The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

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The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

1-5/16” seth jacobs , Boston College joseph g. morgan , Iona College jacket image american dog tags in ho chi minh ci

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seth jacobs , Boston College

joseph g. morgan , Iona College

jacket image american dog tags in ho chi minh city © steve raymer/corbis jacket design chang jae lee columbia university press

vietnam war

“The Columbia History of the Vietnam War provides an excellent overview of the major issues and events of the war while paying great attention to both American and Vietnamese perspectives. Written by some of the most outstanding scholars of the conflict, this history is accessible to both the specialist and the general reader.”

anderson, Editor

david l. anderson is professor of history at California State University, Monterey Bay, and past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. His books include Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam and The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War.

“The Columbia History of the Vietnam War is a tremendously valuable collection of essays, presenting the insights of some of the best Vietnam War scholars of the past two generations. David L. Anderson has assembled a lineup of the field’s heavyweights.”

The columbia history of the

Praise for The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

ISBN 978-0-231-13480-4

n e w yo r k printed in the u.s.a.


The columbia history of the vietnam Edited by

David L. anderson


rooted in recent scholarship, The Columbia History of the Vietnam War offers profound new perspectives on the political, historical, military, and social issues that defined the war and its effects on the United States and Vietnam. Laying the chronological and critical foundations for the volume, David L. Anderson opens with an essay on the Vietnam War’s major moments and enduring relevance. Mark Philip Bradley follows with a reexamination of Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism and the Vietminh-led war against French colonialism. Richard H. Immerman revisits Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s efforts at nation building in South Vietnam, and Gary R. Hess reviews America’s military commitment under Kennedy and Johnson. Lloyd C. Gardner investigates the motivations behind Johnson’s escalation of force, and Robert J. McMahon focuses on the pivotal period before and after the Tet Offensive. Jeffrey P. Kimball then makes sense of Nixon’s paradoxical decision to end U.S. intervention while pursuing a destructive air war. John Prados and Eric Bergerud devote essays to America’s military strategy, while Helen E. Anderson and Robert K. Brigham explore the war’s impact on Vietnamese women and urban culture. Melvin Small recounts the domestic tensions created by America’s involvement in Vietnam, and Kenton Clymer traces the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia. Concluding essays by Robert D. Schulzinger and George C. Herring account for the legacy of the war within Vietnamese and American contexts and diagnose the symptoms of the “Vietnam syndrome” evident in later debates about U.S. foreign policy. America’s experience in Vietnam continues to figure prominently in discussions about strategy and defense, not to mention within the discourse on the identity of the United States as a nation. Anderson’s expert collection is therefore essential to understanding America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War and the conflict’s influence on the nation’s interests abroad.

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

Edited, with an introduction, by David L. Anderson


Columbia University Press New York

Columbia University Press Publishers Since 1893 New York

Chichester, West Sussex

Copyright © 2011 Columbia University Press All rights reserved Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data The Columbia history of the Vietnam War / edited, with an introduction, by David L. Anderson. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-231-13480-4 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN 978-0-231-50932-9 (e-book) 1. Vietnam War, 1961–1975. 1961–1975—Social aspects. States.

2. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Influence.

3. Vietnam War,

4. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Political aspects—United

I. Anderson, David L., 1946–

II. Title: Columbia history of the Vietnam War.

DS557.7.C64 2011 959.704'3—dc22 2010018853

Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper. This book is printed on paper with recycled content. Printed in the United States of America c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 References to Internet Web sites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the editor nor Columbia University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.

C o n t en t s

Preface ix Abbreviations xiii

Introduction: The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance David L. Anderson 1

Part I. Chronological Perspectives 1. Setting the Stage: Vietnamese Revolutionary Nationalism and the First Vietnam War Mark Philip Bradley 93

2. “Dealing with a Government of Madmen”: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Ngo Dinh Diem Richard H. Immerman 120

3. South Vietnam Under Siege, 1961–1965: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Question of Escalation or Disengagement Gary R. Hess 143



4. Lyndon Johnson and the Bombing of Vietnam: Politics and Military Choices Lloyd C. Gardner 168

5. Turning Point: The Vietnam War’s Pivotal Year, November 1967–November 1968 Robert J. McMahon 191

6. Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War: The Paradox of Disengagement with Escalation Jeffrey P. Kimball 217

Part II. Topical Perspectives 7. American Strategy in the Vietnam War John Prados 247

8. The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973 Eric Bergerud 262

9. Fighting for Family: Vietnamese Women and the American War Helen E. Anderson 297

10. Vietnamese Society at War Robert K. Brigham 317

11. “Hey, Hey, LBJ!”: American Domestic Politics and the Vietnam War Melvin Small 333

12. Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War Kenton Clymer 357


Part III. Postwar Perspectives 13. The Legacy of the Vietnam War Robert D. Schulzinger 385

14. The Vietnam Syndrome George C. Herring 409 Contributors 431 Index 437


Pr efac e

More than thirty-five years have passed since the Paris Peace Accords ended the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War, followed two years later by the end of the war within Vietnam among the Vietnamese. Since those closing events of a long and costly conflict, an entire generation of Americans and Vietnamese who had no personal encounter with the war have grown to adulthood. Over this period, too, the Cold War ended. Thus many of the personal and ideological tensions that shaped debate over the Vietnam War in earlier years should have lessened. In fact, however, the Vietnam War has spawned thousands of books and articles that in various ways continue to reexamine and, indeed, to refight the war. Although the subject still touches emotional and intellectual nerves, the Vietnam War is now history. The war has made the generational move away from experience into what historian Paul Cohen has called event or myth. In his book History in Three Keys, Cohen advances the notion that there are three keys to history: event as narrated or explained by historians, experience as remembered and recounted by participants, and myth as later generations use the past for their own purposes.1 Vietnam veteran, journalist, and screen writer (China Beach and Flags of Our Fathers) Bill Broyles has written: “The real Vietnam War ended in 1975. Everything about it since then has been a war story—which



means it’s been made up, wrested from stubborn memory, shaped by imagination, and transformed by the stories already told.”2 This book recognizes the variety of experiences that shape the subject and the myths that surround the Vietnam War. It strives to be an authoritative narration and explanation of this still controversial event. Although there are good general histories of the war by such respected authors as George Herring, Robert Schulzinger, Stanley Karnow, and John Prados, this book is the collective effort of some of the leading experts on the war. It reflects recent scholarship but also the well-considered thoughts of historians who have long examined the subject. The study of the war, as the thousands of titles on the subject demonstrate, does not now and may never approach a level of intellectual agreement that can be labeled definitive, but this collection of essays is designed to provide a reliable reference on a contentious subject. Not only have the passage of years and the great depth and breadth of writing on the war made the time right for a thorough stocktaking on the Vietnam War, but the Iraq War, which began in March 2003, also presents the need for serious reiteration and review of the lessons and legacy of the Vietnam experience. The United States failed to achieve its objective of an independent South Vietnam, but America was not a defeated nation after the Vietnam War. Its global strength and its international security interests remained great, and the questions of how to use that strength and how to define those interests continued to challenge America’s leaders. Despite declarations by officials of the George W. Bush administration before the Iraq War that the United States was not embarking on nation building, as it had attempted to do in South Vietnam, the difficulties of restoring civil society in Iraq brought forth old rhetoric about “winning hearts and minds” and establishing “credibility” that echoed the Vietnam War experience. This book aims to provide a reliable historical perspective on the Vietnam War to advance accurate scholarship and sound policymaking. Following the introduction, which is an extended essay highlighting some of the major historical themes presented by the Vietnam War, fourteen chapters probe more deeply into some of these themes. The individual essays present clear, well-documented, and provocative arguments, and the entire book comprises a critical approach to the study of the war. The debate over the past thirty years has too often revolved around simple labels, such as liberal and conservative or hawk and dove. The interpretations in these essays strive to avoid stereotypes on the one hand and abstract theory on the other. The chapters by the contributors are divided into three parts. The essays in part I provide chronological coverage of the war. Mark Philip Bradley begins with an examination of the emergence of Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism that was the impetus for the Vietminh-led war against French colonialism. Richard Immerman surveys the period between the French war and the American



war during which the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations sought to build a nation in South Vietnam around Ngo Dinh Diem. The beginning of the American war under Kennedy and Johnson is the subject of the chapter by Gary Hess, and Lloyd Gardner analyzes Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of U.S. bombing and troop levels in Vietnam. Robert McMahon examines the period from November 1967 to November 1968, which he characterizes as the end of escalation and the year during which U.S. policy and politics began to move away from the war. Jeffrey Kimball’s chapter describes the paradoxical process by which Richard Nixon both increased the destructiveness of the war and ended the U.S. military intervention. The essays in part II reflect on the war from a number of topical perspectives. John Prados and Eric Bergerud critically examine in separate chapters the military strategies that Americans employed in Vietnam. Helen Anderson and Robert Brigham look at the war from the perspective of Vietnamese society in their two chapters—Anderson with regard to the role of Vietnamese women on both sides of the conflict and Brigham with regard to the forced urbanization that the war created in South Vietnam and its impact on social values. Melvin Small writes on the tensions within the United States generated by the war in Vietnam, and Kenton Clymer focuses on the mutual relationship of the war in Vietnam with social and political conflicts in Laos and Cambodia. In part III, Robert Schulzinger and George Herring provide insights in separate chapters into the legacy of the war for Americans, Vietnamese, and international affairs. The assumption behind this work is that many of the historical themes in the study of the Vietnam War have contemporary relevance. Today more than a half-century has elapsed since the end of World War II, the decline of the major European empires, and the onset of the Soviet–American Cold War. Some of the details of the origins of the French and American wars in Vietnam and the way those wars were fought may seem dated—as remote as World War I. When thought of thematically, however, many readily recognizable facts and principles of conduct related to the Vietnam War have continuing significance. Questions of power, technology, democracy, culture, politics, and economics continue to be raised, and discussion of these questions provides understanding of change and continuity in America’s global position since the middle of the twentieth century. The contributors to this work are among the most recognized and respected authorities on the history of the Vietnam War. Most of them have published important and extensive scholarship. Some have new research findings to report, and others expand on their earlier writing. Rather than simply reprise their excellent work, however, all reflect on their scholarship and that of others in the full context of a collective understanding of the war. Although each writes from his or her own expertise, each has something to say about war in a broad sense.



Portions of my introduction are a revision of the introduction to my earlier work The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War (2002), and other portions have appeared in slightly different form in my article “One Vietnam War Should Be Enough and Other Reflections on Diplomatic History and the Making of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 30, no. 1 (2006): 1–21. David L. Anderson

Notes 1. Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). 2. William Broyles Jr., “Vietnam: How the War Became the Movie,” Smart, no. 11 (July–August 1990): 82.

Ab b r ev iat io n s


area of operation American Psychiatric Association Army of the Republic of Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement Central Intelligence Agency Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support Central Office for South Vietnam Democratic Republic of Vietnam European Defense Community French Expeditionary Corps Government of (South) Vietnam harassment and interdiction Indochinese Communist Party Joint Chiefs of Staff Land to the Tiller Military Assistance Advisory Group Military Assistance Command, Vietnam missing in action North Atlantic Treaty Organization




National Liberation Front National Security Council North Vietnamese Army order of battle Office of Strategic Services People’s Army of Vietnam People’s Liberation Armed Forces prisoner of war Provisional Revolutionary Government Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam Provincial Reconnaissance Unit post-traumatic stress disorder revolutionary development Republic of Vietnam surface-to-air missile Students for a Democratic Society Southeast Asia Treaty Organization Socialist Republic of Vietnam United States Agency for International Development Veterans Administration Vietcong Vietcong infrastructure Vietnam Quoc Dan Dong (Vietnamese Nationalist Party)

Map 1. French Indochina.

Map 2. North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1954–1975.

Map 3. Republic of Vietnam: Major landforms.

Map 4. Republic of Vietnam: Cities, towns, and major roads.

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

Introduction The V iet n am W ar an d It s E n d u r i n g His t o r ic al R el eva n c e David L. Anderson

Despite the existence of extensive historical scholarship on the misunderstood origins, frustrating course, and failed outcomes of the U.S. war in Vietnam, American forces were deployed to Iraq in 2003 in a large-scale military conflict that quickly assumed an eerie resemblance to the previous American military intervention in Indochina. The war in Iraq was not a precise replay of the war in Vietnam any more than World War II exactly replicated World War I. That the United States could become embroiled in a costly, protracted, and ambiguous war in two succeeding generations demonstrates, however, the critical importance of accurate knowledge and careful interpretation of historical experience. The history of the American war in Vietnam is not a remote academic subject. It is, or it should be, a continuing and real part of policymaking and public discourse on the role of American power and ideals throughout the world.1 Washington’s top policymakers on the Iraq War were not historians of the Vietnam War and were even disdainful of the history of that previous war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded dismissively when asked in July 2003 if Iraq presented a parallel to Vietnam: “It’s a different era. It’s a different place.” 2 In several respects, he was correct that the Iraq War was not the Vietnam War. The U.S. troop levels in Iraq did not reach 500,000, with about half of that number being draftees, as in Vietnam. As a consequence, the number of


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American casualties suffered in Iraq was far less than in Vietnam. In Iraq, there was no Ho Chi Minh—that is, no heroic leader of a national revolution backed by a superpower rival of the United States leading the fight against a U.S.-supported government. In Iraq, the American involvement went from a conventional invasion to counterinsurgency warfare, and in Vietnam it was the reverse: American advice and support of the South Vietnamese government against insurgents escalated into more of a conventional ground and air war with North Vietnam. American air power was used in both wars, albeit in different ways. Despite these differences, there are many striking parallels between the two wars that require understanding. The officially proclaimed purposes for both wars became discredited, and Washington’s exit strategy became focused on the ability of a pro-American regime to survive on its own without U.S. troops. In both cases, it became clear, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to understand in Vietnam, that “military force—especially when yielded by an outside power—just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.” 3 Public unrest with American involvement emerged, no definition of victory appeared tenable, there was little allied support for the United States, and costs grew far beyond initial expectations. In defiance of these realities, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush stubbornly persisted with the interventions they had ordered. Indeed, the Iraq War became an exaggerated reprise of Vietnam in many ways. For example, it took the Iraq War only four years to reach the level of economic cost to the United States (in inflation-adjusted dollars) caused by the Vietnam War in twenty years.4 A well-documented, logically argued, and widely accepted historical analysis of the American war in Vietnam had emerged long before President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The general outlines of this analysis of Washington’s approach to Southeast Asia anticipated in many ways what has come to pass in the Persian Gulf region. This prevailing or orthodox interpretation of the causes, course, outcome, and lessons of the Vietnam War characterizes the U.S. involvement in Vietnamese politics and the ultimate decision to wage war in Vietnam as tragic and monumental errors in judgment by American policymakers. It is a so-called liberal-realist analysis derived from study of the containment strategy that shaped U.S. foreign policy for forty years after World War II. In the early twenty-first century, the paradigm of containment persists in Washington’s reaction to a perceived global network of doctrinaire terrorists committed to the destruction of the United States. Historian George Herring succinctly summarizes the consistent agreement among many scholars that “containment was misapplied in Vietnam.” 5 The realist portion of this “flawed-containment” critique makes the point that containment began after World War II as a prudent response to a Soviet political and military presence in Eastern Europe that posed real or potential danger to

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


U.S. interest in the stability and well-being of Western Europe. Some of the presumed early successes of containment in deterring Moscow’s ambitions, such as the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), encouraged acceptance among U.S. leaders of several sweeping assumptions about containment. They reached a so-called Cold War consensus that the United States alone among the major nations had the power and moral standing to create a secure international order, that U.S. security interests were necessarily global, and that Soviet-inspired subversion was the greatest threat to world peace.6 Such thinking led to eventual U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in an effort to prevent Communist-led North Vietnam from exercising power over the whole country. The realist analysis emphasizes that Moscow’s Red Army was not in Southeast Asia, that the strategic value of the region to the United States was low compared with the importance of other areas, and that costs of protecting limited American interest there were very high. The liberal critique adds that although it is true that the leaders of North Vietnam derived their intellectual and revolutionary dogma from Marx and Lenin, they were striving for self-determination and social justice, goals that were not unlike America’s own core values. The liberal-realist scholars find from their examination of the origins of and rationale for the U.S. war in Vietnam that American military intervention in Vietnam was a flawed application of containment and based on a misinterpretation of the realities of Vietnamese history and identity. Although this thesis is widely accepted, there is considerable debate among scholars over why the containment strategy came to be misdirected. Employing a Marxist or neo-Marxist analysis, radical historians contend that the United States, as a Western capitalist nation, was essentially predetermined to seek access to and control over markets and resources of Southeast Asia. They argue that the United States, as a politically and economically powerful nation in the 1950s and 1960s, was engaged in a neocolonial war that defined U.S. material interests as global in scope. Other historians maintain that there was an earnest concern among American leaders about the global spread of Stalinist-type tyranny and find that U.S. policy was well intentioned, but they also find that U.S. actions were grounded in ignorance and naïveté about the history of Vietnam and the extent to which the United States could influence the course of that history. In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s phrase, the American war in Vietnam was “a tragedy without villains.” 7 Sometimes labeled the “quagmire thesis,” this view maintains that the United States became gradually entrapped in a commitment of its resources and prestige without a specific strategic plan to measure and achieve success. A more morally outraged analysis, the “stalemate thesis,” contends that U.S. leaders knew that they had erred in Vietnam but escalated American military intervention—with the concomitant killing of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans—rather than admit that they were wrong and risk


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losing their political power. There is considerable variety in the liberal-realist interpretations offered by different writers, but all of them question why the United States chose to fight in Vietnam and for so long. A less prevalent but nonetheless cogent counterargument to the flawed-containment thesis comes from some historians who concentrate their work not on why the United States fought in Vietnam, but on how. In this group are found a variety of opinions about how the war was fought, but these scholars basically accept the assumptions of the Cold War consensus that produced the official containment rationale for the war. To them, containment was not a flawed concept in Southeast Asia; they defend the universal applicability of the ideals of freedom and democracy that inspired the containment policy in Europe. What was good for a divided Germany in Europe was good for a divided Vietnam in Asia. Because the liberal-realist scholars question the basic assumptions and goals that caused the United States to intervene in Vietnam, they doubt that success—that is, the survival of a pro-American government in South Vietnam independent of North Vietnam—was attainable without incurring costs to the United States that would endanger other vital American interests. In contrast, scholars of the opposing view accept the purposes of the United States in Vietnam as unassailable and view the American intervention as unavoidable. To them, the tragedy was not fighting the war, but losing it, and they devote their efforts to discerning how the United States could have won the war. In the 1980s, one of the most influential of these revisionists, so called because they challenge the orthodoxy of the liberal-realist analysis, was Colonel Harry Summers. A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars and a professor at the Army War College, Summers forcefully advanced an argument derived from the military theories of Carl von Clausewitz—that a negotiated settlement similar to the partitioning of Korea was available to the United States in Vietnam if the American military effort had taken a “strategic defensive posture.” He contended that a conventional strategy of deploying U.S. forces to cordon off South Vietnam to prevent infiltration and invasion from the North, instead of sending American troops chasing about the South hunting for guerrillas, would have enabled South Vietnam to survive and develop. What weakens Summers’s might-have-been scenario from an analytical perspective is the scant attention he gives to the cause of the war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. He later wrote in his widely read book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that “the forces that besieged Dien Bien Phu [during the French war in Indochina] grew out of the guerrilla movement; the forces that captured Saigon did not grow out of the Vietcong but were the regular armed forces of North Vietnam. This critical difference validates the official U.S. government position that the Vietnam war was caused by aggression from the North.” 8 Summers seriously oversimplified the end of the war, however. Long before Hanoi

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


ordered the final, conventional assault on Saigon, the political war within Vietnam had been lost. Despite a few isolated exceptions, such as the heroic but futile stand by troops at Xuan Loc on April 9–11, 1975, the South Vietnamese armed forces in the end showed little willingness to defend their capital.9 The war in Vietnam that the United States ultimately entered was not a simple case of aggression by the North against the South. In 1954, when the delegates to the Geneva Conference temporarily divided Vietnam, the new government of North Vietnam achieved international recognition of its authority north of the seventeenth parallel. The leadership in Hanoi did not control the hearts and minds of all Vietnamese, and the U.S. government, in refusing to sanction the Geneva settlement, set out to ensure that it would not. The day after the conference adjourned, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared to the National Security Council: “The remaining free areas of Indochina must be built up if the dike against Communism is to be held.” 10 From the outset of the Eisenhower administration’s strategic planning in Vietnam, containment was the stated policy objective of the United States. Dulles knew that the task at hand was to create a South Vietnamese state where none existed. Summers later wrote that “the root in the Vietnam war was North Vietnam” and specifically its decisions in December 1963 and the summer of 1964 “to intervene directly both with military assistance and guerrilla cadres” and to send “regular North Vietnamese Army forces south.” 11 His characterization of the cause of the war as North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam in 1963 and 1964 assumes without further examination that the Eisenhower administration’s decision to contain Hanoi’s political influence was valid and that the previous ten years of U.S. nation building in the South had been successful. Many historians do not agree that Saigon was the capital of a politically viable state by 1963.12 Some scholars, such as Phillip Catton, give South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, credit for attempting nation building, but Catton concludes that “the Diem regime could not compete either ideologically or organizationally with its communist opponents.” 13 Some commentators, such as Norman Podhoretz and Michael Lind, argue that containment of Communist aggression against South Vietnam was an appropriate, even compelling, reason for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. They disagree, however, with the revisionists who insist that the war was winnable for the United States. Such arguments try to draw a contradictory lesson that the United States was right to get into the Vietnam War but also right to get out. Such “legitimists,” as Gary Hess has termed them, try to have the best of both sides of the historical debate.14 Several writers with military experience in Vietnam, such as Summers and Bruce Palmer, believe that American principles compelled the United States to oppose Communism in Vietnam.15 They maintain that the greater applications of American power on the ground and in the air in a conventional military


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strategy would have forced Hanoi to negotiate terms providing for the recognition of South Vietnam. Other military writers disagree with the contention that this conflict was a conventional war, but they also envision a winning scenario. They argue that the U.S. military should have followed an unconventional strategy of pacification to provide security for the South Vietnamese and to give the population confidence in the Saigon government. In their view, U.S. commanders flailed about in “search-and-destroy” operations that did not defeat the enemy but politically destabilized the South as much as did the insurgency. These “win theorists,” whether advocates for conventional or pacification tactics, provide a dissent to the majority opinion among historians that U.S. military intervention in the war was a mistake in its origins as well as in its conduct. In his book Triumph Forsaken, historian Mark Moyar has defended the revisionist thesis.16 He maintains that the “domino theory,” the potential of states throughout Southeast Asia to fall under Communist control, represented a real threat to U.S. security and that the U.S. military intervention in defense of Diem’s regime was necessary. As the book’s title suggests, Moyar argues that triumph was possible for the United States in Vietnam if U.S. leaders had not given up on what he views as a successful Diem regime and if Washington had been willing to carry its military operations directly into North Vietnam and not been deterred by the possibility of Chinese military retaliation. The majority of scholars familiar with the defects of the Saigon government and with Washington’s reasons for keeping the U.S. war limited find his evidence unconvincing.17 The intellectual debate that orthodox and revisionist arguments have generated, however, underscores the importance of accurate understanding of the past for the making of policy in the present. Neither side in this debate will ever be able to prove its thesis that the war was winnable or unwinnable because the outcome of untried strategies is forever unknowable. What is clear from the Vietnam experience, however, is that policymakers now and in the future should carefully consider how the United States originally formulated its purposes in Vietnam and how—by what means—American goals were to be achieved.18 Among policymakers in the George W. Bush administration, in contrast to the majority of scholars, the win thesis had resonance and acceptance. The minority view among historians became the majority interpretation among policymakers. Officials who made or influenced national security decisions on Iraq largely dismissed any considerations of the origins of the American military intervention in Vietnam or of the internal conflict there and wanted only to discuss what they saw as failings in the way the Vietnam War was conducted. In an interview in February 2004, President Bush was asked if he had been in favor of the Vietnam War. He responded: “I supported my government. I did.” He was presumably saying that he agreed, as did many others, with the official containment rationale for the war. He added, however, that “the essential lessons to be

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


learned from the Vietnam War” were that “we had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective.” 19 He did not reflect on any lessons in the goal setting itself or on what responsibility elected officials might have for setting goals attainable in terms of reasonable military and other means appropriate to those ends. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush spokespersons adhered to the president’s narrow concept of the essential lesson learned from Vietnam-era experiences. White House chief of staff Andrew Card Jr. declared: “The people who are governing learned from what wasn’t done well in Vietnam—starting with political leadership making tactical decisions of war.” Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, remarked that the United States had “moved” beyond those scholars and journalists who still nursed “an open wound about Vietnam.” 20 Herself a scholar of international affairs, Rice was aware of the flawed-containment argument. In an interview with Charlie Rose for the Council on Foreign Relations, she cautioned: “I think we would want to be very, very careful in transporting or making analogous what we might do in some other part of the world to what we were able to do in NATO. . . . Now we have to be warned, the last time we took a European strategy and tried to export it was when we took containment and thought that it worked in a place called Vietnam.” 21 Despite this insight, she overlooked the principal thrust of the liberalrealist argument. As Herring has pointed out about the Vietnam experience, “by wrongly attributing the conflict to external sources”—that is, expansionist Soviet and Chinese Communism in Vietnam, and in Iraq what the Bush administration saw as global al-Qaeda terrorism—“the United States drastically misjudged its internal dynamics.” The cautionary conclusion, according to Herring, is that “by intervening in what was essentially a local struggle,” the United States “placed itself at the mercy of local forces, a weak client, and a determined adversary.” 22 Many Iraqis welcomed the United States, but many others hated the American presence from the start and opposed the American-backed government with an ardor reminiscent of the insurgents who rejected the government in Saigon. As military journalist Joseph Galloway has written, “If we learned nothing else from the bitter history of Vietnam it should be that there are places and people who won’t accept change and won’t quit fighting until even the most powerful nation and army in the world wearies of the killing and dying.” 23

LEARNING FROM THE VIETNAM WAR Drawing lessons for the present from events in the past is always difficult, and that is especially true with an emotional and controversial event such as the


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Vietnam War. There are even arguments over what the war should be called— the Vietnam War, the Second Indochina War, or the American War in Vietnam, among other variations. “Vietnam War” is the name most Americans use to denote the conflict that involved the United States in Indochina from about 1950 to 1975. Like the name, the dates are approximate. The French war in Indochina, or the First Indochina War, as it is also called, began at the end of World War II and continued until a cease-fire was arranged at the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Second Indochina War, or what the Vietnamese term “the American war,” began around 1960 and continued until the last American civil and military officials departed Saigon in April 1975. Direct U.S. involvement in the Indochina wars stretched from Washington’s decision to aid France in its war in Vietnam until the last evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as advancing North Vietnamese forces entered the city. For Americans, the Vietnam War was long, costly, and divisive. It was even longer and costlier for the Vietnamese, but that fact made the war only more controversial for Americans. As American casualties mounted and ultimately totaled more than 58,000 killed and missing, citizens went beyond simply asking why the United States was in Vietnam to demanding some justification for such sacrifices. As the level of U.S. destruction of the Vietnamese also grew into the hundreds of thousands, some Americans questioned what such ruthlessness revealed about their country’s values. World War II had been long and destructive, but it had united Americans. In sharp contrast, the Vietnam War polarized them. Some citizens accepted the losses and the violence of the war as necessary and justified. Others felt that their own grievous losses were without purpose and that the American military intervention in Vietnam was excessive and unjust. These differing perceptions have been filtered through ideological and cultural lenses. Hence, the events have taken on different appearances and different meanings, creating the ambiguity that still clouds understanding of the Vietnam War. Regardless of whether Americans viewed the war as just or unjust, the overwhelming majority of those polled in various surveys in the years after the war labeled it a mistake. Without question, this negative assessment was an acknowledgment that the United States had lost the war. Despite enormous effort and sacrifice, the U.S. military had not been able to preserve the independence of South Vietnam and sustain it as a non-Communist bastion against Asian Communism, which had been the stated objectives of U.S. policy. Although it is not surprising that Americans understood that mistakes and failures had occurred, the same opinion polls revealed that most respondents could not specifically identify the errors. They did not know whether the United States had done too much or too little. They could not identify specific policies, and, in

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fact, many could not correctly identify the opposing sides or which side the United States supported. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and that adage troubled many Americans as they followed the course of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The memory of Vietnam was painful for Americans and not one that society wished to recall in its entirety, if at all. The tension of that era went beyond the war itself and included generational, racial, and ideological confrontations. When the fighting ended in the 1970s and U.S. troops left Vietnam, the internal American trauma began to recede. There was, at first, an unwillingness to examine carefully what Vietnam had done to America. In the 1980s, often through the efforts of anguished veterans who needed to resolve their own personal torment, the Vietnam War eventually began to be reexamined. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (“the Wall”) in Washington, D.C., poetry and fiction by veterans, movies, memoirs, and historical research started to dress the wound. This process continued into the 1990s, as more information became known about what had been secret wartime decision making, carefully kept from a public that had suffered under the impact of these decisions. With more knowledge and more open dialogue, some understanding began to develop about how a great nation such as the United States could go so wrong. At the same time, however, the process was more like picking at the scab rather than healing the wound. Cynicism and distrust of leaders still abounded. In early 1991, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush led the United States into war against Iraq with broad popular support. Although Bush proclaimed that the Gulf War had put the ghost of Vietnam finally to rest, his own eagerness to end the war quickly and to avoid a protracted and costly engagement demonstrated how intimidating the memory of Vietnam still remained. As the Gulf War of 1991 was recalling old images of Vietnam, the Cold War, which had provided much of the rationale for the original U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, was coming to an end. The Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party Central Committee formally dissolved on December 25, 1991. This historic turn of events, like Bush’s bravura pronouncements about the Gulf War, seemed to have made Vietnam less relevant to the present. In fact, the opposite was the case. The Vietnam debacle had so disrupted the fiber of American life that the public was skeptical of the national leadership’s declarations of purpose and calls for sacrifice. Without the Soviet threat and with the bitter memories of Vietnam, the role of the United States, as the world’s lone superpower, was difficult to define in genocidal regional conflicts in the Balkans and in Africa in the 1990s. As with any major historical event, the Vietnam War did not provide a precise blueprint for present and future actions. Iraq in 1991 and 2003 or Serbia in


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1995 was not Vietnam in 1965, any more than Vietnam in 1965 was Czechoslovakia in 1938 or Korea in 1950. The meaningful application of history in contemporary life requires a disciplined study of the past with the twin goals of a faithful rendering of past events and a judicious use of analytical principles that transcend time and place. Were there any redeeming features of the Vietnam War for the United States? What had Americans failed to understand about the war from Vietnam’s perspective? What did the Vietnam War reveal about American culture, history, and values, and what effect did the war have on them? Given the war’s especially contentious nature, what can be said about its relevance or irrelevance today?

VIETNAM: THE COUNTRY AND ITS EARLY HISTORY For most Americans, the word “Vietnam” refers to a war, but Vietnam was a country with a distinctive history long before it was a war. A Chinese chronicle from 208 b.c.e. provided the first recorded reference to a non-Chinese people living to the south, in a kingdom called Nam Viet (or Nan Yue in Chinese). From that date, 2,000 years of recorded history led up to the tumultuous wars in twentieth-century Vietnam. In chapter 1, Mark Philip Bradley analyzes how that long history shaped the Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism that clashed first with French colonialism and then with American nation building. Two historical characteristics of the Vietnamese people emerged from their past. One was a sense of separate ethnic identity and resistance to outside domination derived from a millennium of resistance to control by their powerful Chinese neighbors. The other was a repeated inability to achieve lasting unity among themselves. These two powerful patterns of struggle against external threat and for internal cohesion were clearly visible throughout Vietnam’s history—into and including the wars with the French and the Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. The Vietnamese have fought many times for home rule and over who will rule at home. In 111 b.c.e., China’s powerful Han dynasty extended political control over the Vietnamese people, then centered in the Red River Delta. Although China’s ability to manage its southern province ebbed and flowed over the centuries, it was not until a decisive naval engagement in 938 c.e. that the Vietnamese fully regained political independence. Although Vietnam’s leaders had always preserved considerable political autonomy from China, Vietnamese culture became heavily sinicized by the influence of the vigorous Han and Tang dynasties. Chinese language, arts, and Confucian philosophy shaped Vietnam’s culture. In fact, the Vietnamese ability to adopt China’s bureaucratic system of

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administration may have been what helped the always recalcitrant province ultimately to grow strong enough to break China’s grasp. In some ways, Vietnam became a defiant replica of China—a smaller version of China’s large dragon. The end of Chinese authority did not mean that a unified Vietnamese state then existed, and for the next thousand years the Vietnamese faced the challenge of establishing a stable political structure in their own country. Power in Vietnam was hereditary, and the right to rule was contested by various families. After a century of internal conflict following the victory over the Chinese, the Ly dynasty emerged to establish a stable central government that administered the country in the Chinese style through gentry officials chosen by examinations on the Chinese classics. In the thirteenth century, due to the lack of a male heir, the Ly gave way to the Tran family in a peaceful transition, and internal order continued under the gentry (or what Westerners later called the “mandarin”) system. This stability was undermined, however, by continued external threats to Vietnam. In several major military engagements, the Vietnamese repulsed Mongol forces from the north in the 1280s and then in the fourteenth century fought a series of successful campaigns against invaders from Champa, the area that is now central Vietnam. The military leader of the victory over the Chams then overthrew the Tran dynasty and set off turmoil in Vietnam that tempted the strong Ming dynasty of China once again to attempt to reclaim the former Chinese province. In 1428, however, Le Loi, a great hero of Vietnamese history and founder of the Le dynasty, forced China to recognize Vietnam’s autonomy. With the northern border secure, the Le dynasty began what is known as the March to the South in 1471. Aimed initially at removing the remaining vestiges of threat from Champa, this southern expansion continued for three hundred years until the Vietnamese claimed all the territory along the Southeast Asian coast down to the tip of the Cau Mau Peninsula. This geographic expansion brought with it a breakdown of the Le dynasty’s central authority and led to a regional division of power among three rival families. A number of bloody wars finally eliminated the Mac family and brought a stalemate between the Trinh and Nguyen families. The line of demarcation between their areas of control was a wall built by the Nguyens. Located north of Hue, the wall was very near the line drawn at the Geneva Conference in 1954 to divide Vietnam into two parts. As the rival families fought to consolidate power and form a unified Vietnamese nation, strong forces of regionalism and rebellion against the central authority persisted. The geography of Vietnam was a major obstacle to national unity. The area populated by the Vietnamese consisted of a strip of fertile land hugging the coast of the South China Sea, from the agriculturally rich Red River Delta in the north to the similarly productive Mekong River Delta in the


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south. Mountains to the west confined the population to the coast, and ridges from this mountain range extended to the shore, effectively isolating the country’s disparate regions. Distance and topography hampered central authority and gave protection to rebels. In the settlements scattered along Vietnam’s 1,000-mile length and economically based on paddy rice cultivation, the local village, not the courts of emperors or powerful families, became the locus of authority. The villagers shared a Confucian culture but retained their autonomy over their own affairs in a deeply rooted pattern of family, property, and tradition. This fragmentation of political authority was one reason why the Trinh and Nguyen families had not been able to break their stalemate. The villages were also fertile ground for the emergence of rebel movements to challenge regional and central authority. It was, in fact, a village-based rebellion erupting in the 1770s, in Nguyen territory near Hue, that broke the stalemate and produced the unity that the Vietnamese had been struggling for centuries to achieve. This Tay Son Rebellion took its name from the village of its leaders, three brothers. Directed at first against local corruption, the rebellion spread to ignite a series of battles that ended with defeat of both the Nguyen and Trinh families. It was not the Tay Son rebels who emerged victorious, however. With fighting concentrated in the north against the Trinh, a surviving Nguyen heir, Nguyen Anh, seized the Mekong Delta with military aid provided by a French priest, Pierre Joseph Pigneau de Béhaine. To protect French missionaries, whose predecessors had first come to the region in the seventeenth century, Pigneau arranged for French merchants to pay European mercenaries and arm them with modern weapons. With this help, Nguyen Anh’s forces moved north and took the Tay Son strongholds. In 1802, Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long over a united Vietnam that stretched from the border with China to the Gulf of Siam. Although regional authorities throughout the country agreed to recognize Gia Long as emperor, much real power still remained in the hands of village and regional leaders.

FRENCH COLONIALISM The Nguyen dynasty that Gia Long founded, with its capital at Hue, was Vietnam’s last dynasty. The traditional Confucian political and social structure that it represented collapsed under the colonial rule of the French, who rose to dominate Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia and Laos in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An empty shell of the monarchy remained until both it and French colonialism fell victim to revolutionary changes in the 1950s.

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Gia Long, because of Pigneau’s help and because he was aware of Western power, tolerated the presence of French missionaries in his country, but he and especially his successors were hostile to Christianity. Increasing persecution of missionaries and the West’s growing appetite for markets and resources in the nineteenth century caused France to send a naval force to Tourane (Danang) in 1858. From then until 1897, in a piecemeal fashion, France used military force to create what it called the Indochina Union, headed by a French governor-general in Hanoi. French Indochina consisted of five parts. In 1862, Emperor Tu Duc ceded Cochinchina, the area around Saigon, to France as a colony. Annam (central Vietnam around Hue) and Tonkin (northern Vietnam around Hanoi) became French protectorates in 1883. Paris also established protectorates in Cambodia in 1862 and Laos in 1893. French colonial rule in Vietnam was incredibly illiberal, narrow-minded, and destructive. The partitioning of Vietnam into three pays (countries), as the French called Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina, reversed centuries of Vietnamese efforts to create national unity. The Nguyen emperors had themselves administered their elongated country through three ky (regions) that were roughly analogous to the pays, but where the emperors sought to use this structure to promote unity, the French desired division. The colonial authorities even outlawed the use of the name “Vietnam.” This colonial-enforced regionalism magnified cultural differences that had already existed from the March to the South, which brought Chams, Khmers, and others within Vietnam’s borders. Vietnam’s historical difficulty in achieving internal unity in the face of external threats was once again manifest. The French governors sought to protect their authority by depriving the country of its native leadership. Giving their program the high-sounding name mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), they sought to replace not only Vietnam’s political leadership, but also its literature, thought, and culture. They decapitated the local social order. The mandarin class was either compromised by collaboration with the French or isolated in hopeless efforts to revive Confucianism as an antidote to Western wealth and power. Colonial bureaucracy took over much of the administrative role of the village gentry and chiefs, thereby removing the villages’ legal autonomy and debilitating the Vietnamese social system. Vietnamese attempts to organize modern alternatives, such as political parties or labor organizations, were stamped out by police control over travel, mail, and publications that effectively repressed any type of indigenous movement for collective action. French colonialism aimed to make a mercantilist profit out of what was largely a subsistence economy. Economic exploitation of Indochina gave no opportunity for a broad- based system of capitalism to develop among the Vietnamese. In fact,


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capitalism had a very bad image in Vietnam. French taxes and low wages in the Red River Delta added to the poverty and insecurity that already existed in that overcrowded area. In the Mekong River Delta, where open land had been available for landless peasants, a plantation economy put that land in the hands of an elite minority of Vietnamese collaborators. Economic conditions worsened for peasants, while plantation owners, exporters, the Banque de l’Indochine, money lenders, and rice traders got rich. Colonialism was breeding revolutionary attitudes among the people.24

THE RISE OF VIETNAMESE NATIONALISM The harsh French colonial policies violently uprooted Vietnamese society, but they did not extinguish the centuries-old passion for independence and national unity. From the outset of French conquest, the Vietnamese resisted in various ways. Because of its indecision and miscalculation, the imperial court failed to provide leadership, and thus the Vietnamese gentry was on its own in deciding how to respond. Some collaborated with the colonialists; some simply dropped out of public life; and others openly fought back, only to be soundly defeated by superior force. By the 1890s, however, some Vietnamese were examining how other Asian peoples were responding to Western imperialism. Out of that examination came a modern sense of Vietnamese nationalism. How best to combat the powerful intruders remained much debated, however. The representative figure of this Vietnamese resistance to colonialism was Phan Boi Chau. Educated in both Confucian and Western thought, he looked for lessons from China’s self-strengthening movement against Western influence, Japan’s Meiji Restoration, and Sun Yat-sen’s republican revolution in China. Strongly anti-French, Chau and his Modernization Society advocated at first a constitutional monarchy and then, inspired by China’s Revolution of 1911, a Vietnamese republic. An organizer and propagandist who often lived outside Vietnam, he was seized by French agents in China in 1925. Sentenced to death for sedition, he was paroled to home confinement in Hue and died in obscurity in 1940. His work represented a significant shift in the anti-French activists’ goals, away from efforts to restore the monarchy and toward a focus on the Vietnamese nation and a government representative of people of all social classes. His ambiguous combination of tradition and modernization as well as disagreements among his adherents over confrontation versus cooperation with the French masters, however, made Chau’s nationalist program too moderate to contest French power. By the time of his death, he was an anachronism. Other moderate nationalists fared no better. Urban intellectuals made several attempts to create political parties to challenge the colonial government.

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One of the most significant was the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD), or Vietnam Nationalist Party. Created in 1927, it sought to emulate China’s Guomindang, or Nationalist Party. Because the French governors had outlawed all Vietnamese political parties (except for the nonthreatening Constitutionalist Party of the Francophile elite), the VNQDD functioned secretly. Its membership included students, soldiers, low-level bureaucrats, women, and smallbusiness owners. It had no rural or broad popular base. In 1930, the VNQDD attempted to spark an armed rebellion, which the authorities quickly and ruthlessly smashed. Hundreds of party members were arrested, and many were executed (some leaders were beheaded) or sentenced to harsh imprisonment and forced labor. For Vietnamese patriots to hope to break French control of the country, they were going to have to enlist a broad segment of the population in a more disciplined effort.

THE ORIGINS OF VIETNAMESE COMMUNISM What was the relationship between nationalism and Communism in Vietnam? This question is central to the twentieth-century history of Vietnam. Revolution seemed to be the only answer to the economic exploitation, political repression, and cultural arrogance of French colonialism, and in 1925 an embryonic revolutionary party formed. Nguyen Ai Quoc organized a secret group in southern China called the Vietnam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Hoi, or Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League. Its goals were simply stated as national independence and social equality for Vietnamese. In 1930, the Thanh Nien became the basis for the creation of the Dang Cong San Dong Duong, or Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).25 In the 1940s, Nguyen Ai Quoc changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, and this singular individual remained the leader of the Vietnamese Communist movement until his death in 1969. He was a Vietnamese nationalist who became a Communist and who then combined both identities in his own charismatic leadership and in the movement that he not only headed but symbolized. Ho’s father was a mandarin who had to struggle to provide for his family after losing his government post for refusing to enforce French colonial laws. His father was also a friend of Phan Boi Chau. From an early age, Ho was filled with a sense of the injustice and hardship caused by French rule and of the lessons imparted by Chau of the importance of political organization to counter European dominance. Under the colonial education system, he learned French and was exposed to Western literature and ideas. He was, in fact, a student in France during World War I and tried unsuccessfully to present a petition for Vietnamese independence to the Versailles Peace Conference. The Western powers’ rebuff at Versailles starkly contradicted Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination rhetoric and


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had a formative impact on the young Nguyen Ai Quoc. Born Nguyen Sinh Cung sometime between 1890 and 1894, he had taken the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc, meaning “Nguyen the Patriot.” He had also discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin, which to him explained the theory behind the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and provided a blueprint for successful social and political revolution for victims of imperialism such as the Vietnamese. In 1920, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party and embarked on a career as a Communist Party organizer. He lived in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere outside Vietnam but was always committed to Vietnamese independence through the vehicle of Marxist-Leninist revolution. The Vietnamese Communists embraced ideals of national self-determination, revolutionary class struggle, and party dictatorship similar to those that also shaped the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded in 1921. Asian Marxists such as Ho and China’s Mao Zedong understood that there was no proletariat and bourgeoisie of sufficient size in their countries to fit the model of industrialized Europe. The masses were predominantly peasant farmers whose social and economic security had been uprooted by Western imperialism. The Vietnamese Communists considered Marxism to be a new form of social community that would replace the old village community in the peasant mind. For further discussion of the Vietnamese revolution as a social process, see Robert K. Brigham’s analysis in chapter 10. Shortly after the creation of the ICP, a major peasant revolt against the local authorities broke out in Nghe-Tinh Province in Annam. Near-starvation conditions in the region sparked the outbreak, and Communist organizers tried to help the peasants form “soviets” to take control, reduce rents, and even break up some large land holdings. By the spring of 1931, however, the French governors had restored order and had arrested and executed hundreds of Communist cadres. Ho reflected that these events demonstrated not only the peasants’ revolutionary potential, but also the importance of proper preparation and broad national support before any attempt at direct action could be made. Although forced to lie low in Vietnam and to operate largely from China and Thailand, the party leadership survived the crackdown. British police arrested Ho in Hong Kong for suspicious activities. Released from jail in 1933, he went to Moscow on orders from the Comintern, which had concerns about his nationalist inclinations and his variant, agrarian interpretation of Marxist doctrine. With the appearance of the ideological and military threat represented by Nazi German expansion in Europe and Japanese aggression in China, the Comintern directed Asian Communists to undertake united front strategies with bourgeois and progressive opponents of fascism. Ho had favored patriotic fronts since his creation of the Revolutionary Youth League. France itself formed a Popular Front government in 1936 and legalized such groups in its colonies. Without

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revealing their Communist identities, ICP members established the Indochina Democratic Front in Tonkin. The ICP’s Central Committee sent two of the front’s young and talented members, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap, to China in the spring of 1940 to assist Ho, who had left Moscow and was working with the Chinese Communist Party. In September 1940, Japanese forces, with the acquiescence of the Vichy French government, which was collaborating with Germany, took over bases in Indochina for the war against China. Ho and his comrades began immediately to try to forge alliances with all Vietnamese nationalists who opposed the French and the Japanese. World War II engulfed Southeast Asia and started a process that would end French colonialism. In May 1941, at its Eighth Plenum, the ICP authorized the creation of the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or League for the Independence of Vietnam— better known as the Vietminh. By mid-1942, Japan’s military controlled French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, the American Philippines, Thailand, and the British colonies of Hong Kong, Burma, and Malaya. The broad sweep of Tokyo’s forces spelled doom for Western colonialism, as the once seemingly invincible oppressors fell before an Asian onslaught. In contrast to the British, Dutch, and American commanders who resisted before eventually yielding to Japan’s assault, the French governors in Indochina gave Tokyo access to resources and military base facilities in return for allowing the French to continue to administer their colony. Ho Chi Minh and the ICP organized the Vietminh as a patriotic front welcoming any Vietnamese determined to free their country from both the old European masters and the new Asian aggressors. By collaborating with the Japanese, French colonial officials isolated themselves from the Western governments and held their position at Japan’s mercy. Conversely, Ho Chi Minh actively sought contact with American intelligence officers in southern China and proposed cooperation in a common fight against the Japanese. Because Ho and his organization were virtually unknown to the world, they received little response at first. In 1945, however, as the Japanese retreated in the Pacific before advancing U.S. forces, the chance for Vietnamese independence, for which Ho had long been preparing, emerged.

THE AUGUST REVOLUTION By the spring of 1945, Tokyo knew that collaboration with French colonialism in Vietnam had outlived its usefulness. On March 9, Japanese troops suddenly attacked and eliminated French troops and officials in Indochina. With France already liberated from German occupation and with U.S. military power within striking distance of Japan, the surprise move in Indochina was part of a new Japanese effort to protect its interests there. Tokyo immediately recognized an


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independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai, the heir of the Nguyen dynasty. There had been no real royal government for almost a century, but Bao Dai went through the motions of setting up a cabinet in the old capital of Hue. This government had no chance of survival without Japanese support, but on August 14 Japan surrendered to the Allies. Vietnam became a political vacuum into which the Vietminh rushed. Using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc for the last time, Ho Chi Minh called on the people of Vietnam to rise up and take control of the country. From their base areas near the Chinese border, Vietminh cadres quickly orchestrated the seizure of power in villages and towns in north and central Vietnam. Under this pressure, Bao Dai abdicated his impotent throne. This August Revolution took only a few days, and on September 2, 1945, in an emotional public ceremony in Hanoi, Ho declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Journalist David Halberstam describes Ho, whom Vietnamese often called “Uncle Ho,” as “part Gandhi, part Lenin, all Vietnamese.” 26 This succinct portrait captures well the assets Ho possessed when he stood before the cheering crowd that welcomed his declaration of Vietnamese independence. In the fashion of the great Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, he appealed to his oppressed compatriots to seek the independence and social justice that colonial rule had denied them. Like Lenin, he was a theorist who developed a ruthless and disciplined plan for successful revolution inspired by Marx’s concept of class struggle. There is no question that he shrewdly donned simple clothes and sandals and muted the Marxist ideology behind his strategies in order to appeal to the masses of Vietnamese. His personal charisma and the attraction of his Vietminh front, however, clearly derived from their tangible and deeply rooted Vietnamese identity. For more discussion of the origins of the Vietnamese revolution, see Bradley’s analysis in chapter 1. Despite its bold claims of national leadership, the Vietminh had real limitations. Its core of ICP members numbered only about 5,000 in a country of 24 million people. Most of its operatives were in Tonkin and Annam, and there was only a small network in Cochinchina. Although most other political parties were weak, some, such as remnants of the VNQDD, had potential support from the Republic of China, whose troops came into Tonkin to accept the surrender of Japanese forces. British troops played a similar role in the South. In early 1946, the Vietminh used a combination of political bargains, staged elections, and carefully targeted assassinations to erect a tenuous government in Hanoi.

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THE FRENCH WAR IN VIETNAM While the Vietminh hurried to strengthen its position, France began to land troops in the south with the cooperation of British occupation forces. Well aware of strong sentiment in Paris to reclaim French Indochina, Ho Chi Minh negotiated a compromise agreement with French envoy Jean Sainteny that would have created a free Vietnam within an Indochina Federation of the French Union. This agreement was never ratified, however, because in May 1946 the French high commissioner in Saigon declared the Republic of Cochinchina to be a separate state. Both sides then initiated a continuing series of violent incidents throughout Vietnam. Finally, major armed clashes in Haiphong and Hanoi in November and December 1946 marked the beginning of what historians label the First Indochina War. The war was divided along urban–rural lines, with French forces controlling the cities and the Vietminh fighters taking refuge in country villages and in the mountains. Major French military operations in 1947 that included aerial bombing with napalm failed to crush the enemy, but they inflicted heavy damage on civilians. The Europeans had difficulty in even finding the Vietminh, but the French forces’ destructiveness helped increase the credibility of Ho’s followers among the people. The Vietnamese Communists followed the example of people’s war as developed by Mao Zedong in China. This strategy began with the establishment of remote base areas to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy’s superior technology. It then relied on the development of clandestine political organizations among the people and the draining of French military strength through military tactics of feint and deception. The Vietminh goal was to develop gradually a power equilibrium that would make possible a general offensive. To counter the Vietminh’s claims to represent the Vietnamese nation, in 1949 France tried to create an alternative through the Elysée Agreement with Bao Dai. Paris agreed to dissolve the Republic of Cochinchina and to recognize a single State of Vietnam with Bao Dai as its head. The former emperor sincerely wanted peace and unity for his country, but he was no match for either the French or Ho Chi Minh. Ho had immense prestige as a patriot. Many Vietnamese who were traditionalists, moderates, or outright French collaborators, however, feared the Vietminh and cast their lot with the State of Vietnam. Other Vietnamese tried to avoid association with either side. Often absent from his country and inclined to a playboy lifestyle, Bao Dai had no personal political base or effective way to recruit one. The French, however, bore primary responsibility for the weakness of the so-called Bao Dai solution because they never conceded to his regime the sine qua non for all Vietnamese—absolute independence.


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In 1949, the Franco-Vietminh war was at a stalemate. The French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) had more firepower than the Vietminh but could not maneuver its elusive enemy into full battle. Ho’s forces were surviving but were not able to drive the French out of the country. The Vietminh appealed politically to many Vietnamese but did not attract all groups in the factional and regional complexity of Vietnamese society. Immediately across Vietnam’s northern border, however, a momentous historical change reached a climax that altered the Vietnamese equilibrium. The Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army pushed into southern China and forced the Chinese Nationalist regime to flee to Taiwan. Not only did China now have a Communist government, but its leaders announced support for the Vietminh. Ho had a long association with the Chinese Communist Party, and, despite his instinctive Vietnamese distrust of China, he accepted military aid and advice from Beijing.

HISTORICAL ANTECEDENTS OF U.S. STRATEGIC INTEREST IN VIETNAM The expanding international dimension of the conflict in Vietnam quickly became an issue for America’s international security strategy. Historical patterns and traditions of U.S. involvement in world affairs lay behind the U.S. immersion in Vietnam after World War II. Despite the glow of victory, the end of the war did not bring peace and security for the United States and the rest of the world. As the war drew to a close and in the months immediately following, suspicion and hostility led eventually to armed confrontations, frequently on the brink of war, between the United States and the Soviet Union. The origins of the Soviet–American Cold War are complex, but the result was a division of the world into separate spheres of influence around one or the other of these nations, with other areas outside these spheres being contested by both. It was in the context of the Cold War and the longer legacy of Western interaction with Asia that American history intersected with Vietnamese history. At the end of the nineteenth century, as France’s control over Indochina tightened, the United States had forced Spain to give political independence to Cuba, had taken the Philippine Islands from Spain, and had advocated an Open Door Policy in China. The interest of the United States in Cuban sugar, trade with China, and possession of the Philippines as a base for that trade revealed that Americans were not immune to the temptations of empire. At the same time, American leaders rationalized these actions as being in the longterm best interests of Cuba, China, and the Philippines. Historians such as the scholar-diplomat George Kennan have argued that the Open Door Policy, as these actions became collectively known, was not based on a realistic pursuit of

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U.S. interest, but on confused and idealistic clichés about protecting China’s sovereignty and tutoring the Filipinos. These abstract concepts did not provide clear guidance for U.S. policy. Conversely, William Appleman Williams and other historians have characterized the Open Door Policy as a rational attempt to preserve and use the strength of the U.S. economy.27 Williams terms it a tragedy, however, that this defense of U.S. material interests then and later led U.S. leaders to violate basic American ideals, such as a people’s right to self-determination. Most historians today accept the idea of an American empire, but debate continues over how it compares with the imperialism of other Western nations. Forays into Cuba, China, and the Philippines during the McKinley administration had been relatively painless for the United States and had generated a false complacency about inherent risks in the Open Door Policy. It appeared to be within America’s power to advance liberal democratic ideals in the world, such as Cuban independence from Spain, and to protect U.S. security and material interests, such as access to markets in Asia for American manufactured products. Indeed, American leaders conceived of the two objectives of this Open Door Policy as mutually reinforcing. What was good for America was good for the world, and vice versa. In leading the United States into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson articulated an appealing national vision that equated American ideals and selfinterest with the goal of a world free of power politics and aggression. At first reluctant to enter the conflict, Wilson eventually declared that the United States would join the fray “to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples.” 28 Although World War I failed to resolve forever all international conflict, Wilson’s stirring rhetoric continued to shape the objectives of U.S. foreign policy in World War II and on into the Cold War that followed. In his statement of war aims—his Fourteen Points, which included proposals for respecting the interests of colonial populations and for a league of nations— Wilson condemned aggression and argued that collective security was possible through the common interest in peace that all peoples shared.29 This idealistic view of world order fell victim to the ambitions of Italy, Germany, and Japan in the 1930s, as those states revealed their willingness to choose aggression to gain national objectives. The symbol of the impotence of paper pledges of mutual respect was the Munich Agreement of September 1938, in which British and French leaders agreed to German annexation of part of Czechoslovakia in return for Adolf Hitler’s promise of no additional aggression. Six months later, Hitler demanded the rest of Czechoslovakia, and the Munich Agreement forever became the example of the futility of appeasement. Two more years passed before the United States entered World War II as a belligerent, but the dictators’ challenge led Franklin D. Roosevelt to renew the appeal to Wilson’s ideals.


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In the tradition of Wilson, Roosevelt defined the overall U.S. war aim in World War II as the defense of freedom—the freedom of people to choose their own government, to be secure in their own territory, and to trade openly in a world without economic barriers.30 Unlike Wilson, who was a reluctant war leader, Roosevelt accepted the reality that American power had to be a balance to the forces of aggression. The failure of appeasement at Munich provided evidence that military defeat was the only message aggressors understood. For this reason, among others, Roosevelt rejected the Wilsonian hope for a war without victors and called for “absolute victory” in his famous address to Congress the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. When World War II ended in 1945, the United States was not only victorious, but also the most powerful nation in the world. America’s wartime allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, shared in the triumph over fascism, but both countries were themselves heavily damaged by the war. The losers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—were prostrate, and other major nations, such as France and China, were burdened by the weight of war, occupation, and their own internal divisions. In contrast, the United States stood triumphant, with its fields and factories unscathed, its productivity—geared up for war—at an all-time high, and its military and technological dominance—symbolized by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan—well beyond any potential rival. At that moment, the United States was the strongest nation the world had ever known. The nation’s demonstrated might blended in American thought with an assumption of righteousness. The cultural myth of American exceptionalism—of the goodness of America vanquishing the evils of autocracy, dictatorship, and militarism—seemed to have been realized. Even during the war and before victory was ensured, Hollywood movies, government pronouncements, and public expressions of patriotism painted heroic images of the United States and its past. America cast itself in the role of the world’s rescuer. In the Open Door Policy, World War I, and World War II, American selfimage portrayed the nation as the defender of its own as well as others’ rights. The offenders were monarchists, imperialists, militarists, and fascists. As the annexation of the Philippines revealed, however, the line between altruism and acquisitiveness could be easily blurred. The Open Door Policy used the rhetoric of freedom to try to discourage economic barriers that worked against U.S. interests. Wilson and Roosevelt’s condemnations of aggression were defenses of a status quo that, at the time, favored the United States and not dissatisfied nations such as Germany and Japan. At the end of World War II, the American vision of the postwar world was not universally accepted. The Soviet Union had suffered greatly from Nazi aggression, had been an essential counterforce to German power in Europe, and expected to benefit from Germany’s defeat.

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Soviet leader Joseph Stalin insisted that, regardless of what the United States considered fair, his government would use its power to protect its vital interests in areas such as Poland. In the American view, Poland had the right to free elections to choose its own government, but from Moscow’s perspective the USSR’s security required the Poles to choose a regime friendly to Russia. Stalin’s demands (backed by the presence of the Red Army in Eastern Europe) for influence over Poland made him appear to be an aggressor like Hitler, and the lesson of Munich suggested that Soviet control over Poland should be countered by force if necessary. Further evidence of aggression could be found in the historic ambition of Russian leaders to possess Poland. Stalin’s Communist ideology also made Soviet power threatening. Stalin asserted that the capitalist West was intent on the conquest of his country and economically vulnerable areas such as Poland. Thus American leaders used history, ideology, and Stalin’s reputation for ruthlessness to cast the USSR as aggressive and U.S. political, economic, and military opposition to Moscow as defensive. The United States had a tremendous advantage in economic and military power over the Soviet Union in 1945, however, that tempted Washington to be more assertive and interventionist in areas that were of less interest to it than to Moscow. The United States had never had any historic interest in Poland comparable to that of Russia. Stalin’s charge of capitalist imperialism in Eastern Europe was ideologically inspired but also logical from his perspective. Was the United States seeking an open door in Eastern Europe to defend self-determination or to keep open a market for Western European and American exploitation? Since both U.S. and Soviet leaders universalized their rationales for their mutual distrust, the Cold War spread throughout Europe and the world. Tension mounted with belligerent talk from both sides. In 1947, to gain an appropriation from Congress for aid to Greek and Turkish governments facing Communist insurgencies, President Harry Truman enunciated his Truman Doctrine, which pledged U.S. help to any government in the world facing such a threat. This speech initiated the containment policy, which remained the basic U.S. strategic doctrine for four decades and ultimately produced U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. When the president declared the Truman Doctrine, his concern was Europe, not Asia, but he provided no such qualification of his statements. In Southeast Asia, the war between French colonialists and Vietnamese Communists was already under way. The legacies of the Open Door Policy, Wilsonian internationalism, appeasement at Munich, victory in World War II, and the Truman Doctrine directly influenced U.S. assessments of the strategic importance of the conflict in Vietnam to the United States.


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U.S. SUPPORT OF FRANCE IN INDOCHINA The French war in Vietnam was a point of international instability that attracted American concern from the outset. Before World War II, the United States paid little official notice to French Indochina. Japan’s occupation increased awareness of the area’s strategic value, but more important was the anticolonial momentum generated by the Japanese actions. The prospect of the end of colonialism in Asia, including independence for the U.S. Philippines, brought the United States closer to its ideal of self-determination for oppressed peoples and also complemented the open-door concept of free trade. Franklin Roosevelt left no doubt that he opposed a French return to Indochina and vaguely suggested an international trusteeship for the region. No specific postwar plan emerged before Roosevelt’s death, however, because of British resistance to the idea of dismantling colonial empires and Washington policymakers’ desire to avoid alienating Paris, whose cooperation was needed on European issues. After Japan’s surrender, Truman tried at first to continue his predecessor’s example of neither condoning nor confronting French designs in Indochina. As Bradley points out in chapter 1, however, American strategists then and later shared some Western colonialist attitudes about Vietnamese inferiority that limited Washington’s ability to accept the revolutionary nationalism of France’s principal Vietnamese adversary, the Vietminh. As tensions escalated into war between France and the Vietminh, the United States was unable to remain indifferent to the outcome and moved toward support of the French. American leaders never approved of the goal of recolonizing Indochina and repeatedly urged Paris to grant Vietnam its independence. Aware of Washington’s view, Ho had made a point of seeking contact with the United States during the war against Japan, and in his September 1945 declaration of Vietnam’s independence, he quoted from the American Declaration of Independence as an example of the principles for which he and his followers struggled. Despite these appeals to American ideals, officials in Washington fastened on three reasons why French success over the Vietminh was in America’s interest. Basically, Americans frowned on colonialism but feared Communism. Washington’s first reason for favoring France was that Europe, not Southeast Asia, was America’s front line of defense in the emerging Cold War. American strategists believed that the Soviet Union posed a political, economic, and military threat to Europe that required unity among the United States, Britain, and France. This presumption lay behind the Truman Doctrine and the policy of containment of Soviet power, which was the foundation of U.S. foreign policy after World War II. The United States might criticize France for its behavior in Indochina, but it would not risk a rupture with Paris for the sake of the

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Vietnamese—especially not for a Vietnamese political movement headed by a man with a history of collaboration with Moscow and the Comintern. Indeed, by setting up the Bao Dai government, Paris tried to appeal not only to Vietnamese tradition, but also to American officials by offering a non-Communist regime that would provide a rationalization for U.S. support of the French military in Indochina. Asian geopolitics was a second reason to favor France. The victory of the Communist Party in China and the Vietminh’s ideological and military closeness to the new rulers in Beijing raised the specter of a “Red Menace” in Asia, similar to what Soviet Communism represented to Europe. Just as the idea of containment in Europe symbolized a desire to avoid appeasement, such as had occurred at the Munich Conference, and meant the drawing of a line against aggression, so too did this idea apply to Asia. With the formation of the State of Vietnam, French officials frequently characterized their military effort as an anti-Communist fight, not a colonial war. Economic calculations provided the third reason why it mattered to the United States who won in Vietnam. Americans had no significant investment in Indochina, but they did have a large stake in the economic health of major U.S. allies. The open-door principle viewed a strong and open world economy as a vital American interest. Southeast Asia’s natural resources—such as rice, rubber, and tin—and the region’s markets had long been vital to France and Britain. Japan had sought unsuccessfully to gain these benefits by force and still needed access to them for its recovery from the war. With China now considered hostile, American strategists began to think more about the welfare of their former Japanese enemy. If France, Britain, and Japan were to be effective political and economic allies of the United States, French interests in Southeast Asia were worth preserving as part of an American economic trading block. For these reasons, in February 1950 the Truman administration extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Vietnam and in May committed $10 million in military assistance to the French-backed regime. At the time, these actions seemed to be small and prudent steps, but they marked the beginning of what would be a twenty-five-year involvement in Vietnam that would ultimately cost billions of dollars and thousands of American lives. In the short run, however, the intent was not to embark on an American war in Vietnam, but to encourage France to continue to carry the containment burden in Indochina and to cooperate with U.S. defense plans in Europe. These American decisions on Indochina preceded the outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 and Truman’s prompt deployment of U.S. troops to defend South Korea against attack from Communist North Korea. The fighting in Korea confirmed the belief in Washington that Asian Communist movements— Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese—posed an aggressive military threat that


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must be countered by armed force. With U.S. soldiers fighting against North Korean and, after November 1950, Chinese troops and obligated to defend Europe through NATO, which was created in 1949, it was imperative that France keep up the fight in Vietnam. To ensure that Paris did not waver, especially after the FEC suffered heavy losses from 1950 to 1952, the Truman administration steadily increased the level of U.S. aid. By late 1952, U.S. funds were paying for more than one-third of the French war costs.

DIENBIENPHU AND THE GENEVA CONFERENCE The French war in Vietnam came to an end in 1954 with a major battle at Dienbienphu and a cease-fire agreement between France and the Vietminh negotiated at Geneva, Switzerland. The United States played a key role in both of these decisive developments largely by deciding not to play a key role. For three years, the Truman administration had worked to sustain the French. Upon entering the White House in January 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisers continued and, in fact, dramatically increased U.S. aid. When General Henri Navarre, the new FEC commander, presented a bold plan for offensive operations, the American subsidy jumped to 80 percent of the French costs. When the Navarre Plan produced a French disaster at Dienbienphu, however, the Eisenhower administration let events take their own course, which led to the agreements in Geneva that ended the war and that recognized the DRV’s control of North Vietnam. Navarre’s aggressive tactics led him to construct a large French combat base in a remote valley in northwestern Vietnam near the village of Dienbienphu. His purpose was not entirely clear. He may have sought to block Vietminh access to nearby Laos or to position his forces for future operations. Whatever the case, he seriously underestimated his enemy’s ability and placed too much faith in his planes, tanks, and other technological resources. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh commander, occupied the high ground around Dienbienphu in March 1954 with a force twice the size of the French garrison. Giap’s artillery rendered useless the French airstrip in the village. Some of France’s best troops were isolated, besieged, and facing a humiliating defeat. Dienbienphu presented the Eisenhower administration with a dilemma. A surrender there would not end France’s ability to fight in Vietnam but could well end its will to fight. French opinion had turned against this “dirty war,” and French leaders had already agreed to put the conflict on the agenda of an international conference to convene soon in Geneva. The level of U.S. financial aid indicated, however, that Washington placed a higher value on Vietnam than did Paris. On April 5, 1954, with Dienbienphu under siege, Eisenhower made

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


his famous public remark about the domino principle, which became a U.S. description of the strategic importance of Vietnam for years to come. The president asserted that if Indochina came under Communist control, the result would be that Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and even Australia and New Zealand would fall, one by one, like dominos.31 Secretary of State John Foster Dulles publicly called for “united action” by several countries to protect Southeast Asia from Communist-led movements, while Eisenhower and his advisers privately weighed the possibility of a U.S. air strike to relieve the French fighters at Dienbienphu. On May 7, however, the Vietminh forced the surrender of the last French defenders, so that in the end the United States did not have to take any meaningful military or diplomatic action. As Richard H. Immerman discusses in chapter 2, Eisenhower received considerable credit from scholars for a statesmanlike caution that seemed in sharp contrast to his successors’ approval of American military intervention in Vietnam. Eisenhower did not question the designation of Indochina as a vital strategic area worth defending, however. The disaster at Dienbienphu only confirmed that relying on France to carry the burden of that defense was not working. Some other approach would have to be found. The talks at Geneva provided a way for France to extricate itself from the war. The governments of Great Britain and the Soviet Union convened the Geneva Conference, which included representatives from France, the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Laos, Cambodia, the State of Vietnam, and the DRV (that is, the Vietminh delegation). The U.S. envoys stayed out of the substantive talks. The French and Vietminh delegations negotiated and signed a cease-fire agreement in July 1954 that temporarily divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel. The DRV would control North Vietnam. The State of Vietnam would have administrative authority in South Vietnam, but because French officials and not representatives of the State of Vietnam signed this document, the fate of the Bao Dai government was undefined. Separate agreements provided for Laotian and Cambodian governments in those countries. Kenton Clymer details the course of events in these countries in chapter 12. Finally, an unsigned declaration, released at the end of the conference, called for elections to be held throughout Vietnam in 1956 to decide the country’s political future. The diplomats at Geneva had found a formula for ending the Franco-Vietminh war, but not a plan for the unification of Vietnam under one government. The U.S. delegation at Geneva issued a statement acknowledging the results of the conference but not endorsing them. Washington was not pleased that a  Vietminh government in Hanoi, headed by Ho Chi Minh, now controlled North Vietnam. American leaders also recognized that they still had to deal with the State of Vietnam through French intermediaries. American planners were already at work, however, on how to fashion their own solution for Vietnam


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that would keep the domino of North Vietnam from toppling South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other neighboring states. Soon after the Geneva Conference, Secretary Dulles took the first steps in this direction by brokering a vaguely phrased defense pact composed of the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan. Designed to protect the status quo, this September 1954 treaty created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), with a separate protocol listing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia not as members, but as part of the SEATO security area. On paper, at least, Dulles had an arrangement for united action, such as he had proposed during the Dienbienphu crisis. In the years to come, including during the massive U.S. military deployment of the 1960s, American officials would often cite the SEATO pact as their basis for action in Indochina.

THE EISENHOWER ADMINISTRATION AND “WHOLEHEARTED” SUPPORT OF NGO DINH DIEM Although intended to be temporary, the north–south division of Vietnam fashioned at the Geneva Conference endured for two decades until DRV troops occupied the southern capital of Saigon in 1975. For most of the first ten years of the separation between the two Vietnams, Ngo Dinh Diem headed the southern regime and appeared to the United States, at least for a time, as the best Vietnamese alternative to Ho Chi Minh and to a Communist-led unification of Vietnam. The United States made clear immediately after the Geneva Conference that it sought a way to counter the DRV, and the Eisenhower administration provided steadily increasing support to Diem for that purpose. The American hope for a successful government in South Vietnam did not by itself ensure that Diem’s regime would survive, but it did cause the Vietnamese to associate Washington and Saigon so closely that they often referred to the southern government as the “My–Diem” regime, combining the Vietnamese word for “America” with Diem’s name. Diem’s political base was weak, and the initial U.S. reaction to the prospect of a Vietnamese government under his leadership was cautious. Why Bao Dai named Diem prime minister of the State of Vietnam in June 1954 has never been entirely clear. From a mandarin family, Diem had served briefly in Bao Dai’s powerless cabinet in the 1930s. The playboy emperor, who lived much of the time on the French Riviera, did not like Diem, who was intensely antiFrench, was a devout and celibate Roman Catholic, and lived an ascetic and

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


almost monkish life. With French power waning in Indochina, however, Diem had some genuine assets. He had a reputation for refusing to collaborate with either the French colonialists or the Vietminh. The latter was probably responsible for his oldest brother’s murder in 1945. Moreover, Diem had lived for a while in the United States and had met some prominent Americans. Although these contacts may not have been significant, it is likely that Bao Dai selected Diem in hopes of cultivating U.S. support for his government against the DRV. Although top U.S. policymakers, such as President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles, knew little about Diem and took a wait-and-see attitude, they fairly quickly decided that he and his government deserved wholehearted American support. Diem himself was a very private person with none of Ho’s charisma, and he had no political organization to rival the Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam, or Vietnamese Workers Party (the formal name of the Communist Party in Vietnam from 1951 to 1976). He relied heavily on his four surviving brothers, especially Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was essentially his chief of staff. Because Vietnam is primarily a country of Buddhists, the Ngo family’s religion set them apart and led them to develop a network of Catholic minions, many of whom had fled from the North to the South after the Geneva-arranged ceasefire. French officials remaining in the South opposed Diem because they knew he was hostile to their aims to preserve what French influence they could in their former colony. Faced with lack of support or outright resistance from French officials, many Buddhists, admirers of Ho, and the Communist cadres, Diem needed U.S. help to have any chance of establishing a government. Eisenhower sent General J. Lawton Collins to Saigon in November 1954 to evaluate Diem’s potential and to try to get the French to cooperate with American efforts to strengthen South Vietnam. Collins concluded that a separate South Vietnamese state was possible, but he bluntly informed the White House that he did not believe that Diem was qualified to lead it. At the same time, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allan, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), sent Colonel Edward G. Lansdale to work secretly to advise Diem, and Lansdale recommended strong U.S. support for the South Vietnamese prime minister. These conflicting assessments came to a head in April 1955, when an odd alignment of religious sects and gangsters made a move to seize authority from Diem. The prime minister subdued the uprising with some help from Lansdale. Rather than risk further instability that might give Hanoi a political opening to exploit, Washington decided to give “wholehearted” support to Diem.32 Secretary Dulles informed Paris of the U.S. determination to help Diem, and the French government responded by withdrawing its last military advisers in the South and leaving all future assistance to Saigon in American hands. With the U.S. decision to try to build a nation in the South around Diem, the prime minister boldly announced a referendum to depose Bao Dai and


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convert the State of Vietnam into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). American officials were caught by surprise and thought the step was premature, but Diem and his brothers carried off a sham election in October 1955 that went overwhelmingly against the emperor. Some districts reported more votes for Diem to be head of state than there were voters. This “election” revealed the Ngos to be more clever than many had thought, but it also gave evidence of a problem that was to plague the RVN until its demise in 1975. The United States felt compelled to shore up an ally that had questionable political support. At the same time, the Saigon politicians, despite their dependence on U.S. aid, did not hesitate to act as they pleased and assumed that the United States had no choice but to go along.

THE NONELECTION OF 1956 The question of whether the United States was shaping or simply responding to events in Southeast Asia is apparent in the issue of an all-Vietnam election to decide on reunification. The diplomats at the Geneva Conference had called for a “free general election” in 1956 to determine the political will of the Vietnamese. The U.S. delegation at Geneva and the State of Vietnam’s representatives never agreed to an election, however, and Washington was not inclined to help arrange a free-ballot competition between the almost legendary Ho Chi Minh, who had forced the French colonialists to capitulate, and Ngo Dinh Diem, who was struggling just to keep afloat politically. No election occurred in 1956, and the circumstantial evidence suggests that Washington blocked a peaceful resolution to Vietnam’s internal political discord. In truth, free elections throughout Vietnam had very little chance of being implemented from the day they were first proposed. The Geneva conferees had provided no specific mechanism for such elections. Neither the conveners of the conference—Britain and the Soviet Union—nor any of the other major powers wanted to take responsibility for supervising an election. No officials in Hanoi or Saigon had any experience in conducting free elections and likely would not have tolerated outside monitoring in areas under their control. Only the DRV kept up public calls for an election because it presumed its heroic defiance of France gave it the overwhelming popularity to carry it to a victory, whether the election was open or manipulated. Diem largely avoided any reference to an election. He eventually announced that he favored an election but said he would not agree to one as long as the North denied its citizens democratic liberty. Spokesmen in Washington endorsed this statement, but the election was already a dead issue.

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When the summer of 1956 passed with no all-Vietnam election held or even being discussed, Washington grew more optimistic, with each month the Diem government continued to function, that South Vietnam might actually hold the containment line against the North and thus against Communist expansion in Asia. A nonpartisan advocacy group calling itself the American Friends of Vietnam was applauding Diem’s accomplishments, and the Eisenhower administration issued self-congratulatory statements about how well U.S. assistance was working in Vietnam. In May 1957, Diem made a state visit to the United States during which he was repeatedly dubbed a “miracle man” for his regime’s ability to take root despite the threat it faced from the North.

THE ILLUSION OF NATION BUILDING Despite the confident rhetoric out of Washington and Saigon, the RVN was not a self-sufficient nation and required life-sustaining support from the United States. The French had created for the State of Vietnam an army of 150,000 soldiers and a civil bureaucracy, but neither of these organizations had been given any independent authority. Both had been expected simply to carry out orders and hence had not developed their own leadership. Conspiratorial by nature, Diem and his brothers filled this leadership void by creating a government in the South that rested largely on personal loyalty to them. From this narrow political base, Diem endeavored, with American help, to build a nation in the South to contest the DRV in the North. Diem’s regime presented American officials with a debilitating dilemma. The Saigon government needed to build trust and loyalty among the South Vietnamese population but was well aware that it faced many internal enemies who could be ruthless in their opposition. With an instinct for survival, the Ngo family often resorted to dictatorial methods to intimidate or remove threats to its authority. Diem’s brothers Ngo Dinh Nhu and Ngo Dinh Can operated a largely secret party, the Can Lao, that ruled through bribery, arrests, imprisonment, and executions of alleged Vietminh suspects believed to be disloyal to the RVN government. In one of its most extreme moves, the regime abolished elected village councils and placed its own appointees (usually Catholics who had fled from the North) in charge of local affairs. Such actions increased the Ngos’ isolation from the people and concerned American advisers, who hoped that the RVN would show greater respect for democratic principles. Although urging Diem to reform his methods, Washington felt compelled to give him financial assistance or otherwise risk the collapse of his fragile nation. Americans reasoned that improved economic conditions among the peasants


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would help build support for the RVN, and they advanced plans for land reform, rent control, and agricultural development. American officials also set up a system to subsidize commercial imports to boost the urban economy. These efforts translated into few actual changes in the agricultural and commercial economy of South Vietnam. In part due to the regime’s resistance to social innovation, this lack of economic change occurred primarily because 80 percent of U.S. aid went directly to the South Vietnamese armed forces. Many American strategists envisioned a threat of an outright assault by North Vietnam on South Vietnam after the model of the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950. Whether Diem shared this concern regarding external aggression or simply recognized the value of a strong military for defense against his internal foes, he often reiterated his need for military aid. The Eisenhower administration never had more than 740 uniformed U.S. soldiers in Vietnam for training and advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but 85 percent of the money for paying, equipping, and maintaining the southern military forces came from the United States. Some U.S. diplomats in Saigon questioned providing significant military assistance to such a politically unstable regime, but basic U.S. policy was that military security took precedence in Vietnam over economic and political reform.

THE NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT AND THE RISE OF THE SOUTHERN INSURGENCY In December 1960, Vietnamese Communists in South Vietnam created the National Liberation Front (NLF), an organization that also included nonCommunists, with the goals of overthrowing the Diem government, seeking an end of U.S. military aid to the RVN, and forcing the creation of a coalition government that would seek reunification with the North. The appearance of the NLF followed months of increasingly violent incidents aimed at the ARVN, district chiefs, and other representatives of the RVN. American and Vietnamese officials in Washington and Saigon referred to these antigovernment rebels as “Vietcong” or “Vietnamese Communists,” whether they were Communists or not. Although an all-Vietnam election was not held in 1956, the DRV Politburo continued to hold out for a political reunification of the country without renewed warfare. Leaders in Hanoi were still struggling to consolidate their authority in the North and to convert agriculture and commerce to a socialist economy. They were not eager to launch any new military campaigns, especially if such attacks might provoke an American armed response. The DRV advised Communist Party cadres in the South to be patient.

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The southern cadres informed Hanoi that they could not wait. With U.S. help, Diem’s regime was managing to stay in power, and its policy of arrests, harsh punishments, and even executions of its opponents was decimating the Communist Party. Some party workers began to assassinate local RVN officials and to strike back in other ways. Finally, in 1959, the Politburo signaled approval of acts of self-defense, and an armed insurgency quickly emerged. A diverse coalition of Communists, former Vietminh, Buddhists, and even some Catholics threatened by Diem’s suppression tactics began to coordinate resistance activities. They attacked ARVN outposts and government offices and claimed to have “liberated” scores of villages from government control. The momentum of the southern insurgency finally led Hanoi, in September 1960, to declare a twopart program of socialist revolution in the North and liberation of the South from the Americans and their Vietnamese henchmen. With that approval, the southern Communists quickly formalized the organization of the dissatisfied southern elements into the NLF. The NLF’s strategy was to stage military actions in areas remote from government control, use political methods in the cities, and combine military and political means in other areas. As this new phase began in the struggle for control of South Vietnam, a crisis of international proportions was erupting in neighboring Laos. The Geneva Conference of 1954 had recognized an independent Royal Lao Government. The United States gave considerable assistance to this government because of Laos’s strategic proximity to North Vietnam and the existence of the Communist Pathet Lao, who worked with Hanoi against the royal government. In 1959 and 1960, a series of coups and other political maneuvers led to a very dangerous environment in which the United States and the Soviet Union were providing supplies to opposing factions in a tension-filled situation. As described by Clymer in chapter 12, neither Washington nor Moscow desired a direct clash over Laos, but the two superpowers’ connections to the contending parties in Vietnam had dragged them into this conflict. When John F. Kennedy met with Eisenhower in January 1961, on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration as president, the discussion of Southeast Asian issues concentrated on Laos, not on Vietnam. Compared with the presidents who followed him, Eisenhower’s commitment of U.S. resources to the survival of South Vietnam appeared limited. The number of U.S. forces in the country was only a few hundred engaged in training and advice, and no U.S. air or land forces had participated in combat in Vietnam. Yet, as Eisenhower’s “domino” statement in 1954 had proclaimed and his concern for Laos in 1961 revealed, his administration had defined Southeast Asia and the containment of Communist expansion there to be of global strategic interest to the United States. To protect that interest, Washington bankrolled and applauded the political survival of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.


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Despite and because of U.S. assistance, the Saigon government found itself by the late 1950s facing danger not only from the North, but from an armed insurrection in the South. With the latter rapidly expanding against the Saigon government, the level of American support was likely going to have to increase. When Eisenhower left office in 1961, there were serious questions as to whether the My– Diem government needed a greater commitment from the United States and whether American interests justified such a commitment. The decision whether to continue wholehearted support of Diem and how much more assistance to give South Vietnam was left, however, for Kennedy to make.

THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION CHOOSES COUNTERINSURGENCY WARFARE Almost immediately upon entering the White House, John F. Kennedy received a disturbing briefing from General Edward Lansdale, who had just returned from an observation trip to Southeast Asia. The general reported that widespread guerrilla warfare and other subversive activities in South Vietnam would soon bring down Ngo Dinh Diem’s government if an effective counterinsurgency program did not begin at once. When campaigning for president, Kennedy had criticized Eisenhower for being indecisive in foreign policy and had further claimed that America’s own survival required an assertive U.S. defense of “free” nations against Communist aggression. It was especially important, the youthful Kennedy maintained, that the United States pay closer attention to the internal politics of the developing nations that were vulnerable to Sovietsponsored wars of national liberation. For the new president, the prospect of the defeat of the U.S.-backed Saigon regime carried global consequences dangerous to American interests. He moved quickly to increase U.S. support of South Vietnam and continued thereafter to expand that assistance. He eventually lost confidence in Ngo Dinh Diem and inquired about U.S. options in Vietnam, but, as Immerman concludes in chapter 2, by the time of his assassination in 1963 Kennedy had not reached a definitive decision on the strategic value of South Vietnam to the United States. Despite his partisan criticisms of his predecessor’s conduct of foreign policy, Kennedy agreed with the basic tenets of the containment strategy initiated by Truman and continued by Eisenhower. The basic assumption of that strategy was that the Soviet Union, with its hostile ideology and nuclear warfare capability, was the principal threat to the United States. Therefore, any country allied with the USSR, such as the People’s Republic of China or the DRV, was the enemy of the United States. Not only did Kennedy consider containment a

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prudent policy, but he also believed that the United States had international commitments, whether formal as with NATO or implied as with SEATO, to oppose Communist expansion and that failure to uphold these commitments would have damaging consequences for the credibility of U.S. policy and the security of the world. Despite Kennedy’s desire to demonstrate American determination, however, his initial months in office conveyed a different message. In April 1961, Cuban exiles suffered a disastrous failure when they attempted an invasion at the Bay of Pigs in an effort to unseat Fidel Castro’s government. The thinly veiled U.S. hand in the assault on Cuba made the new administration appear reckless and inept. Unwilling to commit U.S. troops to the Cuban operation, Kennedy was even more wary of American forces going into the conflict in Laos. Only days after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he consequently decided that the United States would participate in negotiations for a compromise political settlement in Laos. At a June summit meeting in Vienna, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sought to intimidate the inexperienced Kennedy, and soon afterward Moscow began construction of the Berlin Wall. These apparent setbacks for U.S. foreign policy in Cuba, Laos, and Berlin led the Kennedy administration to pay increasing attention to Vietnam. Washington believed that it could not afford another sign of weakness and had to stand firm somewhere. Kennedy had criticized Eisenhower for excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence as a diplomatic instrument. The new president advocated a strategy termed “flexible response”—that is, the notion that different types of aggression, such as guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, required different defenses, such as counterinsurgency warfare. Although Kennedy’s initial efforts in 1961 to improve assistance to the Diem government contained psychological and economic elements, much of the help was in the form of military aid and advice. His administration increased U.S. funding to allow for a 200,000-man South Vietnamese armed force, and Washington deployed 400 U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) advisers to provide training in antiguerrilla tactics. These moves did not deter the Vietcong, however, which actually increased its attacks, and infiltration of military reinforcements from North Vietnam doubled. With Diem’s government on more precarious footing than ever, two of Kennedy’s top aides, Walt Rostow and Maxwell Taylor, traveled to Vietnam in October 1961 and returned with a recommendation that the United States send 8,000 troops to inject some confidence into the Saigon regime. Other Kennedy aides suggested negotiations with the DRV to arrange a political compromise, such as had been done in Laos. Kennedy rejected both deployment of a U.S. combat force and negotiations, but during 1962 he significantly escalated the level of military aid. By the end of the year, there were 9,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had


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been created to direct the expanding American effort. The ARVN received modern military hardware, such as helicopters, tactical aircraft, and armored personnel carriers. To try to counter guerrilla attacks and Vietcong political organizing in rural areas, MACV helped the Diem government construct “strategic hamlets,” or fortified villages. These activities gave the appearance that the RVN was becoming more secure. In January 1963, however, a Vietcong unit routed an ARVN force that was ten times larger and equipped with modern U.S. arms, including aircraft. The ARVN soldiers’ lack of will to fight in this battle at Ap Bac symbolized a fundamental absence of allegiance to the Diem government that military equipment and training alone could not remedy.

THE BUDDHIST CRISIS Low morale in ARVN units and disaffection among peasants in the strategic hamlets, into which many families had been forced after having to give up their ancestral homes, revealed widespread discontent with the Saigon leadership, but the most visible challenge to Diem came from some members of the Buddhist clergy. Although they usually avoided politics, monks began to criticize government oppression, especially prohibitions against public Buddhist observances even though Catholic festivals were allowed. In June 1963, an elderly monk attracted worldwide attention to these complaints when he burned himself to death in a Saigon intersection, with news reporters watching and taking photographs. Other acts of self-immolation followed. The particular target of these dramatic protests was Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who headed the government’s police and security forces. Nhu reacted callously to the priests’ flaming sacrifices and in August even launched a massive military raid on major pagodas throughout the country. The Buddhist peace movement was a clear call for public resistance to the government, and the Ngos were not going to tolerate any opposition. The Buddhist crisis brought to a head the long-running question regarding Diem’s ability to govern South Vietnam. Eighty percent of the population was Buddhist, and his government’s actions further alienated a population already feeling unserved and oppressed by Saigon. American officials at all levels, from Saigon to Washington, were at the end of their patience with Diem. They tried to get him to remove or discipline his brother Nhu, but Ngo family cohesion was too strong. With Vietnamese and American sentiment against Diem readily apparent, members of South Vietnam’s military began to plot against the government. Because U.S. policy since the mid-1950s had been to give Diem wholehearted support, disgruntled military and civil leaders in South Vietnam had been reluctant to threaten him. If these dissidents could be assured of American support for a new regime, however, they would be emboldened to act.

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THE DIEM ASSASSINATION On November 2, 1963, South Vietnamese soldiers sent to arrest Diem and Nhu during a military coup murdered the two brothers. As with the Buddhists’ suicides, a violent act had once again punctuated events in South Vietnam. Although there is no evidence that U.S. officials desired or even anticipated that Diem would be killed, his death marked a major turning point in the history of South Vietnam and of the U.S. policy of non-Communist nation building there. In August that year, after the raids on the pagodas, State Department officials in Washington had indicated to U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon that he could pressure Diem for Nhu’s removal, and if Nhu remained, he could provide assurances to military leaders that the United States would not interfere with a coup. Despite this so-called green light, no move against Diem occurred in September, and the South Vietnamese president seemed as determined as ever to resist U.S. pressure for reform. After an inspection trip to Saigon, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) General Maxwell Taylor recommended that the United States cut back on the aid to the RVN and even on the number of military advisers as a further attempt to push Diem into less-repressive policies. Although Kennedy expressed doubt about how to proceed, he approved the McNamara–Taylor report’s finding in favor of increased pressure.33 As U.S. displeasure with Diem grew more evident than ever, plotting against Diem resumed within the military. American intelligence agents knew of this activity, but the U.S. Embassy in Saigon did not warn Diem. On November 1, 1963, military forces took control of RVN government offices, and Diem and Nhu fled and took refuge in a Catholic church. The generals sent soldiers to retrieve them, and the assassinations occurred while the brothers were being transported to custody.

WHAT IF KENNEDY HAD LIVED? Three weeks after the coup in Saigon, an assassin murdered John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. The president’s death at this critical juncture in the Vietnam War has led to speculation about what might have occurred differently if Kennedy had lived. In chapter 3, Gary R. Hess examines what he terms the idea of “Kennedy exceptionalism” and whether the sudden transition from Kennedy to Johnson marked a “turning point” toward deepened U.S. military engagement in Vietnam. Many of Kennedy’s associates and admirers have claimed that after his reelection in 1964, he would have removed U.S. forces from Vietnam. For evidence,


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they point to, among other things, Kennedy’s approval of the McNamara–Taylor recommendation to reduce the number of U.S. advisers in Vietnam. In the context of the report, however, that proposal was part of a plan to pressure Diem and not the product of a reassessment of South Vietnam’s strategic value to the United States. There is no question that Kennedy had doubts about U.S. military intervention in Indochina. In addition, after the world had stared into the face of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, he wanted to reduce international tensions. Kennedy’s actual record in office from 1961 to 1963, however, documents his role in the growing militarization of U.S. assistance to the RVN. He never challenged the proposition that the fate of South Vietnam was vital to U.S. security. In a television interview in mid-September 1963, he reaffirmed his belief in the domino theory and stated flatly that the United States should stay in Vietnam and influence the outcome of the struggle there in the most effective way it could.34 By the time of his death, he had placed 16,000 American military advisers in Vietnam, and more than 100 of them had been killed in action. These figures are low compared with the staggering statistics generated later, but they represented a significant leap from the number of advisers deployed in the Eisenhower years. Some historians note that it was Kennedy who injected excessive vigor, idealism, and overconfidence into U.S. policy in Vietnam. He had come into office in 1961, proclaiming in his inaugural address that the United States would “bear any burden” in the defense of liberty. By 1963, the burden that he had taken up for America in Vietnam was larger than when he began his term. With removal of Diem, which Kennedy had countenanced, a morass of political instability emerged in South Vietnam that added to the challenge for Washington. History is not able to record if Kennedy would have responded with more or less U.S. activism in Vietnam in the face of worsening conditions for the Saigon government. Those conditions and the consequences of almost a decade of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia became the sudden and unwanted responsibility of Lyndon B. Johnson.

THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM: ESCALATION Between November 1963 and July 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a series of decisions that ultimately led to a large-scale American war in Vietnam. After the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s political viability continued to decline. In part, this weakness was the result of tension within the South between those who sought a political settlement with Hanoi and others who

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


wanted an invigorated military defense of South Vietnam. Aware that a major source of political support for the NLF had been the anti-Diem sentiment in South Vietnam, Hanoi decided to increase its infiltration of men and supplies into the South to bolster the NLF. Fearful that southern leaders might agree with Hanoi to create a neutral Vietnam, strategists in Washington urged Saigon to strengthen its military defense and not to be lured into a compromise. In the weeks after Diem’s murder, then, the tension within Vietnam began to reach crisis proportions, and the ten-year U.S. effort to build an independent nation in South Vietnam appeared to be at great risk. Many journalists, historians, and other observers have labeled the American war in Vietnam as “Johnson’s War” because of his decisions to undertake an air war against North Vietnam and a major ground war in South Vietnam. Although Johnson’s responsibility for the American combat escalation is undeniable, it is also apparent that he was engulfed in a political and strategic situation that he did not create and did not relish. Johnson felt compelled to maintain the U.S. defense of South Vietnam because of the tenets of the containment policy and the commitments that his predecessors had made to the RVN. As a leader in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and as vice president, he had always endorsed Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s judgment that Southeast Asia was an area of importance to U.S. security. Only four days after becoming president, he approved National Security Action Memorandum 273 (NSAM 273), which was originally drafted for Kennedy.35 It affirmed that the United States would continue to aid South Vietnam against what it termed outside Communist aggression (referring to North Vietnam). In signing this document, Johnson was not only pledging to continue Kennedy’s policies, but renewing the 1947 Truman Doctrine’s promise to assist any free people threatened by external pressure or internal subversion. In the months afterward, as Johnson made military decisions consistent with this pledge, he was in many respects implementing what could also be termed “Truman’s War,” “Eisenhower’s War,” or “Kennedy’s War.” Johnson did not want a war in Vietnam and did not want to be a war president. He had spent his entire political career as a champion of domestic reform in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Kennedy had left an unfulfilled domestic program at the time of his death—the New Frontier, aimed at such problems as poverty, the environment, and racial discrimination. Johnson preferred to put his efforts into getting congressional action in these areas and not into grappling with the upheaval in Southeast Asia. The new president harbored even grander designs for a sweeping program of social benefits, which would later be labeled the “Great Society.” As a veteran of Capitol Hill, however, Johnson understood that the credibility he needed as a leader to achieve the bold Kennedy–Johnson domestic agenda required him to demonstrate that he could protect U.S. interests abroad. He did not want to give conservatives,


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who would likely oppose his reform program, a political weapon against him if he were to “lose” Vietnam. He recalled how the right wing had attacked Truman for the “loss” of China. Hence, because of his belief that the survival of South Vietnam was a test of his ability to sustain America’s global containment policy and in order to safeguard his domestic plans, he concluded that his administration could not tolerate defeat or even compromise in Vietnam. As Hess points out in chapter 3, Johnson’s decisions merged the “Cold War imperative” with his particular style of presidential leadership. Although unwilling to accept U.S. failure in Vietnam, Johnson did not want a large war that would divert resources and public attention from his domestic programs. Aware that the NLF continued to control many rural areas of the South and that the military government in Saigon had only a narrow base of political support, the president searched for solutions. Johnson sent General William C. Westmoreland, one of the most accomplished officers in the U.S. military, to head MACV and authorized an increase of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam from 16,000 to more than 23,000. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other top aides advised the president, however, that the real enemy of Saigon was Hanoi and not the southern guerrillas. They urged that he find a way to put greater pressure on the North.

THE GULF OF TONKIN INCIDENT Although the Pentagon had developed contingency plans for air strikes against the DRV, such attacks on North Vietnamese territory without provocation were not possible. Other forms of harassment were tried. Through a secret program code-named OPLAN 34A, U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin provided electronic intelligence to support South Vietnamese commando raids along North Vietnam’s coast. On August 2, 1964, the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox was engaged in one of these espionage patrols when it was approached by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. A brief exchange of hostile fire occurred. American carrier-based aircraft joined in the fight, and one of the North Vietnamese boats was severely damaged. Washington ordered no further retaliation but declared its right to sail the open sea. It sent the destroyer C. Turner Joy to join the Maddox to continue the patrols. On the night of August 4, in poor weather conditions, the two destroyers radioed that they were under attack. As soon as these first reports arrived in Washington, the instinctive response among the JCS and other senior presidential aides was to strike back with air attacks against North Vietnamese naval facilities. New messages quickly followed, cautioning that the attack was not confirmed and that the initial radar and sonar reports may have been mistakes.

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Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, who was in charge of all U.S. Pacific forces, cabled from Honolulu, however, that he was convinced there had been an attack. Relying on that judgment, Washington ordered retaliatory air raids. The best historical evidence available now suggests that there was no attack on U.S. ships on August 4, but it also shows that the Pentagon did not know with certainty what had occurred and did not willfully misrepresent the situation to the president. The decision makers in Washington wanted a pretext to send a forceful message to Hanoi not to defy the United States, and many of them believed that on August 4 they had the provocation they sought. The president used this Gulf of Tonkin incident as an opportunity to obtain from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed him to use U.S. forces to repel aggression in Southeast Asia.36 Johnson did not seek this authorization because he contemplated widening the war. He still wanted to limit the U.S. military role in Vietnam. He sought a show of support from Congress for his firm but restrained approach in Indochina that would help him in his impending election against Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who advocated greater use of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Johnson got the political result he desired and won the election, but the way he obtained the congressional resolution created future problems for him. He misled congressional leaders by not divulging the secret patrols that had placed the destroyers in the gulf, and this deception created a basis for mistrust later. Also, having bombed the North and obtained congressional acquiescence, the president now faced less institutional restraint against future military escalation.

ROLLING THUNDER Until Johnson was safely elected in November, he sought to preserve his image as a firm but restrained leader and authorized no additional attacks on North Vietnam, despite other incidents, including a guerrilla raid at Bien Hoa that killed Americans. Political instability in the Saigon leadership also prompted caution before the United States assumed any further risks. The continued lack of effective government in the RVN and the unrelenting pressure of the NLF’s armed insurgency, supported by men and materiel from the North, made South Vietnam’s survival perilous. Most of Johnson’s staff concluded that the United States had no choice but to begin some type of air campaign against North Vietnam and the infiltration routes into the South along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The notable exception among Johnson’s inner circle was Undersecretary of State George Ball, who cautioned that bombing would be the start of a long and violent conflict, that it would not reverse Saigon’s political decline, and that it risked confrontation with Hanoi’s powerful Soviet


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and Chinese allies. Advocates of bombing responded that it would slow infiltration into the South, boost morale in Saigon, and send a message to Moscow and Beijing of the seriousness of U.S. intent in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world.37 On February 6, 1965, an NLF unit killed nine U.S. servicemen in an attack on an American barracks in Pleiku. The president ordered retaliatory air strikes on military installations in the North. Following another guerrilla assault on Americans at Qui Nhon on February 10, the administration began Operation Rolling Thunder, a campaign of continuing and gradually mounting bombardment. Johnson shared many of Ball’s misgivings about escalating the air war, but the president remained determined to avoid defeat in South Vietnam. Ball’s warnings provided no action plan. The JCS were not guaranteeing success, but doing something appeared better to Johnson than doing nothing. Lloyd C. Gardner argues in chapter 4 that Johnson’s 1965 bombing decision was a decisive step in the American war.

JOHNSON DECIDES ON A LAND WAR IN ASIA Having crossed the threshold of an air war against the North, the administration now faced the decision of inserting U.S. ground combat forces into the hostilities in Vietnam. No matter how terrifying or destructive, bombing alone could not control territory or provide population security. The beleaguered ARVN could not even protect the air bases from which the bombers flew their missions. At Westmoreland’s request, Washington provided two battalions of U.S. marines in March 1965 to help defend the Danang air base. In the southern capital, political turmoil also hampered the launching of operations against the enemy. There had been five governments in Saigon since the death of Diem, and the current regime—headed by a pair of military officers, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky—inspired little confidence among Americans. Westmoreland and the JCS believed that the time had arrived for the United States to take over the ground war. They requested 150,000 troops be sent to South Vietnam to seek out and destroy enemy forces. Johnson knew that this decision was momentous and weighed it for several days. As Johnson pondered the decision on ground troops, he listened to McNamara, Rusk, Ball, Taylor (now the U.S. ambassador in Saigon), McGeorge Bundy (national security adviser), and others. The president’s relationship with his top advisers is of critical importance in historical assessments of how the United States took over conduct of the war from the South Vietnamese. His blustering and overbearing personality has been well documented. Both as Senate majority leader and later as president, he was known in Washington for the so-called

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Johnson treatment. He was a large man who could physically and verbally intimidate his subordinates. He was also a master of flattery and could charm and manipulate others. His advisers knew that he demanded personal loyalty and did not readily invite criticism. As is often the case with such strong personalities, he harbored a great deal of hidden insecurity about his ability. He was especially aware of his lack of experience and expertise in military and diplomatic affairs. With the exception of Ball and Clark Clifford (a confidant whom Johnson often consulted), Johnson’s senior aides either urged or accepted the deployment of U.S. forces. McNamara expressed the prevailing view that the United States should act quickly or risk total collapse in Saigon. The introduction of U.S. troops would make later withdrawal difficult, he acknowledged, but the use of American combat units was the best hope for gaining an acceptable outcome in the conflict.38 On the one hand, it may be that these advisers were simply telling their formidable leader what he wanted to hear. On the other hand, these men were experienced, established, and successful individuals who understood the magnitude of the decision they all faced. They presumably believed what they were saying and shared an outlook with the president on the strategic importance of South Vietnam. The president himself remained fairly consistent in his Vietnam policy position from the time he took office up to the July deliberations on ground troops. His thinking was driven by the containment notion that South Vietnam was an outpost on the front line of the global Cold War and by his political sense that this frustrating war was a real danger to his domestic agenda. By the spring of 1965, Johnson was in the midst of bringing his Great Society programs—such as Medicare, civil rights protections, and the war on poverty—to passage in Congress. In a characteristically political move, he approved the sending of 50,000 troops, with another 100,000 to follow, while he publicly downplayed the action as signaling no significant change in policy. In fact, a major decision had been made, but one that he did not want to derail his legislative momentum. As with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson sought to bolster Saigon while protecting his domestic political position. In the long run, however, it would become clear that he had Americanized the Vietnam War, had greatly increased the human and financial costs to the United States, and had not been honest with the American public in the process. Johnson has to bear responsibility for the escalation of the American commitment to Vietnam in 1965, but a long history had defined the policy environment and options that he had inherited. As with most major historical events, the American war in Vietnam had multiple causes. How the war came to be and what kind of war it was remain the subject of debate, but by the summer of 1965 the United States had decided for its own purposes to take over the fi ghting from the South Vietnamese. Major ground operations against units of the


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Vietcong and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)—or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as Americans usually termed it—were now conducted by American combat units, with the ARVN providing local security and support functions. A large-scale American air war was also in progress against targets in both North and South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Johnson had not wanted the role, but he was now a war president.

THE AMERICAN WAY OF WAR IN VIETNAM All wars have much in common, but in many respects the conflict in Vietnam was a different kind of war than Americans expected. National leaders, the general public, and the soldiers, sailors, and marines who went to Vietnam possessed images of war gained from the actual events of World War II and the Korean War and from the fictionalized versions of those conflicts in movies with such popular stars as John Wayne and Audie Murphy. World War II was the great example of American power and heroism coming to the rescue of oppressed peoples. The Korean War was a limited engagement that ended in stalemate and was more ambiguous, but it had sustained the noble image of Americans rushing to the aid of a nation threatened by aggression. Moreover, both World War II and the Korean War had been contests for territory with progress marked by lines on a map. The Vietnam War turned out to be unlike these other experiences. The geographical and political environment proved less responsive to American power. Determining who among the Vietnamese were friends and who were enemies was difficult in a guerrilla war with no fixed battles lines and a Vietcong enemy often wearing the same black peasant garb as the farmers whom American soldiers were supposedly defending. The Vietnam War became a tremendous military, political, and diplomatic frustration to the United States.

THE DRAFT For the sake of his Great Society plans, Johnson wanted to keep the war at a low profile and to avoid full military mobilization. This political choice had a variety of consequences. His rejection of Robert McNamara’s recommendation for a war tax to help finance the buildup, for example, contributed to more deficit spending and put inflationary pressure on the U.S. economy. To maintain worldwide U.S. military manpower levels during the Vietnam troop deployment, the Pentagon wanted to activate reservists, but the president again said no because such action would involve Congress. To meet the need for additional personnel, the military had to rely on an increase in the draft.

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Even though U.S. troop levels in Vietnam leaped to almost 200,000 by the end of 1965 and that figure more than doubled in the following two years, not all young men in America were needed in the military. Throughout the Cold War era, the Selective Service System had functioned much as it was designed to do during the massive mobilization of World War II. Under a concept known as channeling, young men older than eighteen were either subject to military conscription or exempted from that obligation by a complex set of classifications intended to place people where the nation most needed them. Hence, men who were in college or in certain professions or had certain medical conditions could avoid service in many cases. After the Korean War and into the early 1960s, draft calls were low because of adequate voluntary enlistment and the reduced need for ground forces in an era of airpower. With the escalation in Vietnam, draft calls went from 106,000 in 1965 to 339,000 in 1966. More than half of the draftees went to fill the ranks in Vietnam. Selective Service had always been a system designed to decide who would serve when all are not needed, but the fairness of the selection came under scrutiny as the risk of exposure to combat and death in Vietnam became very real.39 About two and a half million American men served in Vietnam, representing 10 percent of the males of the generation that reached age eighteen during the war. The draft exempted more men than it inducted into the service. Those who went to Vietnam were, as a group, poorer and less educated than the average of young Americans at the time. During the first year of the U.S. buildup, 20 percent of U.S. casualties were African Americans, although that group comprised only 13 percent of military personnel. The first units that went to Vietnam were composed primarily of regular army troops, not draftees. Because the military represented a career opportunity for African Americans, the percentage of blacks was high in Vietnam at first. The casualty rates for African Americans eventually dropped to more representative levels. Nevertheless, it appeared that because of class and race, some groups of Americans were more likely to serve in combat in Vietnam than were others. A survey in 1964 indicated that 44 percent of Americans had white-collar jobs, but only 20 percent of U.S. soldiers came from white-collar families. For most of the war, statistics for income, education, and parents’ occupations show that about 80 percent of soldiers were from poor or working-class families.40

ATTRITION STRATEGY AND BODY COUNT The Johnson administration chose a gradually increasing bombing campaign and an incremental deployment of U.S. troops to Indochina because the American objective in Vietnam was limited. The purpose was not to conquer North


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Vietnam or even to threaten its survival to a point that might risk a Chinese or Soviet military reaction. The intent was to sustain South Vietnam’s political survival long enough and put enough pressure on North Vietnam to gain Hanoi’s recognition of the RVN. Although the United States had tremendous power at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, the strategic assumption in Washington was that the full extent of U.S. force was not merited or needed in Vietnam. Given these conditions, General Westmoreland devised an attrition strategy. In chapter 7, John Prados analyzes in detail the reasons for this strategy and some of the problems that it presented. Westmoreland’s plan relied on America’s advanced technology and vast material resources to limit U.S. casualties while inflicting so much damage on Vietcong and NVA forces in the South and military targets in the North that Hanoi would yield. The belief was that the air campaign, the ability to move U.S. troops easily by helicopter, modern weapons, and the other material advantages the United States had over the DRV in this technowar would ultimately exhaust the enemy’s will and ability to fight.41 Progress in the war of attrition could not be measured on a map because the possession of territory was not the objective. Instead, the Pentagon, under Secretary of Defense McNamara, devised a host of statistical measurements, such as the number of aircraft sorties flown and amount of munitions expended. The most controversial yardstick was body count—the estimated number of enemy killed. If the primary objective was to wear down the opponent, a tally of his losses was logical, but this grim tabulation was an unreliable index. It was easily falsified because unit commanders reported their own totals. Even worse, any dead Vietnamese might be counted, including noncombatants, which in effect encouraged indiscriminate targeting of people, especially villagers in rural areas. As the war progressed, U.S. air and ground warfare often resulted in the deaths of the very people U.S. policy claimed to be defending. This village war made victims of a large number of women, but, as Helen E. Anderson details in chapter 9, it also made fighters of so many women that their numbers helped defeat the attrition strategy. Westmoreland intended American military operations to search for and destroy enemy military units to weaken the enemy’s ability to wage war. From the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 through Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City in 1967, he mounted large unit sweeps of thousands of men to find and eliminate the Vietcong and NVA. MACV tactics, as Brigham notes in chapter 10, intentionally forced rural peasants into urban centers, with devastating social consequences. Some areas were designated as “free-fire zones” in which U.S. arms, including B-52 bombers delivering tons of high explosives, could attack at will. These means did not go unchallenged in military circles. Some U.S. Marine commanders and civilian strategists concluded that pacification was a

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better approach. This alternate strategy, detailed by Eric Bergerud in chapter 8, called for smaller unit operations and more cooperation with villagers in order to build political capital for Saigon and weaken NLF influence among the people. Although some U.S. units engaged in pacification efforts, Westmoreland devoted most of his forces, which by the end of 1967 totaled 485,000, to searchand-destroy missions. Late in 1967, the general declared that a crossover point had been reached in which U.S. forces were inflicting more losses on the Vietcong and NVA than the enemy could replace. The political viability of the Thieu–Ky government in Saigon, however, remained in doubt.

HUMPIN’ IT: THE AMERICAN SOLDIER Because of the heavy reliance on the draft and on voluntary enlistments induced by the draft, the average age of American enlisted men in the Vietnam War was between nineteen and twenty—six or seven years younger than the World War II average and signifying what was probably the youngest foreign combat force in U.S. history. Without activation of reserves, there was also a shortage of junior officers and experienced noncommissioned officers to lead these young troops in an unconventional war in an Asian setting that was often unfathomable to Westerners. Added to these conditions were the vague political and military objectives of the struggle, which were usually translated to the soldiers through the brutal shorthand of body count. As a result, many soldiers found themselves immersed in seemingly aimless violence in which their own survival and that of their buddies became the only discernible goal. No one description typifies the experience of American soldiers in Vietnam. Early in the war, morale was fairly high as soldiers accepted the validity of the Cold War purposes announced by their leaders. Later, however, as controversy and doubt about America’s role in Vietnam grew, morale declined. Where a soldier was stationed in Vietnam also made a great difference. Marines in the mountains near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam were at times in trenchlike warfare reminiscent of World War I, whereas army troops in the marshes of the Mekong Delta far to the south often had to contend with elusive guerrillas. Because there were no actual battle lines, even the notion of forward and rear areas was imprecise. In all wars, combat places the warrior in some of the most extreme and stressful of situations, and the Vietnam War was no exception. Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy strategy and the emphasis on body count put American soldiers at tremendous physical and moral risk. Although true that U.S. artillery, helicopter gunships, and tactical aircraft could devastate enemy forces, the difficulty was often in finding those forces. As a consequence, the “grunts,” or foot


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soldiers, went on long patrols through difficult terrain—marches that they referred to as “humpin’ it”—in order to flush out the Vietcong and NVA. Many soldiers believed that they were the bait for the high-tech trap. If an enemy force was found, then the great firepower at the unit commander’s disposal via radio could be unleashed. During these patrols, American soldiers experienced a significant number of deaths and maiming injuries from mines, booby traps, and hidden snipers. Over time, U.S. casualties mounted, and so did the desire for revenge, or “payback,” against the often invisible foe. Fear, anger, and the incentive of promotion or commendation for a high body count could lead to an overapplication of U.S. weaponry that bordered on or even constituted atrocities. Individual Vietnamese and sometimes even entire villages could be “wasted” because they were suspected of being the enemy or simply got in the way. The largest single American atrocity in the ground war was the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, in which a U.S. infantry company killed 504 unresisting men, women, and children in a hamlet in Quang Ngai Province. Although the officers in charge initially covered up the incident, it eventually came under investigation. The lack of evidence and the inherent difficulties in distinguishing between civilians and combatants among the rural population, however, led to the criminal conviction of only one member of the company, a junior officer. Reporting on an attack on a different village, an American television crew recorded an officer’s comment that it was necessary to destroy the village to save it. The tragic irony of that comment revealed much about the attrition strategy.42

THE AIR WAR Nowhere during the Vietnam War was American technological superiority over its enemy more apparent than in the air. The United States had helicopters for troop transportation, medical evacuation, command and control, and close tactical fire support. It had fixed-wing propeller aircraft for transporting troops and supplies, provisioning remote bases, giving fire support, and observing and marking targets for artillery and bombing. It had high-performance jet fighters and fighter-bombers for tactical and strategic bombing as well as B-52 heavy bombers for delivering hundreds of tons of explosives on troop concentrations, supply lines, and other military targets. The United States spent more than $100 billion on these air operations. From 1962 to 1973, the total amount of explosives dropped on Indochina was more than 8 million tons: 1 million tons on North Vietnam, nearly 500,000 on Cambodia, about 3 million on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, and 4 million on South Vietnam. The level of bombing on the RVN in support of U.S. and ARVN ground operations made America’s ally the most bombed country in history.

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The air war did not force Hanoi to recognize the Saigon government or to stop infiltration of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It did not make the Saigon regime more popular in South Vietnam. In fact, the bombing stiffened the DRV resistance and helped solidify the perception in Vietnam of the RVN’s dependence on the United States and its lack of regard for the Vietnamese people. Air cover was often vital to American ground forces’ survival and success, but in a primarily agricultural country such as Vietnam there were few militarily valuable targets. Strategic bombing of North Vietnam and of supply lines into South Vietnam was not effective in hastening an end to the fighting and was in fact often counterproductive. Washington persisted in bombing month after month and year after year for several reasons. Despite evidence from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam itself that strategic bombing did not force an enemy to capitulate, airpower advocates continued to argue that bombing could produce victory. Civilian leaders liked air operations because they produced fewer American casualties than ground combat and thus generated less political opposition at home. In addition, the Johnson administration felt compelled to take some form of firm action to prevent the collapse of Saigon even though it had no clear-cut plan for victory. The airpower option was available and possessed the enticing allure of apparently being a simple solution to a complex problem. The temptation to use it was irresistible.

DIPLOMACY Johnson did not want a U.S. war in Southeast Asia and claimed that the United States was willing to negotiate with the DRV. In Laos in 1962, a diplomatic settlement had eased the risk of major power confrontation. Kennedy and later Johnson resisted applying the Laotian model of a coalition government to Vietnam because they judged that it would lead to a Communist government there. Advocates of diplomacy, such as France’s president Charles de Gaulle and United Nations secretary-general U Thant, argued that the problems in Southeast Asia were political, not military, and that to resort to arms led only to violence, not solutions. Sensitive to such criticisms, the Johnson administration proclaimed it was open to talks even as it turned to military escalation. As the war grew in intensity from 1965 to 1967, both Hanoi and Washington remained more willing to endure the costs of hostilities than to make concessions. Various sources offered scores of private and public peace proposals. In April 1965, in a highly publicized speech at Johns Hopkins University, Johnson expressed an interest in “unconditional discussions” with Hanoi and offered $1 billion in U.S. economic development funds for Southeast Asia as a sign of


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U.S. goodwill.43 In fact, however, Washington was not prepared to yield at all on its demand that Hanoi recognize the RVN’s legitimacy. For its part, North Vietnam continued to resist talks and insisted that U.S. forces would first have to withdraw from Vietnam and that Washington would have to terminate its support of its puppet regime in Saigon. During 1966 and 1967, both sides made a few modest proposals about their troop deployments, and U.S. spokesmen offered some restrictions of the bombing campaign, but neither side would retreat from its basic position on the fate of South Vietnam. In November 1967, McNamara privately advised Johnson that bombing had not achieved its desired effect and that steps toward a negotiated settlement should be taken. As Gardner concludes in chapter 4, the president continued to pin his hopes for success on the force of U.S. arms and rejected the advice. As 1967 ended, each side, the United States and the DRV, remained determined to compel its opponent to accept its terms.

THE RESILIENT ENEMY Just as Washington had settled on an attrition strategy to try to wear down the Vietnamese Communists, Hanoi had its own plan for victory in its doctrine of protracted war. Used successfully in the war against the French, this strategy sought to avoid large, fixed battles and tried instead, through piecemeal attacks and guerrilla harassment, to weaken the enemy’s will to fight.44 Regular PAVN units that infiltrated from the North and Vietcong military formations— organized into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF)—conducted this armed struggle. The NLF and party cadres from the North also engaged in political struggle to recruit peasants and workers in South Vietnam for an anticipated general uprising against the ARVN. These plans constituted a reasonable way for the Vietnamese Communists to use their patriotic and social appeal to the Vietnamese people to counter the technological superiority of the American forces and the U.S.-supplied ARVN. Nevertheless, Westmoreland’s technowar against the North and South inflicted heavy losses on the PLAF and PAVN, and the longer the fighting continued, the higher the costs became for the RVN’s enemies. The Communist commanders who led the struggle against the RVN and the United States were not infallible supermen. They argued among themselves and made mistakes, but they had certain advantages and did some things right. For an analysis of their integrated political and military strategy, see Bergerud’s description of the village war in chapter 8. Hanoi’s adherents were able to tap into the historical Vietnamese resistance to outside domination and to continue

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the nationalistic momentum gained by the Vietminh’s defeat of the French colonialists. Conversely, southern leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Nguyen Cao Ky suffered from the taint of collaboration with and dependence on the Americans. The Communists also had a more disciplined and effective political party organization than did their Vietnamese opponents. Anderson argues in chapter 9 that they were notably better at attracting women as partisans than was the RVN and that the “long-haired warriors” made a significant contribution to the NLF and DRV’s military strength. The charismatic leadership of Ho Chi Minh, who remained the DRV president until his death in 1969, provided further legitimacy to his side. In their commitment to their goal of national liberation, the NLF and DRV leaders could also be ruthless with their opponents and sacrificed the lives of a large number of their own followers. In addition, assistance received from the People’s Republic of China and the USSR helped North Vietnam recoup losses suffered from U.S. bomb attacks and to keep war materiel flowing into the South. At no time did U.S. strategists believe American interests in Indochina were worth the risk of war with China and the Soviet Union or the cost of an invasion of North Vietnam. The United States fought a limited war, and the DRV conducted what for it was a total war. After three years of heavy fighting, neither side was close to a military victory.

THE LIMITS OF AMERICAN POWER IN VIETNAM At the end of January 1968, Vietcong assault forces began coordinated attacks on urban areas, provincial capitals, U.S. and ARVN military installations, and RVN government offices throughout all of South Vietnam. Dubbed the “Tet Offensive” because it coincided with the Vietnamese New Year’s holiday, Tet, this all-out attack was a turning point in the war. As Robert J. McMahon details in chapter 5, the weeks preceding and the months following the initial Tet fighting constituted the pivotal period when the escalation of the American ground war ended and the active search for an American exit from the war began. The surprise offensive caused the Johnson administration, after three years of steady escalation of the U.S. commitment, to reevaluate the strategic importance of Vietnam against the known and potential costs to the United States. It set off a critical reaction to the war within the American media and gave greater credence to arguments against the war that a vocal protest movement had been voicing for some time. This public debate over the war became part of the presidential election campaign of 1968. In the year after Tet, the people of the United States and their leaders began looking for a way out of the Vietnam quagmire.


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THE TET OFFENSIVE Most historians of the war characterize the Tet Offensive as a strategic success for Hanoi because of its psychological impact on the U.S. side. At a time when administration spokesmen were claiming that the U.S. military campaign was weakening the enemy, the Vietcong demonstrated surprising strength and morale in making this bold strike. Even though U.S. and ARVN troops withstood and repulsed the assaults, the official confidence in and the general public acceptance of U.S. purposes that had sustained the American intervention began to erode significantly. Why and how this change occurred have remained the subject of some debate. Why the leaders in Hanoi decided to launch a broad offensive at this particular juncture is not entirely clear. They knew that the Saigon regime remained politically alienated from much of the South Vietnamese population, and they also had to be concerned about the heavy losses their forces were taking from the American ground and air operations. Vietnamese Communist military doctrine since the French war had called for a protracted struggle until a point was reached at which a general offensive would set off a popular uprising against the outside power and its Vietnamese puppets. In view of that doctrine and the battlefield stalemate at the end of 1967, the Tet Offensive can be seen both as an act of survival to initiate a general offensive before U.S. arms further weakened the PLAF and PAVN and as an act of political faith that the people of the South would turn on the RVN and the United States. Regardless of which line of reasoning carried the day in Hanoi, the general offensive did not lead to a popular uprising and instead exposed the Communist forces to enormous losses that they could not afford. At first, their plan for the offensive went well. Between October 1967 and January 1968, the Vietcong and the NVA attacked military targets in remote areas and laid siege to the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh near the demilitarized zone. These feints drew U.S. forces away from the cities while the NLF moved men and supplies secretly into position to attack populated areas. Although U.S. intelligence detected some of these urban-directed movements, Westmoreland and his staff remained convinced that the fighting elsewhere, especially at Khe Sanh, was the principal enemy threat. When the offensive itself began in Saigon, Hue, three other cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, and sixty-four district capitals, the surprise was almost total. Within a few days, however, the mobility and firepower of U.S. forces and a surprising show of resilience by ARVN units reversed what gains the attackers had achieved. Thousands of Vietcong troops were killed or captured. In one notable exception, Hue became the scene of savage fighting that raged for three weeks over control of the old imperial capital. The American

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and ARVN troops prevailed, but much of the city was in ruins, thousands of civilians had died (some executed by the Vietcong), and 100,000 people were homeless. In terms of both conventional and revolutionary warfare, the Tet Offensive was a tactical failure. The people of South Vietnam did not rise up behind the NLF’s revolutionary banner, and the NLF’s fighting forces were decimated, as Bergerud notes in chapter 8. In other ways, however, Tet had significant positive implications for Hanoi. It revealed that the massive U.S. military presence had not been able to stop NVA infiltration into the South. That same flow of men and supplies could and did continue after Tet. American deaths in the Tet fighting were significant, about 1,100 killed in action, which brought the total U.S. deaths in the war to about 17,000 at that time. The fighting in early 1968 also produced some 2,300 ARVN dead and an enormous number of civilian casualties and refugees. This strain on the ARVN and the dislocation of the population severely handicapped pacification efforts. The Tet Offensive came as a shock and surprise to the American people and confronted them and their leaders with the prospect that much more time and money and many more lives would be required if the United States was to continue to defend South Vietnam.

THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT AND THE MEDIA Some Americans had always opposed U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, and that number had been growing even before Tet. In 1965, after the first U.S. combat troops went to Vietnam, organized protests began. In the spring of 1965, there were “teach-ins” on college campuses and a demonstration in Washington organized by the Students for a Democratic Society. Initially involving only a few thousand protesters, the antiwar movement grew significantly during 1966 and 1967 and involved a wide range of activities: petitions, political campaigns, lobbying, street demonstrations, draft resistance, and even acts of violence. Although many protesters were students, peace activists also included ministers, mothers, traditional pacifists, conscientious objectors, and even some veterans embittered and disillusioned by their military experience in Vietnam. A group of these former soldiers formed an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Most members of Congress voted for the funds and authorizations needed to conduct the war, but some prominent legislative leaders, such as Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), held hearings on the war or raised individual objections to the Americanization of the conflict. In the spring of 1967, an estimated 300,000 citizens (including civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr.) gathered in New York City to protest the war, and in November some 30,000 to 50,000 demonstrators held an antiwar rally at the Pentagon.45


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Lyndon Johnson and later Richard Nixon and their advisers were convinced that the existence of a large and public antiwar movement hurt the U.S. war effort by encouraging the enemy. Both administrations insisted that their own policies were not affected by protests, but their criticisms of the antiwar movement made plain that they believed it prolonged the conflict. Government authorities tried in various ways to harass and quiet the critics. Public-opinion polls also showed that a growing number of Americans shared the same doubts about the war that the demonstrators expressed, even if the public disliked the image and methods of the generally young and often unkempt activists. In a democracy such as America, war, especially a limited war, has a significant domestic impact, and Melvin Small details that dimension of the Vietnam War in chapter 11. In trying to disguise the magnitude of the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam, Johnson had not rallied the people in support of the war. As the size and costs of the conflict became apparent over the months, the vague official pronouncements on U.S. purposes in Vietnam generated demands for political accountability. In late 1967, Johnson compounded his earlier mistake with a public-relations campaign to convey the idea that America was winning the war of attrition. The pressure that he felt indicated that the antiwar movement was having an impact. Against the backdrop of official affirmations of progress, the surprise and extent of the Tet fighting deepened public doubt. Although true that U.S. and ARVN forces survived the attacks, the enemy’s continuing ability to strike so forcefully damaged the credibility of official explanations of the course of the war. American newspaper and television reporting of the Tet Offensive quickly noted the discrepancy between government assurances and actual events in the field. In the opinion of General Westmoreland and some other military leaders, this American news reporting of the Tet Offensive was wrong, biased, and defeatist. Sometimes called the “stab-in-the-back” thesis, this view holds that the enemy took a desperate gamble, was soundly beaten back, and was extremely vulnerable to counterattack, but that distortions in the media caused civilian leaders in Washington to hesitate and to reassess Vietnam policy and thereby to miss the opportunity to strike a fatal blow to Vietcong and NVA military capability. This interpretation greatly exaggerates the media’s effect. Until Tet, most of the major commercial media in the United States had accepted the official rationale for the war and the government reports of progress. A few intrepid reporters, such as David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, had been asking hard questions, but the government version had been getting out through the media. Hence, there was genuine dismay within news circles at the beginning of Tet. Television networks, newspapers, and magazines carried dramatic pictures of Vietcong soldiers in the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon and on the streets

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of major cities. These real scenes left their own impression on the public. In the days that followed, respected journalists, such as the popular CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite, declared that they could not see in all of this fighting any quick end to the burden of this war.46 The professional media correspondents basically did their job and reported the dramatic turn of events as it was happening. Top-secret assessments of the fighting by the JCS and by others within the government that are now available to historians reveal, however, the same questions and doubts about U.S. strategy and prospects in Vietnam that reporters such as Cronkite were voicing. For both the U.S. public and the Johnson administration, the heavy fighting in early 1968 brought with it a demand for reexamination of American policies.

JOHNSON DECIDES TO STOP ESCALATION Johnson was not a leader who would accept failure, and he did not interpret the enemy’s Tet onslaught as a U.S. defeat. Always a reluctant warrior, however, the president had determined even before the surprise offensive that the size of the American military effort in Vietnam had about reached its reasonable limit. In a “memorandum for the file” (one of Johnson’s few private, personal comments on the war in his vast archives), he recorded on December 18, 1967: “At the moment I see no basis for increasing U.S. forces above the current approved level.” 47 As a consequence, when JCS chairman General Earle Wheeler endorsed a proposal from Westmoreland for 206,000 more troops, Johnson ordered his new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, to conduct a thorough policy review. Quickly leaked to the press, Westmoreland’s request generated a burst of open opposition to the idea. Such public sentiments were clearly a significant consideration, especially in a presidential election year, but additional influences were also at work within the administration. Although Clifford had supported the war, he put detailed questions about future scenarios to the military brass, civilian strategists in the Pentagon, and a group of elder statesmen called the “Wise Men,” whom Johnson had consulted on other occasions. Wheeler painted a bleak picture of prospects without the additional troops, but he was purposefully vague on how the troops would be used. There was strong debate at the highest levels over whether to continue the attrition strategy or to focus more on pacification and population security. Before former secretary of defense McNamara left the Pentagon, he had come to believe that simply applying more force was not the answer, and his top aides remained in the department and continued to argue that point. Clifford found that members of America’s business elite were concerned about the economic drag that the war was putting on the United States. Finally, a majority of the


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Wise Men, including former secretary of state Dean Acheson, who had helped to establish the global containment strategy, advised that America begin to disengage from the war. After weighing these opinions, Johnson addressed the nation via television on March 31, 1968. The president had decided to reject Westmoreland’s troop request and to authorize only an additional 13,500 U.S. forces. He announced that the United States would limit its bombing of North Vietnam to supply and staging areas just across the demilitarized zone from the South and that he welcomed direct negotiations with Hanoi. Although the DRV quickly agreed to talks in Paris, no substantive diplomatic breakthrough followed. Indeed, some of the heaviest fighting of the war occurred in the remaining months of 1968. In his March 31 speech, the president also shocked the nation when he withdrew himself as a candidate for reelection. The American war in Vietnam was far from over, but it was now going to be a different war under new U.S. leadership.48

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 1968 The Vietnam War was not the only national political issue in the United States in 1968. The civil rights revolution, urban violence, continuing debate over Johnson’s social welfare agenda, an international trade deficit, and other issues also faced the nation’s leaders. With more than 500,000 American soldiers in Vietnam and 400 of them dying each week during the first half of 1968, however, the serious contenders for the presidency had to take and defend a clear position on the war. Especially once Johnson bowed out of the race, there seemed to be an opportunity for the voters to have a direct voice in foreign policy. Despite the controversy surrounding U.S. policy in Vietnam, it had been difficult at first to challenge Johnson politically. Potential candidates from his own Democratic Party and from the Republican opposition did not want to appear disloyal to the president during wartime or unwilling to support American soldiers exposed to the dangers of combat. One candidate who did come forward to contest the president on the war was Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.). He came close to upsetting the president in the New Hampshire primary on March 12. Senator Robert Kennedy of New York was a much stronger contender for the Democratic nomination and also opposed the president on the war. After the largely unknown McCarthy demonstrated Johnson’s political vulnerability, John Kennedy’s younger brother stepped forward as a candidate on March 16. Without Johnson in the race after March 31, the charismatic Kennedy appeared to be the likely Democratic nominee. His stock rose higher on April 4 when he made a heartfelt plea for national harmony upon learning of the assas-

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sination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In an unbelievably tragic sequence of events, however, Kennedy himself was murdered on June 5. McCarthy remained as an outspoken peace candidate, but the party organization turned its support to Johnson’s vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. Because of his role in the administration, Humphrey had the image of being prowar, and his candidacy sparked little enthusiasm among many Democrats. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, the war was the divisive issue inside and outside the meeting hall. On the convention floor, delegates loyal to McCarthy, Kennedy, and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota (another peace candidate) tried unsuccessfully to get the party platform to repudiate Johnson’s conduct of the war. Humphrey then formally received the nomination, but dramatic events outside in the streets overshadowed the voting. Thousands of youths converged on the convention site, condemning the war and taunting Chicago policemen massed to control them. On orders from Mayor Richard J. Daley, the officers brutally subdued and dispersed the crowds in full view of the national and international media assembled to cover the convention. It was a riveting and disturbing scene. In a much more orderly fashion, the Republican Party nominated Richard M. Nixon, who had served for eight years as Eisenhower’s vice president and had lost narrowly to John Kennedy in 1960. Nixon had supported the decisions made by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson to back South Vietnam and had an image as an ardent anti-Communist. As a presidential candidate, he suggested that he had a plan to end the war. His speeches contained no explicit proposals, and listeners were left to interpret for themselves how he meant to extricate the United States. Nevertheless, the public was becoming so sour on the war that many were prepared to accept his assurances that he had a solution. As election day approached, the voters had three choices. Humphrey was tainted by his association with Johnson and the upheaval in Chicago, and Nixon had a reputation for political opportunism dating back throughout his political career. George Wallace, governor of Alabama, had broken with the Johnson administration over civil rights legislation and was running as a third-party candidate. On the war issue, however, Wallace’s running mate, retired air force general Curtis LeMay, had made reckless and frightening statements about destroying North Vietnam with airpower. The contest between Nixon and Humphrey was very close. Shortly before the voting, Humphrey came out unequivocally in favor of an end to U.S. bombing as a step toward negotiations, and many wavering Democrats who had long despised Nixon decided to back their party’s choice. Nixon won the election with a scant margin of only 510,000 in the popular vote, gaining only 43.6 percent of the total vote. Nixon’s vague platform and narrow victory would seem to have provided little indication of popular will. All


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the candidates had assailed Johnson’s conduct of the war, however. The voters had spoken their desire to be rid of the burden of the war, and the responsibility for finding that exit had been entrusted to Richard Nixon.

THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM: DE-ESCALATION Despite all the frustration and agony that the United States had experienced in Vietnam, Richard Nixon entered the White House confident that he could end the American war with the credibility of U.S. power intact. Working closely with Henry A. Kissinger, his principal foreign-policy adviser, the president rejected the notion of a unilateral American withdrawal as an admission of failure that would burden U.S. relations with friends and foes alike. Instead, Nixon and Kissinger believed that the United States could coerce Hanoi into a settlement while simultaneously satisfying the American public’s desire to cut U.S. losses in the war. As Jeffrey P. Kimball argues in chapter 6, Nixon paradoxically escalated the violence of the war while withdrawing U.S. troops and, in the end, left the Vietnamese to engage in their own final, bloody test of wills. Just as Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had discovered, Nixon soon learned that finding an American solution for the conflict among the Vietnamese was not so readily accomplished. It took four more years of fighting, destruction, negotiating, and ultimately compromising before a formal agreement ended the American war in Vietnam in 1973. Two years later, Hanoi’s quest, begun in 1945, to bring an independent and united Vietnam under its control was completed when North Vietnam’s troops entered Saigon. On April 29 and 30, 1975, only hours before arrival of the enemy forces, U.S. Marine Corps helicopters evacuated the last remaining Americans and a few South Vietnamese from the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. Three decades of American policy in Vietnam had failed.

VIETNAMIZATION AND MORE BOMBING During its first year, the Nixon administration pursued a two-part approach to the war. After the divisiveness of 1968, Nixon saw the need to try to maintain unity on the home front to gain the time he needed to deal with Hanoi. For the other part, he tried to bring new pressures and threats to bear on North Vietnam to force a diplomatic settlement that would allow the United States to leave South Vietnam with the Saigon government in place.

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In June 1969, Nixon announced that the United States was withdrawing 25,000 combat troops from Vietnam. Fewer U.S. soldiers in Vietnam meant fewer American casualties and less need for the draft, both of which he knew would be popular at home. The move demonstrated his serious intention to end American involvement in the war. The president also proclaimed what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, which indicated that the United States would continue to back allies with aid and advice but would expect them to make more use of their own troops in their own defense. In Indochina, this policy was called “Vietnamization,” as U.S. troops would be slowly withdrawn to be replaced by a larger and better-equipped ARVN. Although two nationally coordinated moratorium demonstrations protested the slow pace of U.S. disengagement from Vietnam, Nixon countered these criticisms with a speech in which he asserted that a “silent majority” of Americans favored his firm and gradual strategy. Whether such a majority existed or not, Nixon promoted the possibility of an honorable settlement of the war at limited additional costs for Americans.49 Vietnamization was not a new concept. Eisenhower and Kennedy had tried to help Saigon help itself, but the prospect of political collapse in the South had forced Johnson to insert U.S. ground troops and begin sustained bombing. After Tet, Johnson had denied Westmoreland’s request for more soldiers and then replaced Westmoreland with General Creighton Abrams, who began to shift more operational responsibility to the ARVN and to place greater emphasis on pacification. Vietnamization had already been in effect for a year when Nixon proclaimed it as a new plan, and, speaking from his initial experience with it, Abrams cautioned against moving too quickly in that direction. South Vietnamese leaders also protested that the plan was a cynical White House move to ease political pressure in America with the greater expenditure of ARVN lives. The program proceeded, however, and the South Vietnamese armed forces grew to more than 1 million in number and were equipped with huge quantities of modern weapons, aircraft, and vehicles. The infusion of these resources produced some improvement in the ARVN’s efforts, and some units performed well. There were signs of less Vietcong and NVA activity in a number of places, although this lull may have been attributable to decisions by commanders of the revolutionary forces to avoid fighting and wait for U.S. troop strength to decline further. Much doubt remained about the RVN’s ability to protect itself. Desertions and corruption were endemic in the South’s army. Worst of all, the Thieu government had failed to capture popular support and continued to remain almost completely dependent on U.S. financial backing. Aware that Americans were impatient to get the war over and that the Saigon regime was, as always, a fragile house of cards, Nixon and Kissinger tried to pressure Hanoi to yield. In addition to a continuation of the heavy bombing of


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the Ho Chi Minh Trail begun under Johnson, Nixon now added Operation Menu, consisting of air warfare against so-called enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia. This bombing of South Vietnam’s neutral neighbor was not revealed publicly in the United States in order to avoid an antiwar outcry, but it was meant to send a message to Hanoi that Nixon was prepared to use more force. Indeed, according to H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s White House chief of staff, the president wanted to couple such action with his reputation as a fervent anti-Communist to convince Hanoi that he was a madman capable of doing anything, even resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Despite Nixon’s threat to increase the level of destruction against the North itself, the DRV’s leaders, including Ho Chi Minh shortly before his death in September 1969, refused to make any concessions to the United States and persisted in their demand that Washington give up support of Thieu. Faced with Hanoi’s continuing recalcitrance and the mounting domestic dissatisfaction with the war, Nixon and Kissinger consciously but secretly turned, according to Kimball in chapter 6, to a “decentinterval” strategy. They would disengage U.S. forces with the Saigon government still in place but with the intent that, when the RVN came to its likely end, enough time would have passed to lessen the blame to the United States and especially to the Nixon administration.

CAMBODIA AND KENT STATE To meet the twin challenges of containing antiwar sentiment at home and convincing North Vietnam of his determination to sustain South Vietnam, Nixon revealed plans on April 20, 1970, for the gradual removal of another 150,000 American troops from Vietnam. Although this step was meant to keep domestic critics at bay, it posed serious problems for Vietnamization. Abrams argued that the ARVN was far from ready to undertake the major burden of defense of the South. In March that year, a sudden change in the leadership of Cambodia, however, presented Nixon with the opportunity to make a big play that could alter the military balance in Vietnam. Pro-American general Lon Nol overthrew Cambodia’s neutralist leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, opening the way for American ground forces to attack North Vietnamese bases inside Cambodia with approval of the government in Phnom Penh. In chapter 12, Clymer analyzes the tragic era that this coup opened in the history of Cambodia. On April 30, 1970, in a nationally televised address, the president explained his decision to send U.S. and ARVN troops into the “Fishhook” area across Cambodia’s border, some fifty miles north of Saigon. The administration labeled this action a temporary “incursion,” and critics called it an “invasion” of Cambodia. According to the president, the purpose was to repel North Viet-

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


namese aggression against Cambodia, to protect Vietnamization by neutralizing enemy sanctuaries along the border, and to destroy Hanoi’s Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), which was reportedly located in the Fishhook area. Nixon ended his belligerent address with a claim that this bold stroke was an act of defense of free nations against totalitarianism and anarchy. Nixon’s expansion of the U.S. combat role into Cambodia set off a firestorm of protest. North Vietnam’s violations of Cambodian territory were nothing new. There were doubts in official circles about the location of COSVN, and, in fact, the invading Americans did not find it. The president might have been able to withstand these criticisms, but the controversy sparked by the invasion exploded into widespread outrage on May 4 when Ohio National Guardsmen, ordered onto the campus of Kent State University to quell antiwar protests, fired on a group of students, killing four and wounding at least nine. Student and faculty strikes and boycotts at hundreds of universities followed. Some campuses shut down completely, including the entire University of California system on orders from Governor Ronald Reagan. Nixon had entered office promising to end the war. To many citizens, however, his continued use of airpower, his actions in Cambodia, and his tough defense of his decisions suggested that he was not reversing course despite the troop reductions he had made. Although never conceding that protests swayed his policies, Nixon did remove all U.S. troops from Cambodia by the end of June 1970, and he increased secret efforts by Henry Kissinger to reach a negotiated settlement with the DRV.

NEGOTIATIONS AND THE PARIS PEACE ACCORDS On three occasions before the invasion of Cambodia, Kissinger had met secretly in Paris with Le Duc Tho, a member of the DRV Politburo. These talks produced no agreement, but in September 1970 Kissinger resumed direct talks with North Vietnamese representatives. As a politician, Nixon well understood the need to find an exit from Vietnam before the 1972 presidential election. As Small examines in chapter 11, public-opinion polls, media commentaries, and congressional restiveness were pressing on the administration to act. In June 1971, the leak to the press of the Pentagon Papers, a secret summary and compilation of twenty years’ worth of documents, revealed the superficiality and lack of candor in the Vietnam policy process and strengthened the case for ending the American war. Shortly before the Pentagon Papers appeared, Kissinger had secretly presented a proposal in Paris that for the first time offered to accept the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South after an American


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withdrawal if Hanoi would pledge no further infiltration. The DRV indicated some interest but first wanted a U.S. pledge to end support of Thieu. The two sides remained at odds over the political questions involving the Saigon government, but there had finally at least been some discussion of the military issues of troop withdrawals and release of American prisoners of war (POWs). Early in 1972, Nixon and Kissinger made two dramatic diplomatic moves. Nixon went to Beijing in February. It was the first U.S.–China summit meeting since the establishment of the Chinese Communist government in 1949. Nixon’s handshake with Mao Zedong began a process of reducing Cold War tensions in Asia, but his China visit did not result in making the DRV any more flexible in its demands. Nixon also traveled to Moscow in May and made progress in nuclear arms talks with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Again, however, improvements in U.S.–Soviet relations did not translate into changes in the Washington–Hanoi stalemate. The United States still had to deal directly with the DRV. As 1972 began, both sides were still trying to use military means to get better terms. In March, the NVA began a massive conventional assault, including tank warfare, on the northern and central provinces of South Vietnam, followed by Vietcong attacks near Saigon and in the Mekong Delta. The United States responded with force to this Easter Offensive, as it came to be called. Despite the risk of damage to Soviet ships on the eve of the Moscow summit, Washington ordered a naval blockade of North Vietnam and the mining of the North’s major port at Haiphong. In an air operation code-named Linebacker, U.S. planes conducted the largest bombing attacks up to that time against targets in North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The intensity of Nixon’s military reaction surprised Hanoi. DRV strategists had been waiting to strike as U.S. combat force levels fell, and those had dropped to fewer than 100,000 in early 1972, with only about 6,000 being combat soldiers. The North Vietnamese were also counting on White House political calculations to restrain the United States as the presidential election approached. Instead, the heavy U.S. bombing helped reverse initial NVA and NLF gains against the ARVN and inflicted severe damage on North Vietnam and its forces in the South. Nixon’s decisive action also helped raise his approval rating in public-opinion polls, although he knew that the prevailing public sentiment still favored a peace settlement. In late summer during the secret Paris talks, Le Duc Tho indicated for the first time that the DRV would accept the Thieu government in a coalition following a cease-fire. In October, Hanoi dropped the coalition demand and offered a settlement based only on a cease-fire in place, U.S. troop withdrawal, exchange of POWs, and continued political discussions including the RVN, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) representing the NLF, and some

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


neutral Vietnamese parties. Nixon and Kissinger were prepared to accept these terms, but Thieu vigorously objected to the provisions that left NVA troops in the South. Nixon won reelection in November over antiwar Democrat George McGovern, but the peace settlement remained elusive. Hanoi refused to consider Thieu’s demands for an NVA withdrawal, and negotiations broke off in mid-December. From December 18 to December 29, 1972, in an operation designated Linebacker II by the air force and dubbed the Christmas Bombing by journalists, U.S. aircraft dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam. It was the heaviest bombing attack of the war and has been a source of controversy ever since. The Nixon administration was exasperated with both Hanoi and Saigon, and the bombing can be seen as a message to both. Washington wanted the DRV to sign the October agreement and wanted the RVN to cease being obstructionist. To both sides, Nixon was saying that the United States remained strong and willing to use forceful action even as it was showing a readiness to compromise. Airpower advocates have claimed that bombardments of this size should have been employed earlier and more often against the North because Hanoi quickly resumed talks and signed a cease-fire after the attack. Doubters of the necessity for and the effectiveness of the bombing note that the DRV had been prepared to sign even before the bombing and that it was Thieu who was the problem. On January 27, 1973, the United States, DRV, RVN, and PRG signed an agreement in Paris to end the hostilities. The provisions were virtually identical to the October terms. There was to be a cease-fire in place, which left North Vietnamese troops in the South. The few remaining U.S. troops were to leave, and U.S. POWs would be released. Nixon privately assured Thieu that U.S. military aid to the RVN would continue, but, with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the American war in Vietnam was over.50

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM VICTORY IN 1975 The president asserted that the U.S. military was departing Vietnam with American honor intact because Thieu’s government still remained in office. In later years, Nixon wrote that the United States actually won the war because the final settlement would have been entirely reasonable and workable if the DRV had observed it. He contended, for example, that North Vietnam infiltrated 35,000 more troops into the South during 1973. In contrast, DRV historians of the war charge that the ARVN never observed the cease-fire and immediately began to attack the NLF and PAVN units.


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The Paris settlement did not end the fighting in Vietnam, but it provided a means for U.S. forces to depart and for American POWs to be repatriated. Without U.S. air and land forces in the war, the ARVN was left with its vast supply of American equipment to contest alone the PAVN and the PLAF, which had demonstrated throughout the war an effective fighting ability. Moreover, Thieu’s government, which owed its political life to U.S. support, had to compete with the revolutionary legacy that Ho Chi Minh’s successors had inherited from him and his original Vietminh movement. For the Vietnamese, the war did not end in 1973 but only entered a new phase. Nixon had promised Thieu continued U.S. military aid after January 1973, but the president underestimated the extent of the American public’s desire to leave the war behind. In 1973, Congress passed, over Nixon’s veto, a War Powers Resolution that prohibited any president from making an extended combat deployment of U.S. troops without congressional approval. Between 1973 and 1974, Congress cut the amount of money budgeted for military aid to the RVN from more than $2 billion to about $1 billion and in 1975 reduced it even further, down to $700 million. At first, Hanoi was cautious about escalating the fighting for fear that the United States might reenter the war. It soon became clear, however, that there was no base of support in Congress for such action. Also, in 1973 and 1974, the Watergate scandal began to unfold in Washington as Congress and the public learned of criminal activities connected to Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign. Fighting for his political life and finally resigning in August 1974, Nixon was in no position to pressure Congress on further help for South Vietnam. Congress had done its duty in prosecuting the Watergate charges and in publicly calling a halt to endless funding of South Vietnam. Although Nixon’s decent-interval strategy privately recognized that there was a limit to what Washington could do for Saigon, he and his sympathizers chose to blame Congress for what they disingenuously characterized as transforming Vietnamization from a success into a failure. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for a bitter debate over what might have been in Vietnam that plagued U.S. foreign-policy thinking for years. In the spring of 1975, the war in Vietnam ended much more rapidly than anyone had expected, even PAVN strategists. In March, NVA and NLF forces quickly took over the key towns of Ban Me Thuot, Pleiku, and Kontum in the Central Highlands. When Thieu ordered an ARVN retreat, mass confusion and panic resulted, with soldiers and civilians choking the narrow roads trying to escape the fighting. The PAVN then attacked Danang and Hue, began moving down the coast, and advanced on Saigon. Congress turned down a lastminute request from President Gerald Ford for $300 million in emergency aid to the RVN. Blaming the United States for abandoning him, Thieu resigned. The Republic of Vietnam simply collapsed. The American ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to evacuate the U.S. Embassy until the last

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


possible moment. As enemy forces entered the city, the remaining Americans and what few South Vietnamese associates they could hastily take with them made a chaotic escape. It was an inglorious end to U.S. nation building in Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, the flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam flew over Saigon, which the victors renamed Ho Chi Minh City.51

THE WAR THAT WILL NOT GO AWAY The Vietnam War was one of the major wars of the twentieth century. It lasted for thirty years in Vietnam, and for Americans it spanned twenty-five years, from the establishment of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam in 1950 to the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. The estimate of Vietnamese deaths, military and civilian, is about 2 million, and millions more Vietnamese were wounded, missing, or rendered homeless. Villages, forests, and farms throughout the country were destroyed by high explosives, napalm, and defoliants. More than 58,000 Americans died, and 300,000 more were wounded. Direct U.S. government expenditures were about $140 billion, which added to the national debt, contributed to double-digit inflation by the 1970s, and took away resources needed for social services in the United States. Although the fighting in Vietnam ended in 1975, the high costs and long duration of the war had an enduring impact on the people and nations of Southeast Asia, on American veterans of the war, and on American politics, society, and culture. As with any major historical event, there was also the question of what lessons could be derived from all of this violence and sacrifice. Because the United States lost the war, coming to terms with its legacies and drawing conclusions from it have been difficult and divisive for Americans, and some issues remain highly contested. The American war in Iraq that began in 2003 raised again, in very real terms, a division over the meaning of the phrase “no more Vietnams.” Did the result of the American war in Vietnam mean that the United States should steer clear of direct intervention in deeply rooted local conflicts? Or should the United States never again enter into a war in which the American people and their leaders were not willing to use whatever power and take whatever time was necessary to achieve U.S. objectives?

THE POSTWAR WARS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA The Vietnam War was an internal conflict between rival Vietnamese factions, but it was always part of broader regional and international political upheavals that followed World War II. As the fighting was ending in Vietnam, it was also


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ending in the other former French protectorates of Laos and Cambodia. Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords for Vietnam, the contending parties in Laos produced a similar document. The Communist Pathet Lao dominated the coalition created by this agreement and had close ties with the Vietnamese Communist Party. With Hanoi’s victory in 1975, the Pathet Lao took direct control of the government in Vientiane and began a concerted effort to kill all the Hmong minority who had fought with the CIA against the Laotian and Vietnamese Communists. Many Hmong died, but about 100,000 managed to escape to the United States. In Cambodia, the Communist-led Khmer Rouge seized control in Phnom Penh from Lon Nol’s government on April 17, 1975, even before the DRV captured Saigon. The Khmer Rouge’s rise to power ushered in one of the most horrific chapters in the violent chronicles of Southeast Asia. American bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1969, the Lon Nol coup in 1970, and U.S. and ARVN cross-border operations had destabilized the fragile political balance that Norodom Sihanouk had maintained in Cambodia. In this turmoil, the small Khmer Rouge rebel movement attracted followers and ultimately overwhelmed the weak government forces. Unlike the Pathet Lao, the Khmer Rouge had always resisted domination by the Vietnamese Communists. In power, they not only were determined to defy Hanoi, but also set out on a radical and ruthless program to empty the cities, exterminate all bourgeois Cambodians, and turn the country into an agrarian Communist state. In the process, under the leadership of Pol Pot, they murdered 1.5 million people in their country. The death total was so staggering that it can only be labeled a genocide conducted by a government against its own people in the name of revolution. Despite the Cambodian holocaust, whose full reality was not immediately apparent to the outside world, the Khmer Rouge had an ally in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communists and the Cambodian rulers claimed a common ideological goal of building rural socialism, but they also shared a historical concern with Vietnamese expansion at their expense. Beijing ended most of its military aid to Vietnam in 1975. Between 1975 and 1978, from the perspective of the Politburo in Hanoi, the People’s Republic of China and Democratic Kampuchea, as the new regime had renamed Cambodia, appeared to be encircling Vietnam. In 1976, the government of Vietnam renamed its country the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Although the Hanoi regime had won the war, it confronted a host of domestic obstacles and needed international assistance. Ravaged by the war, Vietnam faced the enormous tasks of building an economic infrastructure and helping hundreds of thousands of citizens: orphans, amputees, homeless refugees, drug addicts, and other war victims. Many of these citizens were concentrated in cities in the South. In chapter 10, Brigham analyzes how forced

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urbanization caused by the war in the South affected Vietnamese society in ways that have often not been understood. Hanoi created economic collectives and attempted other socialist reforms, most of which met resistance in what had been the RVN. The Communist authorities placed former South Vietnamese political and military officers in “reeducation camps” and executed some of them. The government then began to place restrictions on small entrepreneurs, most of whom were ethnic Chinese. Many of those threatened began to flee Vietnam by sea and became known to the world as “boat people.” Ironically, the SRV turned initially toward its former foe, the United States, for help in reconstruction. President Jimmy Carter had indicated that Washington would consider normalization of relations with the SRV if Hanoi provided a full accounting of all American POWs. In critical need of funds, Vietnam’s leaders insisted that the United States pay $3.25 billion in war reparations. Although the Paris Peace Accords and some statements by Nixon had referred to helping Vietnam rebuild from the war, no American political leader could agree to outright demands from the former enemy. Carter also sought to improve relations with China, which was not eager to see the SRV gain strength. As a result, the Carter administration produced no U.S.–Vietnam reconciliation. As Robert D. Schulzinger explains in chapter 13, it would be twenty years before the two nations established formal relations. Late in 1978, after being rebuffed by Washington, the proud leaders of the SRV turned reluctantly to Moscow for help and signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. Carter announced soon afterward that Washington was normalizing relations with Beijing. On December 25, 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and soon broke the grip of the tyrannical Pol Pot regime. Hanoi installed its own Cambodian allies in power and backed them with a large Vietnamese occupation force. China launched military attacks against the northern provinces of Vietnam to punish the SRV for expansionism. Beijing ended the campaign after about a month, having failed to deter Hanoi. Although the SRV had ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge, the United States and Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors continued to isolate Vietnam from much needed economic markets and investments. The United States did not restore normal relations with Vietnam until 1995. Did the repression and hostilities that emerged in Vietnam and Cambodia after 1975 suggest that U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia had been justified? The Vietnamese reeducation camps, the flight of the boat people, and the Cambodian holocaust seemed to confirm that the Indochinese Communists were the evil dictators that American leaders had insisted they were. Furthermore, Hanoi’s moves to control Laos and Cambodia also cast Vietnam as an aggressor. Yet the SRV’s efforts to seek restored relations with the United States


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and to maintain its independence from China and the Soviet Union conversely demonstrated that it valued its independence over its Marxist ideology. Also, many of its actions were more desperate than calculated and reflected the heavy burden of thirty years of warfare. The politics of Southeast Asia became extremely complex after the Vietnam War because the international and ideological circumstances there had always been much more multidimensional than the simple “Communist” and “anti-Communist” labels the Cold War had imposed on the region.

AMERICAN VIETNAM VETERANS All wars leave physical and emotional scars on the soldiers who fight them; hence, one should not assume that the Vietnam War was any more traumatic than other conflicts. With that caution in mind, one should also acknowledge the fact that military veterans of the Vietnam War often experienced social alienation. Part of America’s self-image was a boast that the nation had never lost a war. In this war, however, U.S. forces failed to achieve the government’s stated objective of preserving an independent South Vietnam. The controversial nature of the war and the ultimate lack of success caused many Americans to want to avoid discussing it at all and to forget about it as quickly as possible. The American warriors were given no victory parades, and, in fact, they returned to a country that seemed pointedly disinterested in them and what they had experienced. Even worse, some citizens blamed them alone for what was, in truth, a shared national debacle. The majority of veterans did not return from the war with severe physical and psychological problems, but all had to reintegrate into a society that largely ignored veterans as a group. Many veterans would not or could not discuss their experiences even with family and friends. Some had difficulty holding jobs or maintaining personal relationships. The men and women (primarily military nurses) who had been through a difficult ordeal were bitter because they now felt rejected and unappreciated by other Americans. In chapter 13, Schulzinger traces how America’s Vietnam veterans slowly and often through their own individual and collective efforts moved from alienation to acceptance in American society. The plight of some veterans was extreme. Some had been exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the war and were suffering serious health problems, such as rashes and cancers, and their children were born with birth defects. Although laboratory research indicated a link between these conditions and the chemical dioxin in Agent Orange, the Veterans Administration health system resisted recognizing these ailments as war-related disabilities. An

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out-of-court settlement of a class-action lawsuit was made with the chemical manufacturers in 1984, but the issue had caused much resentment. More pervasive than dioxin poisoning was a psychiatric condition that in the 1980s came to be labeled “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). Medicine had long recognized that combat produces psychological trauma. Known by various terms, such as “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” this mental illness was not well understood, and, as with Agent Orange, official response to the problem after the Vietnam War was not always sympathetic. The symptoms of PTSD are severe personality changes that include agonizing grief, tormenting guilt, isolation, suicidal longings, violent outbursts, severe depression, and a sense of meaninglessness. Psychiatrists now view these patterns as normal reaction to abnormal stress, but during the first decade after the war many people, including health professionals, mistakenly assumed that such inability to readjust from the fear, rage, and guilt of war came from a dysfunctional personality prior to the war experience. Although diagnosis and treatment finally changed, much suffering had occurred. Because Vietnam veterans often felt isolated and misunderstood, some found support in other veterans and sought ways for veterans to help one another help themselves. One of the most prominent outcomes of this process was the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is often referred to as “the Wall” because its design is a sloping black granite wall constructed in the side of a small rise in the Washington Mall in the center of the nation’s capital. On it are carved the names of the 58,000 Americans who died or remain missing in Vietnam and Indochina. A group of veterans conceived of the memorial idea, raised the funds to build it, and implemented its design and construction. It soon became the most visited site in Washington and had a remarkably positive impact on helping the veterans, the families of the dead, and the public confront together the painful legacies of the war. With its dedication in 1982, the Wall helped lift the national amnesia about the war, and healthy discussion of the conflict has ensued since the mid-1980s. One of the biggest obstacles to postwar readjustment for veterans, the public, and the government was the issue of POWs and those missing in action (MIAs), taken on with an almost religious devotion impervious to compromise or reason. In comparison with those from other American wars or with the Vietnamese people’s own experience, the 2,300 Americans still MIA after the release of U.S. POWs in 1973 was a small number, and many of them were pilots killed in fiery crashes that left few human remains. As U.S. public opinion had turned against the war after 1968, however, the Nixon administration had seized on North Vietnam’s accountability for all American POWs and MIAs as a way to bolster American unity. Nixon helped turn the National League of Families of POWs and MIAs, who naturally wanted news of their loved ones, into a visible


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national lobby. Every president after Nixon felt politically compelled to reaffirm the demand that Hanoi satisfy all U.S. requests for POW/MIA information as a prerequisite for establishment of economic and diplomatic ties. This stance delayed normalization of relations, which was in effect a way to punish Vietnam for winning the war, and it prolonged official sanction of the forlorn hope that some Americans remained alive as prisoners in Indochina years after the war. For more than twenty years, numerous congressional and presidential investigations turned up no credible evidence to support this hope.

FILMS, FICTION, AND POETRY Important indications of what the Vietnam War meant and still means to Americans are found in movies, literature, and popular music. During the war, songs played a large role in cultural expression, especially in antiwar anthems such as Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” There were also prowar songs—for example, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”—and the popularity of the various types of songs with different groups in society underscored some of the domestic divisions that the war created. As the level of American involvement in the war increased, stories, poems, and novels about the war began to appear, many written by soldiers or journalists who experienced the conflict firsthand, and the volume of these works grew after the war. Hollywood largely avoided the subject of Vietnam during the war, although two very different films approached the subject from opposite directions. In 1968, John Wayne directed and starred in a prowar film, The Green Berets, based on a 1965 novel by Robin Moore. It conveyed the classic American self-image of rescuers, with which Wayne was well identified in numerous Westerns and war movies. At the opposite pole was M*A*S*H, a movie released in 1970 about a military medical unit during the Korean War. Employing comedy as social criticism, it was moderately antiwar but was more a satire on official authority and bureaucracy. It was both a box office and a critical success in an era of growing distrust of the political “establishment” that had produced the Vietnam War. It also inspired one of television’s longest-running (1972–1983) situation comedies, which was both highly entertaining and filled with social commentary. After the war, movie portrayals of the conflict went through different phases and images. At first, there was a series of films in the 1970s that portrayed psychologically damaged veterans as dangerous, often psychotic characters. This genre evolved into films, such as the Billy Jack movies, that made the veteran an action hero. In the late 1970s, some serious movies, such as The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now, began to explore what the war had done to

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


the men who had fought it. In the 1980s and concurrent with the Ronald Reagan conservative revolution in politics and its desire to restore American selfesteem, movies such as the series with the character Rambo suggested that the military could have won the war if civilian leaders had allowed it. These films also exploited the POW/MIA obsession. Plots frequently dealt with rescue of captured Americans. The 1980s also saw the appearance of weekly television dramas such as Magnum, P.I. and Miami Vice, whose main characters were Vietnam veterans portrayed as attractive and heroic figures. In the late 1980s, so-called reality films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket sought to combine an antiwar message with a grim depiction of the soldiers’ horrific experiences. Network television had a brief, three-year series at the same time, Tour of Duty, which aimed to create a sympathetic portrayal of infantrymen in Vietnam. A somewhat different series on the air from 1988 to 1991 was China Beach, created by Vietnam veteran Bill Broyles Jr. It was set in a military hospital and explored the stress and dedication of the men and women treating the wounded. In the film Forrest Gump (1994), the war was not portrayed in detail but was central to the story of the title character. Most of the Hollywood films about the war did not focus on the people of Indochina themselves. Exceptions were two survivor stories: The Killing Fields (1984) and Heaven and Earth (1993). The first was the account of how Cambodian Dith Pran, an employee of the New York Times, managed to live through and escape the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Heaven and Earth, directed and written by Oliver Stone, who also directed and wrote the award-winning Platoon and is a Vietnam combat veteran, is a screenplay based on two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman who survived village and urban life under French, Vietcong, and American military threat. From outside Hollywood, the Frenchlanguage film Indochine (1992), although primarily a love story, is a multicultural representation of French Indochina. After the mid-1990s and with the war more than two decades in the past, the number of new Vietnam War films declined. In 2002, We Were Soldiers dramatized the battle of Ia Drang in what many veterans and critics thought was a realistic portrayal of both the horror and the honor of combat service. Based on a best-selling memoir of the battle by Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway, the movie did not discuss the politics of the war and was a generic war film about comrades in arms and respect for their enemies as adversaries. It was in theaters and the home video market at a time when U.S. forces were entering into new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also in 2002, a new film version of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American appeared and had a clear political message. A 1958 film treatment of the novel had starred Audie Murphy, a decorated World War II veteran turned movie star, and had depicted the title character as a champion of democracy. The movie remake followed Greene’s


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much more skeptical view of American officials in Southeast Asia, whose wellmeaning but ill-informed and arrogant attitudes forecast tragic consequences for themselves and those they professed to help. Some of the most probing cultural examinations of the war have come from poems and novels written by Vietnam veterans such as Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, W. D. Ehrhart, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wayne Karlin, John Balaban, and Basil Paquet. Many of these writers reflect on their own disillusionment with the war and how the war changed them and their country. They feel obligated to describe how old heroic myths and conventions about America died in the brutality and pointlessness of America’s application of its destructive might in a place largely unknown to most Americans and of only peripheral value to U.S. security interests. They wrote from a sense of loss and pain. In poetry and fiction, they find that they can convey the emotional stress and moral agony more clearly than in the sparse rhetoric of factual reporting. As Tim O’Brien has noted, the novelist uses invention not to describe what happened in the world, but what happened in the heart, the spirit, and the gut.52

POSTMORTEMS The question of what happened in Vietnam and especially what happened to the notion of American invincibility plagued the nation’s policymakers as it haunted artists, veterans, and families of the dead and wounded. How could a great nation have gone so wrong? Should the United States have been involved at all in Vietnam? Was Washington trying to impose an American solution on what was always a Vietnamese struggle to discover and define its own independent identity? Was American security endangered by the instability and conflict in Indochina? If the survival of an independent South Vietnam was important to U.S. interests, did American leaders pursue the wrong kind of war to gain that objective? These are not idle questions. The United States failed to achieve its goals in Vietnam, but it was not a defeated nation. Its power and interests were still global in scope, and it remained certain that its leaders would again face the decision of when, where, and how to intervene militarily in other conflicts in the world. Policymakers looked to the Vietnam experience for guidance. A decade after the end of the war, former president Richard Nixon complained that U.S. international behavior suffered from a “Vietnam syndrome”—that is, a neo-isolationist desire to avoid all foreign involvement. In chapter 14, George C. Herring explores the origins and long-term implications of this concept. As a major goal of his foreign policy, President Ronald Reagan sought to reinstill a sense of confi-

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dence in U.S. foreign policy. He characterized the Vietnam War as a noble effort to try to defeat forces of tyranny, and he contended that lack of success in Indochina should not prevent America from seeking to help others elsewhere.53 This perception of the Vietnam War led Reagan to approve American aid to the Contras, a force fighting an armed insurrection against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. A majority of members of Congress voted for legislation prohibiting the aid, however, because they drew a different lesson from Vietnam—to avoid U.S. intervention in local political struggles. These policy differences eventually led to the criminal conviction of some members of the White House staff for arranging aid to the Contras in violation of federal law. In August 1990, when Iraq’s army invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush responded with a buildup of U.S. forces in the region that reached 540,000. Unlike the conflicts in Vietnam and Nicaragua, Iraq’s aggression was a clear violation of an international boundary in an oil-rich area of strategic importance. As a result, Bush was able to align a broad coalition of nations to support the U.S. use of force against Iraq. When the U.S. attack began in January 1991, Bush declared that the Persian Gulf War was not a repeat of the Vietnam War because the United States was prepared to strike decisively with overwhelming force rather than with the incremental pressure put on North Vietnam.54 Despite the president’s bold assertions, the shadow of Vietnam hung over his choices. Well aware that mounting U.S. casualties in Vietnam had eroded public support for that war, he ended the invasion of Iraq after only one hundred hours without a ground assault on Baghdad and before any significant number of U.S. losses could occur. The ambiguous mixture of assertion and restraint in the American actions in Nicaragua and Iraq revealed that the Southeast Asian war had ended the Cold War consensus that had placed U.S. troops in Vietnam. Before the Vietnam War, Congress and the voters had usually accepted the executive branch’s judgment on foreign-policy goals and strategies. After the Vietnam experience, there was no visible agreement among American leaders and the public on what constituted interests or threats for which citizens were prepared to risk blood and treasure. When the Cold War itself ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the confusion over the meaning of Vietnam only increased. On a superficial level, it appeared that the United States had suffered a major defeat in Vietnam, a Cold War battleground, but had won the Cold War itself. The idea of winning the Cold War was, of course, an extreme oversimplification of a multifaceted historic change that had more to do with the will of the people in Eastern Europe and with structural weaknesses in Russia than with specific American actions. The absence of a new policy consensus on the use of U.S. military force was seen in the Bush and Clinton administrations’ hesitancy on how to respond to bloody civil conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.


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Despite continuing disagreements over Vietnam, some lessons have emerged from the enormous outpouring of works on the war. Arguments about what might have been—for example, if Westmoreland had put more effort into pacification than into the attrition strategy—are difficult to prove because the evidence available addresses what was actually done. From the historical record, it can be seen that the global containment strategy, although not irrelevant to Southeast Asia, was misapplied. The local and historical conditions in Indochina were not the same as those in Greece, divided Germany, and other areas of Europe for which containment was initially conceived. The decision to apply U.S. power to Vietnam had more to do with maintaining U.S. credibility with America’s friends and foes around the world and with the U.S. voters than it did with the political options in Saigon and Hanoi. It is also clear that, despite the vastness of American power and the strength of American principles, there were limits to that power and those ideals in the physical and cultural environment of Vietnam. Just as the terrain was not always suited for high-technology warfare, so the people were not comprehensible to American soldiers and strategists. American wealth, weapons, and goodwill did not translate into political viability for the Saigon government. Americans need to remind themselves continually that the Vietnamese—North and South, military and civilian, men and women—were principal actors in the war that engulfed their country. As questions about the causes, course, and consequences of the Vietnam War are investigated, they cannot be answered from an American perspective alone. In partial acknowledgement of that reality, President Bill Clinton formally extended U.S. diplomatic recognition to the SRV on July 11, 1995, fifty years after Ho Chi Minh had quoted the American Declaration of Independence as part of his declaration of Vietnamese independence.55 The asking and answering of questions about the war evoke competing visions of America. Writers and readers bring their own values and experiences to the study of historical subjects. Some come bearing a heroic image of the United States and others a selfish image. Combined with these inherent biases, the elusive nature of historical facts also obscures truth. The details of history are always complex and often ambiguous, or they are difficult to retrieve accurately. Those who seek to polemicize the Vietnam War and use its conflicted facts to argue their own narrow case will always be able to do so. Others who seek to exploit the controversy, horror, and valor of the war for their personal or partisan advantage will continue to do that. For those who truly seek an explanation for the origins and outcomes of the American war in Vietnam, however, there must be an appreciation for all of its complex reality.

The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance


VIETNAM AND THE BALANCE OF ENDS AND MEANS The American air and ground war in Vietnam ultimately demonstrated that there are limits to the use of military power as an instrument of democratization. Indeed, the application of massive military force in a country can create so much bitterness and social chaos that a culture of trust and compromise, essential for democracy to take root, can be difficult to fashion. By the 1960s, the nuclear arms race had created a nervous power equilibrium in the direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Peripheral areas of the globe, the so-called Third World, became the area of instability and bigpower conflict. In Vietnam, the American strategic doctrine was a new isolationism: the unilateral application of military force and with it a predilection to rely largely on U.S. power alone without diplomatic compromise. The Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand provided some modest military support to the American war effort, but Japan, an American ally in whose security interest the United States claimed to be acting in Southeast Asia, profited from the Vietnam War by trading with both the DRV and the United States throughout the war years.56 In 1968, the Communist Tet Offensive shocked Americans into new and sober reflection on the limits of power. The resiliency of the North Vietnamese and the NLF forces after three years of heavy U.S. military pressure was evident in their ability to launch coordinated major attacks throughout South Vietnam. The Tet attacks did not mark the United States as a defeated nation, but they demonstrated that the war had become a prolonged and costly military stalemate. American leaders had to do what they had avoided for years: they had to take a practical look at the goals and costs of their policies and then to lower the goals and thus lower the costs. This newfound realism combined with the opponent’s relentlessness to set U.S. policy on a new course toward eventual negotiations. The historical moment and what followed were similar to what the Confederacy had experienced during the American Civil War following the battle of Gettysburg. The South lacked the armed might to achieve its vision of an independent agrarian state and eventually ended its armed resistance to the North, but many Southerners never disabused themselves of their vision. The myth of the “lost cause” grew strong in the decades that followed the Civil War and gave its own meaning to the causes, course, and outcome of the conflict. With the Vietnam War, prudence similarly dictated a change in U.S. policy in 1968, but many Americans held firm to the vision of their nation as an invincible champion of democracy, refused to accept the reality of the experience, and clung to their idealized perceptions.


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Even after the Johnson administration began to restrict U.S. bombing and the deployment of more American troops in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Richard Nixon came into the White House in January 1969 determined to have peace with honor. He refused to acknowledge the limits of American power to reshape local Vietnamese history, politics, culture, and beliefs to fit an American design. Even after his chief negotiator, Henry Kissinger, signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which left the political future of Vietnam unresolved, Nixon maintained that the United States had not failed, had not made a mistake, and was not defeated.57 As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has recorded, Johnson similarly insisted that his policies had not failed and that he had not been forced to begin American de-escalation after the Tet Offensive. She wrote that “Johnson now claimed precisely the opposite: it was his victory at Tet that had made the bombing halt possible. . . . The standard at this point was not the truth, but what Johnson wanted to believe and what he thought he could persuade others to believe.” 58 President George W. Bush was often criticized for not being able to admit mistakes in Iraq, but his behavior in that regard is seemingly a presidential characteristic. Losing the Vietnam War was a frustrating and bitter experience for American families who lost sons or, in a few cases, daughters in the war; for many soldiers and sailors who came home disillusioned by what they had seen and done; and for American officials whose reputations and that of the nation they led were diminished. Even before Kissinger traveled to Paris to sign the agreement ending the war, Nixon had his staff “out selling our line,” as his chief of staff, H.  R. Haldeman, put it, that the president had arranged a “peace with honor” that enabled U.S. forces to depart with the Saigon government still in place.59 Other contemporary observers saw the situation differently. Former navy lieutenant John Kerry, speaking for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, declared: “Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, ‘the first President to lose a war.’ ” 60 Under the terms of the Paris Accords, the last U.S. military units left Vietnam in March 1973, and in April 1975 PAVN troops and tanks entered Saigon and accepted the surrender of the RVN government. Speaking to students at Tulane University as news reports were informing Americans of the fall of Saigon, President Gerald Ford advised the people of the United States to look ahead because restoring lost pride “cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” 61 Ford’s admonition notwithstanding, refighting the war is precisely what Americans have been doing ever since.

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In the RVN’s final days, the arguments among Americans over responsibility for the outcome in Vietnam were under way. Ford asked Congress for $722 million in emergency aid for Saigon, with the city already encircled. The money obviously would not prevent the imminent collapse of the southern government, and members of Congress who were reconciled to that reality had managed to stall the White House’s symbolic request at the time of Saigon’s surrender. Ford and Kissinger insisted that the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization— of equipping the RVN to fight its own war—had produced a viable South Vietnamese regime by 1973 and that the RVN would have survived with adequate American aid after 1973. In truth, however, the RVN was plagued with corruption, poor leadership, rampant inflation, and a war-weary population that made its survival more dependent than ever on U.S. support. Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford adopted a “deliberate policy of denial,” as Christopher Jespersen has termed it,62 and instead, at the time and in their memoirs, placed blame on Congress for abandoning Saigon. Some revisionist historians persist in this effort to isolate blame on some members of Congress, who were representing a public that had turned against the war, for what was a long-term strategic blunder by a generation of American leaders.63 After the Vietnam War, there was a repeat of the pattern that followed World War I and World War II: denial of the analytical lessons provided by scholarly study of the wartime experience and a public discourse overtaken by idealistic interpretations. The failure to assess the causes, course, and outcomes of wars— that is, to accept what power can and cannot accomplish both by itself and through alliances and to define precise U.S. interests abroad after the world wars—contributed to the Cold War.64 A similar lapse after the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War contributed to the Iraq War. A key responsibility of presidents is to articulate the objectives of U.S. foreign policy at home and abroad to friends and foes, and in this role all presidents since Nixon have distorted the history of the American experience in Vietnam in various ways. As a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter complained that leaders had misled Americans about the purposes and costs of the war, but once in office his rhetoric changed. By some obscure calculus, he declared that despite a total tonnage of American munitions expended in Indochina that more than doubled the figure for World War II, the “destruction was mutual” for Vietnam and the United States and that American veterans had earned “an extra measure of heroism.” Carter’s language paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s declaration that the American purpose in Vietnam was “a noble cause.” American soldiers had “fought for freedom in a place where liberty was in danger,” in Reagan’s words. Reagan also revived Nixon’s contention that the American military had won the war by 1973, only to have Congress lose it in 1975. It became relatively easy then, as U.S. tanks roared out of Kuwait and into Iraq in 1991, for George


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H. W. Bush to declare that “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome”—that is, the reluctance created presumably by the Vietnam experience to commit large number of U.S. troops to combat abroad. Bill Clinton completed this presidential version of history in his speech announcing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi in 1995. Acknowledging that the war once divided Americans and reverting to Ford’s admonition, he insisted that “whatever divided us before let us consign to the past.” 65 In a speech at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2007, however, George W. Bush intentionally revived the old debate over Vietnam. He likened his critics who were calling for an American withdrawal from Iraq to those members of Congress and the press in the 1970s who claimed that Indochina would be better off without Americans. They were wrong, Bush claimed, because “the price of American withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens [of Vietnam and Cambodia] whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’ ” 66 The president’s contention that it was a mistake for the United States not to have stayed in Vietnam did not acknowledge that the long and massive U.S. military intervention in the region had itself created tremendous human costs and increased social and political instability that generated more violence. The political manipulation of the history of the Vietnam War ignored the bulk of historical scholarship over why the United States entered the war and for what purpose and helped give credence to revisionist accounts that glossed over or simplified the origins of the war. In addition, the end of the Cold War, marked symbolically with the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, set off a wave of American triumphalist rhetoric that further clouded the lessons of Vietnam. Although the case could not be made that the 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam had contributed directly or even indirectly to the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe or the final collapse of the Communist regime in Moscow in 1991, the moral validity of the containment policy, which the Vietnam-win theorists took for granted, seemed reaffirmed. In a well-known essay, Francis Fukuyama decreed that history’s natural progress toward liberal democracy had finally arrived. A number of books also appeared declaring that Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalist vision of a world safe for democracy was a “potent definer of contemporary history.” 67 Despite renewed enthusiasm for the self-proclaimed American crusade for democracy, the need for realistic analysis remained. Ronald Steel cautioned in the mid-1990s that a foreign policy cannot be effective and retain popular support if it is quixotic or utopian: “It cannot seek impossible ends, like the democratization of the world, or the attainment of a beneficent ‘world order.’ ” Isolationism is not an option in the economically integrated world of today, but the United States cannot, in Steel’s words, “afford to indulge in lingering Cold War

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conceits of military omnipotence and unlimited global responsibilities.” America’s post–Cold War task, he maintained, is “that of recognizing our limitations, or rejecting the vanity of trying to remake the world in our image, and of preserving the promise of our own neglected image.” 68 Authoritarianism, terrorism, and intolerance are inimical to American ideals and thus to American national interests. It is not in the long-term interest of the American people’s peace and security to allow these loathsome patterns of behavior to exist. Wilson’s dream of a world of mutual human respect remains as compelling as ever. As during the Cold War, however, the question is how to respond to these dangers. In the early Cold War, the choice was framed as either containment or liberation. History suggests that social, political, and economic systems based on intimidation and lack of respect for the people contain within them the seeds of their own destruction. Containment was to provide conditions for the Soviet system’s inconsistencies and weaknesses to defeat the system itself. It was not force or power or war that ultimately defeated the Soviet Union, but its own internal dissolution. The frustration of American power in Vietnam and some other similarly frustrating experiences, such as the holding of fifty-three Americans hostage in Iran for thirteen months in 1979 and 1980 by Islamic radicals, as well as the possibility of flexing American power presented by the collapse of the USSR provided an opportunity for a determined group of public officials to reorient American foreign policy. Some of these officials, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, had held positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and their agenda was to build up U.S. military power, regain popular support of the armed forces that controversy over Vietnam had weakened, boldly advance democratic ideals, and through these steps prepare to overwhelm any adversary America might face. During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, these neoconservatives—or “neocons,” as they were labeled by the press—began to put some of their ideas in place, but for them the end of the Cold War represented only part of their vision of how the United States, the world’s only superpower, could advance its values and ideals in the world. In the George H. W. Bush administration, the neocons—including Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Richard Armitage—held a number of key foreign-policy positions. Although this group and Rumsfeld were out of office during Bill Clinton’s two terms as president in the 1990s, the United States continued during those years to increase its global military capabilities. When George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001, the neocons returned to the top of the nation’s foreign-policy leadership. As a group, they transferred ideas developed during the Cold War into the post–Cold War world. In their opinion, the United States should employ its military strength, spread its ideals, and not accommodate other centers of power. From the end of the Vietnam War


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through the Bush administration, their aim was the “pursuit of unrivaled American power.” 69 After the horrific terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Bush turned to this team for advice on how to define the threat facing the United States and how to respond to it. The attack was an act of aggression by a dangerous but stateless faction representing a militant minority position in a broad conflict engendered by the relationship of the predominantly Muslim countries to the global cultural and economic system. It did not represent the kind of danger to U.S. national survival that previous generations of Americans had faced in the German Nazi Party or the Russian Communist Party, which had controlled major nations with the material resources and military capacity able to threaten the political and economic survival of the United States. The attack of September 11 was a terrible event, but it was not in itself a strategic turning point. In his televised address to the nation on the evening of September 11, Bush declared global war on terrorism: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” 70 In the emotion of the day, this sweeping statement appeared to be in order, but in the hands of Bush’s neocon advisers it became a policy doctrine that the United States would pursue alone if necessary. Bush declared four days after the attacks: “At some point, we may be the only ones left. That’s okay with me. We are America.” 71 As historian Walter LaFeber has noted, the Bush doctrine was a formula: “American exceptionalism plus the nature of U.S. power equals the efficacy of its unilateralism.” 72 In June 2002, Bush told the graduates at West Point that “the American flag will stand not only for our power, but for freedom. . . . We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants, . . . and we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” 73 America’s power would democratize world politics. In February 2005, almost two years after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and began an armed occupation of the violence-torn country, the president reaffirmed the pledge to democratize Iraq: “And the victory of freedom in Iraq will strengthen a new ally in the war on terror, inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran, bring more hope and progress to a troubled region, and thereby lift a terrible threat from the lives of our children and grandchildren.” 74 This vision was Wilsonianism on steroids. Some broad analogies can be drawn among the rise of the dictators of the 1930s, the rise of Soviet military power after World War II, and the rise of the threat of terrorism by Islamic radicals. They all created a source of fear that, if not properly channeled, could lead to emotional or irrational thinking. They represented a threat to the global status quo because these dissatisfied nations or

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peoples were willing to resort to the use of force to bring about change and to view appeals to peace as maintenance of conditions that did not serve their interests or might even have threatened their interests or identities. How did the United States respond to this threat? After World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War, the choice was similar. Leaders could place their faith in the power of American ideals—freedom, self-determination, and open trade—or they could make careful and precise definitions of national security interests— economic, political, territorial, and cultural—that could be achieved and preserved by the means and resources reasonably available to the United States.75 Noting the persistent recurrence of this choice in the history of U.S. foreign policy, Melvin Leffler has argued that for the Bush administration after September 11, 2001, “values and ideals . . . trumped interests.” 76 In the case of Vietnam, the United States made a number of imprecise and vague assumptions about the danger of the Vietnamese Communist movement to U.S. interests. American leaders gave little thought to what means would be required to achieve the declared objective of preserving a government and society in South Vietnam open and friendly to the United States. The United States faced a determined adversary willing to endure tremendous costs in lives and hardship to deny the objective that Washington sought. There are significant differences between the Vietnamese Communists and the Iraqi insurgents in history and organization, but the parallel remains in the type of international challenge presented to the United States. The insolvency of U.S. policy in Vietnam—that is, the gap between the poorly defined ends and the reasonable means available—produced a dilemma. The United States was capable of applying a level of force that would have totally destroyed the country and its people. The issue of how much force and destruction was too much, however, placed real limits on power. The United States was also incapable of reforming the internal society of Vietnam—of making the Saigon government popular with the Vietnamese—because external influences had little impact on locally ingrained patterns of authority, daily living, and corruption (both old and new). The American experience in Vietnam stood as a caution to the effusive Bush administration rhetoric about democracy in Iraq and the world. In 1957, President Ngo Dinh Diem made a state visit to the United States, and American officials heralded his government in South Vietnam as a miracle of democracy and political survival. Those claims proved to be public-relations spin not grounded in Vietnamese reality.77 The goal of U.S. policy to create a popular regime in Saigon friendly to American interests was never realized. American pacification efforts to connect Saigon to the people had some temporary success, but no lasting effect. Loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for the RVN were conspicuously absent in 1975 as the PAVN stormed into Saigon. The foreign policy


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of any nation, including the United States, is by its very nature the protection of its interests in the international environment, not the determination of the domestic life of other nations. The origins of regional conflicts and how those conflicts might imperil the United States continue to matter to American policymakers. The George W. Bush administration declared Iraq to be a threat to U.S. security, just as various presidents identified North Vietnam to be a threat. It is now known that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (regardless of what U.S. analysts thought originally) and that Saddam Hussein was not a supporter of the alQaeda terrorists who had attacked America, any more than Ho Chi Minh was a puppet of Moscow. Saddam would not allow al-Qaeda into areas he controlled, but Iraq became open to terrorists of all stripes after his removal.78 Ho was wary of Soviet and Chinese intentions toward his country but was in part compelled into closer relations with them because of U.S. threats to his country. Political solutions for any internal conflict, such as Vietnam or Iraq, have to be local and regional to be lasting. George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign-policy advisers tried to restore the rare moment at the end of World War II when U.S. ideals and power were paramount and to hold on to the illusion of U.S. victory in the Cold War. The Iraq War put U.S. military strength to work on behalf of a vision that American values and ideals would prevail throughout the world.79 This triumphalism, like the win thesis on the history of the Vietnam War, is politically and psychologically appealing. In fact, however, the United States is a nation among nations, with limits to its power and with national objectives that have to compete with or be reconciled with other peoples and states’ national interests. To fashion a successful foreign policy, Washington has to identify reasonably attainable goals that can be achieved by reasonably available means in a dangerously complex world. Although top American officials asserted before the Iraq War began that the United States was not engaged in nation building in Iraq, as it had attempted in South Vietnam, the difficulty of restoring civil order in Iraq actually revived the phrase “winning hearts and minds” from the Vietnam pacification efforts.80 An even more haunting echo of the past was the credibility trap in which the Bush administration found itself—that is, how to begin to reduce the American presence in a war that was much more costly than anticipated, but without the appearance of abandoning Iraq and the region to further chaos and harm. The U.S. decision to fight a war in Vietnam and to continue that war for as long as it did was shaped primarily by Washington’s desire to maintain the credibility of U.S. power and purpose among both friends and foes. The decision revealed little appreciation for internal historical factors in Vietnam itself. It became obvious over time that the vast military and economic power of the

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United States and the democratic ideals that American leaders liked to proclaim had only limited applicability in the physical and cultural environment of Vietnam. If there is one general historical lesson to be drawn from the American experience in Vietnam, it is the need for U.S. leaders to define specific U.S. interests in what are often violently contested regional issues. American policy should be derived from an analysis of the benefits and risks to the United States presented by local conditions and the alignment of American goals and ideals with local aspirations. Local influences on a conflict will shape its course and outcome in ways that extend beyond what U.S. force and ideas, no matter how great or noble, can determine.

