We the Teachers

George Ball Counsels Against Build-up in Vietnam


Under Secretary of State George Ball

After the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (August 1964) gave Congressional sanction for greater US military involvement in Vietnam, President Johnson authorized a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The North was sending personnel and supplies through Laos into South Vietnam to support guerilla forces called “Viet Cong” who sought to overthrow the government in the South and unite the country under a communist regime. Johnson hoped the bombing campaign would persuade the North to withdraw its troops. But when a year of bombing failed to change the North’s resolve, Johnson prepared to send large numbers of American troops to South Vietnam.

In the policy discussion surrounding the decision to escalate the war effort, a lone dissent was raised by Under Secretary of State George Ball. Between May 1964 and May 1966, Ball wrote more than 20 memoranda challenging the increasing American involvement in Vietnam. A good short sample of his hard-edged analysis is this paper, titled “Cutting our Losses in South Vietnam,” submitted to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on June 28, 1965. Arguing that South Vietnam was peripheral to American interests, that the South Vietnamese government we were supporting lacked popular support, and that the US military was ill-prepared to wage war in jungle terrain against a determined guerilla opponent, Ball recommended a slowly staged American withdrawal:

Admittedly, such a withdrawal would create short-term problems . . . but by taking prompt and effective defensive and affirmative measures we should be able to avoid any serious long-term consequences. By and large, the world knows that the government in Saigon is a joke, and if our withdrawal resulted from an effort to face this problem squarely, friendly nations would not interpret it as a US failure to keep its commitments. More likely most nations would consider that we had more than kept our commitments to Vietnam—and that our decision to force the issue of stability was a mark of prudence and maturity.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_Official_White_House_PortraitDuring the Kennedy administration, the US became minimally involved in a civil war in Vietnam, sending military advisors to assist the South Vietnamese in countering efforts, supported by North Vietnam, to unify Vietnam under a communist government.

Unlike the event that triggered large-scale military involvement in Korea—the invasion of the south from the northern part of a divided country—the episode that triggered a gradually escalating US military involvement in Viet Nam could be described as an isolated attack. North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the US Destroyer Maddox, on August 2, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam.  Attacks reported to have taken place on the Maddox and another Destroyer, the Turner Joy, on August 4 appear not to have taken place, although this was not known for certain at the time.

President Johnson announced the attacks in a television address to the American people on the night of August 4. The next day he sent Congress a request for “a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in Southeast Asia.”

Congress passed a resolution on August 10, now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, stating that the United States was prepared to use “all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” as the President determined, to defend states in southeast Asia asking for assistance.

In the light of more recent history of US military intervention overseas, the last paragraph of this message makes interesting reading:

The events of this week would in any event have made the passage of a congressional resolution essential. But there is an additional reason for doing so at a time when we are entering on 3 months of political campaigning. Hostile nations must understand that in such a period the United States will continue to protect its national interests, and that in these matters there is no division among us.


Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

inauguration-of-john-fitzgerald-kennedyJohn F. Kennedy’s inaugural address ranks among the most remembered speeches of the 20th century. Many quote his declaration, “Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”—which seems to suggest a new approach that Kennedy, who was younger than any preceding president, brought to American governance. It is well to consider the words Kennedy spoke just before this reference to his youth. He acknowledges that human technological capacity has changed, but he insists that American principles have not:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary belief for which our forebears fought is still at issue around the globe, the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of these human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

On the Anniversary of Lincoln’s Assassination, His Last Speech

Today, April 15thAbraham Lincoln portrait, is the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Four days before, the president had delivered his last public address. It was his official acknowledgement of the Confederate surrender. But instead of dwelling on the hard-fought victory, Lincoln spent the bulk of his speech outlining his approach to the next difficult task: returning the lately rebellious states to their pre-war status as participants in the democratic governance of the nation. (Already the state of Louisiana had applied for recognition of its rewritten state constitution.) The occasion was unprecedented and posed numerous practical difficulties:

Unlike the case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction. . . .

Some in Congress, who feared that the Southern states would not recognize the national decision to emancipate the slaves, wanted to delay the admission of Southern representatives to Congress while awaiting proofs that the 13th Amendment would be respected. These voices wanted to impose tests before “readmitting” seceded states. Lincoln, who never acknowledged that the Confederate states had any right to secede, details his plans for reconstruction only after asserting that talk of “readmitting” states to the Union would not be constructive:

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these states and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

Truman Addresses the Nation on the War in Korea

An American weapons squad leader points out the North Korean position to his machine gun crew.

