It was 1954 – the French Far East Expeditionary Corps versus the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries at Dien Bien Phu – the decisive battle where the French were going to draw out the Vietnamese and destroy them with superior firepower. They tried. That wasn’t going to work. That took up most of March and May and ended with the French leaving all of French Indochina. They lost. They had asked for America’s help and Eisenhower had said no, diplomatically, but sent in the bombers and the aerial gunships to cover the French retreat – but it was still a loss.
But he sent no troops. He’d been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and had planned and executed D-Day ten years earlier, but this was different. This battle couldn’t be won. Or the price of winning was too high. What’s the point? What does the United States get if the United States “wins” here? This wasn’t the world facing Hitler.
And that was that. Eisenhower would go on to warn Kennedy not to get bogged down in a land war in Asia. And then Kennedy was gone and Johnson had to carry on with no advice. We got bogged down in the land war in Asia. That peaked at a bit more than seven hundred thousand of our troops over there – and riots in the streets here. And there was, back then, the draft. College students got deferments. Teach somewhere as soon as possible after college or grad school – teachers got deferments. Those who didn’t go to college got drafted. Poor kids got drafted. Black kids got drafted.
This was class warfare mixed with an overlay of angry white racism, as many on the left pointed out, but there wasn’t much that could be done about it. No one wanted to go to Vietnam. Some had to go. Some found tricks to fool the system – the doctor who would, for a fee, diagnose a medical condition that was disqualifying, or whatever. Everyone knew what has going on.
But now things have changed. The draft dodger has to speak inspiring words about D-Day on D-Day and honor what he avoided. CNN’s Zachary Wolf reports on how odd that is:
President Donald Trump, who is in Europe to commemorate D-Day, felt completely comfortable explaining his own lack of service in Vietnam because he didn’t like that war, though at the time he said it was bone spurs. Trump said Wednesday he’s making up for it by giving the military lots of money now – taxpayer money, that is.
All of this is in Trump’s interview with the British journalist Piers Morgan:
The interview was conducted in the underground bunker where Winston Churchill led the British government during the Blitz and World War II.
“Do you wish you’d been able to serve? Would you have liked to serve your country?” Morgan asked.
Trump replied by questioning Vietnam, mirroring some of the anti-war sentiment of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Well I was never a fan of that war. I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was a terrible war. I thought it was very far away. Nobody ever – you’re talking about Vietnam at that time and nobody ever heard of the country,” Trump said, adding the non sequitur that, today, the government of Vietnam has been successful negotiating in global trade.
He went on to say that he wasn’t active in protesting the war as a young man, but he didn’t think the US should ever have taken part.
And he wrapped up with this:
“But, uh, nobody heard of Vietnam and the, say, well what are we doing. So many people dying. So I was never a fan of – this isn’t like I’m fighting against Nazi Germany. I’m fighting – we’re fighting against Hitler. And I was like a lot of people. Now I wasn’t out in the streets marching. I wasn’t saying, you know, I’m going to move to Canada, which a lot of people did. But no, I was not a fan of that war. That war was not something that we should have been involved in.”
What? Trump had to clarify that:
Trump said he’s making up for his lack of military service by being President.
“Would you have liked to have served generally – perhaps in another (way)?” Morgan asked.
“I would not have minded that at all. I would have been honored. But I think I make up for it now. I mean look, $700 billion I gave last year and then this year $716 billion and I think I’m making up for it rapidly because we are rebuilding our military at a level that it’s never seen before.”
That was generous, but he is taking personal credit for spending taxpayer money, but he must be seen in context:
Three of the last four US presidents – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Trump – had no military service at all. George W. Bush was a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard – his way around Vietnam.
Two other politicians who were of military age during Vietnam are running against Trump as Democrats. They also deferred military service or sought to be exempt. All three are in their 70s, which makes it likely this is the last presidential election in which a Vietnam-era politician will be featured.
Joe Biden, the former vice president also running for President, received five Vietnam deferments for education and was later disqualified because of asthma.
Trump also received multiple education deferments and he has also said he obtained a letter from a doctor for heel spurs, a condition that no longer afflicts him. By the time there was a draft lottery, determined by birth date, in 1969, his birthday of June 14 was not called.
He lucked out there, but so have many others:
Two other politicians who came of age during Vietnam are running in the Democratic primary. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee received a student deferment and had a high draft number for his birth year, as did former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Plenty of Vietnam veterans have sought the White House, including Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, who did not get very far. Several Vietnam veterans got their party’s nomination, including Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain.
Since the election of Bill Clinton over decorated former military pilot and wartime president George H. W. Bush in 1992, American voters have shown that avoiding service during Vietnam is not a deal-breaker.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who is running for President as a Democrat, applied to be a conscientious objector during Vietnam. The application was ultimately rejected, but he was too old to be drafted at that point. In 2015, he said during a CNN debate that he’s no longer a pacifist.
