A couple days late, last week's summary...kind of like the soap opera updates in the morning paper, i guess.
This week, the war was mired in stalemate after the Christmas truce of l9l4. It was clear that it was suicidal to try to challenge the enemy’s position, because of the ability of the machine gun and the high-intensity shell to destroy waves of soldiers simultaneously. The Germans were stuck with the gains of August-December l9l4, the British and French in their defensive positions as of the same time. No one was going anywhere anytime soon.
Therefore, at least on the western front, the obsession of the war planners soon became breaking through the stalemate and coming up with a piece of weaponry, or novel strategy, that would land a knockout punch and bring the sought-after victory. The Germans struck first in the second battle of Ypres, just east of the town at St. Julian. On April 22, l9l5, the Germans launched their first gas cylinders against Senegalese French colonial troops. The gas had its desired effect, immobilizing some troops and causing others to panic and flee, but the Germans proved unprepared to rush enough troops to the spot to break through; they didn’t know that the gas would work, so they basically just stood there. Although they gassed the Canadian lines two days later as well, the Germans’ opponents—the British and the French—had fortified the break in the line and prepared for the next gas attack. Therefore, no breakthrough occurred. The Germans were able to take a bit of high ground, but did not advance their position. The first deployment of WMD in war was a big bust, in other words. There was no appreciable difference in the lines.
Meanwhile, the British were contemplating an invasion of the Ottoman empire, at the Dardanelles/Gallipoli peninsula, some of the most valuable real estate in Europe/near East because it is the gateway to the Black Sea. The Admiralty had several reasons for taking this course of action. First, the weakest member of the Triple Alliance, Russia, was already running short on all kinds of supplies. It was crucial to find a way to resupply her, and that was difficult because the overland route to Russia was too difficult and/or a battlefield, it was impossible to try to access the northern ports because they were mostly icebound and the Turks would not allow supplies to Russia to pass through the straits. The British wanted to be able to access the Black Sea. Second, the Ottoman empire was crumbling and vulnerable. A strong naval bombardment might scare Turkish troops and throw the leadership into panic and chaos; so that the “entire rotten edifice” would come crashing down and Turkey would be knocked out of the war. The Russian Tsar could then be awarded Constantinople, the capital of Orthodoxy until l453. Third, if the Turks were knocked out of the war quickly, perhaps Bulgaria, Romania and Italy might be enticed to join the British, French and Russians. Those nations were sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the right rewards package and/or watching for an emerging winner, so that they could join that side and claim rewards at the peace table. Romania was destined to be particularly richly rewarded in this regard.
There were dangers, chiefly that the Dardanelles is a narrow waterway with high, rocky cliffs alongside. A very defensible position, in other words, with a few machine gunners. But British officials, including Winnie Churchill, believed that Turkish troops were inferior and incapable of defending the Straits.
In March, an initial naval bombardment failed, as the Turks mined the entrance to the Straits. In April, an amphibious assault, carried out mainly by Australia/New Zealand troops, commenced. The Turks initially retreated, but were galvanized by a mathematician-turned-soldier, Mustafa Kemal, who ordered the panicked troops to stand and fight. They did, and the invasion stalled. The Dardanelles/Gallipoli operation turned into a near Eastern version of the western front, with the Anzacs dug in on the hillside and the Turks machine-gunning and shelling from above. No one knew what to do save hurl more and more troops into the breach in efforts to get up the cliffs, with predictable results. After 8 months of futility, the Gallipoli force was withdrawn quietly.
No breakthrough with gas, no breakthrough at Gallipoli. The stalemate held fast in l9l5.
Here the US was looking at yet another war in Vietnam—this time, with the US as the foreign influence. After the l954 Geneva agreement temporarily dividing the country in two at the l7th parallel, the US backed Ngo Din Diem, made him “Our Man in Vietnam,” so to speak, and tried to build him up to the point where he could challenge Ho Chi Minh for the hearts and minds of Vietnamese people in the l956 elections. Unfortunately, Diem proved to be anything but a good American surrogate—he persecuted non-Catholics in Vietnam, his brother-in-law sicked the secret police on political opponents, and he desecrated the graves of his enemies, a terrible trespass on Vietnamese sensibilities. Diem’s oppressive rule, combined with his refusal to hold the l956 elections, convinced Ho Chi Minh that he would have to fight yet again for the country’s liberation from foreigners. He summoned his supporters, called upon all those who opposed Diem and foreign influence in Vietnam to join him, and declared war against the Diem regime. By l960, there was another war in Vietnam, this time between the Viet Minh—newly rebranded as the National Liberation Front—and the US-backed government of Diem.
In l961, John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States. He knew quite a lot about Vietnam, based on a l951 visit there with his brother, and had said he believed the French return was a mistake and that the US had erred in backing them in the war. He and his brother concluded that most of the Vietnamese people wanted Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, and that the group was more anti-foreign than pro-Communist. In his inaugural address, JFK launched a shot against the Communists’ bow, with words such as “let every nation know…that we will pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” who challenged the spread of democracy throughout the war. But he and his staff talked through all the issues related to Vietnam—whether Ho was a Communist, and if so, was he a slavish follower of Moscow or an independent Communist like Tito, and whether or not it made sense to support the Diem government if everyone wanted Ho Chi Minh. It wasn’t clear what he would do about Vietnam.
Then came three incidents that would induce Kennedy to take a hard line on Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs invasion, which Kennedy launched against his better judgment, failed miserably and brought all kinds of allegations that he was too young, too soft, too indecisive. The Russians took note of this, especially their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and judged Kennedy to be a paper tiger. At Vienna in l961, Khrushchev bullied and lectured Kennedy, threatening him with nuclear war if he tried to oppose the Soviet Union, especially in Berlin but also in emerging nations like Vietnam. Then in August, Khrushchev authorized the construction of the Berlin wall, an alarming development since he effectively shut off half of a free city from the world. Kennedy thought Khrushchev was very dangerous and very ambitious, and decided he had to oppose him EVERYWHERE. There was no room for error or nuance, and so he determined to “make our policy credible” in Vietnam: support the Diem government and try to prevent Ho Chi Minh from coming to power. He would throw a couple of new elements into the mix—principally counter-insurgency, the idea that the south Vietnamese army could be trained to play Ho Chi Minh’s game—guerilla warfare—better than Ho did. Our advisors would train the south Vietnamese in the same techniques that Ho and the NLF did and thereby prevent the introduction of American combat troops.