America’s faith in government died in Vietnam
“Never again would Americans fully trust their leaders.” Mark Bowden, the historian, makes that chilling prediction in the prelude to his recent book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. The horrendous 24- day battle of Hue was part of the Tet Offensive, in which the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong mounted surprise attacks on cities and unprepared U. S. military bases across the south of the country.
The attackers lost many soldiers but the Americans lost their reputation. President Lyndon Johnson and his administration had been insisting, month after month, that the U. S. was heading toward victory. They claimed to be seeing “light at the end of the tunnel.” But that fiction couldn’t be sustained when TV news showed American bases being devastated.
In March, a month later, Johnson admitted personal defeat by announcing he would not run for re-election the following autumn. Gen. William Westmoreland, the U. S. military commander, was soon relieved of his post. It was obvious that the Vietnam War was lost. Debate about winning was silenced; everyone began talking about how soon the U.S. could extricate itself from this disaster of a war. But the new president, Richard Nixon, hung on so long that it took seven more shameful years before it was finished.
When the American troops came home they discovered that civilians were no longer interested in them, even if their bravery had been rewarded with medals. The truth about Vietnam was not something people wanted to dwell on. Still, towns across the country set up memorials to local soldiers who did not return. Some tried to avoid using the word “war.” One that I saw in New England had a chiselled sign, “Casualties in the Vietnam Experience.” After Nixon, seven presidents in a row managed to avoid referring to this titanic mistake.
But Vietnam is a nightmare that America can’t banish forever. It has recently erupted on television and movie screens, as well as in Bowden’s notable book. It’s reviving in detail the passionate anger of many Americans who found themselves fighting a war they couldn’t win and couldn’t justify.
The recent 10-part, 18-hour TV series about Vietnam on PBS shows the Vietnam War to have been a vain and hopeless struggle from the start, fought without competence or honesty. This documentary production was not a marginal enterprise. It was directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick with the support of an array of Establishment- level donors, including the Bank of America, David H. Koch and the Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
The Post, the powerful new movie by Steven Spielberg, delivers an equally penetrating account of government deceit. It deals with The Washington Post’s internal struggle by its editor, Ben Bradlee ( Tom Hanks) and the paper’s president, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), over reporting the secret, 14- volume Pentagon Papers. One of the authors of that incriminating study, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), delivered a crucial part of the Papers to The New York Times, which had put it on the front page. The Washington Post then acquired much of the rest.
The Post leaves no doubt at all that the government again and again consciously lied to the public about progress (or lack of it) in Vietnam. The most seriously blamed character in the Post is Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), a former Ford Motor Company president with a brilliant reputation, chosen by John Kennedy as his defence secretary in 1961 — a much admired appointment at the time.
It was McNamara who assigned a massive study of the U. S. in Vietnam, intending it for use by future historians. And it was McNamara, the study said, who knew many years before the end that the U. S. couldn’t win in Vietnam yet allowed the killing of Americans and Vietnamese to go on.
All that became known in 1971 through the Times, the Post and many other outlets. Could it be that these revelations persuaded millions of Americans to lose faith permanently in their government? Most of the young people who rioted in the streets in the 1960s were middle- aged in the election of 2016. Could it be that they voted for Donald Trump, who saw Washington as a noxious swamp, because they remembered being lied to so often in the Vietnam era?