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The South and Northern Finance Imperialism

One of the outcomes of the devastation and destruction was a need for Southern men to find employment and rebuild their impoverished section, and this most often meant working under the direction of the conqueror. Though Lee refused “to accept a sinecure from a Northern business concern,” many former Confederate officers became the agents or attorneys of the invading capitalists and “took action that had all the earmarks of scalawagism”, in the words of the author below.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The South and Northern Finance Imperialism

“One of the prices the South pays for its progressive industrialization is increasing servitude to Northern capital. New York has grown into the most autocratic city-state of modern times, with the Southern province of the United States as one of its important colonies.

The great financial houses of that and kindred cities control most of the region’s strategic industries, having sent out a second and third generation of carpetbaggers to found factories or to purchase those already existing. The Southern industries owned and controlled by outsiders include the region’s railroads, its coal fields, its iron reserves, its electric power, and its gas, Sulphur, and oil sources.

The existence of Northern patent monopolies and the absence of local machine manufacturing permit outside direction even of industries locally owned. The South manufactures its own cast-iron pipes, steel rails and bridges, and oils, but not its hardware, locomotives, automobiles, clocks, radios, dynamos, drugs, and many other finished products requiring the highest skill to produce and bringing in the highest profits.

Retail profits are siphoned out of the section by Northern-owned chain stores. The Southern businessman usually is a mere factor or agent of Northern principals, who control both production and distribution. His function is to sell [Northern articles] endeared to the Southern public through advertising. Some of these articles are as worthless as the wooden nutmegs the Yankee peddler is said to have imposed upon the public in ante-bellum times.

In 1937, economist David Coyle estimated that the South was paying out a billion dollars annually in excess of its income. It balanced its credit by selling property to investors from other sections of the country, by borrowing, by going bankrupt, and by destroying forests and lands to secure immediate incomes.

The possibility of the South revolting against its debtor status, in the manner of the Revolutionary planters against their British creditors, is ruled out by the outcome of the Civil War. That Southern leaders are able to reconcile the sons and grandsons of those who followed Robert E. Lee and William Jennings Bryan to the economic domination of the North caused Benjamin Kendrick to cry out bitterly in 1942:

“We are confronted by a paradox more amazing and ironical than any ever conjured by the imagination of Gilbert and Sullivan. The people of the South, who all their lives have suffered deprivation, want, and humiliation from an outside finance imperialism, followed with hardly a murmur of protest, leaders who, if indirectly, were nonetheless agents and attorneys of the imperialists.” What was true in 1942 is truer thirty years later.”

(The Everlasting South, Francis Butler Simkins, LSU Press, 1963, excerpt pp. 55-57)

Sherman’s Legacy in Korea

Though MacArthur recognized that American use of chemical weapons against Chinese and North Korean forces would open the door to retaliation, it was “requested [that] sufficient quantities to be shipped immediately in the event use of gas is approved [by Washington].” The destruction of huge irrigation dams in northern Korea was considered “barbaric” as it not only destroyed rice to starve the population, but also drowned countless thousands of old men, women and children.  The Truman administration censored reporters to keep civilian deaths and atrocities from the American public, as did Lincoln in his day.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Sherman’s Legacy in Korea

“The United States came closest to using atomic weapons in early April 1951, precisely the time that Truman removed McArthur. It is now clear that Truman removed MacArthur not simply because of his repeated insubordination, but because he wanted a reliable commander on the scene if Washington decided to use nuclear weapons: that is, Truman traded McArthur for his atomic policies.

Perhaps the most daunting and terrible project, however, was Operation Hudson Harbor. It appears to have been part of a larger project involving “overt exploitation in Korea by the Department of Defense and covert exploitation by the Central Intelligence Agency of the possible use of novel weapons.”

The project sought to establish the capability of the use of atomic weapons on the battlefield, and in pursuit of this goal lone B-29 bombers were lifted from Okinawa in September and October 1951 and sent over North Korea on simulated atomic bombing runs . . .

The record also shows that massive use of chemical weapons against Sino-North Korean forces was considered. In penciled diary notes written on December 16, [General Matthew] Ridgeway referred cryptically to a subcommittee on “clandestine introduction [of] wea[pon]s of mass destruction and unconventional warfare.

[The] air war nonetheless leveled North Korea and killed millions before the war ended. From early November 1950 on, MacArthur ordered that a wasteland be created between the front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every “installation, factory, city, and village” over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory.

