Portland Leadership Institute - Nourish the Leader Within You
Leadership for the 21st Century

What Could They Have Been Thinking?

If you grew up in the '50s and '60s you probably revered Ike, JFK, or both.  You heard great tales of Truman, and of some of the great generals.  Yet after all these years, I wonder:  what could they have been thinking.

Let's cut to the quick. 

A modern external army could never win a war in Viet Nam unless they were prepared to lose an indefinite number of men.  The heat here is unbearable, the rain ruthless, the jungles formidable.  When I put air conditioning on in university buildings to make myself comfortable, the locals put on their sweaters.  Live here all your life and you become used to the heat.  After three weeks here my energy is sapped.  Were we not doing what is important, what we truly love, and what feeds our soul, we wouldn't be here.

Be 18 years old and come here to fight a war?  The jungles of the Mekong Delta must have been awful.  Day after day after day of inhumane conditions.  How could any of our generals (Westmoreland, of course, is at the top of the list, but he didn't lead us until 1964) have thought we could have won?  What could they have been thinking?  Had they emerged from WW II and Korea thinking we were invincible?  Korea? 

We've been in Viet Nam for 3 weeks.  We've been pampered, driven, taken care of, and received whatever we've asked for.  Our hosts are extraordinary.  We are here at the end of the rainy and hot season, so it is becoming marginally comfortable during the day, pleasant at night.

Yet this is Viet Nam, folks.  When it is hot, you can not imagine it.  My t-shirt  gets soaked in ten minutes outside.  The air is so thick that we rarely see Ho Chi Minh City from our 9th floor apartment, only ~30 miles away. 

If you've been reading the blog you saw the pictures and commentary from the Mekong Delta, and you've seen the videos of the downpours.  And the rain is letting up now.  Wait till rainy season.

What could they have been thinking?

Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, while all military men, acted with political interests (domino theory, Russians, etc.) while President.  That's the job of the President.  They have military commanders who give military guidance.  Famously, Truman fired MacArthur when he wanted to escalate the Korean conflict.  Later on, however, someone forgot to act as President when he should have.

Let's backtrack for a brief history lesson.  (note that anything I say could be wrong.  I am an HRM Prof, not a historian.  What I write below is pieced together from anecdotes and my own reading.  I like to think it's accurate, but....)

Many others, most notably the Chinese and the French, have ruled Viet Nam for long periods in the recent past.  The French arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century and did not want to leave.  Who would; if you but visited Saigon once, you would not want to leave either.  The French legacy:  traffic circles, baguettes, and drink.

Prior to Sept. 2, 1945, the US gave tacit support to Ho Chi Minh in the battle for freedom.  However, when Ho declared independence, the French wanted to stay.  The US:  support our long time ally.  Ho went Communist; he became the enemy.

The French lost the next war (1945-1954--google Dien Bien Phu for details) but we called it a tie!  Rather than allowing a free Viet Nam, we divided the country, promising free elections.  We then installed the ruthless Ngo Dinh Diem, who canceled the elections.  We assassinated Diem.  OOPS!  War was on. 

By this time LBJ was President.  He knew from the first that this war would destroy him.  He had to move on the Great Society and Civil Rights as fast as possible.  Fortunately he was successful on those fronts.  His days, however, were numbered.

Sidebar:  Revolutions are started by those who feel oppressed.  The leaders use the working poor, the underclass, to fan the fire, to fight the oppressors.  1775 George Washington is no different from 1959 Fidel Castro (yes, there were significant differences later; I'm only talking about the actual revolt).

What was happening on the battlefield?  Jeanna and I received our best analysis from our tour guide in the Mekong Delta, a young woman with no axe to grind.

She made it clear:  in the 1950s and 1960s the wealthy wanted the status quo.  In different wars they were with King George and Batista.  Here they wanted the French, and later became one with Diem.

The poor were with Ho. 

After the war American soldiers complained:  "we were fighting for their freedom.  All we wanted was for them to let us know that an ambush had been set down the road.  They knew, and just let us walk into it."

Yet it was only in our eyes that we were fighting for their freedom.  The villagers who allowed our soldiers to be ambushed were with Ho!  Communist Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh who never trusted the Russians or the Chinese, Ho Chi Minh meant freedom from oppression. 

The villagers couldn't care less about communism.

Our generals:  what could they have been thinking?  First and foremost, Americans from New York, Portland, Tuscaloosa, and Des Moines, no matter how well prepared and equipped, were ill-suited to fight in the jungles and humidity of this country.

What could they have been thinking?  Our idea of freedom was so far removed from that of the villagers who had their own meaning of freedom.

And finally:  yesterday I posted pictures of my class on facebook.  A friend said, "they look so young.  Were we ever that young?"

Their grandfathers, at their age, were fighting for their freedom.  They were fighting us, they were fighting each other.  18 year old baby faced boys, five foot four inches, even smaller than I am, carried rifles and were killed.  Because our generals thought we should be here and could win a war to save the world for democracy.

This war ended Sept. 2, 1945.  Ho knew that we would not have the resolve to continue, that he was right.  The war was over Sept. 2.  But it took 30 more years for it to be complete. 

What could they have been thinking?



1 Comment to What Could They Have Been Thinking?:

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personal statement for business school on Monday, June 17, 2013 6:53 PM
He had to move on the Great Society and Civil Rights as fast as possible. Fortunately he was successful on those fronts. His days, however, were numbered.
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