The Path to War (2002) TV




Director:  John Frankenheimer. 

Starring:  Michael Gambon (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Donald Sutherland (Clark Clifford), Alec Baldwin (Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense), Bruce McGill (George Ball, Undersecretary of State), James Frain (Dick Goodwin, speech writer), Felicity Huffman (Lady Bird Johnson), Frederic Forrest (Gen. Earle 'Buzz' Wheeler), John Aylward (Dean Rusk, Secretary of State), Philip Baker Hall (Sen. Everett Dirksen), Tom Skerritt (Gen. William Westmoreland), Cliff De Young (McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor), Chris Eigeman (Bill Moyers), John Valenti (Jack Valenti, speech writer), Gerry Becker (Walt Rostow, right wing hawk), Sarah Paulson (Luci Baines Johnson).

the decision by LBJ to escalate the conflict in Vietnam to the Vietnam War


Very good movie. It is January 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson has just recently won the presidency of the United States of America by the largest majority in American history. He now has an incredible mandate to get through many of his programs. He wants to attack further the problems of racism and poverty. He is happy and glowing with hope and promise.

But almost from the very beginning there is trouble in paradise. The situation in Vietnam is bad. Johnson does not want to hear about Vietnam for he wants nothing to distract from his War on Poverty. But Robert McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, says Johnson can only get rid of Vietnam with sustained military action.

In dealing with Vietnam all of LBJís advisors are hawks, with the one except of George Ball, Undersecretary of State. When McNamara says that bombing will bring the war to an early end, Ball reminds the group that bombing often unifies a people and that bombing alone never wins a war. McNamara says Operation Rolling Thunder will only roll north in response to North Vietnamese aggression. But Ball cautions that such a bombing operation will inevitably expand north by itself.

Now at this time, only 400 American troops have died in Vietnam. It would have been relatively easy for America to withdraw from that country. But the hawks, including Johnson, say there has to be a response to this provocation and that Ho Chi Minh, the leader in North Vietnam, will quit if the US makes him pay in blood.

In hindsight, the bravado of the hawks seems naive and fool-hardy. Their optimistic reports of success are now laughable. If this werenít such a tragedy, this movie might be considered a comedy. But men hear want they want to hear and see what they want to see.

It struck me as almost comic when LBJ worries over the loss of a single pilot when he agrees to start the bombing of North Vietnam. He and the nation will have eight years to grieve over more than 58,000 American dead in Vietnam. (And they will largely ignore their killing of over two million Vietnamese, all in the name of anti-communism.)

Martin Luther King calls and Johnson has to break the news to him that he is not going to get the voting rights bill through congress this time. He has to worry about Vietnam. But he assures MLK that he is going to "nip" Vietnam in the bud, then he will turn to voting rights once again. (The use of the word nip shows that Johnson thought he could use a lot of force quickly and then soon get out of Vietnam. Again the man appears naive for he could have not been more mistaken.)

Johnson reverses himself with the terrible events of Selma, Alabama and the hate speech of racist Alabama Governor George Wallace. He pushes voting rights and the legislation passes.

Spring of 1965. At Da Nang the marines land. But the Vietnamese just keep coming. Johnsonís favorite phrase soon comes to be that he canít just "cut and run."

The US reaches 51,000 troops in Vietnam and General Westmoreland wants a total of 184,000 and permission to launch offensive operations at his discretion. Johnson is worried when he hears that the US might be taking 500 deaths a month by the end of the year.

McNamara continues to believe that the war is winnable. But George Ball says that it is better to get out now than wait until we have 200,000 men in Vietnam. But we canít cut and run is the response. Clark Clifford, LBJís long time friend and a highly paid Washington lawyer, helps George Ball out by saying that if the North Vietnamese can put 100,000 troops into South Vietnam and if in a guerilla war it takes 10 times as many defending troops in order to win, then 10 times 100,000 means the US will have to put 1,000,000 men into the field. It doesnít sound good. But the big fools push on.

McNamara tells Johnson that the war will cost $12 billion dollars and that it is getting very difficult to hide this amount of money from congress and the public. But Johnson insists that McNamara find a way to continue hiding the full cost of the war. Johnson is already being warn down by the war in Vietnam.

At Camp David, Clark Clifford warns LBJ that Vietnam will lead to a catastrophe, but once again Johnson listens not to Clifford but to McNamara. (The war was nicknamed "McNamaraís War".) Johnson gives another escalation announcement speech to the nation.

Johnsonís key speech writer, Richard Goodwin, leaves the White House. Johnson is furious and tries to force him to stay. Bill Moyers and McGeorge Bundy have already left.

Clifford becomes hawkish, reasoning that once LBJ committed the nation to war, the president has to make his best effort to win. But while Clifford is becoming more hawkish, McNamara is starting to have second thoughts. In a revealing comment in his office, McNamara says: "God, I just donít think weíre going to be able to beat these people."

The cost of the war rises to a total of $20 billion dollars and soon will cost the nation $2 billion dollars every month. Johnson drops any mention of the Great Society from the State of the Union speech.

LBJ visits Vietnam and large-scale demonstrations against the war begin to have a telling effect. McNamara now admits publicly to his doubts about the possibility of winning in Vietnam. LBJ is extremely angry with him and starts his move to replace him with Clark Clifford.

These Washington politicians can often fool themselves and the people of the United States as to the reality of a war situation. But they canít stop the reality of military defeats. January 30, 1968. The Tet Offensive is a military defeat for the Viet Cong and North Vietnam, but the huge offensive is a psychological defeat for the United States. It began to dawn on a lot of Americans that their government had been lying to them about what is really going on in Vietnam.

Clifford finally admits that the US canít win in Vietnam. There are 20,000 dead Americans.

The peace candidate Eugene McCarthy does extremely well in the New Hampshire primary against LBJ. Robert Kennedy enters the presidential race. Johnson is royally pissed.

LBJ announces on television that he will not seek nor will he accept the nomination of his party for the presidency of the United States.

And now, an even bigger fool, President Richard Nixon, carries on the fighting in Vietnam and brings the number of dead to over 58,000 before he is forced to "cut and run".

The movie reveals a group of foolish, naive and arrogant men who had little knowledge of or respect for people of the third world. The United States made its mistake by taking over the imperialistic role of the French after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu and refusing to see the fight in Vietnam as one primarily for Vietnamese independence. Instead, the American leaders chose to see the struggle in terms of the overall struggle between democracy and communism. This mistake proved very costly for the nation.


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

There are definite parallels of the Vietnam War to the current Bush II in the Iraq War. LBJ thought he had a mandate to do pretty much whatever he wanted and so did Bush after the 9/11/2001 attacks. LBJ received a blank check from Congress after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Bush II got the same Congressional blank check. LBJ and his crew saw the world naively in terms of black and white (democracy vs. communism) and Bush II does the same with his freedom vs. terrorism. There was a great deal of self-deception and deception of the public in the Vietnam War as there is in the Iraq War. Both LBJ and Bush II ignored the evidence of failure and kept fighting.  LBJ loved the derogatory and simplistic phrase "cut and run" and so does Bush II. And the Vietnam War went on and on and on and so does the Iraq War.   8/26/2006


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