects in November. The durable Republican candidate Richard Nixon won by a large majority of states; though the popular vote was only narrowly in his favour, 31.7 million to 31.2 million. What if Robert Kennedy had been the candidate instead? Nixon might well have lost to a Democratic candidate with the glamour of the Kennedy name. The 1970s proved for many Americans a troubled decade at home and a humiliating decade in the wider world. Johnson’s dream of a new society and American leadership of the free world had been damaged by the experience of the Vietnam War, which overshadowed the administration’s achievements. What had led the American people and their leaders into an enterprise that turned out to be tragic for both Indo-China and the US? First and foremost it was ignorance, a failure to understand the true nature of the conflict in Vietnam, reducing it to the simple formula that it was part of the worldwide struggle between the free and the communists. But it was not a war arising simply out of communist aggression from North Vietnam. The Vietcong were a South Vietnamese force, the expression of a political opposition and disaffection with the rulers of South Vietnam. It was this misreading of the situation that underlay the US decision to intervene on a massive scale. The belief that superior technology, the bombardment from the air, could break the will and capacity to fight of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong caused heavy loss of life and terrible destruction, but in the end was ineffective. Nor could the ground forces defeat an enemy prepared to answer escalation with escalation. The military experts were wrong in their optimistic assessments, and once President Johnson had engaged American prestige he found it impossible to pull out and to admit defeat. But meanwhile the war had been Americanised and, after Tet, the propping up of an unviable South Vietnamese government became increasingly problematical. The US had been sucked into a civil war and faced a determined and ruthless enemy. Attrition in the end broke the American will to continue fighting in a distant country and for a cause that was lost.

 

 

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