Website of Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

Page Nine



Almon Leroy Way, Jr.


In and off the coast of Vietnam, independent presidential war-making reached its zenith during the Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) and Richard Nixon (1969-1974). In their conduct of the Vietnam War, both Johnson and Nixon, as mentioned previously, relied heavily on the version of presidential-prerogative theory advanced by Lincoln a century earlier to justify his unprecedented exercise of the war powers in the Civil War and in planning and announcing what was to be his postwar Reconstruction policy. Congress, in approving the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, did authorize the President to take all necessary measures to defend South Vietnam and its established government against any further aggression on the part of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communist regime and to repel any armed attack against U.S. military forces in the region. Shortly after passage of this resolution, however, U.S. participation in the Vietnam War was escalated far beyond what, at a later date, many members of Congress claimed they had in mind when they voted for passage of the resolution.

In early 1965, immediately after Viet Cong guerrilla units had attacked U.S. Army installations in South Vietnam, President Johnson responded by launching "Operation Rolling Thunder," ordering sustained bombing missions over North Vietnam. In March of the same year, Johnson sent to South Vietnam the first U.S. ground combat troops--i.e., the first U.S. combat ground troops that were not sent under the label "military advisers." In response to America's greater military commitment, the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Viet Cong adopted and began to implement a protracted war strategy designed to get U.S. military forces mired in a long, drawn-out war, operating on the assumption that the U.S.A. had neither the will nor the ability to win such a war, since the nation lacked clearly defined interests or objectives in Vietnam and, as the casualties and other costs of American involvement mounted, would eventually become weary of the war and withdraw from it, leaving the Communists a free hand to forcibly take over South Vietnam.

As independent presidential war-making progressed during the remaining years of the Johnson Presidency, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War continued to escalate, the Communists kept on pursuing their protracted war strategy, and things went from bad to worse for American and South Vietnamese ground forces. With an expanded and prolonged war and with mounting American casualties, soon there were insufficient U.S. Army RAs (volunteers) to continue waging the protracted war and the U.S. government was forced to reintroduce military conscription (i.e., the draft). More and more young American males were being called on to risk their lives for the sake of fighting what many perceived to be an "unwinable war" to prop up and protect a corrupt and authoritarian South Vietnamese government. Within the U.S.A., the people began to tire of the war, as the Communist foe had predicted, and there was growing American criticism of and opposition to President Johnson's military policy in Vietnam. Consequently, there emerged in the U.S.A. a significant political protest movement demanding America's disengagement from the Vietnam War. Closely associated with the growing antiwar sentiment within the country was a revival of isolationism a political ideology which, during earlier periods of American history, had been advanced to justify and support advocacy of a policy of our nation's noninvolvement in international power struggles and remaining free of "entangling alliances" and which was now being employed to justify the call for America's withdrawal from international affairs in general and the Vietnam War in particular.

The military and political developments described above had the consequence of intense pressures being brought to bear on the American national politi- cal system. These pressures created extreme discomfort for professional politicians and policy advisers in the Johnson Presidency and for many members of what was then the Democratic Party majority in the two houses of Congress. Fearful of how the voters might react in the 1966 and 1968 congressional elections, Democrats in Congress were spooked into frantic political manuevering and posturing, many second guessing the President's military policy in Vietnam, but being rather disingenuous about their own respective past roles in supporting that policy. Congressional critics of Johnson's Vietnam policy were getting louder and increasing in number.

The second-guessing congressional critics, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that President Johnson had gone far beyond what Congress had intended when it passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In denouncing his ordering Operation Rolling Thunder (the sustained bombing campaign over North Vietnam) and his sending U.S. ground troops to Vietnam, the critics maintained that the President had utilized the response of Congress to a minor incident off the coast of Vietnam--the North Vietnamese gunboat attack against U.S. naval vessels--to establish the foundation for a major war, that he had converted what previously had been a "limited" war into a major war.

While the growing antiwar and isolationist sentiment caused many Democrats in Congress to be concerned about their near-future reelection chances, Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy, driven by his all-consuming political ambition, saw the shift in public opinion as a splendid opportunity for himself, an opportunity that he could exploit in order to achieve his ultimate political goal--getting himself elected President of the United States. In publicly commenting on the Vietnam War in numerous speeches and other media events, Senator Kennedy drastically changed his position from that of the interventionist and War Hawk he had been while serving as U.S. Attorney General and presidential adviser during the Presidency of his brother, John F. Kennedy, and assumed the stance of an isolationist and Dove (as regards the Vietnam War), appealing to the growing segment of Liberal-Leftist opinion reflected in the antiwar protest movement. Kennedy announced that he would be a contender for nomination by the Democratic Party as its presidential candidate in the 1968 election. President Johnson, realizing that the rug of political support needed to win the Democratic nomination and the presidential election had been jerked out from under him, announced that he would not be a contestant for the Democratic nomination in 1968. As Kennedy's campaign for the nomination was nearing success, he was assinated by an Arab-American nutcase (a tragedy that could have been avoided, had Kennedy taken the precaution of putting on a steel helmet and bullet-proof vest before publicly opening his mouth about a matter likely to upset a particular variety of wackos within American society and announcing to a Los Angeles crowd that, while having seen the light and now a Dove and noninterventionist in matters regarding Vietnam, he was not abondoning his position as a Hawk and interventionist on the side of Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Arabs). The Democratic National Convention, meeting in Chicago, nominated Hubert H. Humphrey, but the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, won the 1968 presidential election.

