The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mansfield and Diem

Nosing around GB once more, to explore the left-footer Senator's connection with the oriental 'Winston Churchill' (LBJ's infamous comparison from his 1961 whistlestop tour of SVN).

From Leslie Gelb's The Irony of Vietnam (p207), one gets this:
While the period of confusion that followed Geneva was reflected in the public debate, the thrust of where different groups wanted the United States to go remained clear. On May 15, 1955, the Times told its readers that the United States had no alternative to supporting Diem in Vietnam. Only the Chicago Tribune espoused an anti-administration position, charging on May 3, 1955, that US aid was being wasted in Vietnam.

As for Congress, in early 1955 two senators, Mike Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey, along with prominent public personages such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, initiated a save-South-Vietnam drive by supporting the Diem campaign. Mansfield said the United States had no choice but to support Diem. Humphrey accused US policymakers of "wavering," saying that this was no time for "weakness," and that the fall of the South would threaten the rest of Asia.

No legislator and none of the elite press raised on word in protest when the July 1956 date for holding these elections passed. The backing for the anti-Communist Saigon regime even seemed to convert such former skeptics as Senator Knowland, who now urged support of Diem to avoid a "continental Dien Bien Phu."

And into 1959, as conservatives began to charge misuse and waste of Americans funds by the Diem government, Senator J William Fulbright rose to the defense, saying that although the aid may have been misused, it was still vital to continue in the long-term interests of the Free World.

It was the burgeoning crisis in Laos in 1959, however, that once again brought the American stakes in Indochina into full scope. Since early 1958 the elite press had been building up the Laos story, portraying Laos as the victim of Communist violations of the Geneva accords of 1954. In an editorial on May 10, 1961, the New York Times called it a "stepping-stone" for a Communist takeover and added in an editorial on May 12 that the situation "involved not merely Laos and South Vietnam but the danger that all Southeast Asia will fall to the Communists and that general war will be ignited. After the signing of the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos on July 23, 1962, in Geneva, the establishment press closed ranks behind the President's settlement, but with no expressions of congratulations. The position of the elite press and the liberal senators, similar to that of many conservatives, was that a coalition government and neutralization meant losing. And when the Laotian accords quickly broke down and fighting resumed, the air was filled with "I told you so's." But as the Washington Post editorialized on April 15, 1963: "Is Laos worth the risk or the cost of a Viet-Nam?"

Congressional comment about the situation shifted from the serious questioning of 1954 to mildly questioning acceptance of the US involvement. On September 4 1959, Mansfield lamented that Laos was teetering on the brink of collapse and asked "What is the answer?" The administration's answer was more of the same, for these countries had to be saved from Communist control. The next day Democratic Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut went further: "We will do whatever becomes necessary to defend Laos, including armed intervention." On September 7 Mansfield asked the questions about Laos that were soon to become popular with respect to Vietnam as well. Who is running American policy in Laos? Have the Dense Department and the CIA been given too much responsibility? Where are the President and the State Department? The Conservatives, again, were not interested in these questions…

My QED in this mooch is (roughly) to gain more understanding of the perverse relationship between Ngo Dinh Diem and the US pols who groomed - and were groomed by - him during the course of the 1950s.

One has Cold War mentality; one has the Catholic connection; one has the lack of competition for the top job from Diem's cohort in SVN. There's more to it than that, obviously.

I note that Colonel Robert McCormick died on April 1 1955 [!], a few weeks before the critical piece noted by Gelb.

And Humphrey is one of the Diem boosters. And Fulbright brushing aside the corruption stories (from our friend Albert M Colegrove, I suspect - Gelb's CR reference does not give the date of his comment).

Not to mention the sterling performance by the New York Times - whatever USG might have said about Halberstam and his in-country colleagues, there was no need to tell the Times ed board to Get on the team!

Plus ça change...

As far as the odd ideological switcheroo - liberals supporting US intervention in Indochina, conservatives opposing [1] - there is the dissertation (PDF - I thought I'd mentioned it, but can't trace) Beyond the Solid South: Southern Members of Congress and the Vietnam War by Mark David Carson - the first part of which I've read, finding lots of good stuff therein.

  1. Some pols in each category, some of the time.


One piece of the puzzle is undoubtedly the management of salience: the hardest thing to gauge, even with the benefit of the NYT full archive [1], is the relative weight of the various items on the public agenda at any particular time [2].

The eternal quest of USG from 1955 on was to minimise the salience of intervention in Indochina, whilst maximising the effectiveness of such intervention. (Hallin is the place to go on this, as much discussed here.) Clearly the Times had a reason to push Laos: pushing Eisenhower to toughen up? the hawk faction in USG making their move? Dunno: my knowledge of the Laos thing is way below Wikipedia.

  1. Mildly curious, I go to the 'Times Select' page to find that those who pony up their fifty bucks are only allowed 100 archive pieces per year! I'd be pushed to limit myself to that per day...

  2. I think back to the 04 campaign and newshole-packing ephemera such as the Kerry roorbacks (Swiss cheese on cheesesteak, looking French, the Swifties) and the Killian memos.

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