It’s best to step back and take a big view to understand U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s. Southeast Asia had a long history of war and occupation dating back centuries, including China’s attempts to take over from the 11th to 18th centuries. As Europe carved up Asia in the 19th century — with Britain in Burma (Myanmar), Malaya (Singapore & Malaysia), and Hong Kong, various countries in Shanghai, and the Dutch in the East Indies (Indonesia) — the French grabbed their piece of the pie in SE Asia in the 1850s. By 1893, French Indochina included what we now call Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Most of what’s now Thailand, then called Siam by the British, buffered the French and British colonies as the lone self-ruled country in the area, though they too had to concede territory.
With France being overwhelmed by Germany during World War II, Japan invaded this territory in their quest for tin and rubber in 1940. That led the U.S. to question its trading partnership since Japan then stood poised to threaten U.S. oil in the Dutch East Indies. President Franklin Roosevelt cut off oil and steel exports to Japan, setting the stage for Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War.
After the Potsdam Conference toward the end of WWII, the U.S. helped China and Britain liberate the Vietnamese from Japanese control in the northern and southern parts of the country, respectively. After Japan and China retreated, the French weren’t able to regain control over the country, especially in the north, despite U.S. funding. In keeping with the decolonization going on around the world (India, across Africa, Indonesia, etc.), the Vietnamese wanted independence from France.
North Vietnam won independence from France in 1954 under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died in the process, embittering the population toward Westerners. For his part, Ho had a favorable view of the U.S., having purportedly lived in Brooklyn and Boston briefly as a young man and having heard Woodrow Wilson speak eloquently, if unsuccessfully, on behalf of self-determination (self-rule) at the Versailles Peace Conference following WWI (his early biography is muddled with multiple identities and aliases). From Paris, Ho moved to the USSR in the 1920s, where he solidified his Marxism. Ho was grateful for Western help expelling the Japanese in WWII and even briefly called his troops the Viet-American army. Ho based Vietnam’s independence declaration on the U.S. version from 1776, surrounded by OSS agents (precursors to the CIA) in Hanoi while he quoted from Jefferson on the same afternoon that Japan was surrendering to the U.S. to end World War II. But President Harry Truman was not enthused about his leftist leanings as Ho guided the communist Việt Minh.
Earlier, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill vowed in their 1941 Atlantic Charter to support decolonization, or independence movements, in the postwar world. On board the Prince of Wales, they proclaimed support for the “right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Unlike Churchill, FDR wasn’t just paying lip service; he seemed to genuinely dislike colonialism. At the Casablanca Conference during WWII in 1943, he told his son, “Don’t think for a moment, Elliot, that Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight if it hadn’t been for the shortsighted greed of the French and English and Dutch.” Colonialism wasn’t all bad for the subject countries. The masters invested a lot in education, healthcare, and infrastructure (railroads, communication, canals, etc.) that their subjects might not otherwise have been able to afford. However, at its core, colonialism was racist and exploitive. Whites came mainly to plunder natural resources while patting themselves on the back for helping the racially inferior and even complaining about the burden (e.g. Rudyard Kipling).
Rejecting the old justifications for colonialism, FDR told White House reporters that there was no “race of people on Earth fit to serve as masters over their fellow men.” Echoing Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination idea at Versailles, Roosevelt said, “We believe that any nation, no matter how small, has the inherent right to its own nationhood.” Churchill definitely didn’t agree but, at the time of the Atlantic Charter, Britain was too weak to dictate the terms of its American alliance. France was still old school, too, based on post-WWII attempts to snuff out independence in its Algerian and Vietnamese colonies. French imperialists argued that, not only would their domestic economy collapse without Indochina, but that colonialism was necessary to maintain their “eternal greatness.” They would’ve fit well into this turn-of-the-century cartoon in satirical Judge magazine. The Dutch, too, were struggling to retain control of their colonies across the South China Sea, as the Dutch East Indies became Indonesia in 1949. India won independence from Great Britain in 1947 and the U.S., latecomers to the Asian colonial sweepstakes, granted independence to the Philippines in 1946.
Regarding Indochina in particular, FDR said in 1943 that the country shouldn’t be given back to France after the war, who despite being there for a century had “done absolutely nothing with the place to improve the lot of the people.” However, a lot changed over the next decade, namely the onset of the Cold War. Under Truman, the U.S. was dedicated to preventing the spread of communism, especially after NSC-68 (1950) advised that they would fight communism anywhere and everywhere on the Eurasian continent. What if an emerging country wanted to be both independent and communist? Vietnam put America in a bind. On one hand, they supported decolonization, had declared as much during WWII, and famously jumpstarted the movement by throwing off the British yoke in 1776. On the other hand, they were dedicated to stopping communist expansion. The upshot was that the U.S. supported countries gaining their independence from Europeans — ushering out the era depicted in the cartoon above — but not if the new, independent country was a communist dictatorship or even a socialist democracy. Vietnam appeared headed for a communist dictatorship. Like Korea, Vietnam is contiguous with China, and the U.S. wanted to stop the spread of the “red menace” out of China even if it wasn’t willing to go so far as to overthrow Mao’s government within China itself. NSC-68 trumped the Atlantic Charter.
Northern Independence & Southern Civil War
Moreover, American allies Japan and France leaned on the U.S. to stymie Vietnamese independence. Japan still needed the same raw materials from Indochina it had in 1940 and France wanted to at least hang on to the southern part of Vietnam. The U.S., in turn, needed both alliances. Japan was America’s main democratic-capitalist ally in Asia after WWII and the U.S. needed France to shore up NATO in Western Europe and fend off communism there.
France had their hands full, meanwhile, putting down another colonial uprising in Algeria, just across the Mediterranean in North Africa. The Viet Minh were ruthless in their attempts to gain independence and unify Vietnam, with Ho’s generals torturing, slaughtering, drowning, and burying alive capitalists, landlords, Catholics, pro-French sympathizers, and even rival nationalists and communists. The Viet Minh military was called the PAVN or NVA, for North Vietnamese Army. NVA Commander Võ Nguyên Giáp, whose wife was beaten to death in a French prison, said his guerrilla army would be “everywhere and nowhere.” France warned the U.S. that if Vietnam went communist, the rest of the region would “fall like dominoes.” American commitment to Containment and Domino Theory trumped its commitment to supporting independence. France paid a steep price in its failed attempt to quash North Vietnamese independence in the First Indochina War (1946-54), losing over 75k troops — more than what the U.S. would lose in the Second Indochina War, known in Vietnam as the “American War” and in America as the Vietnam War. Foreshadowing America’s experience, French forces dropped Napalm on civilians, endured unpopularity and protest at home, listened to a revolving door of their own generals announce they were on the verge of victory, tried to turn the fighting over to Vietnamese allies, and sometimes burned villages and raped women to retaliate against the Viet Minh. Ultimately, though, they capitulated after a nine-year struggle.
After the Vietnamese took control of North Vietnam in 1954, world powers convened in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the growing crisis in the southern part of the country, where France was hanging on to what remained of its colony. The Geneva meeting commenced one day after the North Vietnamese victory over France, climaxed by their takeover of a French base at Dien Bien Phu (left). Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese, who’d lost over a million men in Korea, were ready to back the Viet Minh directly in an attempt to take over South Vietnam. Just a year after the war in Korea simmered down, the Geneva Accords called for dividing Vietnam along the 17° Parallel, similar to Korea’s 38°, with an independent North Vietnam and French-held South. The country’s tribal affiliations had been divided along northern-southern lines as far back as the 1620s, over two centuries before the French arrived. Unlike the Korean situation, where the stalemate went on in perpetuity, elections would be held two years later in 1956, with the winner taking over one unified country of Vietnam. North Vietnam’s communist allies in the USSR and China feared U.S. intervention in South Vietnam and pressured them to settle for just the northern partition, but communists insisted on trying to unify the whole country. President Dwight Eisenhower thought that even fully participating in the Geneva talks sanctioned the communists’ takeover in the north. While the U.S. sent a representative to Geneva, it didn’t sign the agreement, mainly because they knew the wrong guy would win a unified election: Ho Chi Minh. Therein lay the roots of future conflict.
