Tag Archives: China

Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

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One of the greatest, oddest monuments of all time: the young, handsome, dynamic Mao Zedong, wart and all, on top of a mountain at Juzizhou, China. The statue is 32 metres high, a suitably huge monument to the leader of the revolution. (Author: 刻意; Source: here)

 

Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.’ Mao Zedong

The 1960s are famous as a time of radical change. As the generation that had been during the Second World War came to adulthood, technology developed and tastes changed so as to mark a step-change in the attitudes, values and goals of many, although not the majority of people. The changes of that decade usually focus on things like The Beatles, hippies, protests and the moon landings but there were also fascinating developments to be found in the many bookshops on Britain’s high streets. One of the ‘new’ books which caused more than a little controversy was ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by DH Lawrence (1885-1930), Nottingham’s  most famous literary son, which had originally been published in 1928 but only became available in the shops after the famous obscenity trial in 1961. It flew off the shelves after the trial which approved its publication. The trial itself attracted huge publicity and reflected a significant change in social values in Britain. One comment by the barrister who led the prosecution, Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, showed how out of touch some members of the ‘establishment’ had become since the book had been written: ‘Is this the type of book that you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ However, while Lawrence’s work threatened and disturbed many people for its language (lots of swearing) and subject matter (lots of sex), it was not the most disturbing book of that decade for many people. For that ‘honour’, we have to delve into the murky world of ideology and politics, as it was ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’, better known as ‘The Little Red Book’, which really sent shock waves around Britain and the Western world.

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DH Lawrence (1885-1930), the slightly unlikely looking man behind the controversial ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He has probably not appeared in many articles about Chairman Mao before. (Author: Unknown; Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University here)

As it suggests, ‘Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung’ contains the sayings of the famous leader of China, Chairman Mao’. ‘Mao Tse-Tung’ was the old way of spelling his name and today it is usually spelt ‘Mao Zedong’, rather like ‘Peking’ has become ‘Beijing’. This was the most printed book of the 20th century with over 5 billion copies made and was at the forefront of a massive propaganda campaign which aimed to explain Mao’s policies and the values of Communism to the people of China. It also became a huge propaganda tool in the West where many copies appeared in the hands of, mostly, young people. The book itself came to prominence during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China in the mid-sixties and became hugely popular around the world, being seen as a part of the Eastern wisdom which was so potent amongst many young, wealthy Westerners at the time. This was an age when increasing numbers of people, especially the young, were disillusioned with traditional Western politics, lifestyle and philosophy and started to look to the East for hope and ‘salvation’. This embracing of Eastern values was seen in numerous ways at the time: the opening prayer at Woodstock in 1969 was offered by Yogi Bhajan; The Beatles, Mike Love of ‘The Beach Boys’, Mia Farrow, Donovan and other stars travelled to India seeking enlightenment; and many hippies simply dropped out and smoked their way from Marrakesh to Vietnam. On the back of this love-affair with the East, Mao was presented as an almost mystical figure, a god-like character who could inspire a new way of living which was beyond the imagination of traditional leaders in the West. His ‘wisdom’ was available in the ‘The Little Red Book’, a radical expression of those traditional Eastern values for modern times. While this might have been the interpretation, though, the reality of life behind the book was a somewhat different tale. Most people knew little or nothing of life in China so that Mao’s words were devoid of context and not supported by any evidence. Whereas Mao’s words seemed to speak of a gentle wisdom, the sort of thing a spiritual master might share with his disciples, the truth was that his methods led to death and suffering on an unimaginable scale in China itself. Perception might have presented Mao as a ‘Master’ but reality offers us a ‘Monster’.

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Mao Zedong looking very happy in about 1950 (Author: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office; Source: here)

As we have said, for Mao’s supporters, the ‘Little Red Book’ was full of wisdom and guidance for anyone wanting to reach a Communist utopia. For his enemies, on the other hand, these were the aggressive, confused, dishonest ramblings of an extreme dictator in the tradition of Joseph Stalin. Here are three examples of his writings which can range from the rather aggressive to the reasonable and thoughtful, at least as words on paper:

“People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs! People of the world, be courageous, dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the people. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed.”

“Our comrades must understand that ideological remoulding involves long-term, patient and painstaking work, they must not attempt to change people’s ideology, which has been shaped over decades of life, by giving a few lectures or by holding a few meetings. Persuasion, not compulsion, is the only way to convince them. Compulsion will never result in convincing them. To try to convince them by force simply won’t work. This kind of method is permissible in dealing with the enemy, but absolutely impermissible in dealing with comrades or friends.”

“We should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul. Our point of departure is to serve the people wholeheartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses, to proceed in all cases from the interests of the people and not from one’s self-interest or from the interests of a small group, and to identify our responsibility to the people with our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party.”

To understand the ‘Little Red Book’, of course, it is necessary to know something about Mao himself, one of the most important figures of the Twentieth Century. Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, in the Hunan province of China in 1893, the son of a peasant farmer. At that time, China was still ruled by an Emperor, Guangxu (1871-1908), the penultimate Chinese Emperor of all time. This was a time of increasing unrest in the country, a time of trouble which would bring the end of the empire in 1911 and see the establishment of the Chinese Republic the following year. The story of that ‘Chinese Revolution’, in which Mao took part as a soldier, is, however, another story.

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Shaoshan railway station makes a lot of the fact that the ‘great man’ was born there. You might also like to know that this was the original home of the ‘Mao Family Restaurant’, which is now a chain found in many cities across China; it’s a strange world at times. (Author: Troy Parfitt; Source: here)

Another topic that will have to wait for another post is the fuller story of Mao Zedong’s life before he came to be leader of China and, indeed, so much of the other interesting stuff that surrounds his time in power. As you’ll see if you do any research of your own, the books on Mao are almost always very long simply because there is so much to cover and so much opinion on what he did and why he did it. If you want to pick up on a few points from those first 56 years of his life, you could focus on a few dates: 1911 and his involvement in the revolution to end the Chinese Empire; 1925 and his role in Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) alongside key figures such Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and, his arch enemy of later years, Jiang Jieshi; 1935 and the extraordinary struggles of ‘The Long March’; 1937 and the Second World War with the struggle to overthrow the Japanese forces through carefully orchestrated guerilla warfare.

Mao became leader of China in 1949 when the Communist Revolution overthrew Jiang Jieshi (also known as ‘Chiang Kai-shek’, (1887-1975)) and his Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang. Victory had finally been won after Mao’s forces won the Chinese Civil War, a struggle which had raged on and off for more than a quarter of a century and where the Nationalists had been backed with aid from the West, especially the USA, which took a real interest in Chinese affairs. The China that Mao came to rule in the middle of the century had the largest population in the world, some 350 million people, but it was a poor, economically under-developed country in which most people worked as farmers and there was very little by way of a modern infrastructure or advanced technology. It faced similar challenges to those of the USSR in the 1920’s, so change in some form was needed if it were to survive in the increasingly competitive post-war world, a world dominated politically by the Cold War and economically by capitalism and the forces of globalisation.

Mao Zedong was a huge admirer of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR from 1928 to 1953, and he was been horrified when Nikita Khrushchev attacked Stalin in his ‘Secret Speech’ at the XXth Party Congress in 1956. Mao had actually visited Moscow in 1950 to seek Stalin’s approval and guidance for the country, and was always willing to defer to the man he recognised as the leader of ‘world Communism’. Mao trusted Stalin, believing in his strong style of leadership which made him happy to play second-fiddle to the USSR, and giving the Kremlin leader precedence within Communism as the ‘older brother’. But when Stalin was attacked and his legacy threatened by Khrushchev, it was too much for Mao, who became increasingly wary of Moscow and started to offer an alternative model of leadership and support to other Communist states. For Mao, Khrushchev was effectively a traitor to the Communist cause and their relationship became increasingly tense and awkward. While the West, and especially Washington, saw Communism as one family controlled by Moscow, the reality was always different, something no US president fully understood until Richard Nixon came to power in 1968. The strength of Mao’s commitment to Stalin’s style and methods were seen in two major events: the extraordinary ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the late 1950s and the bizarre and tragic ‘Cultural Revolution’ which started in 1966.

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Front cover of a school textbook in 1971 showing Chinese Red Guards fighting with a pen and announcing the message from ‘The Little Red Book’; a wonderful example of propaganda. (Author: Giulia Villa; Source: here)

Let’s start with a look at ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Karl Marx had believed that Communism would first be established in one of the advanced industrial economies of Europe, such as Germany, France or Britain. He would have been shocked to see it first appear in Russia and then imposed by force in Eastern Europe before taking control of China. Russia and China were predominantly agricultural economies which had little by way of a complex capitalist structure with the mass exploitation of workers, while the use of force to impose control on the population of eastern Europe went against any idea of the the uprising of the people to overthrow oppressive rulers. The lack of economic development was an essential problem in the USSR where Stalin recognised the country’s industrial fragility and so forced industrialisation on what was an agricultural society through the ‘Five Year Plans’ after 1928. The cost was huge in terms of human suffering but the progress achieved had effectively driven the Soviet Union to victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45 and established the country as a ‘Superpower’. In twenty years, the USSR went from being a peasant economy where many ploughs were pulled by people, to one which had produced its own Atom Bomb. Mao faced a similar situation in China, where the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked as peasant farmers. In homage to Stalin and in direct opposition to advice from Khrushchev, Mao decided to impose his own version of the Five Year Plans on China. This was to be the ‘Great Leap Forward’, the massive and rapid industrialisation of the country.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ began in 1958. It echoed not only Stalin’s goals from thirty years before but also his methods. The people and culture of the country had clearly not produced the ‘desired’ system so force had to be used. The majority of farms, which were small and independent, were to be taken over by the State and the land would become part of a huge industrial farming structure, under a system of ‘collectivisation’. This was a direct echo of what had happened in the USSR in the 1930s and played such a key role in the Ukrainian famine, an appalling tragedy which had killed some seven million people. New technology was to be used to replace the peasant farmers who would then be moved to urban areas, which would become the focus for huge industrial developments. Fertile rice paddies were ploughed up and replaced by factories in what turned into one of the greatest disasters of all time. However, the new farming methods did not work as people did not know how to use them, schedules were changed too dramatically and there was a huge loss of experience and skills. Everything happened too quickly and was chaotic; and no one was able to challenge it under fear of death.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ was an almost total disaster, a situation which was epitomised by the thousands of small furnaces which were set up across the country. In backyards and on streets, the people made their own furnaces in an attempt to make steel, the goal being to overtake Britain for its level of steel production. The use of quotas and targets was another thing which echoed Stalin’s ‘plans’ and the people responded with a mix of fervour and fear. Pots and pans, door handles and old tools were amongst the things melted down in an attempt to increase production of steel for massive projects, such as factories, transport, mining and power. The energy and resources poured into the whole project of industrialisation was so wasteful that overall production of key resources failed to reach anything like the planned levels. And it was all a waste of time as the quality of the steel produced was so poor as to be useless; as Ian Dury and the Blockheads once sang: ‘What a waste’.

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This propaganda poster calls on Chinese people to produce more steel: “Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields.” It’s hardly the snappiest slogan of all time but it’s a clear message and a classic image. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The problems caused in the towns were terrible but those in the countryside were even worse. Unrealistic targets, attacks on those who challenged the system and the loss of experienced workers combined to create harvest failures on a massive scale. One of the worst famines of modern times was the result and at least 20 million people died. Some estimates actually put the death toll at over 40 million, which would make it the worst recorded ‘natural’ disaster of all time. And the blame for what happened lies sully on the shoulders of Chairman Mao Zedong, making him a serious contender for the title of the ‘greatest killer of all time’. But the full details of the tragedy did not emerge for many years because Mao made sure that there was a total suppression of information. No one was allowed to mention the famine, deaths and problems associated with the failed experiment so that no resources were diverted to help those in need. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ came to an abrupt end in 1961 and was a disaster on an unprecedented scale.

One footnote to the tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ was the fate of Tree Sparrows in China, one of those sad, simple stories which show human beings at their worst. As part of the campaign for industrialisation, Mao launched an attack on what were known as the ‘Four Great Pests’, namely, rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows. Regarding the sparrows, Mao believed that they were eating grain and so disrupting agricultural production – and they had to go. No one knows quite how many birds died but it was in their many millions that these small birds fell to the ground. The usual plan was for people to make as much noise as possible so that the sparrows would not settle in the trees to rest and so fall to the ground exhausted. This was done by banging pots and pans, waving flags or simply shouting. Birds were shot, traps were set, nests were torn down, stones were thrown and eggs were broken in an attempt to wipe out the Tree Sparrows. The campaign was a part of the disaster, though, as too many sparrows died which allowed a plague of locusts and grasshoppers to attack the harvest. It was a tragic ecological footnote to an horrific human disaster.

Mao was less secure in his position as Chairman following the disaster of the ‘Great Leap Forward’. His behaviour became increasingly eccentric and he withdrew from public view more and more, adopting an approach similar to one of the old Emperors rather than that of the ‘Father of the Nation’. In an attempt to re-assert control over the Communist Party and the country, Mao launched the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966. One feature of this plan to re-gain control of the state was the publication of the ‘Little Red Book’. Red Army soldiers, children at school, students at university and ordinary people in the street were expected to have their copy and to read it. It was seen at rally after rally and it was read out at meetings, on the street and over the radio. For a person to read the works of other authors or to question Mao’s ideas in any way was enough to unleash the most severe consequences. This period saw a ban on the publication of new books or the presentation of new ideas on just about any topic. Journals on the arts were banned and art schools were closed. Old monuments and temples were attacked and the works of Confucius were amongst those burnt; only the books of Lu Xun were allowed. Lu Xun (1881-1936) was the one author Mao admired and saw as completely acceptable with regard to Communism, although the author himself never joined the Chinese Communist Party.

