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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Vietnam as glimpsed from Camelot

When I was about four or five years old, I was sitting with my mother in our car outside the "Neighborhood House" community center in Riverdale in the Bronx, NY when I must have said something about war.

My mother said, "There are no more wars."  Then she thought about it for a moment and added (as I remember it), "well, there's a little war going on right now. It's not a real war."

I tried to picture a "not real" war. The visual backdrop of our lives was the Palisades, a long run of pristine blue flat-topped cliffs across the mile-wide Hudson River, which our apartment overlooked.*  I imagined Indians falling dead along the cliff line, then getting up again, like kids in a game, because it wasn't a real war.

This evening, as I came across the passage below in Stephen Ambrose's Rise to Globalism, I allowed myself to think that that remembered conversation took place in 1963 (it might have been 1964, but never mind):

When Eisenhower left office, there had been a few hundred American advisers in South Vietnam; at the time of the Rostow-Taylor mission, there were 1,364; by the end of the following year, 1962, there were nearly 10,000; and by November 1963, there were 15,000. Equipment, especially helicopters, came in at a faster rate...
the war seemed to be going well. McNamara visited Vietnam in June 1962 and reported, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” In March of 1963, Rusk declared that the struggle against the VC had “turned an important corner” and was nearly over. A month later he said there was “a steady movement in South Vietnam toward a constitutional system resting upon popular consent” (pp 196-197).
It was the high noon of American hubris.  Not to overstate the case: Kennedy knew war personally, and he had already stared into the nuclear abyss in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whether he would have gone down the primrose path in Vietnam we'll never know; Ambrose, among others, concludes from his conduct during the Cuban standoff and its aftermath that "an ability to grow was his most impressive asset" (p. 188).  It would be silly to say that Kennedy shared my mother's naivete.  But let's just say that she absorbed something of the spirit of his administration. -- its determination to "get the country moving again," its stated willingness to "pay any price' to advance freedom, its look forward to a world without war, and its faith that we could somehow get there by outracing the USSR in armaments and by arresting revolts against corrupt elites.


*The Palisades remain pristine for miles north of the George Washington Bridge because the Rockefellers bought up all the land some time in the early decades of the twentieth century and preserved it. My parents insisted on living in apartments with a view over the Hudson. When a new building went up blocking our view, they moved to a building with an unobstructed view. This happened twice; there was a lot of building in Riverdale in the 60s.  And the views over the Hudson at the western verge are still pristine.

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