The U.S. undermined the Geneva arrangement though it agreed to not use force. Eisenhower (Ike) and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles arranged for a Vietnamese-American, Ngo Dinh Diem, to take over a new country of South Vietnam. He won a rigged vote removing Bao Dai, the sitting monarch, from power. Dulles would’ve preferred to have the U.S. replace France as the colonial ruler, but Ike opposed that and refused to put what we’d today call “boots on the ground,” seeing “no military victory possible in this theater.” They tried diplomacy and nation-building instead. America arranged for an Asian version of NATO called SEATO, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (1954-77), whereby an attack on one — Philippines, Thailand, West Pakistan, Australia, France, UK, and U.S. — was an attack on all. Ike’s original containment goal was to surround the USSR and Eastern Bloc with a string of such alliances, but the Middle East proved too complex and SEATO wasn’t as effective or as binding of an alliance in Southeast Asia as NATO was in Europe. Two regional powers and potential allies, India and Indonesia, never joined. While South Vietnam wasn’t a SEATO member, France was, and the alliance offered South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia military protection. At the time, Laos was a bigger headache than Vietnam from the U.S. perspective, as another civil war was firing up there. South Vietnam’s bilateral pact was similar to America’s backing of Taiwan and South Korea.
The U.S. was increasingly footing the bill for France but started sending aid to the new country of South Vietnam instead, easing France out the side-door and setting up their own client state after Diem defeated the French-backed crime syndicate that ran Saigon. However, the U.S. struggled to build a nation from scratch in South Vietnam. The region was like medieval Europe, with small fiefdoms and no real national structure or political framework other than what the West had drawn on a map. Each city had a local strongman who claimed control over that area. TIME magazine could compare President Diem to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson all it wanted, but the new South Vietnamese regime was never able to organize a government effective enough to fend of communist infiltrators in the South.
What about the countrywide elections agreed to at Geneva? Neither side trusted the other enough for verifiable elections. Voting requires political stability. The U.S. never agreed to the Geneva Accords anyway because, as mentioned, Eisenhower realized that Ho Chi Minh would win any election over either Bao Dai or Ngo Dinh Diem. By Ike’s estimation, Ho could garner at least 80% of the votes in South Vietnam. Thus, America sanctioned Diem’s cancellation of the election — backward considering the U.S. mission was supposedly to fight for democracy. That, alone, made the situation complex for anyone who cared to think about it, but the vast majority of Americans didn’t care one way or the other and were so unfamiliar with Vietnam or Laos they couldn’t have found either country on a globe if their life depended on it. The U.S. later encouraged Diem to undertake democratic reforms, but he failed to, despite effectively tamping down organized crime.
Likewise, the North Vietnamese didn’t have any genuine interest in democratic socialism. After the war, in fact, they taught schoolchildren that democracy was evil. Like Lenin in Russia and Castro in Cuba, they made such promises early on and supported freedom of the press when it suited them, but their government had been through years of war against Japan and France and wasn’t prone to idealism. The Geneva Accords called for the removal of enemy troops from each region, North and South, but political organizers could stay behind to campaign for the upcoming election that never happened. Nearly a million Catholics migrated from North to South but many Viet Minh stayed behind in the southern countryside, where 80% of Vietnamese lived, forming the National Liberation Front (NLF). By 1959-60, The NLF and Ho Chi Minh’s other “cadres” in the South morphed into the Việt Cộng (VC) and systematically started to assassinate village leaders that supported American-backed Ngo Dinh Diem. While initially a rag-tag bunch, they gradually gained confidence as they sensed the disorganization and lack of commitment from Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Not all Americans saw Vietnam as America’s fight. A primary co-architect of containment policy, George Kennan, opposed SEATO on the same grounds he opposed NATO: as an unnecessary over-extension of American might. He favored combating communism’s spread in key areas only while waiting for the Soviet economy to collapse from within. Not a fan of NSC-68, Kennan said of Vietnam that America should not “regard their fate as our exclusive responsibility.” But he was outnumbered among foreign policy wonks. Echoing widespread opinion among those who knew enough to care, the New York Times declared that Vietnam was “a struggle the U.S. cannot shirk.” But for most Americans, Vietnam was a sideshow at this point — no more important than any other area the U.S. was involved in and less important than Cuba, where a communist revolution was brewing closer to home. Americans had no appetite for another “limited engagement” like Korea, where the goal was to keep the enemy out of an area but not invade the enemy’s own area. Americans were used to dramatic conflicts like WWII whereby the enemy was vanquished in the end. However, American leaders, including Truman and Eisenhower, and future presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, didn’t want communism spreading any further out of China than it already had in North Korea.
As for the North Vietnamese, they were skeptical about American claims that they were merely aiding South Vietnam and not trying to colonize the region for themselves. The Vietnamese had been aggressive themselves historically, expanding into the central and southern portions of today’s country and, at times, into Cambodia and Laos, but their prevailing narrative was one of defense. They’d fought Chinese and Mongols on and off for nearly 2k years (northern Vietnam was the southernmost Chinese province of Jiaozhi), then Japanese, Chinese again briefly at the end of WWII, and French for nearly a decade just prior to the Geneva conference. They didn’t view America so much in the context of the Cold War as merely the next in a long list of invaders, even though it really wasn’t America’s intention to completely take over Vietnam, only to control it. Like America’s Civil War of the 1860s, Vietnam was an example where opponents weren’t fighting over a disagreement on an agreed-upon principle; they didn’t agree on what the war was about or understand each other’s motives.
“Uncle Ho’s” Viet Minh grafted Marxism onto Confucianism and this centuries-long struggle to fend off imperial foreigners and maintain independence. The U.S. was going up against a determined and highly militarized if small society. Women and children, for instance, had hauled artillery through the mountains and jungles to help defeat the French at Dien Ben Phu. Ho called out everyone with a rifle, but those without were asked to use swords, machetes, spades or sticks. As mentioned, they’d murdered thousands of their own dissidents even before Americans arrived. Ho predicted that the Viet Minh could only be defeated by a series of hydrogen bombs that the U.S. wouldn’t drop because, ultimately, Americans were good people. He was right, except that the reason the U.S. didn’t nuke North Vietnam had more to do with concerns about drawing the USSR and China into a broader conflict than it did concern for the Vietnamese.
When John Kennedy arrived in office in 1961, he resolved to influence civil wars in both Laos and Vietnam with aid and military training but to keep U.S. troops out of the fray, except in low-profile covert ops. He sent Green Berets, for instance, to the Central Highlands to train forces that would help disrupt communist supply lines from the North via Laos and Cambodia. He authorized the use of incendiary napalm and Agent Orange, a defoliant so named for the circle of that color around the 55-gallon drums it shipped in. Kennedy (JFK) wanted to influence events, in other words, without drawing attention to America’s role or putting too many boots on the ground, similar to Eisenhower. Kennedy was still smarting from the 1961 Berlin Crisis (Chapter 14) and thought Khrushchev had tried to bully him at the Vienna Summit that same year. On the recorder mounted under the Oval Office desk, Kennedy is heard saying “There are just so many concessions that one can make to the Communists in one year and survive politically.” By the time he left office, ~ 11k Americans were in Vietnam, with nearly 50 killed in combat in 1963. Most of America’s advisors were training the South Vietnamese for a conventional war like they’d seen in Korea instead of the guerrilla struggle the South was engaged in against communists. But if the U.S. wasn’t going to allow Geneva’s promised elections, then the communists weren’t going to concede the South peaceably. The result was a long civil war between the American-backed Republic of (South) Vietnam and combined forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF)/Viet Cong, Viet Minh, and regular People’s Army of (North) Vietnam, or NVA. The latter was backed by China and the USSR even though neither country fought directly in the war. This was one of the conflicts where the Cold War spun off a hot war. Recent scholarship based on communist archives opened after the Cold War shows that China was already aiding the North Vietnamese considerably against the French, including at Dien Ben Phu.
Kennedy’s administration struggled to stabilize South Vietnam and even to distinguish who was on America’s side and who wasn’t. The NLF and VC did everything they could to sabotage the South Vietnamese Republic, including terrorist attacks, kidnappings, assassinations, and even infiltrating President Diem’s government to give him counterproductive advice. The Viet Minh had imprisoned Diem earlier and buried his brother and nephew alive. He got revenge by killing hundreds of communists and imprisoning thousands without trial. Meanwhile, to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism, the U.S. opened chain restaurants and stores in the capital of Saigon and saturated the South with presents ranging from appliances to bigger-ticket items like motorboats. Corporations like Ford Motor, John Deere, Chase Manhattan, Coca-Cola, Kodak, and Procter & Gamble set up shop in Saigon.
Kennedy’s Peace Corps was also active in Vietnam and officials hoped that Americans could build the country’s infrastructure the same way New Dealers had the U.S. during the 1930s. The South’s Mekong Delta, for instance, could provide the same sort of hydro dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, powering electricity and creating jobs. These efforts at nation building proved thankless and frustrating, though, just as they would in Afghanistan years later. American troops would painstakingly extend the electrical grid, dig wells, and start schools in a hamlet, only to have Viet Cong come in and slit the throats of cooperative village leaders as soon as they left. The result? Townspeople resented the South Vietnamese and Americans for abandoning them and feared the VC enough to join up.
