Divisions within the Containment Generation: U.S. Policy Makers and the Vietnam War

Joseph A Fry. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

During the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential administration, both those policy makers who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and those who opposed the war were charter members of the “containment generation.” They had reached political maturity during World War II and the early years of the Cold War and had experienced the intense anti-communism of the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. More generally, these leaders had imbibed the lessons of American nationalism with its principal message that the United States was a unique and chosen nation with a duty to reform others in its image. They embraced the American faith in technology and had overseen the development of the nation’s unequaled military power. Although most American policy makers and the nation were generally unwilling to acknowledge the imperial features of Cold War U.S. foreign policy, they agreed on the critical need to contain the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Despite this common intellectual and cultural heritage, shared foreign policy experience, and “generational mind-set,” key Johnson administration and congressional policy makers disagreed fundamentally on the wisdom of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the most important and costly U.S. foreign policy intervention during the Cold War. President Johnson and his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, considered Vietnam a crucial Cold War battleground where an American loss would trigger dire domestic and international repercussions. In contrast, Undersecretary of State George Ball and Senators J. William Fulbright (D-AR) and Albert Gore Sr. (D-TN) contended that the U.S. war in Vietnam was a misapplication of containment and a tragic waste of resources that was doing great damage to the nation’s international standing. Examining why these key policy makers, all acting within the same political, cultural, and social milieu, responded so differently to the Vietnam War provides insight into the complexity of the issues they faced and the numerous considerations with which U.S. officials contended while arriving at policy positions and decisions.

Born between 1905 and 1909, all five of these policy makers had observed the arrival of World War II and had either been members of Congress, the military, or the national security bureaucracy as the Cold War followed in the mid-1940s. Having watched Adolf Hitler’s march toward war and the futile European attempt to appease him with Czech territory at the 1938 Munich Conference, this generation of Americans concluded that aggressors had to be confronted rather than coddled. With the end of World War II, Americans perceived Joseph Stalin and Soviet communism as an even more threatening totalitarian menace. As the Soviets occupied the countries of Eastern Europe and probed in Iran and Manchuria, the United States adopted the policy of containment that, according to foreign service officer George F. Kennan (1984), entailed the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” This “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment” was necessary to repulse the Kremlin’s drive to fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power” (118-120).

Thereafter, seemingly decisive U.S. actions, such as demands for Soviet withdrawal from Iran in 1946 or aid through the Truman Doctrine to non-communist forces in Greece in 1947, proved successful. In contrast, ostensibly more restrained policies failed in China, where Mao Zedong and communist followers prevailed in 1949, or Korea, where efforts to reunite the country under a noncommunist regime fell short by 1953. Based on these experiences, most members of the containment generation concluded that tough, forceful responses to perceived communist expansion were as appropriate for answering Soviet and Chinese challenges after World War II as they would have been for responding to the German, Italian, and Japanese threats in the 1930s.

In addition to agreeing on the need for toughness in enforcing containment, U.S. policy makers adopted two other key concepts that later proved central for Johnson era leaders as they assessed Vietnam. The first, “credibility,” posited that U.S. failure to act decisively and appropriately in foreign crises would embolden enemies and engender doubts among allies. As Truman Doctrine aid was dispatched, State Department official Loy Henderson termed Greece “the test tube which the peoples of the world are watching” (Leffler 1992, 195). Over the ensuing 15 years, U.S. policy makers retained this concern for credibility, and their attempts to safeguard the U.S. reputation abroad played a prominent role in repeated crises over areas of seemingly marginal strategic importance, such as Vietnam.

Together with the elusive psychological concept of credibility, U.S. leadership during the early Cold War warned that communist victories in one country could breach the wall of containment and trigger a chain reaction of Soviet or Chinese gains in adjacent nations. President Truman voiced this assumption following the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950: “If we let Korea down, the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one piece of Asia after another…. If we were to let Asia go, the Near East would collapse and no telling what would happen in Europe” (Leffler 1994, 100). This concept became known as the “domino theory” in April 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower emphasized the importance of maintaining a noncommunist South Vietnam. Were communist forces to prevail, Eisenhower warned, the “falling domino principle” would apply to Southeast Asia generally: “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly” (McMahon 1995, 122).

Domestic political developments in the early 1950s reinforced the inclinations of U.S. policy makers to adopt tough anticommunist stands designed to enhance credibility and prevent the fall of dominos. Led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), critics of U.S. foreign policy charged the Truman administration with being soft on domestic communist spies, “losing” China to communism, and failing to prosecute the Korean War with sufficient vigor. These critics, primarily Republicans, asserted that the U.S. failure to prevail in all foreign policy encounters resulted from internal disloyalty rather than any external limits on American power. McCarthy contended that “highly placed Red Counselors” in the State Department were “far more deadly than Red machine gunners in Korea” (Sherry 1995, 185).

