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

Buddhist Monk Committing Ritual Suicide

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

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Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

“I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.” Dr. Martin Luther King, September 1962.

Most people will have heard of the Civil Rights Movement which was a focus for the campaign for equality for Black Americans in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. And, of course, most will also have heard of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, and also Malcolm X or Stokeley Carmichael, who supported a more confrontational approach to securing rights and equality. But few people remember the likes of Elizabeth Eckford and Medgar Evers or, indeed, Emmett Till. This is a brief look at what happened to Emmett Till and some of those lesser-known people who were caught up in the most famous campaign for civil rights in that ‘land of the brave and the free’, the United States of America.

The Death of Emmett Till

In 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years old, a boy from Chicago who was visiting family down in Money, Mississippi, one of the most violent and racist of the southern states at that time, where segregation was still strictly enforced. Emmett went in to a shop with his cousin and some other friends and, for a dare, either said ‘Bye, babe!’ or wolf whistled at, Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who owned the shop. Not really appreciating the dangers of doing such a thing, he ran off with his friends. Carolyn Bryant told various people what had happened and her husband, who was away the time, heard about it a few days later. John Bryant, her husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the house of Emmett’s uncle, where the boy was staying. They demanded to see Emmett, eventually driving him away in their truck. He was never seen again.

In the days following his disappearance and before his body was found, Medgar Evers, a key figure in the NAACP, was one of the people who helped to coordinate the search. Evers would be another of those who would suffer at the hands of the racists, being murdered in June 1963 for his involvement in the civil rights movement.

After a long search, Emmett Till’s body was eventually fished out of the famous Tallahatchie River in late August 1955. He had been so horribly beaten that his left eye and ear were missing, as were nearly all of his teeth. There was a hole in the side of his head where he seemed to have been shot and his body had also been wrapped in barbed wire and tied to the fan of a cotton gin so that it was weighed down and sank into the swamp. Bryant and Milam actually admitted to kidnapping the boy but denied any involvement in his death, saying they simply wanted to scare Emmett and teach him a lesson.

Bryant and Milam, were charged with Emmett Till’s murder but they were acquitted within 67 minutes by an all-white jury despite overwhelming evidence against them.  The prosecution had only two witnesses to support their case, Emmett’s uncle and his cousin, who had seen Bryant and Milam take the boy away. However, a further witness came forward, a local man by the name of Willie Louis, who had Emmett being beaten.  Louis bravely took the stand to identify the two men as the murderers of Emmett Till but his testimony was ignored by the jury and Bryant and Milam went free. A few months later, having been assured that because of the law of ‘double jeopardy’ (a US law which says you cannot be tried for the same crime twice), they admitted to the murder but went free. Willie Louis, by contrast, had to be smuggled out of his home in Mississippi. He was forced to move to Chicago where he had to live under police protection and changed his name to Willie Reed. He stayed silent about his role in the trial for the next thirty years until he told his wife about what had happened. Reed was eventually introduced to Emmett Till’s mother and he was interviewed on TV in a documentary about the murder. Willie Reed died in 2013, still haunted by the screams he heard as Emmett Till was murdered by two men who lost barely a day of freedom for their horrific crime.

Emmett Till’s murder, and the events that surrounded the search and the trial, caused a massive outpouring of anger and horror in the USA and across the world. Bob Dylan was just one person who was aware of the murder, leading him to write the song ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ which would eventually appear on the ‘Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6’ album of 1972. The injustice was blatant, and this reflected especially badly on the USA at a time when it claimed to be leading the fight against Communism in the Cold War. As former colonies were looking to emerge from the control of the European nations, for example, why should they look to the USA and the West for leadership and protection? What was so great about a country which could allow such clear racism and hatred to poison relationships in its own land? How could such overwhelming evidence be ignored and a decision to acquit be reached so casually? How could an all-white jury be allowed to deliver a verdict in such a case when the population was so mixed? These questions also cut deep into the consciousness of American society, causing many to reflect on what was happening in the most powerful country on earth.

Bryant and Milam had set out to ‘teach the boy a lesson’, when they went after Emmett Till; in the end they taught the world a lesson about the hatred that raged in the southern states, and gave a huge impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. But what a tragedy it was that Emmett Till should have to be remembered by having a street named after him in Chicago, all because of whistling at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Emmett Till – photo showing him as he was before the attack and also with the horrific injuries he suffered: here)

Just in case you are not sure about where the ‘Southern States’ are, here is a map. They are the states which formed the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861-65). They were the states which threatened to leave the USA if slavery were abolished. They wore the grey uniforms, as against the soldiers of the Union, or the North, who wore blue in all the films. The Southern States, the Confederates, lost the war and had to accept the end of slavery but retained a deep resentment against the North, a hatred that they transferred into persecution of the freed slaves who stayed in those states.

