Friday, March 28, 2008

Vietnam War and Public Opinion updated

Vietnam War and Public Opinion updated

America’s involvement in Vietnam gradually escalated from 1945 to 1975. Historians debate over why America even got involved in Vietnam, however it is often explained by America believing it should fight against Vietnam because of what the Southeast Asian country stood for – Communism. Many believe if Vietnam fell to communism it would only be enforcing Eisenhower’s domino theory. Kennedy’s presidency saw an increased commitment to Vietnam with 12,000 advisors by 1962 and increased equipment. Under LBJ, Vietnam had around 200,000 US troops by 1965 . However, 1966 had increased domestic opposition to American involvement in Vietnam and as the war continued further, opposition to it grew. Although to what extent the lack of public support was the main factor to America ‘losing’ the war is greatly debated. Whilst public opinion can be argued to be the most important reason for initial troop withdrawal in June 1969 to quieten opposition , other factors remain important. This includes America’s military mistakes, North Vietnams strengths as opposed to South Vietnams weaknesses, and Presidential restraints and retreat.

Throughout the duration of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War, opposition existed within the home country. Sanders claims it is generally agreed that opposition to the war from the public and press was probably the main reason to why Johnson finally decided upon retreat. However the extent to which the public in America did oppose the war is greatly debated. Firstly, defining public opinion itself has problems. Polls conducted both by the government and the press found that the wordings of the question had dramatic effect on answers and what a respondent states in a hypothetical situation as opposed to a real situation can be very different. However, Mueller’s data repeatedly asked the question form 1965 to 1971; Do you think the US made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?’ The data showed that in 1965, 60% of the public approved of troops in Vietnam, this figure had halved to 30% in 3 years . This downhill trend demonstrates how public support for Vietnam fell from 1965 to 1971. Mueller’s sources on public opinion are regarded as very reliable, most of it coming from Roper Public Opinion Research Centre at Williams College, Massachusetts .

The extent that this affected the eventual US withdrawal is debated, although it is clear that the public opinion was greatly affected by the press. Vietnam was known as the ‘Photographers war’ in which journalists and photographers form all over the world flocked to Vietnam. Due to technology available, the press could bring images to the public eye as never before. Although, it was often misinterpretation of images that encouraged opposition at home. During the Tet Offensive 1968, a South Vietemese police chief executed a V.C. in Saigon . This image was shown worldwide however Sanders states it only emerged later that it was a death squad member who had just shot a relation of the general. The image damaged America’s faith in their side as the ‘good guys’.’ The images shown back home affected Americans because people knew relatives, family and friends who were dying like this. The extent to which the coverage upset the public contributed to eventual America withdrawal.

However whilst Mueller’s statistics on public opinion show a clear decline between 1965 to 1971, it can be questioned who the main opposition to the war came from. Higgins orthodox view claimed the main opponents of the war were young however evidence suggests they were in fact just the most vociferous group. Contrary to Higgins, Mueller states that in Nov. 1966, under 30’s were in fact the most supportive group of the war at 66% . Whilst the figure had dropped to 47% in Feb 1969, it still remained higher than the over 49’s Support at 31%. Karnow, an American journalist who visited Vietnam, also supports Mueller’s findings with a survey conducted in 1967 which found ‘endorsement of the war was strongest among the college educated, middle classes’ . Whilst in 1965 the opposition was a minority, it was a growing minority. Yet Johnson also suffered pressure from ‘hawks’ that criticised him for not escalating enough, stating America never used more than ½ its tactical air power in Vietnam. Karnow also notes that hard liners such as Senator John Stennis who believed America should mobilise its full military, reflected a significant element of public opinion .