The ‘Cultural Revolution’ was a drastic and devastating attempt to ‘purify’ Chinese society of all opposition, rather in the style of Stalin in the ‘Great Purges’ and the ‘Show Trials’ of the 1930s. It was a classic example of what extreme dictators do: they dictate in extreme ways. Mao aimed to re-establish his control over the Communist Party and thousands of people were removed as a part of this process, including former allies, leaders and critics. The most high profile casualty was the man who appeared to be Mao’s heir, Lin Biao, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1969, shades of Stalin’s removal of Trotsky perhaps. The ‘Cultural Revolution’ had clear echoes of Stalinism, as it involved attacks on any form of opposition to Mao, especially focusing on landowners and ‘intellectuals’. In reality, this was all an attempt to expose and remove any officials who questioned Mao’s methods or showed any support for the Soviet model of Communism. It set back any hope of political and economic progress in China by a generation.

In echoes of Stalin’s use of propaganda, this most dark episode had to be ‘sold’ as a triumph and there was a widespread use of posters, songs and badges carrying Mao’s image. Here is a translation of one song from those days but you will have to work out any tune for yourselves:

Ten hundred million people unite in fighting; our red state power stands firm.

A new generation is growing to maturity,

Going against the wind and breaking the waves, they are the heroes.

The industries learn from Daqing,

And the agricultural sector learns from Dazhai.

News of victory is reported all around the country.

Seven hundred million people follow Chairman Mao,

To continue revolution and walk forward.

 

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Proletarian Cultural Revolution is indeed good,

Oh, indeed good, indeed good and indeed, indeed good!

 

There were so many horror stories from these days that they are impossible to list. Anyone who was wealthy could see their house taken from them and the whole family forced to live in one room. Red Guards could enter a house and simply destroy anything they chose to see as a sign of being one of the ‘bourgeoisie’, such as a painting, a chair or having meat in the house when others didn’t. Wearing western clothes or having a foreign book or music in your house could bring the most severe punishment. To forget a saying from the ‘Little Red Book’ could bring a beating or imprisonment, as well as the loss of a job. Certain foreign nationals faced particular dangers, such as the Tibetans, a situation which has echoes today in the plight of that nation. The children of the rich were sometimes simply murdered for their privileged background, the bodies being thrown onto rubbish tips. And while all this was happening, rather like in the French revolution, no one was able to question what was happening for fear of their own death.

The Cultural Revolution resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million people between 1966 and 1976. It’s the sort of number that doesn’t sound too bad if you say it quickly but that is pretty much the same as the deaths in the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 and the equivalent of, say, twice the population of modern Berlin, although all such comparisons are pretty meaningless in the end; it is a number beyond comprehension for most of us. At the forefront of the atrocities carried out were the ‘Red Guard’, usually young, zealous, fanatical members of the Party. The horrors of those tragic days also had echoes of the Holocaust as party officials competed with each other by identifying and removing more ‘enemies’, so showing their ‘greater’ loyalty to Mao. In the cities, party officials were forced into humiliating public admissions of guilt; in the countryside it was reported that wearing glasses was enough to mark someone as an intellectual. Everywhere, the bodies piled higher as a sign of the purification of the country. Despite these horrors, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ did not mark the darkest days of Mao’s regime, though, thanks to the earlier tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’.

Mao Zedong died in 1976. He was 82 years old and had ruled China for 27 years. As he got older, he was increasingly paranoid so that he rarely washed and refused to clean his teeth for many years, fearing this would be a way in which he might be poisoned. His private life became increasingly secretive and, according to his personal doctor, morally corrupt. He used heavy barbiturates but generally enjoyed reasonable health until his death. Of the many words he said and wrote, his final ones were, apparently, ‘I feel ill; get the doctors’, something he denied to many millions.

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On Mao’s death, there was an enormous outpouring of grief in a manner which was very similar to that for Joseph Stalin, as the photo shows. The people lined up in their thousands to pay their respects and his body is still preserved and honoured; his mausoleum stands at the east of Tienanmen  Square and is a popular place for both tourists and local people to visit. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Little Red Book’ might have claimed to offer wisdom and guidance for a new world and a ‘heaven on earth’, but one hell of a lot of it was written in blood. His final ‘death toll’ was put at more than 70 million, a number well in excess of either Hitler or Stalin, and he has to stand alongside them when it comes to any contest for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Twentieth Century’.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book’ (www.bnpublishing.com); ‘Private Life of Chairman Mao’ by Zhisui Li (Arrow, 1996); ‘Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962’ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011); ‘The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1957′ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013); ‘Tombstone: the Untold Story of Mao’s Great famine’  by Yang Jisheng (Allen lane, 2012); ‘The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Richard Curt Kraus (OUP); ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang (HarperPress, 2012) and ‘Friends and Enemies: Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party in China’ by Kerry Brown (Anthem Press, 2009)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN), especially episode 15, ‘China, 1949-76′ although interesting background can be found throughout.

 

 

 

 

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

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A Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in Vietnam in protest at the anti-Buddhist policies of the Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

The memorial below is in the US capital, Washington, D.C., and honours the 36 000 American soldiers who died in the Korean War (1950-53). It is a monument paid for by the US Government. It was only commissioned in the 1990s, though, a late remembrance of a war which saw the USA lead the forces of the United Nations to a stalemate with the North Korean army which was backed by the USSR and China. The USA just about achieved its aims in that conflict by stopping the fall of South Korea to Communism.

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The Memorial to the Korean War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not that far from the Korean War Memorial, stands another one. This one is also from the Twentieth Century and remembers more than 58 000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973. But this one received no money from the US Government and had to be paid for by the ‘Vietnam Veterans’ themselves. The decision to set up this memorial was inspired by a film, ‘The Deer Hunter’, just one of many famous Vietnam War films. There was widespread opposition in the USA to the memorial as it was simply a wall with a list of all those who died in the conflict. For many people, the problem was that it was not considered ‘heroic’ enough when it was first unveiled. But there was also a real issue about how to remember the victims of the most controversial war in the history of the USA, especially as it can be considered one which ended in defeat, despite many comments to the contrary which claim it was a victory for ‘Uncle Sam’. The memorial has become a major shrine to honour those who died, as well as a focus for those who survived but suffered either physically or mentally through the experience. There is no memorial for those ‘Vietnam Veterans’ who have died since the war, mainly through suicide and the effect of their injuries.

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The Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the years since the conflict ended for the USA in 1973 as supporters of the war claim a figure of about 9 000 while veterans associations put the figure at well over 100 000. Statistics are dangerous things, of course, and the figures are highly disputed, but what is not in doubt is that many ‘Vietnam Veterans’ have suffered physically, psychologically and emotionally since the war finished. Some figures indicate that these men were nearly twice as likely as non-veterans to die of suicide, and over 50% more likely to die in road accidents. (University of California at San Francisco article, New England Journal of Medicine, March 1986, “Delayed Effects of the Military Draft on Mortality,”) The impact in terms of employment, substance abuse, relationship breakdown, violence, crime and the like have not been accurately measured but evidence suggests that Vietnam is a war many Veterans have not got over and the country itself has failed to come to terms with.

So, why is there such a difference in the memorials to the dead of these two wars? Why were the dead from Korea, the ‘Forgotten War’, eventually honoured with public money while those from Vietnam have not been ‘officially’ honoured?

The essential word is clear but rarely spoken: ‘lost’. The USA struggled in Korea but was clearly able to claim victory in a way but it effectively lost the Vietnam War and, in a pretty blatant act of denial, most Americans still seem to want to deny or ignore it. This is one of the factors which make the Vietnam War such a fascinating conflict on so many different levels and the number of books, documentaries, films and photos from the war bear ample testimony to this. The casualties, causes, outcomes and memories are all seen and interpreted under the shadow of that one word: lost. As ‘Top Nation’ of the Twentieth Century, the USA just doesn’t do ‘we lost’ to any real degree. The national psyche is geared to optimism, power, control and success; America loves winners not losers, even if they be ‘brave losers’, be it in business, sport, politics or war. This is one of the great strengths and most annoying traits of US culture, especially for British people; the Americans really don’t get that ‘plucky loser’ thing at all.

Anyway, a short study of Vietnam and the war which has defined it in public awareness for the last half-century. But before getting into the ‘When, Where, Who, How and Why’ questions, it is always sensible to start with a map or two so we know where we are.

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Map showing Vietnam as a united country. Its neighbours are: China, Laos and Cambodia. (Author: Welt Reis; Source: here)

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This map shows the main railway lines in Vietnam. They connect the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi is the capital while Ho Chi Minh City is the former capital of South Vietnam under its old name, Saigon. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Vietnam a long, thin country in South-east Asia, about 1650 kms (900 miles) long but only 50 kms (32 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It is a long way from the USA, on the opposite side of the world to Washington, DC, and 12 twelve time zones apart. It is a tropical country, with lots of rainforest but also mountains down the spine of the country. It is a hot, humid country for much of the year, getting most of its rain in the monsoons. Its population today is about 89 million (making it the 13th largest in the world) but in 1950 it was only about 28 million so there has been quite an increase. Most people live near the coast, and in the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Many people also live on the great delta of the Mekong River. By the way, if you’ve ever seen the musical called ‘Miss Saigon’, it is based on a famous old story called ‘Madame Butterfly’ with the story transferred to Saigon in the 1970s. The love story is changed to focus on a Vietnamese girl and an American GI at the very end of the Vietnam War, which we’ll get to soon. An ordinary American soldier, the equivalent of a ‘private’ in Britain, was called a ‘GI’, which stands for ‘Government Issue’, reflecting the equipment used, and it does not mean ‘General Infantry’, as I was always told when I was young.

Historically, Vietnam has been defined by its relationship with its neighbours, Laos, Cambodia and, most of all, China. In saying that, it is really no different to most other countries: neighbours impact on our lives and, when they are big and powerful, they fundamentally shape us. China’s repeated attempts to take control of Vietnam helped define it over many centuries. The Vietnamese have long held simple, clear goals as a community: independence and control of their own destiny. They fought off the Chinese by the late 10th century and then the Mongols in the 13th century, mismatches on the scale of David and Goliath (or Colchester 3 Leeds 2, FA Cup Fifth Round, 1971 – a delight for anyone outside Elland Road – ask your granddad about it). If you are interested in strong female role models, by the way, check out the extraordinary Vietnamese Trung Sisters (Trung Nac and Trung Nhi), warriors from the 1st century AD. They are still celebrated today, and a holiday is celebrated in their honour each February.

Following these events, after 1285 or so, the Vietnamese settled down to a simple, independent life based on a powerful sense of community: the village and the family was all. The country was poor (it remains one of the poorest countries in the world to this day), mainly being a subsistence economy, which means it only really produced enough food and goods for its own needs, having little or nothing left for trade or development. The long era of peace was finally shattered with the arrival of the French in South-east Asia in the mid-19th century. At the time, France was trying to build a larger Empire, partly in response to the power of the British Empire, and expanded is control into this region of Asia. The region became known as ‘French Indo-China’ and included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a useful area for the French, offering important resources in an area which also provided good communication and trade links with China, Australia and India. The main role of the region, though, was to support France at home, as is the case with any Empire.

French control brought significant changes in Vietnamese society. The wealthier members of society tended to collaborate with the French, learning to speak French and many became Catholic. Most of the Vietnamese remained poor, though, kept their Buddhist faith as well as speaking their own local languages. This division in Vietnamese society, based on language, politics, culture and religion, would become increasingly significant in the following century. Wealth came to some people but at the cost of control over their own lives, politically, socially and economically. This did not impact so much on the many people who lived out in the villages and mountains but it did affect life in the growing cities and towns. Many people just got on with life but some wanted Vietnam to be left alone, to be independent again, free to control its own affairs in its own way. One of these men was born in Vietnam in 1890. He was called Nguyen Sinh Cung and he became famous for his struggle to defend Vietnam; he was known to the world as ‘Ho Chi Minh’ (pronounced ‘Hoe-Chee-Min’).

At the time of the Vietnam War, and in the decades since, the USA has been keen to portray Ho Chi Minh as an evil dictator, a part of the Communist coalition controlled by Moscow and set on the destruction of the West and its way of life. This is an unfair and narrow assessment. Ho Chi Minh is a classic example of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ His name was a nickname, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’, although it was probably one that he gave himself, which is never that satisfactory, rather like Joe McCarthy calling himself ‘Tail Gunner Joe’. Whatever the Americans and the West might have thought, though, Ho was extremely popular in North Vietnam, being Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945-55 and President from 1945-69. However, he was no ‘saint’ and was responsible for many deaths, especially amongst Government officials, and, of course, during the war. But was he justified from the point of view of self-defence on behalf of his country? It’s always an interesting question. Ask Harry Truman if the atom bombs which killed so many Japanese civilians were justified. Or ask Churchill if he approved of so many Russian deaths under Stalin, if ‘Bomber’ Harris had sleepless nights over the dead of Dresden or General Franco if he felt guilty over the destruction of Guernica. When words don’t work, in legitimate or illegitimate causes, violence often follows; it’s never easy and it’s never straight-forward.

