They Lied, It Really Is That Simple – Viet Nam

“…Even as [President Johnson] resisted JCS requests to intensify the air campaign, he emphasized the ground war in the South. Sending US troops to fight in the South seemed the least expensive course of action [italics mine] in terms of domestic political reaction, even though McNamara and the president were aware of predictions that an expansion of the American effort on the ground would lead to a protracted, indecisive war that the United States would ultimately lose…” (1)


Recently, a piece (authoritarianism-or-fascism) questioning how we arrived at this Trumpian moment was posted by me on this web site. This “moment” was tied historically – hopefully successfully – to events reaching a climax in 1945 – 1949, particularly the success of the Chinese Communist Party’s revolution, driving out the Nationalist forces against which they had been arrayed after the Japanese defeat. This, and the passage of the National Security Act of September 18, 1947 (50 USC Ch 15 § 401, amended 1949), which initiated the national security state, under which we are still encumbered, led us, inexorably, to this moment.

With the success of the Chinese Revolution, the United States turned inward and began looking for reasons we had “lost” China. The resultant activity to affix blame – looking for “traitors” – led the the destruction of the careers of agents of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and US State Department (USSD) experts who had predicted the success of the revolutionary Chinese forces. The result was a very serious loss of expertise on this area of Asia, perpetrated in the name of anti-communism, that left our country weaker going forward. Even though the Kennedy administration (1960 – 1963) was cognizant of the wrongs done these men, they felt there was too much residue from the moral panic of the McCarthy period to rehabilitate these individuals; they remained, with a very few exceptions, “in the cold”.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, and with the ascension of his Vice-President, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), the Kennedy policies related to Viet Nam required further attention. As noted in the above-cited post (authoritarianism-or-fascism), the Cabinet members of the Kennedy and then the Johnson Administrations were marked as much by who was there as by who wasn’t. Kennedy was something of a risk-taker; he at least considered bringing back into the US Government a few of those who had been removed. Johnson, on the other hand, was consummately insecure and not a risk taker; he appears to have been uncomfortable with debate and dissent.

In his history of the Johnson era of the Viet Nam War of Independence, McMaster (2) notes how LBJ, both before and after the 1964 presidential election, tried to hide his policies progressively increasing our involvement from the people of the United States and their Representatives.

Several factors likely drove his actions. Firstly, LBJ wanted to protect the emerging set of laws ultimately termed “The Great Society”. This was the first serious attempt to deal with the scourges of poverty, racism and social injustice by the US Government since the New Deal, and included a broad array of programs, some of which we still recognize today: Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and National Services Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education, the Higher Education, and the Bilingual Education Acts, welfare improvements, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Public Broadcast Act (Public Broadcasting Service), as well as various transportation, consumer protection, environmental, housing, rural development and labor reforms (3). This was, in its breadth, a massive undertaking. LBJ was sure that conservatives would derail this reform program if he withdrew from Viet Nam, and that the progressives would punish him if he expanded the war.

The consequence of this thinking by Johnson was a series of steps, taken while insisting to Congress and the American People that he would not widen the war or involve US troops in other than advisory roles. Instead, LBJ and his advisors slowly and progressively increased US involvement, convincing themselves that they would “send a message” to the North Viet Namese showing our resolve.

Secondly, there was some serious ambiguity, unclarity, as to what the US was actually doing in Viet Nam; this confusion was not mitigated by the fact that the very experts on this area of Asia had either been removed from Government service or were ignored when decisions were made.  John McNaughton, who served as Department of Defense General Counsel and one of the civilian war planners, responding to this unclarity, laid out these objectives for US involvement in Viet Nam:

70% – to avoid a humiliating defeat calling into question our reputation;

20% – to keep South Viet Nam (SVN) out of Chinese hands;

10% – to permit the SVN people to enjoy a better and freer way of life;

ALSO – to emerge from crisis without an unacceptable taint from methods used;

NOT – to “help a friend” (4).