 

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(Author: Nick Roux; Source: Map-USA-South01.svg)

The Southern States of the USA are those in the south-east of the country: Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Although Florida, Oklahoma and Texas are sometimes considered southern states today, they did not experience segregation at anything like the same level as the other states mentioned.

 

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Another important incident from 1955 also happened in the ‘Deep South’, this time in Montgomery, Alabama. The ‘Deep South’, also called ‘the Cotton States’, refers to the most racist and hard-line of the southern states, the likes of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. A quiet, dignified woman called Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was to see her life transformed as she ended up in prison and on the front pages of the newspapers, because of events on 1st December 1955. Rosa Parks’ story is far better known than that of Emmett Till but it is still worth covering for its importance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP in Montgomery and regularly travelled on the buses. The NAACP was the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’, which had been formed in New York City in 1909 by a group of citizens, both black and white, who wanted to see social justice for all Black Americans. It was the largest such organisation in the USA, and had a high profile and many members across the country. Travelling home from work on the evening of 1st December, Rosa Parks got onto a bus and sat in the designated ‘Coloreds only’ section. The front of the bus was for ‘Whites only’ but, on this journey, it filled up, leaving some white people standing. The driver moved the ‘Coloreds only’ sign back a row, forcing four people to move. Rosa Parks was one of these and she refused to move, believing she should not have to. The driver called the police and Rosa Parks was arrested and eventually fined for her actions. It is sometimes said that Rosa was thinking of Emmett Till when she decided to refuse to move.

A one-day protest was organised where Black Americans in the area refused to ‘ride’ the buses. The success of this protest led to plans for a long-term boycott, partly under the guidance of the new minister at one of the local Baptist churches, a man called Martin Luther King Jr. The famous ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ was to have huge significance as an example of ‘direct action’ or peaceful protest in the manner used by ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi in India. So it was that the boycott started – and went on for a year before achieving success when segregation on the buses was ended in Alabama.

Rosa Parks was not the first person to protest against the system of segregation on the buses of the south but her example was the one that triggered the key response. There is no doubt that this was due in large part to the leadership of Martin Luther King but success was achieved with the support of thousands of unknown people who endured so much pain and inconvenience during the bus boycott. Together they won and broke just one aspect of the system of segregation. Something fundamental changed with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was a powerful sense of hope, a belief that things could change and that victory could be won with courage, patience and united action.

Rosa Parks came to symbolise the hopes of many people across the USA. She received many awards in her lifetime with the most important one being the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ which she received from President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Rosa Parks died in 2005, at the age of 92.

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Rosa Parks rides the bus in Montgomery following the end of segregation. (Author: United Press photographer; Source: Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks receiving the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ from Bill Clinton. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

 

Medgar Evers

A third important but lesser known figure from the campaign for civil rights is Medgar Evers (1925-1963). Evers was born in the Deep South, in the state of Mississippi, probably the most violently racist of all the states. He fought in World War II as a G.I. alongside white soldiers, an experience which made him aware of the full significance of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of segregation and racism. These laws were passed by states in the ‘Deep South’ and legalised discrimination against Black Americans in things like education, employment and the legal system. ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory term for Black Americans in this region, something picked up in the Disney film ‘Dumbo’ in case you’re interested. On his return from the war, Medgar Evers lived once again in Mississippi, gaining his legal qualifications and then going to work for the NAACP. He was involved in various important events including the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till (for which he worked undercover in a cotton field as a sharecropper) and in trying to help James Meredith become the first Black American to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Meredith would later be shot by a sniper while making a solo ‘March against Fear’ from Tennessee to Mississippi in 1966. He survived and later continued the march. Rather interestingly, James Meredith would later become anti-civil rights, even working against the decision to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday – but that is a story for another time.

Anyway, Evers continued the campaign for the full integration of education in Mississippi and the Southern States, provoking anger from white supremacists and the Ku-Klux-Klan. He believed in peaceful protest, proclaiming ‘Violence is not the way’. He received numerous death threats to try to stop his activities but continued his work. Eventually, on 12th July 1963, Evers was shot by a member of the KKK. He was 38 when he died. A man called Byron de la Beckwith was tried before two all white juries, both of which returned hung decisions so that he could not be convicted. Thirty years later, following revelations made to a prison guard in which he boasted of killing Evers, de la Beckwith was tried again and sentenced to life imprisonment. The wheels of justice sometimes turn very slowly, especially in the South.