The search for disloyal Americans and the hysteria that accompanied it eventually assumed bizarre dimensions. High-profile prosecutions led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for atomic espionage and the conviction of former State Department official Alger Hiss for perjury; approximately 2,700 federal employees were dismissed between 1947 and 1956 for “loyalty-security” reasons; and virtually all of the experts on East Asia were driven from the State Department for allegedly facilitating the communist victory in China. In 1954, President Eisenhower recommended that communists be stripped of their U.S. citizenship based solely on their beliefs, regardless of their actions, and 80 percent of Americans agreed. In Oklahoma, a librarian was fired for daring to shelve the New Republic, Consumer’s Research, and Negro Digest; and in Cincinnati, the professional baseball team changed its name from the Reds to the Redlegs. Having experienced this climate of fear and innuendo, policy makers emerged from the McCarthy Red Scare acutely aware of the hazards of being labeled soft on communism.

As they turned to the task of combating communist expansion, American policy makers and their constituents did so with the long-held nationalistic assurance that Americans were a “chosen people” who had been destined for “national greatness” from the time John Winthrop proclaimed that the Puritans were building a “City upon a Hill” in Massachusetts for all the world to emulate. Having never lost a war and having emerged from World War II as the world’s strongest economic and military power, most Americans viewed themselves as having built uniquely successful political and economic systems that others would adopt if given the opportunity. Only “evil communists” blocked access to these superior American institutions (Baritz 1985).

American policy makers and their fellow citizens also harbored great faith in technology. Having opted as early as the 1930s for a general military strategy that emphasized using American technology to limit casualties on the ground, having been the first nation to develop both an atomic and a hydrogen bomb, and having achieved unparalleled domestic affluence in the 1950s, Americans equated these technological achievements with their more general sense of uniqueness and superiority. They further assumed that superior technology guaranteed military success. In 1983, playwright Arthur Miller observed, “I’m an American. I believe in technology. Until the mid-1960s I never believed we could lose because we had technology” (Baritz 1985, 45).

Although most Americans in the 1950s shared the faith in the value of spreading their institutions and technology abroad, few would have acknowledged that along with containment U.S. policy makers oversaw an imperial foreign policy. Following World War II, American leaders were determined to maintain a “preponderance of power” sufficient to defeat all challengers (Leffler 1992, 15-19). The official policy of containment masked the simultaneous pursuit of empire as the nation sought to use its preeminent military and economic power to shape the world according to an American vision and guidelines. Such aggressive, expansive U.S. foreign policies were not a novel, post-1945 innovation, as Native Americans, Mexicans, Spanish, British, and other pre-World War II adversaries could attest. Consistent with the perceptions of virtually all previous empire builders, post-World War II Americans matched their grand ambitions with claims that their imperial actions were peculiarly defensive, that they sought only national security, and that they pursued no selfish objectives. Indeed, generations of Americans had been raised on a national “war story” that portrayed Americans as the repeated victims of unprovoked attacks by Indians, Japanese, and Germans. Having heroically repulsed these aggressors, Americans confronted communist foes in the 1950s and 1960s with the same conviction that unwelcome outside forces were pressing a peaceable, non-interventionist United States to assume an activist foreign policy.

Escalation Defended

Of the Johnson-era policy makers, the president was undisputedly the most important. This was true not only because he dominated Vietnam policy but also because he most fully embodied the nation’s decisive Cold War perspective. Born in 1908 and a native of the Texas hill country west of Austin, Johnson attended a one-room school before graduating from high school at age 15 and Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930 at age 21. His personal family experiences, his teaching in rural Texas schools, his first important political job as secretary to a Texas congressman, and his service as director of the Texas National Youth Administration provided Johnson with firsthand knowledge of rural poverty and racial discrimination. Elected to Congress in 1937 and the Senate in 1948, LBJ strongly supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation aimed at relieving suffering during the Great Depression. In addition to adopting a lifelong commitment to domestic reform, Johnson also backed the construction of containment under Truman. By the 1950s, Johnson had developed virtually unparalleled political skills and served as the Democratic Senate majority leader before reluctantly agreeing to run for the vice presidency on the 1960 ticket with John F. Kennedy. Despite his important role in carrying crucial southern states for Kennedy, Johnson endured as an awkward outsider in an administration dominated by self-consciously sophisticated northeasterners.

Clark Clifford, the longtime Democratic political activist who became Johnson’s secretary of defense in 1968, described LBJ as “the most complex man I ever met” (Herring 1994, 16). Few contemporaries would have disagreed with Clifford’s assessment. Truly larger than life, the hulking six-foot-four-inch Johnson combined towering ambition, a razor-sharp mind, an unquenchable thirst for politically related information, and enormous energy and drive. To these qualities he added a fervent commitment to aid the poor and aged of all races and unrivalled domestic political acumen. These qualities and his forceful leadership led to the passage of landmark legislation in the areas of civil rights, federal aid to education, medical care for the elderly, and antipoverty programs in 1964 and 1965. But the same Texas politician who could oversee such historic accomplishments could also be crude, boorish, vain, exceedingly mean to close associates, and terribly insecure. Having set “absurdly high” goals for himself and his administration, Johnson was a “tormented man” who periodically battled intense episodes of depression and self-doubt. He craved demonstrative gratitude and affection from the American public and was indignant when those for whom he had done so much failed to respond as he expected.