And so on and so forth. There are no soldiers left, but Dana Milbank sees Trump as a special case:
World leaders have assembled on the English Channel this week, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, for two days of ceremonies recalling the unrivaled bravery and sacrifice of Donald Trump.
President Trump, staying at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London, was up early Wednesday morning and already thinking deep and profound thoughts on the theme of the day: himself.
“Washed up psycho @BetteMidler was forced to apologize for a statement she attributed to me that turned out to be totally fabricated by her in order to make ‘your great president’ look really bad,” he tweeted.
It was 1:30 a.m.
And it was already absurd:
As the world’s focus turned to the legendary World War II battle, Trump’s attention remained fixed on the commemoration of Trump. In this great and noble undertaking he had the support of Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who said the D-Day anniversary “is the time where we should be celebrating our president.”
The morning’s tweeting continued.
“This trip has been an incredible success for the President,” he declared, quoting Fox News’s Laura Ingraham.
“If the Totally Corrupt Media was less corrupt, I would be up by 15 points in the polls based on our tremendous success with the economy, maybe Best Ever!” he wrote.
And then there was that interview:
On the morning of the remembrance in Portsmouth, England, Britons woke to Piers Morgan’s interview with Trump.
“I know so much about nuclear weapons.”
“I’m running on maybe the greatest economy we ever had.”
“I knocked out ISIS.”
“I had an inauguration which I have to say was spectacular.”
“We had a big election-night win.”
“I have all the cards.”
“I have a good relationship with many of the leaders.”
“I have a very good relationship with the people in the United Kingdom.”
“We have tremendous support,” Trump proclaimed.
He and his wife were the “only people at a special ceremony for the new emperor.”
He paused the self-adulation long enough to ask: “How am I doing?”
He seems worried about that, but he was with a friend:
Morgan, the 2008 winner of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” showed why he earned the sole TV interview with Trump. He asked what Trump’s late mother would think of her son.
“She would have been very proud,” allowed Trump, who reported that the queen herself “was very honored” to learn his mother was a fan of Elizabeth’s.
What greater honor was there ever for the Queen of England to have once had the approval of Donald Trump’s mother? But there’s more:
Does he see similarities between himself and Winston Churchill?
“I would be ridiculed” for saying so, but “I certainly would like to see similarities.”
Churchill’s “swashbuckling style? His fearlessness?” Morgan prompted. “He was polarizing.”
“Well, that’s true,” Trump admitted.
In a nod to the day’s solemnity, Trump described D-Day as a “really incredible” battle, maybe “the greatest battle in history.” The best!
And it got more absurd:
At Portsmouth, Trump read the D-Day prayer of a man nearly as great as himself: Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization,” he read.
The dignitaries applauded politely – though, inexplicably, not as much as they did for the French president. After brief visits with veterans and leaders, Trump flew to Ireland to spend the night at his golf club. He opted to sleep there on both nights of the D-Day commemoration, because, he said of the 400-mile detour, “it’s convenient.”
The Irish prime minister, declining Trump’s invitation to meet him at the Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg, instead met Trump at the airport. There, Trump reported, among other things, that he had “an incredible time” at the D-Day ceremony, that America’s air “has gotten better since I’m president” and that of the millions of Irish Americans, “I know most of them because they’re my friends.”
This man has issues, but Roger Cohen is not laughing:
How small he is! Small in spirit, in valor, in dignity, in statecraft, this American president who knows nothing of history and cares still less and now bestrides Europe with his family in tow like some tin-pot dictator with a terrified entourage.
To have Donald Trump – the bone-spur evader of the Vietnam draft, the coddler of autocrats, the would-be destroyer of the European Union, the pay-up-now denigrator of NATO, the apologist for the white supremacists of Charlottesville – commemorate the boys from Kansas City and St. Paul who gave their lives for freedom is to understand the word impostor. You can’t make a sculpture from rotten wood.
It’s worth saying again. If Europe is whole and free and at peace, it’s because of NATO and the European Union; it’s because the United States became a European power after World War II; it’s because America’s word was a solemn pledge; it’s because that word cemented alliances that were not zero-sum games but the foundation for stability and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Of this, Trump understands nothing.
In fact, he misses the whole point of why the allies were fighting at all back then:
He cannot see that the postwar trans-Atlantic achievement – undergirded by the institutions and alliances he tramples upon with such crass truculence – was in fact the vindication of those young men who gave everything.
As Eisenhower, speaking at the Normandy American Cemetery, last resting place of 9,387 Americans, told Walter Cronkite for the 20th anniversary of the D-Day landings: “These people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.”
That was a solemn responsibility. For decades it was met, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Doing better, however, is not rising nativism, xenophobia, nationalism and authoritarianism given a nod and a wink by the president of the United States. It’s not Brexit, Britain turning its back on the Europe it helped free.
But that’s what we have now and one makes do:
My impression here is that Europe has gotten used to Trump to the point that it is no longer strange that the American president is a stranger. In less than two and a half years Trump has stripped his office of dignity, authority and values.
