August 10 marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Congress had passed three days earlier. The resolution gave a green light to the Vietnam War’s “escalation,” what in today’s Pentagonese is called a “surge.” In March 1965, two Battalion Landing Teams of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade came ashore north of Da Nang as the first major U.S. combat forces in-country.
For Americans, the war would last until all combat troops finally left in 1973. The last evacuation chopper lifted off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, as Soviet-made North Vietnamese tanks were taking Saigon (soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City), the former capital of our South Vietnamese ally. The immense expense of the war, plus that of the Great Society—LBJ’s “guns and butter” policy—effectively bankrupted the United States by the early 1970’s, leading to the “stagflation” (stagnation plus inflation) of that decade.
Arguments about the war consumed the nation, even infecting domestic policy. They continue today and will probably last until the final baby boomer trips into the afterlife.
Over the years we’ve learned a lot. For one, in speeches at the time, President Johnson oozed war optimism. But according to secret tapes he...