Notes 1. For discussion of how policymakers use historical perspectives, see Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986); and Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992). 2. Quoted in David Elliott, “Parallel Wars? Can ‘Lessons of Vietnam’ Be Applied to Iraq?” in Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young (New York: New Press, 2007), 17. 3. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), 261. 4. Robert K. Brigham, Iraq, Vietnam, and the Limits of American Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 177–82; John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 211, 214. See also Kenneth J. Campbell, A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2007). 5. George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 357. See also Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 329. 6. Richard A. Melanson, American Foreign Policy Since the Vietnam War: The Search for Consensus from Nixon to Clinton, 3rd ed. (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2000), 6–10. 7. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941–1966 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 32. 8. Harry G. Summers Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell, 1984), 122.


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9. Marc Jason Gilbert, “The Cost of Losing the ‘Other War’ in Vietnam,” in Why the North Won the Vietnam War, edited by Marc Jason Gilbert (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 187. 10. Quoted in David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 64. 11. Summers, On Strategy, 125–26, 173. 12. See, for example, Anderson, Trapped by Success, 208–9; Herring, America’s Longest War, 132–33; George M. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Books, 1987), 165–67; Gerard J. DeGroot, A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War (Harlow: Longman, 2000), 84–87; and Seth Jacobs, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 271–76. 13. Philip E. Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 210. See also Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists and Vietnam (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990); Ellen Hammer, A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963 (New York: Dutton, 1987); and Edward Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945–1954,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35, no. 3 (2004): 433–58. 14. Norman Podhoretz, Why We Were in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983); Michael Lind, The Necessary War (New York: Free Press, 1999); Gary R. Hess, “The Unending Debate: Historians and the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History 18, no. 2 (1994): 243–46. 15. Summers, On Strategy; Bruce Palmer Jr., The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984). 16. Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 17. See, for example, Kathryn C. Statler, “Triumph Imagined” [review of Triumph Forsaken, by Mark Moyar], Diplomatic History 32, no. 1 (2008): 153–57; Edward Miller, David Kaiser, David L. Anderson, Scott Laderman, and Mark Moyar, “A Roundtable on Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954 –1965,” Passport: The Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 38 (2007): 5–22. 18. David L. Anderson, “The Vietnam War,” in A Companion to American Foreign Relations, edited by Robert D. Schulzinger (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003), 309–29. For a perceptive, eyewitness commentary on U.S. ground combat operations, see Daniel H. FitzGibbon, “To Bear Any Burden”: A Hoosier Green Beret ’s Letters from Vietnam (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2005). 19. George W. Bush, interview on Meet the Press, February 8, 2004, transcript available at 20. Card and Rice, quoted in Bill Sammon, “Vietnam War ‘Fixation’ Endures,” Washington Times, May 11, 2004.

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21. “Council on Foreign Relations: Condoleezza Rice on George W. Bush’s Foreign Policy,” transcript of interview by Charlie Rose, October 12, 2000, available at 22. Herring, America’s Longest War, 357. 23. Joseph L. Galloway, “Vote, Declare Victory, and Come Home,” Monterey County Herald, January 16, 2005. 24. Ngô Vinh Long, Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese Peasants Under the French, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 71–72. 25. “Declaration of the Founding of the Communist Party of Indochina,” February 18, 1930, in Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works, 4 vols. (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1960–1962), 2:145–48. 26. David Halberstam, Ho (New York: Knopf, 1971), 12. 27. See, for example, George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); and William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, new ed. (New York: Norton, 1972). 28. Woodrow Wilson, address to a joint session of Congress, April 2, 1917, in Selected Literary and Political Papers and Addresses of Woodrow Wilson, 3 vols., edited by Ray Stannard Baker and William E. Dodd (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1927), 2:244. 29. Congressional Record, 65th Cong., 2d sess., January 8, 1918, 56:680–81. 30. U.S. House of Representatives, Document No. 358, 77th Cong., 1st sess., August 14, 1941. 31. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960), 332–33. 32. Dulles to Collins, April 20, 1955, box 9, Subject series, John Foster Dulles Papers, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kans. 33. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, vol. 4, Vietnam, August– December 1963 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 372–74 (series hereafter cited as FRUS, with dates and volume titles). 34. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964), 659–60. 35. FRUS, 1961–1963, vol. 4, Vietnam, August–December 1963, 638. 36. Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2d sess., August 10, 1964, vol. 110, pt. 14:18, 132. 37. FRUS, 1964–1965, vol. 2, Vietnam, January– June 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 181–83. 38. FRUS, 1964–1965, vol. 3, Vietnam, June –December 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 106–8, 171–75. 39. Report of the President ’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970), 165–66. 40. Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 6.


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41. For General Maxwell Taylor’s description of the attrition strategy, see U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as Amended: Hearings on S. 2793, 89th Cong., 2d sess., January 28 and February 4, 8, 10, 17, and 18, 1966. 42. David L. Anderson, “Introduction: What Really Happened?” in Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre, edited by David L. Anderson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 1–17. 43. Department of State Bulletin, April 26, 1965, 606–10. 44. Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War: People’s Army (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 29–30. 45. See, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 231–44. 46. For Cronkite’s views, see Peter Braestrup, Big Story, 2 vols. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1977), 1:157–59, 2:180–89. Warren Bell, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Ron Ridenhour, Kevin Sim, and Kathleen Turner reflect on the media’s role in Vietnam in “Reporting the Darkness: The Role of the Press in the Vietnam War,” in Anderson, ed., Facing My Lai, 53–76. 47. FRUS, 1964 –1968, vol. 5, Vietnam, November–December 1967 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002), 1120. 48. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968– 1969 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970), 468–79. 49. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1971), 901–9. 50. United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, vol. 24, pt. 1, 1973 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974), 1–225. 51. Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam, translated by John Spragens Jr. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977). 52. Tim O’Brien, “The Mystery of My Lai,” in Anderson, ed., Facing My Lai, 172. 53. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1988–1989 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 1495–96. 54. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George Bush, 1991 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992), 42–44, 196–97, 206–7. 55. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton, 1995 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 1073–74. 56. Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger, eds., International Perspective on Vietnam (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000); George C. Herring, “Fighting Without Allies: The International Dimensions of America’s Defeat in Vietnam,” in Gilbert, ed., Why the North Won the Vietnam War, 77–95. 57. Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 368–70.

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58. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Signet, 1976), 371–72. 59. Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 33. 60. John Kerry, testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 22, 1971, in Vietnam and America: A Documented History, rev. and enlarged 2d ed., edited by Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 459. 61. Quoted in David L. Anderson, “Gerald R. Ford and the Presidents’ War in Vietnam,” in Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945–1975, edited by David L. Anderson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 197–99. 62. T. Christopher Jespersen, “Kissinger, Ford, and Congress: The Very Bitter End in Vietnam,” Pacific Historical Review 71, no. 3 (2002): 439. 63. For a scholarly assessment that contends that Vietnamization was working, see Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt, 1999). For analyses that challenge this view, see James H. Willbanks, Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); and Gary R. Hess, Vietnam and the United States: Origins and Legacy of War (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 136–38. 64. Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), 545–49. 65. Robert McMahon, “Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society, 1975–2001,” Diplomatic History 26, no. 2 (2002): 164–72. All the presidential quotes in this paragraph are from this article. 66. President George W. Bush, speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, August 22, 2007, available at 2007/08/20070822-3.html. 67. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (1989): 3–18. For a discussion of this resurgence of Wilsonian internationalism, see Lloyd Ambrosius, “Woodrow Wilson and World War I,” in Schulzinger, ed., Companion to American Foreign Relations, 149–51. 68. Ronald Steel, Temptations of a Superpower (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 131, 137. 69. James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush ’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), 372, see also xii–xvi, 90–91. And see H. W. Brands, “Ideas and Foreign Affairs,” in Schulzinger, ed., Companion to American Foreign Relations, 8–9; Marilyn B. Young, “Still Stuck in the Big Muddy,” in Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History A fter the Fall of Communism, edited by Ellen Schrecker (New York: New Press, 2004), 270–71; and Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 125–40.


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70. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush, 2001, for the date September 11, 2001, in The American Presidency Project (online), edited by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters (Santa Barbara: University of California, n.d.), available at 71. Quoted in Walter LaFeber, “The Bush Doctrine,” Diplomatic History 26, no. 4 (2002): 550. See also Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 443. 72. LaFeber, “Bush Doctrine,” 549. 73. President George W. Bush, graduation speech at the United States Military Academy, June 1, 2002, available at 20020601–3.html. 74. President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, February 2, 2005, available at–11.html. See also Edward Rhodes, “Onward Liberal Soldiers? The Crusading Logic of Bush’s Grand Strategy and What Is Wrong with It,” in The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-In on U.S. Foreign Policy, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young (New York: New Press, 2005), 228–52. 75. On the mixing of what he terms “hard” and “soft power,” see Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004). 76. Melvyn P. Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 29, no. 3 (2005): 410. 77. Anderson, Trapped by Success, 160–64. 78. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004), 30–31, 266–70. 79. Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, 358; Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy,” 410. 80. Peter Maass, “Professor Nagl’s War,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2004, available at War.html.

Further Reading Anderson, David L. The Vietnam War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Anderson, David L., and John Ernst, eds. The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Bradley, Mark Philip, and Marilyn Young, eds. Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Brigham, Robert K. Iraq, Vietnam, and the Limits of American Power. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

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Duiker, William J. Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995. Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950– 1975. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Hess, Gary R. Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War. New York: Wiley, 2008. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1992. Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009. Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. ——. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Small, Melvin. Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002. Tucker, Spencer, ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. 3 vols. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Par t I Chronological Perspectives

1. Setting the Stage Vietnam es e R ev o l ut io n ar y N a t i o n a l i s m an d t he F ir s t V iet na m W a r Mark Philip Bradley

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh mounted a raised wooden podium in Hanoi’s central Ba Dinh Square to proclaim Vietnam free from more than eighty years of French colonial rule. The speech marked the culmination of the August Revolution, which had brought to power the largely Communist leadership of the first postcolonial independent Vietnamese state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho began his speech this way: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776.” 1 Vietnamese independence, Ho continued, drew not only on the sensibilities of the American Revolution, but also on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Ironically, the echoes of eighteenth-century Euro-American revolutionary politics in Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence were almost immediately challenged by the very powers he drew on for inspiration. For the next thirty years, war engulfed Vietnam as initially France and later the United States fought against the Ho Chi Minh government and divided the country between the Communist North and non-Communist South. In April 1975, those efforts came to an end when tanks driven by the North Vietnamese


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Army (NVA) crashed through the gates of South Vietnam’s presidential palace and took the surrender of the last remnants of the American-backed South Vietnamese state. After decades of bloody warfare that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of French and Americans and millions of Vietnamese, much of the promise of Ho’s Independence Day speech was fulfilled. An independent Vietnam was reunified under Communist control. This chapter explores how it was that Ho Chi Minh came to proclaim Vietnamese independence in 1945 and the sharp challenges to it in the first Vietnam war, from 1946 to 1954. In part, it moves backward in time, focusing on the dislocations to Vietnamese society under French colonialism and the rise of Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism. But it also looks to the period of the French war to consider the complex ways in which the struggle for Vietnamese independence became joined with the dynamics of an emergent Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Finally, it considers the legacies of the postcolonial moment in Vietnam for the contours of the second Vietnam war, what the Vietnamese call the “American war,” after 1954.

VIETNAM BEFORE THE FRENCH Precolonial Vietnamese state and society traced its origins to as early as 2500 b.c.e. in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam, where indigenous lords and kings governed a peasant population largely engaged in wet rice agriculture. For some 1,000 years, from 111 b.c.e. to 939 c.e., Vietnam was a Chinese protectorate, which developed a complex relationship between the two peoples. On the one hand, the Vietnamese aggressively fought against Chinese rule. Even after throwing off Chinese control in 939, the Vietnamese put up successful resistance to repeated Chinese efforts to reclaim Vietnam between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. These efforts to retain their independence against China produced a powerful indigenous tradition in folktales and legends of the Vietnamese as indomitable resistance heroes. At the same time, however, Vietnamese elites consciously borrowed Chinese patterns of governance and Confucian social norms. Although Vietnamese Buddhism provided an alternative tradition of political and social organization, Chinese forms and practices increasingly over time came to structure state and society. The three Confucian bonds—emperor to subject, father to son, and husband to wife—along with the veneration of ancestors and familial lineages through filial piety (hieu) came to shape the Vietnamese political and social order, as did Chinese practices of training and selecting Confucian superior men (quan tu) as the scholar-officials who would serve the emperor in governing the state. The Viet-

Setting the Stage


namese Confucian order reached its apogee in the nineteenth-century Nguyen dynasty, which would face not Chinese but French colonial invaders. Southern Vietnam’s historical development was somewhat different. Only in the fifteenth century did the Vietnamese people begin what is known as the March to the South, conquering and colonizing the Muslim Cham and ethnic Khmer who lived in the region. Parts of the Mekong Delta in the south were not settled until the early twentieth century. The impact of Chinese Confucian models was less intense in the south, particularly in rural areas. Geographies also reinforced regional differences. Dry weather, overpopulation, and periodic flooding of the Red River posed difficulties for agricultural production in the north and prompted a tightly knit communal village structure in part to maintain the dikes necessary to prevent the dangers of flooding. By contrast, the sparser settlement and fertile character of the Mekong Delta in the south produced a looser village social structure, with southern peasants more individualistic and entrepreneurial in their outlook than their northern counterparts. Whatever these regional differences, the bulk of Vietnam’s precolonial population lived in rural villages. Although hardly egalitarian utopias, they were organized in ways that worked to limit severe gaps between rich and poor. Communal lands, often 25 percent of village land, were periodically redistributed to support poor and landless peasants. Social convention in the form of patron– client ties between large landowners and village notables and small holders, tenants, and the landless forced wealthy villagers to consider the interests of poorer residents. Patron–client ties were hierarchical and unequal, but they promoted reciprocity. In times of poor agricultural harvests, for instance, patrons and agents of the Vietnamese state at the local level often reduced the tax and other burdens on middle-income and poor peasants. These ties were also highly personal because both patron and client usually lived in the same village. If a patron became too exploitative, oppressed clients could resort to subtle social pressures (ostracism, ridicule, or insult), shift patrons, flee the village, or, in extreme cases, resort to murder or open rebellion. Far from conflict free, precolonial rural society nonetheless operated through these universally accepted social norms to produce relatively stable levels of familial and individual well-being.

THE COMING OF FRENCH COLONIALISM French conquest of Vietnam in the mid- to late nineteenth century brought profound disruptions to the political and social organization of Vietnamese society and to the lives of indigenous elites and the mass of peasants. At the political level, the Confucian system of governance was replaced by French control.


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French officials ruled colonial Vietnam in the south directly under French law. The emperor was preserved as a figurehead in central and northern Vietnam, but real power rested with French colonial officials. In the economic sphere, the French created a huge rice industry in the Mekong Delta. By 1930, colonial Vietnam was the third-largest exporter of rice in the world. The French also built large concentrations of rubber and coffee plantations in the south and expansive mining operations for coal and minerals in the north. Beyond filling the need for indigenous labor to service the colonial extractive economy, the Vietnamese had little place in the new colonial order. Traditional elites watched as the French enervation of Vietnamese political, economic, and social life undermined the Confucian premises that had shaped their views of the world. For many, French rule seemed to foretell what the Vietnamese called “national extinction” (vong quoc). As one contemporary Vietnamese observer wrote, “Why do they rule the world while we bow our heads as slaves?” 2 The introduction of the modern capitalist economy into the Vietnamese countryside destroyed many of the protective conventions that had shaped precolonial rural society. The French colonial state’s increased bureaucratic intervention strengthened the local landowners’ authority and made it easier for them to ignore local opinion. It also prompted the seizure of communal lands, increasing levels of rural stratification. Commercialization of the economy forced the use of cash rather than barter in the terms of trade. It placed many smallholders in a dependent tenancy and landless peasants in staggering debt. Rapid demographic growth—the Vietnamese population increased from 9 million in 1890 to 37 million in 1930—put serious pressure on cultivatable land and caused the terms of agricultural tenancy to decline further. Increases of as much as 500 percent in the rural tax burden under French rule added to peasant woes. The French used the head and land tax to finance the cost of its colonial project in Vietnam, but such policies greatly intensified rural indebtedness. One Vietnamese villager from central Vietnam recalled the differences these transformations made in the lives of his family: “There was a rich family protecting my family for many years. Even before I was born they rented us land very cheaply. . . . But during the French time they raised the rent so high it was ridiculous.” 3 Taken together, colonial-era policies and developments affected the lives of Vietnamese peasants in substantial ways and significantly widened the potential for class tension and rural disorder.

THE RISE OF REVOLUTIONARY NATIONALISM Resistance to French rule emerged almost immediately among Vietnamese elites. Patriotic court officials and provincial elites launched the Save the King (Can Vuong) movement in the face of French conquest of northern Vietnam in

Setting the Stage


the 1880s. Seeking to restore the emperor and preserve traditional society, the movement was ultimately ineffective against superior French firepower. Out of these failed efforts, however, a second generation of anticolonial leadership emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century. These leaders began to look outside of Vietnamese traditions to understand Vietnam’s humiliating defeat by the French and to recast the meanings of state and society. For the first time, European and American historical experiences became a major part of Vietnamese political discourse. Members of the reform generation were captivated by the writings of Rousseau and Montesquieu, the nation-building projects of Peter the Great and George Washington, and the inventiveness of James Watt and Thomas Edison. Perhaps the most compelling Western thinker for Vietnamese reformers was Herbert Spencer, whose social Darwinism appeared to offer a powerful explanation for the weaknesses in traditional society that they believed led to Vietnam’s domination by the French. Their efforts to translate these new perspectives into effective anticolonial agitation floundered in part because of harsh French repression. But it also floundered because the movement’s scholar-gentry leadership directed little attention to mass action that might have effectively combined their largely elite concerns with efforts to address the social and economic problems that plagued Vietnamese rural society. The 1920s brought a new generation of young nationalists to the Vietnamese political stage, among them the future leaders of Vietnamese Communism. Their embrace of more radical paths to Vietnam’s political and social transformation increasingly dominated anticolonial politics in the late colonial period. Many of these young radicals were students—sons and daughters of traditional elites—who were impatient at the pace of change. They were as critical of French rule as they were of the precolonial Confucian political order and of what they perceived to be the reform generation’s inability to respond effectively to the predicament posed by French colonialism. The movement also drew on a new indigenous social grouping in urban Vietnam who bitterly resented French colonialism. This urban intelligentsia was made up of shopkeepers, smaller traders, clerks, primary schoolteachers, journalists, and technicians, whose livelihoods had emerged in the context of French colonialism. Despite this connection to the French, they deeply resented their economic marginality and the limits the French placed on their opportunities for education and political participation. Self-consciously experimental and iconoclastic, Vietnamese radical thought was never fully anchored in a body of shared principles. The radicals’ disparate search for individual and societal transformation rested on an almost romantic belief in revolutionary heroism. It was expressed most forcefully in the numerous biographies authored by radicals that were the dominant mode of indigenous


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publishing in the late 1920s. Often highly emotional in tone, radical biographies of such figures as Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen, Catherine the Great, and George Washington urged readers to emulate the personality traits of their subjects in the belief that they offered exemplary models for collective action against French colonialism. As one biography of Abraham Lincoln concluded, “From the story of Lincoln, we know that fate does not control individuals. . . . We know that his accomplishments were in all cases due to his inner virtue. If we aspire to the accomplishments of Lincoln we must first develop his virtues.” 4 Within this radical intellectual milieu, Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Hoi (Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League) in 1925. The Youth League served as the forerunner of Vietnamese Communism, providing much of the movement’s top leadership and its ideological orientation during the World War II and French war periods. Its largely student membership included Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh, who, along with Ho Chi Minh, would oversee the DRV after 1945. Both were students shaped by the radical politics of the 1920s. Only Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the DRV’s army in the French war and formed the third member of the leadership troika under Ho after 1945, was not a member of the league. He was, however, an active participant in the radicalizing events that shaped his generation. Ho Chi Minh was central to the establishment of the Youth League and its ideology. Several decades older than the league’s student membership, Ho was born sometime between 1890 and 1894 in central Nghe An Province to a poor scholar-gentry family. Through his father, a minor scholar official closely involved in anticolonial activities, he came to know many of the leaders of the reform generation. He left Vietnam for Europe in the summer of 1911, embarking on an intellectual and political odyssey that brought him to Europe, northern Africa, and the United States and through which he turned from more gradualist anticolonial ideas and strategies to Marxism. Ho Chi Minh became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920, a student at the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow in 1923, and a leading spokesman for the anticolonial cause at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1924. Sent to China as a Comintern agent in 1925, he began the organizational work that resulted in the establishment of the Youth League. The ideology of the Youth League was most fully expressed in The Road to Revolution, prepared by Ho Chi Minh in 1927 as a training manual for the organization’s members. Marxism, in particular its Leninist formulations, occupied a dominant place in the work. It provided an overarching framework to universalize the Vietnamese colonial experience and an organizational path to realize the league’s anticolonial aspirations and envisioned transformations of Vietnamese society. In Road to Revolution, however, Ho emphasized the immediate

Setting the Stage


imperative of the “national question” rather than “social revolution” or class issues, borrowing as much from indigenous political discourse and the ideas of Jefferson, Gandhi, and Sun Yat-sen as he did from Marx and Lenin. He also freely mixed Confucian maxims with Leninist rhetoric from What Is to Be Done? to explicate the virtues necessary for young revolutionaries to bring about Vietnamese independence. In the end, Ho envisioned progressive elites and peasant masses coming together through patriotic ties and the desire for social reform to throw off French colonialism. The 1930s did not prove receptive to Ho’s radical vision of anticolonial action. Vietnamese Communists, influenced by a broader shift to more classbased revolutionary strategies within the international Communist movement in the late 1920s, began to splinter into contending factions. After widespread incidents of radically inspired anticolonial agitation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the French incarcerated many Youth League members, including Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh. Ho Chi Minh was arrested in Hong Kong but managed to escape, only to begin a desultory exile in Moscow. In their absence, a group of Moscow-trained proletarian internationalists were left to run what was now termed the Indochinese Communist Party under an ultra-leftist banner emphasizing class struggle, proletarianization, and social revolution rather than the inclusive nationalism of the Youth League. In southern Vietnam, the party was increasingly mired in ideological division and endemic infighting by students returning from France who had been active partisans in debates between French Stalinists and Trotskyists. The adoption of the Popular Front policies and its de-emphasis of class struggle as promoted by the international Communist movement in 1935 relegitimated aspects of the Youth League’s ideological orientation, but Vietnamese Communism remained fragmented and diffuse, making little progress in mobilizing urban or rural populations. In many ways, Vietnamese radicals were no closer to transforming indigenous society and achieving independence at the end of the 1930s than the reform movement had been in the early decades of the twentieth century. The experiences of World War II, however, fundamentally shifted the fortunes of Vietnamese Communism.

WORLD WAR II AND THE AUGUST REVOLUTION The Japanese occupied Vietnam for the bulk of the World War II period. The occupation put in place a climate favorable to revolutionary nationalism and the radical political ideas that would ultimately bring the Vietnamese Communists


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to power in the August Revolution of 1945. Japanese occupation created an ever larger political and military vacuum in Vietnam. In part, the occupation humiliated the French and gave a psychological boost to Vietnamese nationalists as evidence of the possible defeat of the European powers by Asians. More practically speaking, the Japanese dismantled critical aspects of the French colonial security apparatus, allowing easier recruitment to the anticolonial cause in Vietnamese villages. The Japanese occupation also imposed severe economic hardships on the population, intensifying radical demands for change. A terrible famine in the winter of 1944/1945 in northern and north-central Vietnam killed as much as 20 percent of the population. The Japanese occupation also further weakened non-Communist and more moderate anticolonial movements in Vietnam. In the late 1920s, the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, Vietnamese Nationalist Party) emerged at roughly the same moment as the Youth League. The party enjoyed limited success at organizing and mobilization, in part because its social base remained rooted in urban elites rather than in rural peasants, with whom its focus on patriotism rather than economic reform gave the party little sustained traction. French capture and execution of party leaders before a planned uprising in 1930 severely weakened the VNQDD, although it remained a limited political force in the 1930s and 1940s. In the south, two religious sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, did hold significant support in the countryside. The two sects were quite different in character. The Cao Dai combined elements of Catholicism and Buddhism in colorful and exuberant ways, whereas the more subdued Hoa Hao was shaped by folk Buddhist practices. Both sects combined millennial spiritual messages with socioeconomic reforms, including welfare programs, communal markets, and an independent court system that directly addressed the problems that French colonialism had posed for the rural people’s livelihoods. At their peak, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao commanded the allegiance of several million followers in the south. But their appeal was limited: they were largely southern regional movements, their intellectual outlook (in particular the Hoa Hao’s) failed to appeal to many urban southern elites, and they never directly addressed how to displace the French through supralocal uprisings. Also weak were Francophile nationalists who had urged collaboration with the French to promote indigenous economic and social improvement. Made up of the few sectors that directly benefited from French colonial rule—including large landowners, some urban economic elites, rural notables, and many Vietnamese Catholics—this group was hindered by the lack of any meaningful French political and economic concessions. Its members were also viewed with some suspicion by rural peoples because their vision of nationalism tended to address their own economic and political self-interests rather than the needs of the countryside. Of significance, their weaknesses in the late-colonial and World War II

Setting the Stage


period would persist after 1945 and complicate French and American efforts to draw on them to lead an alternative to the Ho Chi Minh government. Had the Japanese promoted any one of these groups or given them access to independent military power, the postwar history of Vietnam might have been quite different. In fostering a potentially radical political environment and further weakening non-Communist nationalist groups, however, the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II created critical preconditions for the Communist rise to power. The Vietnamese Communists embraced a series of policies that sought to take full advantage of this promising situation. Perhaps most important was the adoption of the policy of all-class nationalism and the establishment of the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), more commonly known as the Vietminh. Ho Chi Minh, returning to Vietnam for the first time since the early 1930s, gathered members of the Communist Party together in May 1941 at the China–Vietnam border for the Pac Bo Plenum. Here the policy of all-class nationalism first emerged, one that sought to tone down Marxist ideas of class struggle and emphasize Vietnamese patriotic traditions to unify all sectors of the Vietnamese population against the French and the Japanese. The Vietminh was the institutional mechanism designed to put these policies in action, an organizational front under Communist control that sought to include workers, poor and rich peasants, landlords, women, Buddhists and Catholics, urban elites, and intellectuals in a series of interlocking national salvation associations. The plenum also adopted the use of guerrilla warfare strategies and revolutionary base areas. If in the 1930s the Communist Party had viewed its rise to power as the result of a single uprising modeled on the Bolshevik Revolution, party strategists by the time of the Pac Bo Plenum recognized the necessity of prolonged struggle. Inaccessible and rugged rural areas, not cities, would provide the base for a full-time guerrilla military force guided by the party. Influenced in part by Mao Zedong’s military strategies in China, which had circulated in Vietnamese radical political discourse in the late 1930s, the new policies also reflected local conditions and Vietnamese experiences. These policies were put in practice through the development of base areas in the mountainous northern region of Vietnam near China known as the Viet Bac. Here the party, under the auspices of the Vietminh, gained the support of upland minority peoples and by 1944 the support of many Vietnamese peasants living in the upper Red River Delta as well. These base areas would become the springboard for the August Revolution and play a critical role in Vietnamese strategy in the French war. More immediately, the Vietminh were the only effective force to combat the famine that gripped northern and north-central Vietnam in the winter of 1944/1945 and claimed the lives of 1 to 2 million people. The French and the Japanese largely looked away from the famine’s impact, as did most other


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Vietnamese political groupings, but the Vietminh jumped in to help, organizing raids on Japanese granaries, using ration cards to equalize food distribution, and supervising emergency rice plantings. These efforts won them the allegiance of many desperate peasants. They also reassured landlords because the Vietminh’s approach to famine relief did not include calls for land redistribution. Throughout the World War II period, the Vietminh sought to portray themselves in Confucian and patriotic terms that they believed would resonate with wide sectors of the Vietnamese urban and rural population. The leadership consciously drew on Confucian models of personal ethics and selfless sacrifice to society. Ho Chi Minh’s carefully crafted public persona projected all the desirable qualities of the Confucian “superior man”: rectitude, sincerity, modesty, courage, and self-sacrifice. Village-level cadres were asked to emulate these behaviors, hoping to draw the same kind of respect from the peasantry that the Confucian scholar-gentry had enjoyed in the precolonial period. Vietminh political writings of the period frequently resorted to the use of Confucian motifs and ideas. Cadres were required to read Ho’s translations of a Chinese work on Confucian political morality, and songs such as “The Vietminh Policies” that were used to train military recruits conveyed a sense of Confucian moral strictness. The Vietminh also sought to align their struggle with Vietnamese traditions of patriotic resistance against Chinese invaders. Vietminh manifestoes and newspapers made frequent reference to such patriotic heroes as the Trung sisters, Ngo Quyen, and Le Loi, who had led celebrated efforts to resist the Chinese in the precolonial period. The Japanese coup of March 9, 1945, further transformed the political climate in Vietnam and triggered the August Revolution. Disarming French troops and abolishing the French colonial administration in less than twentyfour hours, the Japanese put in their place a puppet Vietnamese government without any real urban and rural support or any independent military power. The Vietminh used their expanding bases of support and developing army to take full advantage of this power vacuum. Aware of the likely victory of the Allied forces led by the United States in the Pacific War, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist leadership were intent on seizing control of major Vietnamese cities before those forces arrived in Vietnam to take the Japanese surrender. They hoped that they could gain recognition from the Americans, British, Dutch, and nationalist Chinese. The time was right, they believed, to launch a general uprising. Moving out from the countryside, the Vietminh took Hanoi on August 19. Within days, they seized control of Saigon and the imperial capital of Hue. On August 30, the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated. Before a cheering crowd of almost 400,000 on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh brought the August Revolution to a close by proclaiming Vietnamese independence.

Setting the Stage


Hovering over the August Revolution was the real and imagined presence of the United States—a presence with important implications for the French and American wars, but whose vectors have sometimes been misunderstood. For some, the World War II era seemed like a missed opportunity for a very different trajectory of Vietnamese–American relations. Part of these sensibilities center around Franklin Roosevelt’s very vocal criticisms of French colonialism and his wartime plans to place Vietnam under some form of international trusteeship. They also emerge in discussions of the activities of a small group of officers from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who came to Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1945. Ostensibly there to facilitate and coordinate what was anticipated to be an imminent Japanese surrender, the OSS worked before and during the August Revolution with elements of the Vietminh who were eager to cultivate ties with them. The larger contours of American engagement with Vietnam in this period, however, suggest that these wartime encounters were unlikely to produce a radically different set of relations. As early as the 1920s, Americans had begun to form derisive images of both the Vietnamese and French colonialism. The Vietnamese were often rendered through a racialized lens as a backward and primitive people. As one American wrote in 1937, “The Annamite dreams a perpetual melancholy reverie uncontrolled by any critical faculty. His thinking is confused and indecisive . . . incapable of separating the essential from the trivial.” 5 Few Americans believed the Vietnamese were capable of self-government or concerted political action on their own accord. Vietnamese nationalist agitation against the French was generally attributed to outside, usually Soviet, direction. French colonial rule in Vietnam was similarly judged to be an administrative, economic, and moral failure that had done little to arrest persisting Vietnamese inferiority and stagnation. Laced throughout these perceptions was the sense that superior American political, economic, and social models could do significantly better in transforming the Vietnamese. Roosevelt’s celebrated plans during World War II for placing Vietnam under some form of international trusteeship in the postwar period rested on his widely shared belief that the Vietnamese were too backward to help themselves and that needed change could come only with external, American-engineered direction. Roosevelt’s oft stated anti-French sensibilities—arguing that Vietnam “should not be given back to the French empire after the war” and “that the French had done nothing to improve the lot of the people” 6—should not be confused with the kind of postcolonial visions that drove Vietnamese actors. Had plans for trusteeship for Vietnam not died with Roosevelt, its fundamental premise that Vietnam might require as long as a twenty-five-year period of tutelage, given perceived levels of Vietnamese political and social immaturity, would have been unlikely to sit well with Vietnamese revolutionaries already in


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the process of establishing an independent state. The OSS operatives’ reports on the August Revolution and its aftermath, although generally admiring of Ho Chi Minh, voiced real skepticism about the Vietnamese revolution and reinforced derisive stereotypes of the Vietnamese. “The political doctrine of independence” in Vietnam, one report argued, “was mawkish and childish.” Others reported that the Vietnamese were “a simple people completely devoid of common sense.” 7 Both the idea of trusteeship and OSS representatives’ opinions point to critical elements of the American perception of and policy toward Vietnam in the postwar period, including Americans’ deep ambivalence toward both a resurgent French colonialism and an independent Vietnamese state. They also reveal some of the myriad complexities that Ho Chi Minh and his government would face when the initial heady moments of Independence Day had passed.

PROBLEMS OF INDEPENDENCE The independence that Vietnamese revolutionaries wrested in 1945 from French colonial rule was an extremely tenuous one. If Ho Chi Minh’s DRV commanded prestige because of popular support for the Vietminh’s anti-French and anti-Japanese struggle during World War II, its authority remained shallow in many urban areas and in the countryside. The DRV immediately embarked on a two-pronged strategy to consolidate its power, one that downplayed its Communist origins and accelerated the turn during World War II to graduated rural reform and articulation of an inclusive nationalism. The government launched a controlled social revolution in the countryside aimed at increasing peasant support and administrative control that involved reorganization of the communal land system, tax and debt reform, limitations on rents paid to local landowners, and selection of village notables through election. It also spearheaded mass literacy drives to teach rural people the romanized Vietnamese script (quoc ngu). To foster support among urban and rural elites, the regime continued the World War II–era policy of all-class nationalism. The results were dramatic increases in DRV strength in northern and central Vietnam in late 1945 and early 1946. The situation was a bit different in southern Vietnam, where the Ho Chi Minh government was comparatively weaker. Here the DRV was the singlelargest political authority on the ground, controlling as much as half the south’s land and one-third of its population, but the DRV’s power was limited in part as the result of geography and history. The region’s frontier character, looser familial and social structures, and notoriously fractious indigenous political culture

Setting the Stage


made the south more difficult to govern than the north, something the leaders of the non-Communist South Vietnamese state and their American supporters would discover after 1954. Moreover, the south escaped the famine that had gripped northern and north-central Vietnam in the winter of 1944/1945 (the south in fact remained a rice surplus area at the time), which gave agents of the Vietminh less opportunity to penetrate the southern countryside and win peasant support. At the same time, regional rivals such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao challenged the regime’s rural appeals, and both moderate nationalists and radicals hostile to the DRV did the same in urban areas. The occupation of the south immediately after World War II by British forces sympathetic to French colonial aims further complicated the DRV’s position in the region. In the north, nationalist Chinese occupying forces, although problematic for the Vietnamese, did grant the latter more autonomy. In both northern and southern Vietnam, the positive appeals of the Ho Chi Minh government were accompanied by a darker side to the Vietnamese revolution. Throughout the late colonial period, the Communists often organized opposition to French rule clandestinely because the colonial security police met open public opposition with fierce repression. There was a nasty side to the party’s clandestine work, however, because it could involve intimidation, coercion, and sometimes assassination. These less-savory practices reemerged in 1945 and 1946 when the DRV killed thousands of its domestic political opponents. Perhaps the most dramatic case was the assassination and dismemberment of Huynh Phu So, the spiritual leader of the Hoa Hao, but other moderate and radical nationalists were also targeted in both the north and the south. As Ho Chi Minh and his supporters sought to consolidate the DRV’s authority and power, they also faced a resurgence of French colonialism. The French desire to retake its colonies in French Indochina rested on efforts to restore the grandeur and “Great Power” status of the metropole after the devastations and humiliations experienced by France during World War II. It was also prompted by perceptions of the economic role that Vietnam, in particular the southern rice and rubber industries, could play in rebuilding the shattered postwar French economy. These pressures in the metropole were augmented by the strong desire of French colons and elements of the French colonial bureaucracy in Vietnam to reassert French colonial control. Much of 1946 was taken up with ultimately frustrated diplomatic efforts to mediate the conflict between Vietnamese and French national self-assertions. Negotiations between Vietnamese and French representatives in Hanoi, at the mountain resort of Dalat, and at Fontainebleau outside Paris floundered over the status of southern Vietnam. The Vietnamese insisted on unification of the entire country and immediate self-government under the control of the DRV,


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and the French sought to maintain control of the south, where their economic interests and the pressures of French colons and denizens of the imperial order were greatest. French and Vietnamese mutual suspicions and violence accelerated as the negotiations became increasingly acrimonious and protracted. The year of escalating hostilities brought war between the DRV and France in December 1946.

THE EARLY YEARS OF THE FRENCH WAR The war initially went poorly for the DRV, and it quickly lost control of major cities. Although the Vietnamese government retained loose control over rural northern Vietnam after the outbreak of the French war, the fragile state apparatus it constructed in 1945 and 1946 largely ceased to function. As one contemporary critic in the government argued, “plans were slow in coming out” and “orders and instructions were not complete.” Each rural community, this critic continued, “simply followed its own developments concerning tactics and organization. At the same time the way our cadres worked was also poor so that each time an order to set something in motion needed coordination it seemed to be too difficult.” 8 The crisis faced by the state in this period was compounded by Vietnam’s isolation from its potential allies in the Communist world. There is little evidence of sustained contact or of financial and technical assistance from the Chinese Communists, the Soviet Union, or the French Communist Party in the initial years of the war. In part, the Vietnamese state sought to meet these challenges by looking inward. In April 1947, a central party cadre conference issued a directive calling for an immediate shift to guerrilla warfare tactics to meet the increasingly fierce French military challenge. As part of this shift, villages were instructed to establish self-defense militia units, and sustained training in guerrilla warfare began in liberated areas of the north. Domestic weapons manufacturing also increased, with the establishment of several major factories and numerous local arms workshops to produce bazookas, grenades, pistols, rifles, and machine guns. At the same time, the state sought to sustain and build popular support through renewed efforts at moderate land reform and intensified literacy campaigns. But the DRV also looked to regional diplomacy in an effort to capitalize on the widespread professions of moral support the Vietnamese had received from nationalist leaders in India and Southeast Asia who opposed French efforts to regain its colonial control in the area. Through its diplomatic mission in Bangkok and later in Rangoon, the Vietnamese state sought to establish closer ties with Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines as well as more

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informal ties with radical nationalists in Malaya. Vietnamese diplomats were active in the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in India and the establishment of the Southeast Asia League, which aimed to formalize networks of nationalist regional cooperation. They also launched an initiative in the spring and summer of 1947 with American diplomats and intelligence operatives in Bangkok to win U.S. political and economic assistance and support for mediation of the war with the French. Although these efforts brought few immediate material rewards, they served to foster ties of nationalism and anticolonialism in the region that made possible the organization of clandestine networks to obtain arms, military supplies, and medicines needed for the war against the French. Bangkok initially served as the center for an underground network that sent arms and supplies into Vietnam, although eventually this network expanded to include clandestine arrangements with sellers in Burma, Singapore, and the Philippines and arms purchases from nationalist Chinese military commanders in northern Vietnam. Available evidence makes it difficult to draw precise conclusions about the larger significance of this arms traffic, but Vietnamese documents captured by the French in this period suggest it was vital to the Vietnamese war effort. With the exception of arms produced in local armament factories and those captured from the French, the Vietnamese state’s regional arms network was the only major source of military equipment and supplies in the early years of the war. Despite these Vietnamese weaknesses, the French could never fully defeat the DRV in the initial years of the war. French troop strength remained limited given the numbers of French regiments involved in the postwar occupation in Germany and in quelling colonial unrest in the French colonies of Algeria and Madagascar. There were also important divisions within the French state over the war in Vietnam. On one side were Gaullist, center-right political groupings (notably the Mouvement républicaine populaire), right-leaning members of the Socialist Party, and military and colonial administrators in Saigon who defended French sovereignty over its empire and believed that France should fight to return the status quo ante in Vietnam. The hardliners were opposed by leftleaning Socialist Party and French Communist Party reformers who advocated negotiation and liberalization of French rule in Vietnam. French public opinion toward the war reflected these divisions, with polls suggesting that as many favored negotiated settlement or an immediate withdrawal as a continuation of the war effort. More than 20 percent of those polled expressed indifference to the war entirely. Given their own internal divisions and weaknesses, war proponents within the French state increasingly looked to Great Britain and the United States for support and assistance. These French efforts centered around seeking international


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support for what was called the “Bao Dai solution,” which sought to bring back the former Vietnamese emperor to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for the construction of an indigenous Vietnamese state that would remain under strong French influence, if not indirect control. In London and Washington, perceptions of French entreaties and apprehensions of the postcolonial moment in Vietnam reflected an interlocking set of dilemmas facing Euro-American states in the aftermath of World War II. Throughout the imperial world, nationalist movements in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were mounting strong challenges to continuing colonial control. Whatever its own internal problems, the DRV’s successful harnessing of the forces of indigenous anticolonial nationalism was an element of this powerful global decolonizing phenomena that appeared to mark the end of the imperial order. Yet metropolitan interests at home and, increasingly, fears of the escalating Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States complicated reactions to these transnational developments. Should assertions of immediate independence such as the DRV’s be opposed or supported? Or could alternative scenarios such as the Bao Dai solution be brought into being that made more gradual the transformation from colony to independent state? The British adopted a pro-French neutrality in the early years of the war, one prompted by their own need to foster economic recovery after World War II and by what was seen as the necessity of unimpeded access to rubber and tin in their colony in Malaya to advance these British economic interests. Although the Labour government was broadly supportive of the restoration of French colonial control in Vietnam, it was constrained by domestic politics and the attitudes of its own colonial subjects. The Labour Party itself was divided on foreign-policy issues. A substantial number of Labour back-benchers in Parliament, who were advocates of colonial self-determination, expressed sharp criticism of British policy toward the French war in Vietnam and effectively muted more vigorous British support for it. Moreover, considerable hostility among nationalist groups in South and Southeast Asia to French suppression of Vietnamese nationalism further complicated British policymaking as the Labour government was fearful of upsetting Asian nationalists while Britain was negotiating delicate transfers of power in India and Burma. If American policymakers also tilted toward the French in the first years of the war, there were nevertheless significant internal divisions among policymakers about the war and the nature of U.S. policy toward postcolonial Vietnam. Asianists in the Truman State Department believed that aggressive French policy in Vietnam, if unchecked and supported by the United States, could produce a destabilizing climate throughout Southeast Asia and potentially estrange America’s future allies in Vietnam and the decolonizing world. In contrast, the State Department’s Europeanist wing stressed the overriding importance of

Setting the Stage


France in the construction of a stable postwar order in Western Europe and more enthusiastically supported the French position in Vietnam. Underlying these divisions, however, was a shared and deeper sense of the problematics of what these policymakers regarded as an archaic French colonialism and the potential dangers of an indigenous Vietnamese political regime. These views recalled the triple perceptions of Vietnamese inferiority, French colonial incompetence, and the certainty that the United States could do better—all embedded in Roosevelt’s trusteeship plans and OSS reporting during World War II. The emergence of the Soviet–American Cold War rivalry in Europe and Asia introduced a new urgency into American policy toward the French war. American policymakers watched with alarm as Eastern Europe came under Soviet control, Communist parties made advances in Western Europe, and the Soviets intervened in the Greek civil war and launched the Berlin blockade. The victory of Mao’s Communist forces in China in 1949 over the American-backed nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) brought U.S. Cold War concerns directly to Asia. European and Asian Cold War tensions created a climate of domestic uncertainty and fear in the United States and produced a militant anti-Communism at home and abroad. This anti- Communism was manifested in the hysteria of McCarthyism and a reassessment of U.S. national security policy in the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68 (the National Security Council report that established U.S. Cold War foreign policy), in which the United States was increasingly seen as engaging in a zero-sum game against the fanatical forces of the Soviet Union and international Communism. These Cold War developments powerfully affected American thinking about the French war in Vietnam. The need for a stable France and strong French support for the emerging U.S. policy of containment in Western Europe made American policymakers somewhat more amenable to French efforts to promote the Bao Dai solution as an alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s DRV. The racialist lens through which the Americans viewed the Vietnamese further heightened the French war’s strategic importance for American Cold War diplomacy. The French, in their efforts to promote the Bao Dai solution, were quick to present the Americans with evidence of Ho Chi Minh’s and the DRV top leadership’s ties to Communism. Although American policymakers were aware of these linkages as early as 1945, they had not previously attached overriding significance to them. In the changed climate of the late 1940s, their salience and importance grew. If the Vietnamese were incapable of self-government and susceptible to external direction, as most U.S. policymakers believed, evidence of the DRV leaders’ Communist orientation meant they could be little more than puppets directed from Moscow or Beijing, with potentially alarming implications for the American Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. “The Annamese are attractive and even lovable,” one State Department observer contended, but “essentially


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childish. . . . [U]nder the present government . . . [Vietnam] would immediately be run in accordance with dictates from Moscow.” 9 Even so, American policymakers in the late 1940s had trouble articulating a definitive policy toward the French war in Vietnam. A telling cable from Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 captures persisting American misgivings and discomfort. Although Marshall acknowledged that the United States had “fully recognized France’s sovereign position” in the area, he could not understand “the continued existence of an outmoded colonial outlook” and France’s inability to recognize the realities of a postcolonial future. Equally concerned by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist connections, Marshall also argued that it “should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by a philosophy emanating from and controlled by the Kremlin.” Confounded by the perceived impossibilities of choosing between a radical political regime and an antiquated colonial one, Marshall could offer no clear American policy toward the French war. “Frankly,” he concluded, “we have no solution of the problem to suggest.” 10 By 1950, however, a dramatic shift in the international climate pulled the United States directly into the conflict and transformed the colonial war in Vietnam into a central battleground of the emergent Cold War. In January that year, both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China extended formal diplomatic recognition to the Ho Chi Minh–led DRV. Within weeks, diplomatic recognition of the Vietnamese state came from the governments of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia—all of which were now reliable and relatively pliant allies of the Soviet Union. With Chinese recognition of the DRV also came a large number of military advisers and a substantial amount of military equipment and supplies for the Vietnamese state’s war against the French. The American response was swift. In early February 1950, the United States announced its recognition of the French-backed Associated State of Vietnam led by former Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai, which Great Britain quickly followed. In May, the Truman administration allocated $15 million in military and economic aid to the French and the Bao Dai government. The figure increased to $100 million by the end of year, stimulated in part by the ways in which the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and direct Sino-American military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula further heightened the geopolitical significance of the French war in Vietnam for U.S. policymakers. By the French war’s end in 1954, the United States had paid as much as 80 percent of its cost, some $1 billion.

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TENSIONS AND AMBIGUITIES The transformational events of 1950 affected the subsequent course of the French war in Vietnam in complex and sometimes surprising ways. If its allies finally brought the French the expansive external support they believed would decisively turn their fortunes in the war against the Vietnamese, the relationship between France and its supporters was not a smooth or harmonious one. Among American policymakers, derisive attitudes toward the French and negative assessments of Vietnamese capabilities persisted. Within months of the Truman administration’s decision to recognize the Bao Dai government, tensions quickly emerged over the political, economic, and social construction of the new Vietnamese state. In the fall of 1950, Americans began to voice substantial doubts about the capabilities of the Bao Dai regime and its leadership to inspire allegiance in urban and rural Vietnam. American policymakers frequently voiced complaints about Bao Dai and his apparent lack of leadership skills as well as dissatisfaction with French military abilities and persisting colonial controls on the Vietnamese economy. But the larger problem, most Americans agreed, was the continuing limits the French placed on the Bao Dai government. As one State Department report from the field argued, “[C]oncessions to nationalist sentiment, leading to full sovereignty for the Bao Dai government, have been forthcoming so slowly and with such seeming reluctance on the part of the French” that the government has not “won a strong nationalist following in any quarter.”11 Persistent dissatisfaction with the Bao Dai government and French policies toward Vietnam continued to animate official American discussions on Vietnam after 1950, echoing the kinds of qualms and debates that had infused official debates throughout the late 1940s. As increasing amounts of U.S. military and economic aid entered Vietnam, American scorn for French colonial methods intensified and provoked bitter disputes between French and American officials on how U.S. aid dollars in Vietnam should be spent. The organization and command of the Vietnamese army was a major source of concern for many American officials who, against strong French opposition, advocated direct Vietnamese control. From the U.S. perspective, French efforts to dominate the Vietnamese army prevented the latter from acting to instill notions of political community and citizenship that Americans believed were essential for the construction of a viable postcolonial state. The DRV’s fractious relationship with the Soviets and the Chinese after 1950 suggests that ambiguities and tensions also emerged within the international Communist world. The Soviet Union, despite its formal recognition of the DRV, ceded a more direct military role in the conflict to the Chinese. Its broader relationship with the Vietnamese state remained as limited after 1950 as it had been


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before that year. Soviet hesitations appear to have been shaped by Stalin’s longstanding distrust of Ho Chi Minh. During Ho’s stay in Moscow from 1934 to 1938, he underwent severe criticism for his alleged nationalist proclivities and his purported sympathy with the bourgeoisie. Reports that Ho was put on trial while in Moscow remain unconfirmed, but, given the widespread Stalinist paranoia and terror of this period, such an event would not have been impossible. In 1945, the leader of the French Communist Party reported that Stalin continued to doubt Ho’s reliability and had openly criticized Ho’s willingness during World War II to undertake initiatives involving American and British intelligence operatives without Soviet advice and consent. Along with the relatively low priority that Stalin accorded to the decolonizing world compared with Europe in the immediate postwar period, these sentiments help to explain why the Soviet Union gave little more than rhetorical support to the DRV’s war efforts against the French. The persistence of the USSR’s distancing itself from Ho Chi Minh’s government is reflected in the fact that the USSR did not appoint an ambassador to the DRV until 1954. Mao’s China did make significant material contributions to the Vietnamese war effort against the French beginning in 1950. The Chinese provided a substantial number of military and political advisers, who worked closely with their Vietnamese counterparts in planning tactics and strategy. They also gave large quantities of military and nonmilitary supplies. Although the best estimates suggest that the Americans provided the French and Bao Dai with as much as seventeen times the amount of external aid the Chinese gave to the Vietnamese, Chinese military support was clearly critical to the Vietnamese, given their international isolation in the early years of the war. The proximity of the Chinese Communist state also shifted the strategic dynamics of the war in ways that ultimately favored the Vietnamese. With the Chinese Communists to the north, the Sino-Vietnamese border became a safer one for the Vietnamese and considerably shortened the DRV’s supply lines. The successful Vietnamese military campaign in September 1950, in which DRV forces attacked and routed French military installations in the mountainous area near the Chinese border, was one early instantiation of the shift in Vietnamese military fortunes. Most of the rest of the French war was fought in the north, largely to the DRV’s advantage because its military and political strength remained weaker in the south. But if Chinese Communist support for the DRV war effort was significant, it also brought with it deep tensions between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. At the most basic level, the massive influx of Chinese advisers, weapons, and supplies for the war effort as well as a Chinese political advisory group that sought to involve itself in the making of DRV domestic policy often seemed to overwhelm the Vietnamese. The fragile and underdeveloped Vietnamese state apparatus underwent a serious strain as the DRV leadership worked to absorb

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Chinese support and advice. Disputes over military tactics and strategy quickly emerged, particularly after the failure of the Chinese-inspired military campaigns of 1951. Personal antipathies between General Chen Geng, the senior Chinese military adviser and representative to the DRV, and Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded the DRV’s army, only accentuated these tensions. In his recently discovered diary, Chen Geng describes Giap as “slippery and not very upright and honest.” More broadly, Chen castigates the Vietnamese for “their fear of letting other people know their weaknesses” and their lack of “Bolshevist self-criticism.” Reflecting Chen’s seeming lack of awareness of the problematic impact his tone might have on his intended audience, the diary also conveys his great surprise that the Vietnamese often appeared resistant to his critiques.12 The fragile contours of Sino-Vietnamese relations in this period were shaped by the manner in which Chinese national and geostrategic interests could sometimes clash with and supersede fraternal ideological ties. Mao’s willingness to support the Vietnamese during the French war, leading historians of Chinese policy argue, was in large measure prompted by fears of an American-led invasion into southern China at a time when Mao felt his fledgling regime remained vulnerable. These national interests could promote cooperation with and support of the Vietnamese, but they could also prompt policies inimical to Vietnamese state interests. Chinese suspicions that Vietnam sought regional dominance in Cambodia and Laos, areas Mao sought to control to protect Chinese state interests, significantly strained Sino-Vietnamese relations at points during this period. The shifting international contours of the French war also had a critical impact on the nature of the DRV’s wartime policies in the domestic sphere, accelerating the Vietnamese state’s turn in the late 1940s to a more open identification with and intensification of its Communist origins. One measure of this transformation was an increase in membership numbers in the Communist Party, which went from approximately 5,000 in 1945 to 110,000 in 1947 and then to more than 776,000 in 1951. As the number grew, the policies of all-class nationalism and moderate socioeconomic reform that had characterized the early war years were gradually abandoned. By the early 1950s, the state sought to marginalize many of the rural landholders and urban elites whose support it had once sought. At the same time, it fostered deeper alliances with peasants, workers, and ethnic minorities through more radical land-reform initiatives and the promotion of an increasingly hierarchical and class-bound vision of state and society. The result was a move toward more authoritarian politics with considerably less room for dissident voices. For many urban elites who had initially embraced the August Revolution of 1945 and the war against the French, the DRV’s growing antipathy toward them and its embrace of socialist internationalism presented a painful dilemma.


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Although some shifted their support to the French-backed Bao Dai government, many others found themselves uneasily suspended between the new hostility they encountered from the DRV and what they continued to see as the Bao Dai regime’s illegitimacy and sycophancy. Even those elites who remained loyal to the DRV struggled with state pressure to service its renewed turn to revolutionary socialist imperatives. The case of To Ngoc Van, a prominent prewar Vietnamese painter and intellectual who enthusiastically joined the revolution and the war against the French, illustrates the nature of this acutely felt dilemma. He oversaw the establishment of the state’s school for the arts in the northern resistance zone during the French war. Teaching both drawing and the fundamentals of MarxismLeninism, the school and its artists produced paintings, posters, stamps, and other visual emblems for the Vietnamese state and its war against the French. To Ngoc Van died in 1954 of injuries he suffered at the battle of Dienbienphu and was honored by the state as a revolutionary hero and martyr. Despite his prominence and work as an agent of the state’s cultural production, however, To Ngoc Van repeatedly expressed deep concern about official efforts to define wartime art through its effectiveness in serving the goals of national independence and socialist revolution as well as about the tensions between the state’s politicization of art and his capacity as a creative artist. In the 1949 essay “Study or Not?” he wrote: “Here lies the principal point, the torment of my soul: how to make the self that serves the nation and the masses and the self that serves art— the artist of course cannot forget this responsibility—not come into conflict or even, worse, betray one another.” 13

DÉNOUEMENT AND LEGACIES The myriad domestic and international ramifications of the French war’s transformation from a colonial war to a Cold War conflict directly shaped its ending and its legacies for the subsequent American war in Vietnam. Although the period after 1950 did not bring a string of unbroken Vietnamese victories over the French, momentum began to shift in favor of the Vietnamese in important ways in the crucial northern and northwestern military zones near the Chinese border and in the Red River Delta. At the same time, French war weariness over the human and material costs of the war and its protracted nature increased sentiment favoring a negotiated settlement. A shift in the Soviet and Chinese positions toward the French war reinforced these attitudes. Stalin’s death in March 1953 and the emergence of a new Soviet leadership led to a reconsideration of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, a part of which produced in the Soviet press hints of support for a negotiated settlement to the French war. The Chi-

Setting the Stage


nese, anxious in the wake of the Korean conflict to relax international tensions and turn their attention to domestic matters, also spoke favorably of a peace settlement modeled on the terms of the recent armistice in the Korean War. The French indicated their willingness to come to the negotiating table at Geneva. The DRV soon did, too, a decision shaped by substantial Chinese and Soviet pressure as well as by war weariness among the Vietnamese. Before the Vietnamese entered into talks with the French, they hoped to win a major battlefield victory to strengthen their hand in the negotiations at Geneva. They chose Dienbienphu, a French military airfield in northwestern Vietnam near the Lao border. In early 1954, the Vietnamese began to move a substantial number of troops into the hills surrounding Dienbienphu and drew on the assistance of local people, including women porters in what was termed the “long-haired army,” to bring in the firepower necessary to trap and defeat the French in the valley below. The battle began in March 1954, with the Vietnamese initially following the advice of their Chinese advisers to employ the “human wave” tactics that the Chinese had used against American forces in the Korean War. But the strategy brought limited results and very high casualties. After what were reportedly heated disputes with the Chinese, the Vietnamese shifted tactics in late March to a prolonged siege, digging in artillery units in trenches and tunnels. They pounded French forces and gradually made the airfield unusable. The French had initially believed the hills to be impenetrable, but as the siege took hold and French forces became trapped and isolated, it became clear the French had severely miscalculated. French forces surrendered on May 7, 1954, just as the peace negotiations opened in Geneva. The battle of Dienbienphu marked the final defeat of French colonialism in Vietnam, seeming to bring closer to reality Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence in 1945. But the peace agreement signed at Geneva did not produce a complete victory for the DRV. The Geneva Accords temporarily partitioned Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, giving the DRV control of the north and the Bao Dai government authority in the south. According to the agreement, reunification was supposed to come in 1956 with elections sponsored and overseen by an international body. With the DRV’s dramatic victory at Dienbienphu, it might seem curious that it was willing to settle for less than full control of Vietnam. However, it did so in part under strong and deeply resented pressure from the Soviets and the Chinese to compromise—another instance of the two Communist states’ national interests trumping their ideological ties to the Vietnamese. For its part, the DRV was concerned to keep the United States out of the conflict. If the DRV pushed too hard at Geneva, some in the leadership feared, the Americans might commit ground troops in Vietnam. But even if somewhat disappointed in the terms of the agreement, most in the DRV leadership also believed the settlement would only delay rather than


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prevent their final victory. They were certain that when the reunification elections came in 1956, they would win. The elections were never held, however. Instead, a growing Communist insurgency in southern Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s would bring a second war to Vietnam, one that drew the United States ever more deeply into the conflict. The period of the French war did not necessarily determine the outcome of the American war, but it powerfully influenced its shape and form. The DRV emerged from the war with considerably enhanced prestige. The regime had now defeated the French and built a strong and seasoned military force. Ho Chi Minh himself became an almost larger-than-life figure. But victory created new internal challenges and problems as the Vietnamese state faced the massive project of transforming northern Vietnam from a war-ravaged territory into a functioning socialist state and economy. The destructive impact of the war on the Vietnamese economy manifested itself in serious reductions in rice production, limited internal trading, and a damaged irrigation system that produced pockets of faminelike conditions in central Vietnam. To deal with these conditions, the Vietnamese state launched a radical land-reform program in 1955 whose excesses unleashed further chaos in the northern countryside. A campaign of terror against rural people identified as landlords led to public trials and executions. Estimates vary, but it is likely that the state executed between 3,000 and 15,000 people during the land reform. The end of the war also brought about the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair, in which writers and artists raised the banner of “art for art’s sake” against authoritarian state cultural policies in perhaps the most important single expression of open intellectual dissent against the North Vietnamese state in the postcolonial period. The DRV’s postwar position in southern Vietnam remained something of a question mark. With the bulk of the French war after 1949 fought in the north, the regime had little sustained military experience in the south, and its support there remained somewhat weaker than in the north. Southern cadres often voiced impatience at the DRV’s insistence on building socialism in the North in the immediate postwar period before turning to the situation in the South. The DRV also emerged from the war uncertain about its relations with the Soviet Union and China and about the kinds of support it might receive from them for nation building or a future war. The disastrous experience with land reform, in which Chinese advisers had been central to its conception and implementation, heightened persisting Vietnamese concerns about Chinese aims and motives. These complications would only increase with the coming of the Sino-Soviet split and the resultant pressures on the Vietnamese to take sides in the dispute. Whatever the regime’s immediate postwar prestige and confidence, the devastations of war, the problems of state building in the North, lingering weaknesses in the South, and fissures in the international Communist world left

Setting the Stage


open a window of opportunity for constructing an alternative non-Communist state in the South. It was an opening the United States would seize almost immediately. For U.S. policymakers, the French war marked the beginning of a commitment that would vastly accelerate in the aftermath of Dienbienphu and Geneva and that would continue to be profoundly shaped by the dynamics of the Cold War, a racialized vision of the Vietnamese, and a growing mission to remake Vietnam in the American image. Some observers have noted the Eisenhower administration’s restraint in the waning days of the French war. The French desperately approached the Americans to provide direct military support to its embattled troops as defeat at Dienbienphu loomed. Discussions within the administration focused on the possibility of massive American bombing raids, including the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, but Eisenhower ultimately refused to come to the support of the French. With the French defeat at Dienbienphu, however, American reticence quickly gave way to massive support for the political, economic, and military construction of an American-backed state in southern Vietnam despite the fact that non-Communist alternatives to the Ho Chi Minh government remained as weak after 1954 as they had been in the late-colonial and French war periods. Sure that Americans could do better than the French, the American vision of postcolonial Vietnam that first emerged during the World War II and French war periods remained an essential starting point for U.S. nation-building efforts in South Vietnam. It also colored derisive U.S. attitudes toward its South Vietnamese allies in the 1950s and 1960s in a relationship that was often as fractious and strained as the relationship between the French and Bao Dai. When Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in September 1945, he could not have anticipated that the declaration would usher in thirty years of war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese revolutionary nationalist struggle reminds us that the wars in Vietnam were shaped not only by the Cold War international order, but just as powerfully by the broader rejection throughout the colonized world of the imperial order that had structured the world since the nineteenth century. The French and American wars in Vietnam were always contingent ones. At key moments, French and American policymakers might have made different choices: slow disengagement, immediate withdrawal, or negotiation toward an enduring settlement. In the domestic realm, the Vietnamese Communists might have curbed rather than quickened the trend to a more authoritarian politics, drawing on the traditions of iconoclastic radicalism in the 1920s that had initially shaped their vision of the Vietnamese revolution. That they did not or felt they could not reveals as much about the complexities of decolonization and postcolonial state making as it does about the constraints of the Cold War. If the Vietnam wars and the Cold War are now history, the


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legacies and realities of empire still surround us. In that sense, the larger historical meanings of Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence remain very much in the process of becoming.

Notes 1. Ho Chi Minh, “Tuyen ngon doc lap” [Declaration of Independence], in Ho Chi Minh toan tap [Ho Chi Minh’s Collected Works], vol. 3, 1930–1945 (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Su That, 1983), 383. 2. “Cau hu lau van” [Indictment of Corrupt Customs], ca. 1907, translated in David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 176. 3. Quoted in James W. Trullinger Jr., Village at War: An Account of Revolution in Vietnam (New York: Longman, 1980), 22. 4. Dong tay vi nham: Lam Khang [Great Men of Asia and Europe: Lincoln] (Saigon, 1929), 35. 5. Virginia Thompson, French Indo-China (New York: Macmillan, 1937), 43–44. 6. Minutes of the Pacific War Council, July 21, 1943, folder: Naval Aide’s Files, Pacific War no. 2, box 168, Map Room File, 1941–1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y. 7. Arthur Hale to Charles M. Holland, December 11, 1945, Gallager Papers, U.S. Army Center for Military History, Washington, D.C.; Robert H. Knapp, “Annamite Revolutionary Movements,” October 9, 1945, box 316, entry 19, Record Group (RG) 226, National Archives, Washington, D.C. 8. Cuoc khang thien than thanh cua nhan dan Viet Nam [The Sacred Resistance War of the Vietnamese People] (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Tu That, 1958), 2:40–41, translated in Greg Lockhart, Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989), 185. 9. Memorandum of conversation between William C. Bullitt and Charlton Ogburn, May 29, 1947, box 4, Confidential Records of the Saigon Consulate, RG 84, National Archives. 10. Secretary of State to Embassy in Paris, February 3, 1947, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, vol. 6, The Far East (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972), 67–68. 11. Donald R. Heath (Saigon) to Secretary of State, November 27, 1950, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, vol. 6, East Asia and the Pacific (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976), 939. 12. Translated in Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 64.

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13. To Ngoc Van, “Hoc hay khong hoc?” [Study or Not?], Van Nghe 10 (1949): 54–58, reprinted and translated in Kim Ninh, A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945–1965 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 82.

Further Reading Bradley, Mark Philip. Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Gardner, Lloyd C. Approaching Vietnam: From World War II to Dienbienphu, 1941– 1954. New York: Norton, 1989. Hess, Gary R. The United States’ Emergence as a Southeast Asian Power, 1940–1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Lawrence, Mark Atwood. Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Lawrence, Mark Atwood, and Fredrik Logevall, eds. The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Lockhart, Greg. Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989. Marr, David G. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. McHale, Shawn. Print and Power: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Communism in the Making of Modern Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003. Moise, Edwin E. Land Reform in China and Vietnam: Consolidating the Revolution at the Village Level. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Ninh, Kim. A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945–1965. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Tai, Hue-Tam Ho. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Zhai, Qiang. China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

2. “Dealing with a Government of Madmen” Eisenhow er , K en n ed y, an d N g o D i n h D i e m Richard H. Immerman

Historians have exonerated few U.S. policymakers for their culpability in the long and tragic trajectory of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. Among presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower has emerged from the ordeal with the highest marks. Eisenhower’s decision against committing U.S. forces in 1954 to relieve the French forces besieged at the fortress of Dienbienphu, despite intense pressure from many in his administration and in his party and from one of America’s most pivotal allies, has received almost universal praise from historians as a model of prudence and restraint. Indeed, his refusal to intervene militarily in Vietnam served as the catalyst for the “Eisenhower Revisionism” phenomenon, which turned the once-dominant image of an inept and passive president on its head. As the number of casualties from the war escalated during the decade and a half after he left the Oval Office, and America came no closer to achieving its goals, Eisenhower’s reputation rose in inverse proportion to those of the presidents who succeeded him. A careful examination of Eisenhower’s entire record of policymaking toward Vietnam, however, produces a more nuanced, more mixed assessment. Further, comparisons of his behavior with that of his successors, John F. Kennedy in particular, no longer seem as stark as the historiography once suggested. Although Eisenhower wisely decided against going to war in Vietnam in 1954, his

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subsequent decisions bequeathed a legacy of volatile instability and discord. And although Kennedy’s rhetoric signaled a reckless Cold Warrior committed to paying any price and bearing any burden to prevent the Communists from uniting Vietnam, his actions reveal more restraint—and more wisdom. Nevertheless, the success with which Eisenhower managed the crisis at Dienbienphu and the difficulty of the choices he had to make must not be minimized. Even as the Harry S. Truman administration battled the Communists in Korea, it committed the United States to supporting the French effort to defeat the Communist-led Vietminh’s anticolonial war in Indochina. With the U.S. military already overextended, Truman provided France only with financial assistance. But it was massive—more than $2 billion by the time Eisenhower took office. The incoming president perceived a Communist victory with more dread than did Truman because of its potential ramifications far beyond Southeast Asia. The former supreme commander during World War II knew all too well Vietnam’s strategic value to Japan in its campaign of conquest in Asia and the Pacific. In the postwar environment, moreover, Vietnam became a principal link in the offshore island chain on which American strategists depended for containment from Japan to the Middle East. Its fate was likewise tied to France’s willingness and ability to contribute to containment in Europe. Eisenhower also understood that, deprived of Vietnam as both a source of raw materials and a market, Japan, the “workshop of Asia” on which he counted to spur regional development and stability, would require vast infusions of U.S. aid for its recovery—money that the fiscally conservative president was loath to dole out.1 And even if he did, Tokyo might conclude that defecting to the winning side was a safer bet for its future. As Eisenhower’s blunt-speaking secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, put it a week after taking office, “The situation of the Japanese is hard enough with China being commie.” The fall of Vietnam would lead to Communism’s takeover of all Southeast Asia, and, as a consequence, “the Japs [sic] would be thinking of how to get on the other side.” 2 Because Dulles was addressing the many Asia-Firsters who composed the Robert Taft wing of the Republican Party in Congress, he was preaching to the choir. Yet even as France’s deteriorating military situation in Vietnam appeared to generate irresistible momentum for the deployment of U.S. forces, the same dynamics, in the president’s view, militated against the deployment. While serving as military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Eisenhower had successfully advocated for stationing four additional U.S. divisions in Western Europe. He had hoped that doing so would encourage America’s allies to increase their NATO force levels. Beyond buttressing capability, the presence of this large American contingent would provide the security guarantee that Paris needed in order to sanction the rearmament of the Federal Republic of Germany by ratifying the European Defense Community (EDC)


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treaty. But now with this many troops stationed in Western Europe and the talks in Panmunjom still far from achieving an armistice in Korea, Eisenhower appreciated that direct military intervention in Vietnam would so tax U.S. capabilities as to undermine America’s strategic posture worldwide. Making matters worse, once America committed its forces to Vietnam, its credibility would demand a successful outcome. Even though Eisenhower had led the coalition that defeated mighty Germany less than ten years earlier, according to his estimate the defeat of the less mighty Vietminh was no sure thing. He confided to his diary, “I am convinced that no military victory is possible in this type of theater.” 3 The solution was to provide the French with more resources and better advice and to tie the two together. The administration promised to continue to relieve France of its war’s financial burden, but only if it attracted greater indigenous support by firmly promising independence for all the states of Indochina and fought the war more aggressively and hence more effectively. In Paris, Prime Minister Joseph Laniel responded by pledging ambiguously to “perfect” Vietnamese independence and appointing a new military commander in Indochina. General Henri Navarre designed a strategy that called for massing the French forces scattered throughout northwestern Vietnam and then launching a major offensive south to the Red River Delta. The Eisenhower administration saw no choice other than to support the plan and ante up an additional $385 million for its execution. The offensive was stillborn nevertheless. No sooner did Navarre begin to combine his forces than Vietminh general Vo Nguyen Giap’s invasion of Laos forced the redeployment of some 12,000 elite French forces to the fortress of Dienbienphu in the remote northwestern corner of Vietnam near the Laotian border. While Navarre waited for a set-piece battle to ensue, Giap circled back to lay siege to the fortress in December 1953. Eisenhower’s worst nightmare verged on becoming a reality. Not only might the French surrender on the battlefield, but they also might surrender at the negotiating table. Paris used the threat of refusing to ratify the EDC treaty to coerce Washington into including Indochina on the agenda of the meeting at Geneva scheduled for late April 1954 to reach a final settlement on Korea. Determined both to “keep our men out of these jungles” and “not [to] forget our vital interests in Indochina,” Eisenhower sent France forty bombers and two hundred U.S. Air Force mechanics to ensure their serviceability.4 He concurrently appointed a special committee to identify scenarios that could require direct U.S. intervention, and he instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to formulate operational plans for that contingency. While the administration deliberated, the Vietminh’s heavy artillery began to shell the fortress. At the end of March, French general Paul Ely, chief of the Armed Force’s General Staff, rushed to Washington to probe the administration as to what circumstances might pro-

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voke the United States to intervene. Ely did not meet with Eisenhower, and Dulles was noncommittal, but Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Arthur Radford raised the possibility of executing Operation Vulture, a huge U.S. nighttime air attack on Vietminh positions. According to Ely, Radford assured him of Eisenhower’s approval. Either Ely or Radford lied. Eisenhower had approved nothing of the kind, although he had not ruled anything out. Intervention remained on the table. Radford was one of its very few proponents, however. Still deeply conflicted, Eisenhower focused on creating the most favorable conditions for U.S. military engagement should he decide it was imperative. Toward this end, he sanctioned a widely broadcast speech by Dulles on the evening of March 29, 1954, in which the secretary outlined a plan entitled “United Action.” Designed to sound “menacing without committing anybody to anything,” the speech called for creating a coalition dedicated to the defense of Southeast Asia against Communist expansion.5 Composed of the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and the Associated States of Indochina, the coalition would either deter Communist aggression or, if deterrence failed, guarantee that U.S. military action would be in concert with allies, including nonwhite, noncolonial nations. Mindful of the grief that befell Truman over China and Korea, Eisenhower simultaneously moved to implicate Congress in whatever decision he made. Avoiding the potential costs of personal involvement, he instructed Dulles and Radford to meet with congressional leaders on the morning of Saturday, April 3. The State Department had drafted a resolution providing the president with the authority to use the navy or air force to defeat Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower likely sought the authority not because he intended to use it, but to facilitate the assembly of the United Action coalition and as a  signal of resolve to the Communists before the Geneva meeting convened. But a bipartisan consensus surfaced that Congress would sanction U.S. military intervention only after the administration received two explicit commitments: (1) from France to grant Vietnam independence and turn over greater responsibility to the United States for the conduct of the war and (2) from its allies, especially the British, to wage the war. Rather than allow the resolution’s certain defeat, Dulles never acknowledged its existence. The administration would have preferred Congress to have authorized U.S. military action before it sought the requisite commitments from its allies, but it would have proceeded along the path it did regardless. There “was no possibility whatever of U.S. unilateral intervention in Indochina,” Eisenhower declared to the National Security Council shortly after the April 3 congressional leaders meeting. “[W]e had best face that fact.” 6 The council postponed making any recommendation. The next week, Eisenhower articulated the notorious “domino


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theory,” and Dulles began to shuttle feverishly between London and Paris in an effort to put in place the first cornerstones of the United Action coalition. It became evident that even had Congress given Eisenhower everything he wanted, Dulles’s mission was an exercise in futility. Having accepted the loss of India, the jewel of its empire, Britain was not about to risk expanding the war in Southeast Asia to bail out France, especially with the potential of a negotiated settlement in Geneva. The French wanted nothing to do with United Action or any other mechanism for internationalizing the war, nor did they want to continue the war if victory would leave them without their colonies. What they wanted was direct U.S. military assistance with virtually no strings attached. For the Eisenhower administration, acquiescing would have been politically and strategically catastrophic. Both France and Britain would have needed to violate their respective definitions of the national interest for Eisenhower to have overcome his reluctance to commit U.S. forces to Vietnam. They did not, and he did not. On April 29, the president accepted the National Security Council’s recommendation that the United States “hold up for the time being any military action on IndoChina” until the results of Geneva began to emerge, but at the same time the United States should “continue its efforts” to organize the United Action coalition and “give hints to the French that we have not made our final decision as to our intervention in Indochina.” 7 On May 7, the French surrendered Dienbienphu. Thus in 1954, Eisenhower decided against war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, he only put on “hold” a decision to intervene because conditions were not right. He retained the option of intervening if those conditions changed. The subsequent political commitments he made contributed immensely to changing those conditions. In fact, the defeat of the French at Dienbienphu, the political consequence of which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated “would be considerably more adverse than the strictly military consequences,” intensified the administration’s resolve to prevent a diplomatic defeat.8 Dulles was well suited for this purpose. Exploiting his reputation as a fire-and-brimstone moralist impatient to get on with the final battle between good and evil, the dour secretary of state arrived at the Geneva Conference of 1954 projecting an attitude of “almost pathological rage and gloom.” 9 He complained about the seating arrangements, refused to shake hands with China’s Zhou Enlai, and otherwise acted in a manner that suggested he would like the negotiations to collapse. That was the administration’s preferred outcome. If properly orchestrated, the failure of the conference to produce a settlement congruent with Western interests would shatter the illusion in both Paris and London that the Communists would bargain in good faith. As a consequence, each would sign on to the United Action coalition. Their doing so would not necessarily lead to intervention and the re-

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newal of hostilities, but, juxtaposed with Washington’s taking few measures to conceal its ongoing military preparations, the threat represented by United Action would be sufficient to deter further Communist aggression and safeguard against the falling of additional dominos. Having signaled America’s hostility toward the Geneva proceedings, Dulles turned over the U.S. delegation to Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith. Smith’s demeanor was less contemptuous than Dulles’s, and he made a greater effort to probe the intentions of America’s adversaries. Yet the undersecretary proved no more accommodating than his department head. With the Communists manifesting no inclination to concede to anything less than control over all of Indochina, and the British and French persevering along a course Washington considered tantamount to appeasement, the talks deadlocked. “It is our view that final adjournment of Conference is in our best interest,” Dulles cabled Smith.10 None of the other parties would let that happen, however, and from Foggy Bottom’s point of view, a very bad situation was about to take a turn for the worse. While the United States considered downgrading its representation at Geneva in order to distance itself from whatever deal resulted, the French elected a government headed by the Socialist Pierre Mendès-France. To America’s consternation, the new prime minister, who doubled as foreign minister, seemed to weaken further the West’s bargaining position by pledging to resign if an accord was not reached by July 20. The last opportunity to put United Action into play evaporated—or so the administration thought. Washington had succeeded in convincing the Soviets and Communist Chinese that it remained prepared to intervene militarily, perhaps even unilaterally. With both Moscow and Beijing preoccupied with domestic concerns, neither felt it could afford to accept this risk. Neither, therefore, supported the demand made by Pham Van Dong, the Vietminh’s chief delegate, for the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and the international recognition of the full sovereignty and independence of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Dong acquiesced. The conferees agreed to Vietnam’s partition at the seventeenth parallel until 1956, when elections, supervised by an international commission composed of Communist Poland, non-Communist Canada, and nonaligned India, would be held to unify the country. Notwithstanding an outcome more favorable than it expected, the United States refused to sign the July 21, 1954, Final Declaration. In a separate statement, it pledged “to refrain from the threat of the use of force to disturb” the agreed-on provisions.11 Although America claimed it honored its pledge by never threatening to use force, disturb the provisions it did. Not only did the administration have little confidence that the Communists had abandoned their goal of securing control of all of Southeast Asia and beyond, but it also had no confidence in the


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Geneva Accords as a viable means to thwart that design. It remained convinced that a collective security mechanism, even if feebler than a United Action coalition, was essential to quarantine Communist North Vietnam. Making clear his dissatisfaction with the accords, Dulles stated publicly that the “important thing from now on is not to mourn the past but to seize the future opportunity to prevent the loss in northern Viet-Nam from leading to the extension of Communism throughout Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific.” He then explicitly alluded to the necessity of establishing “collective arrangements” to secure the region.12 The administration decided on the need for a regional security treaty that would envelop all non-Communist territory in Southeast Asia before the conclusion of the Geneva Conference. It envisioned a pact that included the same nations Dulles had proposed in his March 29 speech, but that also added a carefully worded protocol with sufficient elasticity to include non-Communist (southern) Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although Geneva’s Final Declaration precluded incorporating any of the three into a military alliance, the protocol circumvented this restriction by stipulating that a threat to any of the three states constituted by definition a threat to the signatory nations. None of the charter members of what would soon be called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) would dedicate forces directly to the organization. Achieving sufficient force levels from its NATO antecedent had proven frustrating enough. When signed in Manila on September 8, 1954, the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (the “Manila Pact”) obligated its members—which in the end also included Pakistan, but, to America’s disappointment, neither India nor Indonesia—only to consult with one another as to the most effective means consistent with their respective constitutions to respond to aggression should it occur. Aware of SEATO’s inherent weakness, the U.S. administration hoped that it would develop sufficient coherence to deter Communism’s advance. Over time, the Manila Pact would paint the United States with the same imperial brush once reserved for the European powers and provide a legal foundation for the United States to intervene militarily in Southeast Asia. What it did immediately was tacitly acknowledge the permanency of Vietnam’s partition and recognize an independent state in South Vietnam. Prior to the treaty’s ratification, two separate but interdependent dynamics all but ensured that the unification elections scheduled for 1956 would never be held. First, the Eisenhower administration made very clear that it would never officially agree to a Communist Vietnam north of the seventeenth parallel, that it could never tolerate the spread of Communism south of the seventeenth parallel, and that it assumed that the Communist Ho Chi Minh would doubtless triumph in any election. Second, in June 1954 the United States acquiesced to Emperor

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Bao Dai’s invitation to Ngo Dinh Diem to form a new government in South Vietnam. Diem was not unknown to the Eisenhower administration. An inflexible, uncompromising nationalist who refused to countenance the French, the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh, or Bao Dai, he had spent the four years prior to the Dienbienphu crisis and the Geneva Conference in self-imposed exile from Vietnam. A devout Catholic in a country where Buddhism was the dominant religion, he spent almost half of this time in Maryknoll seminaries in New York and New Jersey. From this base, he developed a network of American supporters, drawing them from journalistic, academic, political, and clerical circles. Indeed, Bao Dai, taking up permanent residence in Cannes by the summer of 1954, probably overcame his objections to Diem, who had resigned as the emperor’s minister of the interior in protest during the 1930s, and invited him to return to Vietnam as prime minister in order to cement the bond between Washington and Saigon. The U.S. perception of Diem was complicated and even contradictory. Bao Dai was right to recognize the Eisenhower administration’s appreciation of Diem’s anti-Communism, his incorruptibility, and his commitment to an independent South Vietnam. Yet U.S. officials also were aware of his shortcomings. Diem had a well-earned reputation for intransigence, an almost mystical belief in his infallibility, and an egotism that bordered on megalomania. Although he had some government experience, his administrative abilities were highly suspect because he appeared not only to favor Vietnam’s Catholic minority, but also to trust few individuals beyond his own family. Among the three sisters and four brothers in the family (Diem’s eldest brother had died in 1945, a victim of the Vietminh), Ngo Dinh Nhu portended special problems because of his influence on Diem and his outspoken and irascible wife, Tran Le Xuan, known widely as “Madame Nhu.” Nevertheless, Diem, flaws and all, appeared to be the sole indigenous Vietnamese capable of building a bulwark against North Vietnam’s expansion. “We are prepared to accept the seemingly ridiculous prospect that this Yogi-like mystic could assume the charge he is apparently about to undertake,” wrote U.S. ambassador to France Douglas Dillon, reflecting the prevailing view within Eisenhower’s State Department, “only because the standard set by his predecessors is so low.” 13 Washington kept its misgivings to itself to avoid adding to the challenges Diem already faced. The new government of South Vietnam could count on little loyalty from either the public or the military. Nguyen Van Hinh, the commander of the weak Vietnamese National Army, wanted Diem’s job. Diem had his family, but not a political party. Better organized were two political-religious sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen, gangsters who ran


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Saigon’s police force, brothels, and gambling operations. None saw a Diem government in its future. Diem could depend on the support of the close to 1 million Catholics who, urged on by the “Christ has gone to the South” campaign of the CIA’s Edward Lansdale, had poured across the seventeenth parallel, but absorbing them into South Vietnam’s “polity” would take years. What is more, France retained extensive interests and clout throughout South Vietnam, and the French saw the Francophobic Diem as more of a problem than a solution for the fledgling state. Because of the combination of these factors, estimated the CIA, “a favorable development of the situation in South Vietnam is unlikely. . . . [I]t appears more likely that the situation will deteriorate in South Vietnam.” 14 The immediate threat to Diem’s regime, judged the Eisenhower administration with good reason, came from South Vietnam, not North Vietnam. Its survival required at least a modicum of cooperation from Paris, whose rejection of the EDC treaty in August demonstrated once again its obduracy. Diem’s survival also required Washington’s maintaining sufficient distance from Saigon to avoid creating the impression that he was an American puppet or stooge. Toward these ends, as soon as negotiations over the Manila Pact reached fruition, the United States reached a modus vivendi with Mendès-France. The French agreed to drop their opposition to Diem and to America’s providing military and economic aid to him and to use their influence with the sects, military officers, and other Diem foes to give the new government a chance. In return, the United States would consult with the French over the kinds of assistance Washington extended to South Vietnam and try to persuade Diem to broaden his government by including Vietnamese more to France’s liking. Aware that the agreement merely papered over the profound differences between Paris and Washington, Eisenhower determined that what Diem needed more than anything else was a capable army. Hence, the administration had to “get busy and get [him] one.” 15 For this purpose, Eisenhower dispatched General J. Lawton Collins to South Vietnam as special U.S. representative with the rank of ambassador. “Lightning Joe” had performed exceptionally well for Eisenhower as a corps commander during World War II, and he had ably served as army chief of staff during the Korean War. The president had the utmost confidence in him. Collins also held the four-star rank that would demand the respect of the French, whose high commissioner was now former chief of staff General Paul Ely. Eisenhower charged Collins with the responsibility of “getting” Diem a credible army and otherwise advising him on how to shore up his government. By early 1955, Collins had made progress, or so it seemed. Under his guidance, the stability of the Vietnamese National Army’s command structure improved. More significant, the French consented to establish autonomy for the

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army and to turn over to the United States responsibility for its training. To Collins, nevertheless, Diem remained a monstrous roadblock. No matter what the issue, the prime minister resisted advice on how to govern more effectively, especially the need to initiate reforms aimed to broaden his appeal and co-opt dissidents. Collins’s patience ran out in the spring of 1955. The religious sects, allied with the Binh Xuyen, insisted that Diem grant them greater authority in the government and the military. Collins opposed Diem’s giving it to them. Yet whereas he recommended that Diem defang the sects by expanding his administration to include more diverse representation, the prime minister was bent on a showdown that Collins did not think he could win. For several months, Collins had been hinting to Eisenhower that the French might have been right about Diem and suggesting that the United States would be wise to drop its contention that Diem was South Vietnam’s best and, indeed, only hope. His warnings had little impact in decision-making circles. But the environment and thinking in Washington changed dramatically at the end of March 1955, when the cold war between Diem and the Binh Xuyen erupted into a hot one. Even as rapid intervention by the French forces that remained in Vietnam produced a fragile truce, Collins decided that he had had enough. Although he did not hold Diem unilaterally responsible for the most recent crisis, he did conclude that the prospects for a stable Vietnam were nil as long as Diem ran the government. The United States and France should work together to support the establishment of a new coalition. It “looks like the rug is coming out from under the fellow [Diem] in Southeast Asia,” Secretary Dulles conceded to his brother Allen, head of the CIA. The administration had no choice other than to explore alternatives. After ordering Collins back to Washington for consultations, Eisenhower instructed Dulles to cable Edgar Faure, Mendès-France’s successor as French prime minister, that America now supported France’s opinion that Diem must be replaced.16 No sooner had Dulles drafted the cable than the environment again changed. With Collins in Washington at the end of April, Diem’s primary U.S. contact was one of his most forceful and dogged advocates, the CIA’s Edward Lansdale. Probably prompted by Lansdale and certainly aware that he was at the brink of being jettisoned by the Americans and hence had nothing to lose, Diem broke the truce with the Binh Xuyen. Dulles, who had with great reluctance acceded to Collins’s position, was delighted. He defined the evolving situation as win-win for the United States—and probably for South Vietnam. The best scenario was that Diem would emerge a triumphant hero. Further, even if he lost, the outbreak of what was tantamount to a civil war would provide cover for America’s abandonment of Diem. Such cover proved unnecessary. As the drama unfolded, the administration determined that Diem retained sufficient control to obviate the need for his replacement. On May 6, 1955, Eisenhower


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replaced Collins, assigning in his stead an ambassador who was a career foreign-service officer. G. Frederick Reinhart received instructions to provide Diem with unqualified support. The battle of Saigon did more than reinforce the administration’s commitment to Diem. At the most fundamental level, the crisis forced it to decide between Diem and France. Eisenhower had favored a continuing French presence in Vietnam in order to lessen the burden on the United States and avert intensifying Franco-American discord. He now arrived at the judgment that Diem would never be secure so long as the regime’s opponents could expect at a minimum Paris’s tacit approval. Further, with the Federal Republic of Germany’s entry into NATO imminent, Eisenhower need not worry so much about fracturing the Western alliance. As a consequence, the president calculated that the containment strategy would be best served if France were tactfully and incrementally phased out of Vietnam. At NATO talks in Paris the week following May 6, Dulles told Faure that while the French Expeditionary Corps remained welcome in South Vietnam, Diem would henceforth have but a single patron: the United States. Faure understood the message. Shortly thereafter, Ely left Vietnam, never to return. In the words of the Pentagon Papers analysts, “The undertones were distinct: the days of joint U.S.–French policy were over; thereafter, the U.S. would act independently of France in Vietnam.” 17 American policy in Vietnam had crossed a watershed. Eisenhower had made the fateful decision, in the soon-to-be-popular phrase, to “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.” Rid, from the U.S. point of view, of counterproductive French meddling, America would achieve what France could not. It would nation build in South Vietnam to produce not only a state sufficiently robust to thwart North Vietnamese expansionism, but also a model for development throughout the Third World. For this reason, Washington was no more willing to countenance an election to unify Vietnam than was Saigon. Further, because the Geneva Accords did not specify how elections were to be conducted, and because neither the United States nor the State of (South) Vietnam was a signatory, they did not need blatantly to refuse to participate in such elections. They could simply not cooperate with the feeble efforts made by the Indochinese Communist Party and others, such as Britain and France, to organize the elections. The July 1956 date for the elections thus passed with little notice—or protest. In the interim, Diem continued to consolidate his control in the South. In October 1955, he staged a referendum in which South Vietnamese could vote for him to replace Bao Dai as chief of state. Diem received 98 percent of the votes cast (which in some cases exceeded the number of registered voters). Bao Dai doubtless would have lost under any circumstances, but, in any event, Diem prohibited him from campaigning and designated the color green, which Vietnamese believed was bad luck, for Bao Dai’s ballots. Diem’s ballots were colored red, for

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good luck. Then, in March 1956, Diem orchestrated a parallel success with the election of a “representative” assembly to write a constitution for the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). With Diem’s supporters dominating the assembly, it produced a constitution that invested the new president, Diem, with the powers of both prime minister and chief of state. By July 1956, therefore, Diem had effectively seceded from the unified Vietnam envisioned by the Geneva Accords and for which Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh had fought. Ably assisted by his family, his brother Nhu in particular, he had manipulated democratic processes in order to assemble south of the seventeenth parallel “what could only be termed a police state.” 18 Diem’s Denunciation of Communists campaign, analogous to but more pernicious than colonial America’s Salem witch trials, claimed as victims as many innocent Vietnamese as it did former or current Vietminh. Diem also abolished local governments, decreeing that the national government of Vietnam (GVN) would appoint all village officials, and he otherwise used oppression and repression to impose his philosophy of “personalism” (a rationale for authoritarianism) throughout South Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration recognized that it had a tiger by the tail but realized that it could not let go. Portraying Diem as the “Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam,” it lavished on him millions of dollars— paying for some two-thirds of the GVN’s entire budget.19 In conjunction with the dollars poured into the RVN, Washington offered Diem vast amounts of advice. It earmarked the bulk of both money and advice for the South Vietnamese army, which the administration considered the sine qua non of a stable state. Headed by no-nonsense Lieutenant General Samuel Williams, the small (numbering almost seven hundred personnel, but double the size allowed by the Geneva Accords) Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) took on the yeoman task of modernizing indigenous forces that lacked cohesiveness, training, equipment, a nationalist spirit, and competent leadership. Concurrently, scores of civilian officials—sometimes with the support of experts from U.S. universities (Michigan State most notoriously) and nongovernmental organizations, but sometimes in competition with them—set to work creating a civil society capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of the South Vietnamese population in terms of both security and prosperity. The chief priorities were land reform, land development (large-scale resettlement in different locations), and the agroville program (regroupment of the inhabitants of one area, the Mekong Delta in particular, into larger towns). The goal was to improve the citizenry’s financial well-being, protect them from Vietminh marauders, and prevent the Vietminh from living off and recruiting the South Vietnamese. Americans assumed that democracy was a universal value toward which the Vietnamese would naturally gravitate, but civil society had to develop and stabilize first.