When Nixon became President in January, 1969, he expressed his wish to bring an end to the war in Vietnam, and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, began meeting in Paris with diplomatic representatives of the North Vietnamese government to negotiate a settlement. However, the Vietnam War dragged on and the phenomenon of independent presidential war-making continued to flourish. President Nixon initiated a number of U.S. military actions in Indochina--actions which were taken without the President's consulting Congress and most of which were strongly denounced not only by spokesmen for the antiwar protect movement, but also by con- gressional critics and by Nixon's detractors in the larger American political arena.

In March, 1969, the President ordered "Operation Breakfast"--the secret aerial bombing of North Vietnamese Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia, sanctuaries from which the Communists had been launching raids across the Cambodian border into South Vietnam. In April, 1970, Nixon launched "Operation Fishhook," ordering U.S. ground troops to move into Cambodia and destroy the North Vietnamese Communists' military headquarters, supply centers, and staging areas for operations in South Vietnam. On January 18, 1971, Nixon ordered U.S. military forces to provide air cover and artillery support for a major South Vietnamese Army operation in Laos, an effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail by attacking the North Vietnamese military forces that were using the trail and keeping it open.

In may, 1972, with the Paris negotiations between the U.S.A. and North Vietnam deadlocked and with the North Vietnamese Communists continuing their invasion of South Vietnam, President Nixon ordered the bombing and mining of Hanoi and Haiphong. In a speech explaining why he had taken this action, the President asserted that--

    "There is only one way to stop the killing. That is to keep the weapons of war out of the hands of the international outlaws of North Vietnam." [Richard M. Nixon, THE MEMOIRS OF RICHARD NIXON (New York: Gros- set and Dunlap, 1978), p. 605.]

Nixon continued:

    I have ordered the following measures which are being being implemented as I am speaking to you. All en- trances to North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these ports. United States forces have been directed to take appropriate meas- ures within the internal and claimed territorial waters of North Vietnam to interdict the delivery of any supplies. Rail and all other communications will be cut off to the maximum extent possible. Air and naval strikes against military targets in North Viet- nam will continue." [Ibid.]

In his Memoirs, Nixon said that he believed it was--

    "... essential that we take decisive action to cripple the North Vietnamese invasion [of South Vietnam] by interdicting the supplies of fuel and military equipment the enemy needed for its push into South Vietnam. I consequently directed that plans be pre- pared immediately for mining Haiphong and for bomb- ing prime military targets in Hanoi, particularly the railroad lines used for transporting military supplies." [Ibid., p. 602.]

As the Paris peace negotiations and the North Vietnamese agression against South Vietnam were carried on simultaneously throughout the remainder of 1972, and as the North Vietnam "negotiators" remained as brittle, intransi- gent and treacherous as ever, President Nixon decided that the situation--

    "... had now reached the point where only the strongest action [by the U.S.A.] would have any effect in convincing Hanoi that negotiating a fair settlement with us was a better option for them than continuing the war." [Ibid., p. 733]

Therefore, the President, on December 14, 1972, ordered resumption of the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Nixon's account of the action was as follows:

    "On December 14, I issued an order, to become effec- tive three days hence, for reseeding of the mines in Haiphong Harbor, for resumed aerial reconnaissance, and for B52 strikes against military targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong complex. The bombing plan included sixteen major transportation, power, and Radio Hanoi transmitter targets in Hanoi, as well as six commu- nications command and control targets in the outly- ing area. There were thirteen targets in the Hai- phong area, including shipyards and docks." [Ibid., p. 734]

In January, 1973, as the North Vietnamese Communist leaders continued their usual perfidy (lying through their teeth, talking peace while waging war, engaging in delaying tactics, and holding up agreement on a cease-fire), Nixon initiated another resumption of the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. This time, the North Vietnamese got the message and, on January 23, agreed to a peace settlement, which provided for a cease-fire scheduled to go into effect four days later.

Not long afterwards, however, the North Vietnamese Communists began their repeated violations of the cease-fire agreement. So numerous and egregious were the violations that, by March, 1973, President Nixon was giving serious consideration to renewed bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnamese military forces in Laos.

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