American efforts had mixed results, but they were effective enough to strengthen Ho’s argument to the Chinese that he needed their assistance to help communism spread to the South. Politically and militarily, one problem was figuring out whose side everyone was on, especially when many people were just caught in the crossfire and didn’t necessarily favor either side or disliked both. Many South Vietnamese who fought against Viet Cong also resented occupying American forces. Kennedy’s administration tried to segregate the VC and its sympathizers from others by relocating villagers in the Strategic Hamlet Program, similar to a venture the French had failed with earlier in North Vietnam. People didn’t want to move away from their ancestors’ burial grounds and the program only fostered resentment among the rural population toward Americans. They couldn’t just pack up and leave their farms and livelihoods and disliked the labor involved in building moats around the hamlets ringed with bamboo spears (upper left). Corrupt officials siphoned off funds, just as they soon would with Great Society programs in America. Strategic Hamlets were so unpopular that the Viet Cong recruited people living in them.
When Diem, a Catholic and Confucian, made Catholicism the official state religion of the mostly Buddhist Republic of (South) Vietnam, it only underscored his reputation as a Western lackey. One Buddhist monk immolated himself in protest, captured in a dramatic photo that appeared in newspapers all over the world. While demonstrating the power of photojournalism, the immolation created more bad public relations for America and it was not an isolated incident. There were other immolations and protests as Diem and his brother and sister-in-law began to imprison and torture Buddhists, leading to a vicious cycle. Soon some Catholics and army officers joined the Buddhists to protest the corrupt regime. Diem’s sister-in-law, Trần Lệ Xuân, aka Madame Nhu, applauded the immolations and cheerfully told reporters that she’d be happy to light the matches. Diem cut phone lines to American diplomats, declared martial law, and closed schools after children joined in mass protests, leading to the arrests of children of parents on his own staff. America’s attempt at building a democracy in South Vietnam was failing and Diem’s political and military support was dwindling.
Some people in the CIA advised Kennedy to replace Diem, though most of his advisors opposed it because they feared, rightfully as it turned out, that they wouldn’t be able to find anyone better to replace him. Kennedy authorized a coup among Diem’s generals. When the CIA came back later to tell him the generals had capped Diem after promising to let him escape, Kennedy nearly fainted, not realizing he’d accidentally ordered an assassination. Kennedy was killed himself weeks later, and we’ll never know how he would have handled the growing crisis. Unfortunately for the U.S., Diem’s assassination plunged South Vietnam into chaos. After archives opened up in 1992, historians realized that northern communists, while indeed viewing Diem as a capitalist lackey, viewed him as an effective lackey and were happy to see the CIA assassinate him.
In his last interview, with Walter Cronkite, conducted just prior to the coup, JFK signaled that he would not give up the fight but neither would he turn over responsibility for the fighting to Americans. He would’ve been forced to give ground one way or the other because the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) wasn’t up to the task alone, regardless of who was leading the country.
In January 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the United States shoulder the primary burden against the North Vietnamese. Then, when President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964, Goldwater wanted to use at least tactical nuclear bombs to end the war. LBJ feared that might mean WWIII with the Soviets, but also wanted to look tough during the election. South Vietnam by then was in near total chaos, with Diem’s assassination proven to have been a mistake. Despite Johnson tiring of “all this coup s**t,” eight governments came through the turnstile in the first year after Diem’s death, with de facto leadership eventually falling to disreputable charlatan Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. While LBJ claimed to like him personally because he liked to drink and carouse with women, Kỳ had no higher calling than lining his own pockets through corruption. LBJ was getting drawn deeper into a predicament even though he sensed it wouldn’t end well. “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country?… Now, of course, you start runnin’ from communists, they’ll just chase you right into your own kitchen.” It’s dispiriting, especially for someone who fought in the war or lost a loved one, to hear recordings of LBJ at the outset of escalation — not in hindsight but with foresight — say “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out.” If that was really the case — and there’s no consensus that it was — then the U.S. should have stayed out and employed its strength elsewhere in other ways rather than put troops in an impossible situation. LBJ stayed awake wondering “what in the hell am I ordering those kids out there for?”
What transpired next, in the summer of 1964, we may never know exactly. A North Vietnamese torpedo fired on an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin, closer to the North Vietnamese coast than they usually ventured as they were covering the South Vietnamese navy as it shelled coastal islands. The torpedo caused just one bullet hole in the Maddox and the captain changed his story several times, so it’s unclear whether LBJ was trying to manufacture a small incident for the election. A purported second attack on the Maddox two days later (August 4th) never took place, and a third attack on the USS Turner Joy proved to be a radar misread in bad weather and “overeager sonar” according to papers leaked seven years later. Whatever the case, Barry Goldwater would’ve crucified LBJ in the presidential campaign for looking soft if he hadn’t retaliated. LBJ’s staff thought they had to respond as if attacked even if they weren’t just in case word got out that they were. In response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the U.S. sent troops up to the northern edge of the demilitarized zone that divided North and South Vietnam along the 17° Parallel, which the North took as an act of aggression. LBJ asked Congress for funding and they responded with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, not an official war declaration, that passed the Senate 98-2. LBJ didn’t want World War III, or even an official war, but wanted enough money to cover everything, like “his grandmother’s nightshirt.” As we saw in Chapter 16, LBJ’s approval ratings shot up dramatically, from 42% to 72%.
Viet Cong then attacked a mostly Catholic village southeast of Saigon at Binh Gia and blew up American barracks at Qui Nhon, killing 23 and trapping another 21 under the rubble. The communists’ next major move was an attack on an American helicopter base at Camp Holloway, near Pleiku in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, in February 1965. Johnson responded by bombing North Vietnam. This occurred during a visit to Hanoi by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, helping to convince him that the USSR should cement its military alliance with North Vietnam. The Soviets had been gradually withdrawing support for Ho Chi Minh under Nikita Khrushchev but reconsidered their policy when they saw China gaining influence in Southeast Asia. The Hanoi attacks under Johnson’s Operation Flaming Dart confirmed the Soviets’ decision to reverse policy and back North Vietnam. In turn, over 320k Chinese troops eventually went into North Vietnam, freeing up NVA regulars to go south and reinforce Viet Cong. The Chinese were never as directly involved as they had been in the Korean War, though. The Soviets also supplied equipment and weapons to the NVA. In 1971, the leaked Pentagon Papers indicated that the administration drew up the resolution to escalate months before the attack on the USS Maddox, even as President Johnson sought reelection on the dishonest promise to “not seek a wider war.”
For President Johnson, the prevailing historical lesson he drew on was the Munich Agreement of 1938, when the Allies failed to confront Hitler and demand that he return the territory he’d already seized. Johnson wanted to stop communism’s advance in Southeast Asia while he still could. While U.S. containment policy had given ground already in China and Cuba, U.S. forces hadn’t yet lost any wars against communists. LBJ didn’t want to oversee the first major setback. When the Cold War ended, historians learned that, after 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s influence waned, with the escalation of conflict against America led by General Secretary Lê Duẩn. Hardened by years in prison, he seized control from Ho Chi Minh in a bloodless coup in 1963. Lê Duẩn (right) was more committed to winning the civil war in the South, whereas Ho’s highest priority was solidifying the North; and Johnson was increasingly leaning toward bombing the North to help hang onto the South. By early 1965, the Hawks in both America and North Vietnam won their arguments, leading to a broader war.
In March 1965, two battalions of U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang, guarding the air base used to bomb North Vietnam. By early Spring, the U.S. had 200k troops in South Vietnam, anxiously awaiting the communists’ next move. America’s involvement was escalating beyond the point of no return. Britain, Canada, and France opposed escalation, but eventually Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand fought with the U.S., if in small numbers. As this broader war was unfolding, LBJ was deep in the thick of negotiations surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act and Great Society programs, creating budget difficulties as his administration tried to convince Congress to fund both “guns and butter” without raising taxes. He felt trapped in Vietnam, with no good options. LBJ likened his situation to a “jackass caught in a Texas hailstorm; I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it stop.”