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Success was limited on all fronts. Without American assistance, the RVN would not have survived its early years. In suburban centers such as Saigon, the standard of living in a number of pockets did rise. This was as much testimony to the wretched conditions left by the French as to the effectiveness of U.S. programs; nevertheless, U.S. generosity found its way to many appreciative hands. South Vietnam became the prototypical dependent nation, however. Furthermore, rural villages benefited little from American largesse, and in fundamental respects their quality of life declined. In part, this was due to the clash of cultures between the Americans and Vietnamese. Villagers resisted U.S. efforts to run roughshod over their traditions, more so because the Americans’ paternalistic attitudes, not infrequently tinged with racism, worked at cross-purposes with their good intentions. Then there was the heavy-handed repression from Diem’s policies, which manifested ill-concealed favoritism toward the wealthy and did not distinguish among Communists, dissenters, and apolitical innocents against whom another villager bore a grudge. Nevertheless, the overarching constraint on American programs was Diem and his family network. Much as had been the case during Collins’s mission, Diem—fiercely proud, independent, and self-righteous—was confident that he knew better than the Americans what was good for his country. Refusing to play the role of subservient client and relying on his brothers and select others for implementation, he pursued his own vision of nation building. “There probably had never before in American foreign affairs been a phenomenon comparable to our relations with the Ngo Dinh family,” wrote one U.S. embassy official. “It was like dealing with a whole platoon of de Gaulles.” 20 The same held true in the military sphere. With more than three-quarters of U.S. aid to South Vietnam available to it, MAAG equipped, trained, and reorganized Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). That army’s mission, however, was twofold, and, as a consequence, progress was plagued by internal conflicts. MAAG focused on building an army capable of responding to an invasion from the North, akin to the experience in Korea. Preparing for an unconventional guerrilla war was a lower priority. Diem conversely assessed the gravest threat to his regime as emanating from insurgents within the South, whether natives or postpartition “stay behinds.” Hence, he identified the army’s chief mission as internal security. Not only did Diem disrupt the ARVN’s chain of command by personally issuing or countermanding orders, but he also insisted on controlling the process for promotions and placed a higher value on loyalty than on competence. Because of American advice and assistance, the ARVN was better than it was before 1955, but because of Diem’s interference it was not nearly as good as it could have been. The RVN’s vulnerabilities were not of urgent concern to the Eisenhower administration for several years following Geneva, Manila, and America’s as-

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sumption of the mantle of patronage from France. Eisenhower and Dulles wrestled with more pressing problems, ranging from Suez, the Taiwan Straits, Lebanon, and Berlin to Little Rock and civil rights, budget deficits, Sputnik and the bomber gap, and even their own illnesses (Dulles succumbed to abdominal cancer in May 1959). Although the president claimed success for American nation building and extended a hero’s welcome when Diem made a two-week state visit to the United States in 1957 (Diem had his own lobby, the American Friends of Vietnam), South Vietnam went from the Cold War frontline to the back burner. Even foreign aid to the RVN declined. Beginning in 1959, however, Vietnam began its reascent to the top of the national security agenda. On the one hand, with land reform stalled and Diem’s “rule by terror” producing the incarceration of tens of thousands of villagers in “reeducation centers” (an unspecified number were guillotined), unrest throughout rural South Vietnam intensified, as did sympathy for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North.21 On the other hand, Diem’s internal security machine, although not particular about whom it caught in its dragnet, took a toll on the Vietminh (referred to in Washington after 1959 as the “Vietcong”). Le Duan, who headed the Vietminh’s Central Office for South Vietnam, beseeched Hanoi for help. At the same time, in light of obvious signs that the unification of Vietnam would not come about through elections, momentum grew within North Vietnam’s Communist Politburo to resume armed conflict. Le Duan’s election as party secretary tipped the balance in this direction. At its meeting in Hanoi in January 1959, the Central Committee adopted Resolution No. 15. Although Resolution No. 15 emphasized the continued importance of political action, it stipulated that final victory would be achieved only through protracted and heroic struggle. It also proclaimed the need to create and coordinate insurgent forces in the South. Within months, southern commanders began to build a revolutionary base in Vietnam’s central highlands; the clandestine Group 559 began to construct what would become the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the Laotian mountains adjacent to Vietnam; and the Vietminh initiated “spontaneous uprisings” from central Vietnam extending southward to the Mekong Delta. The Communist Party’s Third National Congress formally approved the initiation of armed struggle in September 1960. At the end of the year, representatives of a broad spectrum of political, social, religious, and ethnic groups convened near the Cambodian border to form the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam. Under the leadership of Nguyen Van Linh, who was Le Duan’s successor in the Central Office for South Vietnam, in early 1961 the NLF established its fighting arm, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). In the last year of his presidency, Eisenhower viewed with increasing alarm the growing insurgency, which strengthened with the influx of adherents from


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the countryside. He knew that Diem’s military forces were not capable of responding. Yet more worrisome were events occurring in neighboring Laos. The civil war there threatened to produce a union between the leader of one faction of the Royal Lao Government, Prince Souvanna Phouma, and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, founder of the Communist Pathet Lao. The alliance between the Pathet Lao and Hanoi could shift the balance of power in Southeast Asia against Western interests. So serious did Eisenhower perceive the danger that when on January 19, 1961, he briefed his successor John F. Kennedy at the White House on the most pressing global problems, the agenda included Laos, not Vietnam. According to Kennedy’s note takers, Eisenhower advised the president-elect that he should take whatever measures necessary, not excluding unilateral military intervention, to prevent a Communist takeover of Laos and, by extension, Vietnam. The president, according to the briefing memorandum published in the Pentagon Papers, “stated that he considered Laos of such importance that if it reached the stage where we could not persuade others to act with us, then he would be willing, as a last desperate hope, to intervene unilaterally.” 22 Other memoranda of this meeting suggest that Eisenhower may not have been this categorical in his advice to Kennedy. Regardless, his commitment to preventing the fall of another Southeast Asian domino to Communism was categorical. And so was the untested Kennedy’s. Kennedy had scored points during his presidential campaign against incumbent vice president Richard M. Nixon by promising to prosecute the Cold War with more “vigah” and imagination than his aged predecessor, and he had excoriated the Republicans for allowing the global tide to turn in the Soviets’ favor. Moreover, Kennedy pledged to pay greater attention to the challenges confronting America in the Third World, and as a Catholic and early champion of Ngo Dinh Diem, he had singled out Vietnam as one of the few foreign-policy issues about which to claim expertise. Gathering around him advisers who shared his can-do spirit (among the “best and the brightest” were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy’s deputy Walt Whitman Rostow, and special military adviser and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor), Kennedy was confident that with assistance and under his guidance, the RVN could defeat the still nascent insurgency. It had to. Concurrent with Kennedy’s inaugural, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had proclaimed Soviet support for national wars of liberation. Nevertheless, unwilling to pay the price and bear the burden required militarily to defeat Souvanna Phouma’s coalition with Souphanouvong’s Pathet Lao, Kennedy opted for negotiations aimed at neutralizing Laos. Although serving America’s

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immediate interests, this solution would not bolster Kennedy’s credentials as a better defender of the free world than Eisenhower. Worse, also during his first one hundred days, Kennedy gave the green light to the CIA’s project to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba. Cutting back on plans initially developed under Eisenhower, Operation Zapata produced the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The administration’s early stumbles made Vietnam even more important as an opportunity for Kennedy to prove his mettle. Yet he initially approved only a modest increase in MAAG’s size and authorized minor clandestine operations against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam north of the seventeenth parallel. Kennedy did dispatch several hundred troops from the army’s Special Forces (popularly called the Green Berets after the president’s visit to Fort Bragg in October 1961) to instruct the South Vietnamese in counterinsurgency techniques. And he sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to South Vietnam to signal U.S. loyalty. Johnson played his part well, juxtaposing Diem’s name with that of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and, most famously, Winston Churchill. By the summer of 1961, it was evident that these measures would suffice only temporarily. The insurgency in the South intensified even as Diem, nervously watching the negotiations taking place in Geneva over Laos, began to wonder whether the U.S. administration might sanction a neutralization scheme for Vietnam as well. At this time, he did not want more U.S. troops in Vietnam, but he wanted more U.S. money, equipment, and training for his troops, not to mention an iron-clad guarantee of America’s commitment to his GVN. Unsure of what to do next, Kennedy sent an investigative mission to Vietnam headed by Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow, both hawks when it came to Vietnam. They concluded that although conditions in Vietnam were deteriorating, the situation was not hopeless. Kennedy, they recommended, should immediately send Diem assistance and advisers to strengthen the ARVN, Civil Guard, and SelfDefense Corps. Taylor and Rostow also proposed deploying to Vietnam a logistical task force composed of 8,000 infantry, engineers, and medical personnel. Although the excuse would be to assist the flood-ravaged Mekong Delta, the purpose would be to boost the morale of the South Vietnamese and show Diem that Washington remained fully committed to the “limited partnership” it had forged with him.23 Most of Kennedy’s top advisers, such as Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy, immediately endorsed the Taylor–Rostow report. Their only significant criticism was that it did not go far enough in safeguarding the RVN. Kennedy agreed with the report’s general diagnosis. The deterioration in South Vietnam had to be arrested, only the South Vietnamese could win their war, and both Diem and the ARVN would benefit from American confidence-building measures.


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But along with other advisers, typically lower-level ones such as Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles and Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the president had reservations about the recommended logistical task force. Diem and his cohort would see the deployment of a force of this composition and size as what it was: a halfway measure at best. Its impact on their morale, therefore, was likely to be minimal. It would more likely lead to the ARVN’s greater dependence on America. Further, once the United States had committed this many troops, the pressure to commit more if the going got tougher would be irresistible. America’s—and Kennedy’s—credibility would be that much more on the line. “It’s like taking a drink,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. quotes Kennedy as saying about this kind of deployment. “The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” 24 But for Kennedy, negotiations, let alone a diminution of the U.S. commitment to Diem, were equally out of the question. The only option was a compromise between the extremes. He rejected the Taylor–Rostow proposal to send to Vietnam a sizable force that included combat troops. But he agreed to expand exponentially the amount of U.S. assistance to and number of advisers in Vietnam. In 1962, moreover, even as he backed off from his initial inclination to tie an increase in U.S. generosity to Diem’s agreeing to reform the GVN, Kennedy created a new military command structure, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), in the hope that it would be more effective than the MAAG in inducing the South Vietnamese to make better use of America’s assistance and advisers. For a time in 1962, the prospects for the RVN brightened. Not only did Kennedy create MACV, but its new commander, General Paul Harkins, also provided the South Vietnam forces with more direct U.S. assistance. Harkins initiated a campaign, Project Beefup, that relied on defoliants and herbicides to deny the insurgents shelter and food. The number of U.S. advisers almost tripled, surpassing 9,000 by the end of the year, and they came ever closer to harm’s way themselves. American personnel flew planes and helicopters and accompanied the South Vietnamese on missions, sometimes offensive combat missions. Provided with greater resources by the United States, the ARVN grew by more than 30,000 troops, who now had at their disposal helicopters and armored personnel carriers. The ARVN forces appeared to have gained the initiative. Side by side with, but independent from, Project Beefup was the evolving Strategic Hamlet Program. Before Kennedy took office, Diem’s brother Nhu began to study such precedents as the British experience in Malaya and the American experience in the Philippines in order to formulate a security plan at the village level that would improve on the failed agrovilles. After consulting with William Colby, who in 1960 became CIA station chief in Vietnam, Nhu came up

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with the Strategic Hamlet Program, a system of government-controlled and government-fortified hamlets formed from an existing population. Nhu envisioned establishing multiple hamlets proximate to each another, each secured by moats and bamboo fencing, collectively composing a village. Provided with military training, political indoctrination, medical care, and economic rehabilitation for its inhabitants, the hamlet would become the building block for a more prosperous, capable, and loyal state and society in South Vietnam even as it denied the NLF resources and recruits. In January 1962, the Diem government declared the implementation of the Strategic Hamlet Program to be the number-one national priority. Although construction of the hamlets fell short of the goals set by Nhu, the countryside appeared to stabilize. By the latter part of 1962, however, it had become apparent that the improvement was illusory. ARVN offensive actions never gained the initiative because the Vietcong guerrillas did not provide a stationary target. Their location often remained concealed until a helicopter set down, and they came out of hiding to ambush the landing party. The guerrillas usually escaped before the ARVN arrived to secure an area. In January 1963, the battle of Ap Bac proved to be an exception, but an ominous one. The ARVN identified a concentration of Vietcong near the village of Ap Bac. Encouraged by the legendary adviser John Paul Vann and far outnumbering its adversary, it attacked. Rather than engineer a preemptive escape, the guerrillas dug in to fight. Only after inflicting more than 150 ARVN casualties and downing five helicopters did they retreat to fight another day. Further, the Strategic Hamlet Program was of little help to the counterinsurgency effort. It may in fact have exacerbated the RVN’s problems. Many insurgents and their sympathizers already lived within the hamlets, and issuing identification cards was of paltry value in distinguishing friend from foe. In many hamlets, Vietcong infiltration continued unabated, and the terror the insurgents visited upon the hamlet’s leadership and those suspected of supporting Diem made a mockery of RVN claims that it could protect the villagers. Populations were removed from their ancestral homes despite promises that they would not be, and Diem’s agents administered the education, land-distribution, medical, and other programs within the hamlets so poorly that the inhabitants had no incentive to stay. The hamlets became prisons rather than sanctuaries. Instead of enhancing pacification by winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, they became breeding grounds for the NLF and PLAF. “It’s no happy hollow,” conceded one U.S. adviser after visiting a hamlet. Commented another, “the relocated people . . . appeared to be going through the motions of participation instead of manifesting enthusiasm at the prospect of making the hamlet a bastion of freedom.” 25


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By what turned out to be Kennedy’s and Diem’s last year, 1963, U.S. policy and the RVN’s government and society were coming apart. The U.S. press began to challenge the claims of progress that came out of both Saigon and Washington, and an influential minority in Congress, mostly from Kennedy’s Democratic Party, began to warn about America’s repeating France’s mistakes. The president, having recently spent thirteen harrowing days during the Cuban Missile Crisis, instructed McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to outline a plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces. Diem, sensing that developments were not going his way, became more intractable than ever and resisted all U.S. recommendations, especially those that concerned reforming the GVN. He likewise became less tolerant of internal dissent. On May 8, 1963, a Buddhist protest began in Hue after GVN troops mistakenly fired into a demonstration in support of flying Buddhist flags, and it escalated on June 11 when an elderly monk, encircled by others, immolated himself before a crowd in Saigon. Diem responded as if he and his government were under siege. Madame Nhu appeared to confirm that the Ngo family had locked into an “us against the world” mentality when she contemptuously dismissed the self-immolation as a “barbecue.” With less fanfare, her husband ordered the ransacking of Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam and the arrest of more than 1,400 additional monks. An official in the U.S. Embassy later wrote that at this juncture he realized that the United States was “dealing with a government of madmen, whose words were meaningless, where nothing that was supposed to have happened had really happened.” 26 Kennedy was furious. He was also uncertain as to what, if any, measures he should take. Adding to his dilemma, he learned through secret channels that a cabal of ARVN generals was prepared to take action against Diem’s government. Evidence Kennedy received through other channels indicated that Nhu, doubtless suspecting that Washington was poised to abandon him and his brother, had contacted Hanoi about striking a deal. Kennedy realized that whatever he did would entail great risks. He could decide on only one move: to appoint former senator and vice presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as ambassador to Saigon. If Kennedy “lost” South Vietnam, at least a prominent Republican would share the heat. Kennedy did not lose Vietnam. He and America lost something worse. Lodge quickly concluded that any hope of salvaging South Vietnam demanded the replacement of Diem. Using CIA agent Lucien Conein as a go-between and supported by select but avid anti-Diemists in the White House as well as in the State Department, Lodge got in touch with the dissident generals, assuring them that the administration approved of their plan in principle. Diem retained supporters back in Washington as well, however, and they protested that the president had not approved such a fundamental change in U.S. policy. Ken-

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nedy again hedged his bets. He declared that it remained U.S. policy to support the GVN, but he instructed Lodge to discuss a possible coup with the conspirators. But Lodge must explicitly warn them, Kennedy stressed, that the United States would not provide any assistance in ousting Diem. If they failed, Washington would deny any knowledge, let alone complicity. It appeared that the plotters had promised more than they could deliver, or they got cold feet. By the end of August, there was no coup attempt. Yet tension within the RVN was as high as ever, and the Kennedy administration continued to debate whether Diem had to go and, if so, what to do because he would not resign. Further, there was still no consensus as to whether there existed in South Vietnam a viable alternative to Diem. Kennedy would not foreclose any option. He agreed to entertain a proposal, ironically from the French, for neutralizing Vietnam along the lines of the 1963 Laotian settlement. He continued to allow McNamara and the Pentagon to formulate plans for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces. He sent multiple new investigative missions to South Vietnam. And, of course, he did not rule out staying the course and even increasing U.S. assistance if appropriate conditions could be achieved. In public, he was no less equivocal. If Diem did not change “his pattern,” Kennedy told CBS’s Walter Cronkite, he “can’t be successful.” That said, the president uttered in the next breath that Diem had time to “regain the support of the [Vietnamese] people” and that for America to withdraw “would be a great mistake.” 27 Kennedy never reached a definitive decision. He did approve the application of “selective pressure,” such as curtailing aid and reducing the number of U.S. advisers, in a last-ditch effort to induce Diem to reform or resign.28 Diem probably would have done neither, but he never had the opportunity. The generals set their plan in motion on November 1, 1963, perhaps interpreting the application of selective pressure as a sign of support or perhaps simply realizing that Kennedy’s refusal to oppose a coup equaled a decision to promote one. After losing control of vital military assets and communication systems, Diem phoned Lodge. Lodge replied that he lacked information on the U.S. position. Diem and Nhu then fled the palace, took communion, and accepted the offer of safe passage out of Vietnam. Both were summarily executed. Kennedy was “shocked” and conceded that “we must bear a good deal of responsibility” for the “abhorrent” murders.29 Three weeks later, the president was assassinated in Dallas. Whether Kennedy would have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam, as some have speculated, cannot be known. He probably would not have. He was as determined as Eisenhower had been to support or to build a viable state in South Vietnam opposed to Communist North Vietnam. But just as Kennedy should not be commended for planning to end the U.S. military commitment to South Vietnam, Eisenhower should not be congratulated for avoiding one. Both warrant plaudits for putting the brakes on more zealous, reckless advisers. Yet


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neither demonstrated the foresight or political courage to make a decision based on the realistic assessment that there never would be a viable state of South Vietnam and that a unified Vietnam under Communist leadership would not threaten the United States or its allies. For different reasons, Eisenhower and Kennedy would likely have responded to the challenges in Vietnam that confronted Lyndon Johnson differently and more effectively than he did. Yet neither can escape responsibility for their role in forcing those challenges on their successor.

Notes 1. Richard H. Immerman, “Prologue: Perceptions by the United States of Its Interests in Indochina,” in Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco - American Relations, 1954–1955, edited by Lawrence S. Kaplan, Denise Artaud, and Mark R. Rubin (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1990), 8. 2. Substance of discussions of State Department, Director for Mutual Security, JCS meeting, January 28, 1953, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, vol. 13, Indochina (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982), pt. 1:361 (series hereafter cited as FRUS, with dates and volume titles). 3. Entry for March, 17, 1951, Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Eisenhower Diaries, edited by Robert Ferrell (New York: Norton, 1981), 196. 4. Memorandum of Discussion, National Security Council (NSC), January 8, 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, vol. 13, Indochina, pt. 1:952. 5. Robert R. Bowie, interview by the author, October 29, 1981, Washington, D.C. (transcript in author’s possession). 6. Memorandum of Discussion, NSC, April 6, 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, vol. 13, Indochina, pt. 1:1253. 7. Memorandum of Discussion, NSC, April 29, 1954, in ibid., pt. 2:1440–46. 8. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 63-54, “Consequences of the Fall of Dien Bien Phu,” April 30, 1954, in Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948–1975, edited by John K. Allen Jr., John Carver, and Tom Elmore (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2005), 50–54. 9. George C. Herring, “ ‘A Good Stout Effort’: John Foster Dulles and the Indochina Crisis, 1954–1955,” in John Foster Dulles and t he Diplomacy of the Cold War, edited by Richard H. Immerman (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 220. 10. Dulles to U.S. Delegation, June 14, 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, vol. 16, The Geneva Conference (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981), 1146–47. 11. Smith to Dulles, July 21, 1954, in ibid., 1500–1501.

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12. Quoted in Gary Hess, “The Geneva and Manila Conferences,” in Kaplan, Artaud, and Rubin, eds., Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco-American Relations, 140. 13. Douglas Dillon to State Department, May 24, 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, vol. 13, Indochina, pt. 2:1608–10. 14. NIE 63-5-54, “Post Geneva Outlook in Indochina,” August 3, 1954, in Allen, Carver, and Elmore, eds., Estimative Products on Vietnam, 69. 15. Memorandum of Discussion, NSC, October 22, 1954, in FRUS, 195 2–1954, vol. 13, Indochina, pt. 2:2153–58. 16. Memorandum of telephone conversation between John Foster Dulles and Allen W. Dulles, April 11, 1955, Telephone Memoranda (except to and from the White House), March–April 1955, Telephone Conversations Series, John Foster Dulles Papers, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kans. 17. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, United States –Vietnam Relations, 1945–1965, 12 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1971), 2:pt. 4, A3:V. 18. David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 131. 19. John Osborne, “The Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam,” Life, May 13, 1957, 156–76. 20. Quoted in Philip E. Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 24. 21. Seth Jacobs, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 223–24. 22. Quoted in Fred I. Greenstein and Richard H. Immerman, “What Did Eisenhower Tell Kennedy About Indochina? The Politics of Misperception,” Journal of American History 79, no. 2 (1992): 573 (emphasis in original). 23. Taylor to President Kennedy, November 3, 1961, and attachments, in FRUS, 1961–1963, vol. 1, Vietnam , 1961 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988), 493. 24. Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1965), 505. 25. Both advisers quoted in Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, 174. 26. John Mecklin, Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 205. 27. Quoted in Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 348. 28. Report of McNamara–Taylor Mission to Vietnam, October 2, 1953, in The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 5 vols., Senator Gravel ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 2:765.


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29. Quoted in David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 277.

Further Reading Anderson, David L. Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Catton, Philip E. Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Greenstein, Fred I., and Richard H. Immerman. “What Did Eisenhower Tell Kennedy About Indochina? The Politics of Misperception.” Journal of American History 79, no. 2 (1992): 568–87. Herring, George C., and Richard H. Immerman. “Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu: ‘The Day We Didn’t Go to War’ Revisited.” Journal of American History 71, no. 2 (1984): 343–63. Jacobs, Seth. America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. Jones, Howard. Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000. Kaplan, Lawrence S., Denise Artaud, and Mark R. Rubin, eds. Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco - American Relations, 1954–1955. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1990.

3. South Vietnam Under Siege, 1961–1965 Kenne d y, Jo hn s o n , an d t h e Q u e s t i o n of Es c al at io n o r D is en g a g e m e n t Gary R. Hess

Between 1961 and 1965, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson gradually took the United States to war in Vietnam. Support of South Vietnam moved from programs of economic and military assistance, including a few hundred military advisers, to a vastly expanded advisory role, covert operations against North Vietnam, manipulation of Saigon government politics, and ultimately direct air and ground warfare. At stake was the U.S. objective of upholding a non-Communist South Vietnam, which American officials since 1954 had considered essential to limiting Sino-Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Against a background of steadily increasing Vietcong (National Liberation Front) attacks in the South and an erosion of the authority of the Saigon government amid mounting political chaos, Kennedy and Johnson approved a series of steps that transformed the American role. The United States moved from being the benefactor of the South Vietnamese government to being the guarantor of its survival. Each of eight steps deepened the American commitment: 1. Kennedy significantly expanded the program of military assistance to South Vietnam. Seeing Vietnam as a test of whether the United States could defeat Communist-led “wars of national liberation” in the developing world, Kennedy increased the levels of equipment and supplies and the number of


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American military advisers. He also increased the number of American personnel deployed from fewer than 700 in January 1961 to more than 2,000 in his first year in office and then to 11,000 by the end of 1962 and 16,000 by November 1963. This growth of the American military presence was accompanied by an enlarged mission, which moved beyond the earlier emphasis on training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to include accompanying ARVN units into battle and the South Vietnamese air force on strafing and bombing missions against Vietcong positions, manning helicopters to enhance ARVN mobility, and launching propaganda and political activities directed toward discrediting the Vietcong and building support for the Saigon government among the rural population. Significantly, the United States began counting its casualties in 1961, and although the number of deaths and injuries were relatively low before 1965, they were testimony to the expanded military commitment. 2. The United States fostered the Strategic Hamlet Program, a large-scale operation to counter the strength of the Communist insurgency in rural South Vietnam. Intended to sever the Vietcong’s capacity to draw on villages for manpower and support and to enhance the South Vietnamese government’s credibility with the peasantry, strategic hamlets were constructed in areas of ARVN strength. The program involved the movement of entire villages into “secure” hamlets, where the South Vietnamese government would be seen as providing not only safety, but also health, educational, and other social services. The South Vietnamese government made a major commitment to the program, promising to build 12,000 strategic hamlets, which would have covered virtually all of rural South Vietnam. 3. Kennedy sanctioned American complicity, chiefly through the Central Intelligence Agency, in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. This coup was intended to restore political stability after months of mounting discontent centering on urban-based, Buddhist-led protests against Diem’s repressive policies that had paralyzed the South Vietnamese government for several months. The coup more broadly reflected American exasperation with Diem, who for nearly a decade had resisted pressures to embrace reforms that would enhance the stature of his government.1 4. Johnson exploited the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964 to pressure North Vietnam into abandoning its support of the Vietcong insurgency. This murky “crisis”—in which an American destroyer engaged in a brief exchange of fire with North Vietnamese patrol boats on August 2 and was followed by an alleged but unverified “second attack” by North Vietnamese boats two nights later—gave Johnson the opportunity to try to intimidate North Vietnam. He authorized a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam, which was the first direct use of American military force in the conflict, and requested congressio-

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nal approval of a resolution supporting the use of power as the president deemed necessary to uphold U.S. interests in the region. Americans overwhelmingly supported these measures, and Congress quickly and uncritically provided Johnson with a “blank check” to wage war. This dual show of strength was intended to coerce North Vietnam into abandoning its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. None of these four measures worked. Step 1: Despite increased support from the United States, the ARVN steadily lost ground to the Vietcong, which came to control ever larger portions of rural South Vietnam. North Vietnam provided greater assistance in manpower and equipment to the Vietcong. In battles with the Vietcong, most notably one at Ap Bac in January 1963, the ARVN, despite superiority in manpower and weaponry thanks to American support, performed poorly. Step 2: The Strategic Hamlet Program failed to blunt the insurgency. It was hastily conceived and poorly implemented. Peasants resented and often resisted removal from their ancestral villages. Few young men were among those moved, indicating that the Vietcong continued to draw them into its ranks. The Saigon government considered the program a means of controlling an unreliable rural population rather than an opportunity to gain its support; as a result, the hamlets tended to resemble prisons. The strategic hamlets, moreover, became a favorite target of Vietcong attacks, thus undermining their “secure” status. Within two years, the Strategic Hamlet Program had been abandoned. Step 3: The overthrow of Diem touched off political instability. Contrary to U.S. calculations that the South Vietnamese would rally around the military leadership that seized power in November 1963, that government lasted barely two months, and coup after coup crippled the South Vietnamese government through mid-1965. Military and civilian factions vied for power, dissipating any sense of South Vietnamese resolution to resist the insurgency. Step 4: North Vietnam was not intimidated by Johnson’s display of power after the Tonkin incident and instead increased its support of the revolution in the South. With earlier measures failing and with the Saigon government and military in a precarious state, Johnson turned to military measures as the momentum toward war continued with the final four critical steps in early 1965: 5. In February 1965, Johnson approved a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder was intended to weaken North Vietnam’s war-making infrastructure, its lines of supply, and its capacity to dispatch men and materiel to assist the southern insurgents. 6. In the following month, Johnson authorized the dispatch of the first American combat troops—some 3,500 marines—to defend U.S. air bases.


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7. The combat mission expanded in the spring of 1965, with 40,000 troops sent in April, and Washington enlarged their role to permit offensive operations. 8. Finally, Johnson’s decided in July 1965 for an open-ended military commitment. He would provide whatever the military leadership said was necessary to blunt the insurgency and North Vietnam’s increasing infiltration of men and supplies. This Americanization of the war accelerated Operation Rolling Thunder and brought a total of 190,000 troops to Vietnam by year’s end and nearly 400,000 by the end of 1966. More than 500,000 American forces would eventually be committed. Looking at U.S. involvement as a series of steps that took the nation gradually to war suggests that the process had a certain inevitability. Indeed, each step seemed at the time to be the minimum level of power necessary to avoid defeat; as the political-military situation worsened, that minimum steadily increased. Much of the writing on the war stresses the extent to which the “imperatives of the Cold War” pulled the United States step by step into the Vietnam quagmire. On the assumption that the nation’s security depended on containing the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, U.S. officials from the Truman to the Johnson administrations regarded the Communist movement in Vietnam as extending Sino-Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. The region was vital to America, Europe, and Japan as a source of raw materials and as an expanding market—a strategic consideration with neocolonial implications as well. The “domino theory” articulated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 set forth a “worst-case” scenario that guided strategic thinking thereafter. Vietnam was the “first domino”—the critical Cold War battleground in the region and beyond. Communist control of Vietnam would embolden the Soviets and Chinese to press their advantage and would lead peoples in other nations to see Communism as the wave of the future, thus weakening proWestern and nonaligned governments. Like a row of dominos, other nations in Southeast and South Asia would fall to Communist control. That outcome would represent an intolerable strategic loss for the United States. Reinforcing the necessity of preventing “falling dominos” in Southeast Asia was the assumption that American “credibility” was on the line. Because the United States had provided support to South Vietnam since 1954, its own stature depended on the survival of a strong non-Communist government. Failure to stand by Saigon at its time of turmoil would erode American standing throughout the world: other allies would lose confidence, and enemies would be emboldened. Credibility had a certain self-fulfilling aspect in that the more the Americans aided Saigon, the greater became the implications of that commitment. Steadily between 1954 and 1965, the American stake in Vietnam—and its implications—increased significantly. Chester Cooper, who served as a State

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Department official at this time, later spoke of what he labeled the “investment trap”: the more the United States put into Vietnam, the more difficult it became to reduce or end that commitment. Writing of the situation in the spring of 1965, Cooper comments: “The 75,000 American troops in Vietnam were now a hostage. They represented too large a force to pull out without a tremendous loss of prestige, yet they were too small a combat force . . . to take over the burden of the fighting from the clearly ineffectual South Vietnamese forces.” 2 Underlying concern with “dominos” and “credibility” was a third assumption: that the “lessons of the 1930s” taught the necessity to “nip aggression.” American officials accepted without question the proposition that the failure of democracies to halt the initial acts of aggression by Germany, Japan, and Italy had only encouraged further aggression that eventually led to World War II. Hence, American officials viewed instances of Communist nations’ pressure or aggression against neighboring countries through the lens of recent history. Over the previous twenty years, the United States had applied its power in various ways in Iran, Greece, Berlin, Korea, and elsewhere to halt what it considered Communist “aggression.” By the 1960s, the assumption that resisting Communist advances was necessary to uphold U.S. national security was firmly established. Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1961 to 1965, stated the point succinctly: “The point is the same in Vietnam as it was in Greece in 1947 and Korea in 1950.” 3 Lyndon Johnson accepted these assumptions about Vietnam’s importance. While vice president, Johnson visited South Vietnam in 1961 and strongly identified with the Diem government and the American mission. His report to Kennedy reflected the conventional thinking of the era with its concerns over “dominos” and “credibility” and “stopping aggression”: “[T]he basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a ‘Fortress America’ concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don’t stand up to treaties and don’t stand by friends.” 4 Much of the writing on the road to war in Vietnam stresses the extent to which presidential options were limited. As early as 1965, New York Times correspondent David Halberstam suggested in his influential book The Making of a Quagmire that the impending war was futile, but he saw American leaders “trapped” by the circumstances. Although critical of many American and South Vietnamese actions that he had observed while reporting from Saigon over the previous three years, Halberstam saw the United States as “committed to playing our part of the bargain” but hoping that the South Vietnamese would somehow pull together.5 By 1968, when the “quagmire” had become a reality, Arthur


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M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian and onetime Kennedy adviser, wrote in his book The Bitter Heritage, “each step only led to the next” until Americans found themselves in “a land war in Asia—a war which no President, including President Johnson, desired or intended. Vietnam is a tragedy without villains.” 6 This interpretation, which is reflected in much scholarly literature, substantially exonerates America’s leaders as reasonable men acting prudently on the basis of existing assumptions and projections, but with tragic consequences. On the other side, some scholars emphasize “presidential choice” in taking the country to war. Although not denying that Kennedy and Johnson confronted powerful pressures to escalate, these writers observe that the presidents received advice that challenged the conventional wisdom of the time and that gave them the opportunity to reconsider and redirect American policy. Two intriguing arguments emerge from this approach: (1) that the Kennedy to Johnson transition represented a significant “turning point” that made war more likely; and (2) that Johnson took the initiative in pressing for war and in the process missed opportunities to negotiate America’s disengagement from Vietnam. The turning-point argument rejects the assumption of the “Cold War imperative” interpretation that the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations represented a continuum. President Johnson frequently said that his actions in Vietnam were essentially determined by Eisenhower and Kennedy’s commitments, thus suggesting that they had limited his options and left him no alternative but to take the ultimate step of war. As the war became controversial, however, some Kennedy aides claimed that the slain president had recognized the futility of supporting South Vietnam and had quietly planned to withdraw after he was reelected in 1964.7 Some scholars have more recently argued that Kennedy, in contrast to Johnson, followed a basically cautious approach that indicated a reticence to use direct military power. Hence, the turning-point argument makes the case for “Kennedy exceptionalism,” seeing him as a prudent and realistic leader who likely would have avoided a calamitous war. It is based on inferences about his actions in Vietnam from 1961 to 1963 and about his temperament and leadership style. The argument rests on three points: (1) that although Kennedy did increase the level of the American commitment, his refusal to commit combat forces indicated a determination to avoid that monumental step; (2) that Kennedy recognized the limits of the American capacity to ensure the survival of the South Vietnamese government; and (3) that Kennedy privately planned to disengage from Vietnam after the 1964 presidential election. The turning-point interpretation emphasizes that Kennedy stood firmly against advisers who urged that the United States take its military role beyond that of “advisers” to direct combat through the bombing of North Vietnam and

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the dispatch of ground troops to South Vietnam. To his defenders, Kennedy was a “brilliant natural diplomat,” cautious not to act rashly and disposed toward negotiation and acceptance of neutralism. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 showed his reluctance to use military power in a confrontational manner and his willingness to achieve his ends through a negotiated settlement. Skeptical of America’s strategic interest in Indochina, Kennedy recognized that most Americans attached little importance to the region, and so withdrawal would have scant political impact. He heeded warnings from French president Charles de Gaulle about France’s failure and from retired general Douglas MacArthur about the difficulty of fighting against guerrillas in Asian jungles. By 1962, if not earlier, according to the turning-point argument, Kennedy recognized that “victory” was unattainable, and so he followed a middle ground between military escalation and withdrawal. Thus, he refused to commit American prestige and military power. This caution was evident in his policy toward Laos, which at the time of his inauguration was considered a more critical problem than Vietnam. In that instance, Kennedy rejected Defense Department recommendations to send as many as 60,000 troops to back up the precarious Royal Lao Government; instead, he pursued the path of negotiation, which led to the Geneva Accord on Laotian Neutrality. This approach to Laos underscored that Kennedy “never regarded Southeast Asia as [a] propitious place to deploy American power.” 8 Although he took various measures to strengthen South Vietnam, he consistently rejected recommendations for the use of combat troops. In fact, he wanted to begin scaling back U.S. involvement, but widespread Buddhist-led protests in the spring of 1963 touched off a crisis in the cities of South Vietnam that forced him to delay that step. The direction of his strategy was evident, however, in a secret plan to withdraw 1,000 advisers by the end of 1963 and the remaining 15,000 by the end of 1965. Kennedy’s plan to disengage was based on recognition of the limits of American ability to influence South Vietnam. His apologists make much of a September 2, 1963, television interview with Walter Cronkite that “was the longest statement on South Vietnam that Kennedy had ever made to the American people during his presidency.” 9 Kennedy’s comments underscored the limits of American power: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists.” He went on to criticize the Saigon government and was not optimistic about its prospects: “The repressions against the Buddhists, we felt, were very unwise. Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don’t think this is the way to win it. . . . With changes in policy and perhaps


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in personnel I think it can [gain popular support]. If it doesn’t make those changes, I would think that the chances of winning it would not be very good.” Yet Kennedy also ruled out withdrawal, but he made no commitment to defend South Vietnam if the situation deteriorated: “[Withdrawal] would be a grave mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.” 10 David Kaiser argues in his book American Tragedy that Kennedy’s statement underscored differences with his hawkish advisers and his determination to limit the American commitment. According to Kaiser, Kennedy “had virtually stated that if [Diem] could not [win], the United States would not be able to prevent a communist victory. . . . The United States would furnish only assistance, and, implicitly, would not regard South Vietnam as a vital American interest . . . and would live with the outcome if South Vietnam eventually lost the war.” 11 Robert Dallek, Kennedy’s principal biographer, is among the proponents of Kennedy exceptionalism. According to Dallek in An Unfinished Life, Kennedy, although eager to protect South Vietnam, was by 1963 determined to prevent the dispatch of ground forces. He wanted to downplay America’s role in ways that would enable him to withdraw all military advisers. Like Kaiser, Dallek argues that Kennedy believed that American strategic interest in Vietnam was limited. Kennedy did not want to see Vietnam fall into the Soviet–Chinese orbit, “but he was unwilling to pay any price or bear any burden for the freedom of Saigon from communist control. His skepticism about South Vietnam’s commitment to preserving its freedom  .  .  . fueled his reluctance to involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.” Fearing that the United States could become “trapped” in a war of Korean conflict dimensions that would drain American resources, Kennedy planned but was not committed to the withdrawal of U.S. military advisers. “No one can prove, of course, what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam between 1964 and 1968,” Dallek writes; “his actions and statements, however, are suggestive of a carefully managed standdown from the sort of involvement that occurred under LBJ.” 12 In Kennedy’s Wars, Lawrence Freedman agrees that Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam, but his plan was only tentative at the time of his death. He could not have foreseen the worsening of the post-Diem situation in South Vietnam. Kennedy prized flexibility and keeping options open, so one cannot be certain that he would have implemented the withdrawal plan. Yet he also had gained considerable confidence in his own judgment in confronting international crises, which enhanced his skepticism of recommendations from advisers. In the end, Freedman concludes that Kennedy would have responded to the crisis of 1964 and 1965 very differently from the ways that Johnson did:

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Had he lived, Kennedy, like Johnson, would have faced a growing mismatch between his commitment to South Vietnam and the means available to sustain that commitment. Kennedy, like Johnson, would have faced increasing pressure to follow a Northern strategy [to wage war against North Vietnam], though he had resisted it in the past. . . . We cannot be sure that he would have continued to reject the Northern strategy . . . but to assume otherwise is to accept that any president at the start of 1965 was almost doomed to take a decision that not only turned out to be calamitous and counterproductive but was recognized as such by knowledgeable people at the time.13

And Fredrik Logevall, in Choosing War, stresses Kennedy’s strengths and Johnson’s weaknesses as foreign-policy leaders. Kennedy’s experience, especially in the missile crisis and in negotiating the nuclear test ban treaty, had given him “a sizable fund of political credibility as a foreign policy leader, something LBJ never possessed.” Kennedy “privately doubted the validity of a crude domino theory . . . [and] he perceived from early on that there were limits to what the United States could accomplish in that part of the world.” So, as Logevall writes, “there are commitments and there are commitments.” Influencing Kennedy was his consciousness of the civil war aspect of the conflict and how that complicated any application of American military power. Moreover, his “world view contained a pronounced skepticism that [ Johnson’s] lacked,” reflecting the fact that “Kennedy possessed the more flexible and reflective mind, at least with respect to foreign affairs.” Kennedy thus encouraged an open decision-making environment that contrasted sharply with Johnson’s. In Logevall’s scenario, had Kennedy lived, American officials confronting the mounting crisis of 1964 and 1965 would have been “more inclined . . . to ask the really fundamental questions about the war” and to listen to the many voices that were predicting disaster if the United States intervened militarily.14 So whether Kennedy would have gone forward or not with a tentative plan to withdraw, the Kennedy exceptionalism argument maintains that he would have approached the problems that developed in 1964 and 1965 in ways that would have allowed for full consideration of alternatives and with greater detachment and reflection than demonstrated by his successor. Historians of this school thus question whether Kennedy would have gone down the path of largescale military intervention.15 In contrast, critics of the turning-point argument, representing the Cold War imperative interpretation, contend that there was nothing “exceptional” about Kennedy. He was, in fact, a committed Cold Warrior, they say, who was determined to pursue a vigorous foreign policy around the globe. Whereas the Kennedy exceptionalism argument stresses what Kennedy did not do in Vietnam, the Cold War imperative interpretation emphasizes what Kennedy actually did,


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which amounted to a substantial enlargement of the U.S. commitment. This reality can be traced to Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, which called for a more imaginative and vigorous foreign policy, including greater attention to and flexibility in dealing with “wars of national liberation”—of which the Communist insurgency in Vietnam was the prime example. Kennedy’s inaugural address spoke of the global challenges facing the United States and promised to “pay any price, bear any burden” in the struggle against Communism. In Vietnam, his increase in military assistance and emphasis on counterinsurgency, including the introduction of the Green Berets as an elite unit, represented a determination to meet the challenge of unconventional warfare. So although Kennedy talked of the need for the Vietnamese to fight their own wars, he actually took steps that pulled the United States much more deeply militarily and politically into the survival of South Vietnam. Critics of Kennedy exceptionalism also contend that Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Laotian settlement did not show a preference for diplomacy over force. Quite the opposite: both contributed to bolder policy in Vietnam. The successful application of diplomatic and military pressure against the Soviets in Cuba enhanced among U.S. officials the conviction that American power knew no bounds. It “enshrined toughness”—which was a valued commodity among the “best and the brightest” who composed Kennedy’s national security team.16 And the willingness to accept a negotiated settlement in Laos, rather than providing a precedent for a similar outcome in Vietnam, actually made Kennedy determined to convey strength and resolve in Vietnam. He did not want to be seen as “weak” and “compromising” elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the Laotian agreement came after a long and tortuous negotiation and soon showed signs of failing, so the experience hardly left Kennedy confident in the viability of agreements with Communists in Asia. 17 Indeed, Kennedy declined to pursue opportunities for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. In late 1961, W. Averell Harriman, who was then engaged in the negotiations over Laos, reported to Kennedy that the Soviet Union was interested in stabilizing the situation throughout Southeast Asia and that North Vietnam was prepared to accept a cease-fire and eventual reunification under the auspices of a United Nations Control Commission. Harriman, along with Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs George Ball, and Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, urged Kennedy to take advantage of this opening to seek a possible settlement in Vietnam. Kennedy ignored their entreaties. Still later in 1963, there were indications that the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China were interested in pursuing negotiations over Vietnam, but again Kennedy showed no inclination to pursue whatever opening may have existed at that time.18

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And whereas Kennedy exceptionalism proponents draw on his remarks in the Cronkite interview to support their view, critics of that interpretation refer to other public comments Kennedy made during the last months of his life. At a press conference in July 1963, Kennedy unequivocally rejected pulling out of Vietnam, invoking the imagery of the domino theory in the process: “We are not going to withdraw from [this] effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.” 19 A week after his comments to Cronkite, in another television interview Kennedy seemingly endorsed the imperative of holding South Vietnam and attached no conditions to the American commitment. When asked in the second interview about the domino theory, he embraced it emphatically: “I believe it. I believe it. . . . China is so large. . . . [The loss of Vietnam] would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.” He ruled out withdrawal as “only [making] it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.” 20 And in the speech that Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on that fateful day that he was assassinated, he had planned to affirm America’s commitments in the developing world: “[O]ur assistance to these nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the test.” 21 Kennedy never had to confront the ultimate test: how to respond to the impending collapse of South Vietnam. The political-military situation there steadily eroded over the year and a half after his death. The fundamental question that Lyndon Johnson faced was: Did U.S. national security require ensuring the survival of South Vietnam? Phrased another way: Did the mounting instability in Saigon provide a reason to disengage or the imperative to intervene militarily? “Let us continue” was Johnson’s theme in the first months of his presidency, and, with respect to Vietnam, Johnson frequently talked of an inherited commitment that he could not abandon. Indeed, he at times engaged in some selfpitying comments about how he was “trapped” by Vietnam. He privately confided many times that Vietnam was a “mess,” but that the United States somehow had to prevail. Johnson’s stress on “continuity” was reflected in his decision to retain Kennedy’s foreign-policy team: Dean Rusk, secretary of state; Robert McNamara, secretary of defense; McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser; and General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rusk, like Johnson, was a Southerner of modest origins. He was low-keyed and deliberative, disinclined to question the president’s direction. Johnson once observed that Rusk “has the


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compassion of a preacher and the courage of a Georgia cracker. When you’re going in with the Marines, he’s the kind you want on your side.” 22 Johnson had no such admiration for the other members of Kennedy’s team, with whom he had little in common. McNamara, Bundy, and Taylor were among Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” and were closely identified with the Kennedy family, especially Robert Kennedy, whom Johnson instinctively distrusted. Johnson, however, kept them on, telling them that he needed their counsel more than Kennedy had. McNamara, Bundy, and Taylor quickly accommodated themselves to Johnson’s style of decision making and his hawkish inclinations. Johnson’s relationship with McNamara was especially important, for McNamara was the official most visibly identified with the growing U.S. involvement. Having visited South Vietnam several times since 1961, McNamara, in his public statements, had been consistently upbeat about the American mission. Renowned for his conviction that quantifiable data could measure the effectiveness of military operations, he repeatedly found statistical indications of success. In offering advice, McNamara compromised his convictions in order to maintain his influence. He privately came to doubt the wisdom of America’s course in Vietnam, as he was increasingly disturbed by the political instability in Saigon and the ARVN’s poor performance. As Johnson clearly conveyed his determination to persevere and his intolerance of dissenters, McNamara put aside his doubts and remained, as he had been during the Kennedy administration, the Vietnam “hawk.” According to Logevall, this role “likely resulted not from optimism about the outlook or conviction that America’s national security was at stake but from his almost slavish loyalty to his president. Lyndon Johnson had made clear that he could not countenance defeat in Vietnam, and McNamara aimed to ensure it would not happen.” 23 Bundy and Taylor typified the utter self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, of the “best and the brightest.” Bundy had been a dean at Harvard before going to Washington in 1961 and converted the national security adviser office into a central policymaking position. Taylor was renowned for his 1958 book An Uncertain Trumpet, which criticized the Eisenhower administration’s national security policy, and he became Kennedy’s “favorite general.” Convinced of Vietnam’s importance and of the capacity of American power to achieve the nation’s objectives, the Kennedy holdovers consistently advised Johnson to stay the course in Vietnam. In his early meetings with these and other advisers, Johnson made it clear that he wanted to “solve” the Vietnam problem. This attitude was typical. As Senate majority leader from 1954 to 1960, he was accustomed to achieving his legislative objectives through cajolery, manipulation, and compromise. He instinctively brought those considerable skills to advancing his domestic-reform agenda and to the Vietnam issue. To Johnson, getting Vietnam “behind him”

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was essential to achieving civil rights legislation and launching a war on poverty, which he envisioned would earn him recognition as a reformer in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt. Thus Johnson—unlike Kennedy—had a certain restlessness and impatience that shaped his approach to the Vietnam crisis. Three related themes characterized Johnson’s efforts to achieve America’s objectives: a take-charge attitude, rejection of a negotiated settlement, and refusal to heed warnings given by knowledgeable officials. First, Johnson “took charge” and was at the center of a series of decisions to escalate military involvement, a process culminating in his July 1965 authorization of an “open-ended” commitment. A change in Vietnam policy was evident within days of Kennedy’s assassination. In meetings with advisers, Johnson asserted what one of them saw as a “Johnson tone”—a movement toward greater reliance on military means. Like the American military leadership, Johnson regarded complicity in the overthrow of Diem as a mistake that had diverted attention from the military struggle. He insisted that the principal effort had to be military: “to win the war.” Not long afterward, he approved a program of covert military operations and intelligence gathering directed at North Vietnam. In 1964, while continually pressing the South Vietnamese to fight more effectively, Johnson reinforced the U.S. military mission. A strong “country team” was put in place. He named the renowned Taylor as the U.S. ambassador, thus reinforcing the military emphasis, and he appointed General William Westmoreland as commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Westmoreland soon recommended increasing the number of military advisers by 4,200 (thus bringing the total to 22,000), and Johnson quickly approved. Election-year politics led Johnson to combine strength with restraint. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 provided an opportunity for Johnson to launch a single, retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam and to gain congressional support for a “blank check” resolution to renew warfare at his option. His handling of this crisis won wide praise and defused Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater’s criticism that Johnson was “weak” on Vietnam. At the same time, Johnson charged that Goldwater was “trigger happy.” Johnson ran as the candidate of “peace” and assured Americans that he was “not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” 24 Yet after winning the presidential election in a landslide, Johnson renewed his impatient drive for resolution of the Vietnam problem through military initiatives. His urgency came against a background of the continuing instability in the South Vietnamese government, the ARVN’s ineffectiveness, and mounting insurgent Vietcong attacks against U.S. bases. On December 30, Johnson wrote to Taylor, essentially demanding a much broader military undertaking:


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Every time I get a military recommendation it seems to me that it calls for large-scale bombing. I have never felt that this war will be won from the air, and it seems to me that what is much more needed and would be more effective is a larger and stronger use of . . . appropriate military strength on the ground and on the scene. I am ready to look with great favor on the kind of increased American effort, directed at the guerrillas and aimed to stiffen the aggressiveness of Vietnamese military units. . . . Any recommendations that you or General Westmoreland make in this sense will have immediate attention from me, although I know that it may involve the acceptance of larger American sacrifice. We have been building our strength to fight this kind of war ever since 1961, and I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Americans in Vietnam if it is necessary to provide this kind of fighting force against the Vietcong.25

True to his word, Johnson approved the requests for escalation in the following months. The launching of Operation Rolling Thunder and the introduction of the first combat troops—in sum, the gradual Americanization of the war—flowed logically from Johnson’s initiative. Indeed, when the military leadership seemed to be moving too slowly, Johnson told the army chief of staff who was heading to Vietnam for a review of the situation: “You’re not giving me any ideas and any solutions for this damn little pissant country. Now I don’t need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb. I want some solutions. I want answers. You get things bubbling, General.” 26 Not surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs soon recommended a vastly expanded military mission, projecting as many as 500,000 American troops within five years. A second theme is that as Johnson moved down the military path, he rejected the option of a negotiated settlement. International initiatives accentuated as the situation in Vietnam deteriorated and the United States applied its first direct military pressures. President de Gaulle of France renewed his call for a settlement that would neutralize Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As de Gaulle reasoned in 1964, billions of dollars in assistance to South Vietnam and the presence of thousands of advisers had failed to achieve America’s ends: the Vietcong still held vast areas and the Saigon government crumbled. “Since war cannot bring a solution,” he said, “one must make peace.” 27 In sum, the United States needed to accept the limits of its power and to negotiate. As de Gaulle’s comments underscored, he and other leaders of Western governments who became involved in the search for peace believed that the United States had embarked on a mistaken course. France’s experience in having fought a disastrous war in Indochina gave added credence to de Gaulle’s message. Moreover, the Western leaders and United Nations secretary-general U Thant, who also pressed for negotiations, believed that the widening split between the Soviet

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Union and China and the improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union reduced the international ramifications of conflicts in the developing world. In other words, the struggle between Communists and nonCommunists in Vietnam was no longer a significant Cold War issue. The initiatives for negotiations, coming from traditional allies, underlined the extent to which many world leaders questioned the direction of American policy in Vietnam. In sum, America’s determination to hold South Vietnam left it isolated internationally. North Vietnam proclaimed its willingness to enter into negotiations. After some hesitation, by 1964 the Hanoi government concluded that its interests would be served by a peaceful settlement. With events in Vietnam moving in their favor and apprehensive that the United States might intervene militarily, the North Vietnamese were prepared to negotiate. Thus in September 1964, North Vietnam assured U Thant that it was prepared to begin discussions with the United States. Two months later, J. Blair Seaborn of the Canadian government visited Hanoi in the interest of mediating differences between North Vietnam and the United States, and he found officials there receptive. This accommodating position was reflected in strategic discussions that took place in October 1964 in Beijing between North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong and Chinese premier Mao Zedong. They agreed to keep the fighting in Vietnam at its present level so as not to provoke the United States. Pham Van Dong declared: “If the United States dares to start a [larger] war, we will fight it, but it would be better if it did not come to that.” Mao added that “it is not completely a bad thing to negotiate. You have already earned the qualifications to negotiate. It is another matter whether or not the negotiation will succeed.” 28 Thus, as the fateful year of 1965 began, North Vietnam appeared willing to negotiate. Johnson rejected all the overtures. Indeed, the U.S. government went to considerable length to discredit the plans that were put forth. At the same time, the United States persistently (but futilely) tried to line up international support for its position, and it made clear to the post-Diem leaders in Saigon that American support would be denied to those who favored negotiating with the Communists. The United States stipulated that negotiations would take place on its terms—that is, the Communists’ recognition of the legitimacy of the Saigon government. Johnson recognized that the political-military situation in 1964 and 1965 meant that the United States would be negotiating from a position of weakness. Negotiations would most likely lead to a coalition government in Saigon, which would include representatives of the insurgent National Liberation Front of the South. To Americans, this outcome would be anathema because a coalition government almost certainly would be taken over by the Communists, who were the best-organized and most popular political group; a Communist government in South Vietnam would be a precursor to the reunification of


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Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh. So the late 1964 initiatives by U Thant and Seaborn met with American resistance. When U Thant reported North Vietnam’s willingness to negotiate, he found no corresponding interest in the United States; and when Seaborn asked for a message to deliver to Hanoi, the United States only affirmed its commitment to South Vietnam. Johnson’s one peace proposal—the “TVA for the Mekong”—illustrated the limitations on America’s interest in negotiations and on Johnson’s understanding of his adversary. Responding to criticism of the launching of Operation Rolling Thunder and the dispatch of the first ground troops, Johnson made a dramatic conciliatory gesture. Speaking at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965, he proposed a large-scale multilateral program of economic assistance that would transform the vast Mekong Valley. The program’s dimensions and potential were modeled on the renowned Tennessee Valley Authority, which had transformed the economy of the upper South. Pledging $1 billion to the project, which would benefit the people throughout Vietnam and neighboring countries, Johnson envisioned economic and social reform that “would turn the ravaged Mekong delta into a bustling Tennessee Valley.” The terms of the deal were that North Vietnam had to enter into “unconditional discussions.” The American media praised Johnson’s initiative, seeing it as derailing the momentum for war. Johnson told an adviser: “Old Ho can’t turn that down.” The other half of his speech, which most press accounts largely ignored, however, alarmed North Vietnam. Johnson’s proposal was preceded by a strongly worded defense of American policy in Southeast Asia. He affirmed unequivocally the determination to fulfill Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s pledges to keep South Vietnam independent. He warned Hanoi and those “who seek to share their conquest” that the United States would “not be defeated” and would never “withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” Broadening his case, Johnson talked in ominous terms of the “deepening shadow of Communist China. The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peking. . . . The contest in Vietnam is part of [China’s] pattern of aggressive purposes.” 29 The objective of the Mekong Valley project was to blunt China’s hegemonic designs on its weak neighbors. Johnson was calling on North Vietnam to abandon its Chinese ally and join in a Western-funded and Western-inspired development scheme. To the North Vietnamese leadership, Johnson was offering a bribe: give up its objective of reunifying Vietnam in return for American largesse. Not surprisingly, “Old Ho” did turn him down. In the third theme of his administration, along with the pursuit of the military solution and the refusal to consider negotiations, Johnson ignored the warnings from a number of knowledgeable officials, including several former senatorial colleagues, that an American war in Vietnam would end disastrously. All these men had considerable foreign-policy experience, and all accepted the

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twenty-year U.S. objective to contain the Soviet Union, China, and their allies. Although they had approved of the early effort to build a non-Communist South Vietnamese state, they had come to believe that the United States should not commit its military force to Vietnam. The United States, they told Johnson, could not win. At the heart of their effort to restrain Johnson was the conviction that the political situation—the Saigon government’s chronic instability, the Vietcong’s strength, North Vietnam’s capacity to support the southern insurgency, and the Soviet Union and China’s determination to ensure North Vietnam’s survival—undermined any military effort. Moreover, the nature of the war itself worked to the Communists’ advantage; fighting guerrillas in the jungles of Asia confounded American military doctrine. Finally, a failed war would be devastating to Johnson’s domestic leadership and his ability to achieve his Great Society reforms. No one voice covered the entire argument against war, but the advocates of restraint made their points with such force and with such persistence that their message was clear to Johnson. Vice President Hubert Humphrey tried to impress on Johnson the dire domestic political consequences of going to war. Less than a month after being inaugurated, Humphrey, a former senatorial colleague whom Johnson had selected as his 1964 running mate, wrote to the president about Vietnam. The political situation in Vietnam and the United States, he stated, was not favorable. Wars have to be “politically understandable,” as had been the case for the two world wars and Korea, but in Vietnam “the arguments [for war] in fact are probably too complicated (or too weak) to be politically useful or effective.” The news reports out of Saigon left Americans unable “to understand why we run grave risks to support a country which is totally unable to put its own house in order.” The solution was to get out: the beginning of his administration was the time for Johnson to do so “at minimum political risk . . . without being preoccupied with the political repercussions of the Republican right.” Military escalation risked losing liberal support, which was vital to the domestic agenda. “We are now creating the impression,” Humphrey went on, “that we are the prisoner of events in Vietnam.” Johnson had to regain the initiative by negotiating a peaceful exit.30 The most persistent advocate of restraint was Undersecretary of State George Ball, who warned that a war would be costly to America’s international stature. As Johnson increased the American role, Ball foresaw a lengthy, indecisive war: “Once on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.” The result would be a loss of stature: allies would see America fighting “a fruitless struggle,” which would lead to a “general loss of confidence in American judgment.” 31 Ball urged Johnson to disengage: “No great captain has ever been blamed for a successful tactical withdrawal.” Everything was against the United States: the jungles and rice paddies “are not designed for modern armies and


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from a military point of view Vietnam is a ‘rotten country.’” South Vietnam was a “lost cause.” Its government was a “travesty,” and, in fact, South Vietnam was “a country with an army and no government.” North Vietnam had a “purpose and discipline,” and the Vietcong “are deeply committed.” Ball’s conclusion was unequivocal: “A deep commitment of United States forces in a land war in South Viet-Nam would be a catastrophic error. If there was an occasion for a tactical withdrawal, this is it.” 32 Arguing that South Vietnam’s weakness made it unworthy of American sacrifice, Johnson’s former senatorial colleagues—notably Richard Russell of Georgia, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, and, most relentlessly, Mike Mansfield of Montana—repeatedly tried to restrain Johnson. South Vietnam, they contended, was not vital to American security. “[T]he last semblance of constituted government . . . is disappearing. . . . There is not a government to speak of in Saigon,” Mansfield told Johnson in one of several messages. “What do we mean when we say we are going to stay in South Viet Nam and for which specific . . . ends are we going to stay there?” Mansfield answered his own question: “There are no significant American interests which dictate . . . [a] massive unilateral American military effort.” Rather than escalating, Johnson should undertake a “maximum effort . . . to get this whole sorry business to a conference table as soon as possible.” 33 Johnson rarely commented on the arguments put forward by the advocates of restraint, but because he kept increasing the American military role in Vietnam, we can conclude that they obviously had negligible influence. The crisis in South Vietnam thus triggered substantial differences over Johnson’s pursuit of the military option. To his discredit, Johnson avoided an open policymaking process. In numerous meetings and conversations with his principal advisers and others, he dominated decision making in ways that avoided any systematic examination of the assumptions of U.S. objectives and of the various options available to the United States. Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy had daily contact with Johnson, and their proximity to the Oval Office helped to ensure that they strongly influenced, if not controlled, the framing of Vietnam options. In a typical case, Bundy, in forwarding to Johnson conflicting recommendations from Ball on one side and from Rusk and McNamara on the other, advised: “My hunch is that you will want to listen hard to George Ball and then reject his proposal.” 34 To the extent that Johnson did prod beneath the surface, he placed the burden of proof on his dovish advisers, but never on his hawkish ones. As a result, decision making in the Johnson White House also led to little consideration of how the application of greater military power would achieve the survival of South Vietnam. This president-dominated and incoherent decision-making process was especially notable during a major “policy review” that Johnson conducted in July

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1965. Facing the critical question of whether to make an open-ended military commitment, Johnson held several days of secret meetings with political and military officials for the ostensible purpose of reviewing all options. In them, he cast himself as a leader who was agonizing over a monumental decision. Yet, given his initiatives since November 1963, it was difficult to conceive of Johnson’s limiting or reversing the military course. The doubters were indeed heard, and Johnson seemed impressed by Ball’s argument that Americanization was bound to fail, saying it deserved close attention. Besides the familiar voices of restraint, two other prominent Democrats—Washington attorney Clark Clifford and the economist and former ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith—also warned Johnson not to go forward. Johnson asked the right questions: Could the United States prevail in a war against guerrillas? Could not the North Vietnamese match any American escalation? He did not, however, insist that such issues be given tough consideration. And after appearing deferential toward Ball, he evidenced a certain contempt for Ball’s reservations when he later met with military leaders. McNamara, whom Johnson often called on to present options during these meetings, consistently did so in ways that made escalation the only “reasonable” course. For instance, in a meeting on July 21, McNamara described the options as 1. Leave the country—with as little loss as possible—the “bugging out” approach. 2. Maintain present force and lose slowly. 3. Add 100,000 men—recognizing that number may not be enough—and adding more next year.35

With Johnson’s tolerating if not encouraging such an “options without options” presentation, the “policy review” lacked coherence and substance. In the words of one study of this process, it amounted to “a great swirl of policy recommendations and analyses . . . [that] simply floated past the President.” 36 So the meetings followed a predictable script where the option of war seemed the only feasible course for the United States. In their book Thinking in Time, political scientist Richard Neustadt and historian Ernest May examine Johnson’s escalation decision and find his options limited. Referring to how Johnson could not rationalize either withdrawal or a large-scale war against North Vietnam (as some military and intelligence officers urged), they write: “In fact, the more often we review the case the harder we find it to explain to the American people why he was dropping JFK’s South Vietnamese allies or, alternatively, why he was beginning all-out war against Hanoi because of what happened in Saigon.” 37


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That Johnson was so constrained, however, was largely his own fault, for his decisions since November 1963 had steadily increased the American involvement and, as a consequence, the ramifications of failure. May and Neustadt go on to suggest that Johnson had one feasible means of exiting Vietnam in 1965: “LBJ’s one real alternative was one scarcely hinted at even by Ball, namely another dose of the 1963 medicine: engineering a change of regime in Saigon, but this time to bring in a clique that would call for neutralization and American withdrawal.” 38 Johnson’s inner circle dismissed that alternative and other means of disengagement advanced by Ball, Mansfield, Clifford, Galbraith, and others, however. South Vietnam’s weakness—which critics argued was the compelling reason to leave—was to Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy the compelling reason for going to war. During the July policy review, Bundy dismissed Ball’s depiction of South Vietnam as beyond help because further assistance would be “like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case.” To Bundy, the cancer analogy was not a good one; rather, South Vietnam should be seen as a case of “immaturity and weakness [in which] a non-communist society is struggling to be born.” Withdrawal would be “disastrous,” Bundy continued; it would be better to maintain the present commitment and “waffle through.” Rusk chimed in that he was “optimistic about the outcome” and that “it would be dangerous if the [Soviet and Chinese] Communist leadership became convinced that we will not see this through.” 39 In the end, such arguments—reinforcing Johnson’s own instincts— carried with the president. Although aware of the magnitude of the commitment that he was authorizing, Johnson believed that a large-scale war could be avoided. He talked of his determination to show strength with one hand and to convey conciliation with the other. He conspicuously downplayed the decision to escalate. Instead of an address to Congress or a national television address, he chose a midday press conference on July 28, 1965, to announce that the military leadership’s immediate and future request for additional troops would be met. He spoke in familiar terms of “dominos” and “commitment” and “credibility.” Preventing the “Asiatic domination of communism,” Johnson stated, meant that there were “great stakes in the balance.” America had to keep its word, for if the United States failed to stand in Vietnam, “then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in America’s promise, or in American protection.” Failure to act in Vietnam would only lead Communists to test America elsewhere: “The battle would be renewed in one country and then another, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.” America would stand by “this small and valiant nation,” as three presidents had promised. This strongly worded commitment was accompanied by a gesture of peace: Johnson announced that United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg

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was delivering to the secretary-general a message affirming the U.S. interest in reaching a peaceful settlement. 40 At home, Johnson’s message struck the right tone. As had been true after his use of airpower during the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, much of the press saw Johnson as acting with restraint. The Baltimore Sun praised his leadership: “Strength and restraint, determination and discipline are needed in almost equal amounts.” A New York Times editorial praised the commitment that had to be “held down to the absolute minimum necessary to prove to Hanoi and Peking that military aggression is not worthwhile and never will be.” 41 Public-opinion polls showed substantial support for his decision. Johnson also assumed that restraint in the use of the American military would prevent the war from getting out of hand. Rather than an all-out military assault, the United States would escalate its military pressure in measured increments. Steadily increasing application of American firepower on the ground in South Vietnam would stymie the fighting capacity of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Their realization that the United States could continually make its warfare more and more lethal would have an intimidating effect. At the same time, gradually increasing bombing operations would bring further damage to North Vietnam, which would come to recognize the American capacity to keep inflicting more and more damage. At some point, the “pain” caused by U.S. military operations and the threat of “greater pain” would lead the Communists to negotiate on terms favorable to the United States. In addition to sending “messages” to North Vietnam and the Communist insurgents, American military intervention would boost the ARVN’s morale and strengthen the Saigon government’s resolve. The gradual application of U.S. military power would help to ensure that South Vietnam would not be overwhelmed by a large American presence. Finally, this gradual increase of military power, when combined with his low-key announcement of July 28, Johnson assumed, would demonstrate American restraint to the rest of the world. The major Communist powers would not feel obliged to rush to North Vietnam’s assistance. Allies would be reassured, and neutrals would not be unduly antagonized. In Johnson’s decision for war, the Cold War imperative and “presidential leadership” interpretations merged. Besides his uncritical acceptance of conventional Cold War assumptions, Johnson was also driven by domestic political considerations. Indeed, if we take Johnson at his own word, in the end it was concern about the domestic implications of “losing” Vietnam that drove his decision. In his memoir, Johnson recounts his final reflections during a weekend at Camp David just after the “policy review” was completed.42 As is evident in that and other sources, Johnson was haunted by the memory of Republicans criticizing another Democratic president, Harry Truman, for the “loss” of China after the Communist Revolution of 1949. That charge distorted Chinese history,


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but it was powerful. Johnson feared that failure in Vietnam would place him in a situation analogous to that of Truman and that he, too, would be criticized for the “loss” of another country to Communism. This fear may well have been exaggerated. How much political damage had been done to Truman? Did Americans consider Vietnam as important as China? Vice President Humphrey had attempted to address Johnson’s concerns by arguing that the political fallout of withdrawal could be managed if the decision came early in the president’s administration. Johnson was unwilling to accept that risk because any loss of prestige at home would undermine his dream of the Great Society. The domestic risk in going to war, Johnson also recognized, was considerable: if the war divided America, “that day would be the beginning of the end of the Great Society.” So he decided to avoid the risk of being charged with the “loss” of Vietnam, while hoping that he could succeed in time to avoid the second risk of a divisive war. As Larry Berman observes in Planning a Tragedy, Johnson went to war out of fear “that losing Vietnam in the summer of 1965 would wreck his plans for a truly Great Society.” 43 It seemed to Johnson on those fateful days of decision in July 1965 that there was no alternative to escalation, but in a measured and limited way escalation would “meet commitments” and would somehow provide a means to “get out.” Johnson’s calculations in 1965 turned out to be a classic example of “wishful thinking.” The enemy was not intimidated. Negotiations did not get off the ground. The South Vietnamese government and army were not revitalized. Within two years, Vietnam had become a quagmire—exactly the outcome predicted by the voices of restraint in 1964 and 1965.

Notes 1. For overviews of Kennedy’s policy, see Lawrence J. Bassett and Stephen E. Pelz, “The Failed Search for Victory: Vietnam and the Politics of War,” in Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963, edited by Thomas G. Paterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 223–52; Gary R. Hess, “Commitment in the Age of Counterinsurgency: Kennedy’s Vietnam Options and Decisions, 1961–1963,” in Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945–1975, edited by David L. Anderson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 63–86; Brian VanDeMark, “A Way of Thinking: The Kennedy Administration’s Initial Assumptions About Vietnam and Their Consequences,” in Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 24– 36; and George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hall, 2002), 89–130.

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2. Chester Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1972), 344. 3. “U.S. Calls for Frontier Patrol to Help Prevent Border Incidents Between Cambodia and Vietnam,” Statement by Adlai Stevenson to Security Council, May 21, 1964, Department of State Bulletin 50 (June 8, 1964), 908. 4. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961 –1963, vol. 1, Vietnam, 1961 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988), 152–57 (series hereafter cited as FRUS, with dates and volume titles). 5. David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, rev. ed. (1965; New York: Knopf, 1988), 178. 6. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, rev. ed. (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1968), 47–48. 7. Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), 13. 8. David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 102. 9. Ibid., 246. 10. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 652. 11. Kaiser, American Tragedy, 247. 12. Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (Boston: Little, Brown, 2003), 709–10, see also 667–72. 13. Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 413, see also 399–407. 14. Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 395–99. 15. On this point, see also Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 187–98. 16. James Nathan, “The Missile Crisis,” World Politics 27 (1975): 256–81. 17. Herring, America’s Longest War, 93–94, 121. 18. Fredrik Logevall, The Origins of the Vietnam War (London: Longman, 2001), 39–53. See also Logevall, Choosing War, 1–42. 19. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, 569. 20. Ibid., 658–61. 21. Ibid., 893. 22. Quoted in Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 11. 23. Logevall, Choosing War, 127. 24. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964), 1387–93.


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25. FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 1, Vietnam, 1964 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992), 1057–59. 26. Quoted in VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 94–95. 27. Quoted in Logevall, Choosing War, 187. 28. Both quoted in Logevall, Origins of the Vietnam War, 73. 29. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968), 1:394–99. 30. FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 2, Vietnam, January Through June 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 309–13. 31. George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern (New York: Norton, 1982), 381–85. 32. FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 3, Vietnam, June Through December 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 62–66. 33. Quoted in VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 157. 34. FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 3, Vietnam, June Through December 1965, 117–18. 35. Ibid., 210. 36. John P. Burke and Fred I. Greenstein, How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1991), 261. 37. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986), 88 (emphasis in original). 38. Ibid. 39. FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 3, Vietnam, June Through December 1965, 202–3. 40. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, 1:794–96. 41. “War in Vietnam,” Baltimore Sun, July 29, 1965; “This Is Really War,” New York Times, July 29, 1965. 42. Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Popular Library, 1971), 151–52. 43. Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: Norton, 1982), 147.

Further Reading Berman, Larry. Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam. New York: Norton, 1982. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003. Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Gardner, Lloyd C., and Ted Gittinger, eds. Vietnam: The Early Decisions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

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Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000. Khong, Yuen Foong. Analogies at War: Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995. Schwab, Orrin. Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961–65. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.

4. Lyndon Johnson and the Bombing of Vietnam Po l it ic s an d M il itar y C h o i c e s Lloyd C. Gardner

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson reaffirmed John Kennedy’s commitment to sacrifice in fulfilling the nation’s international obligations: “If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.” 1 Two days after this speech, Johnson summoned congressional leaders to the White House to receive an updated foreign-policy briefing from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He intended to have frank and candid discussions with them on all matters, Johnson told the legislators. And their views would be given full consideration. He wanted to return to the practice of Eisenhower bipartisanship: “The Administration has no mortgage on patriotism.” 2 When they assembled in the Cabinet Room, LBJ asked that they keep the details of the briefings confidential. If the information provided in these sessions found its way into the newspapers, he warned, real damage to the national interest could result. Johnson had developed his political strategy over the years of mixing an emphasis on loyalty with a promise of rewards. Making people feel part of the inner circle, LBJ knew full well, ensured support ahead of time, as did the ritualized photo ops with the president. What better proof could there be that the legislator enjoyed a special relationship with the nation’s leader?

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The hometown newspaper then sold the president’s program along with the image of an intimate handshake. This tactic had worked well with Congress in the past, and the president would now try to apply it to foreign policy. Johnson had always had an instinctive reaction against “running away from” Vietnam, and, with the help of advisers, he developed a complicated rationale for “staying the course.” He used— and was used by—the Kennedy mystique. Indeed, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. As the war deepened into a morass that all but engulfed his presidency, moreover, Johnson could not have said himself whether he was the author of American policy or simply an actor speaking lines memorized from a script. One way to look at the Johnson policy is through the lens of a bombsight. No policy became more controversial than the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, begun in February 1965. And in this first foreignpolicy briefing of the Johnson administration, there was a foreshadowing of the dilemmas the president would find himself struggling to reconcile over the next three years. Johnson began the briefing by declaring that his objective in this first meeting was to put the Vietnam problem right out on the table so all those present could see what he faced. Since their previous meeting just before the election, he said, he and his advisers had been studying the situation “intensively.” Rusk and McNamara would go into the details, “but the basic fact is that we need to have in Saigon a stable government as a base for further actions.” Johnson had promised to be frank with them, but he approached Vietnam from an oblique angle, suggesting that his first concern was what to do about American dependents in South Vietnam. He had been anxious for more than a year to have them evacuated because “the Viet Cong might attack U.S. citizens in Saigon in the event we carry out air strikes in North Vietnam.” He did not announce that he had decided to bomb the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), but he was talking about the possible consequences. What he said next confirmed his intention to carry the war to the DRV. “The North Vietnamese might react by dropping bombs on Saigon,” he cautioned, or even take some other “irrational action” that would result “in the loss of many American women and children.” Letting the image of women and children running for their lives hang over the deliberations, the president called on Secretary of State Rusk to present the Vietnam “case.” Our greatest problem, Rusk repeated, was political instability in Saigon. LBJ immediately interrupted to elaborate. Allied and friendly nations hesitated to send aid to South Vietnam because of the turmoil, he noted; “they fear[ed] that they might appear foolish if, after they send aid, the country goes to pieces politically.” Resuming, Rusk assured the congressional leaders that lines were being kept open to the “other side”—that is, Hanoi—to see if


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there were any interest in a settlement based on the 1954 Geneva Agreements or the 1962 Laos Accord. “If the communists will not negotiate with us on a return to the earlier agreements,” he warned, “we are in for a very difficult time in Southeast Asia.” Rusk’s nod in the direction of the Geneva Agreements was something of a risk itself, but no one asked for an explanation. Since 1956, the year when the United States blocked all-Vietnamese elections, Washington officialdom had kept a very low profile about Geneva, seldom even mentioning the agreements out of fear that any serious discussion of the provisions undermined the legitimacy of the government in Saigon. Rusk’s bringing up the agreements in this context was meant to reconfirm the idea of an “international” struggle and not to suggest a desire to reconvene Geneva with all the uncertainties for the southern “state” so carefully nurtured from the dark days after the fall of the French fortress at Dienbienphu. Secretary McNamara followed Rusk with a military rundown of the forces opposing one another in South Vietnam. Guerrilla strength was up, he admitted, as infiltration from North Vietnam had now reached an annual rate of 10,000. South Vietnam’s military strength had also improved—just not enough yet: “On the basis of extensive experience we [have] concluded that a numerical advantage of 10 to 1 is required to win a guerrilla war.” This statement caused some murmurs, as it was intended to do, about striking at the source of the infiltration. The ten-to-one ratio would become something of an albatross in later years when McNamara tried to defend the search-and-destroy strategy, but for the moment he could avoid that burden. “We need currently more South Vietnamese troops but not more U.S. forces,” the secretary said. Johnson backed him up with a second assurance that went back to something he had said during the presidential campaign: “We have decided that more U.S. forces are not needed in South Vietnam short of a decision to go to full-scale war.” True, the ratio was now only five to one, but no one could expect American soldiers to fill the whole gap. In the end, the war had to be fought by the South Vietnamese. “We cannot control everything that they do,” Johnson remarked, “and we have to count on their fighting their war.” One or two of the congressional leaders still wondered about that ratio— given what McNamara had said about the figures—and whether more could be done to cut down on the infiltration, such as by making better use of the U.S. Navy. The problem was over land, McNamara said, not on the sea. What a tangle of troubles lurked under that admission, but these troubles went largely unnoticed as the meeting came to an end. After all, the president was very popular at this moment and commanded a huge majority in Congress, so the legislators left the White House content with their morning’s appointment with the president.

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They might have thought more later about what had been so casually revealed as if it were really no change in policy or military strategy. Johnson and his chief advisers had announced, albeit it in backhanded fashion, that a bombing campaign was about to begin. The primary purpose of this campaign was not to destroy Hanoi’s war-making or defense capacity, but to improve stability in Saigon so that other actions against the Vietcong (National Liberation Front) guerrillas could then rest on a firmer political foundation. Or, as the argument appeared in policy papers, the South Vietnamese were waiting to see if the United States would act. Until that happened, according to this analysis, the countryside would not rally around Saigon, and the war would be lost. For good measure, Johnson even added in the idea that America’s allies were also waiting to see if Washington planned to do anything before committing themselves to the cause. Looked at another way, bombing was now being touted as the only way to avoid sending American boys to fight the Vietcong in the jungles and rice paddies. Although the common understanding was that Johnson had promised during the campaign that he would not send American boys to do the fighting for the Vietnamese, he had also said something about bombing as well. “Some of our people—Mr. Nixon, Mr. Rockefeller, Mr. Scranton, and Mr. Goldwater— have all, at some time or other,” he had said earlier, on September 28, 1964, “suggested the possible wisdom of going north in Viet-Nam. Well, now, before you start attacking someone and you launch a big offensive, you better give some consideration to how you are going to protect what you have. And when a brigadier general can walk down the streets of Saigon as they did the other day, and take over the police station, the radio station, and the government without firing a shot, I don’t know how much offensive we are prepared to launch.” Johnson had continued: As far as I am concerned, I want to be very cautious and careful, and use it only as a last resort, when I start dropping bombs around that are likely to involve American boys in a war in Asia with 700 million Chinese. So just for the moment I have not thought that we were ready for American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. What I have been trying to do, with the situation that I found, was to get the boys in Viet-Nam to do their own fighting with our advice and with our equipment. That is the course we are following. So we are not going north and drop bombs at this stage of the game, and we are not going south and run out and leave it for the Communists to take over.3

What had changed in the few months between September 1964 and January 1965? What made it appear that the Saigon regime could survive only if the United States started bombing the DRV? Ever since the 1963 coup, American


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policymakers had hoped that some government or leaders would appear who could bring an end to the confusion and turmoil in Saigon. For some time, there had been a fear that unless the United States did something dramatic, the government in Saigon might seek independent negotiations or simply collapse as its authority was increasingly circumscribed within a few cities. The biggest threat was to American “credibility.” Once shattered, it could not be glued back together. So it had to be protected like a fine porcelain vase. The idea that credibility existed only in such a museum-like atmosphere seemed to rule out questions about the wisdom of the original American intervention as the French departed the scene after Dienbienphu. Two weeks after the January 22 briefing, an attack by Vietcong guerrillas on an American base at Pleiku in the northern part of South Vietnam on February 6, 1965, caused the death of eight Americans and the loss of ten planes. Johnson immediately sent bombers to attack barracks and suspected staging areas for training and infiltration. The White House announced that the strike had been requested by the South Vietnamese government and had been carried out only after congressional leaders “had been informed.” Would there be more strikes? “The key to the situation remains the cessation of infiltration,” the statement continued, “and the clear indication by the Hanoi regime that it is prepared to cease aggression against its neighbors.” 4 From that statement on, nothing changed in American rhetoric even after more bombs were dropped than in World War II. What finally happened more than three years later, however, was that Johnson accepted vague promises that attacks on South Vietnamese cities would be halted while negotiations went on. Dean Rusk had insisted as well that the Vietcong would not be allowed to shoot their way to the peace table, but Johnson ultimately had to settle for much less—that Saigon would be at least one of four “parties” engaged in the talks. Because so little was accomplished in the three years following Pleiku, arguments continue to swirl not about bombing, but about whether Rolling Thunder was “a strategy for defeat,” as one military commander termed Johnson’s approach.5 The place to begin such an inquiry is with the original statement about the retaliation for Pleiku. The politics of the first air strikes on North Vietnam required the administration to pretend that the request had originated with Saigon, as if the latter really were a solid government fully capable of deciding on such a weighty matter, but there could be no doubt about the decision’s true origins. No one was fooled. As National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy famously said, “Pleikus are like streetcars. One came along every ten minutes or so.” 6 This bombing decision was a special moment in the history of the Vietnam War. Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin was in Hanoi. Why he was there prompted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to speculate that he had come to be in

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on the kill, so as to steal credit from Beijing the moment the Saigon government fell. An intelligence memorandum prepared by the CIA’s Office of National Estimates on February 5, 1965, declared, “We accordingly believe that the Soviet leaders seek to share—and guide—what they believe to be a Communist bandwagon.” 7 As Moscow read the auguries, the memorandum argued, the United States had decided not to intervene, and a Communist victory was drawing near. The Soviets expected that Washington was close to being ready to negotiate a face-saving exit. The CIA memorandum thus suggested there would be bonus points for an American air strike at this moment. Besides offering assurance to Saigon that the United States was determined not to allow the guerrillas to win, it would send the same message to the Soviets, who presumably would convey that warning to Kosygin’s hosts in Hanoi and to leaders in Beijing. If that was what was expected, the result would be disappointing. Although the Soviets feared confronting the United States over Vietnam, the bombing campaign only increased Hanoi’s leverage with both Moscow and Beijing, making it easier to obtain needed aid. As the joint communiqué said when Kosygin left Hanoi, the DRV was now formally recognized as the “outpost of the socialist camp in Southeast Asia” in its struggles with “American imperialism.” Whether Russia’s efforts to work behind the scenes for a negotiated solution—however ambiguous—would ever have had a chance for success, the bombing campaign dealt them a serious blow at the outset. Even Dean Rusk admitted that the Russians were made captive to Hanoi by the American bombing.8 The Soviets did not show any less eagerness for diplomatic negotiations with Washington about European issues or atomic proliferation because of the bombing, and therein lies one of the greatest ironies of the Vietnam War. The idea that the bombing would be “accepted” as long as ground troops did not cross over into the DRV obviously pleased American policymakers. Johnson told congressional leaders that he now intended to use the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and “the legal power of the Presidency” to carry out “at a manageable level an effort to deter, destroy and diminish the strength of the North Vietnamese aggressors and to try to convince them to leave South Vietnam alone.” 9 The bombing attacks did stir the first visible signs of dissent on Capitol Hill, followed by the teach-in movement on college campuses. “The views of a few Senators,” Johnson assured the group in the White House, “could not control his actions.” 10 But it was not quite so easy to dismiss what came to the White House in telegrams and mail. National Security Adviser Bundy reported to Johnson that around 1,500 telegrams had been received so far, considered a medium to heavy response, and they were running about twelve to one against the “retaliatory action.” The biggest fears expressed were that the government was trigger happy and that “there will be escalation.” Probably, he said, the


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telegrams simply revealed that Americans were reluctant to think about places far away from home, but, he cautioned, “the statistics, in general, indicate that we have an education problem that bears close watching and more work.” 11 Better news came from public pollsters, who found that the air strikes were approved by 67 percent of those asked, only 15 percent opposed the government outright, and 18 percent were undecided. Furthermore, and this response became LBJ’s mantra, 64 percent said U.S. efforts should continue.12 In the ensuing weeks, however, the teach-in movement on college campuses began at the University of Michigan and spread quickly across the nation. United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson urged Johnson to make a statement welcoming some form of negotiations. Bundy was dead set against the idea: “Your answer,” he cautioned the president, “is that you believe in all necessary statements of our policy and objectives.” 13 “Both the Communists and our friends in Saigon would interpret such a proposal as a sign of weakness and readiness to withdraw,” Bundy warned in this same memo to Johnson. Even less appealing to the national security adviser was a suggestion for a new international conference patterned after Geneva. The votes would be weighted against us, he said, and France could not be allowed to put itself forward in a mediator’s role. The bombing campaign had barely gotten started. It was too soon to offer negotiations of any sort. The ante now having been upped, there was something slightly ridiculous about folding. “The situation in general is bad and deteriorating,” read a Defense Department memorandum of March 24, 1965. It warned: “The VC [Vietcong] have the initiative. Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers. . . . GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] control is shrinking to enclaves, some burdened with refugees.” It was essential, the memorandum concluded, that the United States emerge from this imbroglio as a “good doctor,” one who kept his promises, took the necessary risks, had gotten bloodied, and had hurt the enemy very badly. Vietnam was being closely watched to see how the United States would behave in future cases: “In this connection, the relevant audiences are the Communists (who must feel strong pressures), the South Vietnamese (whose morale must be buoyed), our allies (who must trust us as ‘underwriters’) and the US public (which must support our risk-taking with US lives and prestige).” 14 Johnson believed that he had to start with one man. If he could bring newspaperman Walter Lippmann around, others would follow. Lippmann enjoyed an almost mythical place in the hierarchy of Washington’s political commentators. It was even said that the State Department read Lippmann every morning to see what American policy was or should be. At the moment, the pundit was flirting, so to speak, with French president Charles de Gaulle’s proposal for “neutralizing” Vietnam. So Bundy invited Lippmann to the White House

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to hear what LBJ proposed to offer in response to de Gaulle and to others’ demands that he set forth a negotiating position. “Walter,” the president remarked, “I’m going up to Baltimore tomorrow to give a speech, and I’m going to hold out that carrot you keep talking about.” “This isn’t going to work, Mac,” Lippmann told Bundy when they were alone; “it’s just a disguised demand for capitulations.” 15 On April 7, 1965, nonetheless, Johnson went to Johns Hopkins University to make Ho Chi Minh his offer. If Hanoi would give up aiding the Vietcong and sending troops south, he would establish a multinational effort to develop the Mekong River system into something like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had brought power and light to millions of rural Americans during the Great Depression. It would be a New Deal for Southeast Asia. Otherwise, Hanoi would have to face the full brunt of American military force. “We will not be defeated,” Johnson intoned and emphasized: “We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” 16 The following month, Johnson approved a one-week halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, but the ploy only suggested that “crisis-management” techniques would not work as they had during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such gestures only had downsides to them, observed political advisers such as Clark Clifford and Abe Fortas. They raised false hopes at home, and when they failed to bring results, they increased pressure for an all-out effort. Far from helping Johnson keep the war at a manageable level, the push-pause scenario promised only trouble and a credibility gap. “If you accept the hypothesis that there is no chance of success, others will know it too,” Clifford warned, and “it might end up being viewed as a gimmick.” 17 In this first instance, the pause was by way of a final warning of what was to come if Hanoi persisted. It was abundantly clear by July 1965 that Rolling Thunder had failed either to bring stability to Saigon or to scare off the DRV from aiding the guerrilla war. There was apparently no option left but to send in American ground forces. With that decision, however, the debate over the bombing campaign became more and more heated as the prospect of sending American soldiers, especially draftees, to fight and die in what was already an unpopular war roiled both hawks and doves on Capitol Hill. Begun not as a strategic effort to destroy the DRV’s war-making capacity, but to aid morale in the South, gradually escalating the bombing campaign still in “crisis-management” style never had much appeal in the Pentagon outside the defense secretary’s suite of offices. Now, so it appeared, the civilians were making a second mistake regarding the bombing, seeing it as an accompaniment to ground troops without really “punishing” the enemy at a level that would break his will to continue the struggle. “The logical course would have been to unleash that airpower against the homeland of the aggressor,” later complained


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Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief in the Pacific. “Instead we wasted our air strength on inconsequential targets while planning to commit still more of our men to the ground battle.” 18 It is not easy to get a full reading of Johnson’s mind as he began this perilous journey deep into the jungles and across the rice paddies of Southeast Asia in search of fulfilling America’s obligations to the world. LBJ always kept his own counsel, and woe be to the person who revealed any decision before LBJ himself signed off. We can say, nevertheless, that Johnson sought to protect the Great Society from Vietnam blowback for as long as he could, in part by pretending that his decisions were not going to force hard choices on Congress or give the conservative bloc reasons for denying funding to his ambitious domestic programs. As he prepared to send nearly 100,000 troops to Vietnam, Johnson absolutely refused to allow his aides to request even a $1 billion supplemental appropriation. He talked constantly about keeping control of the situation, providing only what was immediately needed to stave off a defeat until after the monsoon season, and then taking another look at the situation. One comes to feel after studying the documents of the fateful decisions at the end of July 1965 that Johnson was even keeping from himself the possible consequences of his actions. 19 However that may be, the real irony of the bombing campaign turned out to be the basic nonreaction of the Russians and Chinese—beyond rhetorical condemnation—at the time of Kosygin’s visit. Although the administration now felt that it could carry out the bombings with relatively little concern about a “bigger” war with the major Communist powers, it already faced harsh criticism in congressional committees for considering a large-scale troop intervention without making “proper” use of airpower, the supposed apotheosis of American technological civilization. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, the Joint Chiefs equivocated, except for Marine commandant Wallace Greene, who boldly accepted committee chairman L. Mendell Rivers’s premise that really important targets were being left alone for “political” reasons. Why, demanded Rivers, were surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and air bases in the DRV still untouched? Greene responded that he had advocated hitting the SAM sites “from the day the first shovel had been struck into the ground to construct them.” 20 Such divisions among his military advisers infuriated Johnson, but he warded off criticism of this sort by dividing up the political spectrum, essentially the same method he attempted to use on Lippmann and dovish opponents of the war. Producing and interpreting polls, LBJ would argue that the American public supported his course of action in Vietnam and not any other plan. It was only the extremes who wanted to go north or, at the other pole, to run out on America’s solemn obligations. Portraying himself as an executor of the public

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will and nothing more, LBJ challenged his dovish opponents to “take back” the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution if they dared try. Did the generals and other hawks know all about the treaties that might exist between Russia and China, on the one hand, or between the Communist powers and Hanoi, on the other? If they did not know, he would say, then maybe they ought to be a little more careful about what they advocated. When Johnson met with the Joint Chiefs on July 22, 1965, they all expressed the opinion that the bombing campaign had to be changed if the war were to  be won. Sending the number of troops the president wanted would do little beyond hold the lines, but it had to be done, and not without a different approach to the bombing. Won’t the other side put in 100,000 if we do? the president challenged Admiral David McDonald. The admiral started to reply, “No. If we step up our bombing . . . ,” but Johnson did not let him go on. The Joint Chiefs chair, General Earle Wheeler, answered for McDonald that the military could handle anything Russia or China could put into Vietnam. Air Force general John P. McConnell came back to the bombing and the need to hit “all military targets available” in North Vietnam. Johnson replied that there were risks involved any way he went in Vietnam, but he also reminded the chiefs of all those millions of Chinese just over the border. General Greene had had enough of Rolling Thunder. It was more like Rolling Blunder, he thought. There were no lightning strikes in it. We had to destroy everything in North Vietnam, he said. First we take out the airfields, then the SAM sites, and then go after the “industrial complex.” “They can be told by pamphlet drop why we are doing this,” he added, but the problem was that no one in the room was actually sure “why we are doing this.” Clark Clifford, an old political stalwart who had given Harry Truman advice about how to sell the Cold War to the public in 1948, asked General Wheeler what the results would be if the military plan was successful. Wheeler retreated to the bombing campaign rationale: “If we can secure the military situation, it seems likely that we can get some kind of stable government.” 21 When the generals and admirals left the Cabinet Room, Johnson and the civilian advisers went over what they had heard from the military. For one thing, the war was going to cost more—a great deal more—and, as Secretary McNamara said, the problem was to stay away from the idea that this escalation costing $10 billion or more was a change of policy. Undersecretary of State George Ball added, “We always lose on this.” The really tough questions, however, were put by two “establishment” figures, Arthur Dean and John J. McCloy. LBJ had asked them to be present because of their potential as interlocutors in armchairs at the Century Club or around the table at the Council on Foreign Relations, where important policy matters went down with a swallow of single malt scotch.


