Betting on Bad Apples


In January 1964 South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.

Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.

What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those Americans felt they could never sever that connection.

Why were they not able to say, “You know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want, but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives? We would love to help but just can’t do it.”

After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say to thanks for not wasting any more lives of our young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all committed themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it.

This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is damn near endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing.

I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.

Of course with the backbiting in Saigon, the countryside lost confidence in their leaders and the war sputtered, while lives were lost. More and more lives were lost. That is what always happened. Politicians squabbled. America supported them . And young lives were lost. For what purpose? I have no idea. None.

Does any one see a pattern here?

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