Escalation - Despite our best efforts to minimize the impact of the Vietnam War on our high school debate season, history wasn’t cooperating. The arrival of troops from South Korea (ROKA) and Australia to augment US and ARVN troops opened up a dozen major search and destroy operations that showed up on the front page and the evening newscasts. US troop levels had grown from 23,000 “military advisors” in 1964, to 180,000 troops at the end of ’65 and by New Year’s Eve there would be over 385,000 combat troops “in country.” US killed in action grew as well, from 206 to 1,863 to 6,143.
CBS News Archives
Using Vietnam to argue against the proposition of “restricting” military assistance was easy. All we had to do was recite the numbers of the dead and wounded, wave the flag and invoke the spirit of John Wayne and the Sands of Iwo Jima. In 1966-67 almost everyone except commies and draft dodgers supported the war, even Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, but when we argued the case to restrict military aid we tried to steer clear of Vietnam. This case required extensive research so we poured over dry DoD and State Department reports to document the history of ineffective “military assistance” in Europe, China, South Korea, the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean. There we found most of what we needed, but almost all of it lay between the lines and came to light only in the context of post WWII history.
Between the Lines - Aside from some small scale arm sales to Haitian revolutionaries in 1802, the Mexican-American War, the US occupation and training of Philippine and Cuban militias and police in the aftermath of the Spanish American War; the Panamanian secession from Colombia in 1903 and the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 were the our first overt applications of “military assistance.” America’s first “official” program of military assistance began in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. began providing economic and technical support to the Russian Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. After the October Revolution Wilson sent 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers Arkhangelsk and another 8,000 soldiers to Vladivostok to protect allied military supplies from the Bolsheviks and support the pro-Tsarist, anti-Bolshevik White Army in Russia. Too little too late and in 1920 allied forces withdrew from Russia.
In March 1941 Congress passed FDR’s Lend-Lease Act so we could “legally” provide military assistance to the Allies fighting WWII. After the war ended and the advent of the United Nations, Marshall Plan and the Cold War, programs of US Foreign Assistance expanded to countries all over the world. With the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China in 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, US “military assistance” programs went on steroids and Vietnam became the pinnacle of our efforts to address Dwight Eisenhower’s Domino Theory. It began with shipments of weapons and aircraft by the US Military Assistance and Advisory Group to the French Army during the First Indochina War which ended with their utter and total defeat in 1954 at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Among the thousands of available pages about US “military assistance” there were budgets, analyses about return on investment and all kinds of information to justify the effective programs. What were not discussed were the failures and geopolitical facts of life. After twenty years with billions spent to defend democracy, free enterprise and the American way of life, over half the population of the world lived under communist or democratic socialist governments. Most of the rest lived under military or familial dictatorships or colonial governments. The USA and Costa Rica stood alone as free democratic republics. A case could be made against “military assistance” but it had to be made with a delicate pragmatism that spared the reputation of the troops in the field.
Twisting in the Wind - I grew up believing in the American Dream. The dream portrayed in the movies of John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. My career track was the Air Force Academy, followed by flight school and four years as a fighter pilot, then a career as a test pilot and astronaut. I was going to fly the shuttle into space! Now at the tender age of seventeen, I faced the dark shadows of realpolitik and the American history that got edited out of high school textbooks. It took me another two years, my first taste of marijuana and some heart to heart conversations with a few combat veterans from Vietnam to take my broken heart into a full speed screaming 180o turn, but the first nails were already in the coffin of my American dream.
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