Nixon recognised the home front problem and used tactics to keep the opposition quiet. This included a withdrawal of 60,000 troops in 1969, Nixon believing he had little other choice. This demonstrates how public opposition to the war led foreign policy for the US and how public opinion was a strong influential factor for the eventual withdrawal. Examples of protest include Oct 1969, in which the largest anti war protest in American History took place. Protestors took to the streets in every major city. Radicals even waved VC flags. Nixon rightly claimed their ‘numbers were a minority, but their numbers were growing’ . Another example of protests was on the 5th May 1970 in which 4 students at Kent State University, Ohio were shot dead by National Guard . As a result, Nixon backed down and declared he would get American troops out of Cambodia by June. This demonstrates again how govt. policy was made in the streets. Although Sanders points out the pro-Nixon public, which in response to Nixon’s decision, totalled 100,000 in New York . However Nixon’s own views, like Johnson’s, hindered public view and encouraged the divide between war supporters and protestors. During the Cambodian Offensive Nixon told a Pentagon employee ‘the boys in Vietnam are the greatest, unlike the bums blowing up the campuses.’

Another area of opposition came from what Higgens referred to as ‘Black Power’ . Sanders claims black people resented the apparent disproportionate number of blacks on the front line and the high number of casualties. Martin Luther King became publicly critical in 1967 highlighting ‘the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school’s.’ It is understandable to see that a war that caused so much controversy was opposed to such an extent. The military were also furious that opposition was having such an effect on their involvement in Vietnam. However Karnow claims Westmoreland’s concept of search-and-destroy was flawed from the start . This was because Westmoreland believed these missions would gradually grind down the enemy, providing that he was given the battalions to do the job. Yet Americans at home refused to accept this ‘kill ratio’ concept.

North Vietnam’s Strengths compared to the South Vietnam’s weaknesses can be argued as another important reason for eventual US withdrawal. The North Vietnamese always struggled for their existence. Most Vietnamese were peasants living in small villages and had poor standards of living. The Vietnamese’s hard life reflected their determinism and heroism. Contrary to the US soldiers ‘365 day tour’, the VC were enlisted for years . The Vietnamese also appeared to have an unusual amount of patience and determinism. This reflected on the Ho Chi Minh trail. American bombers continuously tried to obliterate the trail; however 50,000 women at any one time were employed to repeatedly repair the road , which had many branches in order to keep supplies continuing. America severely underestimated the communist determination. General Giap stated ‘we were not strong enough to drive out half a million American troops, but that was not our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American Govt. to continue the war.’ The North Vietnamese also appeared to be fighting a ‘different’ war from the Americans, the VC felt it was a revolutionary war in which they were fighting for a belief, communism. This was opposed to many US Soldiers who felt they had no place being in Vietnam, this explaining their lack of determinism. The North Vietnamese more effectively won the hearts and minds of civilians. This was helped by the fact that they shared the same cultural values and beliefs, whilst the communists underground routes and guerrilla style warfare was also less disruptive on South Vietnamese villages compared to US tactics of ‘Search and destroy’. Although this links further to America’s own military mistakes.

One of South Vietnams key ‘weaknesses’ was the corruption and decay, most importantly in Saigon. As early as 1965 Ambassador Taylor stated it was hopeless to expect the South Vietnamese to improve. He could see nothing ahead but continued ‘political turmoil, irresponsibility and division’ . As a result, Taylor believed there were two possible options, either ultimate withdrawal or to introduce a new element. This demonstrates how the lack of strength in South Vietnam, both politically and socially was a factor to why US could not progress in South Vietnam and therefore contributed to the eventual withdrawal. Sanders highlight’s how the corruption and mismanagement of South Vietnams government naturally permeated its armed forces, this linking to military problems that existed between US soldiers and the ARVN .

North Vietnam also received Soviet and Chinese Aid, and as the war escalated after 1965, it relied increasingly on help from these countries . Karnow states conditions might have been appalling had the Soviet Union and China not provided assistance. This aid was crucial however; Buttinger calculated that during the course of the war, South Vietnam received from the US more than five times the amount sent to the Vietemese Communists by Moscow and Peking . This shows despite great financial assistance, North Vietnams determinism helped them overcome such financial disadvantages.