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Ho Chi Minh just after World War II. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

So, let’s look at Nguyen Sinh Cung, the boy who grew up to become ‘Ho Chi Minh’. As a child, Cung studied Confucianism and also had a formal, French education, learning Chinese as well as French. He combined Eastern and Western influences, applying an understanding of these ‘foreign’ values over a framework of traditional Vietnamese teachings. His family were strong supporters of independence and expressed anti-French views; his father, in particular, got into a lot of trouble with the authorities. In his early 20s, Cung chose to travel and visited the USA, Britain, France, China and the USSR. He paid for his travel by working his way in the kitchens on ships and then worked as a chef and a waiter in numerous hotels wherever he stayed. In the 1920s he was in Paris, where he first encountered Communism, a system which made sense to him as its values echoed those of his Vietnamese roots. He had also met Korean nationalists in England who fired up his belief in resistance and the need to oppose colonial control. The 1920s and 1930s saw him living in Moscow, China, Thailand and Italy among other countries, seeing many different types of government, from Communist through to Fascist, democracies, monarchies and dictatorships. He married a Chinese girl, contracted a killer-disease called tuberculosis and, in 1940, finally took that name, ‘Ho Chi Minh’ or ‘Bringer of Light’. His education through travel had brought enlightenment and a sense of what was the best way forward for his home country.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, to lead the Viet Minh, a resistance organisation. He was determined to liberate his country, firstly by fighting the French and, when they were overthrown, the Japanese, who had took control of the country during World War II. The odd thing is that, a bit like support for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Viet Minh were secretly helped by the USA in their struggle with Japan during the war. The weapons they had been given to fight the Japanese would later be used to attack the French and the Americans themselves. History is a strange place to visit at times.

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh was convinced that freedom had come to Vietnam with the removal of the Japanese. He declared the independence of the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’, convinced that a new era would dawn with Vietnam being able to take control of its own destiny. Ironically, he based a lot of his vision on the revolutionary actions which had formed two countries that he knew well and admired: France and the USA. He was convinced that they would both understand and agree with what he had done, as they were historically such believers in independence, liberty and the right to control your own destiny. Ho Chi Minh actually wrote to President Truman on seven occasions after WWII, explaining what he was doing and asking for his support; Truman did not reply to any of the letters. And then, much against his own beliefs and the historic values of the USA, Truman approved the return of Indo-China to French control, a direct rejection of all that Ho Chi Minh had asked for. So it was that, with US approval, the French went back to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, re-establishing the old ways and systems against which the Viet Minh and others had struggled for so long. And so the fighting started once again.

Why did the USA support France’s return to Indo-China? Well, it’s a bit complicated but, in simple terms, it was probably just too much like hard-work to say ‘no’. One does not want to compare a whole nation with a stroppy, anxious teenager but that image is not a bad one to have as you read the next bit. The French had suffered badly in World War II, morally and psychologically as much as militarily and financially. Defeat at the hands of the Nazis saw France under German control between May 1940 and June 1944. This had led to the establishment of the ‘Vichy Government’ in the south of France while the Germans controlled the north. Vichy France was basically an organised form of collaboration with the Nazis. In their defence, they did not have much choice as, if they had not collaborated, the politicians would have been ‘removed’ and the Nazis would have just taken over anyway. There was a French Government in exile under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, but it relied on other countries, such as the US, Britain and Canada, for it to function. France, for so long a great power with a proud history, had lost control of its own country and its Empire, and relied on others to maintain some sense of its own independence. When liberation and ‘victory’ came in 1945, the humiliation and the legacy of collaboration found France a divided country. In the post—war period, the politicians wanted to re-establish the confidence and unity through the restoration of its glorious past. As a once proud nation, the people rallied behind its key political figures, men like de Gaulle, but the memories were painful and, the route to the future was a short-sighted interpretation of its past.

The world in 1945 was an anxious place, but France was under more pressure than most countries. No country was keener to re-establish its former glory but the balance of power had shifted and clearly lay with the ‘Big Three’: the USA, the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Britain. This was seen at Yalta and Potsdam, where the post-war future was shaped. The photos of those Conferences show just three leaders: at Yalta in February 1945 this meant Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the USA, Winston Churchill for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union; at Potsdam in July 1945, it meant Harry Truman for the USA, Clement Attlee for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union. France was not represented at the ‘top table’ and was, to a large extent, at the mercy of these agreements.

France was actually treated pretty well by the agreements made by the war time allies. Even though the French had played a minor role in the victory over Hitler and the Nazis, they were granted a role in running the post-war world. Although Stalin in particular saw no great reason to include France in these matters, Churchill was adamant that this should happen and his arguments won the day. Churchill believed that the French were needed to help ‘control’ a defeated Germany but he was also worried at the effect their not being involved might have on the country as a whole and on de Gaulle in particular. Put simply, he worried that in the face of such humiliation, they might sulk, stay on the sidelines and so weaken the pro-capitalism, pro-democracy alliance in Europe at a time when as much help as possible would be needed to rebuild the continent and resist potential Communist expansion. As a key member of the newly formed United Nations, a country with such a great heritage, an important economy and a significant Empire, Churchill saw the need to keep the French ‘on-side’.

Another important issue is that the USA had its own particular vision for the post-war world as it was keen to see an end to the old Empires, primarily those of Britain and France. However, the USA was also certain that it did not want to see Communist expansion around the world, especially in Europe, so keeping the French as ‘allies’ was vital. Washington did not want to see the French go back in to Indo-China but they felt that they had little real choice in the matter. French pride and the French economy had to be restored and if that involved massaging the ‘ego’ and restoring old trade links then so be it; there would be time to deal with the issue of ‘Empires’ in the years to come, but in the short-term, there were more pressing matters.

So it was that the French went back in to Vietnam and even received American aid. Over the years, that ‘assistance’ would grow, so that by the early 1950s, the USA was funding over 70% of French operations in the region. The funding was actually focused on struggles in Laos and Cambodia as much as Vietnam, with Communist-motivated forces being the perceived enemy. In reality, Laos rather than Vietnam was of far greater concern to the USA until the early 1960s, a fact which is one of those snippets of history which has been forgotten in the light of what happened later. The French really had the USA over a barrel, playing on their concerns in Europe about Communist expansion and using the frenzy over ‘the loss of China’ in late 1949 as a means to extract greater support (meaning money, weapons and approval) from the Truman administration.

Ho Chi Minh’s forces, the Viet Minh, were no match for the French in direct military terms. Naturally, they fought by using guerrilla warfare, tactics based on ambush and hit-and-run so as to avoid direct fighting with a more powerful enemy, tactics developed in the struggles of WWII. In these operations, Ho Chi Minh had the help and guidance of one of the great military commanders of the century: General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013). Giap (pronounced ‘Zi-ap’) retired from the army after the Vietnam War and had an unsuccessful time as a politician before becoming heavily involved in ecology and the defence of the Vietnamese environment. He was still active in this after his 100th birthday, a far cry from his time as the scourge of the mighty armies of France and the USA; he was a seriously interesting man.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap, military leader of the Viet Minh (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

During the immediate post-war years, the French had tried to re-establish their control of Vietnam, despite the resistance and opposition. One of their strategies had been maintain their ‘Puppet Emperor’, Bao Dai, in power for nearly a decade after WWII. The Viet Minh maintained their struggle over these years until the key battle of Dien Bien Phu in March-May 1954. After a 57 day siege of this huge fort and defence system in the north-west of the country, the French were defeated by the Viet Minh – and they promptly left and walked out of Vietnam, leaving a potential disaster for the West as a power vacuum appeared in this corner of South-east Asia. The USA faced a major dilemma as to what to do and they decided to take over from the French, supporting the unpopular pro-western regime of Bao Dai which had its main power base in the cities and the south. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had come to the Presidency as a Republican after victory in November, 1952, and found that he had little room for manoeuvre. He was elected because of his great military record and was seen to be someone who would take the fight to the Soviet Union, standing up to Communism and maintaining the most robust defence of the USA. In these years, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a fresh and powerful memory and an event which had blighted Harry Truman’s final years in office. No President could confidently face a similar accusation to that thrown at Truman, namely, the‘loss of China’. With belief in ‘domino theory’ at its height and with the country still in thrall to Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, even though he himself had just fallen from power, Eisenhower had little choice but to step in.

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Supplies for the French forces at Dien Bien Phu being dropped in 1954. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Americans now found themselves thrown into a leading role in a foreign environment and in a situation where they had little experience or expertise. One of the big problems was that in the previous years, they had got rid of nearly all of their experts on China and Vietnam because of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts; anyone interested in the region or who had visited it, studied it or spoke the language, had been removed because of fears over ‘Communist sympathies’. This was unfortunate, stupid or somewhere in between, depending on how you want to view it. Anyway, US policy became confused and chaotic as they misread information, misunderstood actions and made numerous mistakes based on political values at home rather than an accurate reading of events in Vietnam itself. Those responsible found themselves in a world they did not comprehend, doing things that made sense to themselves but which increasingly alienated the Vietnamese and failed to achieve any significant gains. Both politically and militarily, the Americans had a particular problem in that they were unwilling to do anything that hinted at weakness or compromise with Communism, as they believed strongly in ‘containment’ and the need to be strong in the face of the challenge they faced. It was an approach which would draw the USA irresistibly towards war.

The moment when US involvement in Indo-China became inevitable was the Geneva Conference, which was held in 1954-55 as a way of negotiating an acceptable way forward in Vietnam. The meeting was held in the aftermath of Dien Bien Phu and brought politicians from both sides in Vietnam together alongside the major powers. The Chinese, naturally, supported the Communists while the USA sided with Bao Dai and the pro-western groups. Discussions went on for some time before it was agreed that the country would be temporarily divided (just like Germany and Korea had been) into North Vietnam, under the control of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, and South Vietnam, which would be a pro-Western Government under a man called Ngo Dinh Diem, (pronounced ‘Ho Zin Zee-em’) as Prime Minister and, later, President.

Washington’s short-sighted thinking in this would become very significant and the echoes of their appointment of Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, were clear in their choice of Ngo Ding Diem. Diem spoke French and English and had lived in both France and the USA, as well as being a Catholic, a religion which made more sense to the Americans than did Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Vietnamese. As Prime Minister, Diem was someone Washington understood as he made sense to them but he was also deeply unpopular with the ordinary people of Vietnam. The longer he stayed in power, the more unpopular he became, thanks most of all to a culture of bribery that surrounded him and fed the legend of his sister-in-law, ‘Madame Nhu’, Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, the power behind the throne. Diem himself lived very simply and never married but his family became very rich through their links with him and the West. None of this had any impact on the Americans, of course, as they failed to consider the negative consequences of their actions on other people. Support for Diem would become increasingly important when Jack Kennedy, a Catholic himself, was elected President in 1960. JFK felt some extra sort of ‘obligation’ to support Diem because of their shared faith in the struggle against the Communist threat even when the evidence made it clear that the Vietnamese Prime Minister was a walking disaster.

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President Eisenhower (left) greeting President Ngo Dinh Diem in May, 1957. (Author: US Air Force; Source: here)

Going back to the Geneva Conference for a minute, it should be noted that it was decided to divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel (which means the 17th line of latitude i.e. 17˚ north of the equator). It was marked as the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (or DMZ) on maps, creating a border that split the country roughly in half. Originally it was supposed to last for one year or so until national elections were held which would choose a new democratic Government to re-unite the country. Both sides agreed to accept the result of this ‘free and fair’ contest. The election was never held, though, because the USA refused to allow them, claiming that the Communists would ensure that they were not ‘free and fair’. However, the reality was probably better expressed by Andrew Goodpaster, a general in the US Army and Eisenhower’s Staff Secretary, who in a rather uncomfortable interview in the 1990s, admitted that the real reason the elections could not be allowed was that Ho Chi Minh had the support of about 80% of the people and that his victory, and the West’s defeat, would have seen Communism win. This would then open Eisenhower up to the accusation of the ‘loss of Vietnam’. Logical though this might have been, it still puts a big question mark over the USA’s real commitment to ‘democracy’ at the time and reflects the deep anxiety at the power of ‘domino theory’ in the 1950s.

In the absence of the elections which would have seen him take power, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the USA and authorised increased attacks on South Vietnam and the Government in particular during the late 1950s. Thousands of Government officials were killed, injured and intimidated by the Viet Minh and their collaborators in the south, who would come to be known as the ‘Viet Cong’, an insulting nickname given them by Ngo Dinh Diem. (‘The full name of the group was ‘Viet Nam Cong San’ which translates as ‘Vietnamese Communists’.) These two groups would later fight together against the USA in the Vietnam War, but the main military force was the Viet Minh rather than the Viet Cong.

The Communist attacks on South Vietnam caused serious disruption and concern, leading Diem to beg for help from the USA. At first this meant sending money but soon weapons and ‘advisers’ of one kind and another had to go to help the South Vietnamese; they needed guidance on how to fight, use the weapons, plan strategies and so on. But this was not enough to stop the attacks which escalated and in the early 1960s more weapons and even helicopters were needed – as were pilots to fly them and engineers to maintain them. When these came under attack, small numbers of soldiers had to go in to protect them – and they also started to teach the South Vietnamese soldiers how to go on patrol and how to get captured prisoners to ‘talk’, the polite way of saying guidance on interrogation and torture. This all meant the US was being sucked into an increasingly demanding situation, one which demanded more money, more people, more soldiers and more technology to protect the advisers, transport and so on and so on. Soon the Americans themselves became a target for Viet Minh attack and containment was becoming increasingly messy for the USA.

One particularly controversial policy introduced by the US advisers was called ‘Strategic hamlets’. This was an attempt to control pro-Communist activities by bringing all the people outside the cities together in large, fortified and heavily controlled villages. The people gathered in these larger communities were to be listed, monitored and tracked as necessary. A plan which made sense to the US strategists, at least on paper, turned out to be a disaster. Fundamental to its failure was the total misunderstanding of Vietnamese culture and the role of the village, something which would be central to problems which would blight the war itself from Washington’s point of view. The Americans simply did not understand that, to the Vietnamese, the village was not just a place to live but was something far more important; it was central to each person’s identity, the expression of their belonging, their family, the society itself. People did not just get up and leave their home to move, say, to a bigger or newer place. Families lived in the same house and village for centuries, burying their ancestors in the area, remaining close to their spirits. Each generation cared for the home and village as the expression of their family at that time. To remove people from their village was to separate a family from its roots, to destroy identity and break the bonds of connections that were like life itself.

