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War and Presidents Truman and Johnson

To avoid civil war in China, President Truman wanted Chiang Kai-shek to allow the communists there to participate in national elections. Instead, there was civil war, with the United States giving Chiang's forces material aid and military assistance, but US troops were not sent to compensate for the weakness of Chiang's forces. Truman was advised that Chiang's cause was hopeless. Truman despised communism as did most Americans, but the popularity of the anti-Chiang forces was a source of their strength and propelled them to military success. Chiang and his forces retreated to Taiwan. Many people in the United States wondered who lost China to the communists. One answer is that the Communists coming to power in China was the doing of the Chinese. And if one believes in self-determination for a nation, it was theirs to do and to undo as they saw fit.  

In 1950, communists in power in North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea). South Korea at this time was recognized by the United Nations as the only lawfully constituted government in the whole of Korea. North Korea had been under Soviet control and was recognized as an independent nation by the Soviet Union – in conflict with the United Nations. The Communists in North Korea (the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea) wanted to unite Korea by force of arms. President Truman under the aegis of the United Nations put the United States on the side of defending South Korea. He believed this a feasible action, and it was. By 1952 the United Nations forces had succeeded in driving the Communist forces – North Korean and Chinese – back across the 38th parallel, into the north. Negotiations brought an end to the fighting. Truman had managed to leave the war limited. Some had wanted to extend the war into China, to force upon the Chinese the will of the people of the United States. But Truman had saved the world from a wider war.

Vietnam was different from Korea. Unfortunately, Vietnam's nationalist hero was also a Communist. He was popular in the whole of Vietnam. He had been the leader of Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule. He stopped fighting the French for this independence when he was promised elections at Geneva discussions that within two years Vietnam would be united by elections. Instead, the US supported a regime in the southern half of Vietnam that refused to allow such elections. And the regime that the US was supporting was hostile to anyone who supported Ho Chi Minh. That regime supported the return of landlords into areas that Ho's regime had controlled. That regime tried to root out supporters of Ho Chi Minh, and fighting erupted in South Vietnam between the regime in Saigon and its enemies in the south. Ho and his supporters in North Vietnam believed they had more right to pursue the political unity of Vietnam under their leadership than the United States had the right to prop up an unpopular regime in Saigon. Lyndon Johnson became president in late 1963 and began describing the war simply as an invasion by the communist North against freedom loving people of the south. He felt compelled to do more than send material and financial aid. He chose to send thousands of US troops to Vietnam to keep the regime in the South from collapsing – a compensation from that regime's lack of popularity and contrary to a campaign promise not to send American boys to do the fighting that Asian boys should do.

Some in South Vietnam supported the Saigon regime – largely people who had fought for or supported the French. But the support among the Vietnamese for Ho Chi Minh and and for getting rid of a foreign military force that was killing people was much greater. President Johnson chose to intervene in Vietnam with thousands of "American boys" for questionable reasons. He was afraid of being criticized for being soft on communism, which would have made it harder for him politically regarding his domestic political agenda, and he said that he did not want to be the first US president to lose a war.

Johnson put US troops into the kind of war that Truman had avoided. Johnson distorted the truth doing it and thought that correcting his mistake would be unmanly. As late as 2006 some would speak of Johnson hating the war and as having been trapped by the war. If so, it was a trap of his own making. 

Copyright © 2005-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.