An American weapons squad leader points out the North Korean position to his machine gun crew.

Korea, like Germany, emerged from World War II as a divided nation. Under Japanese imperial control before the war, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel by the circumstance that the surrender of Japanese forces there was overseen partly by the US and partly by the Soviets. Much as had occurred in Germany, a joint American-Soviet commission that was formed to arrange for a unified Korea failed to agree. When the United Nations called for free elections in the whole peninsula, the US helped supervise these in the south, but the Soviets blocked elections in the area it controlled. Instead they gave their support to the nationalist leader Kim Il Sung, who established a communist dictatorship.

American forces withdrew from South Korea in 1949. When North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, it appeared to President Truman and his advisors that something more than civil war was flaring. They feared this was the first of many communist incursions into independent Asian nations. Truman allowed time for the United Nations Security Council to respond to the attack, which it did on June 27, calling on UN members to help South Korea repel the invasion. (At the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting Security Council deliberations.) Truman then at once ordered US air and sea forces to assist the South Korean government, while also ordering naval protection for Formosa, where he feared the next Communist attack might occur, and increasing military assistance to the Philippines and to French forces in Indo-China.

Speaking to the American people three weeks after the fighting began, Truman recounted the recent history of Korea and explained why he thought the North Korean attack had to be countered:

This attack has made it clear, beyond all doubt, that the international Communist movement is willing to use armed invasion to conquer independent nations. An act of aggression such as this creates a very real danger to the security of all free nations.

Truman’s speech went on to describe other defensive measures he though necessary in the current climate—a build-up of armed forces that he noted would require an income tax increase to fund.


A Strategy of Containment: National Security Council Paper NSC 68

Paul Nitze (Photo in Truman Library collection)

Paul Nitze (Photo in Truman Library collection)

Crafted under the leadership of Paul Nitze (head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department) and delivered to President Truman on April 7, 1950, NSC 68 was an attempt to lay out a comprehensive approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. It was initiated by Truman’s concern about the development of thermonuclear weapons (exponentially more powerful than the fission bombs exploded over Japan at the end of World War II). Truman asked for a review of American security policy in light of this new weapon.

Nitze’s team took a broad view of the problem, titling the report “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” First, they analyzed the core ideas of American and Soviet society and underscored the inevitability of conflict:

The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin, which has come to a crisis with the polarization of power . . .  and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.

Recognizing that confronting the Soviet Union would require a long-term struggle, Nitze’s team discussed not only traditional foreign policy and defense issues, but also domestic issues, especially the American economy as the necessary foundation for this long-term struggle. The paper would come to be viewed as an important statement of the strategy of containment.

The 65th Anniversary of NATO


Truman signs the document implementing NATO in the presence of European dignitaries.

Tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The first peacetime military alliance outside of the Western hemisphere that the US joined, it marked a departure from the generally isolationist policy of the US prior to the World War II. Now, Truman and his policy advisors saw a need to provide collective security against an expansionist Soviet Union. The Soviet blockade of West Berlin, the Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia, added to worries about Soviet meddling in Greek and Turkish affairs, caused US officials to worry that Western European states could find their independence compromised. Through the Marshall Plan, the US had already demonstrated a willingness to support the political security of Western Europe through aid to its economic recovery. This helped many Western European states to see the advantage of a military alliance. Truman’s speech at the signing of the treaty included a carefully worded reference to an impasse already arising in the United Nations:

Within the United Nations, this country and other countries have hoped to establish an international force for the use of the United Nations in preserving peace throughout the world. Our efforts to establish this force, however, have been blocked by one of the major powers.

 This lack of unanimous agreement in the Security Council does not mean that we must abandon our attempts to make peace secure.

It also included a statement of political principles that Truman implied the parties to the alliance shared:

We believe that it is possible for nations to achieve unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice, and at the same time to permit, in other respects, the greatest diversity of which the human mind is capable.

Our faith in this kind of unity is borne out by our experience here in the United States in creating one nation out of the variety of our continental resources and the peoples of many lands.