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked McNaughton to political and military scenarios for US involvement in Viet Nam. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) provided military actions they thought were needed, they were not allowed to participate in policy/strategic discussions (5). The military actions in the plan was considered “rash to the point of folly” by McGeorge Bundy, another of LBJ’s advisors (6). It appears that, at no time, could or did anyone in our Government consider the repercussions of the growing rift between the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union, or the fraught history between China and Viet Nam, when they saw in the Viet Namese independence movement, “Monolithic World Communism”. The experts were gone.

Concerned about his Great Society programs, Johnson wanted unity in his cabinet and military, fearing dissent. The result was limiting the already parsed voices of caution. The experts that could have informed LBJ’s decisions had either been removed from US Government service or, if still working, were excluded from meetings so as to minimize debate. Even the JCS were not allowed to voice dissent; when they did, McNamara is said to have lied to the National Security Council about the JCS’ views (7). Yet the Chiefs abrogated their Constitutional responsibility, too, apparently never confronting the civilian war planners in a united front with their assessment that actions other than the ones being taken were needed (8).

Others performed no better. In August 1964, Ambassador to Viet Nam Maxwell Taylor lied in his testimony before Congress, at hearings questioning Taylor’s knowledge surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In his previous job as Chairman of the JCS, Taylor knew about Oplan-34A (9), a plan of covert attacks against North Viet Nam; indeed, these operations were ongoing the day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Yet when queried about the events surrounding that event by Senator Wayne Morse, and further about Oplan-34A, Taylor (and McNamara) lied (10). In the history of US involvement on Viet Nam, one sees this over and over: lies. There were 6 turning points in this war, most of them hidden from Congress and the American people until after the fact: 1. The assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem; 2. The decision that Viet Nam was a “new type of war” and a distrust of the US military in this context; 3. The strategic concept of “graduated pressure” on the North; 4. Direct military action against North Viet Nam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident (August 1964); 5. Systematic limited bombing of North Viet Nam (February 1965); 6. Assigning the US military the mission of “killing Viet Cong” (March 1965). By July 28, 1965, the day LBJ announced escalation of the war, the stage was set for the disaster that ensued.

What does this 53 year old series of events have to do with us, now? Indeed, why study history?

McMaster argues that:

“…The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or on college campuses. It was lost in Washington, DC, even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war…[The failings in Vietnam] were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people…” (11).

It is this set of “failings” that so typify our present leaders, particularly that related to “lying in the pursuit of self interest”. The point of re-examining this episode in our history is to remind ourselves that our “present encumbrance” – everything, from children in cages to our use of tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed refugees to massive tax cuts for the rich to a decreasing life span for Americans to our “leaders” ignoring the impending climate disaster – is amenable to analysis and, thus, change, if we just do the work. This change must be carried out with radical transparency, however, and with our people involved. And soon.



1. McMaster HR. Dereliction of duty -Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.  New York. Harper. 1997. p. 287.

2. ibid

3. The Great Society. Last accessed 29 November, 2018.

4. McMaster HR. Dereliction of duty -Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.  New York. Harper. 1997. p. 237.

5. ibid. p 301.

6. ibid. p 302.

7. ibid. p. 329.

8. ibid. pp. 327 – 333.

9. ibid. pp. 118 – 124.

10. ibid. pp. 152 – 153.

11. ibid. pp. 333 – 334.

About AJ Layon

AJ Layon was, for 28 years, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, in Gainesville, FL. For the approximately 10 years until September 2011, he was Professor and Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF; In September of 2011 he became System Director and Co-Chairman of Critical Care Medicine in PA; this ended in 2017. He served as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) through 2018 and is presently an intensivist in Florida, struggling through the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. While his interests are primarily related to health care, health care reform, and ethical issues, as a citizen of our United States and our world, he will occasionally opine on issues of our "time and destiny". Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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