Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Go After the Head of the Snake"

What a terrible mess Lyndon Baines Johnson inherited in Vietnam. JFK had created the mess. He had refused to fight for Laos, thereby permitting the North Vietnamese to open the second Ho Chi Minh trail through that country. For short-sighted and self-serving political reasons he had appointed and then lacked the courage to relieve his Republican rival, Henry Cabot Lodge, as U.S. Ambassador and thus prevent the coup against and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963.

But JFK did not live long enough to reap the whirlwind. It fell on LBJ to watch and react as resulting political chaos promptly led to an accelerating decline in South Vietnamese military effectiveness, just as North Vietnam readied and then in the Spring of 1965 launched major military operations involving large regular NVA units.

LBJ was not blameless. He accepted the same "limited war" concept that JFK and his advisors had championed, and he saddled himself with those same JFK advisors who had helped create the mess. Even after the discovery of many large regular NVA units in South Vietnam, his own predilections and the counsel of his advisors led him to reject the sage advice of former President Eisenhower to "go after the head of the snake instead of the tail."

That said, however, LBJ was a tragic figure, not a villain. Trapped in a situation not of his own making, he received little help. His pleas to his advisors for solutions resulted in a choice among proposals that, at best, attacked the tail:

"'I'm pretty depressed reading all thse proposals,' Johnson told McNamara on July 2[, 1965]. The President confided to his wife, 'Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It's like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.'"

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press 2006), at 409.

In retrospect, of course, LBJ should have either gone after the head of the snake or, failing that, jumped out of the plane. But hindsight is 20-20.

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