 This method of organizing diverse peoples and cultures is in direct contrast to the method of the police state, which attempts to achieve unity by imposing the same beliefs and the same rule of force on everyone.

Truman made the same point in his speech to the Senate appealing for ratification of the treaty:

The nations signing this treaty share a common heritage of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. The American members of the North Atlantic community stem directly from the European members in tradition and in love of freedom. We have joined together in the progressive development of free institutions, and we have shared our moral and material strength in the present task of rebuilding from the devastation of war.

When did the Cold War Begin?

Map_of_Poland_(1945)_corrExactly when and how did the Cold War begin? This set of documents on “The Grand Alliance” that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II shows the swift unraveling of the agreement made at Yalta on the question of Poland, one of the areas liberated from Nazi conquest that, according to the Crimean agreement, was to be helped to an independent status, with decisions about government made in free elections. The Memorandum of a Meeting at the White House (April 23, 1945) shows a particularly interesting discussion among newly inaugurated President Truman and his advisors, during the last months of the war in Europe. While the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman, and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius warn that the Soviets intend to set up a puppet state in Poland, and argue that the US should stand firm against this, other officials, including Secretary of  of War Henry Stimson and General Marshall, argue that maintaining a cooperative relationship with Soviet Union is the paramount concern.

The Crimean Conference

Yalta_summit_crop-pubdomainCrimea, the sunfish-shaped peninsula on the Northern Black Sea, connected to the Ukraine at the “head”—but within a few miles of Russia at its eastern “tail”—has been in the news lately. We associate the region with the Crimean War of the mid-19th century, which occasioned Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” and Florence Nightingale’s efforts to improve battlefield medicine. But in February of 1945, in the seaport of Yalta, it was the site of a final meeting of the three chief Allied leaders throughout most of war—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—who reached an agreement on the terms of the German surrender.

Reporting to Congress on the results of the conference on March 1, 1945, Roosevelt announced the plan for a “temporary” division of Germany into four zones, with France, Britain, the United States and Russia each administering one. He also announced what he called a “unanimous” agreement “that the political and economic problems of any area liberated from Nazi conquest, or any former Axis satellite, are a joint responsibility of all three Governments [Britain, the United States, and Russia]. They will join together during the temporary period of instability after hostilities, to help the people of any liberated area, or of any former satellite state, to solve their own problems through firmly established democratic processes.” And he looked ahead to a preliminary meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco on April 25, 1945.

Six weeks later, Roosevelt collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

FDR’s Vision for a Postwar America

U.S. Presidential PortraitsIn early 1944, after the allies had begun to achieve victories in the war against the Axis powers, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union Address that would not only address measures needed to bring the war to a successful conclusion; he also laid out his vision for a postwar America. He made clear that he had not retreated from his ideal of the “Four Freedoms” that he had set as goals before America entered the war. These freedoms included not only the civil rights traditionally recognized in the US, but also his own conception of “economic rights”:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights — among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however — as our industrial economy expanded — these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not freemen.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.

Roosevelt Speaks Out on Victims of Nazi Oppression

FDR_GettyImages_RadioHitler’s professed intent to exterminate the Jews living in all areas under Nazi control, and the means he carried out to achieve this end, did not receive much attention in the anti-Nazi rhetoric of the American government during most of World War II. While the US State Department had by late 1942 confirmed that Jews were being murdered in large numbers in Nazi detention camps, it was not until March of 1944 that Franklin Roosevelt issued a statement on this specific issue. When Roosevelt did finally forcefully condemn the genocide, on March 24, 1944, he addressed the people of Europe and Asia as much as American people. He appealed to those who witnessed genocidal actions—directed by the Japanese against the Chinese as well as by Nazis against European Jews—to secretly resist when possible, providing protection and means of escape to those threatened, and to record the evidence of atrocity when resistance was not possible. Foreshadowing the postwar Nuremburg trials, he promised that “none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished.”