On November 8, seventy B-29’s dropped 550 tons of incendiary bombs on Sinuiju, “removing [it] from . . . the map”; a week later Hoeryong was hit with napalm “to burn out the place” . . . this was all before the major Sino-North Korean offensive.

A bit later George Barrett of the New York Times found a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war” in a village north of Anyang:

“The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they held when the napalm struck – a man about to get on his bicycle, fifty boys and girls playing in an orphanage . . .”

[Secretary of State Dean] Acheson wanted censorship authorities notified about this kind of “sensationalized reporting,” so it could be stopped.

By 1952 just about everything in northern and central Korea was completely leveled. What was left of the population survived in caves, the North Koreans created an entire life underground, in complexes of dwellings, schools, hospitals and factories . . . [and such attacks only stiffened enemy resistance].

The Americans did go right ahead and in the final act of this barbaric war hit huge irrigation dams that provided water for 75 percent of the North’s food production. “The subsequent flash flood scooped clean 27 miles of the valley below , and he plunging flood waters wiped out [supply routes, etc.] . . . The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian – starvation and slow death.”

(Korea’s Place in the Sun, a Modern History, Bruce Cumings, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, excerpts, pp. 291-295)

Ministering Angels Arrive in the Philippines

The Treaty of Paris submitted to the Senate for ratification in 1899 passed with barely the two-thirds majority required, though the prospect of commercial exploitation in Asia carried the day for Republicans. President William McKinley told Congress in his message asking for ratification that turning the Philippines over to our commercial rivals “would be bad business.” Senator Hoar of Massachusetts had forgotten his region’s treatment of the Pequot tribe who were sold into slavery and his State’s part in subjugating Southern States in the 1860s. The brutal methods used to subdue Filipino’s resisting occupation were familiar to the American South, which remembered Sherman’s visit.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Ministering Angels Arrive in the Philippines

“The Treaty of Paris gave the United States sovereignty over the Philippines, but it could not come into force until the Senate ratified it. Opponents denounced the treaty as an imperialist grab of distant land and shamed American ideals and overextended American power.

Senator George Frisbee Hoar of Massachusetts warned that it would turn the United States into “a vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical force, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and the other classes must forever obey.”

Supporters countered with three arguments: that it would be ludicrous to recognize Filipino independence since there was no such thing as a Filipino nation; that it was America’s duty to civilize the backward Filipinos; and that possession of the archipelago would bring incalculable commercial and strategic advantages.

As this debate was reaching its climax, in what the New York World called “an amazing coincidence,” news came that Filipino insurgents had attacked American positions in Manila. It later turned out that there had indeed been a skirmish but that an American private had fired the first shot. That was not clear at the time, however, and probably would not have mattered anyway.

Several senators declared that they now felt obligated to vote for the treaty as a sign of support for beleaguered soldiers on the other side of the globe. “We come as ministering angels, not as despots,” Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota assured his colleagues.

In September, 1901, a band of Rebels . . . fiercely set upon [American soldiers at Balangiga], stabbing and hacking them to death. Of the seventy-four men who had been posted in Balangiga, only twenty survived, most with multiple stab wounds. News of the “Balangiga Massacre” was quickly flashed back to the United States [and it] stunned a nation that was only beginning to realize what kind of war was being fought in the Philippines.

American commanders on the islands . . . ordered Colonel Jacob Smith, who had participated in the Wounded Knee massacre in the Dakota Territory a decade before, to proceed to Samar and do whatever was necessary to subdue the rebels. Smith arrived . . . and ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of ten and turn the island’s interior into “a howling wilderness.”

“I want no prisoners,” he told them. “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better it will please me.”

(Overthrow, America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Stephen Kinzer, Times Books, 2006, excerpts pp. 49-53)

Victories, Occupations and Annexations

The political conservatism of the American South was an enduring threat to the new, sectional, Republican Party of the North. Lincoln’s ruling party quickly convinced several States to desire no further political union with them – and more withdrew voluntarily after he lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. Under cover of war and with powers unimagined by the Founders, Lincoln replaced the Union with a consolidated group of Northern States under a centralized, dictatorial government. The defeated South was annexed and ruled from Washington.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Victories, Occupations and Annexations

“Victory over an enemy can take many forms. At the lowest level, the repulse of an invader – by force of arms or by bribes – is a victory. But, if the enemy is an enduring threat, something more than a mere defeat in the field might be required.