‘Strategic hamlets’ created huge resentment and drove many Vietnamese towards the Communists, not because of strong ideological commitment but as they offered a way to restore people to their roots. Anyway, on a more practical level, the US had no easy way of monitoring all the people in the ‘strategic hamlets’, checking who was coming and going, or where they were going and what they were doing. Many American soldiers developed a very dismissive attitude towards local people, seeing them all as stupid and weak because they were poor by their standards, spoke a language they did not understand and ‘they all looked the same’. These issues would only get worse in the years that followed.

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The defences of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in 1964. (Author: Brotherreuse; Source: here)

Despite the many tensions in Vietnam, war was not inevitable at this time. However, such events rarely take place in isolation from other events and the early 1960s were, of course, a time of extraordinary tension in the Cold War and this must be considered as the back-drop to Vietnam. There had been increased division with the ‘Communist ‘family’ since the late 1950s as Chairman Mao was breaking with Khrushchev to follow more overtly aggressive and Stalinist policies seen in the threats against Taiwan and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which brought widespread famine. The U-2 spy plane incident had heightened tension between the East and West in 1960, a situation which only worsened with the Bay of Pigs Fiasco in April 1961, the building of the Berlin Wall in August of the same year and then the Cuban Missile Crisis itself in October 1962. The USSRs successes in the Space Race had been enhanced by Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961 and served to highlight Soviet technological advances as did the further development of nuclear missiles. Vietnam was set to become a place of great significance for the USA, the place where a stand would be taken against the rising tide of Communist threats and expansion but there would have to be a clear and specific threat identified before such a conflict could be started.

In the early 1960s, as we have seen, there was very significant unrest and attacks in South Vietnam. The most visible sign of those protests came in the actions of numerous Buddhist monks, as the picture at the start of this chapter indicated. In opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem’s unwillingness to recognise various Buddhist festivals, some monks set themselves on fire on the streets, often making contact with Western journalists and film crews beforehand so that they would turn up and witness what happened. the images went around the world and shocked many people so that they demanded answers about what was happening in the country. In the Cold War struggle for ‘hearts and minds, in Vietnam and around the world, such images hardly reflected well on the USA as the supposed leader of freedom and tolerance.

The actual trigger for the war itself came in August, 1964, with what became known as ‘The Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. The Gulf of Tonkin itself is the area of the sea just off the north east coast of Vietnam. US warships were patrolling there during the summer of 1964, partly because the US Navy had earlier been involved in covert missions to help fast patrol boats manned by South Vietnamese commandos to attack North Vietnam. Although the US forces had blocked radar systems in North Vietnam, those attacks had failed due to poor intelligence about the targeted sites. In an attempt to weaken the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese defences, an intelligence gathering operation called the ‘Desoto Patrol’ had been set up using US destroyers in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hanoi knew about this and the USs involvement in the earlier attacks on North Vietnam bridges and other military sites. They decided to use Soviet built P-4 motor torpedo boats which were not fast enough to hit the Norwegian made patrol boats but could work against the slower destroyers. One of these was the USS Maddox under the command of Captain John J. Herrick. On 2nd August, the Maddox was attacked although not damaged, except for one round of ammunition which hit the ship; the torpedoes missed. The P-4s were destroyed.

In Washington, there was surprise that Ho Chi Minh had not backed down under pressure and had responded in such a strong and attacking manner. It was decided that there had to be a show of strength by the USA as it could not be seen to back down in the face of Communist threats. The ‘Maddox’ continued its operations and was supported by another warship presence. With everything in a state of heightened tension, it was reported that two days later, on 4th August, the ‘Maddox’ had again come under attack. However, there was great confusion at the time as to whether or not that was actually true. An American pilot who was sent out to see what was happening reported nothing at all even though it was a clear night. Subsequent investigations and evidence show that there was, in fact, no attack that night. However, on 5th August, 1964, an American attack was launched which destroyed an oil storage unit at Vinh and sank about thirty ships along the coast. Of far more importance, though, was that on 7th August, Congress passed the ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’. Although no attack had taken place, President Johnson was given absolute power to conduct the war using military force as he alone saw fit. The door had been left wide open for the escalation of hostilities against Communist forces in Vietnam and LBJ would go through that door a few months later.

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The ‘USS Maddox’, the ship at the heart of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

One other thing worth noting at this time is a report presented a year earlier to President Kennedy, a report completed at the request of Robert MacNamara, the Defense Secretary. The report was the result of the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ which aimed to investigate how the South Vietnamese and their US advisers as they sort to gain control of the country and withstand Viet Cong insurgents. General Victor Krulak represented the  military while Joseph Mendenhall was more of a civil servant who had experience of Vietnam and was part of the Foreign Service. What is fascinating about the report they presented is how confused it was and how the two men gave such differing opinions. On one hand, there was Krulak looked only at the military operation itself where he saw only the positive and was extremely complimentary about what had been achieved, leading to him being very optimistic about the future. On the other hand, Mendenhall looked at the bigger picture, especially the attitudes and actions of the ordinary people and here he saw only causes for concern; the people were so anti-Diem that they believed that life would be better under the Viet Cong. Mendenhall’s informed pessimism contrasted so much with Krulak’s military focused optimism that it led Kennedy to ask, ‘The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?’ In showing the problems between the military and the civilian approaches, between the Pentagon and the politicians, as well as the difficulty in gathering accurate assessments of the situation, the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ is a great insight into the future problems that would so undermine the whole US policy towards Vietnam; they were stumbling towards the edge.

The Vietnam War officially started in February-March 1965 when President Johnson launched air strikes and then sent in the first US ground troops to support the South Vietnamese Army. Johnson had delayed intervention until after the presidential election of November 1964, an election he won comfortably in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination the previous year. And Johnson was in many ways a hostage to fortune because of events which Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Truman had set in train. The Vietnam War would come to be known as ‘Johnson’s War’ but it was really the natural expression of containment, the policy of the previous two decades. Containment of Communism would find a very real expression at some place and that turned out to be Vietnam.

One particular stage on the way to war was the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of South Vietnam in November 1963. As mentioned before, Diem was deeply unpopular with many ordinary people. In the early 1960s, leading figures in the South Vietnamese Army wanted him to be replaced but President Kennedy would not allow it. Rather like the attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Diem was a ‘situation’ he had inherited from Eisenhower and he was determined to stand by him. Diem was seen as loyal and tough so choosing an alternative ran the risk of Kennedy being seen as ‘weak’ in the struggle against Communism. Kennedy was especially keen to support Diem as a fellow Catholic and this may have coloured his approach more than was healthy.

Kennedy may have heard but resisted the calls for Diem’s removal but he had likewise resisted many requests from President Diem to send in combat troops before 1963 as he was scared of escalating the conflict in Vietnam. As the conflict intensified, JFK received more and more requests for the removal of Diem and by late 1963, things were deteriorating so much that Kennedy finally gave the go-ahead and Diem was assassinated by his own troops on 2nd November, 1963. This brought in a period of chaos in South Vietnam as eight military coups took place in quick succession. This caused great anxiety in Washington but it all paled next to the key event of that period: the assassination of President Kennedy on 22nd November, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s killing. The new president was the former vice –president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), a Texan with great political experience. LBJ was wary of escalating American involvement in Vietnam before the 1964 election even though the military were calling for direct involvement. Johnson was determined to win the Presidency and then the military could have their war. He wanted to concentrate on Civil Rights and building the ‘Great Society’, both of which would were based on the highest of ideals but would both be seriously compromised by the war.

Johnson eventually launched the Vietnam War with ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, after February 1965. The huge B-52 bombers dropped astonishing quantities of bombs both then and during the eight years of US involvement in the war, causing death and destruction on an extraordinary scale. In March 1965, the first 5000 US Marines were sent to fight, their numbers reaching 38 000 by the end of the year. From the first major battle at Ia Drang in November, 1965, until the US troops withdrew in 1973, the fighting would cost 58 000 US lives while hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died or suffered injuries. People from Australia, South Korea, Cambodia, New Zealand and China were amongst the many others who served and died in the war.

The Vietnam War divided US society and saw some of the largest protests in its history. It brought pressure to bear on Washington as many allies and critics questioned its role, aims and values in the conduct of the war. It would be the event which ended President Johnson’s career, bringing Richard Nixon to power and so heralding change in Cold War relations. And it would lead to the creation of some of the most important music, art and literature of the era, although that will have to be left until a later chapter.

Hopefully, though, it is becoming more clear as to why the US had a problem in creating a memorial to the Vietnam War.

 

 

General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

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General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

‘The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.’ General George C. Marshall, ‘The Marshall Plan Speech’, 1947

‘What should I call you, General? Would it be okay to call you ‘George’? ‘No, Mr. President, ‘General’ will be fine.’ This rather splendid snippet of conversation took place between President Harry Truman and General George C. Marshall as the general became the USA’s Secretary of State in 1947. The Secretary of State is a very senior politician, the person given responsibility for foreign affairs, having the same role as the Foreign Secretary in most other countries. Few people have imposed their mark on US foreign affairs in quite the way that Marshall did in just two years from 1947-1949, and for such an important man, surprisingly few people today have really heard of him. This will be an opportunity to at least make people aware of General Marshall and the incredibly important work he did. But, please, don’t expect any passion, laughs or scandal – this is a man who was, apparently, even called ‘General’ by his wife.

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General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) – US Secretary of State, 1947-49. The ‘C’ stands for ‘Catlett’ but I suspect no one was brave enough to use this to the General. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Everyone wants peace when there’s a war on but, when it comes, that peace usually brings many problems: refugees, power vacuums, broken infrastructure, a loss of organisation in communities, unemployment, crop failure, illness and many other issues can threaten stability, especially after a major conflict. In Europe after 1945, the aftermath of World War II, the greatest war in history, presented immense challenges for all concerned. Germany and her allies had been forced to surrender and the most powerful country and economy of mainland Europe in 1939 had basically ceased to exist by 1945. Except for the USA, and some of the countries that had been neutral in the war, the damage from the war was impacting on daily life across the globe. Britain could claim victory but it was achieved at a huge cost and, in many people’s eyes, it has never fully recovered from that victory. In Europe, trade had almost ceased, factories lacked resources and energy, markets were no more, and money had ceased to be worth anything. Civil wars and localised disputes erupted or became continuations of the great conflict, plunging many regions into further chaos. Transport systems, power grids, hygiene, water supplies, hospitals, schools and many other essentials of modern life were no longer in place in most countries. Millions of people had been displaced by the fighting and had to make their way home across the continent, walking for hundreds of miles, finding food where they could, sleeping when they could. In the first years of peace, Europe hovered on the brink of collapse. But it was not only Europe which faced the most uncertain of futures as the whole world had been drawn in to this war; chaos was found across the globe and a new world order was needed.

It’s almost impossible to say how many people died in World War II. Estimates for the total vary between 45 million and 72 million, but a figure of around 58-60 million people is often used. Based on that estimate, it means that about 30 000 people had died every day for the six years of the war. In other words, about 10 times as many people died on every one of those 2000 days of fighting as died on 9/11. Every death is a tragedy but this went into numbers never seen before. It impacted on countries across the globe in an unprecedented manner. In Germany, an estimated 7 million people died from a population of 73 million in 1939; in the Soviet Union, between 20 and 30 million people died out of about 180 million. And don’t forget, these are only the deaths: in addition there were the wounded, the bereaved, the emotionally traumatised, those who lost their education, businesses, homes and so on. The peace had to be lived by people who had suffered on an unimaginable scale.

The damage done in a material sense was highlighted by the extraordinary impact of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and also in the more conventional but extraordinary struggles for Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht assaults on the USSR’s three major cities had a devastating impact on those cities and the whole country, holding it back many years in its development, especially when compared to the relatively light casualties of the USA (about 400 000 deaths) and the negligible destruction to the country itself. The contrasting wartime experiences of the USA and the USSR, who became the two ‘Superpowers’, would be one of the key factors that shaped the second half of the century.

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The shells of buildings in Dresden suggest just a few of the problems facing Europe in 1945. Problems to do with refugees, homelessness, sanitation, employment and transport were clear and urgent. (Author: G. Beyer; Source: here)

So, in 1946-47, Europe was on its knees. In his role with the US army at this time, General Marshall visited many countries and saw the desperate state of the people and their economies. He believed that something had to be done not only to save lives but also, with what was a matter of real concern for the USA, to save the continent of Europe from the clutches of Stalin and the USSR. Communism had reached deep into Europe by May, 1945, with the Red Army having reached the River Elbe in central Germany. Marshall feared that many Europeans would be so desperate that they would seek a solution to the chaos of their lives by turning to the Left, fooled into a rejection of capitalism and democracy by the promise of help and a new way of living under Moscow’s ‘guidance’. He believed something had to be done and done quickly – and only the USA was in a position to ‘save the free world’.

By previous agreements made by the ‘Big Three’ during the war, the USA, the Soviet Union and Britain had decided that Moscow was to have a large element of influence and control in post-war Europe. Germany and Berlin (as with Austria and Vienna) were to be divided following the agreements signed at the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945. Europe itself was to be divided into two spheres of influence with the USSR taking control of the East as its share of the spoils of war. The countries of Western Europe were to remain independent but their security and stability could not be guaranteed if they disintegrated economically and fell into political and social chaos. These were bleak times for millions who had to rebuild their lives in the wake of the war and concerns reached across the Atlantic Ocean to Washington and the White House.