Vietnam was a war in which it was claimed public opinion actually led Foreign Policy, rather than following it. As a result, during the war the President and Congress found it increasingly important to act with what the public wanted, this supporting the fact that lack of public support was an important reason for eventual US withdrawal. Between 1965 and 1968, Johnson’s administration became slowly convinced that their aims and methods were inappropriate and Johnson would be forced to retreat . Despite pouring men into Vietnam between 1966-7, peaking with 540,000 in 1969 , there had been little desirable affect. Whilst Johnson’s administration was also publicly optimistic, confidence within administration was suffering. This was hindered further with the loss of Secretary of Defence, McNamara in November 1967. Johnson had thought very highly of McNamara but by 1967 thought he had degenerated into an ‘emotional basket case’ . Johnson received conflicting advice from both sides. On one hand he had Secretary of State, Rusk who was obsessive about continuing the struggle in South East Asia, compared to Senator Fulbright stating America should de-escalate. Johnson was faced with conflicting views on what should be done in Vietnam, this generally reflecting the mood on public opinion in America.

Because of the worsening situation in Vietnam and domestic opposition, Sanders claims Congress began to press hard for retreat . On 25th March 1968 most advocated some kind of retreat, mainly due to public opinion polls worsening and the economic problem. In 1965 the govt. deficit was 1.6billion but by 1968 it was $25.3billion . Sources on Government spending are often unreliable to minimise hostility, however tax increases of 10% in 1967 made the economic factor easily recognisable. However congress only input its first limitation on US military activities on Southeast Asia in 1969- a restriction on troop deployments in Cambodia and Laos. Only in 1973 did congress actually direct full opposition to a continued commitment when it voted to stop all bombing throughout Indochina . This shows that whilst both Johnson and Nixon were eventually restricted, congress was in fact short on action, and as Karnow claims, lagged behind public opinion.

When elected as President in 1969, Nixon pledged to ‘end the war and win the peace’ . However Nixon is accused of escalating the war again due to bombing in Cambodia and Laos. Higgins is critical of Nixon stating he was not so much of a peacemaker but rather a pacemaker, by dropping more than the total tonnage of bombs expended by America during WW2 on Vietnam in his first 2 years of presidency . Although opinion polls in 1969 showed that most Americans were willing to give Nixon a chance to cope with Vietnam. Nixon hoped that if he applied both military and diplomatic pressure in the correct proportions, he would gain ‘peace with honour’. Thus, by using the Madman theory, Vietnamisation or bombing the Cambodian trail would achieve this. Nixon’s pledge demonstrates how public opinion affected government policy. Whilst Karnow claims Americans were willing to give Nixon a chance, the mounting antiwar sentiment in the US meant Nixon could not afford to delay at least token American Troop withdrawals, the first being in September 1969 with an initial withdrawal of 60,000 troops. Kissenger claimed peace at hand by 1972 but negotiations were pressed due to lack of time and money. By 1972, Nixon’s freedom was limited, with Congress cutting off funding in early 1973. This shows that Nixon was restrained and it could be questioned that had not mounting public opposition occurred joined with a worsening economic situation, Nixon would have pursued Vietnam further (if he remained in power) in 1975 when North took over South Vietnam.

