America’s fixation on a wall between the U.S. and Mexico recalls America’s determination to build a wall to solve a deadly conflict half a century ago.
When Gen. Maxwell Taylor returned from South Vietnam in 1961, he advised that a simple solution to stop the Communist insurgency was to build a wall between north and south Vietnam. For the next decade some of America’s “best and brightest” studied, debated, developed prototypes and attempted to implement a 2,000-mile-long wall dividing North and South Vietnam — appropriately the distance between the U.S. and Mexico. The military was split on a physical wall being built. The primary objection was the large number of military personnel that would be needed to be permanently deployed to man the wall and secondary, the construction, maintenance and repair would be cost-prohibitive. General Westmoreland was mistrustful of attempting to build permanent, physical barriers or a wall as he believed that it would be remembered as “Westmoreland’s Folly.”
The military had already encountered the ability of North Vietnamese to construct miles of underground tunnels, known as tunnels of C? Chi. The C? Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam war, serving as the Viet Cong’s base for the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Various attempts were made to discover and destroy these tunnels. The only reliable method required carpet bombing of such targets, unleashing more bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and the 5-mile-wide demilitarized zone than all the bombs used during World War II against Japan and Germany.
The survivability of these tunnels is reflected in today’s 75-mile complex of tunnels at C? Chi that still survive, serving as major tourist attractions. The tunnels are preserved by Vietnam as war memorials with two different tunnel display sites: Ben Dinh, in the southern area of Vietnam close to Saigon and Ben Duoc in the north.
While giving up on a physical 2,000-mile wall, the Secondary of Defense, Robert McNamara, relied upon a group of elite scientists to offer advice, usually on sensitive or classified topics. As a group they determined that the relentless bombing campaign of North Vietnam and the demilitarized zone had “no measurable direct effect on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations in the south.”
The group recommended two defensive barriers. A physical barrier in nature from the South China Sea inland westward and a secondary barrier into Laos using a combination of air bombing, land mines deployed from the land and air and forms of electronic detection.
This became known as the “McNamara Line” strategy used from 1966-1968. Despite the military’s split on such, McNamara and President Johnson supported the idea and in early 1967 President Johnson ordered the “McNamara Line” constructed, giving it the highest national priority; it was abandoned by October 1968.
Robert McNamara was a highly successful businessman before he became Secretary of Defense. An official account of Vietnam found that McNamara seldom listened to opponents of the “McNamara Line.”
They wrote that the “McNamara’s Line” was a metaphor for the secretary’s arbitrary, highly personal and aggressive management style that bypassed normal procedures and sometimes ignored experts to get things done. He forced a reluctant military to implement it, opted for technology over experience, launched the project quickly with minimum coordination, rejected informed criticism, insisted available forces sufficed for the effort, and pour millions of dollars into a system that proceeded by fits and starts.”
“McNamara’s Line” is remembered but by a few. One has to wonder how history will remember President Trump’s wall?
—Tom Muri lives in Whitefish