Much of the public’s hostility toward Johnson resulted from the disastrous U.S. war in Vietnam. When Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, 16,300 U.S. military advisers were supporting the noncommunist South Vietnamese government. The Saigon regime had become an American client state when the United States assumed responsibility for its survival after the French withdrawal from its former colony in 1954. As LBJ took office, South Vietnam was in imminent danger of being overrun by communist-dominated insurgents known as the Vietcong. These insurgents were allied with the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam located in North Vietnam and led by the legendary Ho Chi Minh. In addition to his communist ties to the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, Ho had earned his standing as Vietnam’s foremost nationalist and patriot by virtue of marshaling Vietnamese resistance to outside control by France, Japan, and finally the United States. North Vietnam and, in turn, the Vietcong received aid from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in their battle against the United States. Faced with the prospect of a Vietcong-North Vietnamese victory, Johnson increased U.S. troop levels to 536,100 over the ensuing five years and oversaw the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign that pummeled North Vietnam with 643,000 tons of explosives and inflicted $600 million in damage. To the intense frustration of the president and the American public, this enormous infusion of U.S. power had by the end of Johnson’s administration in January 1969 produced only a stalemate at a far greater level of violence and death with no clear prospect of victory.

Johnson did not escalate the U.S. role heedlessly. In May 1964, he told National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, “I don’t think it’s [Vietnam] worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw…. What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country?” (Dallek 1998, 145). Even as he made the decisions for sustained bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965 and to dispatch massive numbers of U.S. ground troops in March and July, he worried prophetically that “airplanes” were not “worth a damn” and would not be decisive, that the enemy soldiers had greater staying power and “will last longer than we do,” and that the American public might not remain supportive of the war “six months from now” (Woods 2006, 604, 611).

Despite his grave reservations and accurate predictions, Johnson chose war. This choice derived from a complex mix of strategic, political, and personal considerations. Like the majority of his fellow cold warriors, the president deemed tough, decisive responses the only way to repulse perceived aggression and contain communism. Convinced that a North Vietnamese-Vietcong victory would advance the cause of international communism at U.S. expense, he proclaimed there would be “no more Munichs” under his leadership (Goldman 1969, 490). LBJ believed that “if you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he will be up on your porch and the day after that he will rape your wife in your own bed” (Logevall 1999, 393). Johnson also subscribed to the domino theory. In February 1965, the president warned a group of congressmen that the North Vietnamese “want to take South Vietnam, and … Thailand, and … Burma … and Sukarno-Indonesia … the Philippines, [and] Hawaii. They’d like to come right back to Seattle” (Fry 2006, 23-24). Also, U.S. credibility was at risk in Vietnam where losing a “war to communists” would cause the United States to “be seen as an appeaser” (Goodwin 1991, 252, 260) and lead the Russians and Chinese to think “we’re yellow and don’t mean what we say.” Finally, Johnson’s confidence in American economic and military might solidified his determination to demonstrate U.S. resolve. Like most other Americans, he could not conceive of the world’s most powerful nation losing to what he described as a “damn little pissant country” (Hunt 1996, 79, 105).

Inextricably bound to these strategic calculations was Johnson’s conviction that losing in Vietnam would preclude passage of his domestic reform program. Genuinely committed to social justice for all Americans, the president feared that deserting “the woman I really loved—the Great Society” for “that bitch of a war” would result in losing “everything at home” (Goodwin 1991, 251). In late 1964, he predicted correctly, “Those damn conservatives are going to sit in Congress … [and] use this war as a way of opposing my Great Society legislation.” Congressmen unsympathetic to the poor and minorities would “take the war as their weapon” and argue that the first priority was “beating the Communists” (Woods 2006, 597). If fighting the war imperiled domestic reform, losing it would assuredly doom these measures by provoking “an endless national debate—a mean and destructive debate—that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy” (Goodwin 1991, 252). Or, as he phrased it less delicately, “If I don’t go in now and they [southern conservatives] show later I should have, they’ll push Vietnam up my ass every time” (Herring 2002, 136).

Ironically, when directed toward the Vietnamese, Johnson’s commitment to reform further buttressed his decision for war. Randall Woods, Johnson’s most recent biographer, has argued that the president’s intervention in Vietnam derived from his “Christian idealism” and determination to aid the poor and dispossessed in Vietnam by effectively extending the Great Society to Southeast Asia. Although making Johnson’s idealism primary in his foreign policy decisions is debatable, LBJ did believe “the average father and the average mother” in Asia had the same hopes for their children as American parents (Woods 2006, 385, 503). Based on this assumption, he proposed an American-funded, billion-dollar project to develop the Mekong River in South Vietnam on the model of the Tennessee Valley Authority. If North Vietnam and the Vietcong agreed to stop the war, Johnson pledged a grand gift of Western technology accompanied by a bounty of electricity, food, modern medicine, and education. The president was sure “Ho will never be able to say, ‘No’” to this offer (Dallek 1998, 261). But, of course, he did. To the Vietnamese leader, Johnson’s American prescription for Vietnamese political and economic development was the latest presumptuous, imperial effort to dictate to his country. Johnson later complained, “I keep trying to get Ho to the negotiating table. I try writing him, calling him, going through the Russians and Chinese, and all I hear back is ‘Fuck you, Lyndon’” (Zeiler 2000, 171-172).

