A Reminder That Things Appear Much Clearer When Looking Back

Reaction to the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War has been mostly disbelief that the country poured so much money and lost so many lives in what now seems a senseless war. A typical reaction on Facebook: “So many bad decisions compounded by more bad decisions. What a senseless, hideous war that was.”

Here are excerpts from a February 1970 Washingtonian article that laid out what the Washington Post editorial page said about the war from 1961 to 1969:

April 7, 1961: The United States has a major interest in the defense of Vietnam, not only because of the vast amounts of economic and military aid (which only recently has been turned to the all-important guerrilla warfare training), but also because American prestige is very much involved in the effort to protect the Vietnamese people from Communist absorption.

December 18, 1963: A curious situation prevails in the dirty war and murky politics of Vietnam. The United States, which supports the regime in the South, can’t afford to lose. Defeat would undermine its positions in Southeast Asia and its prestige everywhere.

May 15, 1964: An on-the-spot military judgment made at the highest level preceded the assignment of 75 bombers to South Vietnam and the assumption must be that this is what the situation requires. Those who have a different view may lack the information on which the decision was made.

February 18, 1965: The violent words and violent acts of the past few days disclose with a dreadful clarity that Vietnam is not an isolated battlefield but a part of a long war which the Communist world seems determined to continue until the last vestige of Western power and influence has been driven from Asia.

March 26, 1965: There is a considerable amount of pious hypocrisy in some of the moans of outrage over the use of nontoxic gases in South Vietnam.

August 15, 1965: During the course of actual fighting, civilians may be wounded and killed and the tide of battle may engulf and destroy civilian homes. These are calamities commonly incident to such warfare. But these tragedies differ from the wilful and deliberate destruction of homes in reprisal. Thank goodness the Marines are not engaged in that kind of barbarism.

April 27, 1966: This newspaper has long supported the basic aims and objectives of Administration policy in Vietnam.

September 5, 1966: This is, in a very real sense, the defense of the United States. The Administration has not made enough of the point that we are in Southeast Asia, fundamentally because our own vital interest is at stake….The stark fact remains that this is a struggle about the organization of the world.

January 12, 1967: Congress and the country heard from the President a careful, calm, and measured discussion of the outlook in South Vietnam. One might search the archives for utterance of a wartime leader that would exceed it in candor and restraint.

October 22, 1967: (About the Peace March on the Pentagon.) It is a tragedy enough for dissent to bring violence and violations of the law. It is a double tragedy when dissent growing out of a yearning for peace raises a very real threat of prolonging the war.

October 26, 1967: There is nothing that says generals must answer irrelevant and hypothetical questions from Senators.

February 29, 1968: The tone and temper of the Vietnam debate is getting uglier at just the moment when the need is greatest for a national display of unity and resolve.

In March 1968 the Post began to reverse its position on the war and on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election.

March 6, 1968: It may even be necessary to begin by acknowledging miscalculation—or failure—in the strategy that has carried us from the Tonkin Resolution of 1964, to the first tentative landing of combat troops in early 1965 and the beginning of the bombing of the North, and on to the present involvement of more than 500,000 United States combat troops in a struggle with no clearly visible end-result in sight.

February 28, 1969: Optimism. Progress. Victory. There has been optimism from John F. Kennedy in 1963, from General Maxwell Taylor in 1964, from Robert McNamara in 1965, Henry Cabot Lodge in 1966, General William Westmoreland in 1967, and Robert Komer in 1968. These were the men in charge, but their predictions were not believed: not by the press, and ultimately not by the public. Too many of the predictions have been wrong. Since 1963, the record of the skeptics and the pessimists has been excellent.

December 2, 1969: In the process of saving the country, the allies are destroying it.

December 10, 1969: When will it end?

U.S. military involvement ended in August 1973 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975 marked the end of the war.


  1. Paul Starobin says

    Read a lot like Post editorials championing and (still) defending the Iraq war. The Post, above all else, is the paper of the Washington establishment…

  2. Milo Geyelin says

    Hey Jack – Phil Geyelin was hired as an editorial writer by the Washington Post in 1967 for the express purpose of succeeding Editorial Page Editor Russell Wiggins and turning the Post against the Vietnam War. He did that in 1968 while you were doing what, exactly? Your dates and editorial excerpts are highly selective.

  3. Yes, the excerpts are selective—the blog post drew from the longer Washingtonian article, which was selective of the many thousands of words the Post edit page wrote about the Vietnam war. But the selections I used are not misleading. The Post editorial page supported the war right up to the time Russell Wiggins left the Post in 1968.

    What was I doing? In 1968 I was a Congressional Fellow (one of the journalists selected for the program) in the office of Vice President Humphrey. Before 1968 I had worked for UPI and as an editor in Detroit and San Jose.

    During the Humphrey presidential campaign in 1968, I was out on the campaign trail working with the press. The day Wiggins left the Post to become ambassador to the UN I was sitting in an auditorium listening to a speech. I got word of the Wiggins appointment through the Vice President’s office. I was sitting next to Bud Nossiter of the Post and told him about Wiggins leaving the paper for the UN. He couldn’t have been more surprised. If some people at the Post knew in 1967 that Wiggins was being replaced, Nossiter, one of the paper’s top reporters, was not one of them.

  4. Timothy Hays says

    Russ Wiggins (“Mr.” Wiggins, as I respectfully addressed him, in 1985) was extremely generous with Post memories during an interview at his offices at the Ellsworth American in Maine. I had driven from NYC after talking him into agreeing to see me “for thirty minutes” or so. Six hours later, I had to beg off and return to New York as two feet of snow from a blizzard accumulated through central Maine.

    In those six hours, he spoke of Philip Graham, Mrs, Graham, the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson. Though Wiggins described himself as a classic” liberal,” his support of the Vietnam War is easily understood given his Army AF (Intelligence) experience during WWII.

    Remember, though: he had become a critic of LBJ and the War, which led to the president’s appointing him to the UN job. “Now you’re in the maelstrom” seemed to be the message from Lyndon. I don’t see him as a conscious propagandist for the government, simply a conscientious journalist trying to do the right thing–both in Washington and in Ellsworth.

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