Research Proposal: Politics on War

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Politics of War - Kennedy and Nixon Administrations

The Kennedy administration decided in 1961 not to assist the Laotian government through military intervention, though President Eisenhower had advised him that Laos, and not Vietnam, was the hotspot in Southeast Asia. Kennedy backed a diplomatic settlement that brought to power a neutral regime. For a candidate who had cast a hard line during the campaign against the communists, this seemed like a pretty soft touch.

Then, in April 1961, Kennedy approved and was humiliated by one of the most disastrous military defeats in American history -- the failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Several months after that, he was bullied by the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev at their Vienna, Austria summit meeting. Kennedy had appeared weak. and, just two months after that the Berlin wall went up, separating communist East Berlin from the western part of the city (Small, at the Water's Edge:).

So, when it came time to consider options for Vietnam, Kennedy feared that he had to set limits or face more provocations from the communists, and, especially, electoral defeat for his party in 1962 and himself in 1964.

Thus, it began -- the impact of domestic politics on the Vietnam War -- even before the war started.

Kennedy looked like an appeaser. Eisenhower had warned him directly that the Republicans would hold him responsible "for any retreat in Southeast Asia." Republican Congressmen charged that the administration "has failed to act with sufficient vigor to frustrate communist objectives."

After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy told an aide, "There are just so many concessions that one can make to the communists in one year and survive politically...We just can't have another defeat in Vietnam (Small, at the Water's Edge:).

In 1963, Kennedy ordered more military and economic aid to buttress the Saigon regime; from 1961-1963 he increased the number of American advisers in South Vietnam from 800 under Eisenhower to more than 16,000. Those "advisers" began taking a more active role in combat. In 1961 the United States had its first eleven combat deaths in Vietnam. By 1963, the number killed had jumped to seventy-eight in that year alone.

Domestic politics played a significant role in beginning, and then increasing, America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

In an August, 2002 article, Simon wrote:

By 1965 the Johnson Administration essentially found itself in a predicament - a political war trap" -- that was a product of the nuclear era, the Cold War, and domestic politics in the United States. The "trap" involved a wavering ally whose regime was threatened. The option of not using military force was discounted for fear of a "communist success" if the ally fell, and the domestic repercussions this would trigger" (Simon).

In March, 1965, "teach-ins" against the war began at the University of Michigan. They soon spread to other campuses. Senator William J. Fulbright, a former close friend and ally of President Johnson broke with him in 1966 over the war. As the war escalated, demonstrations and other forms of protest become commonplace on university campuses and in major cities of the U.S., including the October 1967 march on the Pentagon (Simon).

Criticism of the Johnson Administration grew more widespread and strident because of the increasing number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Due to all of the protests, student unrest, and domestic politics gone awry, in November of 1967, the Administration launched an extensive "public relations" campaign. It was designed to convince Congress, the press, and the public that there was "progress" in Vietnam and that the war was being "won."

Unfortunately, the siege at Khe Sanh and the enormous TET offensive by the combined North Vietnamese and Viet Cong ensued and left critics wondering how it was possible for them to launch two such huge offensives if, indeed, America was winning the Vietnam War. Besides all this, the Vietnam War was the first "living room" war with television broadcasting on-the-scene continuously and dead U.S. soldiers in body bags and caskets.

Yet another tell tale sign of a political war was when newsman Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam in early 1968 and declared that the war would end in a stalemate. LBJ said at that time, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." The President's concern -- that a news anchor had made him lose part of the electorate (Simon).

But did TET (and Cronkite) have an impact within the Administration and in LBJ's decisions of how to conduct the war? In their wake, President Johnson refused the request for a substantial troop increase from General Westmoreland and initiated a reconsideration of his policy of escalation. In March, 1968 he withdrew his name from consideration as the Democratic nominee for President in that year's election.

Politically, the toll of Vietnam is also evident in the path of public support for President Johnson from January 1965 through the end of December in 1968. The mounting casualties, along with domestic unrest, had a most corrosive impact on the president's support. His popularity had slipped almost 30 points.

The Anti-War Movement

Noted historian and author, Stephen Ambrose, who participated in the Vietnam antiwar movement, in his forward to Garfinkle's book, says:

Given the widespread unpopularity of the war, its duration, media coverage, and other factors, however, what stands out about the antiwar movement is how little influence it had on events. It could have been a well-organized mass political opposition...concentrating single-mindedly on ending the war. Instead it was a movement of competing visions, agendas and politics. The movement could never agree on a goal...and it resorted to drugs, group sex, some belief in license to riot, to scandalize, to talk and dress dirty...It was a turnoff to the potential antiwar members of the middle class" (Garfinkle).

The permanent influence of the antiwar movement was not to shorten the war, but to pave the way for and extend the boundaries of the counterculture. Ambrose adds, "On his (Garfinkle's) central point, that the antiwar movement had little impact on how the presidents carried out the war, he is thoroughly convincing." Garfinkle later adds that "the antiwar movement between 1966 and 1969 was not among the factors that influenced the war or the public's opinion of it. It did not help stop the war but rather helped prolong it."

It was before Lyndon Johnson's election in 1964 and after Nixon's 1972 election, that a reliberalized movement, through the Democratic Party, had any modest impact on the duration of the Vietnam War. And the movement was not responsible for LBJ's change in direction of the war in 1968. LBJ was responsible. In his March, 1968 speech, he decided to change U.S. policy aims. And the reason was that the administration had calculated the various costs and benefits in which the antiwar movement served as only a minor factor (Garfinkle).

The Johnson administration was self-restrained from sharp escalation, not restrained because of public opinion which was more hawkish than the administration much of the time, or because of the antiwar movement, which was marginal to the decision-making process throughout.

Suffice to say that, though we don't have the space here to go into all the reasons, it is clear that the antiwar movement, though vociferous and active, really had little impact on the conduct or length of the Vietnam War, despite what they continue to this day to think about it.

Negative Influence of Media?

Much like the influence of the antiwar movement on the politics of the Vietnam War, much has been misunderstood about the media's supposed "impact" on the policies, politics and conduct of that war.

Hallin, 1989, draws on the complete body of the New York Times coverage from 1961 to 1965, a sample of hundreds of television reports from 1965-73, including television coverage filmed by the Defense Department in the early years of the war, and interviews with many of the journalists who reported it (Hallin).

Far from being a consistent adversary of government policy in Vietnam, Hallin shows, the media were closely tied to official perspectives throughout the war, though divisions in the government itself and contradictions in its public relations policies caused every administration, at certain times, to lose its ability to "manage" the news effectively.

As for television, it neither showed the "literal horror of war," nor did it play a leading role in the collapse of support: it presented a highly idealized picture of the war in the early years, and shifted toward a more critical view only after public unhappiness and divisions over the war were well advanced (Hallin).

The questions Hallin raises might be if the media's early administration-friendly coverage distorted the realistic picture Americans were receiving about the progress of the war? and, is it accurate to say that the media "poisoned" the environment against the war and encouraged the antiwar movement -- or not?

Political Opponents' Influence

Though a primary concern of President Johnson throughout the war, strictly from a political perspective, Congressional influence over… [END OF PREVIEW]

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