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McCloy led off with a question about whether the Vietcong would ever “let go” if they still had a “sanctuary” in North Vietnam. This query was another way of putting General Greene’s point, of course, and all Rusk could say was that the sanctuary was only one-fifth of the country—the area where bombing had not yet been approved. Dean picked up the ball. “What do you do if the war drags on—with mounting casualties—where do we go? The people say if we are not doing what is necessary to end it, why don’t we do what is necessary?” McNamara then let the cat out of the bag—or something like that. “If we bomb Haiphong [the main harbor for Hanoi] would this end the war? . . . The answer is ‘No.’ ” The war-making potential was in areas where bombing was permitted, he added, without saying that would end the war either. Dean jumped on that response: “If this carries on for some years, we’ll get in the same fix we were in Korea and the Yalu.” McCloy also feared the Korean example, where negotiations dragged on for nearly two years. “If we could define our objectives specifically, what are our objectives in a discussion? What do we have to negotiate?” Rusk rehearsed all the old points, mentioning the 1954 “agreements” in a way that brought National Security Adviser Bundy into the conversation: Bundy : If we really were the ones for free elections, it would be good. It is difficult for Saigon to sign on. McCloy : Would we be willing to take a Tito government or a VC victory [in the elections]? Bundy : That’s where our plan begins to unravel.

Johnson really did not want to go down that path and intervened to end the discussion with some vague comments about the need for the United States, like a good boxer, to have both hands going all the time: “Our right is our military power, but our left must be our peace proposals.” How the right was going to score a knockout blow or the left find anything to negotiate about if the only issue was the war in the South, he could not explain. “We need Ernie Pyles out there,” he closed with a reference to the famous World War II correspondent who had boosted morale at home, “interviewing soldiers who can tell how proud they are to do their duty.” When Johnson announced that he was sending 100,000 troops to Vietnam, he did it at noon on July 28, 1965, presumably the least dramatic way of keeping the nation informed. In succeeding months, the Joint Chiefs kept pressing McNamara to take certain military targets off the restricted list, and air force intelligence officers insisted that the psychological effect on North Vietnam would eventually produce results. The influx of American soldiers did seem to halt the

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progression toward an early disaster, but at the end of the year McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara joined in urging Johnson to authorize another pause in the bombing. There had been strong indications that Moscow would do what it could to persuade the DRV to negotiate a truce, but the Russians were hardly in a position to suggest that the only real issue, as it had been in July and, indeed, for all the years since 1956—who would rule in Saigon—could be settled that way. McNamara’s role in this endeavor was particularly ambiguous because he knew that the soaring costs could not be finessed any longer. If nothing else, he told the president, it was essential to have a peace initiative before the administration asked Congress for these funds and before more troops were sent. Johnson had promised in July that he would send General William Westmoreland whatever numbers of men he needed to prevent the loss of South Vietnam. A suspension might bring some sort of North Vietnamese response, McNamara argued at a meeting on December 18, 1965. It might cause a rift between Russia and China, and it might satisfy the public that everything was being done to avoid a bigger war. McNamara had saved the “bad news” for last, though. He advocated a pause because a military solution to Vietnam was not certain. The chances of success were “one out of three or one in two,” he estimated and added that “ultimately we must find a solution, we must finally find a diplomatic solution.” Johnson seemed not to be surprised or, at least, not too much surprised: “Then, no matter what we do in [the] military (field) there is no sure victory.” McNamara agreed: “That’s right. We have been too optimistic. One in three or two in three in my estimate.” Dean Rusk demurred, but not without expressing his own doubts: “I’m more optimistic, but I can’t prove it.” McNamara continued to press, however obliquely, for considering a diplomatic alternative to the decision to escalate, commenting at a cabinet meeting in December 1965: “This seems a contradiction. I come to you for a huge increase in Viet Nam—400,000 men. But at the same time it may lead to escalation and undesirable results. I suggest we look at other alternatives.” Rusk then assumed leadership of the hawks, having been encouraged by Clifford and Fortas’s worry that a pause would demonstrate weakness. He picked up that thread and warned that the peacenik faction in the United States might seize on a “failed” pause to push for a settlement on less than minimally acceptable terms. His approach emulated that of Charles Dickens’s character Wilkins Micawber, offering a younever-know-what-might-turn-up assurance that the Communists were unpredictable: “For example, lifting of the Berlin blockade [in 1949] came as a surprise. In the Pusan peninsula [at the outset of the Korean War], we thought we couldn’t hang on—and we did.” “I have a feeling that the other side is not that


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tough,” he finished, “and it does not follow [that] in a year or two we won’t be in the far more favorable position. I think the other side is hurting just as we are hurting.” 22 In the end, Johnson accepted the pause and faced a debate inside his inner circle in January 1966, just as Clifford and Fortas had predicted would happen, when Hanoi refused the idea of negotiations. The arguments against resuming made unpleasant reading because they challenged the very premises of the bombing campaign. McNamara tried to downplay the argument between himself and the Joint Chiefs over the way the campaign was being waged against targets in the North. The defense secretary said that the bombing was not fundamental to “what we do in the South.” Johnson wanted to know, therefore, if a higher level of bombing in the DRV would bring the Chinese into the war. McNamara did not think so, but he took little comfort in the thought. He answered: “This month we’ll drop twice the level of bombs as in peak Korea period [sic]. We will expand this further.” And what would be the result? “By end of year,” he predicted, “we’ll be in roughly [the] same balance with VC as we are now.” The discussion rambled on, with McNamara conceding that all the military men insisted that the bombing must be resumed. They were “even getting emotional,” he noted, because “they see North Vietnamese actions to reconstruct bridges, moving substantial units through Laos.” There was certainly a buildup by the other side, he conceded, but he doubted it would make much difference. “My own appraisal,” he summarized, is that “they over-estimate the effect of North bombing in stopping infiltration.” 23 McNamara had “hidden” allies in the intelligence community, but not in Saigon in the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), or in the Defense Intelligence Agency. The secretary’s comments at the key meetings in December 1965 and January 1966 indicated that he felt he had good reason to doubt the intelligence products he was receiving from the military as he began a torturous path toward disillusionment. For example, in an Office of National Estimates special intelligence estimate in February 1966, vigorously contested by the air force, CIA analysts had concluded that even with bombing the ports and other attempts to interdict the movement of supplies for the Vietcong into South Vietnam, Hanoi could still move “substantially greater amounts than in 1965.” 24 But the “vote” among Johnson’s advisers was for resumption. Former CIA director Allen Dulles had been brought into the conversations, and at a January 28 meeting he summed up the near fatalistic tone of the meeting: “I would resume the bombing—but we have left [the] impression that bombing has been ineffective.” General Wheeler, when asked how he knew the bombing was hurting the North Vietnamese war effort, cited the complaints Hanoi made

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about it and evidence from defectors that they feared bombing more than anything else.25 “On the theory that ‘a hit dog howls,’ ” Johnson probed at this same meeting, “is that evidence that we are hurting [them]?” “Yes, sir,” snapped Wheeler. But the general could not promise any significant decrease in the enemy’s activity for one or maybe two years. Time was running out, obviously, before the next presidential campaign. The enemy’s losses on the battlefield, Wheeler insisted, would eventually destroy his will to persist because the “morale of troops won’t stand up to it.” No one could say when this would happen, he added, but “within the next two years we ought to get favorable results.” Arthur Dean expressed the administration’s dilemma with regard to the bombing: “I would resume without question. If you don’t the American people won’t support you—and casualties will rise.” In effect, Johnson had trapped himself. He had bought the argument that Hanoi would desist from aiding the Vietcong as the bombing patterns spread northward, but, more important, that the bombing was essential to stabilize politics in the South. It now appeared that the bombing was essential to stabilize the political situation in the United States as well. The military chiefs asserted that the bombing could interdict the supply lines, cut off the guerrillas from outside help, and force the North to divert its energies to reconstruction. The debate inside the administration would soon center, therefore, on the “crossover point”—that moment in real time when American troop reinforcements and the bombing made it impossible for the enemy to keep a sufficient number of troops in the field to win the war. If the bombing was considered a success, its advocates would have to propose such a moment or, as Wheeler did, a time frame within which that point would be reached. Johnson ended this January 28 meeting in a cadence almost Shakespearean as the curtain fell on act II of the Vietnam Tragedy: “I was the first Congressman to speak up for the Truman Doctrine. I am not happy about Vietnam but we cannot run out—we have to resume bombing.” As the number of troops edged up to more than 400,000, Johnson’s closest advisers appeared in the scenes, talking among themselves as such side characters do in the Bard’s tragedies. McNamara and W. Averell Harriman—longtime Democratic counselor and government official—confided to each other their fears after a presidential trip to the Far East in late 1966. Harriman worried that Johnson had become enthralled by his experiences with the Koreans and Thais, who, he said, were warlike and “wanted to finish up China, while we were at it.” But the world did not agree. “Of course they don’t,” replied McNamara; “the world doesn’t agree with escalation.” Harriman should tell the president that, according to McNamara, and he should tell him that the war must be settled in the next few months.26


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The president’s power was such, nevertheless, that these confrontations never took place or, at least, did not occur until after the 1968 Tet Offensive. In the meantime, Harriman put on the memorandum of this conversation: “Absolutely No One to See.” McNamara’s own private quest for better “intelligence” about the war led him to request an assessment from the CIA about the enemy’s will to persist. In August 1966, the CIA supplied him with a three-hundred-page memorandum. Full of tables and statistics—the language McNamara knew best—the memorandum covered every “measurable” aspect of the war conceivable. As no other paper had done before, it detailed how the North Vietnamese coped with interdiction. It described the speed with which roads and bridges were repaired. In one section, for example, it discussed the imaginative ways the North Vietnamese dealt with bombed-out railroad bridges by using large barges with tracks installed on the decks.27 In contrast to the mobilization of civilian resources in the North, American military forces in the South used a supply-and-support system that required up to 80 percent of their manpower. With a dark sense of irony about current policy, the authors noted that ambushes of American troops were taking place in exactly the same locations where the Vietminh had once emerged out of hiding to attack the French in the early 1950s. Eighteen months of bombing, it said, had not reduced North Vietnam’s ability to send supplies to the South through alternative routes in Laos, and the number of enemy forces had very likely been underestimated. Destruction of North Vietnam’s small industrial base would not mean much because Russia and China supplied the necessary war materials. It might, in fact, make it easier to divert manpower resources to other tasks in support of the war.28 Like other CIA papers, “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist” did hold out some hope that if American military successes continued, the enemy might feel the need to reconsider its strategy in about a year’s time. But McNamara certainly found little here to confirm the stream of optimistic reports emanating from military headquarters in Saigon. In a conversation about the study with analyst George Allen, however, McNamara revealed little about his own misgivings. He said he found it very interesting and asked “what we might be doing wrong in the war.” The question came as a shock from the man who presumably should know what was being done, right or wrong. Allen thought a moment and decided that he must not play games. He gave the secretary his  candid answer, even if doubting what the purpose behind the question really was. “I said I would stop the buildup of American forces, halt the bombing of the North, and negotiate a cease-fire with Hanoi,” Allen later wrote. McNamara continued to draw him out as if he, the secretary, were a committed supporter

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of the war posing an unanswerable challenge to a naive dove: Wouldn’t that lead to the rapid takeover of South Vietnam by the Communists? It would, acknowledged Allen, over time. Well, then, said the secretary, what about Cambodia and Laos? Was Allen ready to risk the subversion of those countries and allow the dominos to fall there because of a negotiated settlement? Allen later wrote: “I replied that the risk of Communist domination in that fashion seemed no greater than under our present course of action, because there was no guarantee that our present efforts would produce victory; indeed, I was not convinced a military victory was possible. I suggested that if our aim was to destroy North Vietnam that was a different matter, because we had the means that could be used toward that objective that we were not then employing.” 29 As the secretary continued to search for answers and to reassess the entire situation, including his past confidence that quantitative measurements showed the war being won, the Joint Chiefs stepped up the pressure in May 1967 for an expanded bombing campaign. They added additional warnings that invasions of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia might become necessary, involving the deployment of forces to Thailand and, “quite possibly, the use of nuclear weapons in southern China.” The bombing campaign would take the United States to the place that Allen had hinted the military wanted to go if all else failed. “Their continued willingness to risk a nuclear confrontation appalled me,” McNamara recorded in his memoirs.30 The intra-administration debate over Vietnam reached a climax in the fall of 1967. At the center of the dispute were estimates of the enemy’s order of battle (O/B), the supposed key to progress or stalemate. If the military’s argument about the bombing was correct, as Wheeler and the other Pentagon chiefs insisted it was, then the enemy forces’ morale should be falling, and, more important, their numbers should be falling. The CIA’s estimates of what remained of the enemy and, hence, of his potential were far too high, however, for MACV to accept and still claim that the war was being won. A series of meetings were held, culminating in a CIA retreat under extreme pressure. General Westmoreland’s deputy commander, General Creighton Abrams, had warned his boss that “we have been projecting an image of success,” and if a much higher O/B figure were released, news reporters would “draw an erroneous and gloomy conclusion as to the meaning of the increase.” 31 Robert Komer, President Johnson’s special adviser in Vietnam on militarycivil affairs and on the so-called other war for hearts and minds, told the CIA delegation to Saigon that was assigned to work out the O/B figures: “You guys simply have to back off. Whatever the true O/B figures [are], is beside the point.” If a much larger figure than the 300,000 Westmoreland wanted to cap enemy strength at were accepted, within hours “some dove in State will leak it to the press; that will create a public disaster and undo everything we’ve been


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trying to accomplish out here.” Under directions from Director Richard Helms, the CIA delegation backed down and accepted a “compromise” that gave official sanction to the MACV view.32 McNamara, however, refused to buckle under to the Joint Chiefs on bombing policy. At a hearing held by Senator John Stennis (D-Miss.), one of the most hawkish members of the Armed Services Committee, the defense secretary declared: “A less discriminating bombing campaign against North Vietnam would, in my opinion, do no more. We have no reason to believe that it would break the will of the North Vietnamese people or sway the purpose of their leaders. If it does not lead to such a change of mind, bombing the North at any level of intensity would not meet our objectives. We would still have to prove by ground operations in the South that Hanoi’s aggression could not succeed.” 33 McNamara’s testimony through a six-hour session caused a sensation. Johnson called him to the White House immediately after he left Capitol Hill, where he received the full LBJ treatment. He was upbraided and roared at for three hours. Over in the Pentagon, meanwhile, Wheeler summoned a Joint Chiefs meeting in which the sole item on the agenda was whether they should resign en masse in protest of McNamara’s claims. They decided that it would be a useless step and bordering on mutiny. Besides, Wheeler pleaded, “give it some time. You never know, maybe we can pull it out.” 34 CIA director Helms, something of an old Vietnam “hand,” ordered a memorandum, meanwhile, that revisited the “domino theory” one last time in the Johnson administration. “I believe that you will find it interesting,” he wrote in his cover letter to the president.35 In his memoirs, Helms notes that he sent the memo, “Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam,” in a sealed envelope with a blunt warning: “The attached paper is sensitive, particularly if its existence were to leak.” He wanted LBJ to be responsible for any further dissemination of the document. “The mere rumor that such a document existed,” he added in his memoirs, “would in itself have been political dynamite.” 36 Even so, Helms closed his cover letter with an ambivalent nod to Oval Office convictions about the war: “It has no bearing on whether the present politicalmilitary outlook within Vietnam makes acceptance of such an outcome advisable or inadvisable.” Helms maintained as well that the memo was not an argument for or against getting out: “We are not defeatist out here [at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia].” But he argued that gradual withdrawal might be managed to minimize damage to the nation’s position abroad and lessen the domestic political fallout. The letter ended: “If the analysis here advances the discussion at all, it is in the direction of suggesting that the risks [of an unfavorable outcome] are probably more limited and controllable than most previous argument has indicated.”

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For Lyndon Johnson, however, the analysis offered very little political help because the proposed timetable would work out “to Communist advantage within a relatively brief period, say, a year or so.” The memo conceded the impossibility of disentangling such a process from the “whole continuum of interacting forces.” It also cautioned: “The view forward is always both hazy and kaleidoscopic; those who have to act on such a view can have no certainties but must make choices on what appears at the moment to be the margin of advantage.” Helms’s “secret” memo to Johnson apparently remained a deep secret.37 McNamara then sent Johnson a memorandum on November 1, 1967, that he said filled out the arguments for his “belief that continuation of our present course of action in Southeast Asia would be dangerous, costly in lives, and unsatisfactory to the American people.” McNamara proposed a fifteen-month program designed to convince Hanoi that the United States could not be driven out of South Vietnam, but he also argued for freezing the troop level and ending the bombing of the DRV, which had not in the past and could not in the future “cut off the men and ammunition needed to continue to inflict the present casualty rate on our forces.” He then turned the “will to persist” argument on its head. It had been an article of faith (not evidence) that the DRV had a breaking point and that the bombing would eventually find it. Instead, it was the American public, frustrated by the slow rate of progress, that apparently did not have the will to persist. “There is, in my opinion,” McNamara argued, “a very real question whether under these circumstances it will be possible to maintain our efforts in South Vietnam for the time necessary to accomplish our objectives there.” 38 Johnson asked several of his Vietnam advisers to comment on McNamara’s paper. General Maxwell Taylor’s response was typical of them all because it went back to the original January 1965 briefing and then elaborated on all the rationales that had grown out of the notion that Saigon could be propped up by bombing across an imaginary border. “The South Vietnamese would be deeply discouraged,” he wrote, “by this lifting of the penalty which the bombing imposes on the North.” Notably absent here was any assertion that the bombing was anything more than a “penalty.” McNamara’s arguments had at least ruled out the idea that it could ever bring victory. Taylor went on through the catechism to the final argument: “The large majority of our citizens who believe in the bombing but who thus far have been silent could be expected to raise violent objections on the home front, probably surpassing in volume the present criticisms of the anti-bombers.” 39 McNamara had sacrificed a great deal for Lyndon Johnson, and he would continue to display his loyalty to the president even as he was removed from the Pentagon and put into the World Bank, where his dissent on the bombing and any further escalation would no longer matter. To prove that the crossover point


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was just beyond the next rice paddy, Johnson brought General Westmoreland back to Washington to reassure all those who might think McNamara’s departure signaled the need for a fundamental change of policy. The general made speeches, gave television interviews, and attended a congressional briefing with Johnson. “We feel that we are somewhat like the boxer in the ring,” Westmoreland told congressional leaders, “where we have got our opponent almost on the ropes. And we hear murmurs to our rear as we look over the shoulder that the second wants to throw in the towel.” “Tell them the story about the company that came down the other day and over 38 years of age and 20 of them didn’t make it,” Johnson prompted. Westmoreland was eager to oblige. “I talked to the President today about this, and made the point that North Vietnam is having manpower problems.” The general then related how his intelligence—not the intelligence created 12,000 miles away from the scene—had learned from a captured prisoner about a company of 120 men who left North Vietnam to head south to battle. Of this group, 20 men fell out sick or deserted, and 40 of them were older than thirty-eight. “And 38 for a Vietnamese is an old man, I can assure you. . . . So, they are having to go now to the young group and to the old group.” 40 Johnson pinned his hopes on such microcosms to see the light at the end of the tunnel even as the enemy assembled its uncounted forces outside the cities to prepare for a massive attack. Westmoreland had told other audiences that the situation was similar to the “Winning of the West,” when the cavalry had routed the Indian enemy by getting an ink spot to spread. The situation in Vietnam was actually something of the reverse. The bombing had not prevented infiltration, it had not shut off areas of South Vietnam from the enemy, and it had not broken down the enemy’s will to persist. On January 31, 1968, the North’s Tet Offensive began and prompted a reevaluation of the American role from the beginning. The significance of the Tet fighting has been debated ever since. In an unsigned memorandum of February 9, 1968, probably written by the CIA’s chief Vietnam analyst George Carver, the argument was made that Tet was a military failure for the enemy. The Communist effort to rally people to the Vietcong cause had failed, it began. Tet could not be considered a “final allied ‘victory,’ but certainly represents an initial Communist defeat.” No one had claimed the O/B conclusions were absolutely accurate, but the memo explained away the consequences of the O/B debate in an uncertain tone: “The 250,000 figure is not our estimate of total enemy strength.” Whether the figure of 60,000 enemy casualties was also not absolutely accurate, it concluded, “ total enemy strength (as opposed to main force strength) has indeed declined.” 41 Someone leaked Westmoreland’s request for another 200,000 men to pursue the Tet “victory” to a final conclusion. But there would be no more troops for

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Vietnam. Only a few months after Johnson’s advisers and a group of Cold War stalwarts, the Wise Men, had agreed that McNamara’s alternative course could not be considered, there was a new meeting to discuss the aftermath of Tet and what it foretold. The financial and social costs of the struggle, former secretary of state Dean Acheson, unofficial chair of the Wise Men, told Johnson on March 26, 1968, would be as hard for the United States to sustain as the force levels would be for the enemy to maintain. The CIA briefer for the Wise Men was George Carver. “You can’t tell the people in Keokuk, Iowa, you want to get out and tell the North Vietnamese you’re going to stick it out for two decades and make them believe you,” Carver reasoned. He made two substantive points, however, that went far beyond wit and clever expressions: whatever losses the Vietcong and North Vietnamese military forces had suffered, the pacification program was in shambles, and the enemy had been underestimated and undercounted by half.42 On March 31, 1968, Johnson addressed the nation and told the television audience that he was ending the bombing of North Vietnam except for areas nearest the so-called demilitarized zone. He surprised even his closest advisers with a closing statement that he would not be a candidate for reelection in order to take the presidency out of the search for peace. The final American withdrawal did not come for five more years, however, and there would be another round of bombings and incursions into Cambodia and Laos along the way to a peace agreement, which gave the United States something of a “decent interval” before Saigon finally fell in 1975.

Notes 1. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968), 73. 2. President’s Meeting with Congressional Leaders, January 22, 1965, National Security File (hereafter NSF), Congressional Briefings, box 1, Lyndon Baines Johnson Papers, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Tex. All quotations from this meeting come from this source. 3. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 1122–28, 1160–68. 4. Text, February 7, 1965, NSF, National Security Council (NSC) Histories, box 40, Johnson Papers. 5. Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio, 1978), 70. 6. Quoted in Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Dee, 1995), 170.


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7. Special Memorandum No. 7-65, “The Dimensions of Kosygin’s Trip,” February 5, 1965, in Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948–1975, edited by John K. Allen Jr., John Carver, and Tom Elmore (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2005), 1 (CD-ROM). This source contains other Vietnam intelligence estimates. 8. Ilya V. Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago: Dee, 1996), 29–33. 9. Summary Notes of the 547th NSC Meeting with Congressional Leaders, February 8, 1965, NSC File, Meetings, box 1, Johnson Papers (emphasis added). 10. Ibid. 11. “Memorandum for the President,” February 9, 1965, NSF, NSC Histories, box 40, Johnson Papers. 12. “Vietnam Air Strikes Get 67% U.S. Approval,” Washington Post, February 16, 1965. 13. Bundy to Johnson, “Answer to Adlai Stevenson’s Memo,” February 19, 1965, NSF, Agency Files, box 66, Johnson Papers. 14. Unsigned memorandum, “Proposed Course of Action in Vietnam,” March 24, 1965, NSF, NSC Histories, box 41, Johnson Papers. 15. Quoted in Gardner, Pay Any Price, 195–99. 16. Quoted in ibid., 197. 17. Quoted in ibid., 277. 18. Sharp, Strategy for Defeat, 92–93. 19. Bundy to Johnson, with LBJ comments, July 19, 1965, NSF, NSC Histories, box 43, Johnson Papers. For the general mise-en-scène, see H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 313–21. 20. Quoted in McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 310. 21. “Cabinet Room,” July 22, 1965, Meeting Notes File, box 2, Johnson Papers. All quotations from this meeting come from this source. 22. “Meeting in Cabinet Room,” December 18, 1965, Meeting Notes File, box 2, Johnson Papers. 23. “Meeting in the Cabinet Room,” January 22, 1966, Meeting Notes File, box 2, Johnson Papers. 24. Memorandum, “Reactions to Continuation or Termination of the Pause in Air Attacks on the DRV,” January 19, 1966, 3–4, and Special National Intelligence Estimate 10-1-66, “Possible Effects of a Proposed US Course of Action on DRV Capability to Support the Insurgency in South Vietnam,” February 4, 1966, both in Allen, Carver, and Elmore, eds., Estimative Products on Vietnam, 3 (CD-ROM) or 313–14, 330 (printed book). 25. “Meeting in Cabinet Room,” January 28, 1966, Office of President Files, box 13, Johnson Papers. All quotations from this meeting come from this source.

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26. “Addition to McNamara Conversation of November 26, 1966,” W. Averell Harriman Papers, box 486, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 27. Memorandum, “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist,” August 26, 1966, in Allen, Carver, and Elmore, eds., Estimative Products on Vietnam, annex I, 20–31 (CD-ROM). 28. Ibid., annex IX, 4 (CD-ROM). 29. George W. Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam (Chicago: Dee, 2001), 215–17. 30. Robert S. McNamara, with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 275. 31. Quoted in Harold P. Ford, CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962–1968 (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1998), 96. 32. Quoted in ibid., 97. 33. Quoted in William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, part IV, July 1965– January 1968 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994), 750. 34. Quoted in ibid., 752. 35. Helms to Johnson, September 12, 1967, NSF, Country File: Vietnam, box 259, Johnson Papers. 36. Richard Helms, A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency (New York: Random House, 2003), 314–15 (emphasis added by Helms). 37. Helms to Johnson, September 12, 1967 (emphasis in original). 38. McNamara, “Memorandum for the President,” November 1, 1967, NSF, Country File, Vietnam, box 127, Johnson Papers. 39. Taylor to Johnson, November 3, 1967, NSF, Country File: Vietnam, box 127, Johnson Papers. 40. Congressional Briefing by General Westmoreland, President Johnson, and Mr. Rostow, November 16, 1967, Congressional Briefings, box 1, Johnson Papers. I have reversed the order of the last two sentences quoted from the minutes of the briefing. 41. Helms to George Christian, enclosing unsigned memorandum, February 9, 1968, Files of George Christian, box 12, Johnson Papers (emphasis in original). 42. Quoted in Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA (New York: Knopf, 1979), 192–93.

Further Reading Allen, George W. None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam. Chicago: Dee, 2001. Gaiduk, Ilya V. The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War. Chicago: Dee, 1996.


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Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Dee, 1995. Gibbons, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships. Part IV, July 1965– January 1968. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994. McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

5. Turning Point The V iet n am W ar ’ s Piv o ta l Y e a r , Nov em b er 19 6 7 – N o v em b e r 1 9 6 8 Robert J. McMahon

Toward the end of 1967, the Vietnam War had, by any reasonable standard of measurement, become stalemated. It is certainly clear in retrospect, as it was to many observers at the time, that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were nowhere close to winning what had essentially become a guerrilla war, but neither were their adversaries—the North Vietnamese and the southern-based revolutionary insurgency, the National Liberation Front (NLF), or “Vietcong.” Two and a half years after the major U.S. troop buildup, insurgent forces still controlled substantial portions of the territory and population of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). In a report of January 1, 1968, Marine general John Chaisson, director of the Operations Center of the U.S. military command in Vietnam, estimated that “nearly 90% of the geographic areas of the RVN and over one-third of the population were under Communist influence.” 1 The NLF’s armed forces, in close coordination with those of North Vietnam, its patron and partner, had made the tactical adjustments needed to survive in the face of America’s vast superiority in firepower and technology. The leaders and people of North Vietnam had likewise adapted to the punishing U.S. bombing campaign that had commenced in early 1965, demonstrating firm resolve even in the face of a sustained aerial assault that they lacked the military means to counter.


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Yet President Ho Chi Minh of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and his associates in the ruling Politburo, dedicated revolutionaries all, were sufficiently realistic to recognize that no matter how much territory south of the seventeenth parallel remained under the de facto control of Communist cadres, their forces could never hope to defeat the United States. Victory had appeared within their grasp in early 1965, only to be snatched away by the massive infusion of U.S. troops who had helped prop up the faltering Saigon regime. Now they planned for the long term; determination, patience, and time were the main allies of Hanoi and the NLF. The Communist revolutionaries, after all, did not need to defeat the American superpower; they simply needed to stay in the fight. By denying a victory to the Americans, and by controlling their own rate of casualties through avoidance of traditional military confrontations, they could wage a protracted war, inflict significant casualties on their adversaries, and simply wait for American public opinion to turn against a bloody, inconclusive war in a faraway place. Much to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s consternation, ample evidence suggested that the American public was in fact conforming to the pattern Hanoi’s leaders had predicted. It was growing weary of and frustrated with a conflict whose cost in blood and treasure was becoming as worrisome as its inconclusiveness. A public-opinion poll conducted in October 1967 revealed that support for the war had dropped to a new low of just 58 percent. It had stood at 72 percent in June and 61 percent in late August. Also in October, polling data indicated that for the first time a plurality of Americans—by a margin of 46 percent to 44 percent—judged the initial decision to intervene in Vietnam to be a mistake. And just 34 percent of those sampled approved of President Johnson’s handling of the war.2 The steady erosion of public support for the war was reflected in the growing number of newspapers—including the Richmond TimesDispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Los Angeles Times—that had recently shifted their editorial positions from moderate support for the war to serious misgivings about it. In the fall of 1967, Time and Life, two of the most widely read mass-circulation magazines in the country, expressed major doubts about the U.S. commitment, reversing earlier prowar stances. In so doing, they joined Newsweek, another popular weekly that had already moved into the ranks of the doubters. The three major television networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—were also nudging closer to a more questioning and less supportive position on the war, a phenomenon reflected not just in the occasional editorial comment by a network anchorman, but in the type of coverage broadcast on the evening news.3 Doubts about the efficacy of the administration’s Vietnam policy were mounting steadily within Congress as well. The Christian Science Monitor reported in early October 1967 that its survey of 205 representatives revealed that

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43 had, by their own admission, recently withdrawn their support for LBJ’s Vietnam policy. A few months earlier, an Associated Press analysis recorded that 44 senators supported that policy, but 40 opposed it.4 The swelling ranks of antiwar senators from within Johnson’s own Democratic Party both irked and pained him. Dissent was by no means a partisan matter at this time; Democrats, in fact, were more likely to criticize LBJ’s conduct of the war, if not the whole rationale for the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, than were Republicans. This criticism created a historically unprecedented political situation. A chief executive who had won an overwhelming electoral mandate in November 1964 and whose party enjoyed sizable majorities in both houses of Congress found the most vocal and vociferous criticisms of his policy emanating not from the opposition, but from his own party. For a president as notoriously attentive to swings in public opinion as Johnson and one who would soon be facing the voters once again, these trends bore ominous portents. On October 27, 1967, LBJ’s trusted domestic adviser Harry McPherson observed that many ordinary Americans “have grown increasingly edgy about the bombing program.” The special counsel called it “one of the main causes of disaffection with our Vietnam policy” and warned his boss that the United States looked to many like “a big mechanized white nation obliterating a small agricultural brown nation.” 5 Significant, visible military progress was needed, Johnson was convinced, in order to turn public opinion in a more favorable direction—and thereby enhance his own reelection prospects. Yet Johnson was receiving conflicting views about the current state of the war. Although most of his top military and diplomatic advisers—including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) General Earle G. Wheeler, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam General William C. Westmoreland, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker—insisted that the United States was making steady progress in Vietnam and that the enemy was reeling, not all senior officials and intelligence experts subscribed to so optimistic a view. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, long the most visible public spokesman for the war effort, was now the most important of the dissenters. On November 1, 1967, he sent the president a memorandum that set forth his highly pessimistic “personal views” about the course of the war and the direction of U.S. policy. The Pentagon chief warned that “continuing our present course of action will not bring us by the end of 1968 enough closer to success, in the eyes of the American public, to prevent the continued erosion of popular support for our involvement in Vietnam.” The coolly analytical McNamara, who had been Johnson’s most valued foreign and defense adviser for nearly all of his presidency, had come to see the Vietnam War as a morass, a virtually unwinnable struggle, for the United States. He told Johnson that the bombing campaign was failing. It had not succeeded in


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interrupting the flow of supplies and troops from the North to the South, in stabilizing the political situation in the South, or in breaking the enemy’s will. “Nothing can be expected to break this will other than the conviction that they cannot succeed,” he emphasized. “And the American public, frustrated by the slow rate of progress, fearing continued escalation, and doubting that all approaches to peace have been sincerely probed, does not give the appearance of having the will to persist.” McNamara, once the war’s principal architect, shockingly proposed that the United States shift to a policy of “stabilization” by capping U.S. troop levels at their present level (approximately 485,000 military personnel), permitting no further expansion of the air war against North Vietnam, and actively pursuing peace negotiations.6 Within his inner circle, however, Johnson found no support for McNamara’s assessment. Rusk, Bundy, Wheeler, Westmoreland, Bunker, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Richard Helms, and others categorically rejected both McNamara’s stalemate thesis and his stabilization proposal. Helms insisted that the “war is going in our favor,” and Rostow commented: “Statistics can’t give you everything 100%. But they can and do confirm progress.” 7 Another important constituency took the same stance. On November 2, one day after receiving McNamara’s memorandum, Johnson convened a meeting of the “Wise Men.” The members of that group—and they all were men—included some of the most distinguished and experienced statesman of the early Cold War. The roster of luminaries featured, among others, former secretary of state Dean Acheson, former Treasury secretary C. Douglas Dillon, former career diplomat Robert Murphy, attorney and old Washington hand Clark Clifford, associate Supreme Court justice and LBJ intimate Abe Fortas, and former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. After receiving intensive briefings from military officials, the Wise Men, to a person, counseled that the United States must persevere and ultimately prevail in Vietnam. They regarded the stakes there as extremely high, viewing Vietnam as a critical theater in the broader struggle to contain the expansion of Communism and seeing America’s credibility and deterrent power as being at risk. The president had to continue the war “because what we are doing is right,” said Clifford. “If we keep up the pressure on them, gradually the will of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese will wear down.” Acheson expressed similar sentiments, recording his appraisal that the war was “going well” for the United States. “When these fellows decide they can’t defeat the South, then they will give up,” the imperious Acheson proclaimed with characteristic confidence. “This is the way it was in Korea. This is the way the Communists operate.” 8 Fortified by the Wise Men’s unanimous backing and determined to pierce the growing acceptance of a military stalemate, Johnson launched a major public-relations campaign. He aimed to persuade the American people not only that

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progress in Vietnam was steady, but that the prospects of victory were daily growing stronger. To that end, in mid-November he brought General Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker home to offer upbeat prognoses about the  war effort. “We are making real progress,” Westmoreland confidently proclaimed upon his arrival. In a major address to the National Press Club, he put an even more positive spin on current conditions. “We have reached an important point,” the general insisted, “where the end begins to come into view.” The United States was “winning a war of attrition now,” Westmoreland insisted during a joint appearance with Bunker on NBC Television’s Meet the Press. He even forecast that within two years or less the enemy would be so weakened that the United States could begin to phase down its involvement and begin to withdraw some troops. Bunker, in each of his public appearances, echoed those rosy views. “Today the initiative is ours,” he assured the Overseas Press Club in New York, emphasizing not only that the military effort was succeeding, but that democracy was taking root in South Vietnam. Johnson and his top defense and political advisers were delighted with those hopeful pronouncements; they were buoyed especially by Westmoreland’s prediction that U.S. troop withdrawals could commence within the next two years.9 Much of this optimism rested, of course, on military and intelligence estimates about matters not susceptible to statistical precision. Westmoreland’s war-fighting strategy pivoted on an imagined “crossover point”: the juncture at which North Vietnamese and Vietcong losses began to exceed the Communist side’s ability to replace those losses. A careful accounting of enemy troop strength and casualty figures consequently formed essential requirements for tracking progress toward that elusive goal. During his Washington consultations, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam insisted that the crossover point was fast approaching; enemy troop strength, he asserted, had been progressively declining since mid-1967. Some top CIA experts disputed that view, however. They contended that Westmoreland’s intelligence officers were seriously undercounting total enemy troop strength because they excluded local defense units as well as significant numbers of some irregulars from overall order-of-battle estimates. The controversy that raged over how many insurgent fighters actually existed in South Vietnam bubbled just beneath the surface throughout the second half of 1967, prompting the occasional warning signal from those discomfited by administration forecasts of sure and steady progress toward an outright U.S. military victory. Army chief of staff General Harold K. Johnson spoke for more prudent insiders when he quipped: “The platform of false prophets is crowded!” 10 LBJ himself harbored substantial private doubts about the course of the war even as he continued in public to project an image of the supremely confident commander in chief. On December 23, 1967, he met for two hours with South


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Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu. The conversation took place in Australia, where both leaders were attending the funeral of Prime Minister Harold Holt. Johnson urged Thieu to consider opening informal talks with NLF representatives. Seeing the NLF as an organization dedicated to the annihilation of his regime, Thieu refused. This exchange between the American and South Vietnamese chiefs of state is quite revealing. That Johnson visualized negotiations between the South Vietnamese government and its southern Communist rivals as a potentially fruitful first step toward an eventual peace settlement certainly belies his public stance of great confidence in the U.S. military effort. If the war was actually going as well as Westmoreland and Bunker said—and evidently believed—then why would LBJ even contemplate the initiation of talks with an enemy supposedly in rapid decline? After all, it bears remembering that when Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother appeared to be moving toward negotiations with the NLF in the fall of 1963, this move constituted a key factor in the U.S. decision to support the military coup that toppled the Diem regime. Now, with 500,000 U.S. troops in the field and a well-respected commander expressing certainty that everything was on target for an outright American military victory, the president was actively pressing for South Vietnamese–NLF peace talks. This demarche speaks volumes about LBJ’s inner doubts. So, too, does his subsequent meeting with Pope Paul VI. During their talk, held in the Vatican on Christmas Eve, Johnson implored the pontiff to use whatever influence he might have with fellow Catholic Thieu to encourage him to seek some form of a political reconciliation with the NLF. The pope agreed to make such an appeal.11 In public, though, LBJ clung to a decidedly upbeat stance. Between his stops in Canberra and Rome, the president made whirlwind trips to Thailand and South Vietnam to rally U.S. troops. At the huge American military base at Cam Ranh Bay, he told an audience of enthusiastic military personnel that the enemy had “met his master in the field.” In his inimitable, folksy style, he intoned solemnly: “We’re not going to yield. And we’re not going to shimmy.” 12 At that very time, North Vietnam and its Vietcong allies were in the final stages of operational planning for a dramatic, general offensive aimed at simultaneously puncturing such boastful claims, breaking the military stalemate, and hastening the demise of the Saigon regime. By July 1967, with the authorization of the DRV Politburo, top military commanders had begun formulating concrete plans for a bold series of strikes across the length and breadth of South Vietnam. Coordinated attacks on the South’s rapidly growing urban areas, they calculated, would bring the war to major population centers that had previously remained outside the main theaters of conflict. If successful, the attacks would inspire a popular uprising against what Hanoi’s rulers invariably denigrated as South Vietnam’s “puppet government,” thereby destroying its pretense to legiti-

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macy and making it impossible politically for the United States to continue fighting. The commanders hoped that a negotiated settlement favorable to Hanoi and the NLF would follow, reasoning, as one Foreign Ministry official later put it, that “we can only win at the negotiating table what we have already won on the battlefield.” 13 The military operation tactically called for diversionary attacks in remote, frontier areas to draw U.S. troops away from the urban centers, leaving them especially vulnerable. The timing of the offensive, at the start of a U.S. presidential election year, was hardly accidental. “At a time when the United States is about to elect a president,” one official argued, “we need to inflict a decisive blow, to win a great victory, creating a great leap forward in the strategic situation.” 14 The diversionary attacks that began in late 1967, particularly the major one at Khe Sanh in the rugged mountains near Laos in South Vietnam’s northwestern corner, succeeded in drawing U.S. troops. Johnson became obsessed with the siege of the marine garrison at Khe Sanh, rushing reinforcements there for fear that it might become another Dienbienphu. Then, in the early-morning hours of January 31, 1968, the real offensive began. A combined force of approximately 84,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers launched a series of well-coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam. The offensive extended from the demilitarized zone in the northern end to the country’s southern tip and concentrated, as planned, on urban areas. The attackers struck at 5 of the 6 major cities of South Vietnam, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 of 242 district centers, and numerous smaller towns and hamlets. A focal point of the operation was the capital city of Saigon, where North Vietnamese analysts believed that the sudden assault on a number of strategic sites—including the U.S. Embassy, the presidential palace, Tan Son Nhut air base, South Vietnamese army headquarters, several government ministries, and the city’s principal radio station—would spark a popular uprising that would severely undercut and perhaps even topple the Thieu regime. The Saigon strikes unfolded largely as planned, spearheaded by crack Vietcong commandos who had earlier infiltrated into the city undetected by South Vietnamese and American authorities. Particularly audacious was the Vietcong assault on the U.S. Embassy. In the heart of Saigon, the embassy served as the most potent symbol of the American presence in Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, several hours before dawn, a Vietcong sapper team blew a large hole in the wall surrounding the embassy, entered the compound’s courtyard, and over the next six hours exchanged heavy rocket and small-arms fire with U.S. military police and marines. Midafternoon on January 30, Washington time, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow left a Vietnam policy meeting with President Johnson and other senior advisers to take an urgent telephone call. He returned to inform the president that “we are being heavily mortared in Saigon.” According to a “flash” cable just received


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from the National Military Intelligence Coordination Center, the U.S. Embassy, the presidential palace, and the city of Saigon itself were under attack. “This could be very bad,” Johnson muttered.15 Initial administration assessments seemed to confirm the president’s snap reaction. In an intelligence memorandum circulated on January 31, the CIA soberly described the Tet Offensive as designed to demonstrate North Vietnamese and Vietcong strength and resiliency and at the same time deal a psychological blow to the United States and its South Vietnamese partners. Hanoi evidently sought “to convey the impression that despite VC [Vietcong] problems and despite half a million US troops the Communists are still powerful and capable of waging war.” 16 George A. Carver, the CIA’s senior Vietnam analyst, added that no matter how effective U.S. and South Vietnamese forces ultimately proved in their counterattacks, the initial success of the commando operations would certainly provide a substantial boost to North Vietnamese and Vietcong morale. “Regardless of what happens tonight or during the next few days,” Carver predicted, “the degree of success already achieved in Saigon and around the country will adversely affect the image of the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] (and its powerful American allies as well) in the eyes of the people.” 17 Early that same morning, McNamara told LBJ that, in his opinion, the carefully planned offensive showed that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong “have more power than some credit them with.” The defense secretary immediately grasped, as did Carver, the highly damaging psychological and public-relations effects that the attacks were sure to have. Although McNamara confidently anticipated that U.S. forces would inflict a “heavy defeat” on the attackers, he expected America’s adversaries to score a significant psychological victory. “I imagine our people across the country this morning will feel that [the North Vietnamese are] much stronger than they had previously anticipated they were,” he noted, “and in that sense I think [the North Vietnamese] gain.” 18 McNamara proved remarkably prescient on both scores. The Communist military units, operating under the cover of the Tet lunar New Year celebrations and the accompanying cease-fire, achieved almost total strategic surprise. But they failed to establish strong defensive positions, received little support from the local population, and soon succumbed to the American and South Vietnamese defenders’ greater mobility and overwhelming firepower. In less than twenty-four hours, all nineteen commandos who had fought their way onto the U.S. Embassy grounds were killed in counterattacks mounted by American soldiers, airmen, and military police. A similar pattern obtained elsewhere in Saigon and throughout the country; within weeks, order had largely been restored. Only in Hue, the former imperial capital, was the fighting prolonged. Yet even there, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces were ultimately routed, albeit at a frightful cost to that venerable city’s residents.

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As McNamara, Carver, and others had forecast, the Tet Offensive did have powerful psychological and political repercussions that went well beyond its rather limited military accomplishments. More than anything else, it dealt a body blow to the Johnson administration’s credibility, making a mockery of the wildly optimistic statements that Westmoreland, Bunker, and Johnson himself had delivered so recently. The president and his chief aides publicly insisted that the attacks were not unexpected and that the U.S. and South Vietnamese defenders had inflicted a devastating defeat on the insurgents. Many top U.S. officials, however, privately confessed major misgivings about the meaning of the Tet attacks to the broader course of the war. On February 3, 1968, William J. Jorden, a staff member of the National Security Council, called the enemy’s offensive America’s “worst intelligence failure of the war.” 19 Even the everoptimistic Bunker conceded the point. “I think it’s fair to say that there was some failure of intelligence on our side,” he observed in a cable to Washington.20 In another cable, he admitted that President Thieu considered the Tet fighting “a major psychological gain for the enemy.” 21 In a report forwarded to the president, the CIA added: “There is no question but that the [RVN] government suffered a serious loss of prestige by its inability to defend its cities. . . . If not for the presence of U.S. forces, the VC flag would be flying over much of South Vietnam today.” 22 Johnson himself certainly recognized the stark divide between recent administration statements about steady U.S. progress and the rather dramatically demonstrated capabilities of a still-formidable adversary. “From my station,” he quipped, “it looks as though we felt content with what was happening until the fire crackers started popping.” 23 Senior military and intelligence officers’ confidential assessments of the offensive’s impact, in contrast to the administration’s public claims of outright U.S. military victory, also struck a sober note. “From a realistic point of view,” Westmoreland cabled JCS chairman Wheeler on February 4, “we must accept the fact that the enemy has dealt the GVN a severe blow. He has brought the war to the towns and cities and has inflicted damage and casualties on the population.” 24 In subsequent messages, Westmoreland expressed particular concern about the parlous state of the South Vietnamese army in the wake of Tet, observing that the attacks had left it significantly weakened. “We are now in a new ball game where we face a determined, highly disciplined enemy, fully mobilized to achieve a quick victory,” the general emphasized in a cable of February 12 and declared: “He is in the process of throwing in all his ‘military chips to go for broke.’ ” In view of what Westmoreland described as “heightened risks,” particularly in the northern provinces and in the Saigon area, he requested the immediate dispatch of 25,000 combat-ready troops. The surge of troops, in his judgment, would ensure the protection of vulnerable areas while simultaneously enabling the U.S. military to seize the initiative elsewhere by capitalizing


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on recent enemy losses. “Exploiting this opportunity could materially shorten the war,” the general predicted.25 Wheeler fully endorsed Westmoreland’s troop request, explaining in a series of meetings with Johnson and other senior policymakers that the reinforcements were needed to stave off a South Vietnamese collapse. In one of those meetings, secretary of defense designate Clark Clifford called attention to what seemed a “very strange contradiction” in what the administration was “saying and doing” in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “I think we should give some very serious thought to how we explain saying on the one hand the enemy did not take a victory and yet we are in need of many more troops and possibly an emergency call up,” he remarked.26 Important congressional and media voices reacted with even greater skepticism toward administration claims that Tet constituted an unequivocal military triumph for the United States. “These are not the deeds of an enemy whose fighting efficiency has ‘progressively declined’ and whose morale is ‘sinking fast,’ as the United States military officials put it in November,” sneered the New York Times.27 The enemy offensive, declared the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, exposed not only “the hollowness of the Saigon government’s pretensions to sovereignty,” but “the fraud of our government’s claims of imminent victory, and the basic untenability of the American military position.” 28 Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, the country’s three leading weekly news magazines, characterized Tet as a major psychological setback for the United States.29 When White House officials tried to convince Senator George Aiken that the enemy had just suffered a major reverse, the crusty Vermont Republican responded sarcastically, “If this is a failure, I hope the Viet Cong never have a   major success.” 30 On February 8, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York weighed in with a major speech in which he pilloried administration policy. “Our enemy, savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam, has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves,” declared the late president’s brother. Kennedy called for immediate negotiations aimed at a peaceful settlement because the United States appeared, in his words, “unable to defeat our enemy or break his will—at least without a huge, long and ever more costly effort.” 31 Perhaps humorist Art Buchwald best captured the mounting skepticism about the rosy reports still flowing out of the White House and Pentagon. In his widely read syndicated column of February 6, apocryphally datelined “Little Big Horn, Dakota, June 27, 1876,” Buchwald reported on an exclusive interview he had just held with General George Armstrong Custer in which the U.S. cavalry commander assured him that “the battle of Little Big Horn had just turned the corner and he could now see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Citing highly

Turning Point


favorable “body counts” and characterizing the assault of his men by Chief Sitting Bull as “a desperation move” that constituted “his last death rattle,” Buchwald’s Custer confidently declared: “We have the Sioux on the run.” 32 The contradictions in the administration’s approach to the war, increasingly savaged by some of its most prominent critics, were brought to a head by the volatile troop-reinforcement issue. In order to acquire a firsthand account of conditions on the ground, LBJ dispatched Wheeler to South Vietnam for three intensive days of consultations with Westmoreland and other top U.S. and South Vietnamese officials, both military and civilian. Upon his return, the army’s senior general sent Johnson a report, dated February 27, that painted a bleak picture of the South Vietnamese army’s weakness and enemy strength. Wheeler said that Westmoreland’s troops were stretched thin. All senior U.S. officials in South Vietnam, moreover, believed that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, despite recent heavy losses, continued to maintain high morale and strong determination and were operating “with relative freedom in the countryside.” In a recommendation that, in Clifford’s subsequent depiction, “simply astonished Washington,” Wheeler transmitted and endorsed a request from Westmoreland that he be provided with 205,000 additional troops. Wheeler also strongly recommended the immediate mobilization of some 262,000 reservists to bolster the nation’s depleted strategic reserve force, long a major concern of senior officers.33 During a high-level meeting the next day, JCS chairman Wheeler emphasized that the margin of victory during Tet had actually been very thin for Westmoreland’s forces; Tan Son Nhut air base had nearly been lost to the enemy, and U.S. defenders had experienced “another close call” around Danang. Wheeler worried that without the significant force augmentation that he and Westmoreland were recommending, the United States could lose control over two of South Vietnam’s northern provinces, thereby giving the North Vietnamese a strong hand in future negotiations and likely even precipitating a collapse of the South Vietnamese army.34 Because so large a reinforcement request raised a host of complex and politically sensitive issues, Johnson directed Clark Clifford—his incoming defense secretary, slated to be sworn in officially on March 1—to head a task force that would examine the proposal in the context of a broader “A to Z” review of Vietnam policy. The president requested a report within the week. Clifford’s group, he stressed, should seek to develop recommendations that “reconcile the military, diplomatic, economic, Congressional, and public opinion problems involved.” 35 The tough-minded Clifford was determined to seize this timely opportunity to conduct a truly wide-ranging reassessment of Vietnam policy. And seize it he did. As a Johnson intimate, consummate Washington insider, and firm supporter of the war before the recent offensive, the politically savvy Clifford was


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unusually well positioned to do so. Not only had he first earned his political spurs back in the Truman White House, but as one of Washington’s most prominent attorneys he drew regularly from a wealth of important contacts in the worlds of business, finance, law, and the media. Those contacts gave him a reading of the public pulse substantially broader and more sophisticated than that taken by more insulated administration loyalists. From numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances, this newcomer to LBJ’s war council had become convinced that support for the Vietnam conflict, especially among elites, was rapidly eroding. Clifford accordingly made sure that probing questions about the likelihood and cost of a U.S. victory in Vietnam framed all of his task force’s briefings and deliberations. His skepticism deepened when he found that senior military planners could not answer satisfactorily his blunt question about how many troops it would take to defeat the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, nor could they pinpoint how long it would take. After several days of round-the-clock meetings, Clifford sent a memorandum to Johnson, dated March 4, advising that any decision about honoring the Westmoreland– Wheeler troop augmentation request be indefinitely delayed in light of his task force’s findings.36 At a key meeting with Johnson and his principal advisers the same day, Clifford stressed that the request for 205,000 additional troops for service in Vietnam brought the president “to a clearly defined watershed.” The members of his task force shared a “deep-seated concern” about the value of such a large number of fresh military personnel to the ultimate achievement of the U.S. goal of a viable, self-sustaining South Vietnam. “We seem to have a sinkhole,” Clifford observed. “We put in more—they [the enemy] match. We put in more—they match it.” Doubting that the circumstances existed for the attainment of “a conventional military victory, as commonly defined,” he proposed that only 22,000 additional military personnel be dispatched to Vietnam—a bit more than 10 percent of what Westmoreland had requested. Those soldiers and marines, moreover, should be sent for the exclusive purpose of dealing with any sudden military emergencies that might crop up over the next three to four months. “This is as far as we are willing to go,” the new Pentagon chief said flatly. He added that the administration could not rely solely on the advice of its commander in the field, nor could it afford to focus just on the military dimensions of the conflict. “We must look at the overall impact on us,” Clifford insisted, “including the situation here in the United States. We must look at our economic stability, our other problems in the world, our other problems at home.” 37 Before the president could reach a final decision on Clifford’s recommendations, his administration’s secret internal deliberations suddenly became public knowledge. On March 10, the New York Times revealed that Westmoreland had requested more than 200,000 fresh soldiers and marines for service in Vietnam

Turning Point


and detailed with remarkable accuracy the nature and the extent of the policy splits within the administration.38 The Times bombshell, based on multiple leaks from within the government, inspired a new round of attacks on the Johnson administration’s credibility and competence. Senator Kennedy once more blasted Johnson, warning that it would be a mistake to commit any additional forces to Vietnam in the absence of firm congressional and public support. One of the Democratic Party’s other leading doves, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, struck a more melodramatic note. The president, he exclaimed, seemed “poised to plunge still deeper into Asia, where huge populations wait to engulf us and legions of young Americans are being beckoned to their graves.” 39 Two days after the story broke, New Hampshire voters went to the polls in the first presidential primary of the 1968 election. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, whose challenge to a sitting president seemed quixotic before Tet, stunned the experts by coming within a few hundred votes of defeating LBJ. A public-opinion poll released the day after the primary offered Johnson further troubling news: 69 percent of Americans now favored a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.40 Then, on March 16, Kennedy threw his hat in the ring. With the announcement of this second—and much more formidable—challenge to his renomination, from a detested political enemy no less, Johnson found himself assailed from both wings of an increasingly fractured Democratic Party. Dominant nationally since the 1930s (except for the first two years of the Eisenhower administration), the party now seemed riven with the deepest of divisions: not just over the war in Vietnam, but over the liberal civil rights policies championed by LBJ as well. The presidential campaign of former Alabama governor and ardent segregationist George Wallace, announced the previous month, took direct aim at the latter vulnerability. Breaking away from the Democratic Party, Wallace formed a fledgling third-party movement that threatened to draw conservative Democrats away from the Johnson coalition at the same time that McCarthy and Kennedy were drawing away liberal, antiwar Democrats. Roiling economic problems just deepened the crisis atmosphere in the Johnson White House. The Tet attacks broke at the very same time that the United States was facing a ballooning trade deficit, spiraling inflation, and a record run on its gold reserves. The Tet fallout exacerbated all three problems. The steadily escalating expenses of the Vietnam conflict, coupled with Johnson’s stubborn determination not to increase taxes or cut domestic spending to pay for the war, fueled inflation at home while worsening an already serious balance-of-payments deficit. International confidence in the value of the dollar, the pillar of the world’s economic system since the end of World War II, plummeted. As a result, investors abroad and at home began exchanging dollars for gold at unprecedented levels throughout late 1967 and early 1968. The Vietnam War


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alone had not caused the international monetary crisis, which in large part derived from the long-term structural weaknesses of a system based on stable exchange rates and a fixed relationship between the dollar and gold. Without question, however, it intensified the system’s weaknesses, a fact recognized on Wall Street as well as in Washington. In January 1968, Walter B. Wriston, president of First National City Bank (Citibank), had commented in a speech that the worrisome turmoil in global monetary markets might be stemmed without altering the relationship between the dollar and gold, but he also added that “the chances would be greater if the Vietnamese war ended.” 41 The leaked news of the Westmoreland troop-reinforcement request thus poured fuel on an already raging fire. If Johnson were to deploy the troops his field commander desired and to order the JCS’s requested reserve call-up as well, his advisers estimated that the measures would add about $2.5 billion to the defense budget in fiscal year 1968 and $10 billion in fiscal year 1969. Those extra costs would jack up the war’s annual price tag by roughly 40 percent. Doing so, Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) cautioned LBJ in a private memorandum, would mean “more inflation, more balance of payments complications, and possibly financial panic and collapse.” 42 On March 15, a day on which LBJ had managed in desperation to get the London gold market closed to avert any more losses for the United States, national security adviser and professional economist Walt Rostow wrote to his boss that the financial stakes for the United States and the world were enormous. A “misstep,” he emphasized, “could set in motion a financial and trade crisis which would undo much that we have achieved in these fields in the past twenty years and endanger the prosperity and security of the Western world.” 43 In mid-March, in a revealing, “eyes only” cable to Westmoreland and Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief, Pacific, Wheeler ruminated on the multiple, concurrent crises that were rattling the Johnson administration. As a result of leaks in Washington and Saigon, Wheeler informed them, the troopaugmentation request faced an uphill struggle in what had become “an extremely difficult political and public atmosphere.” Indeed, Wheeler emphasized that the supplementary military personnel issue, in conjunction with the ongoing monetary crisis, “has placed the government in as difficult a situation as I have seen in the past five years.” The monetary difficulties were so serious, in fact, that he thought they would almost certainly jeopardize congressional and public support for any additional military expenditures for Vietnam. Wheeler also called attention to the disturbing decline in public support for the war effort, referring specifically to the latest poll indicating that 69 percent of Americans now favored a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Insisting on confidentiality, the general requested that his colleagues be careful not to reveal to anyone that the situation “is as serious as I believe it is.” 44

Turning Point


At this crucial juncture, Johnson decided to look outside the administration for advice—and, presumably, for support. In response to a suggestion by Secretary of Defense Clifford, the president reassembled the Wise Men, the group of confidential advisers he had met with in November 1967. A bipartisan group of mostly former government officials of wide experience, the Wise Men had at that time unanimously expressed support for the war. Now, in March 1968, the defense secretary suggested, rather disingenuously, that it would be “of considerable help” to the president to find out whether “the same men either affirmed their attitude or reached a change of attitude.” Rusk thought it an excellent idea and characterized these veteran policymakers as a “safe” group unlikely to rock the boat.45 Yet Clifford almost certainly recognized, in view of the deep impact that Tet and the accompanying monetary turmoil had exerted within corporate and political circles, that these well-connected and highly experienced individuals would reflect at least some of the now widespread misgivings about current policy. They did—with a vengeance. After receiving a series of candid briefings from leading military and civilian experts throughout the day on March 25 and into the next morning, the Wise Men met alone with LBJ on the afternoon of March 26. What ensued surely ranks among the more remarkable and candid conversations that a president has ever held with a collection of nongovernmental consultants on a matter of such enormous significance. “There is a very significant shift in our position,” former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy solemnly began. “When we last met we saw reasons for hope. We hoped then that there would be slow but steady progress. Last night and today the picture is not so hopeful particularly in the countryside.” Bundy continued that Dean Acheson had summed up the opinion of the majority of the group’s members when he said that “we can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to take steps to disengage.” Only three of the Wise Men disagreed, two of whom were career military officers; they formed a minority that favored backing Westmoreland’s troop-reinforcement request, at least to a certain degree. More typical were the comments of former ambassador Arthur Dean. “All of us got the impression that there is no military conclusion in sight,” he reported. “We felt time is running out.” C. Douglas Dillon, an influential banker, former ambassador, and former Treasury secretary, concurred. “The briefing last night led me to conclude that we cannot achieve a military victory,” he said. Dillon instead urged the president to begin moving “toward an eventual disengagement” and to send just the minimum number of additional troops now that were needed to protect those already stationed in South Vietnam. Dean Acheson, whose own doubts about the wisdom of current policy had mounted steadily after the outbreak of the Tet fighting and who had already informed


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Johnson of that fact during a private lunch and in a confidential, follow-up memorandum, was particularly forceful. He insisted that time was of the essence. “Time is limited by reactions in this country,” observed Truman’s secretary of state—arguably the most distinguished elder statesman in the assemblage. “We cannot build an independent South Vietnam,” Acheson concluded; “therefore, we should do something by no later than late summer to establish something different.” When Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas ventured that this was not the time for a bombing halt, Acheson disagreed sharply. “The issue is not that stated by Fortas,” he snapped. “The issue is can we do what we are trying to do in Vietnam. I do not think we can.” 46 The Wise Men’s firm support for a policy of disengagement clearly shook Johnson. Although he knew in advance of Acheson’s recent dovish turn, he had not expected so dramatic a switch in the views of so many experienced foreignpolicy hands—and certainly not in so short a period of time. Reflecting decades later on this climactic meeting, Clifford captured well the wider significance of the Wise Men’s advice to LBJ. “The men who had helped lay down the basic line of resistance to the expansion of communism in the world, the statesmen of Berlin and Korea, had decided they had had enough in Vietnam,” he recalled. “The price was not commensurate with the goal.” He hastened to add, correctly, that the men who confronted Johnson in the White House on March 26 still supported the overall strategy of containing the Soviet Union and China. They were hardly signaling an abandonment of basic Cold War policies and commitments. Rather, their “opposition to the war was based solely on the belief that Vietnam was weakening us at home and in the rest of the world,” he noted. “And,” he added pointedly, “they were right.” 47 On March 31, the embattled Johnson responded to these cascading political, economic, and diplomatic pressures by pronouncing a major change in U.S. policy. In an address to a nationwide television audience, he announced that the United States was ceasing nearly all bombing raids against North Vietnam. He then invited Hanoi to enter into formal peace talks with American representatives. Johnson’s speech also made explicit and public the connection between the war and the nation’s intensifying financial crisis. The U.S. budget deficit, he lamented, would likely reach $20 billion for the second straight year, absent immediate congressional action to raise taxes. Asserting that a failure to act decisively would generate “very strong doubts” internationally “about America’s willingness to keep its financial house in order,” Johnson described the current situation as “the sharpest financial threat in the postwar era—a threat to the dollar’s role as the keystone of international trade and finance in the world.” After reemphasizing his deep commitment to the search for peace in Vietnam, Johnson warned against a continuation of the divisions that currently beset the

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country. Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, he said that “as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself . . . is a house that cannot stand.” Then, in a dramatic and wholly unexpected closing twist, LBJ shocked his audience by declaring that he would neither seek nor accept his party’s presidential nomination.48 He had given hardly anyone advance notice of the speech’s surprise ending. Ambassador Bunker, who had joined a group of Saigon embassy staff members to listen to the president’s address via radio, wrote to his wife about their telling reaction. “A more stunned, incredible, unbelieving group, including myself, I have never seen,” Bunker recalled.49 Johnson’s speech represented the culmination of an intense intra-administration struggle over the direction of U.S. policy, a struggle that at the highest levels pitted Clifford against long-serving hawks Rusk and Rostow. It was, in large part, a battle for Lyndon Johnson’s heart and mind. The speech signified a victory—however temporary—for Clifford and his allies. After much anguished deliberation, the president had rejected the Westmoreland–Wheeler appeal for additional troops and the thinking that lay behind it as politically and economically unworkable. He had instead reluctantly accepted McGeorge Bundy’s recent characterization of the war as a “bottomless pit.” 50 The American commitment in Vietnam was sucking up an alarming portion of the nation’s resources, LBJ now recognized; moreover, it was undermining America’s global leadership, undercutting the international economic system on which that leadership rested, and encouraging dissension and discord at home. Faced with a clear choice between ordering further escalation, a course of action almost certain to accentuate each of those critical problems, and limiting U.S. troop deployments while simultaneously seeking a negotiated settlement, Johnson in effect opted for the less risky path. The North Vietnamese responded quickly to Johnson’s peace overture. On April 3, in a message broadcast over Radio Hanoi, they spouted the usual venom at the American imperialists, decrying especially Washington’s failure to cease all bombing attacks north of the seventeenth parallel. Yet the message ended on a surprisingly hopeful note, with an expressed willingness to accept Johnson’s invitation to open preliminary talks. Later that day, Johnson announced that, on the basis of this response, the United States would proceed immediately to establish contact with North Vietnamese diplomatic representatives. The March 31 speech offered Hanoi substantially less than it had for some time been demanding as a precondition for peace talks, so one must ask why it was willing to settle for less at this point. Was this willingness to talk a sign of weakness, an indication perhaps that Tet had truly been a major military defeat for the Communist forces? Or was it instead a sign of North Vietnamese strength and confidence, an indication that because the war had begun to turn in their favor, they


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could now advance their goals most fruitfully by pursuing a classic “fight-andtalk” strategy? American experts advanced each hypothesis as a possible explanation for the positive North Vietnamese response but confessed uncertainty about their adversary’s real motives. Both hypotheses paradoxically contain more than a kernel of truth. The Tet Offensive of January–February 1968 and smaller attacks in March had clearly fallen well short of Hanoi’s expectations. The North Vietnamese leadership recognized that the offensive’s significant political and propaganda gains were mitigated by the tens of thousands of casualties inflicted on Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces, the decimation of the southern Communist infrastructure at the local level, and the disappointingly meager military achievements. General Tran Van Tra, one of the campaign’s architects, later admitted ruefully that “we suffered heavy losses of manpower and material, especially of cadres at various echelons, which caused a distinct decline in our strength.” 51 Viewed against this backdrop, Johnson’s offer proved appealing because it allowed a respite from the relentless U.S. bombing campaign along with some time to recover fighting strength after the grueling human and material costs of the go-for-broke military offensive. At the same time, however, North Vietnamese strategists remained confident that they were inching ever closer to their long-standing political objective: the establishment of a unified, Communist Vietnam. Talking while still fighting now simply seemed a wise tactical adjustment. Hanoi could utilize an open negotiating forum to exploit the widening fissures between hawks and doves within the United States and simultaneously capitalize on the ebb and flow of an already hotly contested presidential race. America’s domestic unrest and political uncertainty, in other words, might enable the North Vietnamese to coax additional concessions from their enemies—without compromising any of their basic goals. Yet the military dimension of the struggle remained preeminent. “No agreement can be reached as long as we fail to win on the battlefield,” noted one North Vietnamese assessment. “We will discuss peace in our own way, that is, in the position of a winner, not as a loser.” 52 The South Vietnamese, for their part, reacted with alarm and dismay to the sudden U.S. decision to negotiate with their enemies. The U.S. demarche, it bears note, was made unilaterally; the Johnson administration neither consulted its allies in advance of the president’s peace overture nor deigned even to notify them of the impending policy shift prior to Johnson’s public announcement. President Thieu, in fact, found out the same way Bunker did: by listening to Johnson’s March 31 speech on the radio. Worried about the likely impact within South Vietnam of the partial U.S. bombing halt and simultaneous call for negotiations, the U.S. ambassador labored assiduously to help soothe Saigon’s fears of an imminent American sellout. Bunker gamely told Thieu that the new policies announced by LBJ did not depart from the long-standing U.S.

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position on the war. The politically astute Thieu’s fears could not so easily be assuaged, however. He privately voiced concern that his erstwhile allies could no longer be trusted. Indeed, apprehension, worry, and doubt soon became pervasive throughout South Vietnamese society. Bunker fretted that any further unilateral actions or statements by the United States would be “a sure way to destroy [South Vietnamese] morale.” Depicting the political climate in the country as “highly sensitive,” he reported that U.S. diplomats in Saigon had recently “been walking on a knife’s edge.” 53 A State Department intelligence report described the prevailing mood in South Vietnam as one of “quiet bitterness” rooted in the fear that Hanoi would use its newly acquired leverage to force the establishment of a coalition government in the South.54 Curiously, few top U.S. officials seem to have fully grasped at this juncture either the significance or the inevitability of the coalition government dilemma. The difficulties of finding a mutually acceptable site for the formal negotiations—the two sides ultimately chose Paris as the least objectionable venue—delayed the opening of talks until May 13. Then they quickly bogged down on procedural issues and Hanoi’s adamant refusal to commence serious negotiations until Washington first halted all its bombing missions north of the seventeenth parallel. Johnson—to the great frustration of Clifford, chief negotiator W. Averell Harriman, and others—would not budge on the bombing issue. He feared that unless North Vietnam promised positive reciprocal actions, he would be jeopardizing the lives of American troops in the field for no appreciable movement toward peace. Yet the explosive issue of power sharing hovered in the background from the outset. The Second Indochina War, from its inception, was at its core a struggle over who would rule the southern half of Vietnam. A clear-cut military victory by either one of the principal contending parties, the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government or the North Vietnamese–backed NLF, could have settled the issue on the ground. That had not happened. The massive U.S. military intervention and Hanoi’s escalation of its direct military involvement in the South had created the present stalemate, which in turn had led to the U.S. embrace of negotiations as the only way out of an inconclusive, expensive, and increasingly unpopular commitment. In a very general, if vague sense, the Johnson administration reasoned that negotiations with Hanoi could produce a cease-fire and set the stage for the mutual withdrawal of each nation’s troops. That would then impel the Thieu regime and its rivals in the NLF, according to this best-case scenario, to sit down and together determine the future political complexion of South Vietnam. On what basis other than some form of genuine power sharing, however, could a mutually acceptable compromise be worked out? The NLF was surely not going to settle for anything less than a meaningful role in the governance of South Vietnam. To expect the southern insurgency to do so in view of the enormous


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expanse of territory under its de facto control was laughable. Insurgencies, like nation-states, rarely surrender at the conference table what they have won on the battlefield. According to the CIA’s best estimate, Hanoi’s “immediate aim” in the forthcoming talks “would be to determine how far the US is prepared to go in accepting a new coalition government with Communist representation.” 55 Yet America’s South Vietnamese ally had no intention of permitting any kind of power-sharing arrangement with so hated an adversary. During a brief trip to Washington, just before the Paris talks commenced, Ambassador Bunker responded in the negative to a senior official’s query about the likelihood that Thieu and his associates would accept the NLF either as a governing partner or as a political party. “They realize [that the] NLF is highly organized and disciplined,” he explained, and consequently believe that a “coalition would lead to a takeover like Czechoslovakia.” 56 More immediate issues took center stage during the spring and summer of 1968, especially the continuation of U.S. aerial bombardment, the continuation of Communist attacks on Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities, and the question of what role, if any, the Thieu government would play in the Paris talks. North Vietnam persisted in setting the immediate and unconditional cessation of all U.S. bombing of its territory as a prerequisite for the beginning of substantive talks. Clifford and Harriman urged LBJ to order a complete bombing halt in the belief that such a move would demonstrate good faith to the North Vietnamese and thus help jump-start the stalled peace talks, which were fast becoming an object of derision for ordinary Americans. There was no other card for the United States to play, in Clifford and Harriman’s assessment. “We can only hope for success in Paris,” the defense secretary told LBJ. “We are in a war we cannot win.” 57 The president, in contrast, with strong backing from Rusk, Rostow, and the JCS, disagreed. He even weighed the option of intensified air and naval attacks on North Vietnam as a measure that might induce Hanoi to open serious negotiations. Thieu, of course, urged Johnson to step up the military pressure against an enemy that continued to attack the South’s capital. In July, in an effort to reassure the South Vietnamese head of state, LBJ flew to meet him in Honolulu. During their two-hour meeting, Johnson insisted that the United States would not permit the establishment of a coalition government and that it would insist on Saigon’s participation in the peace talks. Thieu’s alarm was not assuaged; he remained wary of American intentions. Indeed, on September 8, in a revealing private conversation—reported to Johnson after the CIA secured a record of it—Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky speculated about the possibility that the United States might launch a coup against them before the election “so that Vice President Humphrey might win.” 58 Plainly, neither placed much stock in Johnson’s promises and pledges.

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Meanwhile, the tumultuous domestic scene in the United States in 1968 enormously complicated the prospects for a resolution of the nettlesome issues blocking movement on the diplomatic front. The assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in April; the dozens of bloody and destructive race riots that followed, including a particularly ugly one in Washington itself, within blocks of the White House; the murder of Robert F. Kennedy two months later; the protests, street fighting, and heavy-handed police crackdown that accompanied the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August; the bitterly contested three-way election pitting Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey against Richard Nixon and George Wallace—all served to stymie any inclination North Vietnam might otherwise have had to compromise with a lame duck U.S. leader. LBJ’s final months in office were thus characterized by a bloody stalemate on the ground in Vietnam and a frustrating impasse around the conference table in Paris. In a last-ditch effort to break the diplomatic deadlock, Johnson approved a complex compromise with North Vietnam that allowed NLF and South Vietnamese participation in the Paris peace talks. Neither political entity, according to the “your side–our side” formula worked out by chief American negotiator, Harriman, and his opposite number Le Duc Tho, would need formally to recognize the legitimacy of the other. The seeming breakthrough was made possible only by Hanoi’s sudden abandonment of its long-standing opposition to the “puppet” Thieu regime’s participation in the negotiations, a sine qua non for Johnson and nearly all his top aides. The South Vietnamese balked nonetheless, Thieu charging that the compromise amounted to a “clear admission of defeat” by the United States.59 At this juncture, the South Vietnamese president was quite obviously awaiting the outcome of the American election, calculating that he could cut a better deal with Republican nominee Nixon than with the White House’s current occupant. Representatives from inside Nixon’s campaign were in fact clandestinely conveying signals to that effect to Thieu’s representatives. Johnson learned—to his great fury and disgust—about these contacts via intercepts, telephone taps, and surveillance. He viewed them as treasonous but could do nothing about them because he had himself obtained knowledge of them through illegal means.60 In a final attempt to end the deadlock, Johnson on October 31 announced a complete halt of all U.S. bombing operations against North Vietnam. The announcement proved too little, too late. Once again Thieu balked. A furious Clifford privately reviled the South Vietnamese leader for double-dealing and “treachery,” a view widely shared within Johnson’s inner circle.61 Only after another two weeks had elapsed did Thieu reluctantly agree to send a delegation to Paris. By that time, Nixon was the president-elect, having defeated Humphrey by a razor-thin margin. Whatever modest hopes Johnson might have nourished for a diplomatic breakthrough on his watch now vanished. Broken in spirit by a


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war that had wrecked his presidency, his reputation, and his health, LBJ prepared to depart Washington for the solace of his beloved Texas ranch. The next move on the negotiating front would be Nixon’s. The year 1968 certainly deserves the distinction typically accorded it by Vietnam War historians as the conflict’s pivotal year. It was the year in which U.S. decision makers reluctantly accepted the fact that the war simply could not be won—at least not at an acceptable cost. The Tet Offensive thus exposed the fundamental contradictions of the Johnson–Westmoreland military strategy. It deepened public distrust, fostered an epic political battle within the Democratic Party, fueled antiwar activism, created dissenters out of formerly loyal Cold Warriors inside and outside the government, and contributed in significant ways to the gravest international monetary crisis since World War II. The resulting pressures forced Lyndon Johnson to confront some of the hardest issues that any American president has ever faced. They led him, in the end, to choose the path of negotiation, de-escalation, and tentative disengagement as less dangerous to America’s domestic stability, economic health, and international stature than the highly uncertain path of more arms and more troops. Johnson, however, could never complete the policy reorientation he set in motion. The North Vietnamese, some of the toughest negotiators who ever sat across a conference table, offered one major obstacle. His strong-willed and distrustful South Vietnamese allies and the politically unscrupulous Nixon campaign, which conspired with them, posed another. But Johnson himself may have been the most formidable impediment. This proud politician, nearing the end of more than thirty years of public service, clung stubbornly to the illusion that he could still salvage an honorable settlement of the war that he knew would forever define his presidency. Johnson controlled every key detail of the policymaking process, on both diplomatic and military fronts, until the bitter end. Yet he could never bring himself to run any significant risks in his efforts to achieve his cherished goal, and he persisted in the fanciful belief that the sensitive negotiations in Paris could somehow be kept separate from the maelstrom of election-year politics at home. It was not to be.

Notes 1. Quoted in Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 306. 2. Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York: Norton, 1989), 86; David Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 53; Gallup Poll No. 753, Octo-

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ber 27, 1967 to November 1, 1967, available at question.aspx?question, accessed March 16, 2006. 3. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 552–53. 4. Ibid., 553. 5. Quoted in Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War, 91. 6. Draft memorandum, McNamara to Johnson, November 2, 1967, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, vol. 5, Vietnam, 1967 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002), 943–50 (series hereafter cited as FRUS, with dates and volume titles). 7. Quoted in Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War, 111. 8. Both quoted in Jim Jones (assistant to the president) to Johnson, November 2, 1967, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 5, Vietnam, 1967, 954–70. 9. Quoted in George C. Herring, LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 146–48. 10. Quoted in Buzzanco, Masters of War, 306. 11. FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 5, Vietnam, 1967, 1120–23; Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War, 123–25, 137. 12. President’s Remarks at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, December 23, 1967, U.S. Department of State Bulletin 58 (January 15, 1968), 73–76. 13. Quoted in Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, and Robert K. Brigham, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 362–63. 14. Quoted in Gerard J. DeGroot, “A Noble Cause?” America and the Vietnam War (Harlow.: Longman, 2000), 162. See also Military Institute of Vietnam, The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975, translated by Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 207. On the internal deliberations and factionalism among Hanoi’s decision makers leading up to the offensive, see LienHang T. Nguyen, “The War Politburo: North Vietnam’s Diplomatic and Political Road to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1, nos. 1–2 (2006): 4–58. 15. Notes of meeting, January 30, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002), 81–82. 16. CIA, intelligence memorandum, “The Communist Tet Offensive,” January 31, 1968, in ibid., 92–94. 17. Memorandum, Carver to Rostow, January 31, 1968, in ibid., 89–91. 18. Quoted in editorial note, in ibid., 83–84. 19. Memorandum, Jorden to Rostow, February 3, 1968, in ibid., 111–12. 20. Bunker to the State Department, February 4, 1968, in ibid., 125. 21. Bunker to the State Department, February 2, 1968, in ibid., 102–3. 22. CIA, “Vietnam Situation Report,” February 12, 1968, in ibid., 199–204. 23. Notes of meeting, February 11, 1968, in ibid., 179.


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24. Quoted in Buzzanco, Masters of War, 316. 25. Westmoreland to Wheeler and Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, February 12, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 183–85. 26. Notes of meeting, February 9, 1968, in ibid., 167. 27. Quoted in William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 112. 28. Quoted in James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945–2004, 4th rev. ed. (Maplecrest, N.Y.: Brandywine, 2004), 27. 29. Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941– 1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 262. 30. Quoted in Walter LaFeber, The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 57. 31. Quoted in Tom Wicker, “Kennedy Asserts U.S. Cannot Win,” New York Times, February 9, 1968. 32. Art Buchwald, “General Custer’s Last Press Conference,” Washington Post, February 6, 1968. 33. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 5 vols., Senator Gravel ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 4:546–47. 34. Notes of meeting, February 28, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 267–75. 35. Draft memorandum, Johnson to Rusk, McNamara, and Clifford, February 28, 1968, in ibid., 277–78. 36. Draft memorandum, Clifford Task Force to Johnson, March 4, 1968, in ibid., 314–16; Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), 488–95. 37. Notes of meeting, March 4, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 316–27. 38. Hedrick Smith and Neil Sheehan, “Westmoreland Requests 206,000 More Men; Stirring Debate in Administration,” New York Times, March 10, 1968. 39. Quoted in Hammond, Reporting Vietnam, 125. 40. Ibid. 41. Quoted in Robert Buzzanco, “The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1968: Capitalism, Communism, and Containment,” in Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World Since 1945, edited by Peter L. Hahn and Mary Ann Heiss (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001), 112. 42. Quoted in Robert M. Collins, “The Economic Crisis of 1968 and the Waning of the ‘American Century,’ ” American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 415. 43. Quoted in ibid., 396. 44. Telegram, Wheeler to Westmoreland and Sharp, March 8, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 399–400.

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45. Notes of meeting, March 19, 1968, in ibid., 413–15. 46. Notes of meeting, March 26, 1968, in ibid., 471–74. 47. Clifford, Counsel to the President, 518–19. 48. President’s Address to the Nation, March 31, 1968, U.S. Department of State Bulletin 58 (April 15, 1968), 483, 485–86. 49. Quoted in Howard Schaffer, Ellsworth Bunker: Global Troubleshooter, Vietnam Hawk (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 200. 50. Quoted in Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War, 192. 51. Quoted in William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and Military History, 1954–1975 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986), 116. 52. Quoted in William Duiker, Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 216. 53. Bunker to Johnson, April 4, 1968, in The Bunker Papers: Reports to the President from Vietnam, 1967–1973, 3 vols., edited by Douglas Pike (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1990), 2:403–6; Schaffer, Ellsworth Bunker, 200–201. 54. State Department, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Note 2983, April 17, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 570. 55. CIA, intelligence memorandum, “Hanoi’s Negotiating Position and Concept of Negotiations,” May 6, 1968, in Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948–1975, edited by John K. Allen Jr., John Carver, and Tom Elmore (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2005), 459–70. 56. Notes of the president’s meeting at Camp David, April 9, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968, 558–59. 57. Notes of meeting, May 21, 1968, in ibid., 695–96. 58. CIA, intelligence report, September 16, 1968, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 7, Vietnam, September 1968–January 1969 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2003), 43–44. 59. Quoted in George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 264. 60. Notes of president’s meeting, October 28, 1968; Rostow to Johnson, October 29, 1968; telephone conversation between Johnson and Nixon, November 3, 1968, all in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 7, Vietnam, September 1968–January 1969, 413–16, 423–24, 538–44. 61. Notes of meeting, November 5, 1968, in ibid., 565.

Further Reading Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam. New York: Norton, 1989.