An Intractable Fight
The U.S. hoped to eliminate the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from South Vietnam but they didn’t want escalation into a major war with China or the USSR. Consequently, they never invaded the North directly other than an aerial bombing campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder, with F-105’s and “Big Belly” (extra payload) B-52’s running 12-hour roundtrip missions out of Thailand and Guam. F-105’s could refuel in mid-air over Laos. The Republic of (South) Vietnam’s Air Force also contributed. Prior to 1972, the U.S. didn’t disrupt Soviet or Chinese supplies going into the North’s Haiphong Harbor and rarely bombed North Vietnamese airfields. The U.S. bombed oil refineries but they moved oil storage underground and shipped in supply from China and USSR. The three-year Rolling Thunder campaign was the biggest sustained air battle of the Cold War but never accomplished its goal. Scores of bridges and railroads were destroyed, only to be rebuilt. The North rebuilt pontoon bridges seemingly overnight. The North Vietnamese were armed to the teeth with Soviet MiG jets and an assortment of cutting-edge surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to shoot down American bombers and Vought F-8 Crusader or Douglas A-4E Skyhawk fighters who flew low to avoid radar detection.
Unlucky American pilots ended up as POWs at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (Hòa Lò Prison), first built by the French to imprison Vietnamese insurgents. The most famous captive was John McCain, who became a U.S. Senator from Arizona and presidential candidate in 2008. McCain broke both arms and a leg ejecting from his Skyhawk and parachuted into a lake near Hanoi. North Vietnamese beat him mercilessly at first but treated his wounds when they found out his father was a top Naval admiral and decorated WWII veteran.
At first, the U.S. couldn’t figure out why their pilots were losing at a 9:1 ratio to the North Vietnamese. Then, in 1967, an Iraqi defector landed a MiG-21 in Israel and the U.S. shipped it to Area 51 in Groom Lake, Nevada for reverse engineering (Operation Have Doughnut). They discovered that the plane was no better than the Skyhawks; the problem was that American pilots weren’t sufficiently trained prior to seeing real combat. From then on, fliers underwent at least ten mock dogfights with MiGs before being shipped overseas and the numbers improved dramatically, saving not only their lives but also those of helicopter pilots and their wounded passengers who previously were being shot down by MiG fighters.
In the South, the U.S. fought a ground war of attrition, hoping to kill communists on such a scale that the North would capitulate and give up its hope of taking over the South. America was led by General William Westmoreland, a World War II and Korean War hero. Westmoreland was aiming for a “cross-over point” of death similar to what the Union achieved in the American Civil War, but what the U.S. never attained in Korea. Simply put, they hoped the VC and NVA would finally run out of troops if enough died. The emphasis was on body counts, or “kill counts.” One mistake was to rely too much on bombing to soften up areas prior to invading with ground troops. The bombings did some damage, but not enough to offset the disadvantage of telegraphing the American infantries’ movements. Another tactic promoted by NVA Commander Giáp was to “grab the enemy by the belt,” meaning to fight close enough to the Americans that they couldn’t rely on air support because the bombers would be killing their own men with friendly fire. In that way, air support actually made the fighting more vicious for American troops. They were also at a disadvantage because their standard-issue M16s guns had to be cleaned a lot and often jammed, whereas the enemy had access to better Soviet AK-47s.
American forces were also at a disadvantage in the South because they were fighting insurgents on their home turf, in this case mostly jungles and rice paddies. If human combatants weren’t enough, soldiers had to keep their eyes peeled for tigers and venomous snakes like kraits, pit vipers, and cobras on the ground and in the trees. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and various bacterial infections like jungle rot (tropical ulcers). The Viet Cong usually avoided engaging Americans in daylight battles, choosing instead to attack at night and then retreat back into everyday life, usually as farmers. The VC and NVA chose when and where to fight, sometimes tracking American cigarette butts or smelling the smoke. They left behind all manner of wires, mines, and booby-traps filled with snakes or spears for American troops to trip on, fall into, and worry about on their daytime patrols. Visitors to the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia can experience “immersive walkthroughs” of the Vietnamese terrain.
American troops carried heavy packs with food, water, and medicine kits, moving through hot countryside teaming with silent, camouflaged fighters who usually carried no more than an AK-47 and mosquito net. Before the DEA classified amphetamines Schedule II in 1970, American soldiers took “speed” to stay alert. NVA and VC, in turn, were often weakened by hunger as their rations included only small amounts of rice and sugar. American soldiers’ more generous C-ration sometimes made them an enticing target. The enemy used a guerrilla warfare manual written by Tran Hung Dao in the 13th century when the Vietnamese protected themselves from Mongol invaders led by Kublai Khan (the Vietnamese government still keeps the original book under lock and key). Vietnamese adapted other Chinese weapons and statecraft as they expanded in the Late Middle Ages, conquering the Cham (Central Highlands) and Khmer (Mekong Delta). Seven hundred years later, American soldiers were falling into pits and impaling themselves on over-cooked (hardened) bamboo spears in the same manner as Mongol invaders. Such contraptions, along with traditional landmines, represented a significant percentage of U.S. casualties and gave the Viet Cong a psychological edge.
The purpose of American patrols was usually either to clear the area of the enemy or sometimes take territory that leaders gave back once they realized there was no strategic purpose in holding it. The most famous example of troops working hard to take territory they relinquished was the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, later the title of 1987 movie. Hamburger Hill was controversial in the U.S. both among protesters who saw it as symbolizing futility and Pentagon mismanagement and supporters who wanted to fight harder. An earlier and influential campaign in the la Drang Valley exemplified the U.S. policy of trying to clear enemies from an area:
The VC controlled much of the southern countryside while the U.S. occupied most of the cities, including its capital of Saigon. In the North, heavy bombing on strategic targets and (later) napalm on civilians wasn’t enough to drail the Viet Minh. The North funneled supplies and men to the South not directly through the demilitarized zone along the 17° Parallel, but rather around the side through neutral Laos and Cambodia along a network called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as they had since the U.S. Navy occupied the South China Sea. Women and teenagers carried supply packs down the trail heavier than their own body weights in an unceasing effort to supply communist rebels in the South. Many died from fever, snake bites, accidents, shelling, and even starvation. Deserters were sent to re-education camps rather than tortured or executed.
The U.S. bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail relentlessly with conventional bombs from B-52’s, napalm, and Agent Orange to clear foliage. Some choke points were hit so often they took on nicknames like “fried flesh hill” and “gorge of lost souls.” The U.S. dropped more conventional tonnage on Laos alone than what they’d dropped on all of Germany and Japan during World War II. They developed night vision to track what was going on but were never able to turn off the supply spigot. Birth defects caused by Agent Orange continue to plague Southeast Asia today and caused a disproportionate amount of cancer in the American troops who handled the chemical, along with birth defects among their children. Napalm wreaked havoc on the Laotian population and Vietnamese civilians along the rivers that flowed from Laos into Vietnam. The photo on the left shows a boat in America’s “Brown Water Navy.” The Ho Chi Minh Trail fanned out into South Vietnam through the rivers of the Mekong Delta and a network of tunnels.
They built the largest such tunnel network, at Cù Chi, during WWII and the First Indochina War against France. Dug out of hard clay with simple farm tools, it had over 75 miles of passages, including hospitals, camouflaged ventilation systems, and elaborate twists and turns. One of the toughest jobs for American, Australian, and New Zealander troops was that of Tunnel Rat, the soldiers who climbed down into the narrow tunnels to ferret out Viet Cong. Often the tubes were so small there was no room to turn around before backing out. The key was to not use light and try to kill one’s opponent silently so as to not alert nearby comrades. One American described not realizing he was next to an enemy until he smelled his breath. He snapped his trachea in a wrestling match and backed out, later saying “there were two casualties that day; the other was the civilized version of me.”
Despite these obstacles, well-trained Americans killed large numbers of VC, allowing the Pentagon to cite high 10:1 kill ratios that gave the public the impression the U.S. was winning. And, while casualties were high, American deaths were less than previous wars because of the lack of large-scale traditional battles and improvements in surgery and in evacuating injured soldiers in helicopters. Still, the lack of a frontline was demoralizing to American soldiers, who were fighting as hard as those in any war. They were surrounded 360°, not knowing whom to trust while, in theory, trying to win over locals at the same time.
American troops in Vietnam were up against a more intractable challenge in many ways than those of WWII. For nearly a decade, they continued their 30-day search-and-patrols with heavy packs in dense jungles and fields filled with snakes, bugs, booby traps, and an enemy impossible to distinguish from civilians. Conditions were similar to some of the fighting in the Pacific part of WWII, but the patrols were longer and the civilians often less friendly. WWII soldiers, on the other hand, had to keep fighting until the war was over, not just until the end of a one-year tour. Between these arduous 30-day patrols in Vietnam, soldiers could shower and go to the beach to grill and drink beer for a few days before going back out. Occasionally, they got time off for R&R in Saigon or Manila to relax or enjoy the world’s oldest profession. As the war progressed, U.S. troops included more and more draftees who were less well trained, often less gung-ho, and often just trying to survive their tour in one piece. Many soldiers succumbed to insanity, alcoholism, or drug abuse, with ~ 20% using heroin regularly (the Pentagon estimated the number of addicts at 40k).