Despite the urgent hardship facing many people, General Marshall’s greatest fear was that, left to its own devices, Western Europe would fall to the influence of Moscow. He believed that this could be forced by a desperate short-term need for survival, so the challenge for the USA was to deliver a huge amount of aid in a very short period of time. The finance, logistics and organisation involved in meeting this challenge was unprecedented in the modern world but it had to be attempted for the cost of doing nothing did not bear thinking about. The USA desperately needed its former allies and other rich countries in Western Europe for trade, as much as anything else, so it was imperative that US politicians did not choose isolationism as they had done after World War I. Marshall was the man who would persuade President Truman to adopt the greatest package of economic aid in history.

The decision to follow Marshall’s plan would have far reaching consequences. The dominance and economic power of the USA in the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the events of the two World Wars. The world is like it is today in large part because of what was agreed, the ‘Marshall Plan’ and ‘Marshall Aid’, the money that flowed from the plan. The aid was the money which delivered the goals outlined in the plan; like a giant life support system, Western Europe was first kept alive and then helped to recover because of Marshall’s vision, Truman’s understanding and the USA’s economic power. The Marshall Plan drew the USA into world affairs in a way it had never done before, shaping the Cold War and setting agendas which are still alive today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. George Marshall never planned to put MacDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC on every High Street and in shopping malls around the world but that, too, would become major consequences of what he proposed in those meetings with Truman. Rarely has such an apparently dull man brought about such massive change.

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The raising of the Communist ‘Red Flag’ over the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin marked the arrival of Communism in the very heart of Europe. Mikhail Minin, the man who raised the flag, only died in 2008 at the age of 85. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

When the ‘Marshall Plan’ (or the ‘European Recovery Programme’ to give it its proper title) was introduced, though, it was part of the West’s longer term understanding of political tensions which existed with Moscow. Two of ‘The Big Three’, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and US President, Franklin Roosevelt, had long been concerned about the possibility of the growth of Communism into Central Europe after the war. They had desperately needed the USSR as an ally during World War II but, as peace loomed, the presence of Red Army troops so far towards the West was a matter of grave concern. During the final months of the war, Churchill had encouraged western forces to drive as far to the East as possible, so as to reduce the area under Stalin’s control when the war ended. In 1946, Churchill went to the USA and delivered his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech about the fall of the ancient territories of Eastern Europe to Soviet control. The map of the world had been redrawn and one hell of a lot of it looked ‘Commie Red’ to Washington’s eyes. In an attempt to grasp what Stalin and the USSR was likely to do, President Truman, who had little experience of foreign affairs, contacted the US Embassy in Moscow. He requested that someone should give him an understanding of Soviet foreign policy and their likely plans for the coming years. He little bargained for the reply he got from one George Kennan (pronounced ‘Kee-nan’). His reply would become one of the most important documents of the 20th century; it would have made a very short book but those 8000 words made for a mightily important document, known as ‘Kennan’s Long Telegram’.

The ‘Long Telegram’ attempted to explain Soviet policy by giving a short lesson in Russian history. Kennan believed a brief answer which looked only at recent events would be both inaccurate and misleading, so he looked back over several centuries to the Tsars and the creation of the Russian nation itself. Stalin himself often spoke of regaining territory held by the Tsars of old, comparing himself with Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible far more than with Lenin. Kennan spoke of the many cultures, nationalities, languages and religions in the largest country on earth. He spoke of the struggle for unity that the Tsars had fought over the years and the threats they had faced on their long borders. Kennan pointed out that the Tsars had tried to create unity by creating a sense of fear amongst the people by highlightingthe fear that other nations, especially those in the West, were determined to destroy them. Regular invasion threats had been met by force which had moulded the nation and strengthened the hand of the House of Muscovy (Moscow) which had come to rule the Russian peoples. Kennan pointed out that the Communist system took a similar approach to that of the Tsars. By creating a sense of threat, it was able to enhance its own position at the centre (leading and protecting the nation) and encouraging the people to keep pushing at its own borders, trying to repel others by expanding its own lands. This expansionism had to be met by consistent, clear and firm resistance, a sort of containment; this was the key message of the ‘Long Telegram’.

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George Kennan (1904-2005) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

George Kennan’s analysis of Stalin, the Soviet leadership and the USSR’s goals made a very deep impression on Truman. His focus on their aggressive intentions and strategies made sense to Truman, an unelected and inexperienced president, who needed to both act decisively and look tough, despite having so little first-hand knowledge of world affairs. Truman was so taken with the analysis provided by the ‘Long Telegram’ that he had copies made for everyone involved in foreign affairs and the principles of it were soon embodied in his ‘Truman Doctrine’. At the heart of this was the idea of ‘containment’, meaning that the USA’s plan was to stand up to any signs of Communist expansion around the world: Soviet backed force would be met with American backed force no matter where it happened. The USA would resist Soviet expansionism and slowly strangle Moscow’s ambitions, a strategy which would mark out the Cold War and set the scene for events such as the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.

Alongside Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram, another crucial piece of thinking shaped US policy and ‘Truman Doctrine’. This was the so-called ‘Domino Theory’ or ‘Domino Effect’, the idea that, as one country fell to communism, it made it more likely that its neighbours would fall too. This was considered a particular danger in Europe, where the war had clearly seen Eastern Europe fall to Soviet influence, and the immediate threat to Italy in the late 1940s was such that it was met with serious CIA intervention. In Washington’s opinion, though, the most significant example of the ‘domino effect’ came in October, 1949, when China, giant neighbour to the USSR and the country with the largest population on earth, fell under the control of Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong. In the White House and other bastions of US political thought, a huge part of the world map was now coloured ‘red’ and it seemed to be growing, sweeping across the globe to reach from deep in Germany all the way across to the Pacific Ocean. There was particular concern that Communism ‘hung’ over India and surrounded the Middle East, which was of increasing significance after the war, not least because of its oil. ‘Truman Doctrine’ would later be redefined by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, amongst others, but its main ideas dominated US foreign policy throughout the Cold War, except for the Nixon years.

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One of the many propaganda posters promoting the ‘Marshall Plan’. (Author: E. Spreckmeester, published Economic Cooperation Administration; Source: here)

 

All of the countries of Western Europe, except for Spain, received aid from the Marshall Plan. Spain was not directly involved (although it benefited indirectly through increased foreign trade) because it was a Fascist dictatorship under Generalisimo Francisco Franco. The Marshall Plan required countries to accept the principles of democracy as well as capitalism in order to receive US Aid. From Germany and France to Greece and Turkey, most countries were more than willing to accept these demands and so ‘get into bed’ with the USA.

The original motivation for the ‘Marshall Plan’, then, was fundamentally linked with ‘Truman Doctrine’. It was seen as vital for the USA’s ‘national interests’ that the devastation of Europe must not trigger chaos and the collapse of the continent so that it fell into the arms of Moscow. The humanitarian need to help people was more than matched by the need to meet economic, political and military challenges. A power vacuum had to be avoided at all costs and only the USA could provide what was needed for European recovery. The US economy was strong in 1945 but Truman had to maintain its growth in the years of peace and that would be more likely if businesses could trade with a strong Europe; security there also eased the potential military threat to the USA for the future. If the whole of the Eurasian landmass (Europe and Asia combined) was under the control of Moscow, then massive markets, people and resources would be lost to the USA. To prevent the fall of Europe to Communism was in American interests and the one immediate advantage they had over Communism was money. This was the rationale and ideology behind the controversial ‘Marshall Plan’.

When General Marshall presented his plan to Harry Truman in 1947, its title was the ‘European Recovery Programme’. Europe was to be supported and restored economically, politically and socially by US money, technology and advisors. The USA had become incredibly rich during the war and was far and away the richest country in the world. It had been largely untouched by the war itself, developing its industry to unprecedented levels. The ‘Marshall Plan’ was fully adopted in 1948 and the first aid was sent almost immediately. In total, 16 European countries received about $13.5 billion of aid between 1948 and 1952 (roughly $120 billion in modern terms). Britain and France were the biggest recipients of money, but the impact on all countries was very significant, none more so than West Germany (and West Berlin) when it received aid after 1949. The impact on recovery in the Allied controlled zones of Germany marked the contrast between the West and the East, as people saw the standard of living rise far more rapidly in the West. This growth brought immediate hope and benefits to the people, something which not only strengthened links between Western Europe and the USA but was also a major factor in creating the flow of people from East Germany to the West during the 1950s, a movement which ultimately led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The USA actually received more money back in trade over the years than it gave out in ‘Marshall Aid’. It was a so-called ‘win-win’ situation for both Europe and the USA. Everyone seemed happy with it, except for the Eastern Bloc, the Communist countries, who did not receive any aid. This was because the ‘Marshall Plan’ had strings attached: each country had to accept two things, namely, capitalism and democracy. In other words, you had to accept US values in order to get their help, something Stalin could not allow in his sphere of influence. Ultimately, the Communist economies never caught up with the West and this economic imbalance going back to the 1940s was a fundamental factor in the collapse of the system in the late 1980s. However, accepting the money would have effectively broken Communism in 1949, so it was a tough call either way.

The ‘Marshall Plan’ was not the only sign of the USA’s new found interest in the wider world. It ran alongside several other Washington approved initiatives, such as the establishment of NATO (1949), the creation of the CIA (1947), the building of military bases and the massive development of nuclear weapons as a means of strengthening international ties and containing the spread of Communism in the post-war years. They all came under the umbrella of the ‘Truman Doctrine’ and aimed to support and protect all ‘friendly’ countries, especially those which bordered Communism and were seen to be most at risk from ‘infiltration’. This vision led, for example, to CIA action in Italy when the USA put huge efforts in to influencing the outcome of the general elections of 1948 and those for the next 25 years.

Creating the military alliance of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) whereby 14 western countries agreed to collaborate so as to train, fight, develop technology and share information under US leadership, was another huge step towards Washington’s leadership or control of the Western world. It was later matched by the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, whereby the armed forces of the USSR and Eastern Europe were united, and strengthened by the establishment of SEATO (the South East Asian Treaty Organisation) which did the same role as NATO in that region. It was about creating alliances, gangs of countries which would work together for security reasons, pretty much going directly against Woodrow Wilson’s vision as outlined in the ‘Fourteen Points’ at the Treaty of Versailles. With NATO still so active in the 21st Century, it is easy to see this as one of the prime legacies of World War II and the changed role of the USA.

By 1950, within two years of the setting up of the ‘Marshall Plan’, almost every country that received aid was at or near its pre-war level for agricultural production and foreign trade. Remarkably, total industrial production was operating at 15% above its 1939 level. If you consider what had been the damage suffered during the war and the chaos in the immediate post-war years, this was a stunning achievement, creating a lasting recovery which transformed the world. Beyond the statistics, the impact on lives, confidence, expectations and attitudes was equally significant as it tied most Europeans into an ‘American-centric’ world at an unprecedented level. Suddenly, American businesses, music, fashions and tastes came to influence Europe (and the world), flooding in on the back of ‘Marshall Aid’. The growth of multi-national companies and international brands, like Coca-Cola, General Motors and Disney, as well as US control of resources in places as far apart as the Australian outback and Amazonian rainforest, were hugely influenced by the results of the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was also a key element in the creation of modern western society from jeans to rock and roll, computers to 24 hour TV, Facebook to Starbucks. The General’s vision and Truman’s Doctrine were clearly necessary but many would question some of the long term consequences of accepting ‘the dollar’.

The Marshall Plan ran for just four years from 1948 to 1952 but it had a huge impact on Europe, the USA and world affairs. It saved lives, transformed economies and created wealth on an unprecedented scale. It brought Hollywood and the ‘American Dream’ into every village and street in Europe. It hardened the divisions of the Cold War, increased corruption and the power of the media, and allowed countries like France and Britain to hold on to its old status and Empires in ways which were not necessarily healthy. It angered and intimidated Joseph Stalin, leading to a hardening of Moscow’s approach, as seen in the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War. Most of all, it established the USA as a ‘Superpower’ and the leader of the Western world, generating wealth and influence never before seen in one country. It brought the US presidency a level of influence never before held by one man. It helped to foster the ‘homogenisation’ (standardisation) of life around the world in terms of language, music, film, tastes and values which has itself produced a backlash in many cultures and societies, with numerous peoples trying to re-assert their own values, beliefs and identity in response.

The Marshall Plan might appear dull on some levels but few events have played a more significant role in shaping the modern world, a real example of ‘boring but important’. Little could General George C. Marshall have appreciated what he would go on to achieve as he drove around Europe in 1946.

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When countries put foreign politicians on their stamps, you know they’re important. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The most noble adventure’ by Greg Behrman; ‘Democracy and its critics’ by RA Dahl; ‘George C. Marshall’ by Mark A. Stoler;  ‘Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA’ by Tim Weiner;‘George F. Kennan: An American Life’ by John Gaddis; ‘The Cold War’ by John Lewis Gaddis; ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe

Films:‘The Third Man’ (1949), ‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1948) and ‘Germany, Year Zero’ (1947)

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House”.

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Richard Nixon, 37th President of the USA, with Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House.”

“When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Richard M. Nixon

Watergate. No matter where you start when looking at the life of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), you end up back at ‘Watergate’. If you’ve ever wondered why the media always seem to stick the word ‘gate’ on the end of any scandal, then it’s down to Nixon and events between 1972 and 1974. (Actually, if you’ve ever wondered why there is someone called ‘Milhouse Van Houten’ in ‘The Simpsons’, I suggest that you look no further than Nixon, as that was his middle name – although he spelt it ‘Milhous’.) Nixon was involved in many other important events, like the Vietnam War and détente with the USSR and China, but we’ll leave those out of this section so as to concentrate on this central moment. Be warned here – you will need to be alert and ready to check out a number of other things if you want to understand what went on but it is worth it. Nixon is a fascinating character and his life reads as a modern parable, an insight into how power and obsession can corrupt and destroy the most capable people. First of all, a few pictures of our subject with some key people; Nixon knew everybody.