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Buzzanco, Robert. Masters of War: Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Clifford, Clark. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991. Hammond, William M. Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. LaFeber, Walter. The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Schmitz, David. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

6. Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War The Par ad o x o f D is en ga g e m e n t w it h Es c al at io n Jeffrey P. Kimball

The Second Indochina War—that is, the American war in Vietnam—had been under way for more than a decade when Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated president of the United States on January 20, 1969. He subsequently claimed that he had inherited this ongoing and escalating war from two of his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Nixon’s claim was only partially correct. Before Kennedy and Johnson’s presidencies, Nixon had been vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose policies by 1956 had helped transform the First Indochina War—which had begun in 1946 during President Harry S. Truman’s first term—into the Second Indochina War. As president, Nixon presided over the last phase of the American war, from 1969 to 1973. He paradoxically both escalated America’s role in the war and withdrew American forces from Vietnam, leaving the Vietnamese with the task of concluding the conflict in a final bloody test of arms and will. The Second Indochina War finally ended on April 30, 1975, when the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) and the South Vietnamese insurgent People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, Vietcong) captured the presidential palace in Saigon, concluding their successful Spring Offensive. Nixon had resigned the presidency eight months earlier in order to avoid impeachment for


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the crimes of the Watergate break-in, leaving Gerald R. Ford to preside over the fall of South Vietnam. Between 1953 and 1961, as vice president, Nixon participated in the policymaking meetings of the National Security Council, provided counsel to President Eisenhower when it was requested, and represented the administration’s views to the Congress and public. In 1953 and 1954, he privately gave hawkish advice and publicly championed the Eisenhower government’s rationale for aiding France’s colonial war against the nationalist, Communist-led Vietminh (short for Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or League for the Independence of Vietnam), thus helping to draw the United States more deeply into the quagmire of Vietnam. On his return to Washington, D.C., on December 23, 1953, from a diplomatic tour of Asia, for example, Nixon explained the need for continuing U.S. military and economic aid to the French: “Why should Americans care what happens one-half way around the world? . . . If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of Southeast Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented toward the Communist regime.” 1 Nixon’s explanation of why the United States should be in Vietnam was one previously developed in the Truman administration and repeated again, on April 7, 1954, when President Eisenhower used the imagery of falling dominos to describe a chain reaction of losses that would take place after a Communist takeover of Indochina. For the next twenty years, this “domino theory” would serve as the U.S. government’s prime public justification for the American war in Vietnam.2 American policymakers like Nixon sought to police the world in order to maintain a global system compatible with and beneficial to their vision of the “American way of life” and its constituent political, ideological, social, economic, and military parts. Defeat in a Communist-leaning country such as Vietnam, they feared, could trigger the falling-domino effect by undermining U.S. counterrevolutionary credibility in other current or potential revolutionary hot spots from Asia to the Middle East to South and Central America, while also indirectly undermining the credibility of the containment policy toward America’s great-power rival, the Soviet Union. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, the concept of credibility was the linchpin of their strategy to defend and expand the American-led global order. The war in Vietnam was not, as it was for the Vietnamese, a struggle for tangible, immediate, vital national interests such as independence, unity, social change, life, and death. For American policymak-

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ers, the Vietnam challenge was a symbolic one, which had put their greatpower credibility at risk.3 When Nixon returned from his Asian trip in December 1953, French military failure in Vietnam and war weariness on the home front had driven the government in Paris to consider a compromise diplomatic settlement. In early 1954, France’s military position in Indochina continued to deteriorate. In midMarch, the Vietminh launched attacks against French outposts in and around Dienbienphu in northwestern Vietnam, imperiling the French garrison, whose defeat threatened to increase the Vietminh’s leverage in forthcoming negotiations at Geneva. The most urgent question for the Eisenhower administration in this crisis was whether to relieve the siege by committing American forces. Reluctant to become embroiled in another Asian conflict so soon after the Korean War, Eisenhower vacillated, but hawkish advisers such as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Admiral Arthur W. Radford and Vice President Nixon advised intervention with American airpower, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. On April 26, however, the Geneva Conference got under way, and on May 7 Dienbienphu fell to the Vietminh before two of Eisenhower’s key preconditions for intervention had been met: congressional approval and the formation of a united allied front. Regretting the loss of the northern half of Vietnam to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) by the terms of the Geneva Agreements reached in July, the Eisenhower administration aimed to preserve the settlement’s temporary partitioning of Vietnam by creating a secure American-leaning nation in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), south of the seventeenth parallel. The administration’s repeated, high-profile pledges of support for RVN president Ngo Dinh Diem served to link American honor and credibility to South Vietnam’s survival. Diem’s U.S.-endorsed, violent repression of his opponents in the South—whom he labeled “Vietcong”—soon led to civil strife because nationalists and Communist insurgents in the South and the Politburo in the North felt compelled to fight back. By December 1960, this internecine conflict had evolved into the Second Indochina War.4 Although losing the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy, Nixon remained a public political figure through the rest of the decade, taking on the role of a hawkish and outspoken critic of what he claimed was Kennedy’s and Johnson’s insufficient aggressiveness in dealing with the Vietnam crisis. In spite of Kennedy’s dramatically increased military and economic aid to Diem, Nixon charged that the president’s measures were “too little and too late.” Furthermore, after the South Vietnamese generals’ assassination of Diem on November 2, 1963, Nixon asserted that the coup and the Kennedy administration’s involvement in it had produced political and military chaos in Vietnam, which


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in turn had become, he charged, the underlying cause of escalating American intervention.5 After Johnson inherited the war with Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Nixon was among the most influential and vocal hawks outside of government pressing the new president to continue the fight and escalate the effort. From February 1964, when Nixon claimed that Johnson was preparing Americans for “retreat or defeat,” to December 1967, when he advocated retaliation against China if aircraft based there attacked U.S. armed forces, Nixon’s themes were relentlessly militant. He was critical not only of Johnson, but also of dovish representatives, senators, and the growing antiwar movement. At no time did he advocate disengagement.6 Yet he walked a fine line between demanding an intensification of military attacks on the enemy and expressing support for keeping the door open to negotiations. After 1964, during the first phase of his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency, he played the role of “unifier and regular party man, . . . staking out the middle ground and leaning slightly to the right,” as one historian put it.7 By the end of 1967, however, he began to express support for “peace efforts,” even though he continued to approach the subject of negotiations warily. He opposed compromise with the southern insurgency on the key question of political power in Saigon, where pro-American, anti-Communist General Nguyen Van Thieu had recently been elected president of South Vietnam. This issue, of course, was what the war was about: political power in Saigon and all it stood for in relation to American global credibility.8 During the four years after Johnson had assumed the presidency, several developments produced profound divisions between “hawks” and “doves” in America: Johnson’s escalation of the war; ever-mounting U.S. casualties; deepening domestic discord over social, political, and foreign-policy issues; and the Tet Offensive, which began on January 31, 1968, and heightened the public’s sense of the war’s futility. Hawks favored military solutions, and doves favored diplomatic ones. Yet, by early 1968, an odd confluence developed between the hawks’ and the doves’ expectations: both wanted an end to the war—one through military escalation, the other through military de-escalation. Nixon’s campaign played to this coincidence of expectations and divergence of means. Needing to bridge the gap between supporters and opponents of the war in order to win the election, he walked a tightrope of meaning, using nuanced words and phrases to keep his balance. For doves and moderates, he spoke less of escalating military measures and protecting vital interests and more of taking nonmilitary steps toward peace; for hawks and conservatives, he continued to talk about putting on pressure and winning the peace. For all Americans, he spoke of a peace with honor. Through the dreadful months of 1968, with its wars, international crises, interventions, assassinations, and civil disorder, Nixon miracu-

Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War


lously became a peace candidate in the eyes of many—an old Cold Warrior who now wanted to end the Vietnam War honorably while creating a structure of peace.9 Among the several factors accounting for Nixon’s narrow popular-vote margin of victory in November over Hubert Humphrey, one may have been his hints during the campaign that he had a secret plan to end the war. Although Nixon and his aides denied that he had a sure-fire “magic formula” or “push-button technique” to achieve peace, during the course of the year he sketched some of the chief features of his rumored secret plan. These features included negotiations with the Soviet Union and China, “greater emphasis” on pacification and Vietnamization, “de-Americanization” (U.S. troop withdrawals), continued air and ground military operations, and threats of using excessive force against North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. The latter included a military arm, the PLAF, or Vietcong, and, after 1968, a governmental arm, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG).10 It was not a plan, but an outline yet to be fleshed out. This process began soon after Nixon’s election, when he ordered his soon-to-be assistant for national security affairs, Henry A. Kissinger, to start work on the matter. Kissinger commissioned a RAND Corporation study of national security agencies’ views on the current realities of the war and the future prospects and options for “victory” in South Vietnam. On January 21, 1969, the day after Nixon’s inauguration, Kissinger issued National Security Study Memorandum No. 1, which ordered national security agencies and their heads to respond to scores of questions similar to those in the RAND study. The RAND report was ready at the end of December; responses to the memorandum questions were in Kissinger’s hands by mid-February. Meanwhile, on January 27 Nixon ordered the JCS to develop a program of “dramatic” military steps that might “jar” or unsettle and coerce the North Vietnamese into compliance in the Paris negotiations, and on March 13 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird reported on his recent tour of South Vietnam to examine military conditions.11 Drawing on these studies and reports, Kissinger made his recommendations to Nixon in a memorandum titled “Vietnam Situation and Options” in late March: begin private talks with the North Vietnamese on military but not political issues; announce in June that the United States will withdraw 75,000 troops by December; accelerate Vietnamization; develop a plan to withdraw more U.S. troops if possible but to leave support forces behind; continue current military and pacification operations in South Vietnam; and “develop alternate plans for possible escalatory military actions with the motive of convincing the Soviets that the war might get out of hand.” 12 The last was a reference to what Nixon had earlier named “the madman theory,” or the threat of excessive


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force and irrational behavior to jar the other side. It was also an indirect reference to another element of the emerging strategy: “linkage” diplomacy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, North Vietnam’s largest supplier. Nixon and Kissinger hoped to link incentives and threats, or carrots and sticks, to encourage the Soviets to cooperate with the United States in pressuring the North Vietnamese to come to terms at the negotiating table. The carrots were offers of deals on issues dividing Moscow and Washington in exchange for Moscow’s cooperation. The sticks of linkage included the denial of such agreements in the event of Soviet noncooperation, various military measures and threats against the Soviets and North Vietnam, and diplomatic ploys such as the “China card,” with which Nixon and Kissinger would threaten to improve U.S. relations with China at the expense of the Soviet Union. Although Kissinger had called for private talks with Hanoi’s representatives, they were to take place within the framework of the four-party Paris negotiations previously arranged by the United States and the DRV during the last months of the Johnson administration, in which the United States, the DRV, the RVN, and the PRG were to meet publicly. It would not be until August 4, 1969, that Kissinger would hold his first secret meeting with North Vietnamese negotiator Xuan Thuy at a private venue in Paris. Furthermore, Nixon and Kissinger’s insistence on confining these secret, bilateral talks to “military” matters, such as troop withdrawals, and on leaving “political” matters, such as the government in Saigon, to the RVN and the PRG, would prove fruitless, even if it seemed the only way Washington could avoid appearing to sell out the Thieu government. As Nixon and Kissinger well knew, the other side wanted to talk about both political and military issues because the political issues were what the war was all about, and, of course, Thieu for his part did not want the United States to negotiate him out of his presidential position.13 Absent from Kissinger’s strategy recommendations was a timetable for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. As Kissinger noted in his March memo to Nixon, withdrawal would take place over “the next several years” and was dependent on conditions in South Vietnam, which, among other things, required the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. Even after a withdrawal of U.S. forces, moreover, residual “support troops” would be left behind to assist the South Vietnamese. Also missing from Kissinger’s list was any reference to the Nixon Doctrine, which many Americans later assumed guided Nixon’s Vietnam policies. But Nixon did not announce the so-called doctrine until June 25, 1969, and even then, as Kissinger’s assistant, Colonel Alexander Haig, privately remarked shortly afterward, it was “a little bit deceptive” to offer “hope to those who are seeking a long-range shift in the overall involvement of the U.S. in internal matters.” 14 The Nixon Doctrine was a political device intended for home-front and

Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War


allied consumption. It was not a guiding, coherent policy doctrine and thus was absent from Nixon and Kissinger’s unfolding plan. The Communist side saw the Nixon Doctrine not as U.S. troop disengagement, but as “Indochinization”— that is, Nixon’s expansion of the war throughout Indochina by means of surrogates, plus great-power interference in the affairs of smaller countries.15 The Nixon administration’s policy goal remained that of previous presidents: to keep a friendly government in power in Saigon, while eliminating or neutralizing the South Vietnamese insurgents and winning—through force, diplomacy, or negotiation—the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. What had changed since the Johnson administration was not U.S. policy, but U.S. strategy. Nixon and Kissinger believed that their strategy would succeed where Johnson’s had not. On March 17, before Kissinger had sent his options memo to Nixon, the administration launched Operation Breakfast, the first phase of Operation Menu, a secret and massive B-52 bombing campaign against enemy base camps in Cambodia along the border with South Vietnam. Its primary purpose was to jar Hanoi psychologically and to signal Moscow that the war “may get out of hand.” 16 Its secondary purpose was to offer an indirect response to a countrywide offensive that the PLAF/PAVN had launched on February 22—a response that, as Kissinger put it, would “not have primarily a military objective,” but a “political” one: to deter the other side from believing such attacks would influence negotiations. Breakfast was kept secret from the public and Congress in order to avoid protests against the administration’s escalation and expansion of the war.17 The administration undertook other aerial escalations throughout Indochina. In South Vietnam, American planes defoliated jungles and bombed villages and rural areas even more widely and heavily than in the past, and in Laos the number of combat sorties increased by 60 percent over that in 1968. Nixon and Kissinger diverted to neighboring Laos the B-52s and fighter-bombers no longer permitted to strike northern North Vietnam after Johnson’s October 31, 1968, announcement of a bombing halt. They augmented continuing air campaigns against Laotian villages and Communist military units in the Plain of Jars and against the complex of logistics highways and jungle paths known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.18 These escalations coincided with changes in ground, air, and pacification tactics developed in response to the PLAF/PAVN’s Tet Offensive of 1968. Carried out under the rubric of a “clear and hold” strategy, which General William Westmoreland initiated and his successor, General Creighton Abrams, expanded, the revised approach included ground, artillery, and air operations that incorporated accelerated pacification, population relocation, aerial defoliation, and relaxed restraints on the killing of civilians. The central purpose of the strategy was to bleed the “fish”—the guerrilla infrastructure—and drain the


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“water” in which they swam—the civilian population, villages, crops, trees, and foliage. Operations extended even into Cambodia, where U.S. aircraft sprayed trees and crops and where U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops carried out at least 188 covert ground incursions in the first four months of 1969.19 Even though the Communist-led side had achieved notable successes during the Tet Offensive, PLAF forces suffered significant casualties because of the U.S.–RVN counteroffensive and revised strategy. Despite their losses, PLAF forces, supplemented by PAVN troops, launched a post-Tet offensive in February and March 1969 for the purpose of achieving “decisive victory.” This offensive followed on the heels of more than a dozen American ground operations begun soon after Nixon’s inauguration. Communist planners understood decisive victory in the long term as achieving their ultimate aims, “independence, democracy, peace, and neutrality for South Vietnam [leading to] . . . the reunification of the country.” Decisive victory in the short term translated into forcing U.S. troop withdrawals, gaining superiority over the ARVN, and winning control of rural and strategic areas. By May, however, additional losses caused the Politburo and strategic planners to revise their assertive strategy in order to reorganize, consolidate their strength, apply counterpacification, and prepare for a prolonged struggle against what they perceived as Nixon’s strategy of intimidating North Vietnam, weakening the PLAF and PAVN in the South, and strengthening the ARVN.20 In April 1969—about the same time that the Politburo was revising its strategy—Nixon and Kissinger were growing concerned that “time was working against us.” 21 Their bombing of Cambodia and attempts to use linkage and the China card had so far failed to influence the USSR, the DRV, or the PRG. Moscow was unable or unwilling to deliver Hanoi. North Vietnamese and southern guerrilla negotiators at the public talks in Paris held fast to their terms despite U.S. demands. Frustrated, Nixon decided at Kissinger’s urging to authorize a package of negotiating proposals and bombing threats to break the impasse. Kissinger presented these proposals and threats to his back-channel contact, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, on April 14, suggesting that high-level U.S. and DRV representatives meet in Moscow to discuss U.S. terms for a settlement. Should Hanoi fail to accept this approach within two months, Kissinger warned Dobrynin, there would likely be no progress in parallel negotiations on other issues dividing the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, Nixon would deploy “other measures” against North Vietnam, by which Kissinger meant dramatic and sudden bombing and mining operations. On the night of April 14, the very day that Kissinger had presented the diplomatic-military package to Dobrynin, news arrived in Washington that North

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Korean interceptors had shot down a Lockheed EC-121 U.S. reconnaissance plane flying a spy mission off the coast of North Korea over the Sea of Japan. Nixon and Kissinger felt it necessary to cancel their plan to carry out their military threat against North Vietnam, which had been scheduled for June. Thwarted, Nixon substituted another operation in order to signal his supposed toughness: Lunch, the second phase of Operation Menu. By the beginning of July 1969, Nixon’s hope of disengaging U.S. forces from South Vietnam on his terms by the autumn had dimmed. The Paris negotiations were stalled, the Communist side was defiant, the antiwar movement— having given Nixon a honeymoon respite—was restive, and within the administration there was disagreement about the pace and timing of troop withdrawals. Secretary of Defense Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers continued to push for withdrawals, but Kissinger had by now changed his mind. He wanted to proceed more slowly because he had become “deeply discouraged” that his and Nixon’s “Vietnam plans aren’t working out right.” 22 He was now leaning toward military escalation. Nixon chose a middle course. In the first week of July, he decided on a twotrack approach that would keep his options open: continuing de-Americanization and Vietnamization while embarking on military escalation, which would be carried out in two phases. The first phase was a program of heightened threat making. During July and August, Nixon and Kissinger delivered several direct and indirect messages to Moscow and Hanoi, warning that if by November 1 the North Vietnamese did not agree to compromise on Washington’s terms, Nixon would “take measures of great consequence and force.” 23 If, however, these threats failed to move Moscow to pressure Hanoi into concessions, then the second phase of the military escalation option would begin: a multiphase campaign against North Vietnam consisting mainly of heavy air attacks in the far north of Vietnam and the mining of coastal ports. During the planning for the operation—which was code-named Duck Hook—Nixon, Kissinger, and their staffs also discussed three other options: the incursion of ground troops into North Vietnam, the bombing of dikes, and the use of nuclear weapons.24 Despite these plans and Nixon’s tough talk, the president’s resolve began to wilt in the face of opposition within the administration and his own doubts about prospects for success. Laird and Rogers continued to oppose military escalation. Staff planners for Duck Hook voiced reservations about its potential effectiveness in intimidating Hanoi. Opinion polls indicated growing public impatience with the war, and Nixon worried that if he launched Duck Hook, he might not be able to hold public support for the three- to six-month period the operation required—assuming it would work. Another concern was that


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the three major antiwar demonstrations scheduled for October 15 and November 13–15 might erode public confidence in his leadership, expand into larger demonstrations, and blunt Duck Hook’s psychological impact on Hanoi. Moreover, linkage diplomacy had thus far failed to leverage Soviet cooperation—a gloomy omen for Duck Hook’s prospects. Nixon came to believe that the North Vietnamese were also unmoved in the face of his military threats. Yet, reduced enemy-initiated fighting in South Vietnam seemed to indicate that Vietnamization might be making progress—a good omen, if true, for it offered Nixon an alternative to Duck Hook. In early October, Nixon decided against launching Duck Hook. Believing, however, that “it was important that the Communists not mistake as weakness the lack of dramatic action on my part in carrying out the ultimatum,” 25 the president, in a bizarre compensatory move, set in motion a series of military steps between October 13 and 30 that amounted to a worldwide nuclear alert. Kept secret from Congress, the public, and allies, it was known only to a small White House inner circle. Its purpose was apparently to try to convince the Soviets and North Vietnamese that the alert was the preparatory phase of Duck Hook, which, of course, the Soviets and North Vietnamese did not yet know had been shelved. The nuclear alert, however, failed to intimidate either the North Vietnamese or the Soviets before the November 1 deadline, although it did have a dangerous and unintended consequence: it caused the Chinese to go on alert—in response either to the U.S. alert or to something the Soviets did in response to the U.S. alert.26 Nixon’s angry address to the nation on November 3 signaled a turning point in White House strategic planning and public propaganda. The president had originally intended the speech to be an announcement and defense of Duck Hook, which he had hoped would have brought about negotiations to end the war on favorable terms. Having cancelled the operation, however, Nixon was now forced to shift his strategic emphasis to one relying more on Vietnamization and pacification coupled with more vigorous political attacks on antiwar critics at home, all of which meant that disengagement from Vietnam would take years, not months. It was a strategy, he knew, that would “make it his war” and no longer “Johnson’s war” in the minds of the citizenry. Thus in his revised televised speech on November 3, he criticized war opponents, announced that his Vietnam policy was consistent with the Nixon Doctrine, and issued a summons to the so-called silent majority to support his policies.27 Although Nixon continued to use linkage diplomacy with the USSR to induce its assistance in helping to pressure North Vietnam, he redoubled his efforts to bring about rapprochement with Beijing in order not only to foster its cooperation in pressuring Hanoi, but also to play the China card against Moscow with greater intensity. Fortunately for Nixon and Kissinger, Mao Zedong

Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War


concurrently decided that better relations with the United States would help him achieve his own foreign and domestic goals. As before, Nixon intended to buttress his strategy with what he called “big plays”—that is, forceful threats and military measures, which included continued bombing throughout Indochina, threats of expanded bombing against North Vietnam, and, if the opportunity presented itself, major ground operations. By mid-March 1970, Nixon and Kissinger were moving toward a decision about just such a ground operation into Cambodia. The Menu bombing campaign had driven the Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists deeper into the interior. The combined effect of these movements and the social disruptions brought on by the bombing had further unsettled the Cambodian political scene. A military coup on March 18, 1970, led by pro-American general Lon Nol against Cambodia’s neutralist head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had triggered civil strife within Cambodia. There is considerable circumstantial evidence that American officials in Cambodia were aware of the plot and that American military intelligence may have been involved.28 Cambodian civil strife, in turn, caused Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S. commanders to worry that Cambodia might fall to the Khmer Rouge, thus exposing the South Vietnamese southern flank and threatening prospects for the success of Vietnamization. Hawkish strategists had long advocated operations into Cambodia. Nixon and Kissinger now came to believe that the circumstances were opportune. A joint American–South Vietnamese invasion would, they hoped, achieve important political-military results: Lon Nol’s government would be saved; the port of Sihanoukville, through which supplies came for the Communists, would be closed; the Communist sanctuaries along the South Vietnamese border and the troops in them would be destroyed or seriously disrupted; Communist headquarters would be captured; South Vietnamese morale would improve; and pacification and Vietnamization would be protected, at least for a time.29 The president claimed great success in Cambodia after the operation was carried out, but the operation produced mixed and tragic consequences. Although it temporarily disrupted Communist Vietnamese troop deployments and logistics, this result fell far short of the decisive military impact that Nixon had sought. Furthermore, the incursion had brought about an alliance of convenience among Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese Communists; Lon Nol’s government lost control of large sections of the country; and the incursion helped push Cambodia into an abyss of civil war and put the Paris negotiations on hold. On the home front, Nixon was rattled by widespread demonstrations against the incursion, by the killing and wounding of students at Kent State University at the hands of Ohio National Guard troops, and by the intensification of


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congressional opposition to his direction of the war. The combined strategic consequences were that he would not be able to send U.S. troops again into Cambodia or, in the future, into Laos; he would feel more than before the need to carry out large-scale troop withdrawals from South Vietnam; and whatever hope of bringing the war to a favorable conclusion by the end of 1970 or the beginning of 1971 had been shattered.30 Pressured by the public, Congress, and internal dissenters in the administration, Nixon pulled U.S. troops out of Cambodia on June 30. In July, Nixon told advisers that he believed “the American people are evenly divided. The establishment is against me, but I’ll see it through if I’m the only person in the country to do it. We’ll see the end of our participation one way or another.” At the same time, Secretary of Defense Laird—pleading congressional budgetary constraints and political pressures to reduce draft calls—was once again pressing for accelerated troop withdrawals as well as decreases in strategic and tactical bombing sorties. As days and weeks passed, Nixon became increasingly concerned about the long-term impact of the war on the solidity of his conservative and right-wing political base as he looked ahead to the 1972 presidential election. When in August several hawkish senators, worried about the forthcoming congressional elections, urged Nixon to end the war quickly, Nixon complained: “We’ve got the Left where we want it now. . . . All they’ve got left to argue for is a bug-out, and that’s their problem. But when the Right starts wanting to get out, for whatever reason, that’s our problem.” 31 In light of the diminished military options in Vietnam, citizen impatience with the war, bureaucratic and political pressures, the antiwar movement’s dogged opposition, and Thieu’s growing concern about U.S. troop withdrawals, the president and Kissinger had begun to reevaluate their strategic alternatives at least as early as July. In a memo to the president on July 20, Kissinger summarized their two major alternatives: either withdraw American forces at the administration’s own slow pace until all combat units were out, leaving the political solution of the war to the Vietnamese, or offer the other side a more rapid U.S. withdrawal as an incentive at the negotiating table in an effort to entice them into agreeing to a political settlement acceptable to both the Thieu and the Nixon governments. The first alternative amounted to unilateral withdrawal followed by continued civil war; the second required political compromise among the United States, the RVN, the DRV, and the PRG, which Kissinger conjectured would also lead to civil war even if the political compromise were “favorable”—that is, a “territorial accommodation,” with Thieu remaining in power. This negotiation route was politically preferable, Kissinger argued, for both Nixon and Thieu. More rapid withdrawals and a negotiated end to the war would politically assist Nixon at home. But these more rapid withdrawals would be paced at a rate that

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would allow Vietnamization to strengthen the ARVN and pacification to weaken the PLAF. A negotiated political compromise for South Vietnam would give Thieu “the potential for eventual national control and leave the U.S. with a reasonable period after its extrication, during which the final outcome is at least in doubt.” 32 What Kissinger meant was that even if the Communist side won national control in the long run—which was the most likely outcome—this “reasonableinterval” or “decent-interval” scenario would disguise Nixon and Kissinger’s willingness to pursue policies that contributed to the possibility of Saigon’s collapse after a negotiated settlement. The period of time between America’s withdrawal from Indochina and the Saigon government’s possible defeat would be sufficiently long that if and when the fall came, the American public might not notice or care. Nixon and Kissinger would not appear to have been accomplices in the fall. Indeed, they could claim to have striven mightily to avert it. They could claim they had negotiated a “victory” under difficult circumstances, then blame the postponed fall on Saigon itself, Congress, the antiwar movement, the American public, the press, historical fate, or all of the above.33 Kissinger recommended that for the time being they continue on course— that is, keep both options in play. He advised the president, however, that a choice of one or the other alterative would have to be made by April 1971, when they would reach a “fork in the road”: American troop strength on that date would stand at 284,000, down from the peak of 550,000 in June 1969. Reductions in the six months beyond April would total another 100,000, seriously eroding their bargaining position at the negotiating table.34 The two strategic alternatives Kissinger reviewed meant, of course, that Nixon and Kissinger were rejecting yet another alternative: a negotiated solution and American withdrawal in 1970 or 1971. Their negotiating strategy was to postpone the settlement and prolong a U.S. troop withdrawal into 1972, and then hope for a decent interval. As Kissinger reminded Nixon in late December 1970, “If we pull [U.S. forces] out by the end of ’71, trouble can start mounting in ’72 that we won’t be able to deal with, and which we’ll have to answer for at the elections.” In a conversation with Nixon in August 1972, Kissinger repeated the decent-interval strategy: “So we’ve got to find some [negotiated] formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October [’72], by January ’74 no one will give a damn.” 35 On September 7, 1970, the U.S. and North Vietnamese delegations resumed their secret talks, which the Cambodian invasion had interrupted. For the first time, Kissinger indicated Washington’s willingness to abandon the mutualwithdrawal formula that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had long insisted on; he also communicated his readiness to discuss political as well as


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military issues. Without demanding a matching withdrawal of PAVN troops, he presented a proposal calling for a twelve-month schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. forces after the signing of an agreement, a promise to leave no residual American forces or bases in South Vietnam after the war, and the formation of a three-party electoral commission that would include members who represented the PRG, the Saigon government, and neutral groups. The North Vietnamese thought the implications of the proposal significant, but they were wary. They knew that the Americans were aware of the preexisting strategic withdrawal of a large number of PAVN troops from the South that had begun in 1969 and that PLAF guerrillas in the South were weaker than in the past, thus giving ARVN and U.S. forces a temporary advantage. They suspected that “the U.S. scheme was to exchange the question of [not demanding formal] North Vietnamese troop withdrawal for our concessions in political issues.” 36 Even though the meeting ended without agreement, Kissinger’s omission of the old American demand for mutual withdrawal was an omen of what was to come. Meanwhile, Nixon, Kissinger, and the U.S. military command suspected that the Communist side would in early 1972 initiate an offensive similar to the Tet Offensive of 1968, followed by a main force invasion in 1973, which might cause the collapse of Thieu’s government without a decent interval having elapsed. To counter and delay this eventuality, they decided in December 1970 to launch their own ground invasion into southern Laos against key Communist logistics bases with the purpose of disrupting enemy preparations. Although preceded on January 30 by U.S. operation Dewey Canyon II in South Vietnam, the ARVN would carry out the ground invasion into Laos alone, without accompanying U.S. troops. Supported by U.S. artillery and airpower, Operation Lam Son 719 got under way on February 8, 1971, but ended prematurely in late March as the battered ARVN regiments precipitously retreated into South Vietnam. The Politburo had anticipated Lam Son 719, prepositioned its troops, and launched counterattacks. In spite of taking heavy casualties from American bombing, PAVN forces held their ground and, driving out the South Vietnamese, demonstrated the weaknesses of Vietnamization. Nixon and Kissinger’s “game plan” had been to hurt the North Vietnamese in Laos, get Thieu reelected in October 1971, and then meet with the North Vietnamese in Paris and propose a total U.S. withdrawal within twelve months, accompanied by a cease-fire and a release of American prisoners of war. Thieu would therefore have a year to build up to face the North Vietnamese. Soon after the South Vietnamese had retreated from Laos, however, Nixon and Kissinger reconsidered current military conditions and future prospects. Nixon decided that he would declare the ill-fated Laotian operation a success: although it had not struck a “knockout” blow, it had damaged North Vietnamese capa-

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bilities. For the near future, U.S. air sorties would be kept at a high level, but Nixon still wanted to “get the hell outta there.” He had done everything in Indochina that “the military had wanted,” but, as he put it, events were coming down to the “nut-cutting.” He calculated that there was a 40 to 55 percent chance that the other side would want a negotiated settlement. He would use the prospect of leaving residual troops in South Vietnam as a bargaining chip. The task now was to time troop withdrawals to coincide with the 1972 U.S. presidential election and to turn to the “big picture”—great-power triangular diplomacy—for assistance in dealing with Hanoi. Thieu would not be “knocked over easily” in the civil war that would follow American withdrawal, Nixon hoped, and he might even avoid being defeated “brutally” if he continued receiving American aid, especially in the form of U.S. airpower.37 At the Paris talks on May 31, 1971, Kissinger formally offered what he had implicitly proposed at the September 7, 1970, meeting. He dropped the longstanding American demand for the withdrawal of DRV forces from South Vietnam and again proposed the setting of a terminal date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The DRV, however, thought the withdrawal period too long. In addition, Kissinger had attached conditions that led the DRV to interpret the proposal as one that was cunningly but obviously designed to preserve Thieu while winning the release of American prisoners of war. In the period before the next meeting in Paris, the Politburo prepared a counterproposal. On June 26, the DRV’s chief delegate, Le Duc Tho, offered to accept a cease-fire if the United States shortened its withdrawal timetable, stopped its air attacks against the North, agreed to the payment of war reparations, and withdrew its support of Thieu in the forthcoming fall presidential elections in South Vietnam. (This last condition revised previous demands from the DRV and PRG that called for the removal of Thieu and other top officials of the Saigon government from power.) The talks begun in late May 1971 collapsed in early November 1971, however, despite several meetings between July and September at which the two sides had made important proposals and counterproposals. Washington had spurned the opportunity to withdraw its support of Thieu and had actively assisted in his October reelection. Hanoi had therefore refused to accept a cease-fire that did not include what it considered an acceptable political solution. The American proposal put forward in August had called for a cease-fire and nine-month withdrawal plan that would have advantaged Thieu over the PRG. It would have permitted the United States to threaten the North with air strikes, to retain residual forces in the South, and to continue supplying, aiding, and advising Thieu’s government. Had DRV negotiators agreed to the plan, it would also have prevented Hanoi from strengthening the PRG’s political


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position through its primary military option: a ground offensive in the spring of 1972.38 Each side’s strategy in 1971 had been to seek diplomatic concessions from the other while positioning itself for a military-diplomatic showdown in 1972. Washington continued to pin its hopes on the impact of the Laotian invasion, greatpower triangular diplomacy, airpower, pacification, and Vietnamization. Between November 1971 and March 1972, as Nixon and Kissinger were preparing for summit meetings in Beijing and Moscow, the Hanoi Politburo prepared for a major, three-pronged offensive in the spring. Its maximum goal was to defeat the South Vietnamese army and drive Thieu from power. Its minimum goal was to regain territory, restore the PRG where it had been weakened, and damage Saigon’s morale, thus preparing the ground for a post-cease-fire struggle between the two South Vietnamese forces. The so-called Easter Offensive began on March 30, 1972, a month after Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February and almost two months before his scheduled trip to Moscow in May. Nixon reacted with surprise, anger, irritation, and deep concern. He was surprised and angry that Hanoi had launched an invasion of such power and was irritated with Moscow for having been unable or unwilling to restrain Hanoi. He was concerned because the South Vietnamese might be defeated, which in turn might bring about his own electoral defeat in November. Yet if he tried to counter the invasion with a massive bombing campaign against the North, the Soviets might cancel their scheduled summit meeting, which also might lead to his electoral defeat. Nonetheless, against the advice of Secretary Laird and General Abrams, Nixon decided to divert a significant portion of B-52 bombers to Operation Linebacker, a large and sustained bombing and mining campaign in the far north of North Vietnam. With Kissinger encouraging him to signal the enemy that he was “going crazy,” 39 Nixon aimed to shock the other side psychologically while damaging its logistical capabilities for 1973, by which time the United States would have withdrawn its forces. During strategy discussions preceding Linebacker, Nixon raised the possibility of dropping a nuclear bomb, but he backed away from this idea and settled on “merely” threatening to use a nuclear bomb. By autumn, the North Vietnamese offensive had ground to a halt, mainly because extensive American air operations in South Vietnam had counteracted Hanoi’s superiority on the ground. Hanoi had to settle for its minimum goals. Communist forces now occupied more territory, especially in northern South Vietnam and along the Cambodian border of central South Vietnam, and the PRG had been reconstituted in selected areas of South Vietnam, but especially in the Mekong Delta. The offensive had once again demonstrated the weaknesses of Vietnamization, reinforced congressional impatience with the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, speeded up the withdrawal of American forces,

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and strengthened Hanoi’s hand in the Paris negotiations to take place before Nixon’s reelection. It did not decisively alter the military balance, but it accelerated the diplomatic momentum, serving as a catalyst for all the other causes that pointed toward an armistice agreement.40 Each side at last appreciated the reality of military and political deadlock. Both considered their overall prospects with an armistice to be comparatively better than without one. The heavy material costs of the war, the psychological exhaustion of the Indochinese and American peoples, and complex international pressures and constraints now persuaded both groups of leaders to settle. Neither the U.S. nor the DRV/PRG government had relinquished its fundamental goals, but both now turned to minimal, more practical solutions. Both now appreciated the advantage and necessity of a compromise in which each side needed to accept less than its maximum terms because each understood in the summer of 1972 that the war was indeed militarily deadlocked and that its own chances of achieving an acceptable negotiated settlement would be better in October, just before Nixon’s reelection, than after the election.41 Negotiations resumed in July, but it was not until September that Kissinger and Tho made their first real breakthrough. After several more critical meetings in the weeks following, they reached an armistice agreement on October 22, 1972, sixteen days before U.S. presidential balloting. Among the key concessions and provisions, Hanoi had dropped its demand for Thieu’s outright removal from power, and Washington had agreed to withdraw all its remaining ground, air, and naval forces from Indochina, to recognize the PRG’s legal authority in the territory it controlled, and to acknowledge that Vietnam was one country. Thieu, however, spurned the agreement. Nixon nevertheless won reelection in a landslide on November 7, after which additional negotiations and more bombing took place as Nixon sought revisions that would please Thieu and protect his own credibility as a president who had stood by his client and achieved peace with “honor.” In Operation Linebacker II, U.S. planes flew 3,420 bombing and support sorties into the heart of the DRV against Hanoi and surrounding areas for twelve days from December 18 to 29, 1972, with a pause on Christmas Day. Although fulfilling Nixon’s madman-theory intention of demonstrating his “brutal unpredictability,” his determination to get out of Vietnam with a bang not a whimper,42 and the additional purpose of giving Thieu the gift of damaging North Vietnamese military capabilities, the operation had high costs: twentyeight U.S. aircraft were downed, including fifteen B-52 bombers, with 121 crewmen killed or captured. In addition, these end-of-war “Christmas bombings” met with sharp criticism in America and abroad. Despite almost 4,000 civilian casualties, North Vietnamese morale held, and the Politburo was not moved to make significant concessions—contrary to Nixon and Kissinger’s claims.


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Negotiations resumed on January 8, 1973. The armistice agreement reached on January 13, 1973, contained revisions in language that were barely distinguishable from the October draft agreement. Seventeen months later, on August 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon chose to resign the presidency rather than endure the agony and embarrassment of impeachment as a result of his responsibility for the crimes and constitutional abuses related to the Watergate scandal. He was therefore no longer president when Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30, 1975—an event that contradicted his and Kissinger’s earlier claim of having achieved peace with honor in the 1973 Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. Fighting between the South Vietnamese and Communist forces had begun before the cease-fire agreement had been signed on January 27, 1973, and continued after it was supposed to take effect. The three-party Council of National Reconciliation and Concord called for in the agreement was never formed, and elections were never held. Each side blamed the other for failing to uphold its terms, but the truth was that both had anticipated a civil war, and both had set out beforehand and continued afterward to secure and enlarge the territories they held. American leaders shared and supported Saigon’s expectations, objectives, and actions. As early as 1971, Nixon had told Kissinger, “If they’re willing to leave Thieu in place while we get out, . . . then let them, let them go at each other afterwards.” 43 Nixon and Kissinger had negotiated and signed the Paris Agreement fully expecting postarmistice fighting and fully aware that Thieu’s chances for longterm survival were slim. Despite this reality during the several weeks of fighting before the fall of Saigon, President Gerald R. Ford, Secretary of State Kissinger, selected White House aides, Ambassador Graham Martin, and President Thieu accused the North Vietnamese of having broken the armistice agreement and blamed the U.S. Congress for allegedly failing to provide adequate military, economic, and diplomatic aid to the Saigon regime. In 1974, Democrats and Republicans in Congress had reduced aid to Saigon from $1.02 billion to $700 million. In March 1975, Congress also refused Ford’s January request for $300 million of aid to South Vietnam, which would have supplemented the unspent balance of $540 million from the $700 million already provided to South Vietnam for fiscal year 1974. But it is pure speculation to claim that Congress’s refusal was the decisive cause of Thieu’s defeat—or even a contributory cause. The Central Intelligence Agency itself had indicated in its intelligence report of March 4, 1975, that there was still hope in the civil war struggle in Vietnam. What was significant, the report concluded, was “not so much the level of military assistance but the relative balance of forces on the

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battlefield in South Vietnam,” and “given the present military balance in the South, the GVN’s [Government of (South) Vietnam’s] forces will not be decisively defeated during the current dry season.” 44 There were deeper causes for South Vietnam’s difficulties. Thieu’s government not only exercised poor political and strategic judgment—particularly during the month of March 1975—but also was corrupt. Some of the military equipment previously purchased had been hoarded or had found its way onto the black market. The ARVN suffered from generally poor leadership and intrinsic structural and morale weaknesses. Non-Communist South Vietnamese who were not allied with the PRG were war weary, and many were also unhappy with Thieu’s regime and fatalistic about the final outcome of the struggle. American leaders in the White House were themselves confused about their purposes, whereas Hanoi and the PRG were not about theirs. Considering the American and Vietnamese lives already lost in the thirtyyear war in Indochina, many in Congress thought that additional bloodshed would be in vain. Many thought that additional aid should go not to military assistance, but to humanitarian assistance, and that the administration should concentrate its efforts on timely evacuations of Americans and South Vietnamese supporters of the United States as well as on negotiations for Thieu’s resignation and a cease-fire between the two sides. Into the last week of April 1975, however, Ambassador Martin in Saigon and President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger in the White House postponed evacuations and negotiations, while putting the onus for collapse in South Vietnam on Congress and opponents of the war. By then, it was too late for many South Vietnamese friends of the United States to escape and too late for ceasefire negotiations, even if they had been possible.45 In any case, Ford and Kissinger and other American decision makers in the executive branch failed to brave the tide they criticized, deciding not to intervene militarily, but instead to inveigh against others for the defeat. In scapegoating others, they were following a public-relations attack “line” that Nixon had pioneered during his presidency.46 Richard Nixon had run for the office of president in 1968 claiming to be, among other things, a peace candidate. Secretly, however, he intended to deploy several military, diplomatic, and political stratagems that he believed would pry concessions from the Communist side, thereby preserving the Saigon government into the indefinite future and, ipso facto, sustaining U.S. great-power credibility as well as his own presidential credibility. His was a strategy of selective but dramatic escalation for the policy purpose of disengaging with “honor”— that is, forcing a peace on American terms. North Vietnam’s and the southern


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guerrillas’ determination to throw out neoimperial foreign occupiers, reunite Vietnam, and revolutionize Vietnamese society on their terms, however, meant that Nixon’s strategy and policy required the United States to pay a price for continuing the war that a critical mass of Americans thought too high. At least half, if not most, of the American people, along with a substantial number of political, economic, and opinion leaders, did not believe that the cost in lives, treasure, and social harmony was worth the effort—especially because they did not understand or agree with their government’s abstract arguments in favor of persisting in Vietnam. In addition, decision makers would not or could not tell them how and when the war could be brought to a successful conclusion, and most dissenting Americans believed that the means used to wage the war were immoral. Although Nixon disagreed, he well knew that wars can be sustained indefinitely only with the willing cooperation of a majority of the population. Even hawkish supporters in Congress and the citizenry grew increasingly concerned about the costs of this seemingly interminable conflict.47 But Nixon could not bring himself to abandon the goals that had led him and the United States into the quagmire. Like many other American policymakers before, during, and after the war, he was trapped in a counterrevolutionary mind-set of global reach. It was a mind-set reinforced by great-power hubris, sustained by political and bureaucratic pressures, and rationalized by a worldview that placed all matters in the context of America’s Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union and the threat that revolution posed to the expansion of “free enterprise.” Although a product of this foreign-policy culture, Nixon’s psychology added an unpredictable, chaotic element to the standard American formulas for war and diplomacy. His faith in the virtues of struggle, force, “mad” threats, and secret diplomacy, for example, encouraged him to believe that he could win the objectives he sought in Vietnam despite the conflict’s intractable realities that others had recognized much earlier. His emotions and moods influenced the escalatory tactics he chose, such as the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the invasion of Laos, and the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Even his diplomatic “carrots” were accompanied by the “sticks” of military and economic threat. In all this, he was aided and abetted by Henry Kissinger. Despite their personality differences and their strained, unequal relationship, both Nixon and Kissinger considered themselves “realists” and thus assumed that nation-states existed in a world of international anarchy where military and economic power were the fundamental determinants of interstate relations. Like many other self-styled realist thinkers, they were critical of what they regarded as the excessive idealism, moralism, legalism, and sentimentality of the American people—

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ideas they associated with the liberal traditions they rejected. Aided by a talented staff, Kissinger was Nixon’s implementer and tactician, steadier in following the policy on which they had decided and helpful to the president in the way he projected a more moderate image to the press and public. Behind the scenes, however, Kissinger only occasionally advocated restraint, and when he did, it was often for domestic political reasons or to protect his own reputation or diplomatic mission. Both men knew that the main obstacle to their plans was Vietnamese resistance backed by Soviet and Chinese support of one kind or another. Nixon and Kissinger eventually discovered that they could not crack the resistance or seriously undermine Hanoi’s relationship with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Their scapegoating of Congress, the press, and the antiwar movement for the defeat of 1975 was therefore disingenuous. In any case, they had already secretly decided to pursue strategies and policies that would have the effect of removing American troops from Indochina through either unilateral withdrawals or negotiations or both. They intended, however, that disengagement in this manner would be prolonged—extended by their desire to strengthen Saigon as well as to ensure that Nixon’s reelection chances in 1972 would not be damaged by Saigon’s collapse. Their final strategy was one of negotiated settlement with the objective of creating a decent interval of a year or more in order that the fall of the Saigon government—if it should fall to the Communists—would not appear to have been caused by Nixon–Kissinger policies. By blaming others for the defeat of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger contributed to the enduring legacy of bitterness that divided Americans in the decades after 1975. One of the ironies of this long, bitter, costly struggle, moreover, was that, in the end, America’s procapitalist allies and clients in the developing countries of the Pacific Rim did not become victims of a domino collapse to Communism because, as one of Kissinger’s aides explained, they had no place else to go but to the United States for protection from real or imagined enemies.48 No one will ever know whether an earlier negotiated solution to the war would have been possible had Nixon and Kissinger offered in 1969, 1970, or 1971 what they offered in October 1972—or had they accepted Hanoi’s 1971 proposal. In any event, Nixon and Kissinger did not try. By the same token, no one will ever know whether America could have “won” the war. A military victory would have required many more troops, much more bombing, the visiting of greater destruction upon Indochina, the indefinite U.S. occupation of South Vietnam, and perhaps even the invasion and occupation of North Vietnam. Aside from the costs to the Indochinese people, this effort would have required the United


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States to pay a higher price in lives, treasure, and moral reputation. What we do know from declassified documents is what Nixon and Kissinger actually did in fighting the war and in withdrawing from Vietnam and why.

Notes 1. Richard Nixon, “Meeting the People of Asia,” U.S. Department of State Bulletin 30 (January 4, 1954), 10, 12. 2. “The President’s News Conference of April 7, 1954,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960), 382–83. 3. Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), chap. 2; Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), chap. 2; Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 72–79, 113–25, 149, 166–68, 283–86, 547–48. 4. David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 38, 139–40; John P. Glennon and Neal H. Petersen, eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952– 1954, vol. 13, Indochina, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982), 85–86, 947–56, 1137–44, 1269–72; Laurent Césari and Jacques de Folin, “Military Necessity, Political Impossibility: The French Viewpoint on Operation Vautour,” in Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco - American Relations, 1954–1955, edited by Lawrence S. Kaplan, Denise Artaud, and Mark R. Rubin (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1990), 105–20; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, 25–29. 5. “Nixon Backs Kennedy Build-Up of U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam,” New York Times, February 16, 1962; “Mrs. Nhu and Nixon Discuss Action of U.S. on Ngo Dinh Can,” New York Times, November 7, 1963; Richard M. Nixon, No More Vietnams (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 38, 62–73; Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 256–57, 509, 513–14. 6. Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, 30–31. See also “President Nixon’s Record on Vietnam, 1954–68,” in U.S. Senate, Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia: Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 92d Cong., 1st sess., April 20–May 27, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1971), 295–99. 7. Mary Brennan, Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 122–23. 8. “Nixon Says Asians Back U.S. on War,” New York Times, April 8, 1967; Tom Buckley, “Nixon Urges Halt,” New York Times, April 15, 1967; Tom Buckley, “Nixon

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Indicates He Seeks Step-Up in War Effort,” New York Times, April 18, 1967; “President Nixon’s Record on Vietnam, 1954–68,” 295–99. 9. Richard J. Whalen, Catch the Falling Flag: A Republican’s Challenge to His Party (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), 25, 135; “Nixon Says Robert Kennedy Is Wrong About the War,” New York Times, March 6, 1968; John E. Mueller, War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973), 36, 38, 56; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, chap. 3. 10. Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, chaps. 3 and 5; Kimball, Vietnam War Files, 11–21, chap. 2. 11. Memorandum, Laird to Kissinger, February 21, 1969, attached to memorandum, Alexander Haig to Kissinger, “Memorandum from Secretary Laird Enclosing Preliminary Draft of Potential Military Actions re Vietnam,” March 2, 1969, folder: Haig’s Vietnam File, vol. 1 (January–March 1969), box 1007, Alexander M. Haig Special Files, National Security Council Files (NSCF): Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NPMP), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. Laird was a fiscal conservative concerned about federal deficits; although a hawk, he doubted that the war could be won and believed that the country’s political mood favored disengagement and troop withdrawals. 12. Memorandum, Kissinger to Nixon, “Vietnam Situation and Options,” March [?], 1969, folder 7, box 89, NSCF: Vietnam Subject Files (VSF), NPMP. This memo is undated, but attachments indicate a late March date. 13. Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, chaps. 4–8; Kimball, Vietnam War Files, 11–24, chaps. 3 and 4; Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American– Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 32–37. 14. Memorandum, Haig to Kissinger, “The President’s Speech,” October 31, 1969, folder 1: Vietnam Speech, box 78, NSCF: VSF, NPMP. 15. Jeffrey P. Kimball, “The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2006): 27–42. 16. Memorandum, Kissinger to Nixon, “Breakfast Plan,” March 16, 1969, folder 3, box 89, NSCF: VSF, NPMP. 17. Memorandum, Kissinger to Nixon, “Vietnam Situation and Options,” March [?], 1969. The invasion of Cambodia was long on the list of options preferred by the military; see also memorandum, Haig to Kissinger, “Memorandum from Secretary Laird Enclosing Preliminary Draft of Potential Military Actions re Vietnam,” March 2, 1969. 18. R. B. Furlong Papers, 168.7122-16 and 168.7122-20, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala.; Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985), chap. 8; Malvern Lumsden, Anti-personnel Weapons (London: Taylor & Francis, 1978), 26–27. B-52s were first used to bomb the Plain of Jars in February 1970.


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19. See, for example, David W.  P. Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930 –1975, 2 vols. (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2003), 2:chap. 20; and Kenton Clymer, The United States and Cambodia, 1969–2000 (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 17–18. 20. Circular and Study, Docs. 61–62 and COSVN Resolution no. 9, July 1969, in Vietnam Documents and Research Notes Series: Translation and Analysis of Significant Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Documents (Bethesda, Md.: University Publications of America, 1991), 2–5, 8, 9, 12–14; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, 124–31; Elliott, Vietnamese War, 2:chap. 20; Ang Cheng Guan, Ending the Vietnam War: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 18–22; Military Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975, translated by Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), chap. 10. 21. Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), 264–65. 22. Entry, June 19, 1969, Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman, NPMP. 23. Note, Jean Sainteny to Nixon, July 16, 1969, folder: Mister “S,” vol. 1 [one of two], box 106, Country Files—Far East—Vietnam Negotiations, Henry A. Kissinger (HAK) Office Files, NPMP. 24. Memorandum, with attachments, Kissinger to Nixon, “Contingency Military Operations Against North Vietnam,” October 2, 1969, folder 2, box 89, NSCF: VSF, NPMP. 25. Nixon, RN, 405. 26. William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, “Nixon’s Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969,” Cold War History 3, no. 2 (2003): 113–56. Also see Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, chap. 8; and Kimball, Vietnam War Files, chap. 4, regarding the evolution of strategy in 1969. 27. Kimball, Vietnam War Files, 104–7. 28. Clymer, United States and Cambodia, 17–18, 22–24, 33–34; Ang, Ending the Vietnam War, 43–48. 29. National Security Decision Memorandum 56, April 22, 1970, folder 2, box 88, NSCF: VSF, NPMP. 30. Clymer, United States and Cambodia, 31–35; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, 223–25. 31. Quoted in Kissinger, White House Years, 969. 32. Memorandum, Kissinger to Nixon, “Alternative Vietnam Strategies,” July 20, 1970, folder: Vietnam, box 148, NSCF: Vietnam Country Files, NPMP. My thanks to Bill Burr for sharing this document. 33. Kimball, Vietnam War Files, chap. 5. 34. Entry, December 21, 1970, Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman, NPMP; memorandum, Kissinger to Nixon, “Alternative Vietnam Strategies,” July 20, 1970; Thayer, War Without Fronts, 38.

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35. Oval Office Conversation no. 760-6, Nixon and Kissinger, 8:28–8:57 a.m., August 3, 1972, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by Ken Hughes, Miller Center, University of Virginia). 36. Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho – Kissinger Negotiations in Paris (Hanoi: Thê´Gió, 1996), 151. 37. Oval Office Conversations nos. 466-12, 471-2, 474-1, and 534-3, Nixon and Kissinger, March 11, March 19, March 26, and July 1, 1971, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by the author). 38. Memcon, Kissinger and Thuy, September 7, 1970, folder: Sensitive Camp David, vol. V, box 853, Vietnam Negotiations, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)— China Trip/Vietnam, NSCF, NPMP; memcon, Kissinger and Dobrynin, as reported by Soviet ambassador Ilya S. Shcherbakov to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, January [?], 1971, quoted in Loi and Vu, Le Duc Tho –Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, 165– 66; entries, November 20, 1970, December 18 and 21, 1970, and February 3, 1971, Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman, NPMP; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, 230–36. 39. Executive Office Building Conversation no. 329-42, Nixon and Kissinger, April 15, 1972, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by the author). 40. On the goals and consequences of the Easter Offensive, see Dale Andradé, Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America’s Last Battle (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995), 527–38; and Military Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, 289–310. 41. Jeffrey P. Kimball, “How Wars End: The Vietnam War,” Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research 20, no. 2 (1995): 181–200; Jeffrey P. Kimball, “The Panmunjom and Paris Armistices: Patterns of War Termination,” in America, the Vietnam War, and the World: Comparative and International Perspectives, edited by Andreas W. Daum, Lloyd Gardner, and Wilfried Mausbach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 105–22. 42. Oval Office Conversations nos. 488-15 and 508-13, Nixon and Kissinger, April 27 and June 2, 1971, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by the author); entry, December 18, 1972, Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman, NPMP; Richard Wilson, “The Unbelievable Scene,” Washington Star-News, August 12, 1974. 43. Oval Office Conversation no. 527-16, Nixon, Haldeman, Kissinger, and Ehrlichman, June 23, 1971, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by the author). On October 12, 1972, Kissinger had advised Thieu to seize additional territory before the agreement was finalized. See Kissinger, White House Years, 1358. 44. Memorandum, “Communist Military and Economic Aid to North Vietnam, 1970–1974,” March 4, 1975, in Declassified Documents Catalog, vol. 20, no. 2 (Woodbridge, Conn.: Research Publications, 1994), microfiche no. 000615. 45. T. Christopher Jespersen, “Kissinger, Ford, and Congress: The Very Bitter End in Vietnam,” Pacific Historical Review 71, no. 3 (2002): 439–73; David L. Anderson, “Gerald R. Ford and the Presidents’ War in Vietnam,” in Shadow on the White House:


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Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945–1975, edited by David L. Anderson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 184–207; Kimball, Vietnam War Files, chap. 7. 46. See, for example, Nixon, RN, 348; Oval Office Conversation no. 474-8, Nixon, Laird, John Connally, David Packard, Thomas Moorer, Kissinger, and Haig, March 26, 1971, White House Tapes, NPMP (transcribed by Ken Hughes); and memcon, NSC Meeting, May 8, 1972, box 998, Haig Memcons (January–December 1972), Alexander M. Haig Chronological Files, NSCF, NPMP. 47. On the waning of hawkish support, see, for example, cable, Nixon to Kissinger, November 24, 1972, folder: HAK Paris Trip 18–25 Nov. 1972 TOHAK [two of two], box 26, HAK Trip Files, HAK Office Files, NPMP; memorandum, Laird to Nixon, “Cease-Fire Agreement,” [December 13, 1972], folder: Cease-Fire 1972, box 7, NSCF: POW/MIA, NPMP. 48. Memorandum, W.  R. Smyser to Kissinger, “The Situation in Asia,” July 15, 1975, folder: Southeast Asia (3), box 1, Country File, Ambassador Kintner’s Study . . . Area, National Security Advisor: Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, 1974–1977, Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Further Reading Ang Cheng Guan. Ending the Vietnam War: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Asselin, Pierre. A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris Agreement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Belknap, Michael R. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the CourtMartial of Lieutenant Calley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Berman, Larry. No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 2001. Bundy, William. A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. Clymer, Kenton. The United States and Cambodia, 1969–2000. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Elliott, David W. P. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975. 2 vols. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2003. Gaiduk, Ilya. The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War. Chicago: Dee, 1996. Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American– Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. Hanhimaki, Jussi M. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon’s Vietnam War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

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——. The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Kissinger, Henry A. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. ——. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu. Le Duc Tho –Kissinger Negotiations in Paris. Hanoi: Thê´Gió, 1996. Mueller, John E. War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. New York: Wiley, 1973. Nguyen, Tien Hung, and Jerrold L. Schecter. The Palace File. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Nixon, Richard M. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978. Small, Melvin. Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Par t II Topical Perspectives

7. American Strategy in the Vietnam War John Prados

To listen to American field commander General William C. “Westy” Westmoreland, the U.S. military effort in the Vietnam War followed a succession of strategic concepts and wound its way through a series of phases. At a certain level, this description is true. Westmoreland deployed troops surrounding American bases when the Johnson administration was beginning the major U.S. ground involvement in the war. That approach became the “enclave” strategy. Then Westmoreland, who headed the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), threw his key entering combat force—the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), or “the Cav”—into South Vietnam’s Central Highlands to stem the adversary’s advances. There came a time when his strategy focused on clearing the land around Saigon and another when Westy focused overwhelmingly on the area near the demilitarized zone, labeled I or “Eye” Corps on U.S. military maps. Under Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton W. Abrams, strategy placed much greater emphasis on pacification. If you were seeking military medals for Vietnam, for example, the army awarded campaign ribbons for service during eight different phases of the war, roughly corresponding to periods in which particular approaches were prevalent. But there are strategies, and there is strategy. Military theory distinguishes several “levels” of warfare. Man to man in the field or unit to unit in a combat


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zone, there are tactics. On an intermediate plane, there is what theorists like to call the “operational level of war.” Some also distinguish a “grand strategic” level, whereas others include that plane with the operational. The strategies and phases of the Vietnam War enumerated here correspond to maneuvers at the operational level. In truth, there was only one strategy in the Vietnam War—to kill the enemy—what the military calls “attrition” or “attrition warfare.” As early as June 24, 1965, in a cable to Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman General Earle G. Wheeler, Westmoreland declared that Vietnam would be “a war of attrition.” 1 Attrition is not only a strategy, but also a phenomenon of war. All forces suffer losses. As they do, their capabilities and effectiveness progressively diminish. Indeed, the JCS’s definition of “attrition” incorporates both these aspects.2 The degradation of capability that occurs with combat losses is what makes attrition desirable as a strategy. Classical theorists trace the use of the concept as far back as the Peloponnesian War, and it was the German writer Hans Delbrueck who first adopted the term “strategy of attrition,” which he contrasted with Carl von Clausewitz’s strategy of annihilation.3 World War I, especially the battle of Verdun, carried the notion of an attrition strategy far from its origins, which Delbrueck had seen as flexible and malleable, a mixture of politics and strategy and, above all, of maneuver and battle. World War I framed a meaning that became the exact opposite. Firepower and other means combined to inflict losses that would bring the adversary to exhaustion in the reframed notion of attrition. This concept especially favored a nation-state with great resources and large-scale firepower—hence, its attractiveness for American military commanders. The helicopter assault, large-scale sweep, search-and-destroy, and clear-andhold operations that figured in the Vietnam conflict were tactics. At the higher level, MACV—whether under Westmoreland or Abrams or their successors— had a force-deployment strategy, but not an operations strategy. MACV constantly calculated and recalculated optimal deployments in terms of their potential to inflict losses on the adversary, something very different from generals’ ordering out their corps and divisions to conquer objectives they set. Sending the Cav to the Highlands and then eventually to I Corps as part of a steady concentration of American combat power there was important operationally but made little difference in terms of strategy. Probably the most influential work on the American way of war in Vietnam is Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr.’s book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.4 Summers frames his discussion in terms of the principles of war that are taught to young officers in training and shows how standard practices in Vietnam had vitiated many of them. In particular, Summers argues that the United States failed to define its strategic goals and thus lacked clear objectives.

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His treatment of firepower and maneuver explicitly faults attrition, but at a more tactical level. This argument can be traced through the basic decision documents on the war. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s formulation in a March 16, 1964, memorandum, repeated in many variations over the years, stated simply: “We seek an independent, non-communist South Vietnam.” 5 When McNamara’s assistant secretary for international security affairs, John T. McNaughton, attempted to define U.S. aims that November, he came up with four: 1. To protect U.S. reputation as a counter-subversion guarantor. 2. To avoid domino effect especially in Southeast Asia. 3. To keep South Vietnamese territory from Red hands. 4. To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods.6

McNaughton’s immediate superior, William P. Bundy, led an interagency working group on Southeast Asia that further formulated the goals: get Hanoi to stop its support and direction of the insurgency in the South and to cooperate in ending insurgent operations, “re-establish an independent and secure South Vietnam,” and maintain the security of other non-Communist states in Southeast Asia.7 It was McNaughton again who produced the most famous version of U.S. goals in March 1965: 70%—To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as guarantor). 20%—To keep SVN [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10%—To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. ALSO—To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. NOT—to “help a friend,” although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.8

A month later, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the essential U.S. Vietnam policy in a decision document called National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 328. That paper gave presidential authorization to a “general framework of continuing action” by the military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the State Department but contained no definition of American goals.9 After NSAM 328, presidential decision memoranda would be uniformly confined to immediate policy concerns or individual programs. Through the end of the Vietnam War, there would be no policy document of equivalent scope and vision. In sum, during the period of major U.S. combat engagement in Vietnam, no American president adopted an official formula of U.S. goals in Vietnam.


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Below the level of presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, the various enumerations of goals were not consistent. Was the object to influence Saigon, Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow, or all of them, or was it to do something else? The inconsistency afforded no clear guide to crafting a concrete strategy. During the summer of 1965, President Johnson made his decision to commit American ground forces to South Vietnam in large numbers. In the course of LBJ’s deliberations, JCS chairman Wheeler sent a team to Saigon under General Andrew J. Goodpaster, then director of the JCS Joint Staff, to study how U.S. forces could be used. The result of their efforts amounted to the closest Washington came to elaborating an actual “strategic plan” for the Vietnam War, except that Goodpaster’s study was only that—a study—with no standing as a device with which field commanders had to comply. It was an assessment of the chance of victory if the United States did everything it could do. During the course of the team’s trip, Goodpaster heard yet more talk about objectives. South Vietnamese general Nguyen Duc Thang put the local ally’s view on the table at a meeting on July 16: to stop and destroy forces coming from North Vietnam, to destroy National Liberation Front (NLF) forces in the South, and to protect South Vietnamese manpower in order to inhibit insurgent recruitment. This formula implicitly accepted an attrition strategy.10 Goodpaster’s study explicitly discussed “strategy,” putting it within the framework of assumptions regarding Chinese and Soviet behavior (those nations would not intervene) and restrictions on the use of allied forces (no invasion of North Vietnam, no use of nuclear or chemical weapons, and no “mass bombing of population per se”). “Victory” was also defined as something between ending the insurgency and containing it sufficiently to obviate the need for the employment of U.S. combat troops. Within that framework, the study’s authors wrote: The strategy . . . envisages establishing in Southeast Asia a heavy preponderance of US/SVN military power over the VC/DRV [Vietcong/Democratic Republic of Vietnam], provides a concept for the employment of these forces in the next six to eight months, sets forth objectives and weight of attack for an integrated, interrelated effort involving operations against North Vietnam and operations in South Vietnam, together with action against infiltration in Laos and elsewhere, and indicates broad factors of timing, priority, and coordination between these principle courses of action.

The forces sent to Vietnam would maintain a high tempo of military action to gain and retain the initiative, keeping the adversary off balance while “destroying the war-supporting potential of North Vietnam.” Wading through the minutiae

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of this 128-page study reveals that it contains a scheme for force deployment and employment, but that there was no holy grail.11 In February 1966, after American forces had been fighting in South Vietnam for some months, President Johnson held a conference at Honolulu to review progress. Attended by most of the senior leaders of both the United States and South Vietnam, including field commanders such as General Westmoreland, the Honolulu meeting became the setting for the MACV commander’s request for a major new troop reinforcement. It was also the occasion when Johnson famously mouthed his incantation that in Vietnam the United States would “nail the coonskins to the wall.” 12 There would be no change in strategy, only escalation to higher levels of troop deployment. The American strategic approach became explicit at Honolulu. There, General Westmoreland was handed a paper that McNaughton had prepared for Secretary McNamara. According to Westy, Bundy had also worked on the document, and it represented a joint product by the defense secretary and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The paper set specific, mostly quantified results for MACV to achieve during 1966. The last of them was to “[a]ttrite, by year’s end, VC/ PAVN [People’s Army of Vietnam] forces at a rate at least as high as their capacity to put men into the field.” 13 As General Westmoreland put it in retrospect in his memoirs, “Those goals, provided me in a formal memorandum, in effect spelled out the way the war was to be pursued, not only in 1966 but into the future.” 14 General Phillip C. Davidson, a close Westmoreland associate and later his intelligence chief, would similarly write: “Here was the directive which established American strategy from 1966 to 1969 and which formally made the strategy of attrition the first priority of the United States in South Vietnam.” 15 The strategy of attrition may have become explicit at the Honolulu conference, but in fact it had been Washington’s default position all along. This approach was more than a reflexive effort to bang away at the enemy. From very early on, attrition had included parallel initiatives to do exactly the things that South Vietnamese general Nguyen Duc Thang had mentioned. The adversary was to be prevented from reinforcing his troops in battle and denied opportunities to recruit among the population. Then, his battle losses could be counted on to make attrition effective. Indeed, only under those circumstances could attrition be effective. The elements of this approach can be summarized as isolation of the battlefield, pacification of the villages, and main force combat. Efforts to isolate the battlefield began as early as 1960, when the annual plan prepared by the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group—the predecessor to Westmoreland’s MACV—included an initiative for “border control.” It is noteworthy that this attempt tried to counter Hanoi’s creation of a “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route”—known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail—and


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that it began as soon as the existence of the trail was known, indeed within months of the trail’s creation. Border control was the rationale for U.S. support for the inception of a ranger force within the South Vietnamese army, for an expansion of South Vietnamese special forces, for naval patrols intended to prevent seaborne infiltration, for the beginnings of the CIA’s Village Defense Program among the montagnards (which led to the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups), for a later CIA “Border Scout” force, for ground operations by a MACV special mission force (the Studies and Observation Group), and for a series of schemes to block the borders by minefields, garrisons, and the invasion of Laos in order to establish a physical block across the neck of Indochina below the demilitarized zone.16 An imperfect measure at best, border control could never suffice to isolate the South Vietnamese battlefield. The border was too long, the wilderness along much of it too vast, the points of entry too numerous, and Hanoi’s resourcefulness in expanding the trail at least equal to Washington’s inventiveness in trying to block it. The fallback was to increase the cost of infiltration. The U.S. bombing of North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) in part had a diplomatic purpose in signaling Hanoi, but its military rationale lay precisely in increasing the cost of Hanoi’s support for the war in the South.17 The bombing of southern Laos (Operation Steel Tiger) had no purpose other than adding to that impact and thus reinforcing the effects of border control. But the combination of bombing and border control never successfully isolated the battlefield. Numerous postwar studies and many wartime intelligence reports on North Vietnamese infiltration show that a steady stream of reinforcements arrived in the South. Turning off the tap on recruitment for the NLF also proved problematic. Pacification long remained the poor sister among American initiatives in South Vietnam. The U.S. Army Special Forces—the Green Berets—did much in this area, but their activities were part of the border-control effort among the montagnards and were limited by their numbers and deployment. The marines achieved notable successes with their Combined Action Platoons, which worked to enhance village security, but again these operations were quite limited. Combat battalions were only occasionally assigned to this work, and a major study of the U.S. Army and counterinsurgency finds that the military was poorly prepared for and not disposed to this kind of activity.18 The South Vietnamese military forces were always seen as the primary pacification resource, but they, like the Americans, preferred to commit their regulars to the main force war. President Johnson personally took a hand in energizing pacification in 1967 when he created a specialized pacification directorate called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. It permitted inroads in pacification, but success remained elusive. NLF recruiting was affected. Its military units were forced to become largely reliant on “fillers” in the ranks, who were actually

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from North Vietnam, but at that point in the war the insurgency already had more of the character of a conventional rather than an irregular war.19 All these types of activity also suffered from problems in measuring progress. With border control, authorities were not aware of North Vietnamese activities that they had not succeeded in detecting, so there was literally no way to judge effectiveness. With bombing, the U.S. command could easily measure inputs— sorties flown, tons of munitions expended, and so on—but damage assessment of the application of airpower was imperfect, even as it is today. Vietnam represented a quantum improvement over World War II due to the widespread availability of aerial photography and the new innovation of data processing, but the interpretation of bombing results remained in dispute throughout the war. As for pacification, all measures of progress were subjective and inherently soft. In terms of meeting the needs of an attrition strategy, border control, bombing, and pacification were all contributors. Taken together, however, they were of marginal value to the overall picture. It is clear that isolation of the battlefield had an effect, but just what that effect might be could not be determined from any data available to U.S. leaders or field commanders. There is no evidence that the battlefield was ever isolated to an extent that made enemy operations impossible. As far as the success of attrition is concerned, the ultimate outcome would be up to main force units fighting in the jungles and paddies. Ground operations had their own problems with “damage assessment.” As with the air campaign, it was always easier to describe the inputs than to know the outcomes. At the time of the Honolulu conference in February 1966, there were 208,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam in 66 battalions, which carried out a total of 57 battalion-size or larger operations that month, claiming 4,727 enemy dead. In December 1966, 385,000 American soldiers conducted 89 operations and claimed 3,864 North Vietnamese or NLF forces killed in action. A year later the equivalent numbers were 486,000 troops, 129 battalion operations, and 7,938 enemy losses. Three years later, in December 1969—the era of General Creighton Abrams after Westmoreland had left Vietnam and after the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals and official directives designed to reduce American casualties (operations were a main generator of casualties)—the 479,000 American soldiers still in South Vietnam conducted 90 battalion operations and claimed 9,936 enemy killed. With American forces down to 335,000 in December 1970, battalion operations still numbered 90 that month, with enemy dead claimed at 6,185. Battalion-size operations began a radical decline only after May 1971.20 Any number of points can be made about these data, and the picture created can be true or false, depending on how the subject is framed. For one thing, South Vietnamese army battalion operations typically exceeded American and allied levels by a factor of anywhere from three to one to nine to one. South


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Vietnamese troops were notoriously ineffective compared with American soldiers and other “Free World Forces,” but the South Vietnamese contribution was a real one and must be factored in. Other points can be drawn from the data themselves. This comparison (except for February 1966, the month of the Honolulu conference) arbitrarily selected December of each cited year. It is apparent that American troop levels varied widely in those months, but the number of battalion-size operations was remarkably similar. But, then again, with roughly similar numbers of operations, the number of claimed enemy dead varied widely. It is not necessary to work through the calculations for the specific comparisons—interested readers can do that for themselves—to see that one cannot establish from these data a constantly improving trend toward “effectiveness.” It happens that the period of the Vietnam War was a heyday of operations research and systems analysis—championed by Robert McNamara at the Pentagon but soon applied throughout the U.S. government. These and similar kinds of data were subjected to endless comparisons. Enemy battle deaths per total U.S. troops, per troops in maneuver units, per 1,000 troops, per the number of maneuver battalions, per operations carried out, per days of operations, or as a percentage ratio of adversary attacks, adversary operations detected, operations per weapons captured, enemy battle deaths per weapons captured—all are only a small selection of the different types of statistical comparisons made using these data. At the Pentagon, the center for these mathematical manipulations of data was the Office of Systems Analysis within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. General Westmoreland complains vociferously about them in his memoir, writing that “over the months to come lesser civilian officials . . . constantly sought to alter strategy and tactics with naïve, gratuitous advice.” 21 The advice might have been unsolicited, but it was not gratuitous. Statistical analysis demonstrated beyond doubt that neither U.S. troop levels nor the rate of operations drove adversary casualty rates. Rather, the North Vietnamese and the insurgents themselves determined the casualty rates because most enemy losses were incurred during their attacks.22 For example, a May 1967 systems analysis of combat narratives determined that less than 9 percent of engagements resulted from U.S. ambushes of the adversary and fewer than 6 percent from offensive operations in which the U.S. commander was aware of the enemy. Another 7 percent of battles began with chance encounters. All the rest flowed from various sorts of enemy-initiated action.23 The considered opinion of the army’s official historian for the 1965/1966 period is that “Westmoreland would later claim that [his] operations had disrupted the enemy’s plans, kept him off balance, and induced high casualties among his troops. That may have been the case, but the

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situation was hardly clear cut, for the enemy usually controlled the tempo of the fighting and thus the rate at which he suffered casualties. Whether an engagement pitted a small American patrol against a few guerrillas or an American battalion against a main force unit, the enemy usually decided when to fight and when to withdraw.”24 National Security Study Memorandum No. 1, prepared for the Nixon administration in early 1969, affirmed anew that 75 percent of engagements resulted from enemy action.25 The pattern had not changed. Indeed, the consensus among observers of the Vietnam War is that Hanoi and the insurgents suffered their greatest losses during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when they emerged to conduct countrywide attacks. Ironically, Hanoi wasted no time drawing the appropriate conclusion from the same data: the North Vietnamese quickly shifted after Tet to a different pattern of operations. They used small, elite units of sappers to make most attacks, reserving their main force troops and limiting losses by risking only small numbers of fighters. In contrast, the Americans had evolved one formula and pretty much stuck to it. Their method was a matter of tactics, not strategy, but it was all about attrition. An American force would take the field and maneuver until it encountered the adversary. It would then fight to “fix” the enemy in place while summoning air and artillery support in the most massive amounts obtainable. Elements in the field might or might not be reinforced, but they would always rely on this fire support. General William E. DePuy, Westmoreland’s former operations staff chief who went on to command the First Infantry Division in the massive ground operations Cedar Falls and Junction City, nicely described this formula to reporters. He aimed, he said, to “find the enemy with the fewest possible men . . . and destroy him with the maximum amount of firepower.” 26 Colonel Sidney S. Berry Jr., an airmobile expert and brigade commander with multiple tours in Vietnam, similarly wrote in a 1967 essay widely praised in the army that a commander “uses his soldiers to find the enemy and supporting firepower to destroy the enemy. He spends firepower as if he is a millionaire and husbands lives as if he is a pauper.” 27 A different way to put this view— indeed, a prevalent view among many Vietnam veterans—is that American soldiers were used as bait to sucker the enemy into contact, after which he could be eliminated. This approach placed great weight on technological means of warfare, for it was the machines of war—tanks, cannons, warplanes, and warships (for naval gunfire support)—that generated by far the greatest weight of support to troops in the field. The helicopter assault tactics that are often pictured in visions of American troops fighting in Vietnam were vehicles to carry infantry to battle, where they might fix the adversary and then smash him with their piled-on support. The imagery of the machine inherent in this approach is so compelling


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that one of the foremost analysts of the American way of war in Vietnam raised it to the level of a theory, “technowar,” in which ground war was carried out on an “assembly line.” 28 Another aspect of the “assembly line” goes back to the question of deployment strategy. Units arriving in Vietnam were assigned to particular regions. Unlike a sector of a front line, these regions were “areas of operations” (AOs). Once in place, units patrolled and conducted all operations within their AO unless the high command ordered some change. The AOs corresponded to base camps prepared for the troops, with combat zones overwhelmingly concentrated in the South Vietnamese coastal plains. The Khe Sanh region near the Laotian border and the Central Highlands were exceptions, and few U.S. troops were deployed to the Mekong Delta region. In all these AOs, there were places where Americans would rarely venture, commonly called “Indian Country,” either because they were too heavily dominated by the adversary or because U.S. troop levels were simply insufficient. These zones were not ruled out, but instead they were made targets for “unobserved” fire, so-called harassment and interdiction (H&I). Artillery would shoot into H&I zones, and aircraft returning from missions that had bombs left would drop their weapons into these zones. Studies showed that in 1966 and 1967, nearly half of all artillery ammunition was expended in H&I fire. In some division AOs, the proportion went as high as 85 percent.29 Some individual unit commanders objected to the H&I tactic and reduced its use in their areas. By definition, these bombardments were unobserved, so leaders had no idea what they had accomplished. The one observable consequence of H&I fire was that Vietnamese villagers were driven from homes destroyed by the shells and bombs. This result had a negative impact on pacification. Studies done for MACV by panels of officers or consultant groups such as the RAND Corporation recommended doing away with H&I fire. This did not happen until General Abrams held the command, and even when Abrams reduced reliance on the technique, the change was made in order to limit the cost of the war, not to eliminate an approach that was considered counterproductive. Dollar concerns finally ended the use of H&I fire in mid-1970.30 The impossibility of accurate “damage assessment” for H&I fire suggests the extent of the difficulty that U.S. strategy faced in Vietnam. The measure of success for attrition had to be physical cost to the adversary, but the nature of the war made precise tracking of effects worse than difficult. Air commanders supplied figures on enemy “killed by air.” Air estimates were no better than H&I ones. Ground commanders gave out “body counts.” Body counts in Vietnam became notorious. It was rarely possible to tally enemy casualties after a fight because the North Vietnamese and NLF forces attempted to take their dead

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with them when they retreated from battle. Even when the enemy did not succeed in retrieving their lost soldiers, allied troops might be loath to wander through the jungle in search of bodies. It was also difficult to distinguish between dead civilians and enemy soldiers. All types of counts were essentially guesstimates, historian James William Gibson notes, because “the simplest aspect of false reporting concerns the many cases when troops and commanders invented enemy body counts out of thin air.” Because officer promotions were dependent on military success, which was calculated largely from body counts, the system built in a propensity for exaggeration. Thus Gibson concludes: “War-manager pressures for high body counts led to . . . systematic falsification of battle reports, routine violation of the rules of engagement and regulations covering treatment of prisoners, and systematic slaughtering of Vietnamese noncombatants. The production model of war simultaneously destroyed both its own troops and the Vietnamese people, but it could not produce victory.” 31 To recapitulate, U.S. strategy in Vietnam anticipated isolating the battlefield, thus reducing the availability of troops to the opponent, and then using ground operations to exact a high toll on the enemy. This process was to lead to the attrition of the North Vietnamese and NLF forces and to their defeat in the field. These aims were made official in a February 1966 directive that set the immediate goal of inflicting sufficient losses at least to negate Hanoi’s rate of infiltration by the end of that year. The system of tactical reporting and statistical compilation was geared to facilitate a judgment that these goals were being attained. Every claim by Washington that progress was being made and that the enemy was being defeated put new pressures on this system to generate data to substantiate the assertions. Thus President Johnson, in a speech delivered in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 15, 1967, declared that “there are many signs that we are at a favorable turning point.” A month later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk went further: “I would think we have made very, very substantial headway during 1966 on the conventional type of warfare. . . . We have a good deal of evidence, from prisoners, from documents and from what we know of their deployments, that the other side is having considerable difficulty in maintaining their forces.” 32 Rusk’s assertion, of course, constituted an implicit assessment of the attrition strategy. Similar statements were made by Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland. All this self-congratulation took place months ahead of the fall of 1967, when Washington threw caution to the winds in a political campaign to convince Americans that victory had become foreseeable and Westmoreland famously professed to see light at the end of the tunnel. These features of the attrition strategy throw light on the bitter 1967 controversy, hidden at the time, regarding the size of the enemy’s forces, his so-called


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order of battle (O/B). That bureaucratic fight began in the spring of 1967 and involved differences between the CIA and the U.S. military over the number of NLF guerrillas and the adversary’s overall strength. If the guerrillas were far more numerous than allowed for by MACV’s enemy O/B, then the NLF’s local recruiting had to be much more successful than the U.S. military maintained, and enemy losses could not be coming anywhere near enough to attrite the Vietnamese opponent. If the enemy O/B was twice the size that MACV claimed, as certain CIA analysts insisted, then U.S. ground operations had hardly put a dent in the adversary. For the U.S. military to accept the veracity of the CIA estimates of the uncounted enemy meant conceding that the attrition strategy was a failure, which neither Westmoreland nor his military superiors were prepared to do.33 The O/B dispute dogged Westmoreland and colored judgments about his leadership long after his service as MACV commander. During 1967, the military fought the CIA while it fought the North Vietnamese, and it “won” in the sense that its fraudulent estimates were accepted as Washington’s official judgment of the enemy. The practical effect of this piece of chicanery was to enshrine the system of measurement—statistical manipulation at the level of the national command authority standing on top of a pyramid of false reporting. One of the tragedies of the Tet Offensive, apart from anything else, was that although it demonstrated with blinding clarity the falsity of the official picture of the adversary, the military’s ability to claim huge enemy casualties in the Tet fighting took away much of the incentive to reform the system. “Body count” held sway more strongly than ever. General Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as head of MACV shortly after Tet and presided over the period of U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam. He shifted the emphasis in military operations far more toward the pacification side of the war. Statistics on villages reaching secure status, miles of road traversable, and numbers of guerrilla infrastructure members “neutralized” acquired much greater status as measures of merit, but, in fact, Washington’s numbers addiction remained unchanged. It merely embraced a wider variety of questionable statistics. Perhaps the worst impact of attrition as the U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War was that it substituted statistical measures for visible goals. Leaders, commanders, and American citizens were enmeshed in a morass of murky data, with the real status of the conflict infinitely debatable. The only sure thing would be that, with the United States withdrawing from the war and antiwar sentiment growing constantly stronger, time worked in favor of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front.

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Notes 1. Cable, Westmoreland to Wheeler (MAC 3240), June 24, 1965, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, vol. 3, Vietnam, June Through December 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 42 (series hereafter cited as FRUS, with dates and volume titles). 2. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, JCS Publication 1, September 3, 1974 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974), 39. See any edition of this dictionary. The definition is essentially identical to that in the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military Terms, available at http://www.dtic .mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/. 3. Hans Delbrueck, History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History, translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985). This work first appeared in German in 1900. 4. Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982). This work was originally published a year earlier by the U.S. Army War College as On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context. 5. Memorandum, Robert S. McNamara, “South Vietnam,” March 16, 1964, in Neil Sheehan, Fox Butterfield, Hedrick Smith, and E. W. Kenworthy, The Pentagon Papers as Published by the New York Times: The Secret History of the Vietnam War, edited by Gerald Gold, Allan M. Siegal, and Samuel Abt (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 278. 6. Memorandum, John T. McNaughton, “Action for South Vietnam,” November 6, 1964, in ibid., 365. 7. Memorandum, Southeast Asia Working Group (William P. Bundy), “Draft Position Paper on Southeast Asia,” November 29, 1964, in ibid., 374. 8. Draft memorandum, John T. McNaughton, “Annex—Plan for Action in South Vietnam,” March 24, 1965, in ibid., 432. 9. National Security Action Memorandum no. 328, April 6, 1965, in FRUS, 1964– 1968, vol. 2, Vietnam, January Through June 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), 537–39. 10. Memorandum of Conversation, Department of State, “Meeting with GVN,” July 16, 1965, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 3, Vietnam, June Through December 1965, 159. 11. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Report of an Ad Hoc Study Group, Intensification of Military Operations in Vietnam: Concept and Appraisal, July 14, 1965, in ibid., 181–87, quote on 183–84. FRUS reprints only the executive summary. The full report, much richer and meriting detailed examination, is in National Security File: Country File Vietnam, box 37, Lyndon Baines Johnson Papers, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Tex. 12. Quoted in William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (New York: Dell Books, 1980), 208.


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13. Memorandum, Department of Defense, “1966 Program to Increase the Effectiveness of Military Operations and Anticipated Results Thereof,” February 10, 1966, in FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 4, Vietnam, 1966 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1998), 218. 14. Westmoreland, Soldier Reports, 208–9. 15. Phillip C. Davidson, Secrets of the Vietnam War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1990), 360. 16. The effort to isolate the battlefield is treated in detail in John Prados, The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (New York: Wiley, 1999). 17. Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). 18. Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). 19. Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995). 20. All these figures are from official U.S. Department of Defense data. See Comptroller, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Unclassified Statistics on Southeast Asia,” in The Air War in Southeast Asia, edited by Rafael Littauer and Norman Uphoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 267–72. 21. Westmoreland, Soldier Reports, 209. 22. Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program, 1961–1969 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). 23. Memorandum, Department of Defense (Systems Analysis), “Force Levels and Enemy Attrition,” May 4, 1967, in The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 5 vols., Senator Gravel ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 4:462. 24. John M. Carland, The United States Army in Vietnam: Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2000), 356. 25. National Security Study Memorandum 1, “Vietnam,” Congressional Record, 92d Cong., 2d sess., May 11, 1972. 26. Quoted in “General Westmoreland: A Recipe for Victory?” Newsweek, December 5, 1966, 53. 27. Quoted in James William Gibson, The Perfect War: The War We Couldn’t Lose and How We Did (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 103 (emphasis in original). 28. Ibid., 93–154. 29. John M. Hawkins, “The Costs of Artillery: Eliminating Harassment and Interdiction Fire During the Vietnam War,” Journal of Military History 70, no. 1 (2006): 91–122. 30. Ibid.

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31. Gibson, Perfect War, 125. 32. Rusk on Meet the Press, April 16, 1967. Both quotes in Legislative Reference Service (today known as the Congressional Research Service), “Statements by Executive Officials in 1967 and 1968 on Progress in Vietnam (Excerpts),”in U.S. Senate, Foreign Relations Committee, Hearings: Vietnam: Policy and Prospects, 1970 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970), 431–43, quotations on 435 (Johnson) and 434, 436 (Rusk). 33. The O/B dispute became public in 1975 with testimony before the Pike Committee, which was investigating the U.S. intelligence community, and with Sam Adams, “Vietnam Coverup: Playing War with Numbers,” Harper’s Magazine, May 1975, 41–75. Adams was the CIA analyst who sparked the original critiques of the military’s view. The controversy acquired a substantial literature of its own after Adams’s charges were picked up by CBS Television and made the subject of a controversial documentary, which itself became the subject of a lawsuit by General William Westmoreland against CBS and Adams. Westmoreland’s lawsuit ended inconclusively. Adams’s major account is in War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir (South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 1994). For Westmoreland’s point of view, see Davidson, Secrets of the Vietnam War; for a more balanced perspective, see Bob Brewin and Sydney Shaw, Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS (New York: Atheneum, 1987). Most recent and revealing is C. Michael Hiam, Who the Hell A re We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars (South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2006).

Further Reading Brewin, Bob, and Sydney Shaw. Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS. New York: Atheneum, 1987. Clodfelter, Mark. The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1989. Gibson, James William. The Perfect War: The War We Couldn’ t Lose and How We Did. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986. Hunt, Richard A. Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Prados, John. The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War. New York: Wiley, 1999. Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982. Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Dell Books, 1980.

8. The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973 Eric Bergerud

WASHINGTON’S STRATEGIC NIGHTMARE In March 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched marines to Danang, thus beginning the last and most violent stage of Indochina’s Thirty Years’ War. Johnson and his advisers were united in their belief that it was vital to maintain an “independent, non-Communist South Vietnam.” They could not imagine defeat. They did not, however, have a clear idea how to win. What resulted was a violent and frustrating defeat that caused ruin in Vietnam and did serious damage to the American political fabric for a generation. To analyze American performance in Vietnam in retrospect, it is vital to recognize two central factors. First, in contrast to Washington’s experience with countries such as the Philippines, Korea, and Japan, American political contacts in South Vietnam after World War II were very limited. During the false calm of the Ngo Dinh Diem years, the American presence was restricted to a small military mission, some aid officials, and an embassy that had no reason or inclination to question Diem’s policy as long as the situation appeared stable. There were almost no economic or cultural contacts. Only a handful of American academics had more than a passing knowledge of the Vietnamese past or present. There was nothing like the group of skilled American specialists who

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helped guide the reconstruction of Japan. And only few among the Vietnamese elites had cultivated contacts with the United States. The French experience was the obvious template for serious study of the growing crisis in Vietnam, but it was almost completely ignored. American diplomats could claim that Americans, unlike the French of the previous generation, had no colonial intentions and thus a U.S. presence would be viewed as benign by everyone barring the most committed Communist. American military men viewed France, humiliated by the Nazis and the Vietminh (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or League for the Independence of Vietnam), with scorn. Indeed, Washington’s failure to study the French experience with extreme care must be ranked as one of the great intellectual failures in the history of American diplomatic and military assessment. Operating in an environment that would have been difficult for the best-informed policymakers, Americans often moved in a cloud of willful ignorance. Second, by the time Johnson made the decision to transform America’s policy from one of aid to a major military campaign, the United States was faced with an enemy possessing extremely formidable political and military assets and led with great skill. Indeed, Johnson had allowed America to enter the war only because General William C. Westmoreland and others were warning, with good reason, that the Saigon regime faced imminent collapse. This situation had resulted from brutal but in many ways brilliant struggle on the part of the insurgency. In a model of Leninist revolution, the Vietnamese Communist Party (known as the Lao Dong, or Vietnamese Workers Party, referred to hereafter as “the party”) had fostered the development of integrated political and military struggle called dau tranh. At any given phase of the war, debate took place within the party over which strategy was appropriate to the balance of forces as they existed at the moment. Nevertheless, on one point the leadership was always in agreement: political struggle and military struggle must be linked continually. Political struggle, naturally, had to dominate in the initial stage of a protracted conflict. Measures had to be calculated simultaneously to increase the power of the revolution and to decrease the power of the “puppet” regime. Persuasive and coercive measures were eventually directed toward every sector of Vietnamese society and all organs of the Government of Vietnam’s (GVN) political and military apparatus. First of all, however, the Workers Party had to nurture its revolutionary core, the foundation on which the entire effort was based. For the most part, this core was the landless or land-poor peasantry. The general direction of the insurgency was firmly in the party’s hands, and the highest organizational echelon of the revolutionary hierarchy was the Central Committee in Hanoi. No major policy was possible without its consent. Operationally, however, the second echelon, the party’s bureau of southern affairs, which the Americans called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN),


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was more important. In practice, the distinction between COSVN and the Central Committee was not rigid. Some members of COSVN were also members of the Central Committee, and thus COSVN could set policy on all but the most vital matters. To help attract allies sympathetic to the party’s goals but outside its immediate organization (strict Leninists, the party leaders kept membership very limited, open to only the most dedicated revolutionaries), the National Liberation Front (NLF or the Front) was formed in December 1960 in South Vietnam. Two months later, the NLF founded the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). Although major policy was rigidly centralized in the Leninist manner, the party had been diligent in creating a sophisticated political apparatus that was based on the rural Vietnamese hamlet and village. Although the center of the war against France had been in the North, Vietminh and party organizers (men and women whom the Americans referred to as “cadres”) were active throughout the South and remained central to the revolutionary effort until victory in 1975. The cadres were given the task of spreading the message of revolution and unification and were to serve as physical embodiments of the party’s virtue especially in contrast to officials working for Saigon. After the war, General Tran Van Tra, who commanded the revolutionary military forces in most of South Vietnam between 1967 and 1975, described this role: “Virtue is manifested in behavior between people, between the general and the specific, in the family and in society. Everyone must love and respect each other, and be faithful, sincere and loyal. . . . It must be Vietnamese morality and communist morality, which combine to form the virtue of Ho Chi Minh. . . . If we are not exemplary no one will listen to us, and if families are not harmonious and exemplary there is no way to create an orderly, just society.” 1 General Tra was describing an ideal, but it was one that NLF cadres took very seriously. Compared with their GVN counterparts, these cadres had many advantages. GVN officials were usually members of the urban elite. In contrast, because most Front cadres came from rural Vietnam and frequently were from the area in which they operated, they dressed like, lived like, and thought like the local peasantry. Whereas GVN officials, whether honest or corrupt, received status and material benefit from their position, NLF cadres worked for a pittance. Standard pay was about three cents a day and forty-five to fifty-five pounds of rice a month. As in Leninist revolutionary movements throughout the world, many of the top leaders in Hanoi were from relatively privileged backgrounds. In the countryside, however, the party attempted to have the movement reflect the people with whom it worked. Local recruitment helped the Front shape its message to the population and aided greatly the always impressive NLF intelligence-gathering capabilities. The party offered young men

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and women a powerful vision of the future. In return, it asked absolute political dedication, obedience, and a willingness to face the very real prospect of death. The party fashioned a powerful call for revolution designed to appeal to the widest possible audience in Vietnam. Cadres propagandized against the abuse suffered by the poor at the hands of the urbanized collaborators of the French. In areas where landless peasants were common, the party promised land reform and carried it out if it was successful in ejecting the Saigon government from a hamlet. The NLF proudly wore the mantel of nationalism inherited from the Vietminh’s victory over the French and constantly accused Saigon of being a puppet of the new foreign foe, the United States. Corruption and inefficiency on the part of Saigon officials were pilloried. Even well-educated urban Vietnamese were seen as potential allies, at least in the short run. For them, the nationalist appeal was compounded by claims that socialism was the best road to modernization. Yet the Front’s success was not entirely due to its great ability to exploit real or imagined grievances and present an alternative view of the future. The cynical manipulation of fear in all its manifestations was a central component in the party’s theory and practice of struggle. Most notorious was the brutal use of terror against enemies of the revolution. The party was careful to direct its violence at the very worst or very best GVN officials. “Punishing” (the party’s euphemism for murder) a despicable official gained the party popularity. Killing good officials sowed fear. By making efficiency and anti-Communist zeal very dangerous, the party encouraged bad and dishonest administration in GVN areas, which in turn reinforced negative feelings toward Saigon on the part of the villagers. Despite later party efforts to pass off much of the terror campaign as being the unauthorized work of overzealous cadres, there can be no doubt that virtually all assassinations were premeditated and came on order of high party officials. Just as the party waged revolutionary warfare as a synthesis of political and military dau tranh, its military forces were a synthesis of main force, local force, and guerrilla units operating on an interrelated battlefield consisting of agricultural lowlands, highlands, and cities. Because political and military operations were always integrated, the party employed a military structure that was thoroughly wedded to the political apparatus. At the top of the military apparatus were the main force units. The fewest in number but the most powerful components of the party’s military structure were the regular North Vietnamese divisions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Usually employed in the far north and in the Central Highlands, PAVN units were controlled directly by Hanoi. Less well trained and less heavily armed, but nevertheless formidable and nearly always superior in morale and skill to South Vietnam’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were the PLAF, the NLF’s main force units. Local force units had somewhat less training and fewer heavy weapons than main


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force units but were still capable of engaging the ARVN and were more than a match for GVN militia units. Therefore, local force units were always a serious threat to pacification efforts of any sort. Both main force and local force units were very flexible and capable of breaking down into small units and operating as guerrillas if required. Just as the village was the heart of the insurgent’s political apparatus, so was it the ultimate base for the military effort. Every village controlled or contested by the NLF had a force of local guerrillas. Although poorly armed and not well trained in the finer points of military craft, these guerrillas were very important for several reasons. In the first place, the village was the initial training ground for soldiers later promoted to higher units because of valor and political awareness. Second, guerrillas had important military functions. They were responsible primarily for mining roads and laying booby traps and were capable of springing an ambush. They were a vital part of the enemy’s intelligencegathering network. The local guerrillas’ major role, however, was political. On the village and hamlet level, they provided a continuous armed presence that encouraged supporters of the revolution and intimidated opponents. It is very difficult to give the number of local guerrillas with precision. Americans estimated in March 1966 that between 100,000 and 200,000 guerrillas were operating throughout Vietnam. Figures for enemy combat units were undoubtedly more accurate. The same estimate put PAVN strength at 38,000 and NLF main and local force units at 63,000 and growing fast. By December 1967, NLF forces (exclusive of PAVN units, whose strength inside South Vietnam varied greatly, depending on the tactical situation) reached a peak of 271,000, plus perhaps another 200,000 part-time guerrillas.2 Revolutionary forces also possessed certain advantages that partially compensated for their relative disadvantage in firepower. Terrain in much of Vietnam facilitated secret movement. An astonishing array of ingenious fortifications, ranging from simple bunkers in hamlets to elaborate tunnel complexes in redoubts or “combat villages,” helped conceal insurgent troops and protect them from air strikes and artillery. The NLF’s intelligence network was excellent in every respect. What technical means the enemy possessed for intercepting Allied radio communications were well used. Whereas the insurgency’s strength in the countryside enabled revolutionary forces to move without being seen, it made similar movement on the part of the Americans and South Vietnamese virtually impossible on the ground. NLF agents in large numbers joined the army of civilian workers employed at U.S. installations and provided useful intelligence. More important, party cadres and sympathizers had infiltrated the GVN at every level. Although impossible to document, it is wise to assume that every major offensive operation undertaken by the ARVN and most undertaken by U.S. forces was compromised to some degree.