As Johnson decided for war, his own personality and sense of self were as decisive as any strategic, political, or humanitarian considerations. An enormously proud and competitive man, LBJ was determined to be a great president in both the domestic and foreign policy realms. He complained that northerners and the media criticized him unfairly because he was a southerner and lamented, “I don’t think that I will ever get credit for anything I do in foreign policy because I didn’t go to Harvard” (Goldman 1969, 490). Convinced that he faced “bigotry in the north against a southerner on … his ability to handle foreign relations,” Johnson was determined to prove that he was a “world statesman” rather than a “Texas provincial” (Dallek 1998, 86, 90).

The most direct way to accomplish this was by prevailing in Vietnam. Upon becoming president, Johnson instructed his advisers that “Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word,” and that “I will not lose in Vietnam” (Logevall 1999, 77). Four years and enormous American and Vietnamese losses later, Johnson reiterated that he was “not going to be the first American President to lose a war” (Dallek 1998, 500). Maintaining U.S. credibility was crucial. “The Chinese. The fellas in the Kremlin” would be “taking the measure of us” (Dallek 1998, 100). His concern for credibility was not confined to the nation’s foreign policy; he also feared potentially negative perceptions of his personal honor and manliness. A “profoundly insecure man” (Herring 1993a, 108), he was terrified that losing in Vietnam would make him appear “a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine,” and in a recurring nightmare he cowered before thousands of people who berated him as a “Coward! Traitor! Weakling!” Johnson so profoundly personalized the war that he could neither admit mistakes nor accept any outcome short of a U.S. victory (Goodwin 1991, 253).

Among Johnson’s closest advisers, Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided the most sustained support for the president’s Vietnam policies. Born in 1908 into a poor Georgia family, Rusk took his first job as a grocery clerk at age eight, worked his way through Davidson College, and earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he graduated in 1934. After failing to secure a position with the State Department, he taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, leaving in 1940 to assume command of an infantry company preparing for war. He was soon transferred to military intelligence and over the course of World War II worked closely with Gen. George Marshall, attended several important wartime diplomatic conferences, and served as deputy chief of staff for the China-Burma-India theater. After the war, he moved to the State Department, where he rose to deputy undersecretary. With Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s victory likely in the 1952 presidential election, Rusk accepted the presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation, where he remained until John Kennedy appointed him secretary of state in 1961.

Despite his rich foreign policy experience, Rusk was “never one of the ‘Kennedy people’ and never made the effort to become one” (Rusk 1990, 296). He did, however, form a close relationship with then Vice President Johnson, who was also relegated to the fringes of Kennedy’s administration. The two southerners swapped stories about who had been poorer and which family had been the first to get indoor plumbing and electricity. While still vice president, LBJ confided to his brother: “Some people around [Kennedy] are bastards,” but not Rusk. Johnson pronounced him “a damned good man. Hard-working, bright, and loyal as a beagle. You’ll never catch him working at cross purposes with his president. He’s just the kind of man I’d want in my cabinet if I were president” (Schoenbaum 1988, 411). Johnson retained this assessment as he and Rusk completed their work together in 1969. The secretary had been a “loyal, honorable, hard-working imaginative man of conviction” who “stood by me and shared the president’s load of responsibility and abuse” (Zeiler 2000, 133).

Like Johnson, Rusk did not rush to war thoughtlessly. He had opposed a 1961 recommendation to commit U.S. ground troops and had been uneasy about overcommitting to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, whom he considered a “losing horse” (Rusk 1990, 432). Similarly, he voiced reservations over the Americanization of the war in 1965, when Johnson initiated sustained bombing of North Vietnam and dispatched thousands of U.S. troops into the South Vietnam jungles. Still, Rusk also put aside such reservations in favor of a war he relentlessly defended. Although Rusk shared many of the president’s strategic considerations, concern for national honor and credibility, and belief in the merits of toughness, the secretary’s determination to fight and win in Vietnam was rooted in his devotion to constructing an international system based on Western law and maintained through collective security. Convinced that most of the people in the world “want the kind of world we want,” Rusk deemed unchecked aggression the principal threat to a world of law, equality, and fairness (Zeiler 2000, 131). The failure of peaceful, democratic nations to challenge Germany and Japan in the 1930s had demonstrated that “aggression … allowed to gather momentum … can continue to build and lead to a general war” (Rusk 1990, 494). He considered the Chinese “militant Marxists” and had no doubt that they were directing North Vietnam’s aggression against South Vietnam. Therefore, a resolute U.S. response was obligatory. Rusk never tired of lecturing antiwar protesters that dismissing Hitler’s rhetoric in the 1930s had led to the murder of 6 million Jews. Those who failed to take seriously Chinese threats to spread revolution were also practicing appeasement. When opponents of the war protested that China and North Vietnam hardly constituted the same threat to the United States as Nazi Germany, Rusk responded “an airdale [sic] and a great dane are different but they are both dogs” (Fry 2006, 64, 66).

