Nightmare again for Vietnam War generation
It is a generational debacle like no other in American history. First, the government took their youth. Now, the government is robbing them of the peaceful dignity earned for their autumn years.
In both instances, a failed policy of “containment” – admittedly different contexts and usages of the word – upended that generation’s lives. Successive presidents called upon a generation to make the ultimate sacrifice to contain communism in Southeast Asia. Today, the government’s failure to contain the outbreak of a deadly virus has left the same generation the most vulnerable to severe illness and death. In both cases of failed policy, lower-income and disproportionately minority populations have paid the highest price of all.
First with the invading communists in Vietnam, and then the invading SARS-coV-2 pathogen here in America, when confronted with mounting evidence of policy failure, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Donald J. Trump could have admitted their policies were not working and changed course. But they were afraid to lose “face.” Johnson did not want to back down and become the first U.S. president to surrender in a major war. Trump promised Americans that the virus was nothing to worry about and he has insisted on continuing a disastrous policy course costing many lives.
Presidents Johnson and Trump knew which Americans would bear the disproportionate share of the dying and long-time suffering in their pursuit of saving face: The Vietnam War-era generation, along with their spouses and families.
Johnson inherited the containment of communism policy from prior administrations. Americans had been told that allowing the communists to invade and overthrow a non-communist government in Southeast Asia directly threatened America’s security. A true Texan, LBJ prided himself on demonstrating personal toughness. He ignored advice from the experts who knew the war was unwinnable.
The American people had been lulled into believing that the cost of our containment policy would be low, and that American intervention would eventually convince North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh to stay on his side of the border. With a failing policy already in place, Johnson faced a Hobson’s choice: Let South Vietnam fall, or try to save face and fight a massive land war — one that even the Pentagon knew the U.S. could not win. LBJ chose to sacrifice a generation’s youth in pursuit of an upscaled military intervention. His successor, Richard Nixon, followed the same face-saving strategy: Allowing the death and destruction to keep mounting until he could cover his retreat with a claim of “Peace with Honor.” Both attacked the media and anyone who questioned the wisdom of their war policies.
Government officials, month after month, appeared before the media and misled the public to justify these needless deaths. They knew their containment strategy had a fatal flaw: It had been premised on the plan being implemented quickly and decisively when the invading threat initially emerged. The cost of failure was over 50,000 U.S. service members dead, 150,000 wounded and millions of individuals along with their families traumatized for life.
Now comes 2020. A series of presidential administrations, Congresses and government officials guaranteed a workable pandemic virus containment policy had been put in place in case of an outbreak. Once again, they appeared in public and said, in effect: “Trust us, we got this.”
But again, the U.S. president faced with the crisis misled the public. President Trump said the virus would disappear, that there was no reason for alarm or government action. He and administration officials appeared repeatedly before the media to try to assure the country that the situation was getting under control. As the pandemic spread, rather than admit wrong, the president dug in and then attacked the media and anyone who questioned his judgment in response to the crisis.
And this time the face saving reached absurd levels: Widespread refusal to wear a mask — including by the U.S. president, because it might be viewed as a sign of weakness.
Paul Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of “Executive Privilege” (University Press of Kansas, 4th edition, 2020).