The three-day Vietnam War Summit at the LBJ Library got underway Tuesday with Mark Updegrove, the LBJ Library’s director, recalling that when the library was dedicated in May 1971, protesters were held back by a phalanx of police, their chants of “‘No more wars’ carried by high winds and accompanied by the pounding of trash can lids that were clearly heard by former President Johnson” and other dignitaries, including Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, who ultimately ended American involvement in the war.
The program began with a look at the historical and theoretical roots of American involvement, with University of Texas historian H.W. Brands, former Johnson aide Tom Johnson and former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield.
Brands said the ideological groundwork for America’s role in Vietnam was laid by President Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine, which essentially divided the world between those allied with the United States and democracy, against the communists and their allies.
Before then, Brands said, the United States had generally allied itself with anti-colonial nationalists. But with the Truman Doctrine, the anti-colonialist nationalism of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, was compromised and undone by his allegiance to communism, which led the United States to rebuff his entreaties for cooperation.
Brands said President Dwight Eisenhower, with his military background, had the knowledge and confidence to keep his distance from military involvement in Vietnam, but he was succeeded by John F. Kennedy, who was less experienced and sure-footed and more reliant on the advice of military advisers who counseled him to begin America’s serious military role in Vietnam.
Tom Johnson said LBJ fatefully escalated Kennedy’s tentative involvement in the service of the prevailing domino theory, which held that if Vietnam fell to the communists, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow.
“LBJ wanted peace as much as any of the protesters, and I mean this. This is not a man who was a hawk or a dove. He was man looking to do what was right,” Tom Johnson said.
He was caught between wanting to stop Communist expansion and at the same time avoid expanding the war in dangerous ways that might lead to a wider war with China or the Soviet Union.
He worried that an errant bomb might hit a Russian or Chinese ship in Hanoi or Haiphong harbor. He feared, Tom Johnson said, that “it will be a young pilot from Johnson City, Texas, who will start World War III.”
“LBJ so wanted to get Ho Chi Minh in a room and negotiate in the same way he negotiated with (Senate Minority Leader) Everett Dirksen,” Tom Johnson said.
“I know many veterans feel we should have gone to the mat,” Tom Johnson said. “It was far more complicated.”
“LBJ was a grudging cold warrior and reluctant commander-in-chief,” Brands said.
Brands said Nixon’s insight was that in the years since the Truman Doctrine, “the communist movement had fallen apart,” and fear that a communist victory anywhere meant a communist victory everywhere no longer applied. Nixon saw detente as a way of exploiting the fissures in the communist world.
Brands said in the new world order, it was not clear, for example, whether a communist victory in Vietnam was even welcome news for the Soviet Union, which was at much at odds with China as the United States.
“We were paranoid about communism,” Butterfield said. “Today, we don’t take it very seriously. I don’t.”