Based on membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Rusk argued that the United States was not just strategically but also legally obligated to repulse North Vietnamese aggression. The 1955 agreement called upon each member to respond “in accordance with its constitutional processes” to any act of “aggression by means of armed attack” against another member nation. This protection had been extended to South Vietnam, which was not a charter member. In Rusk’s view, SEATO, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was an essential collective security agreement designed to contain communism. As such, it had to be enforced. Following U.S. Senate ratification, SEATO had become the “law of the land and linked South Vietnam to the general structure of collective security.” If the United States failed to live up to its “pledged word” and thereby impugned its honor and credibility, these treaties, the “pillars of peace in a dangerous world,” would be fatally compromised. Abandoning South Vietnam, and with it SEATO and international collective security, could encourage aggression and threaten the very survival of the human race (Fry 2006, 30, 64, 66). Rusk also emphasized that if the United States ignored this small nation on the periphery, the “first thing you know the periphery is the center” (Gaddis 2005, 201). This emphasis on the importance of small, seemingly less important nations encouraged the assumption that all parts of the world were of equal strategic importance—that, in a zero-sum dynamic, anywhere communists gained the United States automatically lost.

Finally, Rusk voiced the American sense of uniqueness and selflessness in contrast with the selfish communist pursuit of world revolution. The United States, he asserted, sought no “territorial aggrandizement in South Vietnam” or elsewhere in Asia, “no permanent military bases, no trade advantages,” and no ongoing alliance with South Vietnam. The Johnson administration was not attempting “to destroy the Hanoi regime” or to force North Vietnam to give up communism. Rather, the United States sought only to guarantee self-determination for the South Vietnamese. In short, Rusk rejected any suggestion that the United States harbored imperial intentions of imposing its will on others (Fry 2006, 66-67).

Dissenting Voices

If Rusk was Johnson’s most steadfast supporter within the administration, George Ball was the most persistent critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In contrast to Johnson and Rusk, Ball brought a much more privileged background to public service. The youngest of three brothers, Ball was born in 1909 in Des Moines, Iowa. As the son of a Standard Oil executive, he was “particularly cuddled and coddled” in a family that valued reading and education and regularly debated public issues at the dinner table. After earning a bachelor’s degree in literature from Northwestern University in 1930, Ball graduated from Northwestern Law School three years later. The newly minted attorney then held posts in Franklin Roosevelt’s Farm Credit Administration and Treasury Department before moving to a Chicago law practice in 1935. With the beginning of World War II, Ball served in the Lend-Lease Administration and ultimately headed the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which assessed the impact of the bombing campaign against Germany. Following the war, he was a founding member of an international law firm with offices in New York, Washington, Paris, and Brussels. Ball thereafter made frequent trips to Western Europe and gained an excellent understanding of the most important European developments and political figures. With the advent of the Kennedy administration, Ball was appointed undersecretary of state with primary responsibility for European and international economic affairs.

Despite these official responsibilities, Ball emerged as the most perceptive in-house skeptic regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam until his resignation from the Johnson administration in September 1966. Ball voiced this skepticism as early as November 1961. He warned President Kennedy against U.S. military involvement: “Within five years we’ll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles.” JFK’s response: “George, you’re just crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen” (Bill 1997, 19).

Ball thereafter challenged all of Johnson and Rusk’s fundamental assumptions regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He rejected Rusk’s assertion that membership in SEATO obligated the United States to protect South Vietnam. The undersecretary stressed that South Vietnam had not been an original signatory to the pact and that none of the other SEATO members had concluded that South Vietnam was the victim of armed aggression by a foreign country or shown any inclination to act collectively to protect the Saigon government. The United States had adopted a unilateral and legally unjustifiable position. Reflecting his European ties and emphases, Ball also questioned South Vietnam’s strategic significance. Unlike Johnson and Rusk, he did not consider small, less developed countries on the periphery nearly so important to the United States as more highly developed industrial nations such as West Germany or Great Britain. Nor did Ball believe military intervention in Vietnam would enhance American credibility. To the contrary, the major U.S. allies in Europe feared that America had become mired in a losing struggle that threatened to divert attention from the more eminent Soviet threat. Moreover, Ball argued, “what [the United States] might gain by establishing the steadfastness of [its] commitments, [it] would lose by an erosion of confidence in [its] judgment.” Nor would the United States win many friends internationally by conducting a massive “white attack upon Asian people” (DiLeo 1991, 67, 70, 72).

Ball’s disagreement with Johnson and Rusk reached beyond what he deemed the flawed rationale for intervention. He also predicted correctly in 1964 and 1965 that U.S. power and technology would not yield a military victory. Repeatedly referring to the French failure to subdue Ho and his followers, Ball asserted that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were motivated more by nationalism than communism and that the United States would be viewed as the Western, imperial successor to the French. Based on examination of World War II bombing, he foresaw that strategic bombing of North Vietnam would not dissuade the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from aiding the Vietcong or effectively impede the flow of men and materiel south. Ball succinctly summarized in July 1965 what proved to be the decisive difficulties for U.S. ground troops:

No one had demonstrated that a white ground force of whatever size can win a guerrilla war—which is at the same time a civil war between Asians—in jungle terrain in the midst of a population that refuses cooperation to the white forces (and the South Vietnamese) and thus provides a great intelligence advantage to the other side (Herring 1993b, 123).

