“A Noble Cause”: Reagan and the Vietnam War

RonaldReaganOn August 18, 1980, Republican Party presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago, Illinois.  In a hall filled with the aging veterans of World War II and the younger veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Reagan reflected on America’s recent defeat in South Vietnam.

True to his conservative political philosophy and the advise of his hawkish foreign policy advisors, the former B-movie actor provided an interpretation of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam far removed from historical reality. Reagan did what he had spent his entire acting career doing – he engaged in make believe. The well-groomed and articulate candidate wanted his audience to forget about the war’s complexities, its ambiguities, and its brutality.  In an obvious pandering to the veterans, Reagan framed the Vietnam War as a simple struggle between the virtuous and altruistic United States and the evil and aggressive North Vietnamese.

Reagan accused his opponent for the White House, Democratic Party presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, of having been stricken by the Vietnam Syndrome, which manifested itself as a deep-seated reluctance to commit American military power overseas. Fearful of becoming bogged down in another unwinnable war in a distant land, Carter’s foreign policy, according to Reagan, had been weak and vacillating, especially toward the Soviet Union. Reagan said the Vietnam Syndrome held no sway over him. If the Communists dared to again militarily challenge the United States, he would not hesitate to send American boys abroad to confront them on the field of battle. Reagan claimed he would restore America’s rightful place in the world as the dominant military power.

Reagan refused to accept what he believed to be the historical assumptions underlying the Vietnam Syndrome. He rejected the notion that America had acted as a self-interested imperial power when it went into Vietnam. As for American military operations on the ground in South Vietnam and in the skies above North Vietnam, they had been neither barbaric nor immoral.

In a voice filled with self-righteousness, the Republican candidate declared, “For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors …Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests…It is time we recognized that ours was in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful….”[1] Reagan’s analysis of America’s role in Vietnam, and his claim that the American war effort had been a “noble cause,” was an early articulation of an emerging school of thought on the war known as neo-conservative revisionism.

In Chicago, Reagan argued that the biggest mistake America had made in Vietnam was that it had not applied enough military pressure against North Vietnam and the Vietcong; had it done so, America would have won the war. He said, “There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.”[2]

One of the ways the U.S. could have applied greater military power would have been through a massive air campaign against North Vietnam in the early stages of the war. Saturating the skies of North Vietnam with heavy B-52s, and blanketing that Communist land with explosives, would have, according to some neo-conservative revisionists, quickly broken the will of the Communists and ended the war in matter of weeks or months. The Christmas bombing raids of December 1972 supposedly proved what the B-52s could have accomplished, if only they had been deployed against North Vietnam back in 1965.

Yet, this argument ignores three important points. Had the United States paved North Vietnam with asphalt (which Reagan suggested in an October 1965 speech) or bombed it back to the Stone Age, the Soviets and Chinese would have merely increased their military and economic aid to North Vietnam in order to replace the higher losses incurred by the U.S.’s intensified air attacks. There’s little doubt that a massive application of U.S. military power against North Vietnam could have laid waste to that small, impoverished country, but such a campaign would not have defeated the insurgency in South Vietnam. The Vietcong were southern-based and southern-supported. The guerrillas (who numbered over 200,000 in the later half of 1965) could have fought on, regardless of what happened north of the 17th parallel.

Bombing North Vietnam back to the Stone Age, threatening the viability of the Hanoi regime, and inflicting mass civilian casualties across the North (which would have resulted from an overwhelming application of U.S. airpower), would have brought worldwide condemnation upon the United States.  But most importantly, the destruction of North Vietnam would have pushed Red China and likely the Soviet Union directly into the war. The Central Intelligence Agency predicted a massive Chinese troop deployment to northern Vietnam if the U.S. endangered the survival of the Hanoi government. In a Special National Intelligence Estimate of August 1966, the CIA wrote, “We have estimated that Peking would almost certainly intervene if North Vietnam were invaded or if the collapse of the Communist regime [in Hanoi] seemed likely.”[3] As for the Soviets, officials in the U.S. State Department believed that once China entered the war, the Kremlin would have felt tremendous political pressure (both domestically and internationally) to intervene in Vietnam in order to meet its obligations under the 1951 Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty and to ensure the continued Soviet leadership of the worldwide Communist movement.[4]  Although Reagan never admitted it, limited U.S. military action in Vietnam likely forestalled a global war between the U.S. and the two Communist giants.

When Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the U.S. should have applied overwhelming military power against North Vietnam, he essentially admitted that had he been president in 1965 he would have been willing to risk World War III to achieve a limited political objective in a peripheral region of the world. Ronald Reagan, who so frequently came across in public appearances as such a friendly fella, was willing to put the U.S. homeland and its 200 million civilians at risk of nuclear annihilation for South Vietnam and its 15 million people. None of the top officials in the Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon administrations were willing to go that far to defend South Vietnam.

[1] www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/8.18.80.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] National Intelligence Council, Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948-1975, SNIE 13-66, “Special National Intelligence Estimate: Current Chinese Communist Intentions in the Vietnam Situation,” August 4, 1966, 345.

[4] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume II, Vietnam, January-June 1965, General Editor Glenn W. LaFantasie, Document 113, Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Johnson, Washington, February 13, 1965, (Washington: GPO, 1996), 252-256.

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