Some enemies have to be thrashed so vigorously they will forego aggression for at least a generation. For tougher customers – or more attractive targets – nothing less than occupation and annexation will do. Taking a page out of Roman history, it is easy to see why the Romans decided to finish off Carthage and why they annexed the Macedonian kingdoms.

In her wars, the United States has a mixed record. It is easy to justify our entrance into World War II as a necessity: No matter how culpable FDR might have been, we were, after all, attacked. In Korea we were trying to contain the spread of an enemy ideology.

The Mexican War is more complex: Both sides were provocative, and Mexico’s corrupt political system made the American land grab almost inevitable. The acquisition of so much territory, whether as the fruits of victory or the big steal, was an unquestionable advantage to the American people.

Other wars are murkier. We had no business in the Philippines, where we slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians and gained little advantage. The Vietnam War, if we had fought to win, might have been a success, but we had no taken the trouble to define victory. [Instead of] pounding North Vietnam into submission, we allowed Robert McNamara to play war games that cost us the lives of 58,000 men and damaged our prestige for over a decade.

The only lesson Donald Rumsfeld learned from Vietnam was that McNamara had been insufficiently ruthless. Rumsfeld’s obsession with military technology and his consequent neglect of the house to house fighting in Iraq doomed our campaign to failure.

The last time we had a president from Texas, he lost a war and spent the nation close to bankruptcy, but Lyndon Baines Johnson was a frugal pacifist compared with his spiritual descendant, Lyndon Baines Bush, thanks to whom Americans can look forward to another decade of national humiliation and diminishing economic expectations.”

(If Pigs Could Fly, Thomas Fleming, Chronicles, A Magazine of American Culture, March 2007, excerpts pp. 11-12)

 

Establishing Modern, Free Government in Korea

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for brokering the peace treaty between Japan and Russia. Like many progressive Americans, TR saw modernizing Japan as a role model for what was viewed a backward Korea, and Japan was given a free hand in colonizing its neighbor, a trade-off as the United States had colonized the Philippines. In 1904, future South Korean president Syngman Rhee was in the United States where he remained until returning to Korea in 1945, hailed by the US as a “resistance hero,” and installed as proconsul. He infuriated Koreans in his new role by relying upon Korean collaborators with the Japanese and using similar repressive policies as the previous occupiers. Despite US support for his roundly corrupt regime, he was deposed in 1961 and exiled to Hawaii.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Establishing Modern, Free Government in Korea

“Syngman Rhee, returning from the United States a resistance hero, was elected president of the First Republic and in 1948, following three-year tutelage under the US military government on the finer points of democratic governance, formed the first modern government in Korea by Koreans.

[With his American-manufactured] heroic status as the “father of the nation,” Rhee was actually a politician without a political ideology and a governor without a governing program. Hence, whenever he encountered opposition to his policies he was habitually inclined to rely on physical violence and political manipulation rather than persuasion or competition on ideological grounds . . . the Rhee administration from start to finish a one-man regime with enormous power concentrated in his hands alone.

He carried on with politics surrounded by those who were personally loyal to him rather than those chosen for objective qualifications. Elevate by his sycophants to a virtual deity, Rhee was essentially isolated from the ongoing affairs of his subordinates. Charitably, “at best he was a traditional “monarch.”

Under Rhee, Korea remained a repressive society, aided by a 300,000-man police apparatus. Corruption and incompetence characterized the regime’s national bureaucracy [and] the police force was at the center of continuing social and political oppression. Elections during his regime continued to be scandalized with rigging, violence and bribery – the final one of which resulted in the 1960 student uprising that toppled his government.

The press was harassed and often closed down for anti-Rhee tendencies. A few of his political opponents were assassinated or executed, or died rather inexplicably.

Rhee’s ability to stay in power rested to some extent on his effective control of the military . . . [and] the military served Rhee well as a source of electoral votes and political funds. High-ranking officers were pressured into “delivering” their units to Rhee and his Liberal party. Since the military was spending roughly $400 million in aid from the United States, Rhee’s political machine relied heavily on the loyalty of the military to shore up his sagging political fortunes.

In its determination to win [reelection] at any cost [in 1960], however, the Liberal party supporting Rhee . . . apparently went overboard. Two weeks or so before the election a fantastic array of election rigging plans devised by the Liberal party was exposed by the press. The secret plans included producing ghost votes, stuffing ballot boxes, bribing voters with money and merchandise, using physical violence on opponents, openly casting ballots under supervision, and so on.

The opposition Democratic party . . . appealed to the Central Election Committee for safeguarding [voting] mechanisms. Predictably, this appeal fell on deaf ears.”