Finally, the undersecretary cited the crucial weakness of the South Vietnamese. South Vietnam, he contended, was a “country with an army and no government” (Bill 1997, 162). Although he could see no prospects of a military victory against a formidable foe in a hostile terrain, climate, and culture, Ball understood that even military success could not compensate for South Vietnam’s “fragile political base,” led by men he dismissed as “clowns” (Woods 2006, 597).

Despite Ball’s perceptive and persistent criticism of the administration’s Vietnam policies, he remained on good terms with both Johnson and Rusk. The undersecretary was always careful to present his arguments in a respectful fashion, and he never challenged his colleagues’ good faith. Johnson admired Ball’s hard work and competence and assured him, “Don’t worry, George, I know you ain’t no half-ass egghead.” Even more than competence and dedication, Ball’s refusal to publicize his views kept him in Johnson’s good graces. Placing loyalty and ambition before the public’s right to know, Ball publicly defended the very policies to which he objected so perceptively in private (Bill 1997, 75).

Johnson responded far more harshly to other critics of the war. When he railed against “some goddamn senator” misleading the public, LBJ unquestionably had J. William Fulbright and Albert Gore Sr. in mind (Woods 2006). No member of Congress aggravated the president more than Fulbright, whom Johnson dismissed as a “narrow-minded egotist” (Gibbons 1995, 228) and a “crybaby” (Dallek 1998, 289).

James William (“Bill”) Fulbright was the fourth of six children born into a prosperous Fayetteville, Arkansas, family. With a successful businessman father and a socially and politically adept mother, Fulbright’s path to prominence was rather smooth—experimental grammar and secondary schools at the University of Arkansas, graduation from the university at age 19 after starring in football, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, completion of a law degree at George Washington University with honors in 1935, appointment as president of the University of Arkansas in 1939 (at age 34), and election to Congress in 1941 and to the Senate in 1944.

From his first days in Washington, Fulbright concentrated on foreign affairs, initially as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and after 1948 from his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). A strong proponent of U.S. membership in the United Nations, he favored international cooperation aimed at securing peace and economic prosperity. The senator endorsed and supported containment, even though he worried that U.S. policies precluded his ideal of a cooperative form of world government. During the 1950s, Fulbright’s prominence as a Democratic foreign policy spokesman led then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson to declare, “Bill’s my Secretary of State.” Although frequently mentioned as a possible head of the State Department under John Kennedy, the senator’s opposition to civil rights legislation precluded his appointment. Instead, he remained in the Senate where he had become chairman of the SFRC in 1959 (Fry 2006, 9).

From this crucial position, Fulbright initially supported Johnson’s Vietnam policies out of party loyalty, a sense of personal obligation, and general devotion to containment. Most conspicuously, in August 1964 he managed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’s passage in the Senate. This resolution authorized the president to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Vietnam. The senator subsequently concluded that Johnson had withheld crucial information regarding the alleged North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. destroyers and had misled him with assurances that no wider war was contemplated. Therefore, part of Fulbright’s later opposition to the war resulted from a sense of personal betrayal and from a desire to recoup the congressional role in foreign affairs that this resolution and other such Cold War “blank checks” had forfeited to the president. “For God’s sake,” he later exclaimed to a reporter, “I assume that this still is a democracy, that the Senate has a role to play in foreign affairs.” These motives coincided with Fulbright’s tendency to “dissent for dissent’s sake.” Observers described him as a “loner,” as “bookish and sometimes supercilious,” and other senators often referred to him as the “professor,” a title and posture he readily embraced even as they just as readily infuriated Johnson (Fry 2006, 9, 32).

Policy differences were far more important than personal or constitutional considerations as the Arkansas senator emerged as the most conspicuous congressional opponent of the war by the fall of 1965. Fulbright was most apprehensive that U.S. escalation of the war would trigger the “real catastrophe” of a land war with China or even a “third World War.” Neither U.S. security nor the preservation of credibility warranted such a risk. Fulbright rejected the Johnson-Rusk claims of a “clear-cut case of aggression by North Vietnamese communists.” He argued instead that Ho and his followers were “indigenous Vietnamese nationalists” who had begun their resistance pursuing “liberation from French colonial rule.” The struggle was a “civil war” in which the United States had mistakenly intervened. As the obvious “intruders … we represent the old Western imperialism” to the Vietnamese. After all, he asserted, “Vietnam is their country” (Fry 2006, 32, 70-71). Fulbright perceived no U.S. “vital interest” at stake; instead, he contended, in direct response to Rusk’s concern for nations on the periphery, that it did “not matter very much who rules in … small and backward lands” such as Vietnam (Woods, 1995, 559). He was equally certain that as a major power the United States was “quite strong enough to engage in a compromise without losing its standing in the world and without losing its prestige as a great nation” (Fry 2006, 72).

