This piece is a little bit about my personal history and a look way back when President Eisenhower called off an intervention by the United States in helping the French in Vietnam. Today, some politicians have openly compared Iraq to Vietnam. While there are some comparisons, it is not all that simple.
Our first involvement in Vietnam took place under President Harry Truman. By 1951, US military aid to pro-French Vietnam had amounted to more than $500 million. Next, under President Eisenhower, a decision had to be made about the commitment of US troops to aid the embattled French.
That brings me to my days in Korea. As the French position in Vietnam became weaker during the winter of 1954, my company in Korea - an Engineer Combat Light Equipment unit - was ordered to get ready for a move to Vietnam. All equipment was carefully examined, cleaned and made ready. Then, suddenly, the orders came down that there would be no movement of any US forces to Vietnam. Eisenhower said, "No."
Soon the final battle between the French and Vietnam took place at Dien Bien Phu. The heavily fortified French garrison was manned by around 16,000 troops, made up mostly of the French Foreign Legion and loyal Vietnamese. Surrounded by an overwhelming number of troops from the People's Army of Vietnam, the French soon surrendered. On May 7, 1954, it was all over - just a few short months from the time we had received orders in Korea to get ready for a move to Vietnam.
With a US sponsored treaty in September of 1954, a split North and South Vietnam came into existence. Then, in 1955, President Eisenhower authorized US advisors for the South Vietnamese Army.
One year later, Eisenhower in a press conference said that the French are, " ... involved in a hopelessly losing war in Indo-China." The first loss of life for the US military in Vietnam happened in July of 1959. Two soldiers were killed just north of Viet Mink. Next, President Kennedy, in May of 1961, ordered 100 "special forces" troops to South Vietnam.
The 1964 election was all about restraint in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson ran as the "peace" candidate. But, soon after his victory over Goldwater, he escalated our involvement, sending in 175,000 troops by July of 1965. Why? Most western leaders were concerned about the "domino" effect in Southeast Asia. If Vietnam were to fall into communism, next it could be Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and even Singapore.
Another one of my personal points of history, with regard to Vietnam, came in December of 1964 when I was on the staff of Richard Nixon before he became president. Nixon was to address a group at the Waldorf Astoria at noon. The 1964 presidential election was over. There was a great deal of chatter about building up US forces in Vietnam to head off the "domino" theory. Nixon asked me to monitor AP stories about the possible buildup so that his remarks could be as up to date as possible. Out of that came information that Johnson was considering massive air strikes as a way to get the North Vietnamese to sit down and talk. I will never forget going up to the dais and handing Richard Nixon the latest news on Vietnam.
We are not a patient nation, and our enemies - whether they are the communists in Vietnam or terrorists of today - know full well that we do not win unless victory is immediate. I do not have the answers in Iraq, and political posturing will not solve the challenge. It will be interesting to look back 50 years from now about Iraq just as I have done with this column about Vietnam.