By Shane Quinn – Oct 15, 2020
US invasions of Laos and Cambodia were “secret wars” due to virtual media silence.
One of the core reasons the US resorted to force in Vietnam and its neighbouring countries, was because Washington’s imperial designs for south-east Asia had scant support from local populations. The client regime established by president Dwight Eisenhower in the southern half of Vietnam, from 1954, had no legitimacy whatever in the Vietnamese countryside where four-fifths of the populace resided.
Even in the wealthier urban areas, public backing was slim for the Diem dictatorship in South Vietnam, a country founded officially in October 1955. US Army planners estimated in the early 1950s that the Vietnamese revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, enjoyed broad support throughout Vietnam, an assessment that would remain consistent well into the 1960s; years after the US military invasion of South Vietnam, which had been authorised by John F. Kennedy in late 1961.
An important study completed in 1969 by the US Army officer, Jeffrey Race, who was himself present on the ground in South Vietnam, confirmed the Saigon regime’s dismal popularity. Race revealed further how Diem’s forces and that of his successors “terrorised far more than did the revolutionary movement – for example by liquidations of former Vietminh, by artillery and ground attacks on ‘communist villages’ and by roundups of ‘communist sympathisers’.” (1)
South Vietnamese officials knew quite plainly that “communist cadres are close to the people, while ours are not”, but they never grasped why. The reason was that the US-backed regime failed to address the needs of the rural masses, while the revolutionary forces, as Race outlined, “offered concrete and practical solutions to the daily problems of substantial segments of the rural population” of South Vietnam. The Diem outfit, elitist and propped up by US military aid, had only one recourse to control the public: violence.
President Kennedy acknowledged a couple of hours before his death on 22 November 1963 that, “Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight”. This is of course why he was intent on escalating the war into 1964, through the hope of finally defeating the communists by force and securing a US victory. The Eisenhower administration was well aware of Diem’s thin popularity. Yet Eisenhower was also a distinguished general, with considerable front line experience as a commander during World War II. He would not sanction an invasion of Vietnam. US troop numbers in South Vietnam peaked at a modest 900 under Eisenhower, and they remained in “strictly advisory” roles.
The sum total of US military interventionism during Eisenhower’s eight year presidency – when American power was greatly clear of any country and close to its peak – consisted of a three month invasion of tiny Lebanon from July 1958, to help thwart the spread of Arab nationalism in the Middle East. Eisenhower said openly that for America to lose control of this region “by inaction would be far worse than the loss in China, because of the strategic position and resources of the Middle East”. (2)
It is true that Eisenhower, from the summer of 1959, was planning a military intervention in Cuba to destroy the Castro government, thereby restoring the Caribbean island to US auspices. Cuba had been a de facto colony of America for six decades and, as Eisenhower was aware, four previous US invasions of Cuba had been launched during the early 20th century, to rescue weak American-friendly governments in Havana. Eisenhower would not get around to ordering what he foresaw would be another brief and successful intervention in Cuba, similar to the US victory against leftist forces in Lebanon. The invasion plans for Cuba were forwarded to Kennedy instead.
As soon as JFK assumed the presidency, contrary to what is often claimed, he ordered a vast expansion of US military capacities; which by 1961 were already much larger and more formidable than its nearest competitor, the USSR. Seeing the disparity, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev proposed to JFK wide-scale mutual reductions in offensive weaponry, which would have reduced the threat of ultimate destruction. Khrushchev’s offer was rejected by Kennedy.
The US political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, observed that the Kennedy administration thereafter “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peace-time military build-up the world has yet seen… even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces, to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favoured the United States”. (3)
The US arms budget at the end of Eisenhower’s tenure in 1960 amounted to $45 billion. Under Kennedy, by 1962 military expenditure had increased to $52 billion (4). JFK’s sparking of an arms race was a central cause culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, of October 1962. Khrushchev’s reaction to Kennedy’s military build-up was to give the Americans “a little of their own medicine”, as the Soviet president said; that is, by stationing nuclear missiles outside of the Soviet Union’s borders for the first time – to be dispatched to Moscow’s ally Cuba.
Various assertions, completely unsubstantiated, have been circulated about JFK’s policies through the decades: that with his assassination an earlier age of innocence ended, that he was in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam, ending the Cold War and the arms race, that he wanted to dismantle the CIA and the military-industrial complex. A closer examination proves otherwise.
The CIA, simply reflecting Kennedy administration planning, was increasing its activities across Vietnam into 1962 and 1963, including covert operations in communist North Vietnam. CIA schemes during the Kennedy years were also growing in Laos, Cuba, Chile and even Africa (5). In June 1963, Kennedy requested the CIA to again ramp up operations against Fidel Castro, in a renewed effort to overthrow him. The terrorist assaults aimed at Cuba were terminated by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, just five months into his term in April 1964; with president Johnson saying that the Kennedy administration “had been operating a damned Murder, Inc. in the Caribbean”.