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Nixon as Vice-President to President Eisenhower (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Author: White House; Source: here )

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Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev (Author: NARA; Source: here)

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Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

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Nixon and Mao Zedong (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and Elvis Presley (Author: Oliver F. Atkins ; Source: here)

 

‘Watergate’ was the name of a building or rather a complex of buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, which included the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the USA. It contained a hotel, apartment blocks, shops and offices, parts of which were used by the Democrats. (It’s worth noting that it’s in the ‘Foggy Bottom’ section of the city. Things like that don’t normally bother me, and I know it shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is.) Anyway, in the summer of 1972, as the campaign for that year’s Presidential Election was getting underway, a group of men broke into Watergate. They were caught, tried and imprisoned but there was a slight problem: it was noticed that nothing had been stolen even though they had been in the building for some time. Although this seemed a little strange, the police did not seem too bothered and things looked set to drift away into a low level story. The story went quiet for a while but two journalists with ‘The Washington Post’, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set about an investigation that eventually revealed one of the most important cover-ups in history. Their work led to the White House and to the Oval office itself, to the President. In simple terms, Richard Nixon had wanted to know exactly what Senator George McGovern and the Democrats planned to do so that he could match and beat their ideas, so guaranteeing victory. And to do this, he was willing to authorise criminal activity, oversee a major cover up to make sure it never came out and mislead the US Congress and the people in the process. It would eventually bring him down.
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The Watergate Complex, Washington, D.C.. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did Nixon do this in 1972? The answers to this question take us into the heart of one of the most fascinating politicians of the century as, on paper, it just did not make sense. In the summer of 1972, Nixon was miles ahead of McGovern in the polls. Nixon was walking towards a second term in office on the back of his foreign policy which had seen dramatic breakthroughs in relations with the Communist superpowers, both the USSR and China. The Democrats were in disarray after lots of in-fighting over several years, much of it linked with the Vietnam War and the rise of ‘issues’ to do with civil rights, feminism and gay rights. Senator George McGovern was chosen to fight Nixon but he was always trailing in the polls; he led a divided party and lacked support and credibility with the media and on the country. In November 1972, Nixon cruised to the expected and massive victory, winning 49 of the 50 states and receiving over 60% of the vote. The result was never in doubt, a landslide, and Nixon rode back into the White House on a high tide of public approval. Yet, less than two years later, in August 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign as he faced impeachment (being put on trial as President for lies, cover-ups and misleading congress) for spying on the Democrats. Why did he do it when he was so strong? Why had he taken such a risk when he held such a strong hand?

Although the above things are true, life is rarely simple especially when power is involved – and ego – and dreams – and fear – and status. History is usually shaped by people operating at the most basic human levels, and many powerful people are flawed, confused and as mixed up as the majority of people. History is often the equivalent of ‘dogs pissing up trees and blokes measuring their willies’, as it has been put, quite crudely but accurately. In other words, history is often about control and status: the control of territory and the status that comes from being more powerful than others. ‘Mine is bigger than yours, I control a bigger space than you…I am better than you and have more power than you…I am great.’ Basic it may be but Nixon fits these images rather well and the language he used was much stronger than ‘pissing’ and ‘willies’, I can tell you.

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Richard Nixon campaigning for re-election in 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

To understand why President Nixon, the most powerful man in the world, who was at the height of that power in 1972, should choose to take such a huge risk as to bug his rival’s offices requires some background. The truth is that many powerful people do not always feel powerful – or secure or in control. And at times, those in power also come to believe that they are beyond normal restrictions and rules, able to demand and get what they want as their extraordinary influence becomes ‘normal’, just a part of their job. Others in power need to push the boundaries and limits so as to get a ‘buzz’, an adrenalin rush, a sense of danger to fight off boredom or routine. Stars of sport, film and music often live lives of glamour that others envy and desire but it can simply become a routine – while at the same time being something fragile and easily lost. Some turn to drugs, others to sex, others to crime – the patterns are well established. Boredom and a desire to control are an interesting combination, especially when mixed with a desire for greatness, the wish to take what you have and make it a sort of monument to your achievements. Think of this as we look at Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Richard Nixon came from a poor Californian family. Born in 1913, he was a bright child growing up as one of four brothers. Two brothers, Arthur and Harold died young (Arthur aged 7 and Harold at 24). Harold’s death in particular hit Richard hard creating a passion for action, achievement, strength. His actions and behaviour were tinged with vulnerability and the sense that nothing could be taken for granted; death or other shocks could come from anywhere. Alongside this, the key influence in his life was his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, feeding his huge determination and commanding great loyalty as well as fear. Nixon’s upbringing as a Quaker was also significant, rather puritanical and based on strict values, so that the family had a hatred of drinking and swearing, both of which became rather important later on.

The young Nixon was a very bright student, winning a scholarship to the famous Harvard University which he could not take up because the family was so poor. This missed opportunity denied him a natural way forward in life and fed in to a sense of injustice and the idea of the world being against him. It was one of the things that would later feed in to his hatred of the posh, privileged, well-to-do East Coast families who had such influence in Washington. Those privileged classes would come to be epitomised by the Kennedy family from Massachusetts.

Despite the setback of not getting to Harvard, Nixon went to a local college and did very well although he had to carry on working at the family store. In 1934, he won a scholarship to Law School, eventually becoming a lawyer. He served in the Navy (just like the future President Jack Kennedy) during World War II before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1946. He was soon making a name for himself by becoming involved in one of the high-profile spy cases of the post-war era. Nixon joined the investigations of the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Commission), looking into the accusations against Alger Hiss, whose story is worth knowing as it provides important background for the rise of Joe McCarthy.

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was an official with the US Federal Government who had been involved in setting up the United Nations, amongst other things. In 1948 he was accused of being part of a Communist group which had infiltrated the government. Hiss denied it but was put on trial. He denied all charges. A document allegedly produced on his typewriter was presented as key evidence, although such a thing could quite easily have been faked. Hiss was eventually found guilty of perjury (lying and misleading the court) but not guilty of the actual charges. Hiss’s conviction came on 25th January, 1950, just two weeks before McCarthy would make his claim of wide scale Communist infiltration into the US Government. Hiss went to prison for nearly four years and his career was ruined, one of the first to suffer as part of the new ‘Red Scare’ of the post-war years.

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Alger Hiss on trial. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon was one of the politicians who was convinced that communists had become powerful within the government. He fought hard against President Truman over his actions in Korea, claiming the President had been too weak and too slow in standing up to Communist expansionism. Likewise, he was one of those who accused Truman of being responsible for the “loss of China” when Jiang Jieshi’s Chinese nationalists, who had been supported by the USA, were defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist forces. The Chinese Revolution saw China, the largest population in the world, become Communist on 1st October, 1949, a clear sign to many in the West that Communism was on the march and the so called ‘domino-effect’ was happening. The facts were that China bordered the USSR, controlled most of the Asian coast of the Pacific and reached south to border French Indo-China and India, and these were all of concern to the US administration. The blame for the fall of China was put on Truman for being too soft on Communism abroad and at home. Richard Nixon was one of the anti-Red politicians and he went on to become a firm supporter of Joe McCarthy and the Communist ‘witch hunts’.

Ambitious for power, Nixon used his higher profile and status within the Republican Party to run for Senator of California in the elections of 1950. In the wake of the Hiss trial and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, another very high profile spying case, many American voters were anxious about anyone with even slightly ‘left of centre’ policies. Nixon made out that his opponent, Helen Douglas was, if not a Red, then certainly a ‘pink’; his actual phrase about the former actress was that she was ‘pink, right down to her underwear’, meaning perhaps that she kept her ‘true’ Communist sympathies hidden away. Nixon won but Douglas’ nickname for him, ‘Tricky Dicky’, would stay with him for the rest of his life. But he had made a huge step in his political career by becoming a Senator at the age of just 33.

In 1952, Richard Nixon took a major step up the political ladder when he was the surprise choice as running mate for the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was standing for the presidency. Eisenhower had a military background and had no links to either political party. In 1952 it was known he would probably stand for election but it was unclear if he would be a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever he chose, he was certain to be the favourite as he was a national hero after commanding Allied Forces at D-day and being the first leader of NATO. Nixon was chosen to be Vice-President as he was the young rising star of the Republican Party. He was the darling of the right-wing (McCarthy supporters loved him) while Eisenhower was a ‘softer’ Republican. Nixon would go on to play a key role in the Eisenhower administration over the next eight years, taking a major interest in foreign policy. Nixon was intelligent and ambitious but he did have a darker, nasty side. One incident worth noting in all this is that there were accusations made against Nixon in 1952 regarding his expenses and campaign funds. It’s not the fact that he was accused but the way he handled that is so interesting. Nixon went on TV to make a statement and he took his six year-old daughter’s dog, called ‘Checkers’, with him. In these early days of TV, he manipulated the situation by creating the image of a lovely, happy, nice man, playing with a lovely happy, cute dog. ‘Aaaahhhh’, the people sighed, ‘How could a man with such a nice dog be anything but trustworthy?’ And so he got away with it, possibly setting a dangerous precedent and creating a sense of his own cleverness and talent.

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Eisenhower and Nixon with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1957.(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Throughout this time, Nixon was striving for power. Nothing was ever quite enough to satisfy his drive to overcome his impoverished background and prove his intelligence. In foreign affairs in particular he developed an expertise beyond that of most members of the Government. He was popular but wanted more; for the greatness he desired, the greatness that would really get back at East Coast liberals and privileged classes, Nixon needed the top job as President. And for true greatness, he knew that he would need to be re-elected so as to serve two terms. In 1960, as Eisenhower stood down after eight years, Nixon was chosen to be the Republican candidate and it seemed to be his job for the taking. In challenging Nixon, the Democrats went to the son of one of the richest men in the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (usually known as JFK or ‘Jack’).

Jack Kennedy was privileged, one of those East Coast clans that Nixon had decided to hate from nearly three decades earlier. The head of the Kennedy dynasty, Joseph Kennedy Snr., was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest men in the USA. He was from an Irish-Catholic family who had made it big in Boston, Massachusetts, building a fortune from finance (gambling on the stock market) and alcohol (he gained rights to distribute Scottish whisky after prohibition). He was also rumoured to have links with the Mafia and other gangsters during the prohibition era and was certainly well connected in official circles too. Such a wealthy and privileged background saw the Kennedy children have a golden life, the best schools and a couple of years living in London when Joe Kennedy became the US Ambassador. But despite the many advantages dealt to JFK by birth, Nixon was a far better politician, more experienced, a better debater and with a stronger grasp of policy, and he was a clear favourite to win the White House in 1960.

The turning point in 1960 is always said to be the first of the televised debates. Fifty years before they appeared in the UK, these debates started in the USA, with Nixon-Kennedy becoming prime time viewing. Little planning was considered at the time but what happened in the first debate set in train a process which has turned such events into a small industry. Arguments about who stands where, the height and angles of the podium, who speaks first, the colour of ties, the amount of make-up and the heat of the studio are just some of the factors considered. And it all goes back to 1960. So, what happened and how does it link with Watergate?

Richard Nixon was not as tall as Jack Kennedy. He was not as handsome as Kennedy. He did not dress as well as Kennedy. But Nixon knew far more than Kennedy and could run rings round him with his arguments and grasp of facts. And Kennedy knew all this. And his advisers did. And his Dad did. So during the campaign and in the build-up to the debates, Joe Kennedy hired a TV crew to go round with his son, filming events and then distributing them to the news shows. They showed them and it became free advertising for Kennedy. Most of these clips showed him smiling, greeting happy crowds and standing alongside his beautiful wife, Jacqueline.

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John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. (Author: Abbie Rowe; Source: here)

The first TV debate was held on 26th September 1960. The view on this debate is that Nixon did not perform well, giving a mediocre performance by his high standards, but he had been ill, coming out of hospital only a few days earlier after a bout of ‘flu’. But most people still believed he out-performed Kennedy in the debate about domestic affairs. Certainly those listening on radio believed that Nixon won the debate. But TV audiences differed. They gave it to Kennedy, not for his arguments but because of looks and image. Kennedy stood straight and tall while Nixon slouched over the podium. Kennedy looked cool and smart while Nixon sweated badly in a creased suit. Kennedy smiled and cracked jokes while Nixon scowled and gave long detailed answers that went over some people’s heads. In its simplest form, many TV viewers said they would rather go for a beer with Kennedy than with Nixon.

What was going on? Well, one reason why Kennedy stood tall was because he had a bad back, a chronic injury from WWII, while Nixon slumped forward as he was recovering from flu. But people judged by such looks. Next, Kennedy was simply taller and better-looking than Nixon, and he had grown up with a different sense of style and the experience of meeting many people. Nixon, in contrast, also had a terrible problem with sweating, something that plagued him throughout his career. Under the hot TV lights, recovering from flu, it was worse than ever at that debate. People did not see or judge based on sweat on the radio, of course, but it affected the opinions of the TV viewers. Kennedy was more charming than Nixon but he had less to say, so he went for short, simple answers that made sense to people rather than dealing with the big, complicated issues which Nixon did. Kennedy’s witty openers won people over while Nixon’s analysis lost them. The reality is that people who don’t understand the issues get one vote each, just as those who do understand the issues get one vote each. Kennedy won that first TV debate through image not content and many people did not bother to watch the other three debates, which Nixon was thought to have won. They made their minds up early: Kennedy would do. It was a classic case of perception being more important than reality.

Nixon lost the 1960 election, ‘his’ election, to Kennedy, the rich boy from the East Coast who had all the help and luck in the world. He lost by 120 000 votes or just 0.2% of the vote. Nixon was devastated. Privilege, looks and luck had beaten him; he felt cheated and betrayed by the system. After considering alternative options, he stepped back from front-line politics. He was not yet 50 and could find a new way forward. He considered standing again in 1964 but sympathy for the Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination meant there was no way the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, could lose, so Nixon stayed in the wilderness. The Kennedy assassination served to remind him of the way unpredictable events could shatter your plans. Nixon stayed away from Washington politics but maintained his interest and involvement in foreign affairs. He was a major critic of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, for instance, demanding more force against the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese. With the war not going well and with a lot of support from businessmen and some Republicans, a return to the Presidency looked like a possibility in 1968.