His foreign policy increasingly consists of a single word, “tariffs.” His contempt for allies undermines American diplomacy, or whatever is left of it, from Iran to North Korea, from Venezuela to China. His trampling of truth is so consistent that when he says in London that Britain is the largest trading partner of the United States – it’s nowhere near that – the impulse is to shrug.
Cohen is unhappy:
America is much better than this, much better than an American president who probably thinks the D in D-Day stands for Donald and spends the night of the commemoration trashing Bette Midler on Twitter.
As for the Republican Party, don’t get me started. To recover its bearings the GOP would do well to recall one of its own, Eisenhower, who in that same 20th-anniversary interview said that America and its allies stormed the Normandy beaches “for one purpose only.”
It was not to “fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest.” No, it was “just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government in the world.” It was an act, in other words, consistent with the highest ideals of the American idea that Trump and his Republican enablers seem so intent on eviscerating.
Cohen is not a fan, but Maggie Haberman and Mark Landler describe the basic contradictions here:
The president arrived in Europe embracing a number of positions that are anathema to many of the people he encountered. But he pivoted abruptly when he found resistance, underscoring that his approach is less ideological than transactional and situational, and sowing confusion about what, exactly, is Mr. Trump’s bottom line.
He insisted that Britain’s public health system needed to be part of any trade negotiation with the United States, but then swiftly took it off the table. He likened the idea of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, after Brexit, to his border wall with Mexico, but then agreed with Ireland’s leader, Leo Varadkar, that there should be no wall dividing north and south.
At heart, Mr. Trump’s instincts are contrary to the multilateral spirit of the European Union. But his salesman’s desire to please made him curiously solicitous of leaders whose views he might otherwise condemn.
In short, he knows what he hates and he’s not afraid to say it, anytime, anywhere, but he really wants to please others. There may be no way to resolve that, so, as Peter Baker reports, expect more of this:
Since early in his tenure, President Trump has sought to stage a military parade through the heart of Washington, only to be thwarted. So now he has settled on the next best thing: He will take over an existing patriotic display in the capital.
The Trump administration has ordered major changes in the traditional Fourth of July celebration that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall each year — with Mr. Trump personally taking a starring role as no other president has in modern times.
The mayor’s office in Washington said on Wednesday that it had been informed that Mr. Trump intended to address the assembled crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; his speech would presumably be televised to the nation.
This will not go well:
Critics said the move would transform what has for decades been a nonpartisan, unifying event into a political rally for a divisive president.
“He can’t resist injecting partisan politics into the most nonpartisan sacred American holiday there is: the Fourth of July,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from suburban Virginia who represents many of those who typically attend the Independence Day events in the capital. He called it “part of a pattern of driving wedges between Americans and making himself the subject of attention.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the delegate who represents the District of Columbia in the House, said she worried that the president’s presence would so politicize a family event that it could trigger anti-Trump protests.
“People are going to be angry,” she said. “This is going to be the angriest July 4 ever. People are going to be so incensed that a political figure would take over the Fourth of July that you will find many who believe they will have to find a political expression of their disgust.”
But this was coming sooner or later:
Mr. Trump has been captivated by the idea of a patriotic display in the capital that he could lead since even before he was sworn in as president. His inaugural committee reportedly explored using military equipment in the traditional parade held on the day he took the oath of office, only to reject the idea.
Undeterred, Mr. Trump became even more captivated by the notion in July 2017 when he visited Paris as the guest of President Emmanuel Macron for the annual Bastille Day military parade and repeatedly declared that he wanted something similar in Washington. Local and military officials managed to stymie his plans by emphasizing that it would cost tens of millions of dollars, and the president finally gave up last year.
By February, however, he came up with another way – essentially taking over the annual Fourth of July event in Washington. In a message posted on Twitter, he announced a “Salute to America” on Independence Day, featuring a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
This is a deeply insecure man, and this is the tradition:
The Fourth of July, marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was not made a holiday until 1870, and the federal government did not deem it an official holiday until 1938.
In the decades since, the celebration on the Mall has become a popular event for residents and tourists, who pack the space between the Capitol and the monuments, setting out blankets for picnics, throwing Frisbees and enjoying music by bands like the Beach Boys.
A parade down Constitution Avenue usually includes marching bands, fife and drum corps, floats, drill teams and lots of flags. The National Symphony Orchestra traditionally plays Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with cannon fire, just before the fireworks start around 9 p.m., broadcast live across the nation since 1947. In addition to the hundreds of thousands usually gathered on the Mall, many others watch from rooftops across the region or from boats on the nearby Potomac River.
Presidents typically have stayed away, instead leaving town or hosting guests in the White House or on the South Lawn, where they could watch the fireworks.
But now we have a celebration of Donald Trump, one month after the D-Day (Donald Day) anniversary ceremonies in France – also a celebration of Donald Trump. History disappears. And that’s how it ends.