In late 1967 and early ’68, fighting intensified along the demilitarized zone, with months-long sieges at Dak To and the American airbase at Khe Sanh, that Westmoreland and LBJ feared would be the “American Dien Ben Phu” — site of the ignominious French defeat in 1954. One general, Fred Weyand, suspected that Khe Sanh was bait and convinced Westmoreland to allow him to redeploy troops from the Cambodian border to Saigon. The struggle to defend Khe Sanh was perhaps the most intense battle of the war, yet it was just a distraction to draw off American troops northward, to prepare for a major communist assault in the South that communist planners called the “general offensive.” Lê Duẩn preferred, when possible, to pin down superior American troops to fight the South Vietnamese (ARVN) instead. Diversionary tactics like Khe Sahn were right out of the most famous playbook in military history, Sun Tzu’s Art of War (~500 BC). In this case, the U.S. took the bait as President Johnson rallied American forces to defend Khe Sanh at all costs and General Westmoreland diverted 30k troops north. They really didn’t have a choice, with the Marines there subjected to round-the-clock mortar fire. As the North Vietnamese moved in toward the base, the U.S. launched B-52 raids in the hills surrounding the base’s perimeter, raining down destruction to the tune of five tons per NVA soldier.
Up until that point, the U.S. had held the Southern cities and fighting had always ceased around the Chinese New Year’s holiday known as Tết. In 1968, likewise, the communists agreed to a ceasefire and many ARVN (South Vietnamese) forces went home. But this time, the VC surprised the Americans and South Vietnamese by simultaneously attacking 55 cities (120 towns overall) in the South with 85k troops (right). Tapping the Ho Chi Minh Trail and tunnel network, they’d snuck weapons into the cities in everyday items like vegetable carts, parade floats, and funeral caskets. On January 31st, they sprung the attacks during the holiday celebrations amidst fireworks, hoping to “crack the sky and shake the Earth.” Lê Duẩn borrowed this New Year’s distraction idea from the history books, as the Vietnamese had won control from the Chinese during Tet, 1789.
In Saigon, the presidential palace, radio stations, police stations, and General Westmoreland’s own headquarters came under attack. Outside of Saigon, massive explosions rocked the largest American facility in the country, Long Binh Post.
The Tet Offensive caught most of the military and all of the public back home off guard, as communist troops nearly overtook the U.S. Embassy in Saigon live on the American nightly news. But the VC lost support among civilians by being too heavy-handed in their door-to-door executions of “blood enemies,” which included anyone they’d wrongly arrested that could identify them. The Americans’ problems with winning “hearts and minds” didn’t translate into success for the Viet Cong. The North Vietnamese wrongly assumed that their big offensive would crater the ARVN and that civilians in the South would rally to their cause. General Weyand’s correct hunch paid off, too, leaving more American troops around Saigon than there otherwise would’ve been. Americans circumvented communists’ attempts to seize the national radio station and played Beatles music and Viennese waltzes as the battle played out instead of Ho Chi Minh’s speech calling upon the people to rise up. Rather than cratering, the ARVN rallied against the Viet Cong and the public didn’t rally behind the communists.
One contested city was the historic capital of Huế (pronounced way), just southeast of Khe Sanh near the north-south border. At first, the South Vietnamese wouldn’t allow the U.S. to bomb the sacred city. On their own with no air cover, Marines there engaged in some of their most intense urban fighting since WWII, trying to dislodge NVA and VC from a fortified citadel in the center of town. In Huế, communists massacred ~ 3k innocent government employees and Catholic nuns, some still alive when buried in a mass grave. Aside from being a horrible atrocity, the Massacre at Huế counterproductively convinced many South Vietnamese that similar retributions would follow if the communist won the war. Across South Vietnam, the Americans and their allies dug in, held and routed the VC, decimating their numbers. Huế was the most difficult Tet fight, lasting for a month before Marines retook the city.
The surprise offensive was a huge gamble and the U.S. didn’t fully realize how counterproductive Tet had been for the communists until Soviet archives opened in 1992, twenty years after the war. The American public and media instead interpreted the Tet Offensive as a setback. Some understood that the troops had rallied and everyone heard the Pentagon’s spin that Tet was the enemy’s Battle of the Bulge, referring to Hitler’s last-ditch Belgian offensive in 1944. But Westmoreland, commander of U.S. operations, had also told the public that the U.S. was just months away from winning the war, so they were surprised to see troops back on their heels, even if temporarily. Around this time, Creighton Abrams replaced General Westmoreland as Commander of American Forces, and he too argued that Tet had been a disaster for the communists. But the America public was also increasingly put off by the brutality they were seeing on the nightly news, including an allied South Vietnamese general shooting a Viet Cong POW (below, right). In the aftermath of Tet and two smaller communist offensives, the CIA tried to clear the South of Viet Cong spies, runners, saboteurs and sympathizers through Operation Phoenix. However, with Americans in an advisory role, South Vietnamese interrogators under Operation Phoenix were using it as a cover to settle old scores and killed thousands of innocent people. Unsurprisingly, polls showed that, if South Vietnam were ever to hold genuine elections, the overwhelming victor would be any third party other than the communists or the American-backed regime of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1965-75).
The Tet Offensive broadened what came to be known as the credibility gap: the difference between how LBJ and the Pentagon wanted the war spun and how embedded journalists were increasingly coming to report it. Tet should’ve narrowed the credibility gap since this time there was truth to the Pentagon’s spin, but the public was understandably confused as to how the communists could’ve launched such an attack — even one that failed — just after the authorities were telling the public that victory was imminent. The growing tension between the Pentagon and media was important because Vietnam was the first war with footage and body counts featured nightly on the evening news. Americans followed WWII with newspapers, radio, and newsreels before movies. Media analyst Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America.” The nightly news brought the war home and since people were increasingly buying color TV’s, blood showed up more than in older newsreels.Before cable TV and the Internet fragmented coverage, Americans all watched a small handful of anchormen on the three main networks, mostly getting their information from this same three-headed source along with newspapers and magazines. The most famous and trusted of these newscasters was Walter Cronkite, a University of Texas dropout and veteran WWII correspondent who anchored CBS News. After Tet and a personal visit to Huế, Cronkite gave a brief op-ed piece toward the end of his newscast — as rare then as straight news is today on cable — in which he told Americans that if Tet was, indeed, a last gasp by the enemy, then the U.S. should follow through and finish the job. But he also said it was becoming “clear to this reporter” that the U.S. was “mired in a stalemate.” If that was the case, he concluded, the U.S. should negotiate a peace similar to the Korean settlement, with the country divided along a border:
LBJ had three television consoles in the Oval Office so that he could watch CBS, NBC, and ABC news simultaneously (even presidents didn’t have DVR’s then). After Cronkite’s piece on Tet, LBJ purportedly uttered, “That’s it…if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” That wasn’t quite the case, but it’s true that many Americans trusted Cronkite more than they trusted Johnson. Meanwhile, the Army was running low on volunteers and relying increasingly on draftees. Commander Creighton Abrams said, “I need to get this army home to save it.”
Conservative revisionist historian James Robbins disagrees with a common line of interpretation, pointing out that some polls showed increased resolve among the public after Tet despite Cronkite’s op-ed, and that Johnson didn’t lose America, America lost Johnson, who shouldn’t have lost his own faith in the war. For Robbins, Tet didn’t force America to the negotiating table; Johnson was already at the table and the Tet defeat forced the communist to the table, which is why talks began shortly thereafter. In the words of historian Pierre Asselin, with Tet, the communists “snatched a propaganda victory from the jaws of military defeat.” Still, despite public perceptions or media coverage, the U.S. military had ample time (five more years), money, troops, and weapons to prove skeptics wrong, and even Cronkite left the door open to victory in his famous op-ed. The real problem, Tet or otherwise, was that this was more than just a military struggle.
Hearts & Minds
Regardless of how many troops the communists lost in the Tet Offensive, this was a political war whereby the ultimate goal was to convince the Vietnamese population that the American way of life was superior to communism. But it was proving increasingly difficult to win over their hearts and minds, to use John Adams’ phrase from the American Revolution that re-entered the vernacular in the late 1960s (Westmoreland was fond of the phrase). Referring to the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 21st century, General Tommy Franks said, “The military is a hammer, but not everything is a nail.” The U.S. encountered similar problems trying to sort out insurgents and civilians in Vietnam. The longer troops occupied the country, the more they alienated the population, and vice-versa because the VC would use innocent–looking women and children to kill Americans with grenades or point them in the wrong direction. The VC could intimidate locals into cooperating with them or threaten to kill them if they revealed to Americans where they’d stashed ammo nests. Racism compounded an already difficult situation, as many U.S. soldiers dehumanized all Vietnamese “gooks” or “slants.” Suffice it to say, basic training did nothing to disavow them of that notion.