(Marching Orders, the Role of the Military in South Korea’s “Economic Miracle,” 1961-1971, Jon Huer, Greenwood Press, 1989, excerpts pp. 11-14)

 

Resisting New England’s Cultural Imperialism

The war was the result of a revolution in American politics as the Whigs disintegrated after the election of 1852 and the Democrats came apart in 1860 – resulting in the loss of the national spirit in the parties and the onset of purely political sectional opinion. The pattern of support for the new Republican Party in 1856 was a map of greater New England and new States colonized by the descendants of Puritan migration. Author David Hackett Fischer (below) writes of Lincoln: “On his father’s side, Lincoln was descended from New England Puritans who had intermarried with Pennsylvania Quakers and migrated to Appalachia and the Ohio Valley. He represented every regional components of the Republican coalition.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Resisting New England’s Cultural Imperialism

“In defense of their different cultures, the two sections also fought differently. The armies of the North were at first very much like those of Fairfax in the English Civil War; gradually they became another New model Army, ruthless, methodical and efficient. The Army of Northern Virginia, important parts of it at least, consciously modeled itself upon the beau sabreurs of Prince Rupert. At the same time, the Confederate armies of the southwest marched into battle behind the cross of St. Andrew, and called themselves “Southrons” on the model of their border ancestors.

The events of the war itself radically transformed Northern attitudes toward Southern folkways. As casualty lists grew longer Northern war aims changed from an intention merely to resist the expansion of Southern culture to a determination to transform it. As this attitude spread through the Northern States the Civil War became a cultural revolution.

After the War . . . The Republican coalition dominated national politics by its electoral majorities in the north, and by military occupation in the South. Radical reconstruction was an attempt to impose by force the cultures of New England and the midlands upon the coastal and highland South. The Southern States were compelled to accept Yankee constitutions and Yankee judges, Yankee politics and Yankee politicians, Yankee schools and Yankee schoolma’ams, Yankee capitalists and a Yankee labor system.

The cultural revolution continued in some parts of the South until 1876. It succeeded for a time in modifying many Southern institutions . . . with the exception of slavery itself, most effects lasted only as long as they were supported by Northern bayonets. As long as the old folkways survived in the South, it was inevitable that the material and institutional order of Southern life would rapidly revive when Yankee soldiers went home.

After the elections of 1876 . . . Union troops were withdrawn. Yankee school systems were abolished; Yankee schoolma’ams were shipped back to New England; Yankee constitutions were rewritten. Despite talk of a “new South” after 1876, young Southerners (both white and black) continued to learn the old folkways.”

(Albion’s Seed, Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 860-863)

 

The Southern Confederacy’s Objective

If we are true to the English language and its usage, what is referred to as the American Revolution was in reality a civil war as opposing sides fought for control of the governance of the American Colonies.  The 1861-1865 war was not a civil war as several Southern States had withdrawn from their voluntary political compact with other States, and formed their own voluntary Union.  The South, then, had no interest in governing the North and truly fought in self-defense; the North, then, truly fought the war for conquest.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Lincoln’s War

“Matthew Forney Steele in his 1951 American Campaigns points out that the American Civil War was unusual for a civil war in having a purely sectional bias. Allegiance in this civil war was decided by one’s geographic location rather than class, religion, political allegiance, ethnicity or other factors that usually set the battling factions in a civil war apart from each other.  This meant, in practical terms, that in the American Civil War the sides fought not among themselves but arrayed against each other.

The Southern Confederacy’s objective was simply to be left alone.  The Union’s determination was to deny them that forbearance.  Thus, an “invasion” of the Southern portion of the country, in Abraham Lincoln’s blandly legal phraseology, to “subdue combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings,” became the war’s inevitable strategy.”

(Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War, Earl B. McElfresh, H.N. Abrams Publishers, 1990, excerpt, pg. 20)

American Boys Dying in European Wars

The British faced the peril of 1940 as they faced the peril of 1916, by maneuvering Americans into bailing them out of wars that should have been avoided, or settled with diplomacy and an armistice. Roosevelt critic Burton K. Wheeler knew well that providing loans, equipment and munitions to one belligerent in a conflict makes the United States a target and American financial interests would always seek political assurances that their investments are amply protected. Few American leaders seemed to learn the stern lessons of the Great War.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

American Boys Dying in European Wars

“I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars . . . The purpose of our defense is defense.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had said it during his campaign for re-election in 1940. Wendell Wilkie, the Republican, had made approximately the same pledge that fall. They had made their peace and neutrality covenants with the people that autumn, but now it was January, 1941 – an ominous time . . .

