Since 9/11, terrorism has become the ultimate entitlement program for America’s political elite. Whether it is illegally spying on Americans or blowing Somali dissidents to pieces, invoking terrorism provides all the cover needed for Washington policymakers. But the disastrous results of granting politicians a blank check to fight terrorism should have been undeniable almost 60 years ago.
Back in the 1960s, terrorism was what the communists did. Anti-terrorist moral fervor and ideological blinders propelled the U.S. into its biggest foreign policy blunder since World War II.
As the French Foreign Legion struggled to reconquer Vietnam in the wake of World War II, the U.S. government constantly embellished the storyline to demonize the communist opposition. A CIA operative provided materials for a massive bomb that ripped through a main square in Saigon in 1952. A Life magazine photographer was waiting on the scene, and his resulting snap appeared with a caption blaming the carnage on Viet Minh Communists. The New York Times headlined its report: “Reds’ Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center.” The bombing was touted as “one of the most spectacular and destructive single incidents in the long history of revolutionary terrorism” committed by “agents here of the Vietminh.” The press coverage boosted public support for U.S. government aid to the French army fighting the Communists. A Vietnamese warlord named General Trinh Minh Thé, a CIA collaborator, claimed credit for the bomb but the U.S. media ignored his statement.
In the wake of the French defeat in 1954, U.S. military advisors poured into Vietnam. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared: “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.” The Kennedy administration sought credibility by profoundly deceiving the American people and Congress regarding its Vietnam policy. JFK violated the limits on the number of American military advisors established in the 1954 Geneva peace treaty between the French and the Vietnamese communists. He also deceived the American public by mislabeling the growing U.S. contingent in South Vietnam as advisors at a time when they were becoming actively engaged in fighting.
The US government regarded the South Vietnamese government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem as corrupt, oppressive, and inept. The Pentagon Papers described a May 8, 1963 debacle in the city of Hue, South Vietnam: “Government troops fire on a Buddhist protest demonstration, killing nine and wounding fourteen. The incident triggers a nationwide Buddhist protest and a crisis of popular confidence for the Diem regime. [The Government of South Vietnam] maintains the incident was an act of [Viet Cong] terrorism.”
The Diem government was outraged that the Buddhists demanded legal equality with Catholics and the right to fly the Buddhist flag. In August 1963, South Vietnamese Special Forces “carried out midnight raids against Buddhist pagodas throughout the country. More than 1,400 people, mostly monks were arrested and many of them were beaten,” according to the Pentagon Papers. The CIA was bankrolling these Special Forces, which were supposed to be used for covert operations against the Viet Cong or North Vietnam, not for religious repression. Diem’s terrorizing of the Buddhists swayed the U.S. to back a coup that led to his assassination a few months later.
The Lyndon Johnson administration exploited the terrorist label to sway Americans to support greater U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In a special message to Congress on May 18, 1964 seeking additional fund for Vietnam, LBJ declared, “the Viet Cong guerrillas, under orders from their Communist masters in the North, have intensified terrorist actions against the peaceful people of South Vietnam. This increased terrorism requires increased response.” Johnson scorned a proposal by French president Charles de Gaulle for a Geneva conference on the growing Vietnam conflict because LBJ declared the conference would “ratify terror.” In a June 23, 1964 press conference, LBJ declared that “our purpose is peace. Our people in South Viet-Nam are helping to protect people against terror.”
U.S. policymakers were hungry for a pretext to unleash bombing. On May 15, 1964, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge recommended planning for the South Vietnamese air force to hit “a specific target in North Vietnam,” carefully timed after a “terrorist act of proper magnitude beforehand by the North Vietnamese,” the Pentagon Papers revealed.
At that time, the U.S. was already carrying out an array of “non-attributable hit-and run” raids against North Vietnam, including “kidnappings of North Vietnamese citizens for intelligence information, parachuting sabotage and psychological warfare teams into the north, commando raids from the sea to blow up rail and highway bridges, and the bombardment of North Vietnamese coastal installations by PT boats,” according to the Pentagon Papers. Thai pilots flying American planes bombed and strafed North Vietnamese villages. But the Johnson administration denied that the U.S. was committing any provocations.
Johnson had already decided to attack North Vietnam to boost his election campaign. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox fired on North Vietnamese ships near the North Vietnamese coast. Two days later, the Maddox reported that it was under attack from North Vietnamese PT boats. Within hours, the ship’s commander wired Washington that the reports of an attack on his ship may have been wildly exaggerated: “Entire action leaves many doubts.” But the Maddox’s initial report was all LBJ needed to go on national television and announce that he had ordered immediate “retaliatory” airstrikes against North Vietnam. Johnson railroaded a resolution through Congress granting him unlimited authority to attack North Vietnam. The resolution was written months earlier and the administration was waiting for the right moment to unveil it.
Both the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese government were terrorizing people at the time the U.S. involvement rapidly expanded in 1965. But the U.S. government looked only at the Viet Cong’s terrorism to justify launching its own bombing campaign that killed far more civilians than did the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese army prior to the end of the war.
The American media endlessly recited the terrorist storyline that the U.S. government created to justify ramping up the Vietnam War. University of California Professor Daniel Hallin observed, “The theme of terrorism directed against civilians was central to television’s image of the enemy…Television coverage of the North Vietnamese…focused on terror to the almost total exclusion of politics. The American media also almost completely ignored attacks on Vietnamese civilians by the U.S. military.”
The political racketeering that spawned the Vietnam War should remind Americans to be wary of any salvation mission championed by their rulers. The U.S. government perennially claims to be an innocent bystander after its covert interventions unleash havoc abroad. There is no shortage of evil governments and evil factions that butcher innocent people. But foreign atrocities, real or imagined, don’t make Washington trustworthy.