After not knowing enough about Vietnam early on, the CIA compensated by outsourcing a huge contract to the pseudo-governmental Rand Corporation think-tank to study captured Viet Cong. As U.S. analysts scoured over 60k pages of testimony in the VC Motivation & Morale Project, the effectiveness of U.S. and South Vietnamese bombing campaigns jumped out at them. What they missed, though, was additional testimony indicating that the Viet Cong were not going to give up and that the incessant bombing of civilians was emboldening them and alienating neutrals, sending them over to the VC. As was the case with U.S. intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, analysts cherry-picked what they wanted to see and skipped over the rest, in this case underestimating the VC’s resolve. The CIA might’ve been better off with 60 pages of interviews instead of 60,000.
Eventually, Johnson and his generals resorted to reviving a simpler version of Kennedy’s Strategic Hamlet idea, except this time they just cleared everyone out of large areas in “liberation” campaigns. That way, if no one lived in the so-called Free-Fire Zones, they could be sure the area was clear of communists. Entire villages were burned down as people were either evacuated or killed if they resisted. One night in 1965 on CBS News, as Marines soaked huts in fuel and torched them with BIC® lighters, burning the village of Cam Ne, reporter Morley Safer turned to the camera and commented that it was getting increasingly difficult to convince Vietnamese peasants that Americans were on their side. Safer got a lot of flack and critics called CBS the “Communist Broadcasting Service” for reporting what he saw. Some Marines even pretended their lighters didn’t work and refused to poison or burn civilians’ rice in Free-Fire zones because they realized it was futile and they weren’t the real enemy. They joined up to fight communists, not herd civilians caught in the crossfire. Liberation campaigns in 1966 alone left over three million Vietnamese homeless, over 20% of the entire population. The upshot was that liberation didn’t play well in either the American media or on the ground in Vietnam. While Americans were divided on the ethics of attacking civilians and whether or not the press should report or censure such incidents, abuse was counterproductive from a practical standpoint given the American goals of pacification and winning over civilians.
The worst recorded atrocity was at Song Mỹ village — My Lai and My Khe or “Pinkville” to the U.S. since it was a Viet Cong stronghold. In March 1968, some mentally drained U.S. troops of the Americal Division lost control there, raping, dismembering, and massacring between 350 and 500 civilians for four hours before being dispersed by fellow Americans who happened to pass over in helicopters. Some took a lunch break during the massacre and some threw victims down wells. Future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell was in that second wave and Hugh Thompson oversaw the breakup. Psychologist Randall Collins called scenarios like My Lai forward panic, whereby groups that have endured prolonged periods of fearful vulnerability take out their aggressions savagely when they isolate a more vulnerable group. The vengeful Americal division hadn’t slept in a couple of days and lost several men to snipers and landmines on their way to what they’d been told would be a firefight against Viet Cong soldiers. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh documented the scene for a public shocked to see that their own side was capable of that type of butchery (a less severe case happened in the Korean War, at No Gun Ri, but was never fully substantiated or documented). Time, Newsweek, and Life ran stories on My Lai with graphic photos. President Nixon, in office by the time it came to light a year later, complained of the “dirty, rotten Jews from New York” who leaked the story.
Several soldiers were court-martialed after My Lai. Second Lieutenant William Calley received a life sentence and hard labor for murdering 22 civilians and some members of the jury were Vietnam veterans, but the severity of his sentence outraged many Americans, including ~ 80% of those polled who disagreed with the verdict. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter declared “American Fighting Man’s Day” and asked that citizens drive for a week with their lights on to protest the sentence, which was reduced to house arrest. Eventually, President Nixon pardoned him altogether after several state legislatures called for more leniency and telegrams to the White House ran 100:1 in Calley’s favor. Some veterans claimed that My Lai was the tip of the iceberg, while others claimed that only a few units went off the rail. Military brass learned from My Lai how to keep other incidents under wraps.
The Tiger Force unit of the 101st Airborne Division, who wore their victims’ ears and had a reputation for brutality toward civilians (including rapes, druggings, beheadings, and scalpings), claimed their mission was to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas.” Their reputation was controversial because they were the famed “Screaming Eagles” unit from the Normandy Invasion of World War II, but rumors were spreading stateside of their atrocities. Westmoreland and Army brass tended to look the other way because they were an effective fighting force. Medic Jamie Henry, whose life was threatened by fellow soldiers for speaking out, described prisoners thrown off cliffs and civilians being used for target practice and run over with jeeps. As in the Philippines at the turn of the century, some officers ordered their men to “kill everything that moves” and Henry witnessed his own unit do just that — once mowing down 20 civilians without blinking an eye.
What made the military’s obsession with body counts even worse was that lower-ranking officers sometimes included civilians in order to meet their quotas and their superiors were happy to send along inflated stats. Infantry soldiers were young (many in their late teens), scared, and worn down, and realized there often weren’t ramifications regardless of what they did. The Army took over its own war crimes investigation and never prosecuted anyone beyond My Lai, even though their records document hundreds of crimes and corroborated Henry’s claims.
There were also numerous episodes in Vietnam where American troops helped civilians. Two-and-a-half million Americans served and many treated the Vietnamese people with respect. But, for obvious reasons, even in the most polite circumstances the liberation campaigns didn’t win over the hearts and minds of many neutral converts.
By 1968, LBJ was looking to end the Vietnam War in similar terms as the Korean conflict, with the country divided in this case along the 17° north-south parallel instead of the 38°. Johnson had explored a similar truce the year before with the help of Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Such an arrangement, had it lasted, would’ve been a virtual victory for the U.S. given its initial war aims of just keeping communism out of South Vietnam. Yet, as Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, the last thing Nixon wanted was a successful resolution to the crisis before the election — what he called a cheap “peace gimmick.” Kissinger hitched his wagon to Nixon’s star with the promise of becoming his National Security Advisor.
According to FBI files, Nixon and Kissinger disrupted the three-way peace talks between the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam, telling the South and its leader, President Thiệu, through intermediary Madame Anna Chennault (widow of the founder of the WWII Flying Tigers) that, if they hung on until Nixon was president, they’d get a better deal by Nixon driving a harder bargain with North Vietnam. Thiệu was uneasy about the truce in the first place because he feared the communists could overrun his government in the South without American help and may have decided on his own, without prompting, that he preferred dealing with the Republicans. But Johnson knew that he was prompted because he ordered the FBI to wiretap the Nixon campaign, the NSA tapped the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, and the CIA tapped the South Vietnamese in Saigon. That’s how LBJ “knew what was happening from both ends” as he put it. Interfering with foreign relations as a private citizen is a felony under the Logan Act but Nixon and Kissinger got away with it. In 2016, historians discovered a phone call note at the Nixon Presidential Library from Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman confirming that Nixon hoped to “monkey wrench” the peace talks before the election (NYT article).
Here’s a recording from the LBJ Library on which Johnson explains what happened to Republican Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen. Johnson challenged Nixon about it directly in this phone conversation, with Nixon denying the charges Dirksen passed on to him. However, in a New York meeting, the FBI recorded Chennault telling South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem to “hold on, we’re gonna win.” In Johnson’s conversation with Nixon, he only mentions press reports rather than the wiretappings. Ultimately, Johnson and the new Democrat candidate Hubert Humphrey decided that it would be better for the country to not go public with the allegations even though he thought they were treasonous. Mostly, they didn’t want to reveal that LBJ had the FBI wiretap Nixon’s people or the NSA tap the Vietnamese embassy because those actions were illegal, too.
As for the peace talks in Paris, Nixon’s sabotage helped doom them but they might have failed anyway. When the parties finally arrived, they argued for weeks over how to arrange the tables as thousands died back home on both sides. The communists wanted a square arrangement, with the Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and (Southern) Viet Cong each sitting on one side, but the Americans wanted the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combined into one side. Ten weeks later, the Soviets came up with giant circular table, but the talks went nowhere.