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In addition, because of Soviet and Chinese aid, NLF units were increasingly better equipped with excellent small arms, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Local guerrillas were less well armed but could lay mines and booby traps that bedeviled American and South Vietnamese forces. Hence, guerrillas were able to inflict a painful level of attrition on Allied forces even when the NLF’s main force units were in hiding, refitting, or in action elsewhere. The Front was able to get maximum benefit from the inherent advantage held by insurgents in revolutionary warfare. Insurgents do not have to defend any precise geographic point, but their opponents must defend many. Because there was no single point that the NLF had to defend inside South Vietnam, however, no American offensive could compel a decisive battle. As events were to show again and again, no part of Vietnam was totally immune from the threat of NLF attack. And because Americans could not force battle, the result was a nonlinear conflict: a war without front lines. The tactical initiative was almost always with the NLF. If the NLF wished battle, it could always have it. In contrast, if revolutionary forces wished to lower the level of violence for a time, that too was possible. The high level of integration of NLF forces allowed one component to take up the slack from another if the situation demanded it. Thus the Front’s military apparatus was very sturdy. As long as the political will existed to carry the revolution forward, there was no obvious place or easy way to attack it. Without front lines, the manpower available to the GVN, even though numerically high, was dispersed throughout the countryside, defensively or statically deployed. Maps of rural Vietnam colored according to GVN control, NLF control, and contested control resembled leopard spots, an analogy the Front’s leaders used fondly and frequently. It was extremely difficult to bring the GVN’s numerical superiority to bear. The psychological dynamic was also important. Because even the most secure GVN-controlled areas were usually close to a contested or NLF-controlled zone, a small NLF attack or even a false alarm would precipitate defensive sweeps and other operations that would wear down the GVN forces. As General Tra recalled, “They [Saigon forces] were very afraid of the interspersed, ‘leopard spot’ configuration on the battlefield. Our forces were everywhere, even in their urban areas and in their capital.” 3 Considering all factors, the NLF had a very good light-infantry army. The “barefoot guerrilla” image cultivated by the Front and accepted by many abroad was a grotesque parody of reality. Nevertheless, NLF forces had serious deficiencies that hurt them on the battlefield, particularly when on the offensive. The logistic system gave them a wide reach, but it had weaknesses. Even when the collection of supplies went smoothly, the amount accumulated was never large. Lacking air support and heavy artillery, NLF forces had a very difficult time “softening up” an objective prior to assault. As a consequence, they were often forced to rely on frightfully dangerous infantry onslaughts, which frequently


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failed with catastrophic results. In addition, it was very difficult for them to develop momentum once an attack began. Battles they initiated, therefore, had to be sharp but short affairs. Extended fighting played directly into GVN and American strength. The NLF was well aware of these problems and usually showed great caution before accepting a battle. Nevertheless, by 1966 revolutionary military units were in place and very capable of dealing heavy blows. The most serious deficiency, however, was the sheer danger inherent in fighting opponents with much greater firepower. The major reason that U.S. forces relied so heavily on very expensive weapons systems was that American commanders realized that “fire kills.” All American commanders were trained to substitute bullets for bodies whenever possible. To the extent that it was possible, the ARVN followed the American model. NLF forces did not have this luxury. Units were potentially vulnerable to random attack at virtually any time. NLF fighters often had to live in hideous tunnels for temporary protection. While there, they had to meditate on the very real possibility of being buried alive or burned to death. Base areas, chosen because of their difficult terrain, were often inherently unhealthy places to live. Malaria was a perpetual problem. The Front did what it could to offer its followers medical assistance, but efforts were crude by necessity. Rapid medical evacuation from the battlefield, so critical for American morale, was utterly out of the question. For all these reasons, serving with the NLF was a physically arduous and extremely dangerous enterprise. Whatever the precise casualty ratios, there can be no doubt that serving in an NLF combat unit was a much riskier proposition than serving with the ARVN or especially with the Americans. The government in Saigon that faced calamity in 1965 did not represent a nation, but a ramshackle anti-Communist coalition of groups that often had little in common with one another. Worse, from Washington’s point of view, the coup that overthrew Diem in October 1963 initiated a period of political chaos that damaged or made impossible every effort to battle the growing threat from the North’s Workers Party. Nevertheless, it is false to view the struggle in Vietnam as the party regarded it—that is, as a struggle for national liberation. In reality, many in Vietnam opposed the NLF or sought neutrality. Indeed, at its heart the conflict in South Vietnam was a civil war. Had this not been the case, a complete collapse of the GVN and its armed forces would have taken place long before the Americans could have intervened. What passed for an urban and moneyed elite naturally opposed the Front because they would lose everything. Some of these people had been long-time collaborators of the French; others had thrown in their lot with France and later with Diem when the party led a violent campaign to destroy anti-Communist independence groups after 1945. The urban middle class and intelligencia displayed complex behavior. They were often critical of the GVN and almost

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condescending toward the Americans. As the war intensified and class conflict sharpened, however, most of them increasingly identified with Saigon as their fear of the NLF grew. The Workers Party tried to handle the question of religion as delicately as possible, but Hanoi’s anticlericalism was clear enough by the early 1960s. The issue hurt the NLF badly. The party’s most determined enemies were found among South Vietnam’s 1.5 million Roman Catholics. Many of these people had come from the North after 1954 and were bitterly anti-Communist. The more numerous Buddhists in Vietnam were deeply splintered on the issue of whether political action was appropriate for faith. Those answering in the affirmative had supported the Vietminh in the French era and played a key role in the fall of the Diem regime. Yet because Buddhism was deeply ingrained in traditional Vietnamese society, the party’s call for a “New Vietnam” elicited a decidedly mixed response. South Vietnam was also home to two unique religious sects, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, that contained elements of Christianity, local faiths, Buddhism, and unique revelation. Estimated at 3 million in strength, the sects often kept Saigon at arm’s length, but also treated the NLF with suspicion and often hostility. South Vietnam’s 2 million Chinese varied from strong resistance to the NLF on the part of the richest in the cities to active support of the NLF by an independent Communist movement loyal to Beijing. Overall, however, the Chinese feared that the intense nationalism of the Front was putting their position as small but relatively prosperous traders in serious danger. These fears proved very well founded after 1975, when many Chinese were forced to flee Vietnam. Enemies of the party could even be found in ethnically Vietnamese rural areas that were at the heart of the revolution. Many “middle peasants” owned some or all of their own land and feared, with good reason, that the party’s land reform was prelude to the creation of communes or state farms if the revolution prevailed. Even many poor peasants, particularly in the older demographic groups, found stability and solace in what remained of traditional rural Vietnam and looked with fear at prospects of a modern, socialist Vietnam. In addition, the extended family was central to Vietnamese life. As it was, many families had members on both sides of the conflict. If someone was killed in the struggle, close relatives might seek revenge regardless of politics. Many American advisers believed that personal vendetta was a significant part of the low-level violence constantly present throughout the war, although such acts are impossible to quantify. A large number of Vietnamese, of course, wished that the entire conflict would go away. The NLF realized this and directed the development of its mass organizations to create some kind of direct association between people and revolution. As long as the party held the initiative, its leaders were not overly concerned


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with peasants whom the Americans called “fence-sitters.” These peasants would bear the taxation and risks involved in the conflict because there was little choice. Many Americans hoped, however, that if a stable and more effective government could be established and the contest for rural Vietnam renewed with some hope of victory for Saigon, those neutrals would likewise accept a turn of the tide without complaint. Indeed, when Americans talked about winning the “hearts and minds” of rural Vietnam, they were hoping to win over this large group of peasants not deeply committed to the revolution. The GVN administration, where it operated at all, was in the opinion of all American advisers both corrupt and inefficient. By 1965 in areas where the Front was strongest, the GVN had been driven completely from many hamlets. The U.S. Embassy estimated that 23 percent of South Vietnam’s population that year was under virtually complete enemy control. In some villages or districts, GVN officials would, under military escort, make an occasional appearance. In others, they would operate in the daylight but retreat to fortifications at night. Such officials sent to NLF-controlled provinces considered it hardship duty and watched their backs. Under the best of circumstances, the GVN administration was characterized by a kind of paternalism in the French colonial manner that lacked the “get up and go” that Americans wanted and that clashed badly with American pleas for the development of autonomous and democratic village institutions. The men of the Vietnamese armed forces were also an important part of the equation. Like the NLF, Diem and later Saigon regimes developed a complex military structure. At the bottom of the military apparatus were the local village militias, which were poorly armed and poorly led. Diem kept these militias weak, knowing well that arms distributed to them often went to the Front. There were somewhat better-armed militia units for district and province defense, but they, too, proved to be very weak reeds. The regional militias were employed at passive guard duty or manning at night the myriad small fortifications present throughout rural Vietnam. Diem and his successors kept the militia effort outside the regular army chain of command. American observers believed this fragmentation of effort, which stood in stark contrast to the coordination that marked all NLF organizations, existed to prevent the development of more powerful forces that might begin to play a role in the coups that had long threatened Diem and later paralyzed Saigon’s war effort until Generals Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu established order in 1966 and 1967. The ARVN played a different role and, before American intervention, was the strongest force confronting the party. By 1965, however, the 200,000-man ARVN was declining in every respect and clearly losing the war. Equipped and trained largely in the American mode to fight a conflict resembling the Korean

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War, the ARVN had a difficult time confronting more-nimble and better-led NLF units in battle. In retrospect, American military advisers have been criticized for creating an ARVN in the American image. This argument does not completely convince. The ARVN was superior to any NLF unit in firepower, and it was firepower that kept the ARVN in the field at all. The mobility provided by mechanization had great value, but the ARVN’s problem was leadership, not organization. Unlike, for instance, the Indian army, the ARVN did not have a colonial-era reputation of battle prowess that it could use to institutionalize professionalism. Instead, its generals, almost to a man, had fought for the French and came from the urban and often Christian elites. Position was more likely due to political connection than to competence. Promotion to high rank in revolutionary forces was based largely on political and military merit, and promotion into the lowest level of the ARVN’s officer corps was extremely difficult for any peasant’s son. By Asian standards, the Americans armed the ARVN well, including field artillery and a small air force. Americans were very critical of its leadership and fighting spirit, however. To make matters worse, the ARVN suffered from serious desertion rates, although many men returned voluntarily. Some American advisers who got to know the ARVN well realized that its poor reputation was only partially deserved. It was being shredded in 1965 because Saigon’s political instability had distracted leadership and ruined rational deployments, which in turn had caused morale to drop seriously. Moreover, service in the ARVN was dangerous. Throughout the American participation in the war, U.S. casualties surpassed those suffered by the ARVN only in 1968. The ARVN had some good officers, noncoms, and men, but their loyalty was more to their units and comrades than to the national government. Until its utter exhaustion in 1975, the ARVN won more battles than it lost, often when facing grim odds. Without the ARVN, the GVN would have been gone in an instant.

AMERICAN STRATEGIC DISAGREEMENT Thus, when U.S. marines debarked at Danang in March 1965, they faced an extremely formidable enemy and were supported by a badly flawed ally in Saigon. To make matters worse, there was a serious disagreement, mostly inside Vietnam, about how the Americans should fight the quickly escalating war. It is a sobering comment on the leadership in Washington that American armed forces were deployed prior to a clear statement of strategic goals for the conflict beyond the general aim of maintaining the existence of a non-Communist South Vietnam. Instead, two very different assessments of the nature of the conflict led to significantly different plans of action.


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Although American ground and air forces constituted the major U.S. contribution to the military struggle, American advisers, both military and civilian, contributed what they could to the political struggle. In the early years of the Diem regime, Americans were busy dispensing advice on “nation building,” but as long as Vietnam was quiet, Washington gave little thought to the process. When Diem began to falter, however, Vietnam quickly became the major laboratory for developing a coherent response to the dreaded Communist strategy of “wars of national liberation.” In the Kennedy years, American theories concerning counterinsurgency assigned the advisers a critical role. As best enunciated by General Edward G. Lansdale, America’s near-legendary Clausewitz of counterinsurgency, the American adviser should be the principal catalyst for the development of a Vietnamese government both just and strong enough to defeat the insurgency. Lansdale wanted the advisory effort manned by a small, elite team of civilian and military personnel, posted for long terms, operating with little bureaucratic interference, and possessing understanding and empathy for the Vietnamese. Advisers were to get out into the countryside, where Lansdale believed the real struggle was taking place, and there develop honest rapport and friendship with their Vietnamese “counterparts.” As “rapport” (a ubiquitous buzzword in the advisory effort) developed, American advisers would “energize” (an equally ubiquitous buzzword) the South Vietnamese war effort not so much by offering advice as by serving as role models for Vietnamese officials. Lansdale did not want American advisers to run rural Vietnam on their own authority, but through the power of example to lead Vietnamese local officials to take the initiative toward building a just and prosperous society. Despite Lansdale’s ideas, advisers remained firmly within the established military and civilian channels with a one-year tour of duty. Nevertheless, Kennedy accepted the vague but ambitious role assigned the advisers, and the size of the effort quickly grew larger than Lansdale envisioned. Throughout the early 1960s, more and more provinces and ARVN units were assigned American advisers. Despite the increasing size of the advisory effort, these years were frustrating as Saigon’s position steadily weakened. The American presence in the Vietnamese countryside did not lead to reform from the bottom up. Advisers consequently grew frustrated and soon began a futile search for some type of direct leverage they could use to force the Vietnamese government to take action on the local level. In November 1961, President Kennedy authorized a cable to Saigon directly linking continued American aid to political reform inside Vietnam. Diem publicly called Kennedy’s bluff, however, and huffily refused to accept any infringement on Vietnamese sovereignty. Afraid of weakening Diem publicly, Washington backed down. Diem emphasized his triumph by promoting his

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brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, a man reviled by top American officials, to head of Saigon’s equivalent of the National Security Council. Washington’s dilemma was intractable. If reforms were imposed, Americans believed they would appear as imperialists and would rob the GVN of whatever status it had in its own country, but if Saigon did not move on reform believed necessary by Americans, reform would not take place. This problem was never solved throughout the conflict. By 1965, frustrated American fieldworkers had found an articulate spokesman in John Paul Vann. A retired military adviser to the ARVN, Vann served as an Agency for International Development adviser in a province near Saigon that was an NLF stronghold. Vann’s thoughts on the war represented the beliefs of many Americans serving in the countryside and in closest contact with the political struggle in Vietnam’s villages. The “Vann thesis” offered a very different analysis of Vietnam’s problems and what should be done to face them than was common in Washington. In fact, had Vann and his supporters won the day, the American conduct of the war in Vietnam would have been very different. Several participants and scholars after the war argued that had the United States fought the “village war” advocated by Vann instead of the “big-unit war” conducted by Westmoreland, the United States might have saved the GVN and avoided humiliating defeat. The official Washington explanation for American policy in Vietnam served as the point of departure for the Vann thesis. According to the official version of events, American intervention resulted from direct North Vietnamese aggression against a sovereign state. The insurgency was portrayed as a creature of the North. The deployment of PAVN forces south of the demilitarized zone was widely used to justify the American ground presence. The success of the insurgency was explained as due to cynical manipulation of an unsophisticated population by Communist cadres, direct aid from the North, and, most important, the ruthless employment of terrorism. Although no one argued that the GVN was a model government, the problems facing Saigon were portrayed as stemming directly from the insurgency itself. Once freed from the outside threat, according to official doctrine, the GVN would and could improve. The government in Saigon, whatever its imperfections, was always defended as being greatly preferable to the harsh Communist regime in the North. Although Vann, a staunch anti-Communist, certainly agreed with the last point, he and his supporters viewed the entire insurgency as a symptom of the crisis facing Saigon rather than its cause. A widely circulated paper that Vann and some disciples prepared in September 1965, “Harnessing the Revolution in South Vietnam,” argued that the major problem facing the GVN was its structural inability to adapt to a genuine social revolution that had been under way in Vietnam for decades. Vann argued:


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The existing government is . . . a continuation of the French colonial system of government with upper-class Vietnamese replacing the French. Although the wealth of the country lies in its agricultural production, it is the agrarian population which is realizing the least out of either the technological advancements of the twentieth century or the massive assistance provided by the U.S. The dissatisfaction of the agrarian population  .  .  . has obviously been fanned by communism; today it is largely expressed through alliance with the NLF. The understandable concern of the US with the communist involvement in the revolution has obscured the fact that most of the objectives of the revolution are identical to those for which Americans have long fought and died.4

Although somewhat vague concerning the aims of the “social revolution,” Vann believed that nothing could be achieved unless Vietnam established a government run by “leaders who come from, think like, and are responsive to the majority.” He maintained that the NLF was strong not because of the inherent appeal of Marxist socialism, but because the GVN had forced virtually all non-Communist progressive elements into an alliance with the party. Solid support for either the party or the GVN was in reality very thin, so the possibility still existed, Vann believed, to isolate the party if the GVN were reshaped and made attractive to non-Communist elements within the NLF. Unlike Lansdale, Vann contended that the GVN was incapable of reforming itself. The United States must force the GVN to change and save itself, Vann argued, and, thus, Americans had to become directly involved with Vietnam’s internal affairs at every level. Because Vann believed that the major problem facing the GVN was its own weakness rather than enemy strength, he was highly critical of American military policy. Because the countryside rather than the enemy fortified zones was the major theater of operations for Vann, he was appalled by the profligate use of American firepower and deemed it counterproductive. Civilian casualties would ultimately harm the GVN as embittered relatives turned to the NLF. Furthermore, he argued, depopulating areas also drove off the neutral or potentially pro-GVN segment of the population, thus yielding even more territory to insurgent control and enabling the party to concentrate its efforts in contested areas. In general, he feared that an emphasis on firepower, air strikes, and electronic gadgets threatened to obscure the vital importance of the political struggle in the villages and hamlets. Therefore, he wished to keep the American military presence as limited as possible. As the war progressed, when Vann was asked, as he often was, what immediate action the United States could take to strengthen the war effort, his stock answer was, “Remove an American division.”

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Although Vann wished to see the American military involvement kept as limited as possible, he had no doubts about the necessity of American presence in its totality. Only Americans could stabilize the military situation and then force the GVN to do what was required. Furthermore, because Americans must take the lead in reshaping an entire society, their presence would have to be of very long duration. Nor did Vann question the basic wisdom of American involvement. Indeed, Vann and his supporters believed that the struggle in Vietnam was part of a larger epic that was critical for the entire free world.5 Vann was not alone in calling for a more thoughtful conduct of the war. In 1965, the Pentagon, realizing that it knew little of Vietnam, created a team of officers, many with academic careers and all with long experience in Vietnam and Asia, to study the country and the nature of the war. After eight months of work, they produced a large study, The Program for the Pacification and LongTerm Development of South Vietnam (PROVN). Like Vann, the authors of this document argued that the problems facing the GVN were due more to deeply rooted social and political difficulties than to Communist subversion or North Vietnamese aggression. The military elite running South Vietnam, argued PROVN, disdained the rural population and believed themselves to be the masters rather than the servants of the people. A large number of GVN officials and officers, according to the report, were driven by sordid personal motives and viewed government service solely as an avenue for financial gain through corruption. Many urbanites, PROVN maintained, viewed the war as a struggle between the military and the insurgents and sought detachment. The peasantry itself, according to PROVN, was fatalistic, war weary, and suspicious of a government so prone to breaking its word. The study’s authors believed that the peasants could be won over, but only if change and its benefits were thrust on them from the outside and not the reverse. Because of the high stakes in the village war, PROVN’s conclusion was that American ground forces should be assigned whenever available to pacification duties under the control of the American province adviser. Because the GVN was so feeble and the war so important, PROVN was blunt in advising that Americans cease worrying about South Vietnamese and world opinion on the issue of Vietnamese sovereignty. Rather, only direct American control of many facets of the “nation-building process” offered the possibility of success.6 In May 1966,Westmoreland sent the PROVN study to the Pentagon. According to the interpretation from the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), PROVN called for two major initiatives: the creation of a single organization charged with coordinating all American military and political efforts and a greatly expanded American intervention in South Vietnamese internal


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affairs. MACV claimed to be in agreement with the first initiative. On the second initiative, however, Westmoreland voiced serious doubts. Although it was agreed that the United States should seek to influence Vietnamese policy through “constructive influence and manipulation,” MACV stressed the dangers inherent in direct American management of the war effort: “Our goals cannot be achieved by Vietnamese leaders who are identified as U.S. puppets. The U.S. will must be asserted, but we cannot afford to overwhelm the structure we are attempting to develop.” 7 Westmoreland also cautioned that any plans to expand the American role in “revolutionary development” on the province and district levels must take into account the great shortage of properly trained American personnel who understood the subtleties of rural Vietnam well enough to do more good than harm. Due to these objections, Westmoreland recommended that PROVN be reduced from a “blueprint for action” to a “conceptual document.” Westmoreland prevailed, and PROVN was condemned to virtual obscurity. Many at the time and since have argued that Westmoreland’s treatment of the PROVN study was one of several instances in which MACV showed that it did not understand the political nature of the war. Such criticism, however, does not take into account the differing perspectives toward the war that reflected the participants’ different arenas. In Washington, far from the frustrations of the village struggle, the war was viewed within the context of overall American foreign and domestic policy. Johnson and his closest associates were convinced that the greatest threat to South Vietnam came from the North. They publicly portrayed the war as an example of naked aggression that must be countered. A policy based openly on the assumption that the GVN was corrupt, rotten, and basically responsible for the conditions that led to the insurgency would have been extremely difficult to defend. There was little doubt in the minds of Johnson, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, and others that the United States could bring a better life to the South Vietnamese and hence win them over to the GVN if the Americans could both neutralize North Vietnamese efforts and properly organize American exertions in the countryside. Therefore, Washington concentrated on the bombing campaign and on various efforts to streamline the pacification campaign. For fieldworkers such as Vann, the most important political arena was the South Vietnamese countryside. Day in and day out, they faced the corruption and inefficiency that characterized the GVN and had a healthy respect for the Workers Party’s prowess. Frustration was the rule as South Vietnamese officials proved unwilling or unable to address problems that the Americans considered critical for the transformation of rural South Vietnam. Delays, mismanagement, or outright corruption in Saigon discouraged not only Americans, but many conscientious South Vietnamese officials as well. Several of the latter

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actually encouraged Vann and other Americans to develop lines of authority independent of Saigon. In MACV and the U.S. Embassy, the perspective was very different. Although well aware that serious problems existed, American officials in Saigon dealt daily with the problems resulting from the GVN’s instability. If Vann was unconcerned about the GVN’s image as a sovereign and independent government, both Westmoreland and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge realized that the GVN was already suffering serious difficulties on precisely that issue. “American imperialism,” for instance, was a major issue during a series of Buddhistled protests that caused near anarchy in Danang and Hue in early 1966. Both the embassy and MACV held the well-founded fear that American ultimatums to the GVN might have devastating immediate effects even if the policies proposed would be ultimately beneficial. Furthermore, Americans in Saigon were better aware than anyone else of the immense administrative problems caused for everyone by the rapid buildup of U.S. military forces: overloading the GVN with radical reforms might well have caused complete paralysis. Nor was it ever American policy to redistribute wealth and power in South Vietnam. The few groups in South Vietnam actively opposed to the insurgency, the ARVN officer corps in particular, could hardly be expected to continue to resist the NLF if the Americans sought to deprive them of their wealth and status as the price for support from the United States. Therefore, the embassy generally favored the line of least resistance concerning relations with the GVN. Although Lodge spared no effort to persuade Vietnamese and American officials of the crucial importance of the pacification effort, he also argued that, ultimately, pacification was a South Vietnamese responsibility. In the military sphere, Westmoreland sought to relieve, as quickly as possible, most ARVN units with American divisions in the fight against the North Vietnamese Army and other main force units. Among Westmoreland’s several reasons for this approach, the village war figured prominently. He argued that Vietnamese forces were better able to deal with the rural population than were American units made up of soldiers ignorant of the language and culture. Although he never said as much, he undoubtedly knew that relations between American combat infantrymen and Vietnamese villagers were frequently marked by mutual hatred and loathing. In essence, Westmoreland called for a division of labor between American and South Vietnamese forces. American units would seek out enemy main force units whenever possible and provide a “shield” behind which the South Vietnamese could regroup and turn their efforts toward the countryside. Westmoreland put it best himself: In an effort to explain this kind of warfare in simplest terms, I occasionally likened the political subversives and guerrillas to termites persistently eating


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away at the structural members of a building, analogously, the structure of the South Vietnamese government. Some distance away hid the main forces, or big units, which—mixing my metaphor—I called “bully boys,” armed with crowbars and waiting for the propitious moment to move in and destroy the weakened building. Only by eliminating the bully boys—or, at least, so harrying them as to keep them away from the building—was there a possibility of eliminating the termites or enticing them to work for our side, an essential though systematic and tedious process.8

Westmoreland had other concerns as well. Despite the air campaign, the North’s infiltration of troops and supplies into the South and NLF military formations were expanding. Because Westmoreland had fewer than 200,000 American troops at his disposal at the beginning of 1966, he was very mindful of the catastrophic effects that would result from a single defeat of Americans in battle. Although there was little possibility of a debacle on the scale of Dienbienphu, a smaller defeat was a genuine possibility. As a consequence, Westmoreland, for good reason, was very reluctant to disperse his forces and instead sought battlefields where American units could operate en masse. He also was eager to deploy American troops in areas where they could utilize their helicopter mobility, artillery, and airpower with as few restrictions as possible. Both these considerations reinforced his conviction that American ground forces should concentrate on defeating main force units and that the pacification campaign should be left primarily to the South Vietnamese, with American military participation on an ad hoc basis. Westmoreland’s strategy has been labeled “search and destroy,” “war of attrition,” or “the big-unit war.” None of these labels is totally satisfactory because each implies a never-ending series of multidivisional operations, such as the big sweeps that took place in 1967. In fact, most American units conducted at least a portion of their operations in heavily populated areas with the aim of crushing local guerrilla formations and reestablishing at least the outward manifestations of GVN control. A better description of MACV’s mode of operations would be “the parallel wars concept.” Although American units emphasized operations against individual main force formations or enemy safe zones, and South Vietnamese units emphasized pacification operations, the division of labor was never rigid. Westmoreland and MACV were, however, quite consistent in insisting that the chain of command within American and South Vietnamese forces be kept separate. Implicit in this arrangement was MACV’s reluctance to station American troops more or less permanently to a specific heavily populated district or province on pacification duties because doing so would ultimately involve American officers and advisers in day-to-day administration. Far better, from MACV

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and the embassy’s point of view, were vigorous offensive operations intended to gain time for the establishment of a stable GVN, which, whatever its faults, would then have the opportunity to better its position in the countryside. Westmoreland’s strategy came unraveled not because the goal of destroying main force units was not worth attaining, but because it proved impossible to accomplish within an appropriate amount of time and with acceptable losses. However, an overview of the terrible difficulties faced in the “village war” should not lead to the conclusion that Vann and others had discovered a road to victory. In 1965, one thing was certain. Only American military intervention offered hope for the future, but it was hampered by confusion and deep divisions concerning how best to proceed.

THE VILLAGE WAR Although Americans had been involved in rural Vietnam since 1954, for years the organization of their efforts was a patchwork quilt that reflected political turf wars and differing objectives found in the U.S. Embassy, MACV, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the various players in Washington. The embassy was initially seen as the obvious place to head the “country team,” a position that MACV found most amenable because Westmoreland had no desire to get deeply involved with pacification. President Johnson often talked about the importance of winning “hearts and minds,” but he initially seemed to think that a series of good deeds was needed, a kind of Asian Great Society in the middle of a civil war. Urged by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy (Rostow’s predecessor), among others, in early 1966 the president appointed the brilliant but acerbic Robert Komer as his principal aide in Washington for monitoring the village war. As Bundy put it, LBJ needed a “Mr. Vietnam.” Within a year, Komer had convinced Johnson that the entire American effort in the countryside should have a single manager. Komer was sharp enough to see that the resources going to Vietnam were going to MACV and not to what was variously called “revolutionary development,” the “village war,” or, increasingly, “pacification.” As early as 1965, both Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were complaining to Johnson that aid directed toward pacification was dwarfed by that going to military operations. After a visit to Vietnam in October 1966, McNamara, a longtime verbal champion of pacification, told Johnson that neither bombing nor the large military operations planned for 1967 were likely to bring Hanoi to the peace table before 1968. Instead, McNamara argued, aid for every type of pacification was  necessary to damage the NLF and keep down American casualties. In May 1967, Johnson appointed Komer the first head of Civil Operations and


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Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). Komer became the top civilian deputy at MACV, thus putting the American pacification campaign under military control. None of this organizational squabbling had any noticeable impact on ongoing U.S. efforts in the countryside. Komer’s presence later enabled the Americans to push forward dramatically, however, when the NLF made a catastrophic strategic blunder in 1968 that opened a window for a genuine reopening of the struggle for rural Vietnam. At the same time that the Americans reorganized their pacification efforts, southern generals Thieu and Ky (who were finally bringing stability to the GVN) responded to Washington’s urging and established the Ministry of Rural Construction under an American favorite, Major General Nguyen Duc Thang, to serve as Saigon’s version of CORDS. A semantic conflict quickly ensued that revealed much about how differently the two allies approached the subject. Ambassador Lodge thought the term “rural construction” sounded too passive and demanded that it be changed to “revolutionary development” (RD). The Vietnamese officially agreed but used the latter term only when dealing with Americans. Thang normally referred to himself as “minister of construction.” Lodge also disliked the word “pacification” because it evoked memories of the French. Here, again, “revolutionary development” was to be the preferred term. Westmoreland thought Lodge’s efforts a pointless waste of time. Most Americans must have agreed because the word “pacification” came to be used almost exclusively by everyone, from district advisers to President Johnson.9 Whatever term was used for the struggle for rural Vietnam, Americans had been involved in it long before CORDS. In general, the efforts that Americans proposed, supported, or carried out independently can be divided into two general categories: efforts to strengthen Vietnam’s economic and political system and coercive efforts aimed at weakening the NLF physically and psychologically. Of the two, the second proved much the more successful, although ultimately not enough. In 1965, a locally organized South Vietnamese RD cadre team of some fifty men had come to the CIA’s attention because of its apparent success in protecting the government’s position in a village in the heavily contested Binh Dinh Province. The team’s organizer and leader, Major Nguyen Be, was a former Vietminh officer, a rare individual in the ARVN. He impressed the Americans with his zeal, competence, and honesty. The RD cadre team was locally recruited, ideologically anti-Communist, and strictly disciplined. Although propagandizing for the GVN, team members attempted to side with villagers when confronted with corrupt officials. Their personal behavior and honesty were reported to be exemplary. Above all, the cadre team was to serve, according to Be, as the essential conduit between the government and the people of the countryside. The entire cadre team concept, as Be acknowledged, was pat-

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terned after the political cadre system successfully employed by the Workers Party. Whatever the actual performance of Major Be’s little team in Binh Dinh, William Colby, CIA East Asia chief and soon Komer’s top aide, and others were enthusiastic. Americans quickly decided to extend Be’s cadre team concepts nationwide. Major Be was put in direct charge of the training center, answering directly to General Thang, with the aim of having 19,000 cadre members in the field by the end of the year. For a while, American officials, including Johnson, warmly embraced the RD cadre team concept. In April 1966, Komer reported to Johnson that it was “the most promising approach yet developed.” An embassy report in April 1966, otherwise quite gloomy in most respects, spoke optimistically of the RD cadres and described the team concept as “the basis of the present pacification program.” 10 In theory, the RD cadre program was unique because it promised to address the most serious problem faced by the GVN: lack of support in the countryside. Every other component of the pacification program was aimed either at direct repression of revolutionary forces or at raising the material standard of living without changing the political status quo. The cadre program, however, might become a vehicle for grassroots political reform and a catalyst for genuine political commitment on the part of the rural population. The cadres were organized into teams of fifty-nine men, forty-one of whom had the task of providing hamlet security and eliminating the party’s political apparatus. Two men were to specialize in military intelligence and psychological warfare. The remainder of the team was supposed to assist villagers in the organization of local government, dispense agricultural information, and promote public health. Team members were instructed to wear peasant clothes and to live and eat with the villagers. Members were even to report mistreatment and bad administration by GVN officials. Despite Be’s genuine skills and American support, problems occurred from the outset. Because the program was so quickly expanded, training periods were for only ten weeks. Although Be wished to recruit team members locally, doing so proved impossible. As a consequence, most of the cadres were from urban areas. Because the cadres received a draft exemption, many volunteered for lessthan-patriotic motives. More important, as Be himself stressed, the RD cadre program could not fulfill its ambitious aims unless real power was actually delegated to the villages and hamlets that the teams were supposed to transform. This delegation of power never took place. Although in theory under Saigon’s direction, the RD cadre program quickly became a part of CORDS. And, as everyone recognized, neither this program nor any other component of the “nation-building” campaign could begin to function until enemy troops were cleared out of targeted villages and some sort of basic security established during the daylight.


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In practice, the RD cadre concept was pointless. The “message” the GVN wanted to send to the villagers was that Communism was bad and that the NLF was going to lose. There was little that young outsiders could do to convince villagers of the former, however, unless the NLF was rocked by far more serious opponents. Throughout 1966 and 1967, American district and province advisers reported that RD cadre teams were incapable of harming the NLF and sometimes antagonized villagers. When the military situation improved for the Allies in late 1968, CORDS completely reorganized the RD effort. The teams were divided into much smaller groups and relieved entirely of the security and intelligence-gathering duties that they were utterly incapable of performing. They remained in action throughout the war, though, aiding GVN officials and American advisers in such matters as conducting a census, helping with civic action projects, and aiding in village elections. At best, these young people served as a type of domestic Vietnamese Peace Corps, a role some members took pride in. Thoughts of making them the center of pacification remained hopelessly naive, however. Americans also had great hopes in developing some kind of functioning democracy. In one respect, they had some reason for optimism. In September 1967, the GVN held a more or less successful and honest national election. Nguyen Van Thieu became president, and Nguyen Cao Ky became vice president. The two were heads of the ARVN junta that had run Vietnam since late 1965. CORDS was pleased but a bit puzzled that the NLF had done almost nothing to obstruct the elections. Perhaps the party erred in complacency. Thieu was not charismatic, but he did keep the army in line and conducted affairs with intelligence and great tenacity. Like Diem, however, Thieu believed in centralizing power and argued that true democracy could not flourish until victory in the war. As it was, the Vietnamese Congress, also elected at this time, operated with considerable noise if little power, and the nation had considerable freedom of the press, considering the military situation. Yet if Thieu’s government was more stable, it lacked the appeal that Americans hoped for at the hamlet level. CORDS wanted elected village councils that had some genuine authority over the governing of their community in terms of both security and development. Elections themselves had been attempted often in the villages after the fall of Diem, but the perilous security situation limited their scope. From CORDS’s point of view, a more serious defect was that the elected officials were given almost no real authority. As a result, in 1969 CORDS instituted the Village Self-Development Program. Across the country, village councils were elected and given small “checkbooks” of U.S.-provided funds to spend on development projects. Once again, the Front did little to interfere, probably because it was engaged in desperate combat in some areas of Vietnam and was very limited in resources. For CORDS, however, the program was dis-

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appointing. Many of those running for election were affiliated with the Thieu government already. Many province officials resented the councils and ignored them if they caused trouble. In many villages, it was very difficult to find enough people to run for the many offices available, and when elections were contested, it was usually over matters of personality. There was, in short, no sign whatsoever of the development of political parties that might spread and give the South Vietnamese something to fight for beyond anti-Communism. And, as always, the element of fear kept many prominent villagers from supporting the effort. Even in the most “secure” village, no one was safe from the party’s “punishment.” The village “checkbooks” were one of a series of good deeds encouraged by Americans that went under the rubric of “civic action.” American civilian agricultural and technical advisers were active in much of Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta. They helped educate farmers and began a “miracle rice” program, which ironically helped Hanoi avert a food shortage after the war. They helped construct wells and rudimentary sanitary facilities. American province advisers often noted that American civilian aid workers could go to places considered extremely dangerous by the military yet were rarely molested. The peasants possibly appreciated the small benefits received, and the NLF saw no reason to antagonize the locals on an issue considered peripheral. Much the same could have been said about schools. In the first two years after American intervention, the NLF rarely bothered GVN-operated elementary schools (holdovers from the French era) in contested areas. Advisers believed that this was because NLF sympathizers sent their own children there. Advisers also reported that teachers were extremely careful to avoid controversial topics and stayed very close to the basics. This situation changed as the military situation changed, and the GVN began to add political indoctrination to the curricula. Americans provided villagers across the country with the funds and materials to construct hundreds of simple schoolhouses out of cinder blocks. The NLF often destroyed the schools immediately after completion, before they could even be occupied. American military units also engaged in a wide range of civic action projects. Wells were dug, schools were built, and roads were improved to enhance local trade. Particularly popular were the scores of traveling medical or dental clinics called MEDCAPS or DENTCAPS. In these cases also, the NLF almost never intervened. American officers knew that the NLF had only crude medical facilities and probably welcomed the temporary clinics for treatment of its own sympathizers. The major problem facing civic action and village development was that any impact it had was completely incommensurate with the damage caused by the war itself. When American forces raised the intensity of the military struggle


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inside Vietnam, the destruction in the countryside caused deaths, injuries, and property damage and triggered a mass exodus of people. At times, the refugee population neared 2 million people, most housed by harried GVN and U.S. workers in very poor conditions. Therefore, when considering elections held, schools built, roads improved, and medical aid given, one must weigh them against the massive violence caused by the war. For “nation building” to work in any form, it was absolutely essential, as CORDS quickly learned, to engage the NLF and defeat it. Unless Washington and Saigon could convince a large number of Vietnamese that Saigon could win, all other efforts were essentially irrelevant.

THE WAR AGAINST THE NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT As MACV planned for its first large battles against the PAVN and PLAF main force units, it received some jolting news. LBJ was utterly determined to prevent the Vietnam conflict from escalating into a larger war that might well include China or the Soviet Union. In practice, this position meant that a number of military options Westmoreland had hoped for were off-limits. This limitation disallowed an “Inchon”-type operation across the demilitarized zone or a thrust into Laos. There would be no blockade of North Vietnam. The bombing campaign was kept very restricted in targets. There would be no attacks on NLF sanctuaries and supply lines that ran from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and from the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. Rules of engagement inside Vietnam were the strictest by far ever employed by American forces. One can sympathize with Johnson’s concerns, considering that memories of the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis were fresh. With the battlefield confined to the South, Westmoreland had to “make do.” His general framework of operations called for a buildup of American forces throughout 1965 and 1966, interspersed with limited attacks when feasible. In 1967, he planned to initiate a series of large operations. Because territory had no relevance, the operations were intended to kill or capture the enemy. MACV consequently became saddled with the concept of “body count,” which most officers despised. Sometime in 1968, Westmoreland predicted, the Americans and South Vietnamese would be killing more enemy soldiers than could be recruited—the famous “crossover point.” While Americans were pressing the heavy enemy units, the ARVN and the GVN militia would launch small operations against NLF guerrilla units and protect pacification efforts.

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On the strategic level, what followed was a debacle. Whatever MACV or the Pentagon believed, Johnson and most of his advisers realized full well that American patience for protracted war without clear signs of success would be limited. In this environment, Westmoreland’s grand scheme was quickly ruined. He had the finest U.S. land force ever sent to battle. Because its entire structure revolved around the employment of firepower, however, it required long preparations to deploy units and huge amounts of supplies to be kept in the field for such deployments. For two years, Westmoreland could point to no large victory. The army was not yet there, and, indeed, NLF forces actually increased in number faster than did U.S. troops. The American force that was deployed had, in military parlance, a very large “tail” to support its extremely sharp teeth. In practice, only about one-third of the forces or less was available for actual combat at any given time. American soldiers in combat units entered a lethal environment. Behind each of them, however, were more men bringing supplies, building roads and facilities, and guarding lines of communication. Most of these support troops operated in relative safety, a fact that the combat arms knew well and deeply resented. While the Americans spent nearly two years assembling their forces, Hanoi and NLF military leaders pondered their response. Although the details are not clear, it appears that Hanoi favored a “protracted war” of small-unit actions interspersed with fierce attacks on isolated American units aimed at scoring psychological victories. NLF military leaders seem to have been more aggressive, confident that their advantages outweighed American firepower and thus that larger and more frequent battles could be risked. Hanoi initially had its way. During 1965 and 1966, the PAVN stayed largely on the sidelines, and NLF units fought a steady but low-level war of ambush, attacks by fire on American bases, and spare attacks on American patrols. Mines, booby traps, and snipers menaced American soldiers. Called “shoot and scoot” by the American GIs, these tactics worked wonderfully. No doubt the “kill ratio” usually favored the Americans because of superior training and greatly superior firepower. As American military intelligence began to appreciate, however, almost all engagements were started by the enemy, not the Americans. And, although attrition took a toll, the Front was not weakening, but getting stronger and receiving better arms. In 1967, Westmoreland launched his first large offensive operations. Employing a huge number of helicopters, the Americans attempted to trap whole enemy regiments in their fortified redoubts. Each of these big operations was a failure when measured against their expectations. The Americans would land, begin a sweep, and come up empty as NLF units either fled or went literally underground. These operations, however, did include some very dangerous moments when much larger NLF main force units attacked isolated American


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units at night. Each of these PLAF attacks failed, although some came very close to scoring the elusive mini-Dienbienphu success wanted by NLF commander Vo Nguyen Giap. Westmoreland put the best face forward. American commanders were pressured harshly for “results,” and this pressure went down the chain of command. Casualties on both sides mounted, but even then the NLF did not come close to the crossover point. Inflated claims of enemy casualties also increased. When Westmoreland visited Washington in late 1967 and made his optimistic report to Congress, he was making claims of phantom victories. Ironically, it was on the village level where American forces scored successes not well understood at the time. The army and marine divisions deployed to Vietnam built large base camps, basically small American cities inside a foreign country. In 1968, the Twenty-fifth Division main camp at Cu Chi hosted a population of 35,000, including dozens of NLF infiltrators doing menial labor. Although Westmoreland had not wanted to get deeply involved in the village war, the village war came to him. All these camps and their satellites were vulnerable to NLF attack, usually by mortar or rocket fire. Each morning, truck convoys filled with supplies faced the danger of mines or ambush. Whether they wanted to or not, American units had to patrol hamlets and villages near the camps and roads. The frustration of this war was intense, and the feelings between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were strained. During the period from 1965 to 1967, American soldiers operating close to base camps killed and wounded far more enemy combatants than did the units involved in the big search-and-destroy operations. In part because large operations were much more difficult during the sixmonth rainy season, American units went out on thousands of smaller patrols and ambush missions. Most of these missions resulted in no contact, but a violent firefight was inevitable for any unit put “in the grass” for any extended period. Americans also began to operate with the ARVN and sometimes Vietnamese militia on an ad hoc basis. Most GIs and marines had little respect for the ARVN, much less the militia. Conflicts between aggressive American officers and GVN officials were common, particularly if Americans employed too much firepower at the wrong time. Nevertheless, the Americans were instrumental in reinstalling a GVN presence in villages and hamlets long held by the NLF. During the rainy season of 1966, Twenty-fifth Division units installed Saigon officials in hamlets five hundred yards off provincial roads that had not seen a Saigon official since 1960. In such villages, government officials often left each day at sunset, but, even if tenuous in daylight, the GVN presence seriously weakened the NLF’s “leopard spot” strategy. GVN officials and militia might have left at sunset, but that meant that NLF officials left at dawn, often going only a few hundred yards away, but living in uncomfortable and often unhealthy surround-

The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973


ings. Along the Cambodian border, NLF “villages in exile” began to appear. They were populated by Front supporters driven from their homes by fighting. They preferred Cambodia to the GVN-run refugee camps, and the Cambodian camps became places of rest and recuperation, “R&R,” for cadres and NLF sympathizers. The most dedicated followers of the Front kept their faith until victory. The pressure, however, did erode the faith of those less committed. The Americans quickly saw the indirect impact of the increased levels of violence engendered by American deployment. In April 1963, American advisers persuaded a reluctant Diem to replicate a very successful amnesty program the British had employed in Malaya. Called Chieu Hoi (Open Arms), the program promised that any defector not known to be an NLF leader would be allowed, after a short incarceration and questioning, to enter South Vietnamese society. The number of “ralliers” (the term used for NLF defectors to Chieu Hoi) was initially small, but in 1965 to 1967 there were more than 75,000. The news was not all good from the American viewpoint, however. Most defectors were low level. Just as the GVN treated returning deserters with leniency, so the NLF accepted returning ralliers. Americans later realized that many ralliers had been guests of the government several times and, as one soldier put it, used the program as “Vietcong R&R.” American aid and military strength did accomplish one of Westmoreland’s goals. Relieved of the danger of imminent collapse, the GVN was allowed to increase greatly the size of its military and police forces. ARVN strength went from roughly 200,000 in 1964 to 343,000 at the end of 1967. Regional Forces, intended to operate at the province level, went from 96,000 in 1964 to 151,000 by the end of 1967. Popular Forces, somewhat less armed and operating at the district level, stayed about the same at 170,000. Neither of these forces was formidable, but during the same period they began to receive better weapons handed down as the ARVN was reequipped with the newest small arms in the American arsenal.11 In general, Saigon’s position in the countryside improved between 1964 and 1967. The improvement was relative and completely dependent on American presence. The NLF had lost some territory and suffered painful losses, but its morale remained extremely high. Indeed, its military leaders believed they were winning at every level. Revolutionary doctrine had always accepted the likelihood of high losses to gain victory. Westmoreland’s “big-unit war” was an utter dud. The frustration felt by every American soldier and officer was increasingly felt in the United States. It is impossible to say how long it would have taken, but had the Front and Hanoi stuck to protracted war, victory would have come earlier and at a far lower cost than proved to be the case. The NLF sent the conflict careening onto completely unexpected grounds with one of the century’s greatest military blunders, however: the General


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Offensive, known in the West as the Tet Offensive, of 1968 and 1969. The exact origin of Tet is unclear, but it appears very likely that it was launched at the behest of NLF military leaders and reluctantly supported by Hanoi. At present, most accounts describe Tet as a military defeat but a political victory for the NLF. If so, this result was due to the law of unintended consequences. There is absolutely no good evidence that Hanoi or NLF leaders planned the offensive to weaken American domestic morale. Had that been the aim, a much shorter campaign of perhaps three months would have done the job splendidly. Instead, NLF military leaders made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda. Party intelligence considered President Thieu a hopeless lackey, the ARVN a second-rate force filled with men who wished for either peace or an NLF victory, and the South Vietnamese urban population impoverished by the war and ready for revolt. They also believed, correctly, that Westmoreland was planning another series of search-and-destroy operations in the hinterlands, thus leaving the cities ripe for attack. The Front consequently decided to launch a massive assault aimed to bring victory in short order. Targets would be ARVN and GVN installations across the country. NLF leaders expected the collapse of the GVN rural apparatus, the disintegration of much of the ARVN, neutrality or defection by GVN territorial forces, and, finally, a “general uprising” of the urban population that would unseat Thieu and bring a coalition government to power. The first job of the new government would be to request American withdrawal. Each assumption proved completely wrong. American intelligence picked up the scent and was deploying for defense as the blow fell, dooming the NLF’s first mad rush into Saigon and other cities at the end of January 1968. Instead of collapsing, the ARVN fought with unexpected tenacity. The PAVN contribution of tying down American troops at Khe Sanh and Hue led to painful losses as the Americans were allowed, for once, to employ their fearsome firepower to deadly effect. By March 1968, the General Offensive was defeated. Had the NLF been wise, it would have accepted the verdict of the battlefield and lowered the intensity of the conflict. Instead, although American accounts of the General Offensive usually concentrate on the first dramatic weeks, NLF main force units remained deeply engaged, with some lulls, throughout most of 1968. When the NLF took a breather in the fall, the PAVN launched a fierce attack east of Saigon. When the dry season began again in early 1969, the NLF went once again to the attack, but they encountered U.S. and ARVN units that had deployed for the defense near the cities and were cut to pieces. After dozens of lopsided losses, the NLF leadership finally saw reason and reversed tactics with the rains in the summer of 1969 and almost literally melted into the jungle. After the war, General Tran Van Tra, a major commander and perhaps planner of the 1968 thrust, admitted that the assumptions behind the attack were “an illusion based

The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973


upon our subjective desires.” 12 In a year and a half, the NLF had nearly committed suicide. The flow of battle pushed the war in a direction desired by CORDS. Several major redeployments moved American divisions near the cities and into the most heavily populated areas north of the Mekong Delta. When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser, were determined to change the course of the war. In mid-1969, the new MACV chief, General Creighton Abrams, approved a document that recognized that most of American ground forces would be gone before the 1972 election. The White House soon made it clear to Abrams that what was being called “Vietnamization” required full American support. Absent in these instructions was any call for attrition, body counts, or military victories. Abrams responded with what was called the “one-war” strategy, which emphasized increasingly the position of Saigon politically and militarily.13 Komer was the first to see the new opportunity offered by the defeats of the NLF in 1968. Despite some initial fears by MACV and the GVN that more enemy attacks were coming and that the Allies should stay on the defensive, Komer argued that an urgent attempt should be made to expand the GVN’s physical presence in the countryside. Thieu was even quicker than MACV to support a call for a counteroffensive. Many South Vietnamese who had been aloof from the war effort were shocked by the ferocity and scope of the NLF attack. The result was an “accelerated pacification” program in the last three months of 1968 that was an unprecedented mobilization of the South Vietnamese population for war. By 1970, the ARVN fielded 516,000 men. Regional Forces and Popular Forces increased to a total of 532,000 men in the three years after Tet. The GVN thus had a military force of more than 1 million men by 1971. In addition, Thieu authorized a new village militia called the People’s Self-Defense Force, which was in theory to include every male sixteen to seventeen years old and older than fifty. About one-quarter of these new recruits were eventually given arms—perhaps 1 million men. American advisers never had high opinions of the People’s Self-Defense Force, but Thieu was having some success creating a tenuous tie between peasants and the government. Even if the tie was paper thin, it countered NLF efforts. In addition, the National Police, whose personnel ranged from dedicated anti-Communists to some of the most corrupt officers in the GVN, grew in strength from 50,000 to 120,000.14 After being mauled in the last stage of the General Offensive in early 1969, NLF main forces and local forces almost disappeared from most of South Vietnam. Perhaps half were dead or had rallied. In this environment, Thieu, more or less on his own initiative but with the complete support of CORDS and its new leader, William Colby, introduced a comprehensive land-reform program called Land to the Tiller (LTT). As might be expected, myriad problems from


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physical damage to a badly jumbled rural population hampered LTT, but it was the most effective “nation-building” action of the war. Thieu’s LTT law canceled rents and allowed renters to apply for ownership. The party launched a fierce propaganda campaign against it, reminding peasants not to be grateful to a thief who returns what he has stolen. Despite skepticism, the number of tenant farmers in South Vietnam plummeted by 1973, and the agricultural sector began to boom until the fierce PAVN offensive in 1972. In addition, because LTT was administered at the village level, village officials and even RD cadres were given jobs of genuine importance for the first time during the conflict.15 Implicit in the new direction was a lessening of American casualties, especially after the mutual U.S.–NLF bloodbath of 1968. It is often implied that pacification was less dangerous than the big-unit war. Prior to mid-1969, there was little evidence to support this proposition. After the NLF was sent reeling, however, it was true enough simply because the amount of fighting declined greatly. During 1968, the most violent year of the war, U.S. forces lost 14,600 troops. In 1969, the second most violent year, the United States lost 9,400, most in the first six months. In 1970, the figure dropped to 4,200. During 1971, with troop withdrawal well under way, the grim toll went down to 1,400. In 1972, with only airmen, military advisers, and some specialist units still in the fight, losses came to 300.16 The drop in U.S. losses did not mean that American forces were inactive. Indeed, many of the men killed or wounded during the fierce fighting of 1968 and 1969 were conducting operations that would have been considered area security—that is, aggressive patrols intended to find NLF military units and to try to keep them away from villages. When Vietnamization began, U.S. units conducted a large number of combined operations with ARVN and militia units. A project called the Combined Reconnaissance and Intelligence Platoons merged Vietnamese and American volunteers in raids in NLF areas and proved very successful. Many U.S. soldiers volunteered to be temporary advisers serving in Mobile Advisory Teams with the Vietnamese militia, occasionally doing good service if the Vietnamese unit was motivated or, more likely, had a grudge to settle. When the NLF main force units dispersed or fled to Cambodia, the village guerrilla forces were left to face the brunt of the American and Vietnamese military effort. Sensing the new situation, American commanders authorized a large number of sweeps with a small number of men, often only a squad. Smaller units meant more operations, more area covered, and more pressure put on NLF guerrilla forces. In 1970, immediately preceding large-scale withdrawal of entire divisions, the American military presented Saigon with a precious gift, Nixon’s “incursion” into Cambodia. Although this move proved a dreadful blunder in Ameri-

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can domestic politics (far more damaging to Saigon than any American disillusionment caused by Tet in 1968), it offered huge dividends for the pacification of rural Vietnam. As U.S. and ARVN units flooded into Cambodia and Prime Minister Lon Nol closed the port of Sihanoukville, PAVN and NLF military units were sent scurrying. NLF supply dumps were plundered, its “villages in exile” were dispersed, and the Front lost the huge benefit of having a safe haven to rest exhausted men. American soldiers soon left Cambodia, but the ARVN continued an on-and-off presence for more than a year. Indeed, in American eyes, the ARVN had done so well in Cambodia that Washington agreed to support a risky thrust into Laos in 1971. This operation proved that the ARVN could not defeat the PAVN on the attack, but such a maneuver would have been unthinkable only three years previously. The greatly improved military climate allowed the GVN and American forces to concentrate their efforts on the NLF’s political apparatus in rural Vietnam. In the early 1960s, someone coined the term “Vietcong infrastructure” (VCI) to describe the complex political network forged by the party in rural Vietnam to wage revolutionary warfare. Since the Diem period, every American proposal aimed at struggle with the NLF had called for a concentrated attack on the VCI. Every year, Americans criticized the GVN’s failure to make progress. Despite many uniformed Americans’ beliefs to the contrary, the GVN was well aware of the importance of the NLF’s apparatus. The shadowy and frequently violent war between the agents of the government and the insurgency had begun decades earlier during the French war. Diem’s National Police waged a fierce campaign against vestiges of the Vietminh until the latter were largely driven from the countryside. The struggle was, of course, two way. When possible, Saigon officials would target their enemies. And the party, for its part, assassinated 37,000 GVN officials and abducted another 58,000 from 1956 to 1972.17 It is safe to say that the struggle between the security organs of the respective sides was one of the most vicious in the entire fabric of war in Vietnam. Americans divided members of the VCI into two groups: illegal and legal. Although the designation was a bit counterintuitive, the illegal cadres were men and women operating as open functionaries of the Front at every level. Because their activities, to put it mildly, were in violation of Vietnamese law, they were illegal. The difficulty in “neutralizing” these individuals was simple enough: as long as the NLF held the initiative in rural Vietnam, they were extremely difficult to kill or arrest. The legal cadres posed as GVN sympathizers and operated in areas heavily contested or controlled by Saigon. Because their activities were clandestine and their identities were a closely guarded secret, the problem was not in locating the individual but in identifying him or her. At the apex of the VCI was the party’s shadowy Security Affairs section, the “Cheka”


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of the Vietnamese revolution. Their identities were unknown to all but the highest party officials because their function was to monitor not only GVN officials, but also party cadres.18 In mid-1967, CORDS began the controversial Phoenix program to centralize all efforts against the VCI. In its original intent, Phoenix was largely an effort to create dossiers of all known Front functionaries on the district and province level. Americans knew that during sweeps through villages, they unknowingly checked the crude identification documents of peasants who were in fact NLF activists. Once a “most wanted” list could be accumulated, it would be possible, or so the reasoning went, to target NLF cadres for arrest. Over time, such arrests were to weaken the NLF’s apparatus and to gather intelligence that would lead GVN security forces to identify the legal cadres. CORDS wanted Phoenix to be carried out by the National Police in the cities and towns and by the various militia units in the rural areas, figuring that the locally recruited militiamen would best know the identification and whereabouts of NLF cadres. The difficulty here was, as CORDS realized, that most militia units would fight in self-defense but were satisfied not to stir up trouble if the Front reciprocated. Many American province advisers believed that the GVN territorial forces and the NLF often reached open or implied “accommodation.” For this reason, U.S. units spent much time in joint operations with territorial forces after 1969. As American pressure increased, the number of sweeps went up, and the militia units began to pressure NLF guerrilla units. The National Police presented CORDS with a different challenge. The police had been early targets of the NLF assassination campaign. Many members were intimidated, but others were some of the most fiercely anti-Communist individuals fighting for Saigon. Throughout the war, they were on the sharp end of the war of terror, some driven by vengeance and hatred. National Police members were also heavily targeted by the best of the party’s agents. After the war, Americans found out that the National Police had been seriously penetrated by agents reporting directly to Hanoi. The most effective weapons in Phoenix were the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), which the CIA founded in 1962. PRU members were, depending on the witness, either ruthless thugs or dedicated anti-Communists. Many came from the National Police, and a few were NLF defectors. Although supposedly under control of the province chiefs, the PRUs were a closely guarded secret CIA appendage, and much about their activities is unknown. By 1969, there were approximately 4,000 PRU members, and the records available indicate that they were responsible for a very high number of “VCI neutralized.” Because the units were small, however, so too was their overall impact in a war that had swept up an entire nation by 1968.

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American advisers were mostly critical, even dismissive, of the Phoenix program. Between 1968 and 1972, approximately 82,000 VCI were listed by CORDS as neutralized. Of this number, 26,000 were killed, and the rest captured. Of those captured, most were low-level functionaries. Passed on to secret military tribunals, nearly half were released after little or no jail time, no doubt because many of those swept up were innocent altogether or were simply NLF sympathizers. Americans ostensibly discouraged torture, although this claim is impossible to verify. What disappointed CORDS personnel was the difficulty in capturing high-ranking party officials and the trickle of legal cadres apprehended. Also discouraging was the very low number of cadres captured or killed due to specific Phoenix operations. Most were the victims of regular U.S. and ARVN sweeps. More than 80 percent of those killed died in combat operations, and their neutralization was simple identification of the dead.19 Advisers and many in CORDS were bewildered by the extremely bad press that Phoenix received in the West. One province adviser commented that “more VCI have been killed falling off motor bikes than by Phoenix.” Another remarked that “if we had killed as many VC leaders as the press claimed we would have won that damn war.” Oddly enough, several accounts from the party after the war testified to Phoenix’s effectiveness. Some of this discordance might have been semantic. Many NLF documents employed the name “Phoenix” as a catchall for the entire village war. And, as historian Gabriel Kolko points out, the “low-level” losses to Phoenix disdained by CORDS struck at the heart of the mass-organization principles that guided the NLF and the Workers Party.20 Last, it is certain that, as one American infantryman put it, “the PRU guys . . . were definitely not the kind of guys you’d want meet in a dark alley.” 21 Although undoubtedly true, this fact must be weighed against the thousands of GVN functionaries “neutralized” by the party. By late 1970, CORDS was receiving a steady stream of information indicating that the NLF was in serious trouble and in a downward spiral. Every numerical indicator that the Americans used showed progress. Since 1967, CORDS had been using a controversial method of determining how many hamlets in Vietnam were GVN controlled, contested, or NLF controlled. In 1968, the statistics had GVN control at 47 percent, contested at 41 percent, and Vietcong control at 12 percent. In 1971, CORDS credited the GVN with controlling 83 percent of the population, with 17 percent of the hamlets contested. No one at CORDS took the statistics as solid, but only as indicators of a trend.22 More important, since the retreat of PLAF units in mid-1969, whole areas of South Vietnam had opened up to almost unimpeded travel by road. From captured documents, prisoners of war, ralliers, and the few VCI who talked, a clear image has emerged of Front travail. Documents show clearly


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that PLAF units had suffered extensive casualties in the General Offensive. In 1970, the overall number of PLAF effectives still remained near 200,000, a drop of only 50,000 from their peak in late 1967. The NLF was clearly having serious problems with local recruitment, however. Consequently, thousands of “fillers” were dispatched from North Vietnam for service in NLF units, which were increasingly losing their organic connection with the local population. Intelligence also indicated that many villagers had been seriously disillusioned by the NLF’s failure in the General Offensive. The Front had promised victory, taxed heavily, and recruited thousands of young men. All had been for nothing, and many of the young men had died. NLF leaders complained bitterly about falling morale, large declines in mass organizations, decline in the quality of rank-and-file NLF organizers, and the stress caused by continual U.S. and GVN operations.23 However badly the NLF was set back on its heels in 1971, it was far from defeated, though. The most dedicated of the cadres remained confident until the end, knowing full well that America was leaving and Hanoi was not. Weakness in the NLF did not equate to enthusiasm for the GVN. Thieu’s reelection in 1971 was something of a debacle in Vietnam. CORDS recognized that corruption remained rampant throughout the GVN. The Workers Party’s political apparatus was intact but weakened in every village in Vietnam outside of Catholic areas. Village guerrillas continued to join the Front, albeit at lower numbers, making the war dangerous for the leaving American troops until the last day. Many officers in MACV and not a few officials in CORDS believed that the GVN would not be able to keep up the progress when American troops completed their withdrawal. Saigon, however, showed no obvious sign of major slippage in 1971 beyond some signs that NLF organizations were rebuilding in areas that the Americans left. If anything, the NLF appeared to slip even further. Everything changed when the PAVN launched its withering “Nguyen Hue” Offensive in March 1972. Only extraordinary efforts by American advisers and airmen saved the GVN from collapse in the first month of the attack. Some ARVN troops fled, but others more than vindicated the most optimistic prognosis made of their combat skills. GVN tenacity and American aid ultimately slowed and stopped the advance. In the meantime, however, the NLF, reinforced by PAVN personnel, returned to rural Vietnam in force, reversing much of the progress made in the pacification campaign since 1968. This campaign ended with the Paris Peace Agreement in January 1973. The treaty was a death sentence to South Vietnam no matter what Nixon’s supporters retrospectively claimed about “peace with honor.” The Americans agreed to withdraw military and civilian support (CORDS was eliminated). Hanoi was allowed to keep the PAVN inside the borders of South Vietnam. Indeed, the PAVN controlled most of the Central Highlands, putting Saigon in an almost hopeless strategic quan-

The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973


dary. Exhausted by war and pounded by the world recession beginning in 1973, the GVN was ripe for collapse. Only the totality and speed of victory surprised Hanoi in 1975. Had South Vietnam been an island, it is very likely that the GVN would have won the village war. The undoubted progress made by Saigon and Washington during the war was due to their use of coercive force of all types. The party’s self-inflicted wound during the General Offensive of 1968 and 1969 greatly strengthened these efforts. Yet the village war had an immense importance in the war. It was the NLF and its military units that proved the most formidable opponents to the American military effort. PAVN units could come and go, but the NLF was there every day, causing casualties and wearing on the will of the American government and the American people. The party was not more virtuous than the GVN, and the new Vietnam created after 1975 proved a bitter disappointment to millions. The party was, however, stronger and better able than the GVN to make war. And to the extent that the Americans and GVN defeated the NLF, it took more than five years of intense war. There is nothing, in retrospect, that Washington could have done to have achieved the same task in a much shorter time and a lower cost. The Americans did not lose the Vietnam War as much as Hanoi and the NLF won it.

Notes 1. Quoted in Eric M. Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991), 62. 2. Gunter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 84, 191. 3. Quoted in Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat, 97. 4. Quoted in ibid., 108. 5. Ibid., 110. 6. Ibid., 110–12. 7. Quoted in ibid., 112. 8. Quoted in ibid., 114. 9. Ibid., 143; Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995), chaps. 5 and 6. 10. Quoted in Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat, 146. 11. Lewy, America in Vietnam, 455. 12. Quoted in Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat, 219. 13. Hunt, Pacification, 213. 14. Lewy, America in Vietnam, 455. 15. Ibid., 188.


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16. Jeffrey J. Clarke, Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965–1973 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988), 275. 17. Lewy, America in Vietnam, 454. 18. Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat, 258–59. 19. Dale Andrade and James Wilbanks, “CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future,” Military Review 86, no. 2 (2006): 10. 20. Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 397–98. 21. Quoted in Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam (New York: Penguin, 1993), 251. 22. Lewy, America in Vietnam, 192. 23. Bergerud, Dynamics of Defeat, 252.

Further Reading Bergerud, Eric M. Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. ——. Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993. Clarke, Jeffrey. Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965–1973. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. Hickey, Gerald C. Village in Vietnam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Hunt, Richard A. Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Lewy, Gunter. America in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Pike, Douglas. PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1986. ——. Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966. Race, Jeffrey. War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

9. Fighting for Family Vietnames e W o m en an d t he A m e r i c a n W a r Helen E. Anderson

Vietnamese tradition prepared women to fight and resist foreigners. In Vietnam, there has been a history of resistance to a series of foreign invaders. According to a traditional Vietnamese saying, “If the country is invaded by the enemy, the family will be destroyed.” 1 Another adage proclaims that when invaders attack, “even the women must fight.” 2 Female warriors who had resisted invaders in the past, such as the sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who fought against the Chinese in 40 c.e., were held up as true patriots and heroines to be emulated. After leading troops that defeated Chinese invaders, the Trung sisters later committed suicide by drowning themselves rather than surrender to the Chinese. Two centuries later, a Joan of Arc figure known as Lady Trieu also led a popular revolt against the Chinese. Stories of these martyrs have been memorialized in Vietnamese legend, and women who bravely fought invaders during the wars against the French and the Americans have been included in this heroic tradition. Although Vietnamese culture defined women’s roles in terms of bearing children and taking care of their homes and family, resistance of invaders who threatened the village’s safety was indeed part of the struggle to protect and save the family. Hence, the war against the Americans in Vietnam, a continuation of the war against the French, became a struggle to preserve the most important Vietnamese institution—the family. Nguyen Thi Dinh, who


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became legendary for her military contributions to this resistance, proclaimed that “there was no other road to take.” 3 A Vietnamese poet captured the feminine and fighting aspects of this exemplar wartime South Vietnamese woman: Nguyen Thi Dinh: In the assault you command a hundred squads. Night returns, you sit mending fighter’s clothes, Woman general of the South You’ve shaken the brass and steel of the White House.4 Most of the women who struggled, sacrificed, and suffered in the war against the Americans in both the North and the South are anonymous. They served in a people’s war that called for collective resistance for a common goal. The few whose stories were retold and whose names became well known were held up not to glorify them as individuals, but to inspire others to endure hardships and make sacrifices to improve their lives.5 Understanding the wartime contributions of the nameless female population of Vietnam is essential to understanding the outcome of the war. Today, the Vietnamese government line emphasizes the victimization of women in the war. They truly were victims. They were wounded, brutalized, imprisoned, and tortured. They lost their homes, husbands, and children. Women were, however, much more than victims; they were key players in the conflict. Vietnamese military historian and veteran Professor Nguyen Quoc Dung contends that women’s contributions accounted for the North’s victory. Statistics alone make a strong argument that womanpower was a significant part of the manpower that defeated the United States in Vietnam. Of the approximately 2.5 million soldiers sent by the United States from 1963 to 1973 to wage war in Vietnam, most served for one year. Of the approximately 2.5 million Vietnamese women who participated in the struggle against those American soldiers in both the North and the South, most served from their coming of age throughout the duration of the war or until their war-caused premature death. Estimates suggest that, altogether, almost 1.5 million women served in the North Vietnamese Army, the militia and local forces, and other professional capacities. In the army’s regular forces, which women could join after 1969, the number of women stayed small— around 60,000. Close to 1 million women were in local guerrilla and militia forces. Untold thousands came from government agencies, hospitals, and educational institutions to support the war effort. In addition, females made up between 70 and 80 percent or more of the 170,000 volunteers in the Youth Corps. The young people in the Youth Corps worked tirelessly to keep open the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the South, approximately 1 million women participated in the resistance as part of the National Liberation Front (NLF). About 60,000 Viet-

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cong soldiers were women, who composed approximately one-third of the guerrilla units that engaged in fighting.6 Besides being statistically significant, what specific contributions did these Vietnamese women make? What functions did they serve? Why did so many participate in the struggle? How did their traditional place in society contribute to their role in the war?

TRADITIONAL ROLES Confucian tradition in Vietnam, imported from China, defined women’s status in society as lowly and their position as one of subservience to men. According to the tenets of Confucianism, males were dominant, and females were to be obedient and submissive. Until marriage, a woman was obedient to her father; after marriage, to her husband; and in widowhood, to her eldest son. Because of the Confucian emphasis on males, childbearing—especially bearing sons—was such an important part of a woman’s duties that a woman who did not provide her husband with male offspring could be divorced, or her husband could take a second wife or a concubine in order to have sons. Families paid reverence to ancestors at altars in homes, but these honored, deceased relatives were the husband’s ancestors. Female subservience stemmed from the Analects, the compilation of sayings attributed to the Chinese sage Confucius on which traditional China’s social practices were based. Ironically, there is only one saying in the Analects that specifically addresses the status of women. In book XVII, number 25, the Master is quoted as saying: “Women and people of low birth are very hard to deal with. If you are friendly with them, they get out of hand, and if you keep your distance, they resent it.” 7 Later Chinese followers of Confucius elaborated on this passage in commentaries that clearly defined females as lowly in Chinese society. Other passages in the Analects instructed that people should conform to the rules of behavior appropriate to their status in society, and then there would be harmony and order in society—the ultimate goal in Confucianism. With Chinese conquests of Vietnam and the spreading of the culture of China—known as Zhong Guo, or the Central Kingdom—into Vietnam, China’s smaller neighbor adopted Confucian social practices. Prior to the infusion of Chinese culture, Vietnamese women had had a higher status in society, and even after the inroads of Confucianism, they were not in as lowly a position as Chinese women. For example, the Chinese practice of foot binding, whereby young girls’ feet were tightly bound and kept tiny, thus rendering females crippled and homebound, was not adopted in Vietnam. In both cultures, women owed obedience to their mothers-in-law, a practice that resulted in virtual servitude. Widows were duty bound to serve their mothers-in-law even after their


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husbands’ death. During the wars against the French and the Americans, many widows continued this traditional custom and did not remarry, reflecting the depth of these traditional family practices. Rural Vietnamese women were typically timid and passive in public affairs, not inclined to be revolutionary. Women’s traditional obedience and submissiveness, however, contributed to making them potentially obedient and dutiful resistance fighters against foreign invaders. Their historic inferior status, under both foreign and Vietnamese rule, made them a potentially revolutionary force that found affinity in the Communists’ revolutionary calls for women’s equality.8 Because of the traditional emphasis on family and childbearing, Vietnamese females were naturally reluctant to leave home and family to participate in the struggle against foreign invaders. Being involved in the fight against the Americans might mean being separated from one’s children, especially if one was arrested and imprisoned. Being part of the resistance might even mean not being married and not having children. That so many women would risk or relinquish this most important societal value during the war with the Americans shows the strength of their desire to resist foreign invaders, to protect their homes, and to elevate the status of their sex.

WOMEN AND THE ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM Vietnam’s armies traditionally relied on women to provide essential domestic services. Historically, in addition to occasionally fighting against invaders, women cooked, did laundry, and served as nurses for their husbands, sons, and brothers, who assumed the chief fighting role. Domestic chores performed for the soldiers were considered traditional duties and sometimes necessitated leaving home and following the men to their military camps. In the South, soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), particularly from 1965 to 1975, often brought their families to camp or had them stay nearby. In addition to providing first aid to the wounded, wives sometimes helped out during combat by passing ammunition to their husbands. Some ARVN wives reportedly relayed messages over the radio to help direct artillery fire after a radio operator had been killed. The role of ARVN wives, daughters, and mothers, however, was primarily domestic, not military.9 The Saigon government equated the work done by the women in ARVN camps with patriotism. In one of the pamphlets that the government distributed, women who took care of the soldiers were praised as patriots, and therefore domestic chores were officially characterized as patriotic. In fact, however, these women were motivated more by necessity than by patriotism. Poorly paid

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and inadequately supplied soldiers needed the traditional services of their female family members in preparing food, doing laundry, and nursing them and their sick or wounded fellow soldiers.10 Another main reason for this movement of families, besides the work to be performed, was security; soldiers wanted to make certain that their families were secure as the war made conditions less so. As Communist strength grew, the countryside became increasingly unsafe, and families sought the security of being in or near ARVN camps. Soldiers feared leaving their families in villages where they could be harmed—brutalized, raped, or killed—by ARVN, American, or NLF troops and where there was often not enough food, especially if the land had been defoliated by intentional U.S. spraying of herbicides. In addition, if the family’s home, village, or land had been destroyed, the family became refugees and had no where else to go. The soldiers and their families attempted to re-create traditional village life in the camps. Ironically, as Robert Brigham points out, some of these families had not previously been living a traditional village lifestyle but had in fact been following a more modern way of life. Their reverting to a stereotypical traditional village family life gave them comfort and a feeling of security.11 Despite the valuable domestic services and the psychological benefit that relatives in camp or nearby provided to the ARVN soldiers, their presence was also a liability. The need to protect these camp followers was a major concern and in sharp contrast to the military functions carried out by the women of the NLF. Americans were critical of the ARVN soldiers’ having their families in camp because it seemed to indicate that the soldiers lacked a “fighting spirit.” In reality, however, the motivation for the soldiers to fight was that they were fighting for their families. The importance of family and of keeping the unit together is evident in the high percentage of families that stayed intact when they emigrated as refugees in the aftermath of the war.12 In 1964, the Women’s Armed Forces Corps was established with 1,800 members as part of the ARVN. Although its size did increase somewhat, as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) military increased, it stayed relatively small, and only three women achieved the rank of colonel. Members of the Women’s Armed Forces Corps were not supposed to serve in combat, but some found themselves in battle situations, where they performed bravely. Medical and clerical duties were their intended function, although there were some female officers in the RVN intelligence unit known as the Police Special Group.13 Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Ngo Dinh Diem’s sister-in-law, recruited a few southern young women into a military unit called the Vietnamese Women’s Solidarity Movement. This uniformed unit marched and trained, and some of the “little darlings,” as she referred to them, did learn to shoot pistols— taught by Madame Nhu herself. This female military unit was very small, was


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taught to oppose immorality, and was mostly for appearances. It lasted only from 1955 to 1963, and like other efforts by the Diem regime to garner popular support, it did not meet with success. It did not compare at all with the guerrilla female fighting units in the South. Because her husband was President Diem’s brother and political adviser as well as the head of his secret police, Madame Nhu was able to get laws through the Saigon government that prohibited polygamy and gave women certain other rights. These new rights, however, did not match those proclaimed in Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary rhetoric that was drawing women to the NLF and the Communist Party.14 Although providing important domestic services, women associated with the ARVN did not contribute to the fighting force on a level comparable to that of women in the NLF in the South and in the Communist forces in the North. In playing only a very minor role in the ARVN’s military mission, women were thus an untapped resource—especially as compared with women on the other side, who left home to resist the enemy in numbers significant enough to affect the outcome of the conflict.