1968 saw the Vietnam War going badly for the USA and when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democrat nomination to run in 1968, Nixon got involved. The Democrats were struggling and needed a candidate to unite them otherwise Republican victory looked possible. Things suddenly turned against Nixon and the Republicans when Bobby Kennedy, the popular younger brother of Jack Kennedy, announced that he would stand for the Democrat nomination. History looked as if it might repeat itself at the election and a second presidential defeat for Nixon to a Kennedy would mark the end of his Presidential ambitions and his political career. But the ‘gods’ (or the ‘devils’) smiled on Nixon, as Bobby Kennedy became the fourth high-profile assassination in the USA in the 1960s. Following JFK in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965 and Martin Luther King in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles, having just won the Democrat nomination for California.

In the absence of Kennedy, the Democrats were divided. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate but Senator George Wallace of Alabama stood as an independent Democrat, really as an alternative for the Southern Democrats. The Democrat vote was split, allowing Richard Nixon to become President. He defeated Humphrey by just 500 000 votes. Nixon won comfortably on States (31 – 19 against the combined number for Humphrey and Wallace) but on votes he won only 43% and he was only 0.7% ahead of Humphrey. In total he was over 9 million votes (or 13%) behind when the two Democrats were added together. This would trouble him greatly in the approach to the 1972 election, seeking re-election, with a second term, and the dream of greatness, within his grasp. Insecurity walked with him at his Inauguration in January 1969.

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Nixon’s inauguration, January, 1969. (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

When it came to the next election in 1972, Nixon was frantically busy in the months leading up to it. As well as the ordinary day to day aspects of being President, he was trying to get ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam so that the US could withdraw without appearing to have lost or deserted its ally in South Vietnam. He was trying to address issues in the Cold War by improving relations with both China and the USSR, building tension between them through negotiations and trying to get their help in putting pressure on the Communists of North Vietnam to cut a deal. His visits to Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow had captured the world’s imagination. He had been given pandas by Mao, vodka and hugs by Brezhnev and there were deals on nuclear weapons to be signed. In the midst of all this, Nixon felt a mix of elation, power and anxiety. He was so busy he often lost track of what was going on so he took to taping all of his conversations and meetings in the Oval Office (his main office) in the White House. He was also keen to get on with the ‘big’ stuff of government, Vietnam and the Cold War, without having to worry about the election too much. But the memories of 1960, the fateful assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the close-run election of 1968 and his own deep insecurities and desperate dream of being ‘special’ would not let go. And so he approved the bugging of the Watergate Building in the summer of 1972.

A group of ex-CIA agents and Cuban exiles did it. They were called ‘The Plumbers’ and they broke in to the Watergate Building to bug the Democrat offices on 17th June, 1972. They got caught when a piece of tape was found holding a door lock closed. No one thought too much of this burglary except for young journalist with ‘The Washington Post’, called Bob Woodward, who became suspicious because nothing seemed to have been taken during the ‘burglary. The idea of this being a ‘burglary’ did not quite add up. Still no one seemed too bothered and it looked like it would all fall away even after the ‘plumbers’ were convicted. Another journalist, Carl Bernstein, joined Woodward to investigate the story but they made little progress at first. Eventually an FBI Informant, using the codename ‘Deep Throat’, a reference to a porn movie of the time, gave them details that linked the incident to the White House and so developed one of the most famous political tales of all time. Enquiries continued into 1973 and 1974 which led to high-profile arrests and took the story into the ‘Oval Office’ itself. Nixon was implicated and two of his senior aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, ended up in prison.

The investigation had not been able to find Nixon’s role in ‘Watergate’ as there was no clear trail to him. However, Nixon’s fate was sealed when a junior official in the White House, Alexander Butterfield, said that the President had tapes of all of his conversations. The Supreme Court demanded these tapes but they were refused. Eventually they got some, then a few more, then others with sections missing. In early August 1974, the ‘smoking gun’ tape was passed to prosecutors, giving clear evidence that Nixon had known about and authorised the break in. In the chaos that followed, the noose tightened around Nixon, especially as many of the tapes could not be played on TV because they contained so much swearing and profanity. Edited versions with the famous ‘expletive deleted’ subtitle horrified and scandalised the USA. Along with revelations about Nixon’s heavy drinking, the swearing would have had his mother turning in her grave. The imagined disappointment that Mrs. Nixon might have felt were as nothing compared with the anger and humiliation her son experienced when Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency. At 9 pm, East Coast Time, on 8th August, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to be forced to resign. All his dreams and ambitions had ended in the ultimate disgrace.

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Nixon’s resignation speech, 8th August, 1974. (Author: White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Source: here)

Nixon was immediately replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. Ford’s first act as President was to give a full pardon to Nixon. In the Communist world, Brezhnev and Mao were bewildered by what had happened as it seemed as nothing compared to what they considered logical and reasonable. The people of America felt anger, betrayal and horror at what had happened. Woodward and Bernstein were awarded prize after prize for their journalism.

And Nixon went home to California where he had lots of time to think. No doubt he went back over the things that had brought him to Watergate. Jealousy, fear of failure, ambition and the dream of being special were just some of the things that would have gone through his head. And some important faces, too, from his mother and brothers, to Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Maybe his most nagging thought in those dark times was, ‘If only I didn’t sweat so much…’ It’s strange how life often turns on such small matters.

 

Find out more

Film: ‘Nixon’ by Oliver Stone (Certificate 15, Eiv, 1995). Typically robust approach to film making by Oliver Stone which emphasises many of the deep-seated flaws in Nixon’s personality with much being made of his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Film: ‘All the President’s Men’ (Certificate 15, Warner Home Video, 1976). Famous Oscar winning film about the investigation into Watergate by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of ‘The Washington Post’.

Film: ‘Frost-Nixon’ (Certificate 15, Universal pictures UK, 2009). Interesting film version of the play about the interviews between a relatively unknown David Frost and Richard Nixon. Nixon ends up being led into far more revealing comments than expected.

Book: ‘The Arrogance of Power’ by Anthony Summers (Phoenix Press, 2000.) An interesting if clearly critical study of Nixon highlighting many of the Presidents failings and the more murky side of his personality and relationships.

Book: ‘The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard (Penguin, 2009). A fascinating study of changes in the Presidency including the impact of Nixon.

 

 

 

 

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer. He was born in 1913 and his real name was Endre (or Andrei) Friedmann. ‘Fine’, you say, ‘so why should I know about a foreign bloke who took some pictures and changed his name?’ Well, many of the photos he took were both interesting and important, to the point that they have become iconic. He covered some of the most important events of his time and he also happened to live a rather glamorous life, mixing with more than one or two stars in the process. And he died young while working in Vietnam during the first ‘Indochina War’, a conflict which would lead on to the Vietnam War. Robert Capa actually covered five major wars, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He revolutionised photo-journalism by being one of the first to work in the heat of the action, with the soldiers, at the front-line, surrounded by the gun-fire and seeing the fighting at first hand. He became a legend for his work and left a legacy which is well worth investigating if you have any interest in war, journalism, art or photography – or about looking cool under pressure.

First of all, a couple of examples of Capa’s work that show him alongside soldiers in Normandy following D-Day in 1944.

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(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here) This might not look like a great photo but Capa was seriously unlucky. Nearly all of the photos that he took on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on 6th June, 1944, were damaged and this is one of the few that survived. The Capa hallmark is clear though – he was there so that he could get the photo in the first place.

Some famous examples of Capa’s photography can be found here.

Robert Capa really is worth knowing a little bit about as he was so much more than just a photographer. In an age when we are so used to documentaries, film and photographs of war, we can easily ignore the work of those who first went to the frontline. To be a cameraman or photographer at the front today must be extraordinary, even with the digital technology, zoom lenses, flak jackets and helmets that are available; to have been doing this in the thirties, forties and fifties required a very unusual personality with extraordinary skills and attitude.

The young Endre Friedmann’s nickname was ‘capa’, which means ‘shark’ in Hungarian. He began his career in photography after dropping out of college in Berlin. Still called Endre Friedmann, he had moved to the German capital in 1931 in an effort to escape the tensions of Budapest, where the right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy was causing increasing problems for the likes of him, as he was both Jewish and left-wing. He had been recommended to a famous photographer of the time, called Otto Umbehrs, by a fellow Hungarian who was also a famous photographer, Eva Besnyö. His first break came when he was sent to the Copenhagen Stadium in Berlin to photograph a well-known figure talking about politics; as luck would have it, Friedmann’s first professional photos were of the famous Communist, Leon Trotsky, then in exile and on the run from Joseph Stalin. Later on, Capa would enhance the story of that day a little, telling how he was sent at the last minute, without a ticket and how he had to sneak in to the hall with a group of workmen. The talk was actually advertised well in advance and Capa had a ticket but, even so, it was still a remarkable ‘first job’ by anyone’s standards. Luck can certainly play a part in many lives but you still need the skill to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way and Friedmann showed early signs of his potential as he got really close to Trotsky and captured some of the passion and energy of the speech.

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Leon Trotsky addressing the crowd at the Copenhagen Stadium, Berlin, in November 1932, the 19 year-old Endre Friedmann’s first assignment.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

But right wing politics was on the rise in Central Europe and Friedmann left Berlin soon after Hitler came to power in January 1933 and he soon arrived in Paris, one of many refugees from Nazism. He soon met and started going out with a German woman called Gerda Pohorylle (1910-1937), another photographer. In 1934, in an attempt to set up a business and make more money, Friedmann and Pohorylle created ‘Robert Capa’, claiming that they were agents for this ‘famous American’ photographer. They hoped to be able to charge the French newspapers double the normal fees for Capa’s work as he was so important; in reality they took the photos themselves. At the same time, Pohorylle also changed her name to Gerda Taro, as it was easier to spell and pronounce and it is by this name that she became famous in her own right as a photographer. The ‘Capa’ plan worked well for a while and they got numerous images into the French newspapers, some of which reflected the growing political tensions of the time. Friedmann photographed the workers’ strikes in Paris and went to the League of Nations in Geneva when the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Salassie, begged for help in dealing with the growing threat posed by Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini. The double-identity of Friedmann/Capa was soon spotted but the quality of his work was acknowledged and he was given a job with an agency. As a result Friedmann became Robert Capa from that time on, a change which reflected the new dramas in his life.

In July 1936, news came through of the growing tensions in Spain. 1936 was a year of huge importance and drama, marking a step-change on the road to World War II and Capa would come to major prominence in this context by covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Like many people of that generation, he saw this conflict as a new type of struggle, an ideological battle of ideals and values, a fight to the death between ‘oppressive’ Fascism from the Right Wing and ‘liberating’ Left Wing ideals of Socialism and Communism. In Spain itself, the Fascists were the Nationalists, whose strength was rooted in the army, the landowners, the rich and the Catholic Church. Their leader was Colonel, later General, Francisco Franco. The Communists were the Republicans of the democratically elected Government, and were led by various people over the course of the war. It was a complex war which cannot be covered in detail here but certain important aspects can be mentioned.

Firstly, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a testing ground for World War II. There was supposedly an embargo on any country supplying resources to either side or getting directly involved in the fighting but, while this was enforced regarding most supplies to the Republicans, little was done to prevent help getting to Franco’s forces. The main aid to the Fascists came from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, their men, weapons and tactics giving a decisive advantage which swung the war towards the Nationalists. Hitler in particular was impressed by what his troops had achieved, gaining confidence in the Wehrmacht’s (the German Army’s) potential as well as noting the reluctance of Britain and France to act, an sign of their commitment to appeasement in the 1930s. The most famous action by German forces came with the horrendous destruction of the symbolically important town of Guernica in the Basque region. The terrible deaths inspired one of the most famous works of art of the century, ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

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‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (1937). When asked by a German officer in Paris, in a disparaging tone, “Did you do this?”, Picasso replied, “No. You did.” The officer walked out.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Secondly, Capa was not alone as a foreigner drawn to Spain at this time. Thousands of people from around the world, but especially from Europe, made the long trek to support either the Fascists or the Republicans in what was seen as a struggle not just for a country but for something more. The Spanish Civil War was a fight over the future direction of humanity, a struggle between traditional forces of monarchy, money and faith, against a rising tide seeking equality, justice and opportunity for all. The Right and the Left would clash horribly over the coming years, tearing apart families, destroying great cities, and spilling blood across the plains and mountains of Spain. Many famous people would be among those who volunteered to fight. Those from the Left Wing who joined the ‘International Brigades’ on the side of the Communists draw most attention today. Just a few of the famous foreigners associated with the ‘International Brigades’ included: Ernest Hemingway (author), George Orwell (author), Martha Gellhorn (journalist), Paul Robeson (actor), Willy Brandt (future leader of Germany), Laurie Lee (author), Jack Jones (British Trade Union leader), Simone Weil (philosopher and Christian mystic), Andre Marty (French political activist) and many others, from the USSR in particular. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ are among the most famous books to come out of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa would be among this group.

Thirdly, Robert Capa was an eloquent witness to this war which had such important echoes down the rest of the century. His images from this extraordinary struggle bore testament to the willingness of ordinary people to fight for what they believed in, inspiring many rebels and revolutionaries around the world. The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War went well beyond the day of the Fascist victory and the ceasefire of 1939. Spain did not get directly involved in World War II due to the damage and suffering of the Civil War. The failures of Britain and France to act, as the leaders of the League of Nations, weakened their credibility on the world stage and strengthened Hitler enormously. For the Nazis, Spain had provided a real testing ground for their technology and tactics which would later be used to such effect in the early years of World War II. The failure of the Communist forces, so heavily backed by Stalin and the USSR, bred a fear and anxiety in Moscow which would lead to the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Generalissimo Franco remained in power as the much loved and totally hated ‘Benign Dictator’ until his death in 1975. He left a divided country where hatred and tension is only now being openly addressed and overcome.