Nixon won the presidency and took over in January 1969. But his campaign promise of a “secret plan” to end the war didn’t actually differ much from Johnson’s. There were threats to escalate against the North that the communists ignored, but the U.S. mainly continued to bomb the North and fight a ground war in the South. North Vietnamese leadership changed around this time, too, as Ho Chi Minh died and was replaced by Ton Duc Thang (Lê Duẩn still led the war effort). One difference under Nixon was that they gradually handed more responsibilities over to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), just as Kennedy and Johnson had hoped for. American troops steadily dropped from 543k to 49k over the next four years and American ground-combat forces were out by 1973. Nixon called this transfer of fighting responsibilities Vietnamization, while the Viet Cong dismissed the ARVN as a “puppet army.” America had tried and failed with many of the same tactics as the French and suffered the same challenges for the same length of time before trying to shift the burden back onto Vietnamese allies — what the French called jaunissement (translation: “yellowization”).
As American troops started to withdraw, the make-up of troops gradually shifted from the more committed volunteers of the mid-1960s to draftees. When soldiers heard that Nixon had already given up hope for a military victory, some were reluctant to lay down their lives with undue recklessness just to “maintain credibility” among allies and enemies in pursuit of an “honorable peace.” For some, the idea was just to survive one’s tour of duty, but many didn’t: two-thirds of American soldiers who died in Vietnam were draftees. Gradually, more soldiers and enlisted officers began to kill their superior officers by fragging them, so named for fragmentation grenades. Other times, they would slip their CO’s notes to be less aggressive or put a smoking grenade in their tent to send them a message. While some fragging happens in all wars, Vietnam was notorious for nearly a thousand incidents from 1969-72. Insubordination was worse in the Army than in the Navy, Marines or Air Force.
The biggest change after 1969 was that Nixon and his advisor Kissinger tried to entice the Chinese and Soviets into stopping their support of North Vietnam by improving relations through their Linkage and détente strategies, which we’ll examine in more detail in the next chapter. The North Vietnamese invaded the DMZ and South Vietnam anyway in the 1972 Easter Offensive, while the ARVN barely hung on and the U.S. bombed the NVA from B-52’s in Operation Linebacker I. Nixon also increased the bombing in North Vietnam and mined Haiphong Harbor to prevent shipments from China and the USSR but the communists didn’t relent. Kissinger was on the verge of a peace agreement around the time of the November 1972 presidential election, that Nixon won decisively, but the Viet Cong was upset that North Vietnam wasn’t insisting on ousting Thieu in the South and negotiating the release of its 30k prisoners.
The Soviets and Chinese pressured North Vietnam to negotiate but didn’t insist that they retreat from the South. The key for the Nixon and Kissinger was to time their withdrawal just after the ’72 election but not before, and to get the ultimate defeat over with fairly quickly toward the beginning of their second term. On the reel-to-reel, Kissinger says “I’m being very cold-blooded about it” and Nixon replies “I know exactly what we’re up to.” They started round-the-clock B-52 bombing missions in late 1972, aka the “Christmas Bombings,” as part of Operation Linebacker II. The idea was to increase America’s leverage and bring the North Vietnamese to the peace table. To that end, they were effective. Nixon negotiated a settlement that divided the country in half in 1973 along the 17° Parallel. The agreement saved some face – “peace with honor” as Nixon called it — but everyone knew the South Vietnamese couldn’t fend off the communists indefinitely, just as South Vietnam’s President Thiệu feared. Nixon said of South Vietnam to Kissinger, “we cannot keep this child sucking on the tit when the child is four years old.” At least most, but not all, of America’s POWs came home.
The 1973 truce was the same agreement Nixon interfered with back in 1968, so the last four years of the war ended up being a waste, if indeed peace was otherwise possible in ’68. Of course, Nixon and Kissinger genuinely thought their new strategies would succeed and, if they had, maybe we could overlook their treason. It would’ve arguably been worth it if the U.S. had won the war later or actually gotten a better deal. But they didn’t and nearly 40% of the Americans killed in the Vietnam War died after 1968. Of course, you could go back further and listen to recordings from 1964 between LBJ, Secretary of State McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy in which they foresee that the war was unwinnable but that the U.S. had to put up a fight to save face; 99% of Americans who died in Vietnam died after that conversation.
Some historians theorize that protestors just made Nixon more stubborn, meaning their overall impact might have been to lengthen the war. Not only did they strengthen Nixon’s resolve to not give up, but also his dislike of them was one of the keys to his popularity. In May 1970, students all over the country walked out on classes and protested as the U.S. expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos to disrupt Viet Cong supply lines. At Kent State University, National Guardsmen fired off 67 rounds on protesters, killing four students and wounding nine. Earlier that week, protesters had burned the ROTC building and prevented firemen from putting out the blaze. Some of the victims weren’t even protesters and just happened to be walking to class behind them, including even one ROTC student. When students sat in the middle of campus to protest the shootings, the head Guardsman said they’d be shot, too, if they didn’t disperse. Nixon callously called the shootings “predictable.” Around 75-100k students descended on the White House and Pentagon, angry at the Cambodian War and that, prior to the shootings, Nixon had called protesters “bums.” Kent St. emboldened and widened the protest movement while invigorating Nixon’s staunchest pro-war supporters. Polls showed ~ 58% of Americans supported the shootings and the parents of the ROTC student, William Schroeder, received hate mail telling them he’d deserved what he got for being a communist.
In New York City, students fought with blue-collar war supporters in the Hard Hat Riot. Similar fights broke out elsewhere, including in front of the draft office in Oakland, California. Though the CIA is formally tasked with overseas operations not domestic, they joined the FBI in infiltrating the anti-war movement in hopes of making it more violent which, in turn, would turn mainstream Americans against it (Operation COINTELPRO).
From the protesters’ perspective, they were trying to protect the draftees from being killed. They were angry about a war they saw as an unjustifiable waste of time, money, and lives, and were exercising their constitutional right to free speech. From the war supporters’ perspective, the student protesters were getting draft exemptions by going to college while the working classes were doing the lion’s share of the fighting and the protesters were turning against a country that had provided well for them. By 1967, college no longer exempted draftees with lower-ranked students eligible and the anti-war protests picked up dramatically, motivated by young men’s’ desire to avoid serving. Besides college, other exemptions that favored upper classes included technical jobs in the military-industrial complex and influential parents pulling strings to make sure their son’s number didn’t come up. The saying was, “If you’ve got the dough, you don’t have to go.” This had racial implications, with the advantages of privilege resulting in ~ 33% of white boys drafted compared to 66% African Americans of age. Combat troops in Vietnam were disproportionally minorities and poor Whites. Latinos made up 11% of the population but 14% of casualties. The largest ethnic representation, proportionally, was American Indians. However, some subsequent studies have argued that the stereotypical student-worker divide over the war was mythological. Also, Veterans Against the War came to Washington to protest in the early 1970s, throwing their medals on the Capitol steps (a similar if smaller group formed in opposition to the Iraq War). Nixon expertly turned supporters and protesters against each other, wisely dodging the veterans while focusing public attention on militants like the Weathermen or May Day Tribe that battled police in Washington, D.C. in 1971. We likely won’t see protests or counter-protests of that intensity again as long as the Pentagon keeps its wish of not fighting with draftees.
Vietnam was just twenty years after WWII and many Americans had a hard time accepting that the U.S. wasn’t winning big against a small enemy, or that issues weren’t as clearly defined as good vs. evil as they had been during WWII. When Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his opposition to the war, it was because he loved America and didn’t want to see it on the wrong side of the moral ledger (full speech). The war destroyed the “establishment” consensus among Republicans and Democrats about how to conduct the Cold War. Many Democrats moved toward a quasi-isolationist policy while right-wing conservatives were skeptical of Nixon’s new détente policy of talking to the Soviets and Chinese.
Some returning soldiers were treated to customary homecomings, but war opponents and WWII vets harassed others. The mistreatment of veterans is the most shameful part of the Left’s opposition to the war. Vietnam opened up a rift in the American public that’s often misunderstood as generational. As we saw in Chapter 16, polls surprisingly showed that Americans under 30, overall, supported the war more than those over 30. But rifts were there nonetheless, along with tough questions. Should patriotism be blind? Should citizens support any war their country is in, even if they disagree with it? Or, is it their fundamental right, even obligation, to resist? Should the media cover wars honestly, even if their reports don’t reflect positively on their own country? Should the government draft soldiers when it runs out of volunteers? These questions don’t have easy answers, but the fact that you can debate and worry about them in the first place means you’re enjoying the privilege of living in an open society. One notion we can all hopefully agree on is that the public should never take out its frustration on military personnel. Another idea we should leave in the rearview mirror is equating “supporting troops” with belief that all wars everywhere are always a good idea.