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Medgar Evers (1925-63) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine

One final figure worth knowing a little bit about is Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), who became famous in 1957 when a group of nine Black American students wanted to enter Little Rock High School in Arkansas. They were trying to exercise their right to attend any school in the USA but they were all prevented from attending and were on the receiving end of quite vicious abuse from white students, police and ordinary people when they walked to the school that day. Protest marches against them were organised so that they were followed by large crowds. This led to the famous photograph (below) of Elizabeth, who was 16 at the time, and the crowd of local people who harassed her as she made her way to school.

Little Rock 9

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It is interesting to note that Hazel Massery, the girl in the centre of the picture shouting angrily, later saw the photo and was horrified by it. She was struck by the way in which her own hatred contrasted with the sadness and fear on Elizabeth’s face. Many years later she made contact with Elizabeth to apologise and the two women campaigned to strengthen civil rights and improve relations between their communities.

The incident at Little Rock became a national issue. President Eisenhower decided to send in the National Guard, forcing the State authorities to comply with the law by allowing black students to attend the school. But the soldiers had to provide some serious, on-going, protection both inside and outside the school, ensuring their education could go ahead free from abuse, intimidation and violence. This decision was made partly to enforce one of the most significant decisions of the Supreme Court. In 1952, in the case of ‘Brown v Topeka Board of Education, Kansas’, the Supreme Court had ruled that a Black American girl called Linda Brown was allowed to attend her local school, which was designated as a ‘Whites only’ school, rather than having to travel across Topeka to a designated ‘Coloreds only’ school.

The ‘Brown v Topeka’ case was very important as it overturned a Supreme Court decision from 1895 where, in the case known as ‘Plessey v. Ferguson’, the judges had said that it was legal to have segregation in education; schools could be for ‘Whites only’ or ‘Coloreds only’, allowing a policy known as ‘Separate but equal’. This meant that, as long as children from different racial backgrounds had a school to go to, it did not matter what they were like, how they were resourced, how they were funded, how qualified the teachers were and how many students were in each class. Schools could (and did) accept or reject students based on their racial background and this was legal. It meant white schools were larger, newer, better equipped, better funded, had more qualified teachers and had more up to date resources than the schools for ‘Colored’ students, and that was also perfectly legal. Eisenhower’s decision was a huge step by the President, enforcing this decision and forcing the southern states to accept the law and comply.

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Segregation at water fountains was legal. (Author: Russell Lee; Source: here)

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Segregation existed at the cinema. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Segregation in US restaurants was widespread.  (Author: Ben Shahn; Source: here)

A Military Police Officer in Georgia, 1942. (Author: PFC Victor Tampone; Source:here)

Signs of segregation in the ‘Land of the Free’

 

Once again, the fact that all of this was happening while the USA claimed to be fighting the USSR over issues such as rights, opportunity, equality, freedom and justice, struck many people as, at best, odd, and at worst, hypocritical. It had echoes of the treatment of Jesse Owens after winning four gold medals for the US at the Berlin Olympics: “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler; but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either”.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X might have been the most famous names but there were many other people, people with smaller but still important stories, who played their own part in the Civil Rights Movement. Ordinary people suffered, struggled, fought and, eventually, won the victory – and without them, the leaders of the movement would have been seriously weakened.

 

 

Find out more
DVD: ‘Mississippi Burning’ (Certificate 18 – 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1989) – an inaccurate but interesting re-telling of the FBIs involvement in solving the murders of the three ‘Freedom Riders’ in Mississippi. It is very good at presenting the attitudes, social values and relationships of the Deep South in the 1960s.
DVD: Dr. Martin Luther King – A Historical Perspective (Certificate – exempt – Delta Home Entertainment, 2005). An hour long documentary about MLK, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
DVD: ‘Malcolm X’ (Certificate 15 – Warner Home Video, 1992) – powerful study of Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who took a more direct and aggressive approach to civil rights than Martin Luther King.
Songs. Music played a major role in giving shape, strength and inspiration to the Civil Rights Movement. The number of songs that could be listed is huge and the following are just a few that were considered important by many people: ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ by Bob Dylan, ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ by Mavis Staples and ‘People Get Ready’ by The Impressions.
Books. The range of books that touch on segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in one way or another is huge. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa parks and other figures abound and can be found in any good bookshop or on-line. A good introduction can be found in Chapter 12 of ‘The American Century’ by Harold Evans (Jonathan Cape, 1998), Some of the most well known books include, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett, ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, as well as works by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – but there are many, many more to consider.