Does It Take a War?
ANGLO AMERICA, 13 Mar 2023
1 Mar 2023 – There is an inevitable gap between what a president tells us about a war—even a proxy war—and the reality on the ground. It is true today as Joe Biden struggles for public support for the war in Ukraine, and it was true six decades ago as Jack Kennedy struggled to understand the war he chose to pursue in South Vietnam.
Early 1962 was a critical time for President John F. Kennedy. After his image and leadership had been tarnished by the Bay of Pigs disaster three months into his term, he had decided that he must make a stand in South Vietnam and confront the spread of communism there. The president spent the rest of 1961 secretly increasing American defoliation, bombing, and the number of US troops inside South Vietnam. His fight against international communism was on. His foil was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had overwhelmed the young president at a summit meeting on June 4, 1961, with his knowledge, toughness, and lack of respect for Kennedy’s floundering in Cuba. “So he just beat the hell out of me,” the president later told New York Times columnist James Reston.
Nonetheless, America was smitten by the glitz and glamor of Jack and Jackie and their life inside the White House, with parties and social events that brought together the best America had to offer from the worlds of music, the arts, and the academy. So it was that David Herbert Donald, the most prominent Lincoln scholar of his time, found himself asked to give a private briefing in the White House. The small group he addressed—it numbered no more than twenty—included longtime friends of the president and some key members of his government. Donald would be the guest of the president and his wife. He was delighted.
Donald, who had won a Pulitzer Prize that year for his work on the Civil War, wrote a long chatty letter to an old friend a few weeks later about his night at the White House. I learned of the meeting during the 1990s while researching a book on the Kennedy Administration. Donald sent me a copy then of the letter, but urged me to publish very little of it in my book. I did what he asked. Donald died in 2009, after decades of teaching American history at Harvard University, and I’d like to think he would have approved of my quoting it at greater length here.
Donald reported in the letter that he talked for forty minutes about the difficulties of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the trouble he and other historians were having, as he wrote, “in writing a new synthesis of the period.” There was a long period of chatter, with both the president and his wife Jacqueline actively participating. “Mrs. Kennedy,” Donald reported, was “extremely simple and unassuming, very young, very shy, and a little unsure of herself. . . . That radiant beauty which appears in her photographs and in her television appearances is not apparent, but she strikes me as an enthusiastic and highly intelligent young woman.”
The letter went on: “The President himself, too is far less handsome than his pictures. . . . The boyish look which his photographs give him is simply not there. . . . [H]e led off the questioning and continued very active in the discussion throughout; and afterward we had a long, private discussion. It is clear that this is a man determined to go down in our history books as a great President, and he wants to know the secret.
“One thing he said troubled me considerably,” Donald wrote. In discussing the great presidents, Kennedy “asked whether, in sum, did [it] not take a war to put a man in that category? I firmly denied this. He seemed to agree and, since he is bent on being a great President, I hope he really did.”
In a brief telephone conversation I had with Donald in 1996, two decades after the American debacle in Vietnam, the professor expressed far more concern about Kennedy’s view of greatness. He told me that Kennedy was fascinated with Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because “he thought to be a great President you had to be a wartime President. That was scary to me. I came away feeling that this was a young man who doesn’t understand history.”
Donald’s chat with Kennedy came—as the professor could not have known at the time—at a crucial early moment in Vietnam. The president had continued moving, in secret, to increase dramatically the number of American military men flooding in the South under the guise of special advisors. He also was fascinated by the derring-do of those who fought in World War II in undercover units organized by the Office of Strategic Services. OSS agents often worked in enemy zones in Europe and Asia with partisans and guerrillas. The head of intelligence for the State Department at the time was Roger Hilsman, an army officer who saw combat and later served undercover with the OSS in Burma. After the war, Hilsman joined the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. He left the Agency to get a doctorate in political science at Yale University. Now, in the early days of the Kennedy Administration, he had special caché at the State Department. He had been wounded in battle and was part of a team that liberated American prisoners, including his own father, from a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
With his experience, confidence, and academic credentials, Hilsman became a favorite of the president and his brother Robert, the attorney general, and both became avid supporters of an innovative solution that Hilsman was advocating. The plan promised to resolve a vexing issue of the war: how to separate the anti-government and pro-communist guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong from the peasant villagers who, willingly or not, provided them with food, protection and support. Known as the Strategic Hamlet Program, the concept won immediate approval from the US and South Vietnamese military as well from those Americans seeking more social programs for the peasantry. “It was Kennedy’s last hope for winning hearts and minds,” I was told years ago by an American intelligence expert. The historian Christian G. Appy, in American Reckoning, an incisive study of the limits of American exceptionalism, described the project that emerged as “a coercive plan that forced villagers off their land and relocated them in armed camps. . . . What they [Kennedy, Hilsman and the White House advisors] did not take into account was how the villagers might feel about being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and stuck in fortified compounds behind barbed wire.”