Whilst public opposition to the war was one of the most influential factors in the US finally withdrawing, military tactics in Vietnam were also regarded as ineffective and a cause for failure. Canadian theorist and educator, Marshal McLuhan stated ‘Television brought the brutality of the war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.’ This source can be criticised for its validity as evidence shows America had key areas of disadvantages on the battlefields that contributed to the US withdrawal. Karnow states that by 1967, Johnson had been escalating the war with dismal results . One aspect of the military campaign was bombing Vietnam, most famously Rolling Thunder, which was one of the first escalatory steps in 1965 . However the Jason Study by the MIT in 1966 found that the bombing campaign was having no measurable direct effect on military activities, mainly because North Vietnam was an unrewarding target with a large agricultural economy. This source came from The Pentagon Papers ; sources by the government were often unreliable due to the uncertainty of the war. It was also hard to measure the affects of a communist force using guerrilla warfare. Sanders states the irony of American firepower being concentrated more on South than North Vietnam. The Jason study explains this because it was an ‘unrewarding target’, guerrilla’s in South Vietnam. Despite bombing increasing from 315,000 tons in 1965 to 1,388,000 tons in 1969 , McNamara’s memorandum pointed out that the Communists had actually increased the Southward flow of supplies and manpower, with Hanoi’s determination as strong as ever. This demonstrated that slow progress was being made with little effect. This links to one of North Vietnams strongest advantages of sheer determinism, Kissenger exclaiming ‘I can’t believe that a fourth rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point’ . Vietnam was also an excellent example of how people are said to have triumphed over technology. Despite the finance, the US could not destroy key targets such as the Ho Chi Minh trail, which allowed supplies to reach the south.

Weaknesses in military tactics on the ground also greatly hindered progress, this leading to a long war and increasing public opposition. Sander’s highlights the problems that US soldiers encountered in fighting in Vietnam. It is argued that whilst a vast amount of the soldiers were patriotic and fought hard, a large proportion believed they were fighting a war in which they did not believe, or felt America had no right to intervene. In 1966, an ex-Green Beret said he doubted Vietnam would be better off with Ho’s communism, ‘but it is not for me or my government to decide.’ This primary source taken from a reporter could have been exaggerated, this questioning its validity. Yet whilst it did not represent the majority of the soldiers, it represented a significant amount. Whilst many Americans found fighting conditions hard, one key disadvantage was not knowing which Vietnamese were the enemy. One Soldier recalled ‘you never knew who was the enemy and who was your friend, they all dressed alike. They were all Vietnamese…the enemy was all around you.’ This primary source, giving a soldiers viewpoint, helps emphasise the military difficulties.

Whilst Public Opposition was the main reason for the eventual withdrawal of troops, this mounting domestic opposition came about because Vietnam became a lengthy war in which American lives were being lost to a cause which wasn’t considered valuable enough. The economic cost of the war also became an increasingly important factor, and Military tactics that McNamara described as ‘dangerous, costly and unsatisfactory’ led Americans at home to believe they were fighting a war that could not be won.

In conclusion it can be said that lack of public support was the main factor in America’s initial withdrawal, Nixon believing it would quieten opposition in September 1969. As well as congress, the majority of the American home front was in support for the war in his early presidential years. However Sanders considers 1967 as the crucial turning point in which substantial amounts of both press and public opinion turned from support to opposition . The reason for mounting opposition can be said to have resulted from the lack of progress being made in Vietnam itself. The social cost of the war meant that the people in America were not prepared to settle for what Westmoreland said ‘could go on indefinitely’ . Johnson claimed that public opinion was the weakest chink in their armour and in a sense this is true. Enthoven claimed that North Vietnam knew they only had to wait for America’s patience to wear thin and public rejection to the war would occur . Higgins states that by 1973, even Nixon was convinced that direct military intervention by the US should be abandoned . Yet progress of Vietnamisation also seemed hopeless in the long run, due Saigon’s corruption. This showing that perhaps without domestic opposition, it would be ignorant to believe that continuation of the war would lead to any further progress. Whilst there were other significant weaknesses that led to America not being victorious, Public Opinion had the most significant effect which in turn helped change Congress’ views, instigating military and presidential retreat

Bibliography (shortened)

  • The USA and Vietnam 1945-75, Vivienne Sanders (1998) Hodder and Stoughton.
  • War, Presidents and Public Opinion, John E. Mueller (1985) University Press of America.
  • Vietnam, Hugh Higgins, (1975) Heinemann Educational Books.
  • Vietnam, a History, Stanley Karnow (1994) Pimlico.
  • Chronicle of America, Clifton Daniel (1995) Dorling Kindersley.

by Christopher dot Rodger at student dot manchester dot ac dot uk



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