The wind ruffled the bunting on the stand where President Roosevelt took his inaugural oath again. Four years earlier he stood in this same place and spoke of the crisis of the banks, poverty, unemployment, and other agonies of a nation in the spasms of the Depression. That pain was not fully gone and so he referred to it again: “The hopes of the republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth.”

The real peril, in a world threatened by aggressors, he said, is inaction. “We risk the peril of isolation,” he told the shivering crowd. Only a few days before, a great new issue had arisen to confront the Seventy-Seventh Congress: Lend-Lease, a program to sustain besieged Britain.

That Roosevelt proposal, Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana had said, means “war – open and complete warfare” which will “plow under every fourth American boy.” Roosevelt was infuriated.

Now Roosevelt’s words . . . told Americans: “In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and perpetuate the integrity of democracy . . .”

[Congressman Henry M.] Jackson voted against the initial Lend-Lease proposal. He held out for a tightening of the original bill: It should have stronger restrictions, he said, to ensure against another national frustration like that which occurred from the unpaid war debts following World War I.”

(A Certain Democrat, Senator Henry M. Jackson, Prochnau and Larsen, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 101-103)

Obsessed with World Power and Democracy

With the Philippine islands in American hands after the Spanish War, the natives imagined their islands free of foreign rule as a gift from America. The liberator determined that the natives “were ill-suited to the concept of representative democratic government” and decided to stay until such was the norm, no matter how many Filipinos lives it cost and years it took.  It will be recalled that the war against Spain began with bellicose headlines from the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Obsessed with World Power and Democracy

“On July 4, 1901, William Howard Taft took the oath of office as the first Governor-General of the Philippines, and control of the islands passed from the military arm of the government. Not all the problems [of converting the islands] had been solved. Philippine society remained ill-suited to the concept of representative democratic government, primarily because it is not one culture, but several.

An election in Zamboanga was decided by which Filipino shot the other candidates first.

The Filipinos in the northern islands were Tagalog Christians, those in the south were Moro’s (meaning “Mohammedan”) who had long resisted Tagalog encroachment. A tribal people, they were fiercely jealous of their semi-savage freedom. Wisely, the Spaniards had left them to their own devices; but the Americans wanted to clean up and educate everybody.

So the [American] army established a garrison at Balangiga, on Samar, in the south where Magellan had sighted the Philippines and where he was to die at the hands of natives.

On September 1, 1901, the natives from the surrounding hills of Balangiga fell on the American garrison, and in a devastating surprise littered the street with the heads, brains and intestines of the soldiery. This was the beginning of a religious war with the Moros, one that took longer to settle than the war against Aguinaldo’s insurrectos.

The fight became a struggle to win the minds and hearts of the villagers, who supplied the guerrilla bands and offered them bases and sanctuaries. What was called for [to control the Moros], [General John J.] Pershing decided, was to disarm the entire Moro Province, to confiscate or buy every rifle, pistol, campilan, bolo and krise on the islands.

It was not an original idea. General Leonard Wood, who left the Philippines in 1910 to become Chief of Staff advised Pershing: “You cannot disarm the people. It means they will bury their best arms and turn in a few poor ones, especially some who want to make a show of obedience.” Moros who surrendered their arms were victimized by those who had not . . . it is as hard to disarm a people as it is to make them give up a religious belief.

In a letter to Avery D. Andrews, Pershing put succinctly the apostolic creed to which he himself subscribed:

“It has been urged by some people at home that the Filipinos should be given their independence. Such a thing would result in anarchy. To whom should we over the government? Tagalog, Viscayan, Igorrote, Macabebe or Moro?No one can answer that any of these tribes represents the people in any sense, any more than the Sioux represents all the Indians in America. There is no national spirit, and except for the few agitators, these people do not want to try independence.  They will have to be educated up to it and to self-government as we understand it, and their education will take some time and patience. It is a grand work cut out for us from which there should be no shirking.”

The Americans stayed on, Pershing said, because “the American people being obsessed with the idea of maintaining their new position as a world power, insisted on keeping the flag flying over a territory once it was in our possession.

In the long run, the only advantage the United States or the Philippines realized from the occupation was the military mission. The archipelago was never destined to become a great way station to exploit trade with the Orient. America and the world economy were finding uses for Philippine products, especially hemp, sugar, timber and minerals.

