In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base consisted of Catholics, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the military’s officer corps (which was also heavily Catholic), landlords, the country’s business elite, and the urban middle class. In a sense, the American Catholic Church, as well as the presidential administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy represented another important segment of Diem’s base. Without the backing of those groups, he risked losing his hold on power. Because his political influence did not derive from the peasantry, and never had, Diem, during his nine years as the leader of South Vietnam, largely ignored the interests and aspirations of South Vietnam’s rural population. He did not believe he needed the rural populace in order to remain in office. Another factor that contributed to his neglect of the peasantry related to the perceived military threat by the Communist North. Up until at least 1959, neither Diem nor the Americans believed the Communists would conduct a large-scale, rural-based insurgency in the South. The American Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon concluded that the northern-based Communists, if they did seek to topple the Saigon regime, would launch a conventional cross-border invasion. MAAG advised Diem that he should train and equip the ARVN to confront North Vietnamese regulars rather than peasant guerrillas. If an insurgency should emerge in the South, MAAG believed conventional ARVN forces could handle it. Continue Reading »
The United States and Soviet Union emerged from World War II as the world’s two most powerful nation states. Yet, the United States far surpassed the Soviet Union in economic and military might. For instance, four years after the conclusion of the war, it was estimated that the United States possessed a Gross National Product (GNP) of 250 billion dollars compared to the U.S.S.R.’s 65 billion [May, Interpreting NSC-68, 36]. The larger, diversified U.S. economy translated into an impressive standard of living for its citizens. The American people experienced an unprecedented material abundance. No other society in world history had ever been so wealthy. Nor had any other country developed such high levels of efficiencies in manufacturing and agricultural production. U.S. economic strength underpinned the U.S.’s military might. Continue Reading »
Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California, to Robert James McNamara and Clara Nell Strange McNamara. Yes, his middle name, as he so often told others, was in fact “Strange,” which was his mother’s maiden name. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, McNamara graduated from Piedmont High School in Piedmont, California. From there he went on to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in 1937. Following his undergraduate studies, he pursued, and completed, an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School. He was an exceptional student. One of his professors, Edmund Learned, remembered the young McNamara, “…I almost got the feeling he was ingesting these systems [as part of his studies in systems analysis] as if he’d somehow known them all before, in another consciousness….” [Hendrickson, Living Dead, 86]. Continue Reading »
“…you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the falling domino principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences…So, the possible consequences of the loss [of Indochina] are just incalculable to the free world.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 7, 1954, in a statement to the press
In its most basic articulation, the Domino Theory postulated that the fall of one pro-Western nation to communism would lead to the rapid communist subjugation of adjoining Western-bloc nations. Every president from Truman to Nixon, either believed in the Domino Theory or recognized its usefulness as a tool in garnering domestic support for U.S. involvement abroad. The theory’s proponents did not believe it applicable to every region of the world. However, it was considered most pertinent to the East-West confrontation in Indochina. Continue Reading »
In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier. He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.
To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning. Even though he spent much of his day in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif. He particularly enjoyed tennis. When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally caught a game together. Westmoreland never displayed unpredictable or reckless behavior. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse. The most foul words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.” Continue Reading »