The senator also challenged the national conviction that the United States was a uniquely innocent and benign nation. While acknowledging that the Vietcong were “a very cruel, ruthless, and mean people,” who had “engaged in all kinds of terrorism,” he did not believe the United States could “claim any great superiority” by virtue of possessing sophisticated weapons that killed people at long range. Americans were certainly not “bad people,” but neither were they “the only good people” because of “using weapons that we happen to have, and others don’t.” Fulbright further charged that by attempting to “impose our will unilaterally” in Vietnam, the United States was acting “the way great empires have done it in the past” (Fry 2006, 61, 71). Indeed, the Johnson administration was undertaking the impossible task of practicing imperialism abroad while sustaining republicanism at home. The Arkansan feared that “we are in grave danger of becoming a Sparta bent on policing the world” (Woods 2003, 161).

Albert Gore Sr., Fulbright’s fellow member of the SFRC, provided an additional antiwar voice. Gore was born in 1907 into a farming family in central Tennessee near the village of Possum Hollow. After attending a one-room school, graduating from high school in 1925, and completing a teacher certification course, he alternately taught school and took courses at the University of Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State College. After a time of unemployment and work as a traveling salesman, he earned a law degree at the Nashville YMCA in 1935. An ardent New Deal Democrat, Gore was elected to Congress in 1938 after more than a decade of active participation in local and state politics. As a congressman and, after 1952, a U.S. senator, he favored an activist federal government and programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the interstate highway system, federal funding for education and health care, and especially tax relief for the lower and middle classes. Gore backed Franklin Roosevelt’s preparedness policies and aid to Great Britain before World War II, and he readily endorsed U.S. containment policies after the war. Therefore, he came to the Vietnam issue from much the same liberal, internationalist perspective as Johnson and Rusk. However, by the early 1960s, the Tennessee Democrat had begun to voice privately the reservations he would make quite public by 1964.

Gore’s opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam had its genesis in a 1959 trip to South Vietnam soon after he became a member of the SFRC. He returned convinced that U.S. support for South Vietnamese president Diem was misguided. Gore recognized correctly that Diem was not promoting democracy in South Vietnam, and the senator’s criticism of Diem’s dictatorial practices was part of a more general objection to U.S. backing of authoritarian regimes simply because they were noncommunist. This practice contradicted the professed U.S. goal of promoting freedom internationally.

As the U.S. role in Vietnam steadily escalated under President Kennedy, Gore broadened his critique but continued to do so privately with members of the administration or in closed SFRC hearings. Like Ball and Fulbright, he cited the French experience as an ominous forecast of future U.S. problems and expressed doubt that American technology and military power would prove decisive. The senator also agreed with Ball and Fulbright that the conflict was far more complex than a simple Cold War confrontation with communism and that it would be “a great mistake for the United States … to pick up the chips of the disintegrating French colonial empire” (Hodges 1997, 136). Gore similarly disputed Vietnam’s strategic importance. In late 1963, he told Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, “I know of no strategic material that it [Vietnam] has. I know of nothing in surplus supply there except poor people and rice,” neither of which the United States needed. A year later, Gore called publicly for a negotiated end to the war and thereafter openly repeated these objections, much to Johnson’s consternation (Longley 2003, 209).

Consistent with his doubts about Vietnam’s strategic importance, Gore charged that the war was preventing the United States from concentrating on far more important foreign policy issues, especially “cooperation with the two other major powers upon which the future of world peace depends—the Soviet Union and China.” Protesting that Johnson suffered from an “Alamo complex in a nuclear age,” Gore feared that U.S. bombing along the Chinese border in North Vietnam could be the “torch to the tinder box of World War III” (Hodges 1997, 142).

Gore’s personal relations with President Johnson and, even more important, his domestic policy priorities solidified his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson and Gore had never been close personally, especially after Johnson became the Democratic leader in the Senate in 1954. LBJ, who sought to dominate every personal interaction, frequently remarked, “I want people around me who would kiss my ass on a hot summer’s day and say it smells like roses” (Dallek 1998, 160). Gore, who was aptly described as a political “loner, a man not to be controlled,” refused to assume such a posture. Gore was never a member of the Senate club, Gore’s maverick instincts and not so “mysterious capacity” for aggravating Johnson reinforced his inclination to oppose the war. As one friend observed, “Show Albert the grain, so that he can go against it” (Longley 2003, 228, 231).

Finally, Gore protested that the war diverted attention and scarce funds from pressing domestic needs. For example, he noted that fiscal year 1966 war spending ran to nearly 50 percent of the reported $37 million in “unmet local, state and community [infrastructure] needs,” such as hospitals, schools, and sewage systems. He also objected to increased taxes and higher interest rates, which he attributed to the war and considered disproportionately burdensome for the lower and middle classes. Thus, Gore, like Johnson, carefully calculated the war’s domestic impact, but the Tennessee senator arrived at a contrary foreign policy conclusion (Fry 2006, 33).