CIA historians have pointed out that it was in fact Johnson who regarded the CIA “with contempt”, not Kennedy, and that LBJ reduced the CIA’s role in policy decisions; while Kennedy’s dismay regarding the April 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle “in no way undermined his firm faith in the principle of covert operations, and in the CIA’s mission to carry them out”. (6)
In late 1961, JFK fired the CIA’s strongest critic (veteran politician Chester Bowles) and during his presidency the CIA Director became “a principal participant in the administration, on a par with the Secretary of State or Defense”, while the CIA had a “significant voice in policy making” under Kennedy, particularly through 1963 (7). The Kennedy brothers’ enthusiasm for CIA counterinsurgency and covert operations was notorious. This can be attested to by highlighting such programs as Operation Mongoose, authorised by JFK on 30 November 1961 – and which was a major campaign of CIA-run terror and subversion against Cuba.
The CIA can only have been grateful to JFK for augmenting their power, and allegations that they were involved in his assassination are baseless. The CIA had much more cause to be disgruntled with Johnson and especially his successor, Richard Nixon, who had cold disregard for what he termed the “Ivy League liberals” who he felt were running the CIA. Nixon made concerted efforts “to exclude the CIA from power” and the Nixon years were as a consequence “the nadir for the CIA” (8). Neither Nixon, or Johnson, were physically harmed because of their attempts to decrease CIA influence in policy formation.
Into 1962 and 1963, president Kennedy was utilising the CIA to undermine leftist movements in Chile, pertaining to the upcoming 1964 elections there, through efforts to prevent a figure like Salvador Allende from prevailing. Kennedy-engineered CIA interference in Chile had a crucial role in preventing an Allende victory in 1964 (Allende would not win the presidency until 1970). Even more significant, was the JFK government’s involvement in laying the groundwork for the takeover of Brazil by neo-Nazi generals (9). The coup in Brazil was simply pushed along by Johnson, and successfully implemented in the spring of 1964. JFK wanted to “prevent Brazil from becoming another China or Cuba” by removing the left-leaning president Joao Goulart, who was no communist.
Regarding Vietnam, an insurmountable problem for the Americans to the very end was, according to the US military historian Eric Bergerud, the “extremely formidable political apparatus” of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) – along with their “extremely popular” policies which “earned for the Viet Minh the loyalty and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of poor peasants” (10). Much of the peasantry for many years had supported the Viet Minh (later dubbed the Viet Cong, in Western discourse).
The anthropologist-adviser Gerald Hickey, who first touched down on Vietnamese soil in 1956, observed how Vietnam’s masses had “learned from early childhood to view reality through the prism of Viet Cong ideas, beliefs and prejudices”. Hickey saw how regime terror simply increased the “peasantry’s deep hatred” for the Saigon leadership. Moreover, the US bombing campaign imbued more militant and hostile attitudes in the people. After Washington assumed full control of the war in early 1965, the Viet Cong’s legitimacy grew still further. They could then plausibly state that they were defending their country against foreign aggressors.
The first public protest in America against the Vietnam War did not occur until October 1965, in the heart of American liberalism, Boston, Massachusetts. This was eight or nine months after president Johnson had ordered the huge military escalation, at which point South Vietnam was already lying mostly in ruins, while the communist North was being bombed regularly by US warplanes. The protest in Boston Common was muted and low key, heavily overseen by police, but it was still denounced by the media and interrupted by counterdemonstrators. (11)
The US invasion of South Vietnam was a reality by January 1962, as American soldiers participated directly in bombing raids of defenceless villages. This was confirmed publicly by Washington officials in March 1962. A quarter of a century later the US analyst and author Noam Chomsky wrote, “For the past 25 years I have been searching to find some reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to a US invasion of South Vietnam, or US aggression in Indochina – without success. Instead I find a US defense of South Vietnam against terrorists supported from outside (namely, from Vietnam), a defense that was unwise, the doves maintain”. (12)
President Kennedy furthermore approved a “strategic hamlet” policy in South Vietnam, with the intention to drive several million people into what were effectively concentration camps, encompassed by barbed wire and armed guards. The villagers were herded into these camps by coercion and indiscriminate bombardment from the air (13). The underlying reason for these extreme actions was to “protect” the Vietnam peasantry from communist guerrillas who, Washington conceded, the public were supporting.