WOMEN AND THE NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT Women in the South who actually engaged in combat fought as guerrillas in the NLF, or Vietcong, against the U.S.–RVN war effort. Established in December 1960, the NLF sought to set up a coalition government that ultimately would be Communist controlled. Two women, Nguyen Thi Binh and Duong Quynh Hoa, were among the founders of the NLF. The NLF’s political agenda called for equality between the sexes in all aspects of society. Some estimates suggest that more than 30 percent of NLF cadres were women, and these women held more than 30 percent of district and provincial committee posts. About 40 percent of regiment commanders were female. The NLF engaged in armed struggle as well as in political struggle and established its fighting force, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), in February 1961. RAND Corporation reports suggest that by 1967 the PLAF may have been inducting twice as many women as men in some units. Some American soldiers confirmed the large number of women in the PLAF.15 Affiliated with the NLF, the Women’s Liberation Association was established on March 8, 1961, and traced its origins back to the women’s association begun by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. The Women’s Liberation Association was Communist dominated but included other nationalist groups. Its main functions were recruiting, organizing, and training women to oppose both the Saigon regime and the American invaders, as well as supporting the pro-Communist

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fighters. Its goal was to recruit at least 20 percent of rural women, who would be involved in the struggle at the village level. The local branches of the Women’s Liberation Association operated in the villages and in the markets, where women could meet under the cover of buying and selling produce or fish and carry on secret activities to aid the insurgents. At the market, information could be exchanged and supplies could be obtained for the guerrillas. The Women’s Liberation Association consistently denounced both the historic inequality of women and their exploitation under the South Vietnamese government: “Under the Diem regime they have been savagely violated, massacred, arrested, incarcerated, tortured, debauched, their thoughts poisoned, . . . and [they have been] forced into prostitution.” Association documents proclaimed that women’s inequality would end with the liberation of society and reflected the beliefs that women made successful revolutionaries and that their participation was essential to the revolution’s success: “Women represent half the population and at least half of the revolutionary effort. If women do not participate in the Revolution, it will fail. . . . Further, a society cannot progress if female members are retarded.” Any female older than age sixteen could join the association if she agreed “to follow the precepts of the association,” if she took “an active part in the struggle movement aimed at overthrowing the U.S.–Diem clique,” and if she had “a clean past and identity.” 16 With more than 1 million members by 1965—it claimed 1.2 million—the association was one of the larger mass movements and reflected the significance of women’s contributions in the American war.17 South Vietnamese women who fought against the Saigon government and the American forces during the war were called “long-haired warriors.” This patriotic label has been attributed to Ho Chi Minh, who used it to refer to women who fought for the NLF in 1960, but its origins may be traced back to female porters known as the “long-haired army” who contributed to the key victory over the French at Dienbienphu. Over time, the term came to be used for all southern women in the NLF. Because of a shortage of weapons, the “long-haired warriors” often trained with wooden imitations and then later acquired their weapons by taking them from enemy soldiers. Female guerrillas were particularly difficult for enemy forces to identify. Dressed in the black pajamas typical of Vietnamese peasants, these women could be “peasants by day, soldiers by night.” 18 Although some women in the South did engage in actual military action for the NLF, especially after 1965, by which time a shortage of PLAF soldiers had developed, the Front more typically relied on them for political struggle and for support in the armed struggle. The NLF’s “three-pronged attack” for women called not for combat, but for supporting the fighting forces in the rear: the traditional duties of providing food and clothing for the soldiers as well as nursing


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them back to health; harassment of the enemy; and political insurgency, which included recruiting others and spreading propaganda. By 1965, the NLF claimed that its membership included more than 1 million women, and as the bombing and killing escalated, and as anger toward the United States grew, more women joined the Front. Communist claims that by 1967 there were 2 million women involved in the armed resistance are probably exaggerated, but they do reflect the expectation that southern women would take part in the struggle. Women, from teenagers to the elderly, participated. Because women and the elderly were less likely to raise suspicion, they were especially valuable to the Front. Teenage girls distributed propaganda leaflets and did recruiting work by talking to soldiers and neighbors to persuade them to join with the NLF and to oppose the RVN. A well-known long-haired warrior, Nguyen Thi Dinh, actually began her work as a teenage revolutionary during the resistance against the French by dropping leaflets. She ultimately became deputy commander in chief of the NLF’s forces and led troops into battle.19 Even children participated in NLF activities through its youth organization, 30 percent of whose membership consisted of young girls. Those who became involved at an early age tended to continue with resistance activities—a fact known to the NLF leadership. In her autobiographical account, Le Ly Hayslip tells of her activities as a child working for the NLF in her village. She and other village children attended late-night meetings, where they sang revolutionary songs and where cadres instructed them. Organized into committees, the children watched for RVN informers among their neighbors and served as messengers between the village and the Vietcong out in the field. Le Ly and other small children helped the Vietcong with making booby traps and setting them in place and were especially useful in these tasks because they were “smaller and more agile” than adults. Other jobs for the village girls included sewing Vietcong flags and helping to dig trenches that the Vietcong could use to slip into and out of the village unseen.20 Women, especially those with children or family responsibilities, typically worked for the NLF in the villages. In addition to growing food, which they shared with the NLF soldiers, they washed the fighters’ clothes and provided them with clothing. They tended to sick or wounded fighters. At great risk to themselves and their children, they hid NLF members in underground pits dug beneath the dirt floors of their huts. They were the village lookouts, stationed on the outskirts of the village to warn of approaching enemy soldiers.21 They did not always voluntarily undertake tasks such as hiding guerrillas and serving as lookouts, though. Villagers were fearful of both ARVN soldiers and the NLF. Fear of reprisals from the Vietcong ensured compliance. Those who did not want to work for the NLF might face pressure from others—some of whom might be working as informants for the Front. Another reason that

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South Vietnamese women sided with the revolutionary forces was social acceptance and connectedness. As one woman later explained, “Life without a husband was possible. Life without relatives was possible. But life without a neighbor was not. I had to find one.” 22 In order to survive, even neighbors with opposite political loyalties had to cooperate and protect each other at times.23 Some women served as surrogate, foster, or “combat” mothers by adopting a particular guerrilla soldier who was in the area and caring for him as if he were a son or relative, thus continuing the traditional female role of nurturing mother. To protect themselves and him, they would say that he was a nephew or a son in response to ARVN soldiers’ queries about him. Women who sympathized with the Front might also serve as substitute mothers for ARVN soldiers. They tried to get useful military information from these adoptive sons. They also attempted to aid the revolutionary cause by helping these enemy soldiers desert and return home. There is evidence that these mothers would pray for the safety of their adoptive sons who fought in both armies. There was no contradiction in doing so because many South Vietnamese women did have birth sons fighting on both sides of the war.24 Southern women carried out a variety of activities that contributed to the ultimate outcome of the American war. Often going out at night, they blocked roads so that the guerrillas could ambush ARVN and American troops. Other typical activities included harassing ARVN and American forces with booby traps, such as boards with nails in them and the infamous punji stakes of razorsharp bamboo. They retrieved unexploded ordnance and used it to make grenades and mines. They also gathered intelligence. Posing as laundresses, servants, and peddlers, they spied on U.S. and ARVN bases and relayed information to NLF cadres. Because women typically did the marketing, their movement did not arouse suspicion, and they were therefore useful as messengers for the guerrillas. Messages could be memorized, or written messages could be hidden in the hollow bamboo poles of their marketing baskets or mixed in with smelly, dried fish—which police encountered along the way were not likely to search. Despite the villagers’ traditional passivity and the desire to stay out of harm’s way, women demonstrated against the government and the army in increasing numbers as the war continued, particularly after the increase in U.S. ground forces beginning in 1965. Acts by ARVN and American soldiers perceived as cruelty—bombing of villages or crops and killing of family members—prompted resistance activity. Women encouraged others to join demonstrations or to aid the NLF in various ways. For example, in 1966 women succeeded in shutting down the city of Danang by organizing a workers’ strike that lasted for seventysix days.25 When women participated in demonstrations or engaged in surveillance activities, they often wore several different colored shirts, one on top of another,


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that could easily be shed. Quickly removing a shirt of one color and suddenly wearing one of a different color served as a simple way to change one’s appearance to keep from being recognized and arrested. Most women remained anonymous, and their anonymity helped to protect them from capture and punishment. But there are also numerous accounts of women who withstood torture and of many who died as martyrs. The Women’s Liberation Association taught women English phrases such as “Don’t shoot” and “Me not VC” to protect themselves from arrest or harm when they encountered American soldiers.26 RVN officials captured and imprisoned women and even young girls who were suspected of guerrilla activities. The island prison of Con Son was the most infamous. There, female prisoners were kept in small open cells called “tiger cages,” exposed to the elements, and had lime dumped on their open wounds. Five shackled prisoners were confined in each tiny tiger cage. They had no sanitary facilities, received inadequate food, and were given only one set of clothing each year, which did not last the year. Survivors, remembering the barbaric conditions they had to endure, recounted how they shared dead birds or a captured gecko with their cell mates who were closest to dying.27 Because many of the southern villages were emptied of men in areas where there was guerrilla activity, it seems logical to assume that women were providing this guerrilla activity. As a consequence, women became the targets when the ARVN or Americans attacked, defoliated, or sought information. In the absence of young, healthy males, women took on more responsibilities in their villages and in the production of crops. Whether the men had voluntarily joined or been taken into the South Vietnamese army or they had gone north to fight or were fighting as NLF guerrillas, the women were often left behind to maintain the home, the village, and the supply of food as well as to carry out revolutionary activities. Historian Douglas Pike describes a woman’s role in the Front: Vietnamese women were far harder workers than Vietnamese men. Knowing this, the NLF passed the burden of sheer drudgery to the most likely candidates in the name of idealism. The Vietnamese woman grew the vegetables, raised the chickens, and poled the sampans to deliver food to guerrilla bands; she ran the market struggle movement, unmasked the spies, and led the village indoctrination sessions; she made the spiked foot traps, carried the ammunition, and dug the crosshatch road blocks. The woman was in truth the water buffalo of the Revolution.28

The Communists and the NLF were able to portray themselves as patriots fighting against foreigners, as in Vietnam’s past, because the Saigon government was allied with and obviously propped up by Washington. The United

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States was the foreign invader, and the U.S. ally—the South Vietnamese government—was therefore also the target of resistance. Opposing the foreign invader, Hanoi and the NLF could be seen as being allied with the peasants. Women responded to the challenges presented to them by joining with those who were fighting back—as the familiar, traditional saying admonished: “Even the women must fight.” Younger women, especially those without children or family responsibilities, were the ones to leave South Vietnamese villages to join the NLF in the more remote jungles or mountains, where life was hard and dangerous.29 Although women in combat most commonly fought alongside men, there were some all-female fighting units. One such unit was a guerrilla company known as C3, which was established in 1965 and was based in and operated out of the tunnels of Cu Chi. The Cu Chi district near Saigon was an area known particularly for its guerrilla activity and its hostility toward government and American troops. One member of C3, Vo Thi Mo, joined the unit and led other women in attacks within a year after the Americans had bombed out of existence her family’s home, land, animals, ancestral graves, and village. Only fifteen when that bombing occurred, Vo Thi Mo, like so many others, became filled with hatred for Americans. She stayed with the C3 unit for two years and participated in and led attacks against ARVN and U.S. forces in that unpacified area until the end of the war. Although the conditions were extremely difficult for the women who operated out of the Cu Chi tunnels, Vo Thi Mo was motivated to endure the hardships and the dangers because of her hatred toward the foreigners who were killing Vietnamese people and destroying the landscape. Among the many horrifying sights she witnessed in the tunnels, she saw a pregnant woman and a nursing mother killed and people napalmed. As was common, she was also motivated by a strong desire for revenge. In her first battle, Vo Thi Mo led a squad of teenage girls who carried obsolete rifles and some hand grenades in an attack on two U.S. tanks that had been heavily damaged on a mined road. Although the battle was more of a standoff than a victory for the teens, in hindsight it was a telling predictor that a small group of not-well-armed teenage girls hiding on the side of the road could tie down American soldiers in two heavily armed tanks. In being a standoff, the battle was typical. It was also typical in that female fighters generally did not engage in close physical contact with American GIs. There seemed to be an unwritten NLF racial rule—that did not exist for engaging ARVN soldiers— that females should be shielded from hand-to-hand or other close contact with Americans. In a later assault, Vo Thi Mo commanded a platoon of twenty-four female guerrillas who joined with a group of Vietcong males in a well-orchestrated


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move against a heavily fortified ARVN military base encircled with eleven fences, four of which were barbed wire. Vo Thi Mo was second in command of the second wave, and her girls advanced through nine fences, while the main group of males got through only five. Although that attack ended in failure when some of the mines, which had been kept in the tunnels and had become damp, failed to detonate, the plan was retried a month later. For the second attempt, Vo Thi Mo was promoted to second in command in the first assault group. She succeeded in getting through the barbed-wire fences and reaching the ARVN base headquarters. The entire mission was a success, but, as she later recounted, she was trouserless when she took prisoners because that item of clothing had been lost on one of the barbed-wire fences that she had crawled through! A short time later, while in the hospital recovering from wounds suffered during the Tet Offensive, she received a telegram awarding the Victory Medal Class Three—the highest—to her female platoon for its accomplishments during its attack on the ARVN base.30 Vietnamese men sometimes had to be convinced that their female compatriots could be useful. According to historian William Duiker, Vietnam was a “society that still reflected the Confucian concept of male superiority.” 31 Also, women were uneducated and suffered from high rates of illiteracy. Women such as Nguyen Thi Dinh who served in military leadership positions in the NLF were aware that men resented being commanded by a woman. A female guerrilla might disguise herself as a male to keep from alienating men in her unit. Female cadres also faced disapproval from other women. Female guerrillas appeared unfeminine to some village women because they talked, dressed, and engaged in activities that seemed masculine. Despite such disapproval, female cadres were held up as exemplary and feted by the Communist Party. Available statistics from sources sympathetic to the Front suggest that more than 30 percent of NLF cadres were women.32

WOMEN IN THE NORTH To Ho Chi Minh, women could play an important role in Vietnam’s liberation from foreign control as well as in the Communist movement. He instructed women in the revolution that they had three duties: to take care of their household and children, to raise food to help feed the soldiers, and to fight. Although these instructions were more closely adhered to in the North, where all citizens were mobilized, they were also carried out in the South by those who supported the Communist cause. Since the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, Ho Chi Minh had come to symbolize independence from for-

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eigners and had successfully led the revolution against the French colonizers. He also came to symbolize equal rights for women in a land where society still considered women to be subservient to men. His declaration of equal rights for women was well known in both the North and the South: “Women are half the people. If women are not free, then the people are not free.” 33 He called for an end to polygamy and concubinage and supported women’s right to vote, participate in government, have equal work opportunities, and earn equal pay. With illiteracy the norm for Vietnamese women, Ho’s promotion of education for women was one more way that his ideology appealed to females in the South as well as in the North. To Ho, “half of society” needed to be liberated in order for national liberation and socialism to succeed. He instructed women not to wait for others, including the party and government, to liberate them. They should liberate themselves.34 The Indochinese Communist Party was identified with rights and opportunities for women from its inception. The emancipation of women went hand in hand with class emancipation. The party platform called for women to take part in the revolution and emancipate themselves, and from its beginnings in the 1930s the party recruited women. At the meeting of the Central Committee of the Eighth Plenum on August 16, 1945, the party pledged, among other things, equality for women. A party document in 1961 reaffirmed: “Women are not only equal to men in society, they are also equal to their husbands. . . . We plan to liberate all women to be totally free and equal in society and in their families.” 35 It enumerated some areas in which women would be equal to men: in land and property holding, in elections, and in jobs and wages. It also called for the end of polygamy. Even though the Communist Party espoused equality for men and women, its leadership was in fact male. Despite this patriarchy, the Communist movement, Ho Chi Minh, and the NLF attracted women because of their identification with resistance to foreign invaders as well as their offer of equal rights and opportunities for women. In addition, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) glorified female fighters in the heroic tradition of the legendary Trung sisters. These Communist propaganda themes were more successful in recruiting women than the Saigon government’s attempts.36 The all-out war mobilization of women in the North was in sharp contrast to the role played by the women in the ARVN. In the North, practically all females received military training, including combat training. The DRV did not, however, draft women. The few who served in the People’s Army of Vietnam held noncombat jobs providing medical care, defusing bombs, and handling supplies. They were usually young and childless. Women were responsible for most of the defense of the North, including the anti-airstrike defense. They shot down a number of U.S. aircraft and tended to residents who were injured in the


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bombing. In response to U.S. bombing raids in August 1964, the Women’s Union launched the Three Responsibilities Movement, which included defense as one of the many duties expected of females: “Women should join in defending the village, and maintaining order and security. They must bring supplies to the combatants, find lodging for them, and look after the wounded. To take direct part in the fighting, they should join the people’s militia and undergo combat training.” Other responsibilities included taking “charge of family affairs in the absence of a husband or a son; giving assistance to the fighters at the front and undertaking, if necessary, combat duties.” 37 Women were also called on to increase agricultural and economic production, advance their knowledge and skills to aid the revolution, ensure that their children received a good education, and look after the elderly and the soldiers’ families. The extensive duties called for by the Three Responsibilities indicate that women played a vital role in Hanoi’s official war effort.38 Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, young women worked arduously under extremely dangerous conditions with old-fashioned hand tools to keep open this main artery for the movement of troops and supplies from the North to the South. The Volunteer Youth Corps, the majority of whom were teenage girls, began in 1965 with the goal of building and maintaining the roadways that soldiers and trucks used at night to transport materials for the war effort. On June 21, 1965, the Hanoi government called for an Anti-U.S. National Salvation Assault Youth Unit. After Ho Chi Minh made a personal appeal on July 16, 1966, numerous youths volunteered. From 1965 to 1968, in response to American bombing, 70,000 teenage girls left home to work on building and repairing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Unlike army regulars, they generally received no training. Most of the girls were seventeen to twenty years old. The minimum age was supposed to be fifteen, but some were as young as thirteen. The majority were from the countryside and had not gone beyond seventh grade; some were illiterate. The teens felled trees, dammed up streams with rocks, built roads, filled in bomb craters, repaired bridges, defused unexploded bombs, and took care of soldiers passing through. They also occasionally shot down enemy aircraft. One female survivor later recalled: “In emergency situations we worked day and night. If the trail was blocked for just one hour there’d be a terrible traffic jam and that was an invitation to American bombers. Anytime bombs hit the trail, we had to rush out and fill in the craters immediately.” She explained that life in the jungle was “extremely hard,” and “we ate whatever we could find,” including “aircraft vegetables”—fungus and moss scraped off rocks, “the only edible things left after all the bombing.” 39 Food went to the soldiers and to the South, and the volunteers often had to learn to live off the land. The backbreaking labor, hunger, and danger were accompanied by malaria. According

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to another survivor, “Almost everyone got malaria and quite a few died from it.” 40 The girls witnessed terrible scenes as their fellow workers succumbed to death from disease, bombing, exhaustion, and work accidents. They also tended to the wounded and buried the dead. A bar of soap for washing their hair was a rare luxury, as were dry clothes. Unaware that the work would be as difficult and dangerous as it was, teens volunteered for a variety of reasons—because they were patriotic, because the prospects seemed exciting, because their poor families would have one less mouth to feed, or because others were volunteering. Whatever the reason, most believed that they “had no choice” because the American bombing provoked a desire for revenge and required that they protect their homes. According to scholar Karen Turner, “What the American side did not factor into the equation was the anger of women, who would sacrifice their lives to save what they had—their homes.” 41 During the battle of Dienbienphu in 1954, female porters had made important contributions to the defeat of the French by hauling extremely heavy loads of munitions and provisions on shoulder poles to resupply the Vietminh fighters. Half of those who carried the supplies were females. During the American war, females made similarly significant contributions by carrying massive loads of supplies on their backs to the battlefields. The women’s political activism and guerrilla activities against the French were preparation for the war against the Americans. By the time of the American war, some women were veteran fighters. They gave up their youth and their lives to contribute during the national emergency, and their experience, determination, and dedication made them a valuable asset in the victory over the enemy.42

CONCLUSION: THE UNSEEN FIGHTERS As bombs fell and the Vietnamese worked tirelessly to keep supply routes open, America’s war in Vietnam dramatically altered the country’s landscape and society. Vietnamese women in both the North and the South left home and family to save home and family—to defend traditional values. They waged war for the goal of peace. Girls who suffered but survived and returned home at the conclusion of the war had been sustained not just by their commitment to the cause of national liberation, but also by their dreams of returning home to normal family life. At the war’s end, however, many of these women were no longer young, healthy, and able to bear children. One woman reported that when she came home, her health, ruined by malnutrition and disease, was not good enough to have a family: “Living in the jungle for so many years made us look terrible.” She explained, “After the war we came home hairless with ghostly


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white eyes, pale skin, and purple lips.” 43 As Turner discovered in talking with survivors, “stress, back-breaking labor, malnutrition, contact with death and blood had eventually robbed these young girls of the very future they sought to defend when they left home in the first place.” 44 One northern woman who volunteered after members of her family were killed by American bombs recounted: “The hope that I could raise children in a safe place one day kept me alive. It was what I was fighting for. And I was lucky. I survived when so many died. I have children when so many stay alone.” 45 In the aftermath of the war, those who were able to give birth suffered high rates of stillbirths and abnormalities in their babies due to the chemical defoliants used during the war. Some women who knew that their bodies had been exposed to chemicals that potentially cause birth deformities avoided pregnancy.46 Fighting the Americans and the French before them, Vietnamese women embodied traditional Vietnamese Confucian values that emphasized their duties to family, home, and husband. This tradition of female subservience would seemingly have precluded women’s leaving home and fighting against the Americans, yet they did in significant numbers in both the North and the South. Defeating America meant removing that threat to the family, home, and village. Ho Chi Minh and the Communist cause therefore provided a way of saving the traditional Vietnamese way of life in the face of assault from foreign invaders. Although many women departed from home and family to resist America’s invasion and to flee untenable conditions, leaving home often meant a departure from traditional values as they took on new roles and new positions of responsibility and authority. In the North, the number of women in the workforce grew from 170,000 in 1965 to 500,000 by 1969, and all professions were open to them, including medicine and engineering. Even though women were officially equal in the North prior to the American war, equality was not the practice. Anecdotal evidence reveals that during the war, attitudes changed, and North Vietnam became “gender neutral,” even though all of that progress was not maintained in postwar Vietnam. Those who returned home were changed. Many had learned to read and write in the jungles. They were more confident and to varying degrees were liberated. Some who found wartime village life in the South untenable fled to the cities, where they supported themselves by working for and entertaining the troops. Many became bar girls. Saigon, in particular, became notorious as a city of brothels. Others sought survival in the cities by taking positions as nannies, housekeepers, or anything else they could find. While providing womanpower in the resistance, women also assumed, in the absence of males, the responsibility for feeding the population of the country in both the North and the South. Those who stayed in the villages took on more responsibility for running the village as well as filling positions of author-

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ity in the Front. Thus the war accelerated the process of modernization and ultimately weakened some traditional values.47 In today’s Vietnamese society, however, female veterans who are husbandless and childless are the most pitied because women who are wives and mothers, especially mothers of sons, are still at the top of the social ladder. In the postwar society, a woman’s role continues to be defined within the family, and in that way the traditional female role is unchanged.48 During the American war in Vietnam, Vietnamese women typically were unseen fighters—their significant numbers and contributions unnoticed by American military planners. Military strategists focused on regular forces, and, in ignoring or discounting the irregulars, they overlooked the role played by the female half of Vietnam’s population.49 Among the problems associated with the U.S. attrition strategy, in which enemy soldiers were to be killed at a faster rate than they could be replaced, was that it ignored the large number of Vietnamese women who substantially strengthened the DRV and NLF’s ability to withstand U.S. military pressure. Vietnamese women had historically participated in resisting enemy invaders to protect their homes and family, and the continuation of that traditional practice was a critical factor in America’s defeat in the war in Vietnam.

Notes 1. Sandra C. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 35. 2. Karen Gottschang Turner, with Phan Thanh Hao, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam (New York: Wiley, 1998), 5. 3. Quoted in Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 47. 4. Quoted in Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 37; see also 5, 83, 95. And see Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 19, 73; Tom Mangold and John Penycate, The Tunnels of Cu Chi (New York: Berkley Books, 1986), 229; and Elizabeth Urban Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, 3 vols., edited by Spencer C. Tucker (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1998), 2:824. 5. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 20. 6. Turner obtained these North Vietnamese statistics from Professor Dung; see ibid., 20–21, 35. See also Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 6, 60; and Karen G. Turner, “ ‘Vietnam’ as a Women’s War,” in A Companion to the Vietnam War, edited by Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002), 94–95. 7. The Analects of Confucius, translated and edited by Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage, 1938), 216–17.


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8. Sandra C. Taylor, “The Long-Haired Warriors: Women and Revolution in Vietnam,” in The Vietnam War: Its History, Literature, and Music, edited by Kenton J. Clymer (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1998), 101; Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966), 176–77. 9. Robert K. Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 112–15; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 826. 10. Brigham, ARVN, 116; Mangold and Penycate, Tunnels of Cu Chi, 235. 11. Brigham, ARVN, 112–13, 116–17. 12. Ibid., 118, 126–29. 13. Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 824–26. 14. Ibid., 824; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 35, 94; Taylor, “Long-Haired Warriors,” 99. 15. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 16, 36–38, 123; Taylor, “Long-Haired Warriors,” 98; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 824; Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Penguin, 2003), 465. 16. Quoted in Pike, Viet Cong, 172–75. 17. Ibid.; William J. Duiker, Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 144–45. 18. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 2, 7, 70, 72, 77; Duiker, Sacred War, 87. 19. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 37–38, 47, 59–60, 71–72, 76, 78; Duiker, Sacred War, 153; Mangold and Penycate, Tunnels of Cu Chi, 229. 20. Le Ly Hayslip, with Jay Wurts, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace (New York: Plume, 1990), 39–42; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 97, 100. 21. Duiker, Sacred War, 145. 22. Heonik Kwon, “Co So Cach Mang and the Social Network of War,” in Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, edited by Mark Philip Bradley and Marilyn B. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 205. 23. Ibid., 204–7; Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 69; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 39; Duiker, Sacred War, 145. 24. Kwon, “Co So Cach Mang,” 205; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 824; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 48; Duiker, Sacred War, 66–67; Taylor, “LongHaired Warriors,” 102. 25. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 38–39, 59, 61, 69; Taylor, “Long-Haired Warriors,” 97–101; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 824. 26. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 48, 51, 69–70; Taylor, “Long-Haired Warriors,” 106. 27. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 85–86; Appy, Patriots, 229–30.

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28. Pike, Viet Cong, 178. See also Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 43; and Taylor, “Long-Haired Warriors,” 101. 29. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 55–56. 30. Mangold and Penycate, Tunnels of Cu Chi, 228–40. 31. Duiker, Sacred War, 144. 32. Ibid., 145; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 38, 40, 47, 69; Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 37–38. 33. Quoted in Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 23. 34. Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance, and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 1972), 216; Taylor, “LongHaired Warriors,” 95, 102; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 9–11, 23, 58. 35. Quoted in Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 54–55. 36. Ibid., 13–14, 24, 32, 54–55; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 826; Duiker, Sacred War, 145; Rowbotham, Women, Resistance, and Revolution, 209. 37. Quoted in Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 57. 38. Ibid., 19, 57–58, 85; Alexander, “Vietnamese Women in the War,” 826. 39. Quoted in Appy, Patriots, 104. 40. Quoted in ibid., 106. 41. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 83; see also 3, 33–35, 73–75, 81–83, 97–98, 103–9, 141; and Appy, Patriots, 103–6. 42. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 31, 42, 59; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 27–28; Duiker, Sacred War, 87. 43. Quoted in Appy, Patriots, 106. 44. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 4. 45. Quoted in ibid., 16. 46. Ibid., 1, 58; Turner, “ ‘Vietnam’ as a Women’s War,” 108; Appy, Patriots, 106. 47. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 20, 58–59, 117, 124, 135; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War, 66; Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 111–22. 48. Turner, Even the Women Must Fight, 68, 81, 152–53. 49. Turner, “ ‘Vietnam’ as a Women’s War,” 94.

Further Reading Hayslip, Le Ly, with Jay Wurts. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace. New York: Plume, 1990. Taylor, Sandra C. “The Long-Haired Warriors: Women and Revolution in Vietnam.” In The Vietnam War: Its History, Literature, and Music, edited by Kenton J. Clymer, 91–112. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1998. ——. Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.


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Turner, Karen Gottschang. “ ‘Vietnam’ as a Women’s War.” In A Companion to the Vietnam War, edited by Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, 93–111. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Turner, Karen Gottschang, with Phan Thanh Hao. Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam. New York: Wiley, 1998.

10. Vietnamese Society at War Robert K. Brigham

In 1972, Frances FitzGerald published her prize-winning book Fire in the Lake, a critical examination of the war in Vietnam. Drawing largely on interviews and government sources, FitzGerald was one of the few Western scholars at the time to pay much attention to the Vietnamese and their views of the war. With elegant prose and a sharp mind, she sought to provide an overarching framework for the war to help explain the Communist Party’s success. She was particularly interested in the relationship between Marxism and Confucianism, sensing that Vietnam had a hierarchical, patriarchal political tradition that made both of these imported precepts attractive to passive peasants. She concluded that “for a Communist as for a Confucian . . . the state was monolithic. It did not represent the people, it was the people in symbolic form.” 1 Furthermore, she believed that Vietnamese traditions dictated that whoever had the mandate of heaven—legitimacy in the eyes of the people—would win the contest for political control. This mandate could not be demanded. Leaders earned it through practice of the great virtues—honesty, obedience, and duty. Where the French and Americans went wrong, FitzGerald suggests, was in creating activist administrations that replaced the ritualized Confucian state. Sensing this problem, the Marxists tailored their revolution to Confucian traditions. For centuries in Vietnam, Confucian doctrines had focused on the welfare of the whole society rather than on that of the individual. When Buddhism was


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introduced to Vietnam in the second century c.e, it complemented Confucianism by offering peasants an inner life. Nevertheless, according to FitzGerald, rural Vietnamese looked to the tradition-bound political order for safety and harmony. The Confucian tradition in Vietnam differed in important ways from Chinese society, which gave the Vietnamese revolution its unique status among international socialist movements. FitzGerald argues that outside the family, the village was the most important social unit in Vietnam. Whereas China paid particular allegiance to extended family clans, Vietnam organized its political and social culture around these closed, corporate villages that regulated their own affairs and held land for the common use. When outside forces, such as the French and the Americans, threatened the existing social order, the peasants looked to the village for protection and safety, but also to a patriarchal political order that valued Confucian traditions. The Marxists, with their firm understanding of Vietnamese traditions, naturally and inevitably filled that void. It should be noted that FitzGerald was not the first scholar to provide an indigenous cultural explanation for the success of the Vietnamese revolution. Indeed, throughout her book, she pays tribute to French sociologist Paul Mus and his ideas on the anticolonial struggle. Mus, a former French imperial official, emphasized the notion of a cosmology of Marxism and Confucianism to explain Vietnamese peasants’ acceptance of Communism.2 He argued that many Vietnamese peasants served the revolution so willingly because they found in it strains of tradition-bound rural life. The hangover effect from long-standing Confucian practices conditioned peasants to accept the Communist Party’s discipline, much like a son accepted his father’s rule. This acceptance, of course, would lead the party to victory over the French and then over the Americans and their allies in Saigon. For Mus, therefore, much of the revolution’s success was predetermined. It drew on the best customs and conventions of Vietnam, ideas and attitudes that peasants longed for in the midst of colonialism. Mus was also enamored with the idea of pre-French purity in Vietnam. He argued that the French had no chance of ruling successfully because colonial policies had stripped the sense of collective obligation and mutual support that was the cornerstone of rural life in Vietnam. The “new” village under the French introduced social stratification and inequality and in the process paved the way for the Communists, who promised to rid Vietnam of outdated traditions, but also to preserve a life lived in common. Anthropologist Neil Jamieson has joined those who use a Confucian interpretation of the modern Vietnamese revolution. In his book Understanding Vietnam, Jamieson argues that traditional Vietnamese culture was subject to unacceptable stress caused by French colonialism.3 As a result, the yin (male dominance, rigid hierarchy, strict orthodoxy) and the yang (female participation, egalitarianism, increased spontaneity) balance of traditional Vietnamese

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society was off center. Once this balance was disturbed, Vietnam’s vanguard of young intelligentsia reacted by adapting French attitudes toward individualism, leading them toward the yin subsystem. After a decade or so, however, many of these young Vietnamese found yin individualism unfulfilling and sought the community of a yang “supervillage”—the Communist Party. The party’s patriarchal nature provided a traditional sense of belonging and community. It restored the proper balance between yin and yang and thereby guaranteed the revolution’s success. Jamieson’s command of Vietnamese-language materials shows up in his work in the form of valuable translations of a vast array of literary works, all of which support his yin–yang cultural thesis. One of the leading Vietnamese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Nguyen Khac Vien, supports many of Jamieson’s claims. In his most important essay, “Confucianism and Marxism,” Vien notes that “for ten centuries Confucianism was the intellectual and ideological backbone of Vietnam.” He argues that Confucianism was even more influential in shaping the revolution than “the law of historical development.” 4 Vien consistently maintains that the similarities between Confucianism and Marxism are profound. Both stress social order; both believe that there are laws governing historical forces; and both emphasize duty and obligation to a society as opposed to individual rights. He concludes that these similarities made it easy for the vanguard of the anticolonial movement to accept Marxism. In Vien’s view, once the revolution focused squarely on Vietnamese political traditions, there was no stopping it. He therefore stresses continuity with Vietnam’s past and unity within the revolutionary movement. Vien, however, has had many challengers. David Marr, a former U.S. marine in Vietnam and noted scholar of Vietnamese history, was an early critic of Vien’s approach to history. Marr has suggested that the “continuity thesis” arose out of conservatism and politics. He writes: Why the continuity thesis has been so pervasive is an interesting question in itself. Presumably some of the historians have found in it a comfortable reaffirmation of their own conservative philosophy of life. Others have tended to confuse the wish to condemn imperialism morally with the more objective question of determining exactly what factors helped or hindered the imperialist and anti-imperialist causes. Among Vietnamese Marxists there has been the additional desire for historiography always to serve politics—both when employed as an analytical tool and when used as propaganda.5

For Marr, the cultural critique locks Vietnamese history into a static position, denying it the dynamic forces that were taking shape inside Vietnam during the anticolonial struggle and the American war. By stressing the strong relationship


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between Confucianism and Marxism, these works, according to scholar Kim N.  B. Ninh, attempt to “construct a natural teleology of Vietnamese anticolonialism and nationalism in which communism was the logical end.” 6 The search for the essence of Vietnamese national culture and identity was an important step in the development of the scholarly literature on Vietnam’s modern history, and these studies contributed greatly to our understanding of the French and Americans in Vietnam. It may be time, however, to take a closer look at Vietnamese society at war divorced from this “continuity thesis.” For example, several recent studies have suggested that the ties between Confucianism and Marxism may be overdrawn. In his book Print and Power, historian Shawn McHale argues, “Confucianism’s impact on Vietnam has been exaggerated and misconceived.” McHale believes that Confucianism had a deep impact on certain areas of human thought and behavior, but that the “vast majority of Vietnamese did not understand Confucianism as a coherent and structured doctrine, sharply distinguishable from other teachings and of such power that it fundamentally transformed daily practices and beliefs.” 7 He is also leery of any attempt to depict a Vietnamese national character and even more reluctant to say that culture and tradition played much of a role in the war. For McHale and many others, the problem with the cultural argument is that it denies any social basis for the Vietnamese revolution. Those studies that have examined the modern Vietnamese revolution as a social process have tended to focus their efforts on how the Communist Party was successful in recruiting cadres and waging war at the village or provincial level. In these works, the village is a static, stable environment where peasants passively wait for signs of a return to their tradition-bound lives. These works stress continuity, not change, even in the face of an international conflict. What seems to be missing in the scholarly literature is a sustained investigation of Vietnamese society at war outside the culturalist framework put forward by Paul Mus and others. Instead of looking at the war as something that entrenched traditional Confucian values at the village level, thereby making it easier for the Communist Party to recruit villagers to its cause, perhaps it is time to look more deeply at the socioeconomic conditions of the village. Such an examination reveals that there was nothing predetermined about the war’s outcome or about the relationship of Vietnam’s peasants to the political and social order in Hanoi or Saigon. Instead, it argues that rural village life was fluid and unpredictable, that the war disrupted much of the legacy of tradition that the “culturalists” say the Communists capitalized on for victory. Rather than being in a static rural society that held on to traditional notions of community even more fiercely because of the war, Vietnamese villagers living in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) experienced an erosion of the historic sense of an orderly and harmonious Confucian society. The forced migration of

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nearly half of the peasants in southern Vietnam to urban settings or to makeshift refugee camps also meant that neither the Communists’ radical program nor Saigon’s counterrevolutionary agenda found fertile soil in traditional values. Instead, the Vietnamese people experienced the war and politics in multivalent ways, with economic and social issues at the forefront of their lives outside of combat. Socioeconomic dislocation, not continuity and unity, was the normative way of life during the war. A handful of scholars have published works that include some aspects of this idea, most notably David Elliott’s The Vietnamese War.8 What needs emphasizing, however, is the transformation of rural Vietnamese society as villagers left the countryside for urban centers. This migration was more than just a simple relocation in a time of war. It forever changed the relationship that villagers had with the rural economy and with one another. Forced urbanization, commercial activity, and the perils of war changed villagers into individuals responding to their own needs, but within a new urban—and often foreign—context. Tran Van Giau, one of the revolution’s leaders in the South during the American war, noticed this fundamental shift. In a postwar explanation of the failure of collectivization to take hold in the Mekong Delta, he suggests that economic shifts caused by urban migration “changed the rural lifestyle in a number of ways and thus altered the traditional way of thinking of the peasants in some ways.” 9 As Giau notes, even for the peasants who remained in their home villages, the economic changes brought about by the war were overwhelming.

THE VILLAGE AND URBANIZATION The temporary division of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel following the Geneva Accords of 1954 did little to alter sociopolitical culture in the southern part of Vietnam. This region had never been fertile ground for the kind of harmonious Confucian society that Mus and others claim existed in southern villages. Instead, southern society was marked by its blending of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese influences. Southern society had been an interesting sociopolitical mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, and highlander culture wrapped inside a frontier mentality. Several recent studies have suggested that Confucianism, itself a borrowed concept from the Chinese, was first simplified in Vietnamese society and then pushed aside as a philosophy.10 They challenge the notion that Confucianism made deep inroads in Vietnam in the period between the Le and independent Nguyen dynasties (1428–1883). Although the ruling elite clearly accepted the exam system and other forms of Confucianism, the philosophy’s influence was at best uneven. It now seems clear that by the eighteenth century, Confucianism’s impact at the village level in the South was


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negligible. According to some Vietnamese scholars, by 1800 there were only traces of Confucianism there, most notably in a small colony of Confucian scholars in the Mekong Delta at Ha Tien.11 By the end of the nineteenth century, according to historian William Duiker, the Vietnamese court in Hue had become so weak that “a general breakdown in the effectiveness of Confucian institutions” had occurred.12 During the French colonial period, there were calls for a revival of Confucianism to help organize society against imperial rule, but these efforts fell short. In the 1920s, the French closed all Confucian schools. The number of young Vietnamese men with knowledge of the Chinese classics dropped dramatically, and Confucianism slowly became a thing of the past. In the twentieth century, as McHale has noted, “Confucianism as a systematic and coherent body of beliefs had faded in importance by mid-century, and very few institutions specifically aimed at the propagation of its teachings remained.” 13 What did exist in southern Vietnamese villages in the postcolonial period was an amalgam of neo-Confucian precepts and borrowed ideas that had helped form modern sociopolitical culture in the Nam Bo frontier. Among the neo-Confucian principles, the most important were on (high moral debt) and hieu (filial piety). The belief in on was instilled in Vietnamese at a young age. Children were taught that they owed their parents a moral debt of immense proportions. The debt could never be fully repaid, but children were expected to try to please their parents constantly and to obey them faithfully. A child’s greatest comfort would come from the knowledge that he or she had reduced the burden of work on his or her parents. The debt did not diminish with age. As parents grew older, responsibility for their care rested more heavily on the children’s shoulders. A person who chose to dismiss the moral debt and live according to his or her own aspirations and desires was ostracized from a society where social standing within the family determined everything, even what one called oneself and others. Repaying the debt also extended to the ancestors and the generations to come. Every person, thankful for the accumulated merit and social standing that his or her ancestors had provided, owed the next generation his or her best effort not to diminish the family’s position within the xa (village). In addition to repaying the moral debt, most Vietnamese peasants took the concept of hieu seriously. Filial piety was the center of Vietnamese family life. Children were taught from a young age that they were to obey, honor, and respect their parents. For centuries, on and hieu had tied peasants not only to their families, but also to their villages. Young people rarely left the confines of the family. If they did leave the village, it was usually to earn income to satisfy family obligations, not for independence or self-improvement. On and hieu obviously carried tremendous responsibility and limited one’s actions in life. In the early days of the

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revolution, Hanoi had pledged to do away with the che do gia dinh (family system). Part of the allure of the revolution was that its political leaders promised to rid Vietnam of the oppressive and outdated neo-Confucian system that bound family members—in particular women—to this rigid social structure. Over time, however, party leaders subordinated the idea of personal freedom to national salvation.14 Leaders in Saigon also flirted with the notion of “modernizing” Vietnam, in particular what they often considered the superstitious and backward traditions of the countryside.15 Like their counterparts in Hanoi, however, policymakers in Saigon had little impact on the rhythms of peasant life. Even though Confucianism was dead as a philosophy, some of its drastically altered tenets remained alive in southern Vietnamese sociopolitical culture. By 1960, however, the ravages of war threatened to destroy even these vestiges of traditional Vietnamese society. The forced urbanization of millions of Vietnamese peasants—what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington aptly describes as “forced draft urbanization,” an artificial urbanization caused by war in the countryside—disrupted even the most elementary sociopolitical patterns that had developed in southern villages since the mid-nineteenth century.16 It was difficult for villagers to remain villagers as war and socioeconomic dislocation threatened their very existence. As the war escalated, millions of peasants became refugees, fleeing to nearby provincial cities for safety and security. According to most reliable statistics, only 20 percent of the total RVN population lived in urban areas in 1960. That number swelled to 26 percent by 1964, 36 percent by 1968, and 43 percent by 1971.17 What is most surprising about the increase in urban population in South Vietnam, however, is that it was a phenomenon experienced by all middle size to large cities in the South. According to social scientists Allan Goodman and Lawrence Franks, Saigon was not the major recipient of refugees. In fact, Saigon had fewer immigrants per 100,000 than did any other South Vietnamese city with more than 20,000 in population.18 The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) concluded that in some cities, such as Danang, Qui Nhon, and Cam Ranh, more than 60 percent of the total population were refugees who had entered the city between 1962 and 1972.19 This rapid urbanization was the result of U.S. policymakers’ concerted efforts to “drain the pond to catch the fish.” Early in the war, the use of chemical defoliants and other measures of ecocide to deny the Communists sanctuary had forced hundreds of thousands of peasants to abandon their villages. Not since the Punic Wars, when Rome salted the fields of Carthage, had a nation endured so much ecological destruction. Three major actions created environmental havoc in the attempt to drain the pond: Operation Sherwood Forest, Operation Hot Tip, and Operation Pink Rose. In these endeavors, U.S. military personnel sprayed herbicides and other defoliants on more than 500,000 acres of land in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Some estimates suggest that 45 million


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trees were killed, nearly 5 percent of the total in all of Vietnam.20 The most effective means of ecocide, however, was land clearing done with huge Rome plows, which literally scrapped the land to remove trees and other vegetation. By 1973, nearly 4 percent of all of South Vietnam had been bulldozed in this way, creating a barren landscape the size of Rhode Island.21 On the surface, ecocide deprived the Communists of their sanctuary, but destruction of the rural environment also helped U.S. military and political leaders in Saigon separate peasants from party cadres by forcing villagers to the cities. Although some U.S. leaders balked at the policy of forced draft urbanization, by 1965 General William Westmoreland, the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), supported the notion of relocating the rural population altogether. He argued repeatedly that the war was all about eliminating the Communists’ influence in southern villages and hamlets. He summarized his views in a memorandum entitled “The Refugee Problem” in early 1968. Just before the Tet Offensive ushered in a new phase of war, Westmoreland wrote that “there are two basic ways of eliminating communist influence: one, by tediously catching the ‘fish’ (NLF [National Liberation Front] cadres) and letting the ‘water’ (the villagers) remain in place; two, by draining off the ‘water’ and recapturing it at another location allowing the ‘fish’ to strangle.” 22 By recapturing the population, Westmoreland hoped to replace the failed Strategic Hamlet Program with the rapid urbanization of southern peasants. Once in the cities, villagers could easily be controlled as they became dependent on Saigon for their very material existence. This dependence relieved Saigon of the responsibility of motivating and mobilizing the rural population, which South Vietnamese political leaders had great difficulty doing anyway. It also meant that urban peasants would be less vulnerable to Communist entreaties, at least in Westmoreland’s mind. After the Tet Offensive, others adopted Westmoreland’s ideas, which became the cornerstone of a more ambitious program. Westmoreland’s replacement, General Creighton Abrams, also liked the idea of “draining the pond to catch the fish.” He endorsed the “accelerated pacification program” led by William Colby, the deputy director of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), as the easiest way to accomplish many tasks. “Accelerated pacification” was designed to attack vulnerable Communist forces in the Mekong Delta in preparation for the day when the South Vietnamese army would take on the burden of fighting.23 The failed Tet Offensive had left Communist cadres exposed to U.S. firepower, and Colby hoped to take advantage of that situation. Throughout the South, this renewed commitment to destroying Communist cadre levels had a devastating impact on the rural population. The intense use of firepower to achieve CORDS’s goals made village life untenable.

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By draining the pond, U.S. policymakers had created a society of refugees and destroyed the last remnants of traditional village life.24

MORAL PEASANTS AND THE CITY At the height of the ideological debates about the war, two schools of thought emerged about peasants and their community. Moral economists, such as Yale political scientist James Scott, argue that Vietnamese peasants depended on closed corporate communities to survive.25 He declares that such communities are more humane and protective because property is owned and farmed in common. The village survives only if everyone shares in the work and the bounty, and this reciprocity ties villagers together morally. According to Scott, when outside influences are introduced—capitalistic land rents, private property, and market forces—peasants rebel. Samuel Popkin and other political economists reject Scott’s explanation of the moral economy, theorizing instead of the predominance of a “rational peasant” who acts as a judicious problem solver with a sense “of both his own interests and of the need to bargain with others to achieve mutually acceptable outcomes.” 26 For Popkin, it was not the moral universe of a community that explained political behavior in Vietnam, but the costs and benefits of action to the individual. It now seems clear that the forced draft urbanization of southern Vietnam’s rural population destroyed any semblance of a moral economy and purposefully created urban, rational peasants. As historian Gabriel Kolko correctly notes, “the city profoundly challenged the peasant’s individual role and family cohesion, especially the connection to a community.” 27 Refugees flooded the cities to find safety and security, but one of their first priorities was also to find sustainable employment. As poor farmers, most peasants had eked out a meager living during the early years of the war. Vietnam’s subsistence economy was labor intensive, and sons were a chief source of labor. When the spring rains came, softening the soil, farmers and their sons plowed shallow seedbeds. Young men working in teams harrowed the seedbeds, allowing them to dry before they plowed and harrowed again. In the Mekong Delta, farmers could repeat this process five or six times. After the rains, farmers prepared the seedlings for transplant and plowed the fields once more. According to Gerald Hickey, an expert on village life in Vietnam, “the heavy work associated with transplanting require[d] male laborers.” 28 The chore of transplanting the seedlings to the paddy fields was usually done in one day and required approximately twelve laborers for every hectare. Most farmers obviously had to hire additional laborers to supplement their own families if they had large tracts


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of land. Tenant farmers required every family member to put in long hours during the rice-growing season. For many in the Mekong Delta, the season never ended. The first harvest usually occurred in mid-September, the second in December, and the peak harvest in late January through early March. Harvesting required careful management of labor. The harvest had to be completed as soon as possible because ripened grains of rice could fall to the ground and spring rains could cause heavy plants to topple over. Men worked long hours to see the harvest completed, and each laborer was essential to the process. When the rice was ripe, one young man used a sickle to cut the rice stalks near the ground, while another carried bundled stalks to a third, who employed a threshing sledge to separate the grain from the stalk. Threshing was the most physically demanding of these three tasks, so laborers rotated positions often. A team of three young men could harvest one hectare of rice in about six or seven full working days if weather permitted. According to official 1967 statistics from Saigon’s Ministry of Agriculture, the average landholding farmed in South Vietnam was 1.5 hectares.29 Thus it would take, on average, three able-bodied male workers nearly ten days for each of the three harvests. Add to this short, intense cycle the need to irrigate fields and prepare for the next planting, and the grueling demands of rice farming becomes clearer. But this kind of work, according to the moral economists, also bound families together. Every member of the family played a crucial role in the process. Older women threshed rice and prepared the paddy for the next planting. Younger women joined in the transplanting of the seedlings, and young boys tended the water buffalo. For moral economists, shared labor deepened the feelings of attachment and the sense of community. As the war intensified in 1965, however, it became increasingly difficult to farm traditional family and village plots. The necessary move to the cities was also a move away from a rural culture that had dominated Vietnamese life for centuries, even if it was not steeped in Confucianism. Villagers migrated to urban areas or makeshift refugee centers with few skills other than those needed to survive in the countryside. Research on employment patterns in South Vietnam’s urban centers suggests that villagers often served as street vendors in the artificial economy created by the war.30 The “sidewalk economy” that developed in most major urban areas focused on American servicemen and their needs, adding little to South Vietnam’s gross domestic product or to the peasants’ selfworth. Some villagers were lucky enough to find employment in the construction trades. Few, however, prospered in South Vietnam’s inflationary economy. The most comprehensive research on urbanization during the war focuses on atypical Saigon. In a study prepared for the Asia Society, Goodman and Franks investigated migrants to Saigon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What they found was that peasants may have come to the city as moral actors in a

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larger political community, but their very survival soon demanded that they become individuals concerned with material needs. According to this survey, “migrants of the 1960s had come to Saigon on an individual basis,” and “most intended to stay.” Because of the war’s impact in the countryside, if peasants’ initial plans to find work in Saigon were frustrated, they would “keep going back to the city until they [found] work.” They ceased only when they were no longer physically able to do so.31 In another important study on migration patterns during the war, one researcher claims that peasants who lost their jobs because of the fickle wartime economy were more likely to migrate to another city rather than return to the countryside.32 Once in the urban centers, however, peasants were often surprised to find that their material well-being had actually deteriorated along with their social connections. According to Goodman and Franks, nearly 60 percent of the respondents to their survey “thought their lives had not improved” since moving to the city.33 A major problem facing these new urban peasants was that per capita income was declining and prices were skyrocketing. According to official USAID reports, the inflation rate on many household items was greater than 500 percent.34 At the same time, real wages for unskilled labor never kept up with inflation. Even government employees, who had the benefit of several salary adjustments, lost ground. Those outside the bounds of central government economic management fared even worse. Over time, it became increasingly difficult for urban peasants to provide the basic necessities for their families. Goods and services that rural Vietnamese once produced themselves were now out of reach. The government could not possibly keep up with demand for low-cost consumer items, and it had few programs to alleviate the pain of inflation. This inadequacy was especially true of food. Once an exporter of rice, the RVN imported more and more rice each year under USAID programs.35 Subsidies from the U.S. government helped bring imported rice to Vietnam, but there was little that USAID could do about black-market profiteering and runaway inflation. For many peasants, buying rice from foreign governments at inflated prices was especially painful. “We once grew what we needed to eat,” remembers one former resident of Tay Ninh Province who fled to My Tho in 1966. “After I moved to the city, I had to work three jobs just to afford food for my family. I never saw my wife, and my kids grew up without me in their lives. It was demoralizing.” 36 By the end of the war, affordable rice was in such short supply that many southern cities faced the problem of pocket starvation. From 1973 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, one of the RVN’s biggest problems was providing its citizens with enough food. There were other social concerns. Most refugees left stable families and villages behind, even in a time of war, when they migrated to urban areas. In the village, the young went to school, and an elaborate social network cared for the


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elderly. Once rural families moved to urban centers, school for the young and medical care for the elderly were often in short supply. According to a former Saigon official, only 15 percent of the hospital beds in Saigon, Danang, Can Tho, My Tho, and Hue were available to the civilian population.37 Shortages of doctors and nurses forced the government to ration health care, with critical military needs coming first. Rising health-care costs also made it difficult for the indigent population to get the attention they desired. Without access to extended families, care for the elderly often fell to those unskilled or too young to find urban employment. This meant care for the elderly fell to young boys and girls, often no older than ten years old. The youngest family members often became caretakers for other compelling reasons. Because so few educational opportunities were available to refugee children, they often filled their days at home with relatives who were too weak or sick to add to the family coffers. Official RVN policy was to support compulsory education through the primary grades, yet the refugee population often fell through the cracks. USAID and several nongovernmental organizations created programs to help integrate refugees into the RVN’s educational infrastructure, yet many children simply went unnoticed and uneducated. Even successful programs, such as the International Voluntary Service, had a difficult time keeping up with refugees and their education. “It was almost impossible to bring the benefits of education to the new urban refugees,” recalls one former service volunteer: “Many families did not live in one place very long, and others simply moved from city to city hoping to find a way to make a living and escape the ravages of war.”38 Children who were not cared for at home by aging relatives or not enrolled in school often joined the sidewalk economy, and many fell prey to the darker side of urban life. With each passing year, the number of young prostitutes in South Vietnam’s major cities increased dramatically. According to one U.S. government official, most young streetwalkers came from the refugee community.39 “There seemed to be an alarming number of young people who turned to prostitution within a few months of entering the city,” claimed one former RVN leader. “We did all we could to steer these youngsters to more productive jobs, but in the end we were ineffectual.” 40 Indeed, many members of Saigon’s National Assembly were deeply concerned about what they called “social pollution” in the RVN’s wartime cities. Most legislative sessions devoted considerable time and energy to solving the problems of the new urban poor. The dilemma, of course, was that few resources were available to combat the problems of rapid urbanization. Ironically, by the early 1970s, official U.S. government policy was to repatriate the urban poor to their home villages. After five years of purposefully trying to create refugees in order to control them, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and MACV headquarters discovered that the social dislocation caused by such a policy had overwhelmed the RVN’s ability to capitalize on its new dependents.

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In short, the Saigon government was unable to cope with the many problems that these new refugees created. MACV accordingly endorsed a “return to the village” movement in 1971. The Saigon government, through U.S. aid, would offer a resettlement allowance to all refugees who desired to return to their traditional villages. Citing the inability of South Vietnam’s cities to absorb all valuable labor and increased security in the countryside, MACV encouraged the new urban poor to return to their native villages as soon as possible.41 There were several problems with this program, the most important being MACV’s inability to verify if peasants had indeed returned to their home villages. It now seems clear that many new migrants simply took Saigon’s cash bonus and remained in their new urban homes. As one former migrant to My Tho claimed, “Why would I go back to a village that offered no job, no security, and that was constantly attacked by all sides?” 42 Another urban refugee reported that he knew no one who purposefully returned to his or her village once the family was safely removed from there. “Who would go back?” asked Nguyen Khao. “The government and the Communists made sure that there was nothing to go back to.” 43 Nevertheless, Saigon claimed enormous success in the program based on the number of families that were given the “return bonus.” According to one former Saigon official, this claim was further proof that the government was inept and willing “to develop policy positions based on desires rather than [on] real outcomes.” 44 In the end, Saigon’s inability to cope with the massive influx of refugees tells us much about the counterrevolution’s failure. The lack of imaginative or sophisticated social programs to deal with the new urban refugees was a strong indicator that Saigon was going to lose the war. A region filled with urban refugees who had little connection to one another is what the Communist Party inherited with its victory in 1975. Even the creation of Military Management Committees to oversee executive operations in the South’s larger cities did not stop the downward spiral of Vietnamese social relations and economic production. Party leaders hoped to draw on their experience in managing northern cities after the French war, but many of these efforts simply fell short. For example, party officials believed that they could overcome the social problems confronting the South’s urban refugees by creating civil-military committees to manage social and economic relations. These commissions sought to reinvigorate urban areas through centralized management of the economy. Ironically, collectivization programs in the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy still depended on traditional notions of village solidarity and revolutionary unity to succeed. After a decade of failure, however, even the most strident party leaders had to admit in 1986 that collectivization did not produce the desired results because social relations in urban areas were too strained. Even though Confucianism as


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a stated philosophy or system of beliefs had not been manifest in Vietnam for centuries, filial piety and moral obligations had been important concepts in family and village life before the war. Ecocide and other U.S. policies designed to relocate South Vietnam’s peasant population to urban areas had destroyed these social connections and forever altered Vietnamese communal relations. Even as the Communist Party has moved forward to liberalize the economy in recent years, its leaders are still dealing with a host of social problems associated with the destruction of village culture.

Notes 1. Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1972), 290. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize for History. 2. Paul Mus, Viêt Nam: Sociologie d’une guerre (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952). For a revised version in English, see John T. McAlister and Paul Mus, The Vietnamese and Their Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). 3. Neil Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 4. Nguyen Khac Vien, “Confucianism and Marxism,” in Tradition and Revolution in Vietnam (Berkeley, Calif.: Indochina Resource Center, 1974), 17, 50. 5. David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), x. 6. Kim N. B. Ninh, A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945–1965 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 4. 7. Shawn McHale, Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004), 67. 8. David W. P. Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975, 2 vols. (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2003). 9. Tran Van Giau, “May dac tinh cua nong dan Dong Bang Cuu Long-Dong Nai” [Some Special Characteristics of Peasants in the Mekong Delta and Dong Nai], in Mot so van de khoa hoc xa hoi ve Dong Bang Song Cuu Long [Some Social Science Questions Concerning the Mekong Delta] (Hanoi: Nha Xuat ban Khoa, 1982), 206. 10. See, for example, Phan Dai Doan, ed., Mot so van de ve Nho giao Viet Nam [Some Topics in Vietnamese Confucianism] (Hanoi: Nha Xuat ban Khoa, 1982). 11. McHale, Print and Power, 73–79. 12. William Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life (New York: Hyperion, 2000), 29. 13. McHale, Print and Power, 94. 14. Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 198–213.

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15. Philip E. Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 25–50. 16. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Bases of Accommodation,” Foreign Affairs 46, no. 4 (1968): 652. 17. Republic of Vietnam, National Institute for Statistics, Vietnam Statistical Yearbook, 1972 (Saigon: Ministry of the Interior, 1973), 357, 378–79. 18. Allen Goodman and Lawrence Franks, “The Dynamics of Migration to Saigon,” Pacific Affairs 48, no. 2 (1975): 201. 19. Ibid. 20. J. B. Neilands, “Vietnam: Progress of the Chemical War,” Asian Survey 10, no. 3 (1970): 209. 21. Arthur Westing, “Ecological Effects of Military Defoliation on the Forests of South Vietnam,” BioScience 21, no. 17 (1971): 894. 22. William C. Westmoreland, “The Refugee Problem,” January 4, 1968, box 15, folder 28, History File I, Document no. 23, William C. Westmoreland Papers, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Tex. 23. William Colby, Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989), 233. 24. Some critics of U.S. policy have suggested that depopulating the countryside was a deliberate strategy designed to deny the Communists their only manpower source and to gain social control over the new urban refugees. See William Haseltine, William Carter, and Ngo Vinh Long, “Human Suffering in Vietnam,” Science, July 3, 1970, 6. 25. James Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976). 26. Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), ix. 27. Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 202. 28. Gerald Hickey, Village in Vietnam (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964), 138. 29. Republic of Vietnam, Ministry of Agriculture, Agriculture and Statistics Service, Census of Agriculture, 1960–1961 (Saigon: Ministry of Agriculture, 1964), 80. 30. Ibid. 31. Allen Goodman and Lawrence Franks, Between War and Peace: A Profile of Migrants to Saigon (New York: Asia Society, Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group, 1974), 1, 9. 32. Toshio Kurada, “Patterns of Labour Migration in Japan,” quoted in ibid., 9. 33. Goodman and Franks, Between War and Peace, 16. 34. “Memo for the Secretary of Defense, JCS, Briefing for Secretary of Defense, August 7, 1968,” Center for Military History, Washington, D.C.


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35. “Support of RVNAF, 1965–1967,” Westmoreland Study, Center for Military History. 36. Resident of My Tho who requested anonymity, interview by author, My Tho, Vietnam, January 2004. 37. Former Saigon official who requested anonymity, interview by author, Ho Chi Minh City, January 2004. 38. Former International Voluntary Service volunteer who requested anonymity, interview by author, Hanoi, July 1989. 39. Carol Simpson, former director of a nongovernmental organization in Saigon, interview by author, Cleveland, Ohio, February 2001. 40. Nguyen Thi Minh, interview by author, Westminster, Calif., March 2003. 41. “Vietnamese Face Vast Uprooting,” New York Times, January 11, 1971. 42. Pham Van Trinh, interview by author, Ho Chi Minh City, January 2004. 43. Nguyen Khao, interview by author, Ho Chi Minh City, January 2003. 44. Former Saigon official who requested anonymity, interview by author, Ho Chi Minh City, January 2004.

Further Reading Brigham, Robert K. “Ho Chi Minh, Confucianism, and Marxism.” In The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War, edited by David L. Anderson and John Ernst, 105–20. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Catton, Philip E. Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Elliott, David W. P. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975. 2 vols. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2003. Marr, David. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. McHale, Shawn. Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004. Tai, Hue-Tam Ho. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

11. “Hey, Hey, LBJ!” Amer ic an D o m es t ic Po l i t i c s a n d t he V iet n am W a r Melvin Small

America’s longest international war, the Vietnam War, was also its most contentious. In no other U.S. war did domestic politics play such a large role in shaping diplomatic and military policies or did diplomatic and military policies play such a large role in shaping domestic politics. Above all, one cannot understand Washington’s policies in the Vietnam War without examining how the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, and 1972 as well as the largest and most intensive antiwar movement in American history affected the decision makers. At the very least, the Vietnam War contributed significantly to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 and to the scandals that forced Richard Nixon to resign from the presidency in 1974 before the House could formally impeach him and the Senate throw him out of office. Moreover, the war had a major impact on the general political culture during and especially after the war, even to the present day, and dramatically affected the economy years after the Communists conquered South Vietnam in 1975. As late as the presidential election of 2004, the Vietnam War helped to shape the contest between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry as the candidates had to explain what they, as young men, had chosen to do during the 1960s to serve their country. Before there was an antiwar movement, before the war became the single most important issue for most Americans, even before the “sixties” (usually


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meaning the years from 1964 to 1974) began, America’s military and economic support for the government of South Vietnam in its war against the National Liberation Front (also known as the Vietcong) posed a serious domestic problem for the president. John F. Kennedy inherited President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s commitment to assist Saigon in its civil war against the Vietcong. By the time Kennedy took office in 1961, his predecessor had sent 800 military advisers to South Vietnam. During the Democrat’s thousand days in office, he increased that 800 to 16,000 and ordered these “advisers” to assume limited combat duties secretly. He was compelled to do so because he could not run for reelection in 1964 if he lost South Vietnam to the Communists. They were threatening to take over South Vietnam when Kennedy began his modest escalation. He remembered the election of 1952, when his party had been excoriated for “losing” China to the Communists in 1949, and he worried that “if I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy [Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.)] red scare on our hands.” 1 Throughout the Cold War, Republicans assailed Democrats for being soft on Communism at home and not tough enough with the Soviet Union abroad. By 1963, Kennedy had begun to doubt the wisdom of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam, especially considering the inability of South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem to make effective use of the political advice and economic aid he received. During that summer, Americans were shocked to see news photos and television news film of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death on the streets of Saigon to protest Diem’s dictatorial rule. The media-savvy monks knew that images of their sensational oppositional tactic would arouse concern in the United States. Kennedy had already crossed swords with the American media in 1962 when several journalists on the scene in Saigon had pointed out that the emperor had no clothes and that South Vietnam’s army was losing the war. The journalists generally supported the commitment; they were merely reporting what they saw. Their critical reports led the South Vietnamese government, assisted to some degree by the U.S. Embassy and even President Kennedy himself, to have critical journalists either thrown out of the country or transferred to other postings. The conflict between the media and presidents would intensify throughout the war to a point where the myth developed that the media, and not the military or the presidents, had lost the war. Kennedy agreed with much of the journalists’ reports. He privately told a columnist that “we don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. . . . These people hate us. . . . But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to reelect me.” 2 He could not withdraw from Vietnam, but he could not continue to support an incompetent regime in Saigon that was drawing increasing attention to his failing policies. Thus it was

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that in August, he approved a plan to force Diem to accept U.S. military, economic, and political advice or, if that failed, to support military plotters who awaited the green light from the embassy in Saigon to launch a coup against Diem. With the election little more than a year away, Kennedy sought to immunize himself from Republican attacks against his Vietnam policy by appointing Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to head that embassy. The imperious Lodge, who had run for vice president on the Republican ticket in 1960 and was ill-suited to delicate diplomacy, arrived on the scene to help orchestrate the coup against Diem. Three weeks after the coup in Saigon on November 1, 1963, Kennedy himself was assassinated. Although Kennedy left no paper trail, at least three people close to him claim that he told them that he intended to pull out of Vietnam sometime after he won the 1964 election. If he did harbor such plans, he did not tell his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who, upon assuming office on November 22, 1963, was determined to stay the course in Southeast Asia. The war would ruin Johnson’s presidency. Like Kennedy, Johnson began to construct his Vietnam policy with one eye on the 1964 election. When he took office and throughout most of 1964, the war was not a major issue. American combat casualties for 1963 stood at seventyeight, and the worst of the instability in Saigon seemed over after Diem’s removal from power. Yet Johnson could not afford to withdraw from Vietnam and to have Republicans accuse him of being soft on Communism. Moreover, he assumed office during one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history, the 1960s, when he had to confront unprecedented rioting in U.S. cities and jolting cultural revolutions. Most important, he had advanced an ambitious political agenda, the Great Society, which promised more sweeping reforms than the New Deal. As he told several journalists in January 1964, “I’ve got a lotta problems. I’ve got a brazen Communist attempt to conquer Asia on my hands. I’ve got Negroes revolting in America. . . . I’ve got to figure out how to pay for these fucking wars and keep my commitment to feed, educate, and care for the people of this country.” 3 It is an axiom of politics that a nation cannot afford guns and butter at the same time and that when it comes time to choose between them, guns will always trump butter. Johnson knew that “history provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers,” as he traced the decline of Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal to the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II, respectively.4 He also knew that powerful conservative politicians in the Democratic Party, generally from the South, would be the first to desert the Great Society when and if the war in Vietnam became an American war. If Johnson was going to be the greatest reformer since Franklin D. Roosevelt, he would have to


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downplay American military involvement in Southeast Asia even as he escalated by stealth. Moreover, if Americans ever perceived the war in Vietnam to be more than a limited engagement that did not involve vital national security interests, they would demand that their country hit the Communists with virtually everything in its arsenal. Johnson knew that if he did escalate, there was a chance that China and the Soviet Union would come to the aid of their beleaguered Communist ally, and the then little counterguerrilla war in Vietnam might escalate into World War III. Because of Johnson’s desire to create the Great Society and his fears of Chinese or Soviet intervention, he was unable throughout his presidency to sell the war to the American people. This reluctance to promote the war with the public created an opening in Congress, in the media, and especially among liberals and progressives to criticize the war and to develop a powerful antiwar movement that ultimately helped to restrain both Presidents Johnson and Nixon. The Republicans’ nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) as their presidential candidate in 1964 was a godsend for Johnson. Goldwater, a premature Reaganite, was a hawk on Vietnam who on several occasions appeared to countenance the use of atomic weapons in the war. His position permitted Johnson to run as a “dawk,” halfway between hawks, those who wanted to unleash unbridled military power, and doves, those who wanted the country to scale down or even withdraw from the conflict. Most of the electorate in both parties were “dawks” in 1964. They felt reassured when the president explained that “we don’t want our boys to do the fighting for Asian boys.” 5 The problem was that by midsummer 1964, if not earlier, many in the administration had become convinced that the only way to save South Vietnam was for the United States to escalate its commitment to the fast-failing Saigon regime. Like his hero Franklin Roosevelt, who during the 1940 campaign never revealed that he expected that the United States would be drawn into World War II, Johnson maintained throughout the 1964 campaign that the United States would not be drawn into the Vietnam War beyond its limited commitment of advisers, equipment, and money. Johnson’s enhanced his reputation as a firm but prudent leader in the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, which occurred on August 2 and 4. On August 2, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in what Washington claimed were international waters off the coast of North Vietnam. After a second attack allegedly occurred on August 4, Johnson ordered a one-time retaliatory raid against installations from where the torpedo boats had come. More important, he introduced in Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized him to take whatever action necessary to protect American troops in Southeast Asia. The administration had been working on such a resolution since the spring, but

“Hey, Hey, LBJ!”


the president hoped to pass more of his legislation, in particular the civil rights bill, before introducing authorization for future escalations. The Senate approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with only two dissenting votes. Guiding the resolution through was Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was so frightened of a Goldwater presidency that he did not want to undercut the president, even though he had doubts about the breadth of the resolution. Fulbright, who within a year became the most famous Senate critic of the war, noted ruefully in 1966, “my role in the adoption of the resolution of August 7, 1964, is a source of neither pleasure nor pride to me today.” 6 In the months to come, Johnson considered the resolution all the justification he needed to escalate U.S. military action in Vietnam. As he quipped, “Like grandma’s nightshirt—it covered everything.” 7 Johnson’s bombing of North Vietnamese installations and the resolution itself did not arouse public concern. Of course, no one knew at the time that the second attack probably had not occurred and that the North Vietnamese perceived the vessels in question to be assisting a secret American-backed South Vietnamese commando attack on their territory. When Johnson appeared on television to describe the incident, most Americans accepted the accuracy of his account. In office for less than a year, he still had a great deal of credibility with the electorate. In fact, up to this point in the media age, when presidents appeared on radio or television to announce a foreign crisis, virtually everyone believed them. This trust would not be the case in a few years when more and more Americans began questioning Johnson’s and then Nixon’s public presentations on the war. Johnson’s demonstration of strong and sane leadership in foreign affairs helped him achieve a whopping 61 percent of the vote in the 1964 election, swamping Goldwater, who appeared to voters to be a mad bomber. That dramatic victory, which included increased margins for the Democrats in Congress, augured well for the enactment of Johnson’s Great Society as long as the war did not divert resources and attention from the home front. However, during the later stages of the campaign, unbeknownst to the public, Johnson’s advisers had decided that the United States had to escalate in Vietnam or the hapless Saigon government would quickly lose to the Vietcong. After a Communist attack on an American base at Pleiku on February 7, 1965, Johnson ordered the retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam, and when other attacks occurred, the bombing, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, became a permanent part of the U.S. war in Vietnam through the spring of 1968. No other action by the Johnson administration so catalyzed the opposition that began to grow into the largest and most effective antiwar movement in American history. To many in the United States and around the world, there


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was little justification for the bombing of a poor and weak agrarian nation, especially after the Pentagon had to admit early in 1967 that its bombs did not always spare civilians, who were killed and injured in “collateral damage.” The admission was the result of a series in the New York Times by a distinguished correspondent who presented solid evidence of that damage. Because the war in Vietnam was never an officially declared war, American journalists occasionally reported back home from behind enemy lines. After the war was over, many critics blamed the media for the loss, claiming that the latter had undermined the government with overly pessimistic and critical reporting that weakened popular support for the war. Almost all the scholars who have investigated this charge have concluded, however, that for the most part the media were supportive of the war and generally lagged behind public opinion in their opposition to administration policies. Furthermore, even the liberal media were not supportive of the mass antiwar movement and its often rowdy antiwar demonstrations. The antiwar movement flourished, but the media became critical of the war only after the military failed to accomplish its goals. They were not responsible for those failures. Beginning with a demonstration that drew 25,000 protestors to Washington on April 17, 1965, the antiwar movement launched larger and larger demonstrations, usually in the spring and the fall, in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. These demonstrations became the centerpiece of the movement. But that was not the only reaction to the bombing of North Vietnam. In March, a teach-in movement was launched at the University of Michigan that rapidly spread throughout the country in 1965 and 1966. At these teach-ins, students learned about the war and Vietnamese history and culture, often from left-leaning professors and other dovish experts. Throughout the Vietnam era, college campuses provided the majority of foot soldiers for the antiwar movement. Although on most campuses at most times no more than 5 to 10 percent of the student body could be considered activists, the antiwar movement was strongest at elite universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, and Berkeley. Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service System, told a congressional panel that antidraft resistance was a problem only at fifty or so universities and then began listing the nation’s top institutions, where, incidentally, much of the establishment sent their children.8 As more and more students became involved in antiwar activities and often related countercultural activities and even revolutionary politics, their parents became concerned about their future. One State Department official later lamented: “All of us . . . had sons or daughters who were involved in this. I mean, everybody did. I had a son who was poised to go to Canada [to avoid the draft]. All of us were torn in our own family lives.” 9

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Although the motivations of antiwar activists on campus and elsewhere were an amalgam of moral, national security, and philosophical issues, the threat of the draft also affected many young people and their families. Few Americans would go as far as Richard Nixon in claiming that the main reason young people opposed the war was “to keep from getting their asses shot off,” but it is impossible to ignore the significance of that issue.10 One explanation for the decline of the antiwar movement during the Nixon administration was the introduction of a draft lottery system in 1969, the ever-smaller numbers of draftees sent to the combat theater, and the announcement in 1972 of the introduction of the all-volunteer army. The Selective Service System, which had been in place since 1940, was intimately connected to young men’s hostility to being drafted into an unpopular and seemingly endless war as well as to the relatively poor performance of unmotivated and sometimes undisciplined draftees. Aside from the biannual mass demonstrations and the short-lived teach-in movement on campuses, antiwar activists employed many other tactics to promote their cause. Self-immolation, in imitation of some Buddhist monks in South Vietnam, was the most sensational. Beginning in Detroit in 1965 with the self-immolation of Alice Herz, a refugee from Nazi Germany, eight Americans selected that singular action to dramatize their dissent to the bombing of North Vietnam. In less-sensational operations, antiwarriors participated in national and local electoral politics, leafletted neighborhoods, signed petitions in paid newspaper advertisements, refused to pay all or part of their taxes, and aided draft resisters, among other tactical choices. In March 1965, the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam tasked with protecting bases in South Vietnam from Communist attack. Few Americans paid much attention to the low-key announcement of the troops’ mission, which emboldened President Johnson as he was considering a much more fateful decision in July. At that point, he announced the dispatch of another 50,000 troops to Vietnam, to join the 60,000 already there, but he did not announce that with this contingent the administration had decided to assume a ground-combat role in Vietnam. He was driven to make the decision because the bombing had not brought Hanoi to the bargaining table and because South Vietnamese military units were still unable to stop the Communist insurgents, increasingly bolstered by regulars from North Vietnam. It turns out that Johnson had already agreed to send even more than the 50,000 he announced, but he did not want to alarm Congress and the public while a significant portion of his Great Society legislation was still pending a vote in Congress. Within a year, troop levels would be more than 270,000, halfway to the 543,000 figure reached in 1969. George Ball, the undersecretary of state, was one of the few within the administration who opposed the escalations of 1965. Using the Korean War experience


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as a model, he contended that as the limited war in Southeast Asia continued, more and more Americans would tire of the commitment, as had occurred rather quickly in Korea, with dire political consequences for President Harry S. Truman and the Democratic Party in 1952. And that war had not produced an antiwar movement such as the one beginning to develop in 1965. Behind Johnson’s rejection of such arguments was his confidence that the bombing of North Vietnam and American “search-and-destroy” missions would quickly bring North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to his senses. Had he known that the war would still be going on during Campaign ’68, with ever-increasing U.S. casualties and ever-decreasing support at home, he never would have made his decision to escalate in 1965. By the time of the ground-combat decisions, Senator Fulbright had become a public critic of the president’s foreign policy. Although during the Johnson presidency doves were a distinct minority in Congress, senators especially found ways to challenge administration policies. An early effective challenge took the form of hearings that Fulbright organized in February 1966 to educate the public about the Vietnam project. His committee was stacked with antiwar senators who, through their questioning of administration supporters and opponents alike, caused many in the television audience to begin to question their own support for the war. It helped as well that the two main critics who testified—George Kennan, the father of the containment policy, and war hero General James Gavin—were respected establishment figures. Senator Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.) reported to the committee that one of his constituents, a housewife who had been glued to her television set, told her husband when he returned from work, “You have an unclean house but a highly informed wife.” 11 Johnson was concerned enough about the hearings to call hastily for an unnecessary conference with the South Vietnamese in Honolulu to push the hearings from the front pages. Fortunately for Johnson, after 1966 no comparable nationally televised hearings were held. Johnson’s major response to congressional criticism was to tell legislators that if they did not like the war, then they did not have to continue to vote for appropriations to support it. Johnson knew that most representatives and senators could not vote against such appropriations because their opponents would attack them for failing to support American boys at risk in Southeast Asia. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) commented acerbically about his colleagues’ timidity: “Like a garden society—just bring up a resolution and we pass it.” 12 Johnson had another weapon to hold over Congress, which was controlled by Democrats. He was, after all, engaged in pushing through the greatest flurry of domestic-reform legislation since the 1930s. Congressional progressives, the most likely opponents of the war in Vietnam, did not want to undermine his war on poverty and his attempts to bring civil and voting rights to African

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Americans. For example, in 1965 and 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders, who privately expressed concern about the escalation of the war, generally kept their doubts to themselves in an attempt not to undermine their patron. But they soon felt pressure from new, young black leaders who jettisoned integration as a goal, espoused black nationalism and black power, and saw the war in Vietnam as another manifestation of American racism. In addition, despite the multiplicity of color-blind programs to assist poor people and an administration committed to desegregation, it was Johnson’s ill fortune to be confronted by bloody urban disturbances between 1965 and 1968 in which thousands of black citizens in scores of cities rioted primarily over economic conditions and police brutality. Many of these disturbances took place in northern cities such as Detroit and Chicago. With the cities in flame and sometimes violence-prone demonstrators on the march against the war or for Black, Native American, Brown, Gay, or Women’s Power, the 1960s was one of the most turbulent decades in American history. To make matters worse for Americans with middle-class values, many of the demonstrators appeared to be hippies—irreverent young people clad in torn jeans and T-shirts, who wore their hair long, smoked dope in public, participated in public nudity, advocated “free love,” and had nothing but scorn for authority. Almost all the young people who participated in antiwar demonstrations were not hippies—they just looked like them. Most Americans strongly opposed hippie demonstrators, at least as they saw them on television, where news directors looked for the most violent, bizarre, or salacious protestors to capture viewers’ attention. One contemporary journalist described the media-stereotyped demonstrator as “a hairy, filthy, ragged youth with his arm and hand raised in an angry gesture . . . performed with a single raised finger.” 13 The antiwar message was often lost because of hostility to the message bearer. Americans directed their hostility not just toward hippies, but toward alleged hippie Communists or hippie revolutionaries. In an effort to draw public attention to convince the administration to heed their message, antiwar leaders attempted to draw large crowds and attract the media. They made no effort to discourage the attendance at demonstrations of Americans on the far left of the spectrum who carried signs praising the Vietcong or who proudly proclaimed their adherence to Marxism or the Soviet Union or Red China. Even worse for the movement, although the protestors seemed to cooperate at large demonstrations, resources, time, and energy were lost behind the scenes because of fierce internecine conflict among left-sectarian groups who insisted on refighting the battle for Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War whenever they got together in a conference room. Looking back at missed opportunities, New Left icon Tom Hayden wrote about how in the movement’s “sealed universe . . . language turned to jargon, disputes were elevated to doctrinal heights,


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paranoia replaced openness, and the struggle to change each other became a substitute for changing the world.” 14 What Hayden may only have suspected at the time was that many of the coalitions had been penetrated by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent provocateurs, some of whom achieved leadership roles. Those agent provocateurs not only encouraged the leftist groups to engage in violent and unlawful acts, but also fomented hostility among the Communists, Maoists, Socialist Workers Party, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and other organizations that constituted the ad hoc leadership of ephemeral antiwar coalitions. The media generally concentrated on the extreme political elements at demonstrations, as they did on the colorful hippies, even though most who participated were not radicals. Yet the media were not entirely to blame for alienating the affections of middle-class adult Americans for the antiwar cause. At a Washington rally sponsored by the liberal Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in November 1965, Carl Oglesby, an SDS spokesperson, assaulted mainstream liberalism, contending that “those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons and tally the dead . . . are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are liberals.” 15 No wonder many Americans who were skeptical about the war reasoned, “If those young Communist hippies, perhaps in league with those radicals burning down the cities, are the sorts of people who oppose the war, then I must support the war.” Throughout much of the Vietnam era, a majority of Americans expressed strong opposition to the antiwar movement and especially to the apparently unruly mass demonstrations. Of course, the linkage Americans made between the unprecedented disarray among young people in American society and the war in Vietnam may have ultimately helped the antiwar cause. As the war continued through the 1960s and into the 1970s, more and more Americans felt that if only the war ended, the United States might return to the alleged “Happy Days” of the 1950s, when the only reason the police ever came on campus was to arrest drunken fraternity boys engaged in panty raids. From 1965 through 1967, from month to month, more politicians, journalists, and other public figures began openly to express skepticism about the direction of the war. One month a prominent movie star might speak out, a few months later the editor of a newspaper, and perhaps a few days later a senator who had previously kept his dissent to himself. Some were affected by the antiwar leaders’ arguments, but most critics came to the conclusion that despite the administration’s periodic optimistic progress reports, there was no end in sight to a war that was tearing the country apart. Moreover, by 1967 government and private economists expressed increasing concern about the impact of the war on the economy. Spending for the war was contributing to an inflationary spiral that began to threaten prosperity. Johnson was reluctant to call for higher taxes

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to pay for the war because of their impact on the congressional elections of 1966 and the upcoming presidential election. In 1967, he was ultimately compelled to listen to his advisers and cut back on the Great Society and call for an unpopular 10 percent tax surcharge. Critics of liberal domestic reform later claimed that not only did the Great Society fail to win the war on poverty through its radical schemes, but its failure proved finally that the welfare state had gone too far. The charge was that the government could not just throw taxpayers’ money at economic inequality. In reality, many of the Great Society’s programs were destined to fail because they were underfunded. As Johnson had feared from the start, he could not call for both guns and butter over the long haul. When in April 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. broke with the administration on Vietnam, labeling his country “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he was appalled about the resources wasted in the war while millions of Americans suffered in poverty and degradation.16 The Vietnam War played a central role in the 1968 election. Indeed, few elections in the nation’s history have been so affected by foreign policy. Ironically, however, war and peace issues ultimately had little to do with voters’ choices on election day itself because both major-party candidates promised to end the war in Vietnam. On the Democratic side, beginning in 1967, some activists launched a campaign to nominate, rather than President Johnson, an alternative who would end the war. After failing to interest Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and several others in the nomination, these insurgents got Senator Eugene McCarthy to agree to be their standard bearer. When McCarthy began his seemingly quixotic campaign in the late fall of 1967, few in the United States gave him much of a chance of defeating the powerful president who controlled most of the levers of power in his party. In addition, although some states offered open primaries to challengers, most chose delegates to the national convention in caucuses and state conventions controlled by party bosses. Thousands of neatly shorn and well-dressed college students—“Clean for Gene”—flocked to New Hampshire to assist in his campaign. As the young volunteers slogged through the wind and snow of New England in late January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched the massive Tet Offensive, which ultimately failed but nevertheless served to demonstrate that the enemy had not been subdued. Americans were astonished to discover that the Vietcong could take over part of the heavily defended U.S. Embassy in Saigon and were disturbed to see films and photos of the police chief of Saigon executing an unarmed Vietcong soldier on a city street. The previous October, antiwar leaders had organized their most telegenic demonstration, the Siege at the Pentagon, which, according to Johnson’s attorney general, was “the moment the fever broke in the whole antiwar movement.” 17


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That demonstration and the growth of antiwar opinion in general had led the president to summon General William Westmoreland, the head of military operations in Vietnam, and Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, to the United States for a nationwide speaking tour and pep rally in November to explain to impatient Americans that they were winning the war. The Tet Offensive, coming only two months later, was all the more shocking because of the official optimism displayed in November, and so it further added to Johnson’s credibility problem and thus boosted the anti-Johnson campaign in New Hampshire. On March 12, the president won the primary over the heretofore obscure, backbench senator by an initial vote of 27, 243 to 23,820, but after Republican write-ins had been tallied, the final margin closed to 230. Four days later, a more formidable opponent, Robert F. Kennedy, threw his hat into the ring. Although Johnson was still confident that he could take the nomination, the campaign would be a difficult one in which the Democratic Party was likely to self-destruct. Unbeknownst to the candidates and the public, in the wake of the Tet Offensive the administration had begun a reappraisal of its Vietnam policy. On March 31, 1968, Johnson appeared on television to announce a major cutback in the bombing as an inducement to bring North Vietnam to the peace table—an implicit rejection of the Pentagon’s request for another 206,000 troops. Most astounding of all, Johnson also revealed his decision not to seek reelection. Those decisions were affected by domestic factors relating to the war, including the increasingly shaky economy; the growth of the antiwar movement and antiwar opinion, especially in the Democratic Party; and the consensus among his advisers that the war was tearing the nation apart. In addition, being president was no longer much fun for Johnson. He could not appear in public without being harassed by antiwar opponents chanting, “One Two Three Four, We Don’t Want Your Fuckin’ War!” and “Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did you Kill Today?” No president had ever been held virtually captive in the White House, and no modern president had ever confronted such a foul-mouthed lack of respect. Even more important to the decision may have been the political impossibility of calling up more troops. Because the regular army was stretched thin throughout the world, Johnson should have turned to the military reserves and the National Guard to meet the Pentagon’s request for the 206,000 additional troops, but for the first time in a major American war this natural reservoir could not be deployed. During the Vietnam era, the reserves and National Guard had become a refuge for middle- and upper-class young men who hoped to escape service in Southeast Asia. Unlike the primarily blue-collar parents of draftees, many parents of reservists were politically active citizens who would have protested vehemently were their sons sent into combat in Vietnam. So the

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reservists—who included a future vice president, Dan Quayle; a future president, George W. Bush; and a future television star, Tom Selleck—remained stateside during the war. With his withdrawal from the race, Johnson was not surrendering to the doves. His handpicked successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, carried the administration banner into the campaign, restrained on a short leash by the president, who controlled the party machinery. Humphrey did not win a primary but easily took the nomination at the convention in Chicago in August. His drive for the nomination was helped when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June, but even Kennedy might not have been able to wrest the nomination from him. At the convention, run with an iron hand by Chicago mayor Richard Daley, security forces roughed up the media inside the arena. Outside on the streets, thousands of the city’s finest engaged in violent clashes with the 10,000 demonstrators who had come to Chicago to demand that the party respond to antiwar sentiment and whose ranks had grown dramatically after the Tet Offensive. The body count from the riots, which spanned several days, was 1 death, more than 800 injuries, and 668 arrests. An impartial commission later described what happened on the streets of Chicago as a “police riot.” 18 Most Americans did not see things that way, even though television news footage clearly displayed scores of incidents of gratuitous police brutality. Viewers instead claimed that they only saw demonstrators beating up the police, a misperception that reflected their growing intolerance for the young radicals’ protests and attacks on authority. The unprecedented violence at the convention resulted in dire consequences for the Democrats. First, it gave the Republicans ample ammunition for their campaign theme that they would restore “law and order.” Second, it so alienated liberals that many, including Senator McCarthy, withheld their support for Humphrey until the eleventh hour or did not give it at all. Finally, to make amends for the debacle, the Democratic Party reformed its primary-election and convention-delegate selection systems in a way that favored the party’s disenfranchised left wing. Such reforms helped the most liberal of the contenders, Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), win the nomination in 1972 and ensured the party’s defeat in that election. The war figured prominently in the run-up to the 1968 campaign for the Republican nomination as well. The leading candidate in 1967, Michigan governor George Romney, began to plummet in the polls after he admitted that American officials had brainwashed him when he had visited Vietnam. Richard Nixon had emerged as Romney’s chief opponent in November of the previous year when the New York Times featured Nixon’s lengthy attack on Johnson’s Vietnam policy in a way that made him appear to be the chief spokesperson for his party. With Romney out of the way and despite opposition from the right


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from California governor Ronald Reagan and from the left from New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon had a fairly clear shot to the Republican nomination. When asked about Vietnam on the campaign trail, he hinted that he had a plan or a strategy to deal with it, a vague comment that the media translated into Nixon’s “secret plan to end the war.” He had no secret plan but did nothing to disabuse the public regarding the media’s exaggeration. In addition, because talks about opening a formal peace conference were taking place in Paris during the campaign, he patriotically refused to discuss the details of any of his plans for Vietnam lest they undercut U.S. negotiators and Johnson’s policies. Nixon’s wholehearted support for the president, compared with some Democrats’ and even Hubert Humphrey’s less than faithful adherence to the party line, led some to believe that Johnson would not be entirely displeased with a Nixon election victory. When Humphrey threatened to tilt toward the left by advocating a complete cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, Johnson threatened to “dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to California.” 19 Way behind in the polls, in part because of blue-collar Democratic defections to populist third-party candidate George Wallace as well as liberal indifference, Humphrey broke with the White House on the bombing issue at the end of September. “I’ve had Lyndon Johnson around my neck just long enough,” he declared, and almost immediately his poll numbers began to climb.20 His rise was assisted as well by Democratic union activism and by a gaffe committed by Wallace’s vice presidential candidate, former general Curtis LeMay, who threatened to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In Paris, Johnson’s chief negotiator, W. Averell Harriman, a long-time Nixon hater, did everything he could to push through a breakthrough before the election. In addition, the Soviet Union, preferring Humphrey to Nixon, pressured the North Vietnamese to make the final concessions that would lead to a deal a week before the election. Through spying by, among others, Professor Henry A. Kissinger, soon to become Nixon’s national security adviser, the Republicans were well aware of the details of the negotiations and the “October Surprise” that Johnson was planning. Believing that the president had constructed the deal before the election in order to help Humphrey, Nixon and his aides engaged in their own “diplomacy,” which came close to treason: their liaison to South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu urged him not to agree to the deal and promised a better arrangement after Nixon was elected. When on the weekend before the November election Thieu announced that he could not accept the deal, Humphrey, who had been running neck and neck with Nixon after Johnson announced the breakthrough, began to fall behind. On election day, Nixon won by a 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent margin in the popular vote and a healthier 301 to 91 vote margin in the Electoral College.

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Because of their bugging of the South Vietnamese government offices in Washington and Saigon, Johnson and Humphrey knew of the Republicans’ unprecedented perfidy, but they decided not to go public with that knowledge because they would have had to reveal the sources of their information. In any case, even without Republican prodding, Thieu probably would have rejected the deal. He himself was double-crossed by President-elect Nixon, who several weeks later told Saigon to accept Johnson’s terms for the opening of peace talks with the Communists. Although in the end most Americans made their choices for president on the bases of the candidates’ personalities and party loyalties as well as of bread-and-butter and law-and-order issues, the Vietnam War had cast a long shadow over the campaign. Richard Nixon did not have a secret plan to end the war, but he soon fashioned a strategy. To calm the home front, he opted for “Vietnamization,” whereby American boys would be slowly withdrawn from the fighting and replaced with Vietnamese boys. In addition, he would engage the Soviet Union in “linkage diplomacy,” whereby in exchange for American cooperation in other regions the Russians would pressure the North Vietnamese to be more accommodating in the peace talks. Finally, he would demonstrate to Hanoi that he could secretly escalate without arousing the antiwar movement, which he deemed partly responsible for Johnson’s pusillanimous policy. The main challenge was North Vietnam’s historic patience. With Americans withdrawing from Vietnam, why should Hanoi not just wait for Vietnamization to be completed? The administration found it difficult to withdraw slowly enough to convey to Hanoi continued U.S. determination and fast enough to satisfy domestic critics. As Kissinger later wrote, the administration was caught between “the hammer of antiwar pressure and the anvil of Hanoi.” 21 Nixon’s war strategy, like his predecessors’, was significantly affected by his future reelection strategy. He could not win in 1972 with the United States still heavily committed in Vietnam, especially considering that he had promised voters that he would end the war with dispatch. But he also believed that he could not win that election if South Vietnam were to be taken over by the Communists prior to November 1972. In March 1969, Nixon began secret bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neutral Cambodia to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese that although talking deescalation and Vietnamization at home, he could get away with an escalation obvious to them. They had better shape up. In May, a New York Times journalist revealed the bombing. The Pentagon vigorously denied the report, and in a few days the story was gone while the bombing continued. Furious about the bombing leak, Nixon ordered the FBI to wiretap four journalists and eleven government officials. Some of the wiretaps even continued after the officials left the government. The president was exasperated because the FBI never could identify the “traitor” in his administration. This search for


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leaks was the beginning of a series of illegal and extralegal actions tied to Vietnam and ordered by the White House that led to the Watergate scandals. Because of the FBI’s perceived weak efforts at counterespionage and intelligence with the antiwar movement and the New Left in general, Nixon decided that he needed his own private intelligence unit in the White House, which became known as the “Plumbers.” Their illegal activities became part of the bill of particulars in the charges against the president that began mounting in 1973. In addition, under the Nixon administration, several intelligence agencies’ harassment and penetration of antiwar organizations increased dramatically, as did their illegal activities. Many of these actions came to light during the Watergate investigations. Nixon’s defenders later claimed that the nation was at war and thus extraordinary measures were needed to protect national security. Yet none of the agencies’ activities or his private operatives’ activities were able to turn up evidence of a link between the leaders of the antiwar movement and foreign governments. Nixon also ordered the Internal Revenue Service to investigate antiwar leaders and organizations’ tax returns. Watergate’s most important link to Vietnam related to the Pentagon Papers case. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former government employee, leaked to the media a classified study of the war in Vietnam that had been commissioned by former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara. Nixon set out to destroy Ellsberg: “I want him exposed. . . . I don’t care how you do it but get it done.” 22 His Plumbers broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to find material with which to smear the miscreant. Several of the same Plumbers were also later involved in the break-in at the Washington headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate office and apartment complex in June 1972. It is likely that one of Nixon’s motivations for covering up the Watergate break-in, about which he might not have had foreknowledge, was to cover up his probable foreknowledge of the Ellsberg break-in the previous year. Watergate, however, was far off in 1969, when Nixon began to apply his new tactics to the war. When the Soviets refused to accept linkage politics, and when the bombing of Cambodia (as well as the bombing of North Vietnam in what Pentagon spokesmen referred to as “protective reaction strikes”) did not change Hanoi’s negotiating position, Nixon sent the Communists a secret ultimatum on July 15: change your tone at the peace table by November 1 or face severe military consequences. Those unstated consequences, which the administration code-named Operation Duck Hook, envisioned a variety of possible escalations from a blockade of North Vietnam’s ports to the bombing of the dike system in North Vietnam. Despite the beginning of Vietnamization with Nixon’s announcement in June of the withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops, antiwar movement leaders were impatient with the lack of progress in ending the war. In their largest and most

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innovative action of the entire period, they called for a nationwide moratorium on October 15, 1969, during which time participants would take time off from school and work to express their concern about how slowly the United States was withdrawing. Unlike previous mass demonstrations, this one would be decentralized, occur on a weekday, and involve activities such as leafletting, prayer services, and silent vigils as well as marches and rallies. Moreover, organizers promised for each month the war continued, the moratorium would be extended one day. Most important, the organizers were from the moderate end of the antiwar spectrum, and they enlisted in their project not just scruffy college students, but a wide range of middle-class adults. Even former Johnson staff member W. Averell Harriman could safely take part in these mostly decorous protests. On October 15, at least 2 million Americans in two hundred cities participated in the Moratorium, which, because of its uniqueness and often quiet dignity, attracted the most positive media attention of any antiwar activity during the period. The Nixon administration was shaken by the turnout and its coverage. In his memoir, the president later claimed that the Moratorium “undercut the credibility of the [ July 15] ultimatum” and “destroyed whatever small possibility may still have existed to end the war.” 23 Here, Nixon was alluding to the impact the antiwar movement had on Hanoi by stiffening its resolve. Perhaps he was correct, but by the time of the Moratorium, Operation Duck Hook planners had concluded that there was little that the United States could do to force Hanoi’s hand militarily that would be acceptable to the American people and that would not start World War III. No doubt, the Communists were encouraged by the U.S. (and worldwide) anti–Vietnam War movement and antiwar opinion. They had been through a comparable situation in their war against France from 1946 to 1954, when the French public ultimately pressured its leaders to terminate a bloody, endless war. From the start, the Communists’ strategy was based on the conviction that they could outlast the United States, just as they had outlasted China in their 1,000-year conflict a millennium earlier. In addition, their own people were encouraged when they viewed newsreels and photographs about their “allies” among the Americans. In 1972, Nixon ordered his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to charge on the Today television program that senatorial critics of the war “are consciously aiding and abetting the enemy,” a phrase that sounded very close to the legal definition of treason.24 Both during and after the war, administration defenders claimed that antiwar activists and politicians were guilty of treason because they encouraged the enemy and that politics should stop at the water’s edge. But defenders of the dissenters argued that in a democracy, and especially during a contentious “war” that Congress had never officially declared, it was entirely


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legal and proper for citizens to protest peacefully what they perceived to be an unwise or immoral foreign-policy venture. Nixon’s concern about the impact of the antiwar movement on the Communists belies his contention that the antiwar movement had no real impact on policymaking. Both he and Johnson were convinced that Hanoi was evaluating American opinion as it developed its military and diplomatic policies. Thus if they felt that the North Vietnamese were affected by the antiwar movement, they had to take that factor into account as they constructed their own military and diplomatic policies. Whatever the antiwar movement’s role in his decision making in the fall of 1969, Nixon permitted the November 1 ultimatum date to pass without any reaction, even though the Communists did not alter their negotiating terms. Instead, he decided to shore up the home front before he tried to escalate military force, and he began with his epochal November 3, 1969, Silent Majority speech. In it, he called for the silent majority that supported his policies and did not approve of demonstrations to rise up against the noisy minority. In addition, he unleashed Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to take on the media that were critical of the administration’s policies. Appealing to Middle America, he characterized those who ran the newspapers and television networks as eastern liberal elitists who were out of touch with the rest of the nation. From their offices in New York and Washington at such institutions as NBC, ABC, CBS, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—in the pre–cable news era—those elitists set the agenda for the rest of the media. According to the administration, that agenda was antiwar, liberal, and, especially, Nixon hating. The successful Republican assault on the liberal media, which continued into the twenty-first century, began in earnest with Nixon’s attempt to shield his administration from media scrutiny and criticism. In fact, Republicans claim, it was because Nixon told it like it was in 1969 that the media turned on him, exaggerating and exploiting the Watergate scandals. With his assault on the media working, Nixon regained enough of his footing at the end of April 1970 to respond finally to the North Vietnamese rejection of his ultimatum. The United States invaded neutral Cambodia to destroy Communist installations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Domestic politics may have figured in this dramatic decision, with the president responding to the Senate’s recent rejection of two of his Supreme Court nominations in a row. “Those senators think that they can push Nixon around,” he grumbled and then declared, “well, I’ll show them who’s tough.” 25 The “incursion” into Cambodia, as Nixon labeled it, shocked the nation, and the campuses especially erupted in violence and protest. By the end of May, 89 percent of private universities and 76 percent of public universities experienced some sort of protest. More than four hundred campuses experienced strikes or

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even closures for the remainder of the academic year. The hostile reaction to the invasion was exacerbated after National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine others at Kent State University on May 4. The killing of two students and the wounding of eleven on May 15 at the predominantly black Jackson State College in Mississippi caused less of an uproar. At no time in U.S. history had institutions of higher education been in such crisis. While the campuses were in disarray, the Democratic Congress, no longer having to fear the loss of patronage from a Democratic president, flexed its muscles. It was during this period that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was rescinded. More important, the Senate passed the Cooper-Church Amendment, which promised to cut off funds for the Cambodian invasion if U.S. forces were not withdrawn by June 30. Nixon made the deadline, claiming that he never planned to keep troops in Cambodia beyond that date. For the rest of his administration, Nixon faced constant challenges from Congress, which received and sometimes passed legislation to bring about a speedier end to the war and to restrain the president from undertaking future escalations. Because of congressional attitudes, when Nixon ordered an incursion into Laos in February 1971, he made certain that only the South Vietnamese military would cross the border. These challenges to presidential authority culminated in 1973 in the epochal War Powers Resolution, which requires presidents to inform Congress when they send armed forces into combat zones and to return to Congress for authorization if they want to keep those troops in those zones beyond a sixty-day period. In an important incident in the wake of the Cambodian crisis, a group of hard-hat construction workers in New York beat up several antiwar protestors. Their leaders then organized a large demonstration on May 20, 1970, in support of the president that so pleased Nixon that he invited them to the White House and later made one of them, Peter Brennan, his secretary of labor. These actions were part of Nixon’s strategy to reshape the American political scene by appealing to traditionally Democratic blue-collar workers on the bases of cultural issues and patriotism. He called on Republicans to “tie their opponents into hippies, kids, Demos.” 26 This outreach to the working class was an impressive accomplishment, considering the very weak economy reflected in “stagflation,” meaning high unemployment and high inflation. To be fair, Nixon had inherited these economic problems, particularly inflation, because of the way that Johnson had financed the war without raising taxes or cutting domestic spending until the last year of his administra