Robert Capa spent much of the three years of the civil war in Spain itself, working as part of the Republican cause against Franco. Much of his material was lost and it was feared it had been destroyed but thousands of negatives eventually turned up in Mexico City in the 1990s. The collection is today known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ and much of the material can be viewed online. His work included one of the most famous and controversial photos of the century, ‘The Falling Soldier’. Debate as to its authenticity continues to this day, many seeing it as a remarkable image of the heroism and futility of war, while others believe it was simply a set-up. The sense of it being ‘staged’ is strong but what cannot be denied is the impact so many of Capa’s images had on people around the world.

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‘The Falling Soldier’, allegedly Federico Borrell, 5th September 1936. Probably the most famous and controversial photo ever taken by Robert Capa.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

His willingness to travel anywhere within the Republican zones, from Andalucía and Murcia in the south, to Madrid and Toledo in the centre, and to Barcelona and Bilbao in the north, meant he was always able to get closer to the action than just about anyone else. And he was always willing to go that little bit further than anyone else, capturing emotions that were then released into the lives of millions of readers around the world. His pictures from Bilbao just a few days after the notorious bombing of nearby Guernica by Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937 were especially powerful examples of the true cost of war.

Robert Capa’s legend was born in Spain. His courage, humour and skill were extraordinary, winning him many friends and admirers. His love of the high life was fostered, too, and he socialised with Ernest Hemingway amongst others. But the war brought tragedy into Capa’s own life, though, as he suffered the loss of his partner, Gerda Taro, herself a remarkable photographer, who was crushed to death by a tank during the Battle of Brunete near Madrid in late July 1937. Capa’s reputation as a great photographer was established during the Spanish Civil War. It brought him fame and celebrity status but these did nothing to stop his work, and his photography retained its power to tell stories that mattered and to challenge ideas throughout his life.

In January, 1938, a year or so before the end of the Spanish Civil War, but with Franco’s forces clearly in the ascendancy, Capa left for Asia to cover the troubles between China and Japan. A project had arisen to make a film documenting China’s resistance to Japanese expansion in the region. The main fighting for the Chinese was being led by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), but the project was funded and controlled by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or more specifically, by his domineering and manipulative wife, ‘Madame Chiang’. Capa travelled to China from France in the company of two well-known authors, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden was an American poet while Isherwood is famous today, amongst other things, for his memoirs of life in Berlin which were turned into the famous film ‘Cabaret’. The project, called ‘The 400 million’, turned out to be a frustrating disaster but Capa once again captured many remarkable photographs reflecting the horrors of war. By September 1938, Capa was on his way back to Europe, arriving to chronicle the last few months before the Spanish Republican forces were finally defeated by Franco in what many saw as the ‘death of European democracy’.

A résumé of his life from early 1939 hints at more riches waiting to be discovered for those who study his brief life. He left Europe for the USA in 1939 and there he went through a sham marriage so as to stay in the country, as he was technically an ‘illegal immigrant’. He worked briefly for Life magazine in Mexico and the US before travelling to Britain. In 1943, Capa travelled to North Africa with Allied troops to photograph the invasion and, even more dramatically, he accompanied US troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Most of his photos from that day were destroyed although a number of slightly out of focus images have survived. Capa loved gambling, champagne and the high life in general. He had too many affairs to mention, but three women who fell to his legendary vulnerability and charm were: the actress Ingrid Bergman, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in the classic film ‘Casablanca’; Hedy Lamarr, the star of the film, ‘Samson and Delilah’; and Vivien Leigh, wife of Laurence Olivier and the star of ‘Gone with the Wind’ with whom he had one of his many brief times of intimacy. Ingrid Bergman was a particularly significant relationship and she was just one of the many women who wanted to marry Capa but he refused to settle down, or to have anything to do with Hollywood, and so their relationship ended.

 

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Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

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Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

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Vivien Leigh (1913-1967)

 

In 1947, Capa joined forces with various well-known photographers to create a new photographic agency, ‘Magnum’. He was also involved with the ‘Photo League’, a left-wing agency that wanted to encourage socially aware photographers in their work; in 1947 it was ‘blacklisted’ as subversive and, in the era of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts, it closed down. Capa already knew Pablo Picasso and he photographed him once more during these years and even took images of Matisse at work. Also around this time, Capa joined John Steinbeck, the author of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’, for a trip to the USSR. Capa’s freedom to photograph what he wanted was severely compromised and the results were disappointing, but he did get to visit Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev, where he visited the Dynamo Stadium outside which, today, is found the memorial to FC Start (see Chapter 8). After a brief move into fashion photography linked with the work of Coco Chanel, which produced some interesting results but cost a fortune, mainly due to his huge expenses linked with drinking and gambling, Capa covered the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and also some of the conflicts in French Indo-China in the early 1950s. And in 1952, he managed to join the list of illustrious figures charged with being a Communist sympathiser as part of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts. Few men can have been so intimately linked with the great people, places and events of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. In truth, Capa needed pressure and danger to focus his mind and enable him to produce his best work. He sought out that danger and produced his most famous and important work at the front line in war zones. He really was a ‘war’ photographer.

Robert Capa died on 25th May, 1954, on the Red River delta in Vietnam. He had agreed to cover the conflict between the French and the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, standing in for a colleague. He had arrived as the French faced devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Capa was the first photographer/journalist to die in the conflict which would develop into the Vietnam War. His death at the age of just 40 was a tragedy but one with a horrible logic and predictability about it; as Hemingway said, ‘The percentages caught up with him’. Capa had survived so many near misses over the years that it was clear that his luck would run out at some time.

‘Capa’, you may remember, means ‘shark’. In becoming Capa, Endre Friedmann created a dynamic and creative genius, a flawed character loved by almost all who met him. His short life contained far more adventure, affairs, gambling, stories and champagne than most people could ever dream of having. Hungarian émigré, friend of Hemingway and Picasso, lover of Ingrid Bergman and countless other women, terrible card player, compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, depressive, unreliable, witty, charming, a fixer and a friend. Remember Robert Capa, a man who made taking photos the basis for a truly extraordinary life.

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Robert Capa at work, a photo taken by Gerda Taro.

(Author: Gerda Taro; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

Capa’s photographs can be viewed on-line but various studies of his work are available, such as: ‘This is war: Robert Capa at work’ by Richard Whelan and Christopher Phillips (Steidl, 2007) and ‘Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection’ by Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004). His work also appears in collections such as ‘Magnum Magnum’ by Brigitte Lardinois (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2009).

Book: ‘Blood and Champagne: The life of Robert Capa’ by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Book: ‘Out of the shadows: A life of Gerda Taro’ by Francois Maspero (Souvenir Press Ltd., 2008).

Photos of Gerda Taro, the work of Capa’s long time partner can best be seen on-line.

 

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

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Joe McCarthy during the Senate investigation into the activities of the US Army, 1954. (Author: US Senate; Source: here)

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Senator Joe McCarthy, 9th February, 1950.

‘Bad’ stuff is so much more interesting than ‘good’ stuff so a decent starting point for a look at the Twentieth Century is a politician from the USA by the name of Joe McCarthy. Although he was not really the biggest ‘baddie’ of the century, McCarthy was a fascinating and important character who shaped the modern political landscape and has divided opinion ever since he came to prominence. He still has many supporters, as any trip around the internet will show, and his message retains great significance today. So let’s leave the ‘big baddies’, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao to one side for the moment and begin with Joseph Raymond McCarthy, the Republican Senator for Wisconsin between 1947 and 1957.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

(Author: United Press, 1954; Source: Library of Congress)

Of course, Joe McCarthy doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, but it’s true that he exercised huge power, shaped public opinion and most certainly ruined thousands of people’s lives. There was, to be honest, just something rather sinister and unpleasant about him, and the manner in which he was able to twist opinion and power in the USA in the first half of the 1950s was truly frightening. Although not quite so well known or understood today, McCarthy was, for a few years, amongst the most powerful politicians in the Western world and he reached that position through a mixture of lies, media support and the influence of some very powerful people. When it comes to evil figures in history, like the three already mentioned, it is far too easy to dismiss them as ‘nutters’. For many people, Hitler and Mao are almost ‘joke’ figures and there is a belief that no one would ever support them today because we could see through them. But somehow that does not work with Joe McCarthy who represents something potentially more dangerous exactly because he was so widely supported by main-stream Americans and operated within the democratic system.

Joe McCarthy was only popular and powerful for a rather brief period of four years. In fact, in 1950, the American press actually voted McCarthy as the worst senator in the country. Little did they know that he was on the verge of becoming the dominant figure in US life for the next four years. In that period, the so-called ‘McCarthy Era’, he quite literally shaped US politics, destroyed thousands of ordinary people, helped create a monster of Communism and ensured that the arms and defence industry grew to have quite extraordinary wealth and influence. Clearly, McCarthy had something important to say to the USA in this period and, therefore, he tells us something important about the values of that post-war era. McCarthy is a fascinating character who shows us how some people are prepared to act either to gain power or when they have power. He shows the power of the media and just how far people can be manipulated when they are scared. He was a most unpleasant man, a liar and a bully, who achieved great power. Joe McCarthy’s story is a true warning from history, a reminder of how powerful politicians can be, especially when they work with the media during a time of fear.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in the wonderfully named Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908 to devout Catholic parents. Life was tough when he was young but he was considered reasonably bright and, despite some problems which meant he had to finish his formal education early, he went on to get a degree, worked as a lawyer and a judge, and then served with the US Marines in the Pacific during World War II. While he was with the Marines, he had a desk job, only flying safe missions on a few occasions, and rumour has it that he suffered from air sickness. He was certainly no great ‘war hero’, although he did his bit by being there and helping to organise things for those who fought. On his return to the USA, McCarthy needed a new career, so he left the army and abruptly entered politics.

It came as a surprise to some when Joe McCarthy was elected as Republican Senator for the state of Wisconsin (that’s up near the Canadian border, just west of the Great Lakes, where it gets very cold in winter) in 1946. He was one of many men who went into politics in the elections which followed the end of WWII, other examples being Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. One of his campaign tactics was actually to highlight his ‘proud war record’, in an attempt to contrast himself with his opponent, who had not served in the war. He referred to his numerous medals, but these had, in fact, not been awarded but had been given to him at his own request and did not match his actual service record. At this time, McCarthy gave himself the nickname ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’, even though he had never flown on a combat mission. As a Senator, he had a pretty dismal time and he was considered next to useless so that, as the elections of 1950 loomed, McCarthy was facing almost certain defeat. With things looking so bad, he gathered his campaign team together to work out a new strategy. One of them, a Catholic priest, said they needed a project, a focus for the campaign, anything to distract people from McCarthy’s poor record in office. So it was decided that he would launch a campaign against Communism – and so his journey to stardom began.

One thing McCarthy was considered reasonably good at was public speaking. On 9th February, 1950, he gave what was expected to be an unimportant talk to the Republican Women’s Club at Wheeling, West Virginia. Little could those ladies have known what dramas awaited them as they gathered to meet ‘The Pepsi Cola Kid’, another nickname for McCarthy because, as a Senator, he had once received a payment of $20 000 from a man who made the bottles for Pepsi. The day of the talk turned out to be a ‘slow-news day’ and what McCarthy had to say would make the headlines; on another day it might have disappeared. His message shocked the good ladies of Wheeling – and got the attention of everyone else: he claimed that Communist spies were working in the USA and that he alone had a list of 205 who were employed by the US Federal Government. It was a sensational story which the newspapers were delighted to run.

The post-war years from 1945-1949 were a period of rapid deterioration in relations between the USSR and its former western allies, years which provide a key back-drop to the rise of Joe McCarthy. These years saw the rise in tension between the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR, which led to the ‘Cold War’, the era that dominated international relations down to 1990 when Communism collapsed. The term ‘Cold War’ was invented to describe this period of extreme tension and conflict which did not develop into a ‘Hot War’, or direct fighting, between the two sides. Various factors and events contributed to the start of the Cold War, some of which are mentioned here but are covered in greater detail elsewhere.

By 1949, Eastern Europe had come fully under the control of Communist forces, with countries such as Czechoslovakia being forced into an ‘alliance’ with Moscow. The ‘Berlin Blockade’ (1948-49), which had seen Joseph Stalin attempt to force the West out of the former capital of Germany by preventing essential supplies reaching its zones in the city, had raised tensions between the Superpowers but had shown Western competence and raised its commitment in the region. This had raised Stalin’s anger and anxiety about Truman’s plans for Europe.  The formation of NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in April, 1949, raised the tension to new levels as the USA and 11 other countries made a military alliance so that an attack on any one of them by the USSR or any other country would bring a response from all. In addition to this, traditional powers in Western society, groups including politicians, monarchs, churches and businesses, were fiercely opposed to the apparent power of Communism, which seemed to represent the greatest threat to freedom ever seen. In the USA, the threat posed by Communism to the fulfilment of the ‘American dream’ of wealth, freedom and happiness was felt with particular intensity such was the fear of ‘big Government’ and left-wing ideology. Anxiety across the USA reached new levels when China fell to Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong in October 1949. The fact that the USA had been supporting Jiang Jieshi’s nationalists in their struggle against Chairman Mao led many politicians to criticise President Truman for having been too weak and blamed him for the ‘loss of China’, an accusation which had great power and scared many future presidents into adopting a tough anti-Communist stance in the face of other challenges.