But as the world was discovering these products, the Filipinos were discovering corruption. By 1920, Wall Street learned that the directors of the [Wall Street-capitalized Philippine National] bank had dealt out so many unsecured loans that $24 million had simply evaporated. The bank’s reserves, which should have been retained in New York, had also vanished in alarming fashion. Similarly, American rail industries had capitalized the Manila Railroad Company, which piled up astronomical losses in only eight years. By 1921, the islands were insolvent.

Democracy and equal opportunity have always been problematic for the people of this archipelago. William Howard Taft warned the American electorate in 1912 that only 3 percent of the Filipinos voted and only 5 percent read the public press; to confer democracy on such a society was to subject the great mass to the dominance of an oligarchical and exploiting minority.

“The idea that public office is a public trust,” Taft said, “has not been planted in the Filipino mind by experience . . .”

(Pipe Clay and Drill; John J. Pershing: The Classical American Soldier”, Readers Digest Press, 1977, excerpts, pp 100-153)

 

Propping Strongmen and Juntas in Vietnam

Dwight Eisenhower announced his domino theory and resistance to communism in 1954, despite leading the massive effort ten years earlier against Germany with the welcome assistance of Stalin’s communist Russia – the latter armed to the teeth by the United States.  Robert E. Lee’s postwar comment to Lord Acton was clear about the new American empire becoming “aggressive abroad.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Propping Strongmen and Juntas in Vietnam

“By 1952, the United States was financing one-third of the French military effort in Vietnam. Despite American logistical support, the French lost the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu [in mid-March 1954] to communist forces. Ike offered a rationale for committing the United States to fighting communism in Vietnam. “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he explained, “you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”

On October 24, 1954, President Eisenhower pledged support to [Vietnamese prime minister] Ngo Dinh Diem, and even pondered sending direct American military aid to prop him up. The fall of Dien Bien Phu was followed by additional Viet Minh victories, which convinced the French to conclude with the Viet Minh and Geneva Accord . . . dividing Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel . . .

While Ho Chi Minh set up a communist government in the North, the United States worked with French and South Vietnamese authorities to build an ostensibly “democratic” South Vietnamese government as well as a military to defend it.

[After the French withdrew completely], Eisenhower and Diem, now president of South Vietnam, proclaimed their support for Vietnamese democracy [and] the Geneva Accord mandated . . . a plebiscite – a popular referendum reflecting the will of the majority – to decide the future of the nation.

Yet both Ike and Diem feared that such a popular vote would reunify Vietnam under the popular and dynamic Ho Chi Minh rather than Diem, a man incapable of commanding much popular support. Diem turned his back on the Geneva Accords and simply refused to hold the mandated vote in the South. Eisenhower voiced no objection to this abridgement of democracy.

On July 8, 1959, two US servicemen became the first Americans killed in action in Vietnam. Two months later Diem’s continued refusal to allow a plebiscite prompted the Viet Cong – a communist guerilla group that succeeded and absorbed elements of the Viet Minh – to begin concreted warfare against the South.

[After increased military assistance in 1960], popular support for the Diem government continued to decline and Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, decided to prop up the government by authorizing increased numbers of military advisors . . . and by June 30, 1962, there were 6,419 American soldiers and airmen in South Vietnam.

[By the fall of 1963] President Kennedy acquiesced in a CIA-backed ARVN military coup d’etat that removed Diem and resulted in his assassination on November 2, 1963. The overthrow . . . served only to make the country even less stable. The incoming military junta was politically inexperienced and generally inept . . . Coups and counter coups followed, so that seven South Vietnamese rose and fell in 1964 alone, with a succession of four more to follow in 1965. [Each new leader] was compliant with US direction, yet each was incapable of commanding the loyalty of a majority of the South Vietnamese.

[After Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to the presidency, in August 1964, two US Navy ships were reportedly attacked in Vietnamese waters, though] current military historians and even some who were present on the scene have concluded that the radar signals were false targets and that no attack was taking place.

Both the president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara characterized the reported North Vietnamese attacks as unprovoked, even though the mission . . . had been to provide intelligence in direct support of South Vietnamese attacks against the North . . .

McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk both admitted that the attacks [against the North] had occurred, yet, with tortured logic, insisted that they were strictly South Vietnamese operations that did not justify North Vietnamese retaliation against the United States.”

(Profiles in Folly, History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong, Alan Axelrod, Sterling, 2008, excerpts, pp. 325-329)

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