I had learned firsthand about the ignorance and cruelty of forced peasant relocation while reporting on the My Lai massacre in 1969. The massacre had taken place in March of 1968 and most of the GIs involved had finished their tour of duty in the war and were back home—at work, in school, or doing nothing. The Strategic Hamlet Program was long gone but villagers in some contested areas were still being forced off their lands into resettlement areas to enable the American military to slaughter all who refused to leave with impunity. The evacuated areas were designated Free Fire Zones. My Lai was not such an area. Some of the GIs who had participated in the murders and rapes at My Lai justified their brutality by telling me, with much contempt, about how the mothers in Vietnam, when being evacuated from their native villages, insisted on being the first to hop onto the waiting helicopters. I was told again and again by GIs, who had grown up in a culture that called for children to go first, that they had to beat the mothers—sometimes violently with the butts of their rifles—to allow the children to board first. None of the GIs had been told that in Vietnamese society the mother always crosses a new threshold first, to assure that all who follow will be safe.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was a disastrous, and mysterious, failure for the young Kennedy Administration, and it hardened the resolve of the peasant population against the American interlopers. Jack Kennedy did not live long enough to learn that a major reason for the program’s demise was the work of a South Vietnamese army colonel named Pham Ngoc Thao, who had fought against the French with the nationalist and communist Viet Minh after World War II. Thao was one of eleven children born into a highly respected Roman Catholic family that held French citizenship, but joined the successful post-World War II opposition to the French led by Ho Chi Minh. Thao’s religion and social background, and his military leadership in the war against the French, made him attractive to President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who ran the secret police. Thao was a logical choice to run the new American-endorsed and financed resettlement project for the nation’s Buddhist peasants.
It would not be known until after his assassination in 1965 that Thao had been one of North Vietnam’s most successful sleeper agents, one of many who had been infiltrated into the South’s military and political leadership. One of his first moves as overseer of the Strategic Hamlet Program was to rush the construction of the new villages. They were poorly built and poorly defended. Thao also ensured that the hated villages were placed in areas that were open to Viet Cong encroachment or attack with little fear of interference by the South Vietnamese army.
Jack Kennedy’s hopeful relocation project was doomed, as he could not know, even as he explained his view of presidential leadership, over cognac and a cigar, to an increasingly troubled Professor Donald. The setting—in the private family quarters of the White House—was dramatic, but in terms of the reality of the war then underway the two men could have been chatting in the captain’s quarters on the Titanic as the ship neared the ice flows.
Our current president, and his foreign policy team, in their unwillingness to seek an immediate ceasefire in the war between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and a NATO-backed Ukraine, could be on the same boat.
The Biden Administration is feeling no pressure from Congress or the American mainstream media about its fervid political, economic, and political support for Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia. But protests and public anxiety over the war are surging in Germany, along with polls showing dwindling public support for Biden’s policy. Last weekend there were noisy anti-war rallies in Berlin, with crowds estimated at 13,000 by the police and 50,000 by the protest organizers. A “Manifesto for Peace” calling on German officials to halt the flow of weapons to Ukraine attracted 650,000 signatures in two weeks.
The clock is ticking.
Seymour M. Hersh’s investigative journalism and publishing awards include one Pulitzer Prize, five George Polk Awards, two National Magazine Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting. Hersh won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for his 2003 articles “Lunch with the Chairman,” “Selective Intelligence,” and “The Stovepipe.” In 2004 he exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in a series of pieces; in 2005, he again received a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, an Overseas Press Club award, the National Press Foundation’s Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism award, and his fifth George Polk Award, making him that award’s most honored laureate. He lives in Washington DC.
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