LBJ Asks Congress to Wage War on Poverty

Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_Official_White_House_PortraitThis week marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s request that Congress enact legislation to pursue a “war on poverty.” Johnson had declared this “war” in his January 8, 1964 State of the Union message; now he pushed for the legislation to wage it. In a special message to Congress on March 16, 1964, Johnson proposed an Economic Opportunity Act which, he said, would strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” Johnson’s broad agenda included training opportunities for impoverished youth in the form of a Job Corps and several training and work study programs to be funded largely through a new Office of Economic Opportunity; a volunteer corps of anti-poverty workers that would be called VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America); and loans and guarantees to employers who would hire the unemployed. At the same time, Johnson asked Congress to enact a federal food stamp program and the health insurance program for the elderly that would come to be called Medicare. Johnson likened his broad set of proposals to the actions of other presidents who had “requested from Congress the authority to move against forces which were endangering the well-being of our country.” Much of the legislation he called for was enacted in the following two years.

Today, as pundits note the anniversary of Johnson’s antipoverty initiative, a debate rages over whether the war on poverty has succeeded or failed. What do you and your students think?

The Atlantic Charter

792px-Atlantic_Conference_Between_Prime_Minister_Winston_Churchill_and_President_Franklin_D_Roosevelt_10_August_1941_A4821During the first two years of World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill worked closely together, not only in making American resources available for the British war effort. They also prepared a political strategy that would clarify their joint war aims once events made America’s entry in the war inevitable. In August 1941 the two men met aboard a US Naval vessel off the coast of Newfoundland agreed upon a joint declaration, The Atlantic Charter. In this document one can trace the beginning outlines of the organization that would later become the United Nations. One also finds language Roosevelt had used in his State of the Union Address the previous January, where he described the “four freedoms” he hoped that the war effort would secure for a world-wide community. In fact, the document was shaped more in line with Roosevelt’s Wilsonian idealism than with the interests of Britain, which was still an imperial power. Roosevelt wanted the charter to promise a world that, he thought, Americans would see as worth going to war to secure; and Churchill, who above all wanted to bring the Americans into the Allied war effort, allowed Roosevelt to take the lead.

FDR Responds to the Outbreak of World War II

509px-FDR_in_1933Two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Franklin Roosevelt gave a radio address to Americans on the same day, deploring the commencement of war while laying the blame on Nazi aggression. In a careful balancing act, he tried to arouse American indignation at Hitler’s effort to dominate Europe while pledging his adherence to the Neutrality Act passed in 1937. That act had given FDR some flexibility in supporting resistance to Nazi Germany, since it had allowed the sale of arms to Great Britain and France on a “cash and carry” basis (purchasing nations would pay immediately for the arms and would arrange for their transport); but the provision had been written to expire after two years, on May 1. When Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, Roosevelt had tried and failed to get the provision renewed. However, on November 4 of 1939, Congress renewed the “cash and carry” provision in a new Neutrality Act—ending the arms embargo with nations fighting Nazi Germany.

Churchill Tries to Rouse America

300px-Sir_Winston_S_ChurchillIn the two years before the outbreak of World War II, Winston Churchill twice addressed the American people by radio, hoping to persuade them to throw American weight against Nazi aggression in Europe. Churchill had not yet been elected Prime Minister. When he spoke to the United States on October 16, 1938, he himself was still a minority voice demanding that the government of Neville Chamberlain cease its policy of appeasing Hitler’s demands for expanded territory in Europe. He appealed to American sensibilities in support of liberty:

Has any benefit or progress ever been achieved by the human race by submission to organized and calculated violence? As we look back over the long story of the nations we must see that, on the contrary, their glory has been founded upon the spirit of resistance to tyranny and injustice, especially when these evils seemed to be backed by heavier force.

While he warned that “the stations of uncensored expression are closing down; the lights are going out,” he insisted “there is still time for those to whom freedom and parliamentary government mean something, to consult together.” He held out hope that an international alliance—joined by the US—that would restrain Hitler.

When he spoke again, less than a month before Hitler invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war, his descriptions of the aggressions of Hitler and Mussolini—and by now, Japan—were more ironic, and his tone was more ominous:

There is a hush over all Europe, nay, over all the world, broken only by the dull thud of Japanese bombs falling on Chinese cities, on Chinese universities or near British and American ships. But then, China is a long way off, so why worry? The Chinese are fighting for what the founders of the American Constitution in their stately language called: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And they seem to be fighting very well. . . . After all, the suffering Chinese are fighting our battle, the battle of democracy. They are defending the soil, the good earth, that has been theirs since the dawn of time against cruel and unprovoked aggression. Give them a cheer across the ocean–no one knows whose turn it may be next.

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