United States troops were first sent to Vietnam in 1961 to bolster the crumbling regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and to serve as advisors in the war against the Viet Cong. Since then American commitment in South Vietnam has steadily increased.
Despite President Kennedy's announcement that all U.S. soldiers would leave South Vietnam in 1965, there are now 22,000 servicemen there, more than at any previous time. The death toll has reached 223; more Americans (21) died in action last month than in any other of the Vietnamese conflict. At first U.S. troops were only to serve as military advisors; then it was announced that Americans would return fire when fired upon; and this year it has become clear that in many instances military action is being initiated by Americans.
Although United States involvement has increased, the development of the political and military situation in Vietnam leaves much to be desired. In the past year Saigon has been ruled by Diem, Minh, Khanh, and now Tran Van Huong. The "strategic hamlet" program has been a failure; since January over 1000 government officials have been kidnaped or assassinated by the Viet Cong; battles with the Viet Cong have been larger than ever: and Viet Cong fire-power, especially against aircraft, has become more effective every month.
The greatest U.S. military loss occurred just two weeks ago when Viet Cong mortar fire killed four U.S. servicemen and destroyed or damaged twenty bombers at Bienhoa air force base, near Saigon. A few days after the shelling of Bienhoa, General Nguyen Khanh, former Premier and presently military chief of staff, reiterated what he considers the solution for South Vietnam's problems: that South Vietnam and the United States should attack North Vietnam.
The most frightening aspect about Khanh's proposal is that it is becoming increasingly acceptable both in Saigon and Washington. When Khanh orginally suggested attacking North Vietnam last spring, American officials in Saigon were reported to be disturbed by his suggestion, and Khanh was told to forget such ideas and concentrate on winning the war in South Vietnam. But press reports indicate that the idea of an attack against Hanoi has become more palatable in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin affair and the steady degeneration of military stability.
On August 5, the day after American jets bombed North Vietnam's torpedo-boat bases, both China and the Soviet Union announced that they would not "sit idly by" in the face of any U.S. "aggression" against North Vietnam. It is clear that were South Vietnam to attack North Vietnam, American would risk another Korea and probably worse.
President Johnson recognized these dangers and took care on August 4 to point out that the action of the U.S. jets was not to be regarded as an act of war, but rather as a "limited and fitting" reply to North Vietnamese provocation. The President noted that "we Americans know, if others have forgotten, the risks of spreading conflict."
Now that Johnson has been returned to office, he has both the time and popular support to transform these words into effective policy. The difference between sending 22,000 troops to the aid of a friendly government and sending the United States into war against a foreign nation should be made clear to all Americans, particularly to those who plan the military strategy in Saigon.
The President should point out clearly that an attack on North Vietnam is consistent with neither American goals in South Vietnam nor American's interest in world peace. To consider attacking the Hanoi regime is a shortsighted view that can little enhance American interests in Southeast Asia and which threatens the United States with the loss of far more than it can hope to gain.