Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November 2, 1967 – Wise Men Recommend Focusing on the Tunnel, Not the Light

War in French Indochina, later Vietnam, had been raging for almost twenty years. It had begun as campaigns against colonial domination and developed into a movement supporting the growth of Communism. Determined to check the Domino Theory, the US first began to send military advisers in 1950 and surged US troops into involvement under the Kennedy Administration. With war still sitting at a stalemate in Korea, Washington approved only of the idea of a “limited war” rather than a bloody northward invasion like the one pushed by MacArthur ten years before.

As the years dragged on, more and more American soldiers came home under their flag, and the public began to question why troops were there in the first place, President Lyndon Johnson sought help in solving the war weariness. He called a meeting of “The Wise Men”, a group of political and business leaders who had formed under Truman’s administration to dictate American foreign policy. Theirs had been the plan of containment and anti-communism that had guided the early days of the Cold War. Originally powerful bankers, lawyers, and diplomats, the men considered themselves statesmen needed to advise elected officials.

LBJ called a conference on the first of November in which the Wise Men were briefed about the situation at hand. The notables included General Omar Bradley, General Maxwell Taylor, Justice Abe Fortas, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., among many others. There was progress being made in Vietnam, but the battlefield casualties wore away at American public support. The Wise Men agreed that simple departure from Vietnam was unacceptable and the influence of communism needed to be held back. While some suggested a positive PR campaign, after much discussion and a brandy or two, they decided that a more aggressive method than simple reassurance was necessary.

The men dusted off old recommendations from the days of Wilson’s war effort. While propaganda machines had changed over the last fifty years, many of the ideas still stood. LBJ and the War Department began to lead calls of an end to the attacks from North Vietnam, echoing speeches of the Minute Men of the 1910s denouncing the Kaiser. Rather than focusing on numbers, stories of war heroes were brought to the forefront of war news. The public reacted in a dower opinion, still skeptical of the war but not that American troops should be there.

When the Tet Offensive began January 31, 1968, LBJ became vindicated. The press carried stories of the overwhelming atrocities in the sudden Viet Cong attacks. Battles raged for two months, and the American public threw their support behind the troops with marches and calls for reinforcements. The second and third waves of attack began that summer, and the Americans regrouped, taking back much of the gained territory. While a tactical success initially, the Tet Offensive would prove a strategic loss, and the VC found themselves nearly devoid of supplies.

At the time of election, the American public seemed torn whether to turn toward the Republicans calling for an end to the war or the Democrats with their strategy of counterstrike to defend foreign allies. The polls came in very close with Hubert Humphrey narrowly defeating former Vice-President Richard Nixon. Within months of Humphrey taking office, the proposal for ceasefire would be announced, and a demilitarized zone along the 14th Parallel would be drawn separating the two countries akin to that in Korea.

South Vietnam would match its predecessor South Korea as a bastion of capitalism and industry. Under the Humphrey administration, a great deal of economic influence would flow to Vietnam, and its cheap factories would prove to outpace Japanese production of inexpensive goods in the 1990s. The tag “Made in Vietnam” is seemingly ubiquitous among high tech electronics today.




In reality, the Wise Men recommended a PR campaign focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel of the Vietnam War. Announcements were focused on positive figures and optimism, showing that the war would soon be over. When the Tet Offensive showed a renewed push of Viet Cong aggression, the American public turned on LBJ, and all hope for the war seemed lost. As Nixon came to the White House, American troop withdrawal began, and Vietnam would fall to communism in 1975.

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