So I'm not going to say that about our current entanglement in Afghanistan. But I am going to say that, having survived the the Vietnam years, by dumb-luck, I carry a crystal-clear memory of the period.
So, as Congress tries to figure out whether to authorize an expansion of the Afghan war, or order a disengagement, it's the perfect time to review the statements and reasoning that not only kept us in Vietnam, but steadily expanded our involvement in that domestic, civil war. The administration and Congress are going to have to decide the same issues, whether "stay the course" or "cut and run." Those in favor of staying the course will claim, as Vietnam hawks did at the time, that if we cut and run the enemy -- (fundamentalist Islamic terrrorists today, communists during Vietnam) -- will see it a victory and proceed to "destablize the entire region,"and then use the region as a base to "attack Western interests." (During the Vietnam era that was called "the domino theory.")
So, that's the kind of reasoning and government claims that kept us in Vietnam for over a decade and got nearly 60,000 of my generation killed. In the end we left, the Commies took over, and since Vietnam became one of Asias booming economies and one of our favorite and most profitable trading partners.
Anyway, enough of that. I only raise this issue because (silly me) I believe history matters and offers lessons. And, when it comes to government pronouncements of "progress" and "spreading democracy," and claims of "their first free elections," it's good to remember that we heard all that before. And now, we're hearing it again. There were, for a timely example, just such "free elections" in Afghanistan last month -- or so they tell us. And they sound an awful lot like the "free election" held in Vietnam in1967, at least for us with memories.
So, your illumination and entertainment, here's a little trip down that bloody Memory Lane, via the words of those making the decisions back then. For example, does this fella sound familar?
"The country's first, and debatably only, free Presidential elections were held in 1967. The military government council, which Ky chaired, intended to only endorse one candidate for the presidency. Ky was well-known for his flamboyant and colorful personality and dress. His trademark fashion accessory was a purple scarf .."
We have another "freely elected"colorful dresser incharge in Afghanistan now.
Which is why I stopped at 1969. Because the period, 1961-1969, bears more than a passing similarity to where we are in Afghanistan today: it's "fish or cut-bait" time for our Afghan policy:
Excerpts and Links of US State Department Cables and Misc. Memo's 1961-1969
1961 -- 16 US Soldiers Killed
President Kennedy's Address to American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 20, 1961
"We dare not fail to see the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle. We dare not fail to grasp the new concepts, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we will need to combat it-whether in Cuba or South Viet-Nam. And we dare not fail to realize that this struggle is taking place every day, without fanfare, in thousands of villages and markets--day and night--and in classrooms all over the globe.
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President Kennedy's Address, in Chicago to Democratic Party Dinner, April 28, 1961
"Tonight, in Vietnam, where the President was re-elected recently in the last 2 weeks by a majority of 75 to 80 percent, yet a small army of guerrillas, organized and sustained by the Communist Viet Minh in the north, control most of the countryside in the nighttime--in the last 12 months have assassinated over four thousand civil officers, two thousand state employees and two thousand police, believing if they can 'spill the wine,' that then they can win control of the population. And when they have won, they do not intend to give way. Now our great responsibility is to be the chief defender of freedom, in this time of maximum danger. Only the United States has the power and the resources and the determination. We have committed ourselves to the defense of dozens of countries stretched around the globe who look to us for independence, who look to us for the defense of their freedom.
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President Kennedy's News Conference, October 11, 1961
Q: "Mr. President, in reference to your decision to send General Taylor to Vietnam, there may be some interpretation of that decision as implying confirmation of reports that you intend to send American forces to Vietnam or Thailand or Laos. Can you give us your appraisal of the conditions under which you might find it necessary to send troops?"
THE PRESIDENT: "We are going to wait until General Taylor comes back and brings an up-to-date description of the situation, particularly in Vietnam. As you know, in the last two or three months there has been a large increase in the number of the forces that have been involved. There has been evidence that some of these forces have come from beyond the frontiers. General Taylor will give me and the Joint Chiefs of Staff an educated military guess as to what the situation is that the government there faces. Then we can come to conclusions as to what is the best thing to do."
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1962 -- 56 US Soldiers Killed
April 4, 1962
MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT
The following considerations influence our thinking on Viet-Nam:
1. We have a growing military commitment. This could expand step by step into a major, long-drawn out indecisive military involvement.
2. We are backing a weak and, on the record, ineffectual government and a leader who as a politician may be beyond the point of no return.
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National Security Action Memorandum No. 131, "Training Objective for Counter-Insurgency," McGeorge Bundy, 13 March 1962
Developments during the last year or two also show some promise of resolving the political weaknesses, particularly that of insecurity in the countryside, upon which the insurgency has fed. However, the government's capacity to embark upon the broader measures required to translate military success into lasting political stability is questionable.
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President Kennedy's News Conference, June 14, 1962
"Now we have moved to a different plateau, and we are going to see whether that commitment can be maintained. But on the other hand, I am sure and I know Senator Mansfield would not think we should withdraw, because withdrawal in the case of Vietnam and in the case of Thailand might mean a collapse of the entire area."