The strategic hamlet program is much worse than anything attributed recently to the Chinese government, relating to the detention in “political education camps” of approximately a million Muslims in Xinjiang province (14). The strategic hamlet policy quickly collapsed because, as the Washington planner Roger Hilsman noted to his consternation, “there had been no real effort to isolate the population from the Viet Cong by eliminating Viet Cong agents and supporters inside the strategic hamlets, and by imposing controls on the movement of people and supplies”. (15)
JFK’s public and private remarks leading up to his death call for everyone to “focus on winning the war”, and that withdrawal without victory would not remotely be considered. JFK reiterated on 12 September 1963, slightly more than two months before his killing, “What helps to win the war, we support; what interferes with the war effort, we oppose” (16). Just over a week before the assassination, the US president informed the press that he was hoping for “an increased effort in the war” and to “intensify the struggle”.
The 1,000 US soldiers Kennedy designated to withdraw from South Vietnam, in late 1963, were primarily part of a construction battalion being sent back to America for its Christmas holidays – to be promptly replaced by others – and also among these 1,000 American personnel were “two military police units whose airport guard duty had been taken over by Vietnamese trained for that purpose”, a state document outlines (17). The removal of construction workers from South Vietnam, along with police airport patrolmen, hardly amounts to a US military withdrawal from the country.
By the time of Kennedy’s death, there were almost 17,000 US troops present in South Vietnam, up from 11,300 the year before; and the number was set to be increased again into the fourth year of JFK’s presidency in 1964. Nothing perceptible changed in US government strategy following Johnson’s assumption to the White House, on 22 November 1963. The key advisers whom JFK drew counsel from imparted the same views on the new president. Among them were Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
These three powerful figures would remain in their posts for years into the Johnson presidency, McNamara until February 1968, Bundy until February 1966 and Rusk until January 1969. This is a sure indication by itself of the smooth continuity process, as the mantle passed from Kennedy to Johnson. McNamara, Bundy and Rusk advised Johnson to reject the milder recommendations espoused by outsiders, and “to keep to Kennedy’s more militant policies”. In January 1964, McNamara warned Johnson that any move to “neutralise” South Vietnam, that is to withdraw without victory, “would inevitably mean a new government in Saigon that would in short order become Communist-dominated”. McNamara believed this would lead to severe repercussions for US power in Asia “and indeed in other key areas of the world”. He insisted the stakes “are so high that, in our judgment, we must go on bending every effort to win”. (18)
After 13 months of Johnson’s presidency, US troop numbers in South Vietnam rose to 23,300 by 31 December 1964. A couple of weeks before, Johnson had sanctioned the first air raids over Vietnam’s neighbour, Laos, a country which in coming years would become the most bombed in history, before US aircraft finally flew home in 1973. Nearby Cambodia was likewise pummelled, with the aim to prevent independent nationalism from consolidating itself in Indochina.
The US carpet bombing of both Cambodia and Laos were regarded as “secret wars”. This is because, as Chomsky wrote, “the media refused to find out what was happening, or to make public what they knew” and he noted that “the media reflexively adopted the framework of government propaganda, tolerating even the most outlandish fabrications and absurdities. Exceptions did exist, but they were rare”. (19)
Washington’s total air war against Cambodia also played a pivotal role in mobilising support for the Khmer Rouge, a reality recognised by US government studies and historical analysis (20). During the bombing campaign of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge grew in membership from about 10,000 to at least 200,000 members, with embittered locals joining up.
- 1 Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot (London, Verso Books, 1 April 1993) p. 57
- 2 Uri Friedman, “America has come full circle in the Middle East”, The Atlantic, 24 January 2020
- 3 Kenneth Waltz, “America as a model for the world? A Foreign Policy Perspective”, Cambridge University Press, December 1991
- 4 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, p. 142
- 5 Ibid., p. 144
- 6 Ibid.
- 7 Ibid.
- 8 Ibid., p. 145
- 9 Ibid., p. 146
- 10 Eric M. Bergerud, The Dynamics of Defeat: the Vietnam War in Nau Nghia Province (Westview Press, 31 Aug. 1993)
- 11 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, p. 3
- 12 Noam Chomsky, “Invasion Newspeak”, Fair.org, 1 December 1987
- 13 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, p. 54
- 14 Louis Charbonneau, “China again in UN hotseat over Xinjiang abuses”, Human Rights Watch, 6 March 2020
- 15 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, p. 54
- 16 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, p. 673
- 17 Office of the Historian, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume 1, Vietnam, 1964; 67. Memorandum Prepared in the Department of Defense”, 2 March 1964
- 18 Office of the Historian, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume 1, Vietnam, 1964; 8. Memorandum from the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to the President”, 9 January 1964
- 19 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, pp. 2-3 & 26
- 20 Ibid., p. 52
Featured image: An aerial view of a fortified Vietnamese hamlet. Courtesy of psywarrior.com