Early on, it was treated as though there could be no doubts. "The first issue is what the goal of the United States should be. I believe that the goal can be nothing less than victory."--1; "We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind."--2;
The secretary of defense explained it like this: "Our own security is strengthened by the determination of others to remain free, and by our commitment to assist them."--3;
But more quickly than any of its architects expected, the nature of the mission changed. The president gave an important address. "The war is dirty and brutal and difficult. And some 400 young men, born into an America that is bursting with opportunity and promise, have ended their lives. ... Why must we take this painful road? Why must this nation hazard its ease, and its interest, and its power for the sake of a people so far away? We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure."--4
But privately he told an aide: "I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway. I can't run, I can't hide, and I can't make it stop."--5
Three months later, the general in charge said, "I feel it's important at this juncture that we prepare for the long pull."--6 Soon, the war itself became the reason for continuing the war. The president again: "As long as there are men who hate and destroy, we must have the courage to resist. ... And we just cannot now dishonor our word. Or abandon our commitment. Or leave those who believed us, and who trusted us, to the terror and repression and murder that would follow."--7
A lone voice in the State Department told the president, "You know, once on the tiger's back, we can't pick the time to dismount. You're going to lose control of this situation, and this could be very serious."--8
But the president decided to increase the American troop commitment. He argued that failure to win would engulf other countries in the region in the fighting. Yet doubts began to grow in Congress.
One senator said, "We now find ourselves involved ... in a war that we have scant hope of winning except at a cost which far outweighs the fruits of victory."--9 Another: "It's not a question of how we got there or why. We're there. The question is, what do we do?"--10
In his State of the Union address, the president told Congress, "I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony."--11
The generals remained outwardly confident, choosing various metrics by which to measure progress. "Several indices clearly point to steady and encouraging success," said the commanding general. Only two years earlier, the government being supported by the U.S. "had fewer than 30 combat-ready battalions. Today it has 154."--12
The administration tried to project determination. "And may I say that despite public opinion polls - none of which may I say have ever been friendly toward a nation's commitment in battle - despite criticism, despite understandable impatience, we mean to stick it out, until aggression is turned back and until a just and honorable peace can be achieved, until the job is done."--13
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs faithfully promoted the administration's line: "We feel that on the military side, there has been substantial progress over the past two years, that in the last six months, the progress has been even more rapid than in the 18 months before that."--14
But the optimism was unfounded. The country began to turn against the war. The president decided that an escalation would help bring it to an end, because he feared the alternative. "If the United States now were to throw in the towel and come home ... the United States would suffer a blow. And peace - because we are the great peacekeeping nation in the world today, because of our power - would suffer a blow from which it might not recover."--15
One of the leading Democrats in the Senate remarked, "To persist in it now is to add outrage to the sacrifices of those who have suffered and who have died in this conflict. To persist in it now is to do violence to the welfare of the nation."--16
The administration never really understood the nature of the war it was fighting. An Army captain later remembered: "We had some precarious situations and we lost some people, but we always won. So to me, we were very successful, you know. But as I think of it now, I don't know what we won. We won a box on a map where the next day we left it and we never came back maybe."--17
The U.S. ambassador had an increasingly hopeless job as the situation darkened. Yet he refused to accept the bleak prospects staring him in the face. "I think the government can ... become self-sufficient, can keep their freedom, and allow us, when we end our involvement here, to withdraw," he said. This will leave the country "economically viable, militarily capable of defending itself with its own manpower, and free to choose its own government, its own leaders. ... This is a goal which is easily within our reach."
That ambassador isn't much remembered today. His name was Graham Martin, and he made those remarks in Saigon on April 11, 1975, less than three weeks before the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam for good.
--1; Richard Nixon, April 1964.
--2; Ronald Reagan, Oct. 27, 1964.
--3; Robert McNamara, Oct. 26, 1964.
--4 Lyndon Johnson, at Johns Hopkins, April 7, 1965.
--5 Recounted by Bill Moyers, on a 1983 history of the war on PBS (from which several of these quotes were drawn).
--6 Gen. William Westmoreland, July 1965.
--7 President Johnson, July 1965.
--8 As recounted by George Ball, undersecretary of state.
--9 Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, quoted in the Aug. 13, 1965, issue of Time.
--10 Sen. George A. Smathers of Florida.
--11 President Johnson, Jan. 10, 1967.
--12 General Westmoreland, May 1967.
--13 Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, October 1967.
--14 Gen. Earle Wheeler, Nov. 16, 1967.
--15 President Nixon, March 22, 1971.
--16 Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, June 1971.
--17 Capt. Frank Hickey, on the PBS documentary.