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1963 -- 116 US Soldiers Killed
President Kennedy's News Conference, March 6, 1963
Q: "Mr. President, the Mansfield committee, sent at your suggestion to the Far East and Europe, has recommended a thorough security reassessment in the Far East and a clamp down, if not a reduction in our aid to that part of the world. Would you have any comment on this, sir?"
THE PRESIDENT: "I don't see how we are going to be able, unless we are going to pull out of Southeast Asia and turn it over to the Communists, how we are going to be able to reduce very much our economic programs and military programs in South Viet-Nam, in Cambodia, in Thailand. I think that unless you want to withdraw from the field and decide that it is in the national interest to permit that area to collapse, I would think that it would be impossible to substantially change it particularly, as we are in a very intensive struggle in those areas.
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July 5, 1963 - Memo- George Ball, Nolting, Chalmers Wood, George Springstein
Nolting opened with review of the Buddhists situation which he characterizes as serious. He regretted that Diem had not taken it in hand earlier but emphasized that Diem had given his word that the agreement would be carried out. It was Nolting's experience that when Diem gave his word, he followed through although sometimes it was handled in his own way...As to the role of the Catholics in the government, Ambassador Nolting did not believe that Diem gave them preference. Unfortunately, many persons in the government felt that it would help their careers if they became Catholic. It was true that the government had been unwise in the ostentatious manner in which it supported and encouraged the publicizing of Catholic ceremonies, however. In general, Vietnam had been a country in which there was a great degree of religious tolerance. Now the situation seemed out of hand. It was deplorable because we had been winning....
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Any attempt to remove Diem will almost certainly be directed against Nhu as well, but should Nhu survive Diem, we are virtually certain that he would attempt to gain power--in the first instance probably by manipulating the constitutional machinery. We do not believe that Nhu's bid would succeed, despite the personal political base he has sought to build through the Republican Youth (of which he is the overt, uniformed head), the strategic hamlet program (whose directing Interministerial Committee he chairs), and in the army. He and his wife have become too much the living symbols of all that is disliked in the present regime for Nhu's personal political power to long outlive his brother. There might be a struggle with no little violence, but enough of the army would almost certainly move to take charge of the situation, either rallying behind the constitutional successor to install Vice President Tho or backing another non-Communist civil leader or a military junta.
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President Kennedy's News Conference, July 17, 1963
(THE PRESIDENT) In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there. We hope with the great effort which is being carried by the Vietnamese themselves, and they have been in this field a lot longer than we have, and with a good deal more deaths and casualties, that behind this military shield put up by the Vietnamese people they can reach an agreement on the civil disturbances and also in respect for the rights of others. That's our hope. That's our effort. That--we're bringing our influence to bear. And the decision is finally theirs, but I think that before we render too harsh a judgment on the people, we should realize that they are going through a harder time than we have had to go through."
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President Kennedy's TV Interview with Walter Cronkite, September 25, 1963
Mr. Cronkite: "Hasn't every indication from Saigon been that President Diem has no intention of changing his pattern?"
President Kennedy: "If he does not change it, of course, that is his decision. He has been there 10 years, and, as I say, he has carried this burden when he has been counted out on a number of occasions.
"Our best judgment is that he can't be successful on this basis. We hope that he comes to see that; but in the final analysis it is the people and the Government itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear. But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don't like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.
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Cablegram from Mr. Richardson to Mr. McCone, Aug. 28, 1963.
Situation here has reached point of no return. Saigon is armed camp.
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Cablegram from Ambassador Lodge to Secretary Rusk, Aug. 29, 1963.
We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back:
the overthrow of the Diem government. There is no turning back in part because U.S. prestige is already publicly committed to this end in large measure and will become more so as the facts leak out.
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STATE 458, 22 September 1963
EYES ONLY FOR AMBASSADOR LODGE FROM BALL
Understand desire for guidance expressed your 577. Pending further review of situation by President which will follow your consultation with McNamara and Taylor we wish to give you following interim guidance:
1.The United States intends to continue its efforts to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle against the Viet Cong.
2. Recent events have put in question the possibility of success in these efforts unless there can be important improvements in the government of South Vietnam.
3. It is the policy of the United States to bring about such improvements. Further specific guidance on your meeting with Diem being developed here and will be subject further consultation with you. In any event the President believes object of this meeting should be to increase your authority and leverage with Diem government. In meantime CAP 63516 still represents Washington's current thinking on specifics. A possible Presidential letter to Diem is in preparation and will be forwarded for your comments before a decision on delivery.
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Memorandum for the President, "Report of McNamara-Taylor Mission to South Vietnam," 2 October 1963
1. The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress.
2. There are serious political tensions in Saigon (and perhaps elsewhere in South Vietnam) where the Diem-Nhu government is becoming increasingly unpopular.
3. There is no solid evidence of the possibility of a successful coup, although assassination of Diem or Nhu is always a possibility.