Finally, the war raised the question of whether nuclear powers should even mess around fighting limited wars. Along with Korea, Vietnam may have been one of the first times in history a combatant didn’t use the full arsenal at its disposal to win a conflict. That’s one of the distinguishing features of the Atomic Age. While most sane people wouldn’t see Vietnam as an important enough justification to risk Armageddon, Nixon, who often drank in the evenings, flirted with the idea of wiping out North Vietnam, just as he’d advocated when VP in the 1950s. According to journalist Nicholas Kristof, when Nixon started getting drunk on a consistent basis during the Watergate Crisis in 1973 (next chapter), Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed the military to not launch a nuclear strike without running it through him first. The tape recorder Nixon kept running under his desk at the Oval Office captured this chilling exchange between Nixon and Kissinger:
Nixon: “I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?”
Kissinger: “That, I think, would just be too much.”
Nixon: “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ sakes.”
It never came to that, but neither was the limited engagement tactic enough for the U.S. to maintain control over South Vietnam. Plainly speaking, the Vietnam War was America’s first loss. Despite twenty years of effort, the U.S. never fostered a stable, proxy South Vietnamese government to counter the communists’ appeal or tenacity. In negotiations toward the end of the war, American Colonel Harry Summers snapped at a North Vietnamese diplomat, saying, “the truth is you never beat us on the battlefield.” The diplomat replied, “Well that’s true, but it’s also irrelevant.” As that truth finally sunk in, the U.S wound down the war. They retreated gradually under Nixon because an outright capitulation presumably would’ve undermined American credibility in the eyes of China, the USSR, and the rest of the world. In essence, the U.S. withdrew in exchange for POW’s and Congress abandoned even its financial support for the South Vietnamese Army. Though the ARVN was the fifth-biggest army in the world as of 1973, their fuel and ammunition quickly ran low and their underpaid forces started deserting. The North Vietnamese abandoned the Ho Chi Minh Trail and brazenly started building a paved highway through South Vietnam toward Saigon. The American public never knew or cared much about South Vietnam to begin with and certainly didn’t now with American forces gone and the media riveted on the Watergate hearings that forced Nixon’s resignation (next chapter).
Defeat came quicker in the South than either side predicted. South Vietnam’s army lacked oil because of the OPEC Embargo, making it even more difficult to fend off the communists who took control in 1975. They unified the country and renamed South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon Ho Chi Minh City after their former leader. American embassy officials shredded as many documents as possible but when helicopters arrived to rescue them the downdraft blew the shards all over the lawn. Communists collected them and taped them back together, providing a list of South Vietnamese who’d cooperated with Americans that they hunted down and killed. The helicopters took Americans to aircraft carriers but there was no room on the deck for the copters so they pushed them into the ocean.
Most ARVN weren’t killed but rather sent to re-education camps — three days for enlisted men and one month for officers. Communists bulldozed ARVN cemeteries so families couldn’t mourn fallen South Vietnamese soldiers. In the end, around 58k American servicemen lost their lives or vanished into POW camps, never to be heard from again. Over the course of ongoing conflicts from 1940 to 1985, between 2-4 million Vietnamese civilians died in the crossfire.
Into the 1980s, American immigrant South Vietnamese Army veterans constituted a small-scale domestic terrorism cell. Some militant ARVN wanted to eradicate communists everywhere and murdered several journalists in Texas, California, and Virginia who wrote in support of the new Vietnam or were critical of the ARVN. American intelligence, including the FBI and CIA, looked the other way while the U.S. funded ARVN covert guerilla operations in Vietnam out of Thailand.
Was the U.S. wrong about the domino effect, or did the long U.S. stance in Vietnam help blunt communism’s progress in Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia? If the latter is true, their effort wasn’t in vain. But if the domino effect was as dangerous as French and U.S. policymakers assumed in the 1950s, then the U.S. loss in Vietnam would’ve led to widespread communism throughout SE Asia. Instead, it spread only to directly contiguous countries like Cambodia and Laos. In that way, the aftermath of America’s defeat in Vietnam undermined the primary justification for its intervention. Worldwide, though, momentum from the victory of Vietnamese communists may have contributed to communist takeovers in Angola and Nicaragua.
At least the Green Beret-trained Bolivian army captured and killed the charismatic Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 as he tried to sow Vietnam-like chaos in South America — though CIA operative Félix Rodríguez hoped to take him alive for interrogation. Che was continuing with the same genocidal talk we saw during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chapter 14).
The U.S. is the great enemy of mankind! Against these hyenas there is no option but extermination. We will bring the war to imperialist enemies’ very home, to his places of work and recreation. The imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves. Thus we’ll destroy him!…A people without hate cannot triumph over a brutal enemy. Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind, the United States of America.
The U.S. obviously had a lot on its plate during this phase of the Cold War besides Southeast Asia, with wars heating up in Israel and Latin America. Despite massive nuclear firepower, the U.S. needed to be more careful about when and where it employed finite resources.
1. Never engage in any war the public doesn’t back.
2. Use overwhelming air power up front, destroying the enemy’s air force, then proceed on the ground.
3. Always have both a clear plan of attack and a viable exit strategy.
Powell later served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush 41 and Secretary of State under Bush 43, before resigning after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was influential in shaping strategy during the First Gulf War in 1990-91.
War raged on across Southeast Asia after 1975. U.S. carpet bombings along the Ho Chi Minh Trail had helped destabilize Cambodia, contributing to that country’s takeover by one of the most brutal communist regimes in history, the Khmer Rouge. Congress cut off aid to the Cambodian forces fighting against the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. Historians dispute America’s indirect impact on the regime’s rise but, under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge murdered between 1-2 million civilians, mainly through starvation, denial of medicine, slit throats, or just bashing resistors heads against concrete. In an extreme case of Marxist social engineering, they converted survivors into uniformed laborers, seized all private property, outlawed “individualism,” and banned marriage “by love.”
In a war of communist vs. communist, the victorious Soviet-backed Vietnamese invaded Chinese-backed Cambodia in 1978, partly to protect its civilians who were being massacred along their shared border by the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam lost 50k soldiers in the Cambodian War as they were now caught between China and the USSR jostling for control of Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s Cambodian invasion and the threat of them invading Thailand, as well, worsened their relations with China, who invaded northern Vietnam briefly in 1979. That led Vietnam to rely increasingly on the USSR for aid until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Even prior, the Soviets mostly abandoned the Vietnamese, leaving them diplomatically isolated and unable to cash in on their victory over the Americans.
As was the case in Cuba in 1959, the Vietnamese betrayed whatever hope there’d been for democratic socialism, banning elections and censoring the free foreign press they’d been so appreciative of back when it was criticizing American involvement in the war. Over 20% of their country is still uninhabitable because of unexploded American ordnance and Agent Orange destroyed big parts of an otherwise beautiful landscape.
The U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995 and few Vietnamese have any living memory of the “American War” as they call it, to distinguish it from others of the 20th century. Vietnam even joined the WTO (World Trade Organization), hoping to raise their living standards by engaging in the global economy. The country now serves as an important, cheap base for outsourced American manufacturing. Most Vietnamese see the U.S. as a potential ally as they defend their small islands and oil reserves in the South China Sea from Chinese claims. Ironically, Vietnam’s best bet at maintaining autonomy and their own brand of socialism might be to cozy up with the capitalist U.S. to help defend them from communist China. Vietnam remains important because of its resources and proximity to the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is today the 13th-most populated country in the world. The U.S. is not formally committed to defending Vietnam against China the way it is Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; that might be overly generous given the war of the 1960’s and 70’s.
But the broader Indo-Pacific (India + East Asia) is an area of increasing concern to American policymakers as they look to defend it from China for many of the same reasons that concerned them in the 1950s: supplying Japan and South Korea’s needs for raw materials and energy. Vietnam remains reliant on Chinese imports and, like China, it morphed paradoxically from true communism toward a pseudo-capitalist dictatorship run by a communist party. The goal of the Obama administration’s proposed Asia Pivot was to gradually shift more American troops and bases from the Middle East to Asia, to protect Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam from potential Chinese aggression. As part of that process, Obama lifted America’s arms embargo against Vietnam in 2016, however congressional Republicans blocked the Asia Pivot during the 2013 budget crisis.
Optional Viewing & Reading:
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Page (Wall-USA)
Vietnam War Memorial — The Virtual Wall
Ken Burns’ Vietnam (PBS)
Burns & Lynn Novick, “How the Vietnam War Broke the American Presidency,” Atlantic (10.17)
Pierre Asselin, “The Tide Turns In Vietnam: The Tet Offensive,” History Today (1.18)
Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Vietnam War Revisited,” Claremont Review of Books (5.8.18)
John Farrell, “When a Candidate Conspired With a Foreign Power to Win an Election,” Politico (8.17.17)