Conclusion: Divisions Within the Containment Generation

Gore and Johnson’s disagreements embodied the divisions within the containment generation and personified those policy makers who did and did not surmount the American Cold War mentality in assessing the Vietnam War. President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk perceived the Vietnam conflict as a clear case of outside aggression by the North Vietnamese that demanded a strong response rather than any form of compromise. Both acted on the assumption that an American loss would imperil U.S. credibility and trigger falling dominoes in Southeast Asia and beyond. Johnson also feared for his personal political credibility and the impact of a communist victory on the Great Society. Rusk, in turn, had no doubt that an American failure to enforce its SEATO obligations would fatally compromise collective security and endanger world peace. Ironically, both men’s belief in America’s benign influence abroad and duty to extend U.S. institutions to a grateful world reinforced these strategic calculations. Moreover, both had great faith in American technology and military power and could not conceive of losing to a far weaker and smaller adversary.

Once committed, Johnson, who personalized the war, could not bring himself to admit mistakes or to risk being the first U.S. president to lose a war. Always the good “company man,” the secretary vowed never to differ publicly with the president. Finally, as the officials ultimately in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and therefore ultimately responsible for the domestic and international repercussions of an American defeat, Johnson and Rusk faced far greater emotional and intellectual obstacles to moving beyond the nation’s majority views on containment and its application in Vietnam.

By contrast, Ball, Fulbright, and Gore could explore alternative ways of thinking about the war unencumbered by such ultimate responsibility. All three were personally inclined to be mavericks and to break with majority opinion: Ball because of his “imperious faith in his own abilities”; Fulbright because he also possessed no small opinion of his own intellectual abilities and, together with Gore, had a long habit of dissent and independent behavior in the Senate. The latter two’s ambivalent personal relationship with Johnson also helped prompt their break with the administration. Fiercely independent, neither was comfortable with LBJ’s relentless efforts at personal domination and manipulation. In addition to being the most intellectual of these five policy makers, Ball and Fulbright were the most cosmopolitan, which undoubtedly helped lead them to dispute their generation’s thinking about containment and Vietnam. Nevertheless, such explanations have their limits. Gore, from Possum Hollow and with a YMCA law degree and proclivity for playing his fiddle on the campaign trail, adopted most of the same antiwar positions by starting from a more narrowly American position—the war’s terrible impact on lower- and middle-class Americans.

Less restrained by their political positions, personally inclined toward independent thinking, and armed with their individual talents and motivations, these three dissenters mounted a devastating critique of the Johnson administration’s handling of the war in Vietnam. All three questioned the core assumption of North Vietnamese aggression at the behest of the Soviet Union and China. They emphasized instead that Ho Chi Minh and his followers throughout Vietnam had opposed outside, imperial control since early in the 20th century—that they were motivated primarily by nationalism. The United States had stumbled into what was primarily a civil war among the Vietnamese, who viewed the United States as the latest imperial oppressor. Assessed from this perspective, U.S. Cold War credibility was hardly at stake; and even if it were, America’s status as a great power would be little diminished by a compromise settlement that failed to preserve a noncommunist South Vietnam. These opponents of the war also questioned Vietnam’s strategic importance and argued that the United States would lose nothing of substance by failing to enforce containment in this small, poor country. For Ball and Fulbright, this strategic assessment was reinforced by their lack of enthusiasm for nation building and lack of confidence in spreading American institutions abroad. Quite simply, they did not share Johnson and Rusk’s more traditional American belief that other countries and cultures were eager to adopt American ways. Gore agreed and pointed especially at the contradictory nature of supporting authoritarian rulers as a tactic for preserving freedom against a communist assault. In the corollary to their minimizing the importance of the small, poor nation of Vietnam, all three of these antiwar policy makers stressed the far greater significance of avoiding war with the Soviets and Chinese.

These dissenters further challenged the majority American belief that its power and technology would win the war. Ball drew on his keen understanding of World War II bombing to predict that U.S. technology would not be decisive. Fulbright and Gore joined Ball in citing the French experience and highlighting the difficulty of fighting a guerrilla war in a jungle terrain among a hostile population. Declaring that as a southerner he understood the Vietnamese resistance to attempts at outside control in ways most Americans did not, Fulbright contended that U.S. efforts to impose its will on Vietnam would falter in the face of Vietnamese nationalist resistance. Ball and Gore cited the corruption and incoherence of South Vietnamese culture and polity as another formidable obstacle to U.S. success. In short, all three accentuated the limits of American power in ways that conflicted with majority opinion among the leaders of the containment generation. Fulbright strayed even further from the Cold War consensus by challenging the American sense of uniqueness and superiority by declaring that U.S. attempts to impose its will abroad differed little from previous imperial powers, and that the use of technologically sophisticated weapons did not make the nation morally superior to those employing cruder methods.

Unfortunately, Ball, Fulbright, and Gore failed to convert either LBJ and Rusk or the American public to their antiwar positions during the Johnson presidency. Only in the wake of the U.S. loss in Vietnam did their arguments have great influence on U.S. policy makers. Sadly, that influence was only temporary. By the late 1990s, the nation had regained much of its traditional sense of uniqueness, innocence, and superiority, and a new generation of leaders, seemingly oblivious to the debate over policy in Vietnam, led the nation in another ill-advised intervention into an ostensibly weaker nation. Once again, issues of containment; presidential and national credibility; falling dominoes; guerrilla tactics; weak allies; nation building; illusive, fanatical foes, and exit strategies dominate the discussion of American foreign policy.