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President Kennedy's NBC Interview, September 9, 1963
Mr. Huntley: "Mr. President, in respect to our difficulties in South Viet-Nam, could it be that our Government tends occasionally to get locked into a policy or an attitude and then finds it difficult to alter or shift that policy?"
THE PRESIDENT: "Yes, that is true. I think in the case of South VietNam we have been dealing with a Government which is in control, has been in control for 10 years. In addition, we have felt for the last 2 years that the struggle against the Communists was going better. Since June, however--the difficulties with the Buddhists--we have been concerned about a deterioration, particularly in the Saigon area, which hasn't been felt greatly in the outlying areas but may spread. So we are faced with the problem of wanting to protect the area against the Communists. On the other hand, we have to deal with the Government there. That produces a kind of ambivalence in our efforts which exposes us to some criticism. We are using our influence to persuade the Government o there to take those steps which will win back support. That takes some time, and we must be patient, we must persist."
Mr. Huntley: "Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Viet-Nam now?"
THE PRESIDENT: "I don't think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost--a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don't want that."
Mr. Brinkley: "Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called 'domino theory,' that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?"
THE PRESIDENT: "No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it."
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President Kennedy's News Conference, September 12, 1963
Q. "Mr. President, in view of the prevailing confusion, is it possible to state today just what this Government's policy is toward the current government of South Viet-Nam?
THE PRESIDENT: "I think I have stated what my view is and we are for those things and those policies which help win the war there. That is why some 25,000 Americans have traveled 10,000 miles to participate in that struggle. What helps to win the war, we support; what interferes with the war effort, we oppose. I have already made it clear that any action by either government which may handicap the winning of the war is inconsistent with our policy or our objectives. This is the test which I think every agency and official of the United States Government must apply to all of our actions, and we shall be applying that test in various ways in the coming months, although I do not think it desirable to state all of our views at this time. I think they will be made more clear as time goes on.
"But we have a very simple policy in that area, I think. In some ways I think the Vietnamese people and ourselves agree; we want the war to be won, the Communists to be contained, and the Americans to go home. That is our policy. I am sure it is the policy of the people of Viet-Nam. But we are not there to see a war lost, and we will follow the policy which I have indicated today of advancing those causes and issues which help win the war."
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November 2, 1963 -- Ngo Dinh Diem Assassinated
The arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, then president of South Vietnam, marked the culmination of a successful CIA-backed coup d'etat. The coup was the culmination of nine years of autocratic and nepotistic family rule in South Vietnam. Discontent with the Diem regime had been simmering below the surface, and exploded with mass Buddhist protests against long-standing religious discrimination after the government shooting of protesters who defied a ban on the flying of the Buddhist flag. ( Upon learning of Diem's ouster and death, Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said, "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid." )
1964-1966 -- 8212 US Soldiers Killed
After Diem's assassination, South Vietnam was unable to establish a stable government and numerous coups took place during the first several years after his death. While the U.S. continued to influence South Vietnam's government, the assassination bolstered North Vietnamese attempts to characterize the South Vietnamese as supporters of colonialism
1967 -- 11,153 US Soldiers Killed
August 30, 1967 Ambassador Bunker to State.
While it must be admitted that political stability here is by no means achieved and the past months have been a perilous journey, I believe that channeling the political opposition into legal and non-violent avenues has contributed heavily to the degree of stability which has existed. It has also begun a move toward more real and permanent political stability. This move now has some momentum behind it, and we have the hope that it will continue to gain momentum.
The country's first, and debatably only, free Presidential elections were held in 1967. The military government council, which Ky chaired, intended to only endorse one candidate for the presidency. Ky was well-known for his flamboyant and colorful personality and dress. His trademark fashion accessory was a purple scarf and he was rarely seen without a cigarette. (After the defeat of South Vietnam by North Vietnam in 1975, Ky fled to the United States, and settled in California.) http://www.vietnamwar.net/Ky.htm
Intelligence Note 720
September 6, on September 1 the NLF announced a pledge to hold free elections and create a democratically-oriented Constitution as a means of establishing a "national union democratic government."
1968 -- 16,592 US Soldiers Killed
Cablegram 2972 from Saigon, August 12, 1968 Bunker reiterated this theme of "unfair" press criticism of the GVN.
Last year, to put the best face on the Constituent Assembly referendum, I formed a White House task group with Bill Moyers in the chair. My constant refrain was to emphasize one sensible theme about that referendum and to urge keying all of our press handling to it. We picked my theme that the size of the vote would be the best single indicator of success. We deliberately played down our own expectation of at least a 70 per cent turnout of registered voters (we even exceeded that). Instead, we opined that even a 50 per cent turnout would be regarded by us as a major demonstration of growing popular interest in the political process, and a defeat for the VC (who of course were attempting to disrupt the election). As it turned out, most of the press play was on the impressively large turnout. The result was a big plus.
And the band played on. Finally tally, over 58,000 American soldiers and untold numbers of Vietnamese, killed.