Vietnam-Era Decision Makers Reflect on Then and Now

Presidential decision makers, leading historians and public policy experts gathered in Boston this weekend to take a look at the Vietnam War and the presidency, and how the decisions made then affect the current war in Iraq. Monica Brady-Myerov of member station WBUR reports.

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Nearly 31 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam war remains a key historical reference point. Today, as the nation grapples with its role in another war, Iraq, the men who led the U.S. into and out of Vietnam gathered in Boston this weekend to consider the lessons of that conflict. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov attended the Vietnam and the Presidency conference at the John F. Kennedy library. She has this report.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV reporting:

The conference brought together Senior Advisors to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Ted Sorenson, Special Council to President Kennedy, said Vietnam was not central to Kennedy's presidency.

Mr. THEODORE SORENSON (Special Council to President Kennedy): Vietnam was a low level insurrection at that time. There was no pitched war with North Vietnam yet.

BRADY-MYEROV: Kennedy dispatched three missions to Vietnam and all three advised him to send troops. But he overruled them. Instead, he deepened U.S. involvement by sending 5,000 advisors and support troops. That eventually grew to 16,000 advisors. In 1963, the Viet Cong, the communist guerillas operating in South Vietnam, defeated the South Vietnamese army and President Diem was overthrown and assassinated. President Kennedy ruminated about this on tape.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Monday, November 4th, 1963. Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place, culminated three months of conversation about a coup.

BRADY-MYEROV: Kennedy goes on saying he felt the U.S. bears a good deal of responsibility for the coup, even though it had no direct involvement. Kennedy was assassinated a few weeks later. President Johnson vowed not to disrupt any policy Kennedy had in place. And historians say he believed Kennedy would have increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In taped conversations such as this one, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, Johnson agonizes over the war.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I don't want to pull down the flag and come home running with my tail between my legs, particularly if it's gonna create more problems than I got out there. And it would, according to all of our best judges.

BRADY-MYEROV: Special Assistant to Johnson, Jack Valenti, says Johnson feared a domino effect. Conventional wisdom at the time was if South Vietnam fell to communists, other countries would also succumb. With hindsight, Valenti says this wisdom was wrong.

Mr. JACK VALENTI (Special Assistant to President Johnson): Eisenhower believed it, Kennedy believed it, Johnson believed it. I don't know about Nixon and Ford. But it turned out to be a piece of defunct mythology.

BRADY-MYEROV: Another senior presidential advisor took issue with this perspective. Henry Kissinger was President Nixon's National Security Advisor.

Mr. HENRY KISSINGER (National Security Advisor To President Nixon): And one cannot pretend that there are no consequences to the defeat of a country on which the security of so much of the free world depended at the time.

BRADY-MYEROV: More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. One audience member asked if there was anything Kissinger wanted to apologize for.

Mr. KISSINGER: Were mistakes sometimes made? It's open to a lot of debate. But that sort of question, it sort of implies that there's some horrible guilt that people ought to be allowing when they face a situation of 500,000 Americans, in fact, withdrew those 500,000 Americans.

BRADY-MYEROV: Many panelists made comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. Kennedy's advisor, Ted Sorenson, says the enemy is similar.

Mr. SORENSON: In Vietnam, we were facing then and in Iraq we are facing now a people determined to throw out foreign troops and it's almost impossible to defeat those insurgents.

BRADY-MYEROV: Alexander Haig, who held high level positions under Presidents Nixon and Ronald Reagan, was critical of the incremental military approach in Vietnam and now in Iraq.

Mr. ALEXANDER HAIG (Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan): Every asset of the nation must be applied to the struggle to bring about a quick and prompt successful end or don't do it. Because we're in the midst of another struggle where it appears to me we haven't learned very much.

BRADY-MYEROV: Henry Kissinger said he supported the U.S. led invasion of Iraq because, he says, the consequences of a failure in Iraq are enormous.

Mr. KISSINGER: We are facing a jihadist radical Islamic challenge. And if the United States fails in Iraq then the consequences in every country, Islamic or non-Islamic, in secular Islamic countries and in other countries that have significant Islamic minorities will move towards the radical side.

BRADY-MYEROV: In other words, a domino effect in the Islamic world. For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston.

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