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Vietnam Redux: All Power to Lying Politicians


Americans are once again dying overseas because politicians have dragged the nation into an unnecessary war. Once the U.S. military invaded Iraq, Bushs approval ratings shot up through the roof. As American blood was flowing, most Americans approved of Bushs conduct.

And yet it is precisely when a politicians approval is highest when his power is greatest that the greatest dangers arise, not only for American soldiers but for American freedoms.

The Vietnam War vivifies the danger that is created by politicians power over Americans. Conscription effectively gave politicians unlimited power over the lives of millions of young American males. Had it not been for the military draft and perennial government lies Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress could not have squandered the lives of scores of thousands of Americans in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.

In 1964, Johnson campaigned for reelection by warning that if his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was elected, the United States would end up in a major war in South Vietnam. Johnson won and then promptly sent half a million troops to fight in Vietnam.

Some American politicians had what many considered a laudable intention at the start of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam seeking to prevent the people of South Vietnam from falling under communist tyranny. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara described Vietnam as a social scientists war. In his 1995 book, which largely exculpated himself for responsibility for the disaster in Vietnam, he announced,

Underlying many of these errors [in how the United States conducted the war] lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues … associated with the application of military force under substantial constraints over a long period of time.

But as Army major and Gulf War veteran H.R. McMaster, author of the superb 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, argued with respect to the failed war strategy,

This was not due just to overconfidence, not due just to arrogance, this was due to deliberate deception of the American public and Congress based on the presidents short-term political goals.

McNamara, in a 1995 interview, justified not being honest with either Congress or the American people regarding the winnability of the war:

I was a servant of our president. He appointed me; he was elected by the people. My obligation to our people was to do what their elected representative wanted.

That is a theory of elective dictatorship which is perhaps music to the ears of the Bush administration.

McNamara also insisted that citizens must obey:

Where youre asked to follow instructions by an elected representative of your government, follow them…. I believe that we all have an obligation to serve our government or take the penalty, take a jail sentence, if we violate the law.

Apparently, no amount of government lying can reduce the citizens obligation to follow government orders.

And yet, just as only one member of Congress had a son fighting in the Iraqi war and just as most of the top defense civilian advisors of the Bush administration personally avoided military service in the Vietnam era, McNamaras pious proclamations about the duty to fight did not include his own son. In a MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour interview in 1995, he explained why his son did not go to the war:

Because of the stress and the trauma, the family, he had ulcers, was treated for ulcers at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and, therefore, he was classified 4-F.

His son was initially classified as 1-A, which was prime cannon fodder. But the ulcers kept him out of the army.
Lying us into war

McMaster highlights how Johnson and McNamara conspired to take the nation to war. He observes,

Vietnam was not forced on the U.S. by a tidal wave of Cold War ideology. It slunk in on cats feet. Recently released tapes and documents prove the war in Vietnam was not inevitable. Indeed, it was made possible only by a web of lies and deceptions.

In the opening weeks of George W. Bushs war against Iraq, his administration was ripped by disputes and accusations that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld refused to approve the number of troops that military experts told him were necessary to conquer Baghdad. The same charades helped dig the graves of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

McMaster noted,

McNamara, based on minutes of a congressional meeting, understated by half the 100,000 troops that Gen. William Westmoreland had requested by the end of 1965 and, although he believed mobilization essential, argued that calling up the reserves was unnecessary.

It was politically cheaper to send tens of thousands of young people to die in vain than to risk being called soft on communism.

Richard Nixon shares the guilt of prolonging an unwinnable war for his own political profit. According to a December 21, 1970, entry in the diary of Nixon White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman,

K [Henry Kissinger, Nixons national security advisor] came in and the discussion covered some of the general thinking about Vietnam and the [presidents] big peace plan for next year, which K later told me he does not favor. He thinks that any pullout next year would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the 72 elections. He favors instead a continued winding down and then a pullout right at the fall of 72 so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.

When Haldemans diary was posthumously published in 1996, Kissinger hotly denied making such comments. The peace treaty was signed in early 1973; South Vietnam was conquered two years later when the North Vietnamese government ignored the treaty and sent its army directly into Saigon.

Politicians frittered away the lives of American pilots in order to make political statements to the North Vietnamese government and the American people. As retired Air Force colonel and Vietnam veteran Samuel Dickens bitterly complained,

[McNamara] would not let our forces bomb North Vietnamese airfields for fear we would kill Soviet or Chinese advisers. Enemy aircraft could only be attacked once airborne. We were prohibited from bombing fuel storage tanks at Haiphong for fear of damaging Soviet ships in the harbor…. Surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) could not be destroyed in transit … and were not targeted for destruction until they were mounted on their launching rails, this for fear we would kill Soviet or Chinese advisers accompanying the shipments.

This is an example of how political slavery differs from economic slavery: few private slaveowners would have cast off their prized possessions in the same cavalier way that some politicians disposed of the lives of citizens.

After the publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971, Americans realized that politicians had been lying to them for years about the Vietnam conflict. But not a single American politician or political appointee was ever held personally liable for his lies. The American families who lost a son, a husband, a father had no recourse. Instead, they could only watch as politicians exploited the fevers the war created in the American public.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.